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Reviewed by:
  • The Era of the Witness
  • Rosanne Kennedy
The Era of the Witness, by Annette Wieviorka, trans. from French by Jared Stark. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 168 pp. $19.95.

When Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub published Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History in 1992, they claimed that the twentieth century was "an era of testimony." Although their book helped to launch the field of trauma studies in the Anglo-American academy, in part by expanding the category of testimony to include literature, how testimony [End Page 218] became a significant cultural form and how the Holocaust survivor acquired legitimacy as a bearer of truth remained uncharted territory. In a lucid and accessible translation by Jared Stark, Annette Wieviorka's The Era of the Witness, originally published in French in 1998, examines the conditions under which testimony, and the social figure of the witness, emerged from the shadows of the Holocaust to become a significant force in contemporary culture. She describes three successive stages of testimony. Chapter One, "Witnesses to a Drowning World," considers testimonies left by those who did not survive. Chapter Two, "The Advent of the Witness," is concerned with the figure of the witness as it emerged from the Eichmann trial, which foregrounded victim testimony for its pedagogic and emotional value. Chapter Three, "The Era of the Witness," examines how the survivor's authority as a witness has been consolidated, in recent decades, through films and videotaped testimony archives. Wieviorka's insightful analysis of the changing historical and social conditions under which testimony has been produced, circulated, and received, and how these conditions have authorized testimony, is an important contribution to Holocaust studies, and to other fields which are concerned with the uses and effects of testimony, for instance in human rights and truth commissions.

In addition to tracing the rise of the social figure of the witness, Wieviorka is primarily concerned with the impact of testimony, with its grounding in fallible memory, on the writing of history. Her fascinating analysis of the Eichmann trial, which is profitably read alongside Hannah Arendt's classic account, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is central to her argument. Wieviorka maintains that the pivotal role the Eichmann trial played in legitimating testimony as a form of "truth telling" about the past has gone unrecognized. Victim testimony acquired an "extraordinary force" in the Eichmann trial due to the judicial setting, which "lent it all the weight of the state's legitimacy and institutions and symbolic power" (p. 84). Moreover, as a result of the Eichmann trial, the witness acquired a new socially recognized identity as a "survivor," which gave rise to a ". . . new function: to be the bearer of history" (p. 88). The Eichmann trial, which sought to teach a "history lesson" by foregrounding survivor testimony, has impacted negatively on the writing of history. Writing history, Wieviorka contends, demands critical distance and the ability to separate emotion and reason. The Eichmann trial used testimony to appeal to the audience's emotion, and the audience, in turn, willingly identified with the victim's story. She maintains that, until recently, historians writing the history of the genocide have respected "universal criteria" of the profession: to appeal to intelligence rather than emotion by holding events at a distance. She reserves her harshest criticism for Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which "pulverized the universally established [End Page 219] criteria for the academic writing of history" (p. 90). With its "juxtaposition of horror stories," Goldhagen's work, which belongs "to the aftermath of the Eichmann trial," uncannily reproduces the methods used by Gideon Hausner, Eichmann's prosecutor (pp. 92, 95). For both Hausner and Goldhagen, feeling substitutes for analysis and explanation. Moreover, Goldhagen blurs the line between history and law by adopting the tone of a prosecutor and judging the past (p. 94). Wieviorka argues that historians should not overwhelm readers with a succession of horror stories, as Goldhagen does, or allow emotion to substitute for critical reflection. Holding events at a distance, Wieviorka suggests, does not lead to a lack of empathy, but rather "restores the dignity of the thinking person" which...


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