BOOK REVIEW / Double monuments to the rhetoric of ruins: 'The Texture of Memory' - James E Young: Yale, 27.50 pounds

JAMES YOUNG'S remarkable The Texture of Memory is built on a central paradox. As the events of the Second World War recede in time, the memorials and monuments built to commemorate those that perished in the death camps become ever more conspicuous. The past may be a foreign country, but its genocidal landscape has become a familiar reference point for the contemporary world.

It is estimated that over dollars 300m has just been spent on three recent Holocaust memorials in Washington, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. As many as four million 'pilgrims' visit annually the best-known killing fields or memorial sites of the Holocaust. Polish towns and villages in particular have learnt to rely on this burgeoning 'memorial industry', which attracts both investment and tourism.

What especially interests Young is the variety of ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is represented in such memorials. His book is divided into sections on Germany, Poland, Israel and America to emphasise the radically diverse natural and political agendas which have shaped the kinds of images and narratives used to denote the past.

For Young, there is not a simple relationship between historic events and present-day memories of them. Instead, he emphasises the extreme plurality of the 'buildings and designs by which every nation and people house remembrance'.

Rather than a unified view of the Nazi atrocities, each country in this lavishly illustrated work is shown to institutionalise its own version of the 'Holocaust'. Beginning with a study of East and West Germany, there is a fascinating exploration of the difficulties inherent in Germany's post-war task of producing memorials to its own debasement. After all, as Young astutely comments, 'only rarely does a nation call upon itself to remember the victims of crimes it has perpetuated'. There are, he declares, few, if any, national monuments to the genocide of the American Indians, or to the millions of Africans enslaved and murdered. Yet Germany has been expected both to memorialise the Holocaust and to build a civilised nation-state on the 'bedrock memory of its horrendous crimes'.

What Young reveals is that Germany's schizophrenic relationship to its past has been restated in an equally ruptured series of national monuments - or 'countermonuments'. One of the many interesting examples of a German anti-memorial is the disappearing black pillar against fascism designed by Jochen and Esther Gerz.

Built on behalf of the city of Hamburg in 1986, the Gerzs designed a 12 metre black pillar, made out of aluminium, on to which the local populace were encouraged to etch graffiti. Once a section is covered in etchings, the pillar is partially lowered into the ground. Instead of displacing the obligation to remember on to their monument, the Gertz's 'counter-monument' returns the 'burden of memory' to its visitors. This results in a bizarre annual civic ceremony in Hamburg: the local population turns out in 'good faith to cheer the destruction of a monument against fascism'.

By far the most moving section of The Texture of Memory concerns the 'rhetoric of ruins' in post-war Poland. As Young poignantly remarks, 'of Jewish life in Poland, only the fragments remain'. Former death camps, closed synagogues, abandoned ghettoes and grievously neglected Jewish cemetries make up Young's landscape of suffering. The 'memorytourist' in Poland is invited to 'mistake the debris of history for history itself'. In Treblinka, 17,000 granite shards are 'set in concrete to resemble a great, craggy graveyard'.

Young astutely charts the 'memory wars' in Poland which are caused by Poles and Jews bitterly contesting each other's versions of the past. In a country largely without Jews, he argues, it is inevitable that Holocaust memorials will reflect the dominant national concerns of contemporary Poles. For this reason, Young throughout writes an ever-changing 'biography' of all of the monuments under discussion (as opposed to thinking of them as timeless objects). He is particularly perceptive, in this regard, on the history of Nathan Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto Monument. In 1988 a ceremony at this monument began with Solidarity commemorating the the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and ended with the strike at the Gdansk shipyards.

When it comes to Israel and America, however, Young is much less audacious in his account of the memorialisation of these two countries. He rightly points to the ambivalent need to 'remember and forget' in Israel - a country that has a selfproclaimed redemptive relationship to the Holocaust - which can result in Israel schoolchildren marching triumphantly into Auschwitz-Birkenau with flags held high. At the same time, he tends to accept at face value the invented nature of a 'common' Israeli national identity (around Holocaust memorial days and National Holocaust museums). But even 'invented' national identities have invidious consequences which Young shies away from exploring.

According to Young, every major American city now has a Holocaust memorial with dozens more in the planning stages. At its opening of the national memorial to the Holocaust in Washington DC, Elie Wiesel and other prominent Jews urged President Clinton to intervene on behalf of Bosnian Muslims. With visitors to the Washington museum given identification cards - so they can 'be' a victim for the day - Holocaust memorials in America are almost 'plural' enough to take account of American as well as European history.

But as The Texture of Memory makes astonishingly clear, such plurality tends to be subordinate to particular national agendas. A national museum on the evils of the British Empire is impossible to envisage in London, just as a memorial to American Indians is unlikely to be seen in Washington. History, as always, is written by the victors.

Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray is joining Strictly Come Dancing 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Double bill: Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in ‘Nymphomaniac’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Big Blues - Shark' by Alexander Mustard won the Coast category

photography
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering