Memory and World War II: An Ethnographic Approach

Memory and World War II: An Ethnographic Approach

Memory and World War II: An Ethnographic Approach

Memory and World War II: An Ethnographic Approach


This book considers the connections between memory and violence in the wake of World War II. Covering the range of European experiences from East to West, Memory and World War II takes a long-term approach to the study of trauma at the local level. It challenges the notion of collective memory and calls for an understanding of memory as a fine line between the individual and society, the private and the public. International contributors from a range of disciplines seek new ways to incorporate local memory within national history and consider whether memories of extreme violence can be socially transformed. Personal testimony reveals the myriad ways in which communities react to and reconstruct the horrors of war. What we learn is that terrifying experiences reside not only in memories of the past but remain embedded in present-day lives.


Michael Lambek

War wreaks havoc and havoc has a long wake. The chapters in this exceptionally interesting volume are soundings in the wake of World War II conducted at a variety of European sites. Some chapters explore the immediate consequences of the war in particular communities or regions and bring the dislocations forward to the present, while others begin in the present and address how the past is remembered now. The book is thus situated at the intersection of anthropology and history (with a little political science thrown in) and provides a multi-sited ethnography of the memory of war in Europe.

History is remembered and memory, too, has its history. Why is memory of World War II so important in Europe just now? Some authors point to the breakup of the Soviet regime and later on the fall of the Berlin Wall as the opportunity to address issues kept congealed, as it were, during the 'Cold' War - a 'war' that was itself one of the significant consequences of World War II. As might be expected, the effects of this defrosting of memory are quite different in East and West. Other authors mention the reimagination of Europe and its parts entailed by the expansion of the EU. There is also the fact that those with first-hand experience of the war are nearing the ends of their lives. Whether or not members of the first generation still require resolution, it is the next generation that anticipates the final shifting of the burden of responsibility. The transition from first to second-hand memory is nearing completion and is a phenomenon to be understood in it own right.

Laurent Vergne (1994) quotes Jorge Semprun: 'Soon there will no longer be witnesses pestering the experts with their tales.' But of course just as often it is the experts who pester reluctant witnesses to come forward. The factors that make witnesses either reluctant or eager to speak - that is, to speak and be heard - is a theme that runs through these essays. There is nothing worse than making the effort to speak of terrible things and being ignored. The role of the empathie listener is critical both in the immediate context of speech and in what listeners then do with what they have heard. In some of the cases recounted here the authors serve as that critical 'first' listener; in others, the account has been much rehearsed and is no longer an original act. As noted below by Stuart Woolf, the authors, as . . .

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