Friday, July 13, 2007


David Bell has an eloquent piece on the politics of historical memory at TNR On-Line. He credits this blog with drawing his attention to Sarkozy's recent remarks on Algeria and agrees with my assessment of Sarkozy's motives, but he goes on to develop a subtle critique of Sarkozy's position:

Does repentance really have no place in relations between states? What about German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970? Acts such as this are actually one of the few ways that states possess to acknowledge collective responsibility for crimes without forcing innocent people to pay for the acts of their parents. Brandt's gesture was just that--a gesture--but the importance of gestures in politics can hardly be minimized. And to declare, as Sarkozy is effectively doing, that the past actions of a state impose no moral obligations on its present government, or on the citizens who take pride in belonging to it, strikes me as simply obtuse.

One can agree with this and disagree at the same time. In a reply yesterday to a comment by Mary Lewis on Sarko's treatment of Bouteflika, I noted that for Sarkozy to have made a "gesture" like Willy Brandt's in the presence of Bouteflika would have had a quite different meaning from Brandt's gesture in the presence of the ghosts of Warsaw's Jews. Bouteflika, pursuing a memorial agenda of his own, had accused France of "genocide" in Algeria for, among other things, the massacre at Sétif. The massacre at Sétif was a terrible crime, but it wasn't genocide, and any assent by Sarkozy to Bouteflika's memorial agenda would have had the effect not only of relativizing the Holocaust but also of drawing a veil over such "internal" Algerian matters as Bouteflika's treatment of the Kabyles and the massacres committed by the Front Islamique du Salut, the memory of which Bouteflika does not want to revive. Bouteflika belongs to the revolutionary generation, for which the war against the colonizers was the one big thing. Sarkozy belongs to the postwar generation. They share interests in gas and oil and economic development. They pursue quite different and incompatible agendas with respect to memory politics. Hence it behooved each to ignore the other's attitude toward the crimes of the past.

And this is the problem with memory politics. Issues are raised only as they are convenient. Historians may dwell on them, but politicians use them and move on. Of course I won't quarrel with David Bell's proper insistence on repentance as a matter for each citizen of every nation to contemplate; collective responsibility is not a trifling thing, but in the end it has to be dealt with one penitent at a time, in private, not public, communion. To the extent that gestures by national leaders can encourage such contemplation, they are useful. To the extent that they are used simply to inflame passions or divert blame, they are not.


Anonymous said...

You list 2 "'internal' Algerian matters": Bouteflika's treatment of the Kabyles and the massacres committed by the FIS. There are many such examples, but one I think deserves to be brought up, as it's an excellent example and hopefully a topic that the French government will put on its future agenda of discussions with Algeria, is the treatment of the Harkis during and subsequent to the Algerian War by the Algerian government and the FLN. I write "by the Algerian government and the FLN" to distinguish this from their problematic, bad (insert negative adjective) treatment by the French government in the aftermath of the Algerian War. This is perhaps another discussion, however, perhaps it's not. This could be the reason that this topic is not brought up by the French government more forcefully when they, too, are coupable of mistreatment of the population. (Former Minister of Veterans Mekachera has said that he has raised this issue with his homologue in Algeria who refuses to discuss it.) The very problem with the treatment of the Harkis by the Algerian government not only goes back to the torture and massacre of tens of thousands of them and their family members in spring and summer 1962 (precise figures will never be known and, in my opinion, shouldn't be focused on since they obscure the importance of the reality that such violence did occur), but to the fact that the Harkis themselves (not their descendants) are STILL denied visas to enter Algeria. Yes, some Harkis have returned to their birthland by not revealing their status, however, stating that one is a former French Army suppletif guarantees that the request will not be granted. Can we repent for acts that are still in progress? The killing and torturing of Harkis is worse than their being denied visas or even knowing that their former military status is an accepted synonym of "traitor" in Algerian government circles (and in the Algerian population at large in Algeria and even in the Algerian population in France). However, the consequences of the initial physical acts are still perpetuated today in damaging psychological ways, particularly as the Harkis are dying and wish to be buried in their native country.

Unknown said...

Dear Jeannette Miller,
Thanks for your very pertinent comment.

Anonymous said...

"When they said REPENT REPENT I wonder what they meant." Leonard Cohen's lyrics, most appropriate for Sarkozy's discourse.

The verb "to repent" in French is a reflexive one, and as such, may imply a different relationship to collective memory than the one we are more familiar with in the English language (religious connotations aside).

If Sarkozy, following inclination, suggests, "I don't want to have to enter this risky world of discourse," then which instituiton replies, "You have nothing to fear, ... we're all here to show you that discourse is within the established order of things"?

This may be the crucial question we need to disentangle.

David A. Bell said...

Hi Art,

I appreciate your comments on my piece. Just to clarify, I didn't suggest that Sarkozy necessarily make any sort of gesture in the presence of Bouteflika, or in any way endorse Bouteflika's claims of genocide. This is a side of memory politics that I didn't touch on, and that you very nicely bring up: how to express repentance for actions, when the extent of those actions is being exaggerated by the victims and their descendants in an ill-intentioned way. I don't think there is any way of getting out of this, though. You make the appropriate gesture, do the best you can to ensure that it is not seen as admitting something even worse and feeding into someone else's self-interested agenda, and then just leave it at that.

All the best,


gregory brown said...

This is slightly, but only slightly, off the topic, but what is the meaning of your statement that Sarkozy, or anyone should avoid statements that would have the effect ...of relativizing the Holocaust?

Do I read this correctly that the Holocaust does not have a relationship to other events, even if they are not definitionally genocidal as in this case?

The entire point of intellectual analysis is to draw relationships, is it not? How else to understand the Holocaust, or anything else, except in relation to other events that are both similar and different.

There is a tendency in American lay and political culture, that has become regretfully a part of scholarly discourse as well, to insist on the non-comparability of the Holcaust. This position to my mind denies that any such relationships can be made to the Holocaust.

I've heard this point made even in educational seminars by officers of the national Holocaust museum, who took high umbrage to any discussion of comparative analysis of the Holocaust.

Interestingly, Sarkozy himself seems not to share this point, since in his now famous discourse of last spring, he did indeed relativize the Holocaust by declaring it worse than any event in French history.

Unknown said...

It is difficult, in a blog or anywhere else, always to express oneself as precisely and concisely as one would like. I am sorry to have raised your hackles by using the word "relativized." Nevertheless, although the precise number of victims of the French repression of the riots in Sétif is controversial, I take Benjamin Stora's figure of roughly 15,000 as representative. Some of the victims were treated atrociously: mutilated, tortured, tossed into pits. Nevertheless, horrible as this incident was, it was not a systematic, industrialized, and persistent policy of extermination of an entire people, which is what I mean by the term "genocide." Perhaps, instead of using the word "relativized," I should have used the French phrase "sans commune mesure," which more accurately captures my sense of the difference.

I am quite as aware as you are of the political misuses of Holocaust memory, and that is one reason why I am reserved about what I've called "memory politics" in general. Nevertheless, I don't think that such concerns should preclude pointing out real differences where they exist, and real abuses of language. "Drawing relationships," as you put it.

gregory brown said...

I'm entirely in agreement. Happy Bastille Day, Art. Salut et fraternite/.