A man throws a rose into the Seine river in Asnieres, northern Paris, on Oct. 17, 2011, to pay tribute to victims of a massacre on the same day in 1961 in Paris during the Algerian War. PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images
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The Lie of Silence

What began as a way to bring Nazi murderers to justice has become the model for a new kind of memory politics whose falsehoods and contradictions threaten to undo the framework of our civic life

Blake Smith
July 19, 2021
A man throws a rose into the Seine river in Asnieres, northern Paris, on Oct. 17, 2011, to pay tribute to victims of a massacre on the same day in 1961 in Paris during the Algerian War. PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images

Intellectuals and activists have recently convinced us that “memory” is a critical instrument for resisting oppression and securing a more tolerant, inclusive, and upright polity. We are summoned to “remember” the Holocaust, slavery, colonialism, and a growing list of other horrors not only in private moments of reflection, or among fellow members of our particular communities, but in regular national public commemorations and permanent pedagogical campaigns. We have a duty to remember … but to what end?

We rarely consider the strange set of implicit metaphors and assumptions that underwrite our thriving politics of memory, or the shifting, often strident imperatives that direct us to remember, right now, some specific injustice, necessarily to the exclusion of all other injustices that one might remember that week. Although we ask much of memory, we scarcely “remember” how this form of collective memorializing became so central to our politics, in which remembrance is a heroic act through which maleficent forces are defeated by our mere acknowledgment of them. We tell ourselves, moreover, that the triumph of memory will have tangible and desirable political effects, raising the status of victims and their descendants and preventing such tragedies from recurring in the future—as if the Nazi Party or the Confederacy were transcendent forces capable at any moment of breaking the bonds of historical place and time and incarnating themselves anew if not for our rituals. Connected to this assumption are a set of vague but potent analogies that conflate individual psychological processes—such as trauma, mourning, etc.—with the patterns of our common life as fellow citizens of a polity, which has no psyche of its own.

Itay Lotem, one of the leading scholars of the politics of memory in the modern West, calls these myths into question in his excellent new book, The Memory of Colonialism in Britain and France: The Sins of Silence. With great care and subtlety, Lotem shows how dubious understandings of memory as a political instrument have shaped the efforts of activists in Western Europe to “remember” the violence of slavery and imperialism. In the process, these political agents both imitated and competed with public commemorations of the Holocaust, inspiring efforts by other groups to secure their own claims to what began to appear as the scarce resource of official remembrance. Sympathetic to anti-racist aspirations, Lotem offers penetrating insights into the inadequacy of activists’ form of memory politics, which, in its most recent iteration as “wokeness,” now seems inescapable on either side of the Atlantic. His work offers vital lessons for American politics, warning us that efforts to strong-arm a metaphorical collective “memory” cannot achieve justice or solidarity.

Many of Lotem’s academic readers will likely fail to note the irony of his subtitle, “The Sins of Silence.” Lotem, in fact, provides a basis from which to question the claims, now commonplace throughout Western media and academia, that “we have not been talking about” or “need a conversation about” historical injustices related to racism, slavery, colonialism, and other historical ills.

Lotem demonstrates convincingly that the idea that discussion of the raw evils of Western society was ever “silenced” is bunk. In reality, the identification and criticism of such evils have been a primary, and indeed a defining, feature of Western political discourse. Those who speak of a “silence” surrounding such injustices are not so much exposing, in a neutral gesture of historical inquiry, a forgotten or occluded truth about the past, as they are engaging in a partisan struggle over how to interpret that past in order to justify specific, debatable, and highly polemical policies in the present. Far from undoing a silence to “start a conversation,” they are attempting to use state institutions to impose their own points of view on people they would like to silence.

Lotem’s first chapter begins his critique of the myth of “silences” by recalling the English-language media’s response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Almost immediately after the shooting, Anglophone journalists and academics from the left hastened to explain (and in some cases almost to excuse) the attack as a return of “France’s unacknowledged colonial past,” an interpretation that, as Lotem notes, relied on the false notion that this past had been somehow repressed.

Indeed, although Lotem does not extend his critique so far, this interpretation depended on many confusions and conflations. It linked the actions of the Muslim terrorists—who sought to punish Charlie Hebdo for having published cartoons depicting Muhammad—with the condition of France’s millions of Muslim inhabitants, many of whom are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries once colonized by France. Such connections, although doubtless seeming urgent and intelligent to many readers of The New York Times and The Guardian, were grotesque in their timing and inadequate in their analysis. The terrorists appealed to religious motives, not to post-colonial legacies. Nor, Lotem insists, was the ugliness of France’s colonial history ever unacknowledged: It was, after all, part of the lived experience of both the colonizers and the colonized, and the fulcrum of French postwar politics.

