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

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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week