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The history of the European “postwar” isen vogue, as is signaled by a series of conferences, edited volumes, and monographs that have addressed the legacies .
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Amanda Z. Skip to main content Skip to navigation Throughout much of the twentieth century, cinema in many industrialized socities served not only as source of popular entertainment but a vital site of national self-expression. Seminar questions why and how did US and British authorities attempt to control cinema in Japan and Germany? And how much influence did Hollywood exert over the re-construction of postwar cinema?

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Primary source: Kurosawa, Akira dir. Chapter 3.

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Chapter 4. Chapter 5. Chapter 6. Chapter 7. Chapter 8. Chapter The French after Further, interned figures began to reflect on the novelties of camp life. In contrast to the vast concentration camp network, as soon as the small number of extermination camps had made their brutal appearance in European history and done their grim work, the Nazis razed their sites.

The concentration camps were there to be discovered, with large populations, while the extermination camps were wiped away. The only exceptions were those killing centers that also included a smaller 52 Samuel Moyn or larger work or concentration camp component: Majdanek and, of course, Auschwitz. More important, these latter camps were liberated by the Soviets.

Though much more work remains to be done on the Soviet liberations, it is already known that the camps liberated by the US and British armies were highly publicized—spectacularly so—in their liberations and in the documentations immediately produced graphically often photographically illustrating their horror.

It is often forgotten that four fifths of the prisoners at Buchenwald, for instance, were gentiles, even though it became perhaps the most emblematic camp for Americans in particular, thanks to Edward R. But the liberations also blurred the forms of victimhood under Nazi rule and the very different means of persecution in the Nazi repertory. The horrors of those famous concentration camps, for example the piles of corpses or the emaciation of the prisoners so photographically familiar then and now, were so dramatic and climactic that it could easily have seemed morally obtuse to say that these horrors were, compared to what took place at the extermination camps, relatively benign.

One should note in passing that a full story here of liberation would have to include much more detail, about the individual camps themselves and also about significant questions that arise in studying the history of how they were perceived for example, the role of gas chambers and crematoria in some concentration camps, or the arrival of Jews on death marches to the West not long before the gates were thrown open.

Third, and perhaps most important, concentration camps produced witnesses.

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The comparatively lower death rate at concentration camps meant the physical presence of survivors. This generalization includes the smaller class of Jewish survivors, very few of whom were from those sites. The return of the deported thus involved non-Jews out of all proportion to the original rates of deportation; as scholars like Pieter Lagrou and Annette Wieviorka have demonstrated, the consequences of this disproportion for public memory were staggering.

In the Aftermath of Camps 53 Fourth, there was Nuremberg. The pedagogy of postwar trials confirmed the trends so far mentioned. While its charter introduced the new concept of crimes against humanity to cover events like the Holocaust, such crimes were, for legal and ideological reasons, subordinated to the primary charges of crimes against peace and war crimes. And even when the trials focused on crimes against humanity, they did so by dramatizing the concentration camp. It also followed from ignorance of the horrors of extermination camps.

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Auschwitz got attention in the trials of several criminals and the testimony of a few witnesses, but the net effect seems to have been its portrayal as an exceptionally bad version of the concentration camp. Meanwhile, the pure extermination camps were not mentioned in any proceeding. As if these factors were not enough, one must never forget to include, fifth and finally, homogenizing ideological commitments amongst Jews across the globe, which led them either not to recognize or simply to marginalize the disproportionate victimhood of their group and the fact that the Nazis had specifically targeted it.

Such commitments included liberal assimilationism and political leftism. They were simply places were Jews were slaughtered.

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David Rousset and Hannah Arendt Existing analyses of immediate postwar memory give a simple response to the absence of the extermination camps, and therefore the special Jewish fate, from the overall picture. Psychic inability or political distortion is to blame for the 54 Samuel Moyn dogged focus on the concentration camp. In the case of the communist world, notable studies have remorselessly criticized the anti-fascist variant of political leftism for failing to see the extermination camps.

This analysis is mostly unimpeachable, though it always bears remembering that everywhere, whether or not anti-fascism reigned supreme, the concentration camp took pride of place.


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The United States, Britain, and France proved no better, in these early years, at seeing things more truly. Yet there was a tradition that put the concentration camps at the focus, in a powerful synecdoche, for reasons that are potentially more plausible and powerful.

I can begin with the sadly neglected figure who, for intellectuals, was perhaps the single most important interpreter of the camps for a long time, a Frenchman named David Rousset. He thus allowed the concentration camp system to be conceived globally, and made it possible—going beyond the testimonies on the Nazi camps published already before the war and, in numerous quantities, after —for common principles of organization to be perceived.