So what does it mean to speak out against the “silence” surrounding France’s colonial policies, colonial wars, and eventual withdrawal from its former colonies, all of which took place in full view of the French public, and were debated on the front pages of French newspapers and in the French parliament for decades? Since the 1990s, Lotem shows, anti-racist activists in France have argued that the Algerian War (1954-1962) and other episodes of colonial violence needed to become objects of collective remembrance as part of a larger campaign to rectify inequalities in French society. As he puts it, through a significant use of scare quotes, “a growing number of historians and activists began focusing their attention on the ‘taboos’ induced by decades of inability to ‘come to terms’ with an ‘unassumed’ colonial past.”

What activists in the ’90s were contesting, Lotem shows, was not so much an enduring silence about the war as the strategic choices of an earlier generation of activists, who had sought to promote tolerance for ethnic minorities through campaigns organized around themes of multicultural “living together.” In those efforts, tolerance for immigrants’ differences was imagined as a virtue menaced by the universal vices of ignorance and bigotry, rather than as a historically specific response to those communities that had suffered under colonialism. This earlier generation of activism framed anti-racism as a moral drama in which free individuals overcame prejudice and embraced open-mindedness in accordance with the French Republic’s supposedly universal values of equality and fraternity. Such a perspective did not so much consign colonialism to silence as reject its political salience in a campaign motivated by ethical, rather than historical, claims.

This prior approach, of which the movement SOS Racisme and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy were leading figures, is certainly not beyond criticism (I have described its failures elsewhere). But it is also clear that its opponents, seeking greater prominence in national narratives for the evils of colonialism rather than for the dangers of intolerance, were fighting against an alternative understanding of the best way to resist intolerance against minorities in France—not against “silence.”

Breaking with colorblind, universalist anti-racism, the new generation of activists presented themselves as lifting taboos on the discussion of France’s racist past. They also imagined themselves as working toward a future in which the memory of colonialism and slavery, once established in the public consciousness, would achieve a variety of political goals. These goals were, however, neither coherent nor attainable, as Lotem demonstrates—in part because they were developed in imitation of a model of Holocaust memory that, although apparently “successful,” contained troubling contradictions. Arab and Caribbean immigrants, and their descendants who lobbied for official memorialization for the Atlantic slave trade and for massacres committed during the Algerian War, “borrowed a template of memorial activism (that offered different modes of public action and commemoration) from the success of Jewish activists.” In doing so, they inherited its tensions and obfuscations while often taking its sales pitch literally.

During the 1970s and ’80s, “memory” of the Holocaust and the Vichy Regime French public culture in France underwent a significant shift, characterized by a new combination of moral-legal and therapeutic injunctions. On the level of morality and law, it was said that the postwar French state and society had a “duty of memory” (devoir de mémoire), which included not only bringing to trial high-level collaborators implicated in the deaths of Jews and providing compensation to victims, but also campaigns of official memorialization and education about the Holocaust, which took an increasingly important place in school curricula. The concept of “memory,” representing society as a kind of collective subject who could (and should) recall its repressed past, allowed activists to conflate efforts through the courts to identify specific criminals and victims with efforts through the schools to increase “awareness” of the French state’s culpability during the Holocaust. “Memory” was at once a force of retribution pursuing individual perpetrators and a new ideological consensus for the next generation of French citizens.

The state was thus demanded to bear a strange ethical burden, as if it too were a person rather than an institutional abstraction. “France” was responsible for the crimes of Vichy and thus morally tainted—it had to “remember” how evil it had been, confess, and seek forgiveness. Yet by fulfilling its “duty” to “remember” its misdeeds and the suffering of its victims, this same morally compromised French state could integrate and uplift marginalized groups by conferring on them the dignity of remembrance through a new ritual of civic inclusion: the modification of history curricula.

Where an older style of French Jewish activism against antisemitism during the Third Republic (inspired by intellectuals such as Emile Durkheim) had tended to minimize the specificity of violence against Jews and defend a generalized concept of “human rights” to be protected by a state that recognized individual citizens rather than particular communities, the new generation emphasized their own community’s suffering as a way to affirm the place of Jews as Jews in post-1945 France. As Lotem puts it, “rather than concentrating solely on public opinion, Jewish activists sought … to make the French state acknowledge its responsibility … and simultaneously affirm the value of Jewish experience in the general narrative of French history.” In doing so, Lotem argues, “they created a blueprint—or at least a checklist—for what memorial activists could consider ‘success’: a public debate that led to official recognition, legislation and a change to the school curriculum.”

