Wednesday, 5 November, 2014

On 3 November we held our 2014 Public Conversation, questioning the place of perpetrators in Holocaust and genocide commemoration and education. A difficult and yet intriguing topic, the conversation allowed us to consider our intuitive emotional as well as intellectual responses to the role that perpetrator experiences should play. If you missed the event, you can listen to the recordings of the speakers on our Soundcloud, and they are also embedded at the bottom of this article.

Chaired by Jonathan Freedland (award-winning journalist and regular contributor to the Jewish Chronicle and the Guardian), our expert panel of speakers explored issues including the potential role of perpetrator experiences for reconciliation, use of perpetrator testimony in combatting genocide denial, fear that highlighting perpetrators’ experiences may encourage a distorted view of history and many others. The panel comprised Professor Dan Stone from Royal Holloway, University of London; Suzanne Bardgett, Head of Research at the Imperial War Museum London; and Eric Murangwa, survivor of the Genocide in Rwanda.

Discussing the possible place for perpetrator narratives in achieving personal and community reconciliation, Eric spoke of his personal need following the Genocide in Rwanda to hear the perspective of perpetrators first hand. Following the genocide, survivors often found themselves living side by side with perpetrators, making the need for social cohesion and reconciliation in Rwanda critical. Eric credited this to the gacaca system (local community justice) and the role that perpetrators played in enabling survivors to find out what had happened to their family members.

Professor Dan Stone suggested that ‘there is a time and a place’ for perpetrator material. Within Holocaust commemoration – such as commemorative ceremonies – there is no place for perpetrators. On the other hand, it is ‘incomprehensible’ that perpetrator experiences would not be included in the academic study of the Holocaust. To address the motivation of perpetrators – which Dan proposed was a topic of interest to not only scholars, but to the wider general public too – the study of perpetrators can provide a useful and insightful resource. Interestingly, he concluded that much of what has been learnt about the Holocaust in the last 20 years has in fact come from perpetrators, in forms such as official documentation and photography.

When referencing the construction of the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London, Suzanne Bardgett recalled the long discussions that she and her team had had about the role of perpetrators. Whilst ensuring the views and feelings of Holocaust survivors were always respected, Suzanne also suggested that the public must gain some understanding of the complexities of the Holocaust’s history and perpetrators role in it. Museums’ responses to perpetrators, Suzanne suggested, ought to interrogate the experiences of perpetrators and delve into their histories without necessarily hearing their voices. She felt that separation between survivor testimony and that of perpetrators was essential, and should always be maintained in the museum space.

Fascinating perspectives were also raised by the insightful and engaged audience. The issue of perpetrators’ gender, for instance, introduced a thought-provoking angle to the conversation, challenging societal gender norms concerning perpetrators of genocide and the role that women do often assume in genocide.

Focusing the debate on the context of the classroom, it appeared that the topic of perpetrators was something that teachers wanted to include but felt they were lacking both knowledge and resources.

Finally, one of the most pertinent comments from the evening revealed how much we currently rely on perpetrator perspectives without necessarily realising it: the majority of Holocaust photographs were in fact taken by perpetrators. Perhaps then, an effort to continually contextualise resources is fundamental within Holocaust education and commemoration?

The insights provided from both the panellists and the audience allowed all to explore this fascinating yet difficult topic in an engaged and sensitive manner.

If you missed the Public Conversation, please listen to our speakers below (audio of the whole event to follow):


Follow the conversation as it evolved on Twitter with our Storify: