A recent interdisciplinary workshop at UCL, organised by the IAS Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and funded by the Octagon Small Grants Fund, entitled Interpreting Perpetrators aimed to shed light on some of the issues related to understanding, studying and representing perpetrators. The discussions were based on concrete examples, interpretative approaches and methodologies, but sought to answer larger questions such as: what is ‘perpetration’ and ‘a perpetrator’? What does our engagement with the topic tell us about ourselves? How are perceptions of past wrongdoing transmitted? How do so-called perpetrators self-represent?
A starting-point for the discussions was the notion that perpetration is a process and perpetrator a role that one falls in and out of, rather than an identity. Determining perpetration or crime is linked to legal, moral and ethical concepts and principles. In order to understand the perpetrator, therefore, the historian or social scientist’s first task is to reconstruct the conditions of perpetration, determine the role of structure and agency – or, in other words, locate the act of violence.
Mary Fulbrook suggested moving the focus away from front-line and top-level perpetrators, and onto the emergence of a society in which the ‘social self’ was affected by people’s location in a changing system. She first presented her thoughts on the activities of the National Socialist Ministry of Work (Reichsarbeitsministerium) and its involvement in forced labour, then introduced her concept of the ‘bystander society’ and explored ‘the social production of indifference’ in Nazi Germany.
With these two examples, Fulbrook exposed the difficulty of delineating public and private and pointing to a tipping point from indifference to persecution to personal perpetration. Was ignoring the fate of a Jewish friend or signing an order to send a few hundred workers to a work camp akin to shooting someone in the neck? Did the former lead to the latter?
Mark Hewitson, whose research deals with the experience of war and military conscripts in the 19th and 20th centuries, argued that there is a key distinction to be made between different kinds of violence, namely systemic and subjective violence. But this dilemma nevertheless points to the problem of drawing the line and raises the question of when someone becomes a perpetrator and under which circumstances. How do we weigh up the role of the individual and the system?
In a related paper, I presented examples of ‘functional complicity’ in the Nazi system by drawing on the case of ethnic German ‘resettlers’ to the conquered territories during World War II. I described many people’s struggles to make sense of their position within the Nazi system retrospectively, as others have shown, as both victims of the Nazis and beneficiaries of genocide .
Their memories reveal a conflation of the suffering of others and even crimes committed against others and their own sense of helplessness and victimhood. On the one hand, this points to the inadequacy of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy and their exclusive understanding, which places those attributed with the label ‘perpetrator’ in a defensive position. On the other, it poses the question of the ‘morality of memory’ (Roger Frie) and whether the conscious choice not to interrupt the narrative of the perpetrators may itself constitute a form of wrongdoing and entail a ‘second guilt’ .
Perpetrators as a construction
Drawing on two different literary texts, Fiasco by Imre Kertesz and Good People by Nir Baran, Stephanie Bird discussed both the perspective of the perpetrator (narrator) and our perspective on the perpetrator (reader). She highlighted our reluctance to let a perpetrator speak unless it is a confession. This relates to the fact that we feel that our morality depends on how we view what the perpetrator has done. This, in turn, raises the question of who feels guilty and whether our engagement with the topic has to do with a hypocritical search for redemption. Bird then put forth the hypothesis that fiction, insofar as it is not tied to the ideal of truth in the same way as history and historical writing, may be able offer more room for the exploration of the complex psychological and moral problems linked to the issue of perpetration.
Going further still, Clare Bielby argued, based on her research on terrorism, the perpetrator is essentially ‘in the eye of the beholder’. She explained that for her, the concept of perpetrator would be much larger than what is currently defined by law. She thereby sought to draw attention to ‘the politics of naming’ and the related ‘politics of representation’ and explained her own reluctance, despite her field of research, to use the word perpetrator analytically at all.
Drawing on the field of narrative criminology and gender studies, Bielby showed how narrative produces crime – before, during and after. She argued that this perspective can help us understand the attraction of violence and a violent culture. But she also explained her interest in the retrospective engagements with the crimes by those who have committed them. In particular, she is interested in the typical ‘sinner to saint’ trajectories and the missionary sense of purpose than many former convicts develop, for example.
Anxieties of representation
In her presentation, Susanne Luhmann examined the representation of female perpetrators in the exhibition dedicated to them at the former concentration camp Ravensbrück, now a memorial site. The exhibition was conceived in the mid-1990s and opened in 2005. Luhmann drew attention to the use of authentic space (the former living quarters of the female guards) and the curators’ fear of restaging. They therefore made an effort to disrupt the space by adding in panels and walls, and thereby hoped to prevent identification and creating a site for far-right pilgrimage. Luhmann explained the exhibit captured the anxiety over exculpating or fetishising the female perpetrators – something quite common in popular culture – by emphasising their ordinariness.
Her view of this attempt, however, was ambivalent. She found it particularly insightful to compare the male and female exhibits and analysed them from the point of view of gender. She showed that while the men are represented through their function, in the female guards exhibit, the focus is placed on personal biographies and private life. A gender perspective thus reveals that the anxieties about representing female perpetrators actually tend to reinforce rather than challenge gender stereotypes.
Hedda Joyce’s research also deals with the anxieties linked to the past. Using interviews with third- and fourth-generation Germans living in in the UK, Joyce is investigating the relationship of these expatriated Germans to the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. In her presentation, Joyce showed how many of her interviewees are still haunted by the past. However she also pointed out the limits of their knowledge about the past and the creative ways in which they have filled the gaps. Using tools from the field of psychoanalysis, she seeks to show how this conception of the past and an abstract sense of guilt, influences people’s biographies and sense of personhood.
In the final presentation, Stefanie Rauch made the case for not seeking to understand perpetrators, or their motives, but focusing instead on how they portray themselves and trying to understand their self-representations. This is the perspective she adopts in her research, which involves analyzing oral history interviews with former members of the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. She describes these interviews as ‘discursive spaces of justice’ and treats them, not so much as sources for the audience or the historian, as tools for the speakers themselves. These deploy different strategies to keep their identity intact and the way in which they do this can tell us about norms, expectations and their own way of coming to terms with the past.
The workshop was organised to pose new questions and expose new approaches rather than to reach definite answers and results. It succeeded in this brilliantly. One of the main takeaway issues for all participants, regardless of discipline or background, was: how do we, as researchers and as a society, ethically engage with a past that involves crimes, murder and suffering and still do justice to the complexity of those causing the suffering and their circumstances? As any historian will know, empathy is needed to make sense of the past. However, what effects does empathy for the perpetrator have and how to we overcome our own resistance to achieve that?
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