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The point was no longer to look at personal situations, or simply to demonize the Nazis; it was to comprehend what was radically new about what they had done. Rousset emphasized the prisoners as not only literally but also exis- In the Aftermath of Camps 55 tentially naked as a result of their internment: reduced to nothing more than their skins. For Rousset, concentration camps coerced their victims into a life no different from death—on the border between them. Rousset admitted differentiation amongst the camps, but insisted that in the end they had to be seen as a unified phenomenon.

The univers concentrationnaire was organized on different planes. In utterly different latitudes lay the reprisal camps … for Jews … in the shape of Auschwitz … The camps for Jews … were a large-scale industry for torture and extermination. The erasure of the distinction between life and death in concentration—emphasized in the phrase Les Jours de notre mort The Days of Our Death , the title of his next and almost as influential book—led him to see camps devoted to actual killing as fundamentally similar. Arendt praised Rousset for perceiving the radical systemic novelty of the camps in European history.

There was indeed a caesura in modern history to be recognized, but it was the camps as a whole and not simply the particular fate of the Jews in them. They believed, as we do, in extreme evil, only they found it incarnated institutionally in the camps as an overall system. She also repeated his analysis of nudity. Even though she knew a lot more about Jewish victimhood and may have been more sensitive to it than Rousset, Arendt followed him in softening or abolishing any distinction between concentration and extermination.

As Arendt put matters in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is the camp system, rendering human beings superfluous through killing them juridically and morally, that deserves the most attention. Only a regime that produces living death, she suggested, can reach the last consequence of producing actual death. Thus the concentration camp in a sense entails the extermination camp. And indeed, Rousset formed an international Commission for the Extirpation of the Concentrationist Phenomenon that was one of the first, amongst notoriously dilatory French intellectuals, to decry Soviet camps past and present, even though no exterminatory project occurred or was occurring there.


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Rousset, and Arendt following him, were, in making such arguments, not suppressing the Holocaust or postponing its recognition. Their aftermath involved recognizing something else—or more exactly, the Holocaust as part of something else.

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The Extermination Paradigm This discourse lost its dominance, in both its crude and evasive anti-fascist form and the more sophisticated form that Arendt, above all, elaborated. There is much more to be done to understand this institutional dimension of Holocaust memory. In a recent book, I took a kind of sounding of a particular place and time—France in —to attempt to understand how and when that fall In the Aftermath of Camps 57 happened, how and when and why the extermination camp first became, to many people, perceptible in its own right.

For Steiner, the extermination camp had to be singled out. However it happened, the ultimate outcome of the shift seems clear, forty years on. The concentration camp has been displaced by the extermination camp in perception. To be sure, the phrase concentration camp persists, but often it is used interchangeably with its competitor, mistakenly annexed to it to mean extermination camp, the place where Jews as Jews died. In the German Historikerstreit of the s, no one bothered to try to return to the older frame: the most noted proposals simply equated the exterminatory enterprise with other victimhood Andreas Hillgruber or saw it as an understandable answer to a prior but also exterminatory threat Ernst Nolte.

But because the shift had radically restricted the possible comparisons with Jewish death, such figures had to strain implausibly to find them.

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Yet there is much historical irony, from the perspective of the story told here, in the fact that Goldhagen could oppose the focus on the extermination camps because it did not allow the full dimensions of the Holocaust to be measured. After all, in the beginning it was the focus on the extermination camps that allowed the Holocaust, the murder of Jews as Jews, to be seen at all, when the era of the concentration camp omitted it or folded it into Nazi criminality in general.

Giorgio Agamben and the Return of the Concentration Camp And yet, one cannot say that even today the idea of the concentration camp that emerged from the Second World War and received such influential elaboration by Rousset and others has totally disappeared—to the contrary, in certain respects it is on the way back. This is notably true in Europe, where recent debates on Soviet crimes have often seen them put on a par with Nazi evil, when they are not made to seem even more terrible. But perhaps the most prominent and influential revival of the synecdoche of the concentration camp today is by an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben—a figure of extraordinary prestige in the humanities of late.

After the death of figures like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Agamben has ascended, especially since 11 September , to the level of status and influence, in Europe and even more in the US, that those figures once boasted. In its focus on Auschwitz and on one of the principal new symbols Primo Levi of the contemporary era of focus on the genocide, it might seem implausible to see Agamben as returning to the old synecdoche of the concentration camps.

But since Auschwitz was a concentration camp as well as an extermination camp, it is possible to discuss it in very different ways.