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Isabelle Engelhardt. A Topography of Memory. Representations of the Holocaust at Dachau and Buchenwald in Comparison with Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and Washington, DC. Series Multiple Europes, 16. Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2002. 00 S. Bibliography. EUR 37, ISBN 90-5201-957-6.

Reviewed by Tanja Schult, Södertörns Högskola, Sweden.
Published by H-Museum (August, 2002)

To sum it up at the beginning: Isabelle Engelhardt's dissertation is in many ways thought-provoking but her concept does, at least, not convince me - as she tries to tackle a wide variety of issues at once. Engelhardt chooses to analyse various sorts of representation of the Holocaust on the site of the former concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald and has the intention to compare these with three memorial sites outside Germany: Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and Washington.

Engelhardt examines memorial sites as part of each national history and politics. In this way she follows her co-supervisor, the well-known James E. Young. She reasons that the representations established in Dachau and Buchenwald are "rather representations of the relations to the past than representations of the past itself." (p.17). These memorial sites are reflecting political changes in a country, which is especially obvious in the two German states, particularly in the GDR and in Germany after reunification as well as in Poland after 1989.

The second chapter, the most interesting in my opinion, describes the general difficulties of dealing with the Holocaust. This became already manifest after the liberation of the camps. Subjects such as representation, authenticity, instrumentalization, Holocaust-tourism, the wish and the duty to witness and the question of doing this adequately were present from the very beginning and are determining the debate until today.

By reviewing some of the vast literature on "trauma, identity, history, memory and metaphor" (p. 21) she aims to provide a context for her study - for the scope of her book an impossible task which is prone to be selective and thus not convincing. In this assay I will not summarise the single chapters - the facts therein are known from other studies where they are analysed in more depth. Instead I would like to concentrate on two points: First, the problem of comparing these different sites, and second the lack of a real comparison.

Comparing the uncomparable?

I have to admit that my difficulties in agreeing with Engelhardt arise from the choice of comparison. In contrast to Engelhardt who sees the main differences of the sites in "their location and the fact that the concentration or extermination camp memorials also serve as substitute cemeteries" (p. 20), I consider other differences as crucial. Dachau was the first major Nazi concentration camp, but no systematic mass exterminations were carried out in Dachau. In fact in Buchenwald among the inmates Jews were in the minority. Nevertheless, one can argue that Dachau served as a model for the network, which covered first Germany and then every occupied country. Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz were the scenes of the crimes - but Auschwitz was an extermination camp and became later on synonymous with the Holocaust. Yad Vashem and Washington were later established institutions, far away from the scenes of the crime. At Dachau - as Engelhardt mentions herself - "the narrative is bound to the place, does not attempt to memorialize the Holocaust in its totality, and stops in 1945." (p. 208) In contrast, Yad Vashem and Washington, try to represent the Holocaust in its totality.

A semantic problem becomes apparent when we realise that Engelhardt does not offer a definition of what the Holocaust was. This may sound fussy, but as Engelhardt points out herself the problem of representation starts already with the difficulty of finding an adequate word for the Nazi atrocities. (p. 19) There is a difference if one follows Yehuda Bauer's "Rethinking the Holocaust" and regards the term suitable for the extermination of the European Jewry or if one - like Young - includes other victim groups as well. [1]

Engelhardt refuses to use the term Shoah because it refers to the Jewish victims only (p. 18) - so one has to assume that she follows Young's wider understanding. A clear definition would be helpful to assess the motivation of the comparison. As she shows with her overviews of the sites - the Holocaust is interpreted differently. This is particularly true for the period of the Cold War but even today former neglected victim groups get their own monuments - no one seems to be able to establish one single monument accepted by all victim groups as being representative.

The lack of a definition leads to confusion: "Given the almost complete absence of Jews in the process of memorialization and their absence in Europe in general, it is questionable whether these three rather site-specific memorial places [Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz] can even be called 'Holocaust memorials'." (p. 203) Why then a comparison with the two Holocaust memorials Yad Vashem and Washington?

Even if there is a problem with the choice of comparison, in my opinion it could still lead to a productive analysis if, as mentioned, Engelhardt would have limited the comparison to certain aspects as adequacy, authenticity and place and placeless-ness and then compare them directly - but I miss direct comparisons. Instead of giving chronological overviews of the sites it might have been advantageous to provide a selection of relevant and suitable examples to illuminate the different strategies at work. For example: Engelhardt mentions the debate about the human hair brought from Auschwitz to Washington (which was not displayed, instead one can see a photograph) (p. 195), without mentioning that in Auschwitz nearly two tons of hair are displayed. [2] Why does the author not use this option for direct comparison to illustrate the areas of interest: the question of authenticity (p. 212) and the power of physical remnants. (p. 172)

Certainly it would have served the study if it had been limited to a motivated selection of comparison. For example a concentration on place and placelessness, a topic the author considers the "central point" of the comparison. (p. 210) "The 'place' seems to be crucial for all five memorials" (p. 159) - even for Yad Vashem and Washington, not original scenes, but filled with meaning resulting from their location in special areas in their respectively capital city. For the sites of the crimes Engelhardt states: "the place is the place and possibly by virtue of this fact resists total instrumentalization. At least, it does not fail to have an impact on the visitors" (p. 210) But Engelhardt does not support her own hypothesis when she argues that the historic facts were ignored over the years in favour of political reasons. The author reasons that the significance derives "from the knowledge we bring to them" (p. 150) and even original sites depend "on the reaction of the visitor. Even their 'historic' places and artefacts lack by themselves the crucial "will to remember." (p.152)

In fact Yad Vashem and Washington seem to have a longer-lasting impact on the Holocaust representations as the original sites. They had to deal with the problem that they had to establish something new and used the chance to develop a certain Holocaust museum aesthetic - "most successfully developed by the Washington museum in competition with Yad Vashem". An interesting argument follows: Their aesthetic "not only serves as a model for memorials at a spatial remove but is also reimported to the sites of destruction." (p. 211) Again the question of definition, mentioned above, arises: It is - as I believe - not only the aesthetic which is reimported but also the content transported by the aesthetic. The competition between Yad Vashem and Washington concerns not only "the struggle to establish a Holocaust master-narrative" (p. 35), but in a way also the struggle of what the Holocaust was and as what it will be remembered. Today institutions far away from the places of the crimes play a decisive role for their shape and content.

General Remarks

I strongly feel that it would serve the book if it would resemble less the scientific dissertation. It would have been helpful to integrate more pictures in the text to illustrate the described memorials. The reasons for not doing so may be financial ones, although we find a photo-collage of each site in the beginning of the book- only without any further explanations. The style in which these remarkable photos (Jörg Wagner) are arranged resembles the aesthetic of today's famous architecture books - beautifully composed - but in this case more information would have been advantageous. One last remark may be allowed: If the quotations from English, French and even Italian are kept in their original version, why a translation from German into English?


[1] James E. Young (red.): Mahnmale des Holocaust: Motive, Rituale und Stätten des Gedenkens. München 1994, p. 21

[2] Burkhard Asmuss (red.): Holocaust. Der nationalsozialistische Völkermord und die Motive seiner Erinnerung. Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2002, p. 327.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 12/09/02 12:21:55
©S D Stein

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