Becoming Universal Part 1: An Introduction

     Upon entering the term ‘Holocaust’ into Google in May 2020 the reader will be confronted with 93 million results in 0.40 seconds. This is a vast number of documents, images and academic references on the subject of what has been conventionally defined as genocide, which took place from 1941 until May 1945 across German-occupied Europe and in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust has two mainstream definitions: firstly, that of the Shoah, the systematic state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany across Europe. Its second definition encompasses all German killing policies during the war which accounted for another 11 million victims.

For the purpose of this study, the term ‘Holocaust’ will be used to signify the murder and persecution of all victims of Nazi ideology, whilst the term ‘Shoah’ will be used specifically to reference the German policy of elimination of the Jews of Europe by murder and persecution.

The study of collective memory seen as a socially constructed entity rather than free-standing and immutable is a relatively recent concept, whose founding father is considered to be French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. As one of the key agents of cultural identity, collective memory implies some sort of homogeneity in the memories, knowledge and information it portrays, considering that one of its fundamental properties is embodying the views shared by different social groups. According to Halbwachs, the personal memories of individuals making up these social groups do not make sense unless they are understood within the broader framework of collective memory. Therefore, the events and narratives that are incorporated into collective memory can only be understood inside symbolic codes and narratives. No event or social fact can escape this codification – not even the Holocaust, which has come to be understood as the universal manifestation of genocidal mass murder.

The aftermath of the Holocaust was characterised by a rupture in Western European and North American society’s understanding of history, culture and memory, the same way that the traumatic experiences of the Holocaust caused a rupture in the victims and survivors’ lives. One of the most contentious issues in post-holocaust cultural production thus remains the issue of representation, as ‘the breakage of the verse enacts the breakage of the world’. This is exhorted in German art historian Theodore Adorno’s iconic statement: ‘It is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz.’

Conversely, there has been a wealth of artistic and literary output concerning the events of the Holocaust since the liberation in 1945 and through to modern-day. The rupture in culture and history enacted by the inexplicability and Otherness of the Holocaust has been met with rupture in the collective self-image. The attempt to understand and assimilate this led to the emergence of an over-arching structure that would condition Western understanding of the Holocaust in the form of a metanarrative. This metanarrative acted as a shared system of meaning, mediating the incorporation of the Holocaust into collective memory. A.C. Hunter was the first to propose the existence of a generic holocaust metanarrative in 2002. Furthermore, Daniel Levy singles out two paradigmatic understandings of the Holocaust as a socio-cultural event: particularism and universalism. Particularism focuses on the Nazis as the incarnation of evil, whilst universalism stresses its universal character as a paradigm of man’s inhumanity to man. Some elements in Levy’s thesis are to some extent generalizing, but it nevertheless pinpoints to these two mainstream significations of the Holocaust, which are present in other written accounts that take on the socio-political meaning of the Holocaust, such as Alexander’s and Anne Clare Hunter’s. This study will thus focus on these issues and relate them to the artistic representations considered, whilst employing Non- Marxist social art history and semiotics as the main art historical methodologies, alongside Feminism, iconography, iconology and formalism, which will facilitate a comprehensive, balanced analysis.

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