(One of the) Editor’s Note: Credit for this one goes to Elizabeth. She posted this before we had fully figured out the by-lines.
I’m not sure what struck me as so absurd during my visit to Auschwitz on a cold March day in 2010. It could have been the high school students taking Myspace photos in front of the firing wall and in the gas chambers. Perhaps it was reading the sign which said, “Closed only on New Year’s Day, Christmas Day, and Easter”, which made me pause to ponder its irony. Whatever the reason, I was shaken that day, and not for the reasons I thought I was supposed to be.
My good friend Lindsay and I were touring Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic while on spring break from our semester abroad in Spain. About midway through our self-guided tour, I left the pack and found myself head-in-hands on the ground, leaning against one of the barracks. I didn’t care to see anything else. My emotion wasn’t sorrow for the tragedy, bitterness towards the Nazis, or anything of the like. It was unmistakably anger, directed not towards humanity for allowing this tragedy to occur, but to present society for holding onto this memory. This self-torture of the past is perpetuated under the guise that it allows us to improve, with the thought that forgetting it will doom us to repeat it. This, to me, seems like something that is assumed without question–after all, why would have any kind of museum, history classes, etc. if not for the betterment of the whole? The question kept nagging my mind all day–is this REALLY helping anyone?
Like many things I’ve struggled with, Nietzsche helped me to come to terms with this question. In The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, he outlines three types of history. Monumental history reveres the past in a detached manner–in the great man theory vein of thought. Antiquarian history preserves the past in an academic and curious sense. The third, critical history, uses the past only in ways in which is is useful to us as a society. Nietzsche holds that we must have a critical relationship with history. He argues that it is detrimental to a society to forget its history, but equally crippling to have an obsession with history to the point that it impedes our lives in the present.
The problem, then, that I had at Auschwitz was that I truly did not (and still do not) believe that using history in this way actually improves us as a people. In fact, I think it causes a lot of unnecessary pain–it prolongs the struggle of coming to terms with the past (this process is so efficiently named Vergangenheitsbewältigung by the Germans). In Spain, due to the passing of the Ley de Memoria Historica (Law of Historical Memory), they are quite literally digging up old graves from the Franco regime era. One of the most common reservations against Turkey joining the EU is that they refuse to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Truth and Reconciliation commissions abound across the globe from South Africa to El Salvador to Greensboro, North Carolina.
The most commonly cited reason for this vein of dialogue is “closure”–with it comes the idea that more information, knowing the “whole story”, will somehow bring solace to those who are still grieving. This contradicts nearly everything I know to be true about human grief. Knowing which Nazi pulled the trigger still does not change the fact that your loved one died a horrible, undue death. The void in your life–whatever type of void it is–cannot be filled by information.
I argue instead that concentrating on the atrocities of the past actually prevents us from fully considering the decisions which face our society in the present. Any 8th grader could tell you about the Holocaust, but how many could discuss the present sitaution in Sudan? They could talk your ear off about Martin Luther King, Jr., but could they pick Harvey Milk’s picture out of a line-up? I’m not advocating that we throw history out of the window, and I certainly don’t think society would benefit from forgetting the Holocaust altogether. However, I am suggesting that we throw out the dominant discourse of lauding history for its unquestioned benefits–let’s make sure we’re using it to improve our lives, not encumber them.
As for Auschwitz, I hope that some people are able to visit it and benefit from it in a way which I was not. But let’s not kid ourselves that a stroll through a concentration camp will turn us all into tireless human rights advocates.