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Reviewed by:
  • Crises of Memory and the Second World War
  • Patrick Henry
Crises of Memory and the Second World War, by Susan Rubin Suleiman; x & 286 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. $29.95.

This excellent study deals widely and deeply with the crises of memory and World War II but generally focuses on France, Vichy and the Holocaust. The author defines a crisis of memory as "a moment of choice and sometimes of predicament or conflict, about remembrance of the past, whether by individuals or by groups" (p. 1). In the crises of memory she examines, "individual self-representation overlaps with . . . collective self-representation" in such a way that individual remembrance takes on collective significance. In nine rich chapters of textual analysis of mostly self-consciously literary texts, Suleiman deftly analyzes writers from the left and the right, two films of tremendous import, the nature of Holocaust memoirs, experimental writing and the concepts of trauma, amnesia, amnesty, testimony and forgiveness.

In the first three chapters, Suleiman studies French memories of the Occupation, the collaborationist Vichy regime and the Resistance from 1945 to the present. These chapters depict the relations between history and memory and highlight the intriguing process of the evolution of public remembrance. Chapter one, "Choosing Our Past," surprises even the most careful reader of Jean-Paul Sartre's plays and novels, for it demonstrates brilliantly that, in several of his very early post-Vichy essays where he conveniently passes over in silence France's collaborationist past—even the major role played by Vichy police in the roundup and deportation of Jews—he helped create, along with de Gaulle and others, the myth of "Resistancialism," the founding myth of the post-Vichy [End Page 204] Period, the idea that all Frenchmen resisted the Nazis. In the words of Pierre Nora, Sartre and de Gaulle were "writing history from the point of view of the future" (p. 17).

In chapter two, the author analyzes the 1997 "Aubrac Affair," exposing the problems that the Resistance heroes, Lucie and Raymond Aubrac, encountered when they were suddenly suspected of having betrayed Jean Moulin, whose 1964 enshrinement in the Pantheon is examined in chapter three within the context of the politics of national memory in France. Whereas Moulin's enshrinement marked the apex of the myth of "Resistancialism" in France, the "Aubrac Affair" comes fifty-four years after the betrayal of Jean Moulin and twenty-five years after the myth of "Resistancialism" began to fade. In treating the charges and countercharges in the "Aubrac Affair," which continues to fascinate because it illustrates "the problematic relation between public and private memory, and between history and fantasy in the construction of both an individual and a collective past" (p. 61), Suleiman highlights the problems of narrative verisimilitude and the narrative tendency toward heroic aggrandizement as well as its opposite, the desire to topple heroes.

In chapter four, Suleiman studies Marcel Orphuls's Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, a four-hour documentary of great significance that remains relatively unknown when compared with his earlier film, The Sorrow and the Pity. Barbie was the infamous Nazi war criminal, known as "the Butcher of Lyon," who tortured and deported hundreds of Jews and tortured to death the great French Resistance hero, Jean Moulin. He was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983 where he was tried for crimes against humanity in 1987. Orphuls's film exposes the conflicted memories and partisanships produced by WWII and the Holocaust in public and private spaces throughout Europe and the Americas. This chapter will undoubtedly convince others of the film's importance. It will certainly convince the reader of Suleiman's ability to read film. She explains in detail Orphuls's method of "dialectical montage" (already evident in The Sorrow and the Pity) whereby he cuts up individual interviews and juxtaposes them with parts of others that often qualify or simply contradict what has been stated. This is why his films are "interactive documentaries" that "force the viewer into uncomfortable subject positions in relation to the material" (p. 87). No voice-over or "voice of God" commentary comes to aid the viewer who is forced to evaluate critically...


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