As activists demanded that the French state fulfill its “duty of memory,” psychologists and historians began to argue that a supposed “Vichy syndrome” was making France mentally ill. The evils of the Vichy regime, by this light, had been “repressed” for decades, leading to a systematic “amnesia” that blocked the victory of progressive politics in France. Here again, France was imagined as a sort of psychiatric patient, with little sense of how that metaphor might disorient political thought. Rather, the use of therapeutic language in politics must have struck many observers as highly successful, leading to greater public awareness of the Holocaust and thereby somehow, through a mechanism that was never explained, to greater tolerance and security for French Jews—a desirable goal that has in no way arrived.

To be a respectable minority community in France, according to this new template, was to have undergone a terrible historical injustice committed, but now recognized, by the state—which appeared paradoxically as both an avatar of prejudice and violence and, at the same time, as the only imaginable instrument of redress and recognition. But as Lotem notes, when other communities took up these conceptual frameworks to seek “state acknowledgment” of their particular narratives, they revealed the contradictory nature of memory activism’s goals.

In an incoherent but potent blurring of universalist and identarian themes, Jewish, Arab, and Afro-descended activists, most often on the political left, were long able to gloss over the contradictions between their goal of promoting progressive values of greater civic inclusion for minorities in general, and their goal of promoting the moral and political status of their own minority by securing greater symbolic capital for its members through official state recognition of their victimhood. This was not the case for the large population of pieds noirs, former white settlers in French Algeria who had fled to France in the aftermath of the Algerian War. Many pieds noirs were politically conservative, and indeed on the far right.

Like Jews, Arabs, and Caribbean and African activists, the pieds noirs created their organizations to preserve the memory of their historical “trauma” (the loss of French Algeria), and to secure legitimation of their narrative from the state. They had learned from the apparent success of other communities that it was not enough to remember historical tragedies among themselves in the closed circle of their own groups; they needed official recognition and inclusion of their version of events in public schools. After years of lobbying, the pieds noirs achieved this ultimate ambition with a 2005 law that mandated the teaching of the “positive” aspects of colonialism. After massive domestic and international criticism, the law was repealed the following year—but, as Lotem suggests, few observers on the left understood the responsibility that they themselves bore for having drafted the “blueprint” of the form of memory politics that the pied noirs followed.

Using the example of the pieds noirs to demonstrate the limitations of the model that Holocaust memorialization created for activists from other French minority groups, Lotem does not take his analysis quite as far as it might go. A different—and necessarily more polemical—book could be written about how efforts by Black and Muslim immigrant communities in France to obtain official “remembrance” of slavery and colonization, framed as historical evils equivalent for political purposes to the Holocaust, have contributed to a dangerous spiral of competition and resentment among minority communities. Rather than uniting the latter with the majority population around common values of republican universalism, France’s “memory wars” and the idea of political memory on which activists’ campaigns depended, have played no small part in the rise of intercommunal tension, the erosion of national cohesion, and the increasing insecurity of French Jews. Campaigns based on claims to political memory may have been “successful” at changing school curricula and inciting official, academic, and media discourse, but they have failed to achieve their aims of promoting inclusion and tolerance; if anything, they have promoted the opposite values and achieved opposite results.

The message for readers in the United States, where debates about the politics of memory are perhaps still more ubiquitous and partisan than in France, is sobering. Even as we undertake the systematic disremembering of certain aspects of our national history, eliminating from public life references to the Confederacy and a wide range of alleged white supremacists, our media, education, and official discourse feature ever more frequent and solemn references to the historical violence of settler colonialism, slavery, and other evils which have supposedly been silenced. Lotem’s work forces us to ask what it is that such efforts are meant to achieve, and what conceptual foundations seem to authorize their ethical and political power.

To question those ends and foundations, to critique them as self-contradictory and counterproductive, is neither to defend the historical evils that we are ostensibly just starting to “remember.” Nor is it to challenge the value of inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. It is, however, to recall what is perhaps the essence of political liberalism: the consciousness of an insuperable gap between private and public life.

Sadly or not, it is only individuals who remember things with other individuals—not states. Memory, recognition, trauma, and other such intimate dynamics belong to the unpublic realm I share with my community, family, and, at times in my most obstinate perversity, no one but myself. Gesturing tentatively from this realm towards the public, I can in moments of lucid risk-taking acknowledge that the memory of past harms, inseparable from resentment, can never be in alignment with progressive values. In my capacity as a citizen, however, my duty is not a “duty of memory,” but a duty of forgetfulness, suspending, at least in appearance, my anti-social perversity and resentments of others in order to deal with my fellow citizens on a basis of common justice and universal norms. We have a duty to remember, more than anything, the difference between private and public, between the individual and society, between therapy and politics.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.