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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition