The child is a central figure in postmemory: heir of a story transmitted by the family, victim of traumatic events that occurred before its birth, a belayed witness of the past. This article is concerned with the relationship between the figure of the child and postmemory: the aim is to show how myths and tropes on “innocent childhood” guarantee to those who use them an “innocent past”, based on a privatistic and depoliticized reading of history. As far removed from politics, the figure of the child victim of history, with its strong symbolic and emotional power, implies a negative judgment on political action and on the public sphere, enhancing the affective dimension of a memory, that risks not distinguishing among responsibilities.
The first generation of memory studies, initiated by the work of Pierre Nora, had focused on monuments, museums, commemorations, symbols and historical figures that founded the collective memory of a country. The focus was the memorialization in material and symbolic places, the conscious projects developed by institutions such as state and local administrations. It was a memory of “adults” and for “adults”, in which the family and its memorial practices had a marginal role. Of course, there were “realms of memory” linked to childhood (in the work directed by Nora a part is dedicated to pedagogy, in the volumes edited by Mario Isnenghi on the Italian case some essays are dedicated to Pinocchio or Cuore), but childhood appears in relation to the institutions of the state and to public life, in the framework of the Nation-State, and not to family transmission. The category of postmemory, which was introduced by the works of Marianne Hirsch in the early Nineties, has instead produced a major shift: focusing on the family, the category of postmemory has placed the child at the center of the chain of transmission and has promoted a conception of memory as something much more interior, intimate, private, related to littleness, childhood, affections and imagination on the one hand, and to history and collective traumas on the other. Even if the concept of postmemory includes both the “affiliative postmemory”, based on the intragenerational and horizontal identification, between peers, and the “familial postmemory”, based on the identification between children and fathers, then intergenerational and vertical, it is on this last that Hirsch focused his attention. In The Generation of Postmemory Hirsch argues that the child who grew up next to a parent who experienced historical trauma is a child who has felt a sense of responsability, a desire to repair and the awareness that his very existence can be a form of compensation for an unspeakable loss. Precisely because the child is a less individualized figure of the adult, less marked by the particularities of identity, it lends itself to multiple projections and to universalizations, which risk erasing responsibilities1. We tend to see every victim as a vulnerable child, and, as Froma Zeitlin pointed out in an article on post-Holocaust literature, we put into practice the fantasy of saving at least one child as the ultimate form of resistance to the totality of genocidal destruction2
The last few decades have seen a growing importance of the figure of the child, both as victim, actor and witness of history, often superimposed on other figures of victims, the slave, the colonized, the survivor. The image of the child appears more and more often in relation to wars, disasters, genocides. The relationship between war and childhood has been the focus of many researches, that have studied the role of civil societies in violent conflicts3. Instead, the long-term relationships between childhood and collective memory has not yet been reconstructed. The cultural memory has always had its special holders: shamans, griots, teachers, artists, writers, scholars, mandarins, often exempt from everyday life for their social role4. And the children? In the Pentateuch we read the exhortation to instruct children about the meaning of rites and laws: in the liturgy of the Jewish banquet of the séder, which is a great lesson for children on the exodus from Egypt, the invitation to transmit to children the memory of what happened is repeated four times: “When your son asks you tomorrow, saying 'What is this?'. And you shall say to him: 'With a strong hand has the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery'”: this constellation of father and son allows the perpetuation of memory. However, in Aristotle's Historia animalium we find that children are similar to dwarves in their body structure and, like dwarves, their memory is weak because of the weight of their upper parts in relation to the rest of their body5. The Enlightenment, with Hume, Locke and Condillac, begins to explore memory, identifying in the child the “site” for the constitution of memory, more and more associated with the idea of the integrity and coherence of the personality. Rousseau has been criticized for giving so much space to childhood in his Confessions: how could he seriously consider childhood memories that are irrelevant in terms of adulthood? Beginning with Rousseau, childhood memories and childhood have made their full entrance into literature in only one century. A revolution “equal” to that leading to the end of the Ancien Régime6. Memory and childhood begin to form a binomial, which psychoanalysis confirms between 19th and 20th century, identifying childhood memories as the cause of neurosis. However, autobiographical, individual, private memory of the child is much more important than the intergenerational and historical one: even if the idea that the child's memory feeds in a story that precedes its birth is not entirely new, nevertheless it has acquired a new strength only in the last decades, in association to the success of concepts like postmemory and trauma.
How do we explain the centrality progressively gained by the child as the protagonist of our relationship with the past? The reasons seem to me at least three. The first is anagraphic: the centrality of the child in the memories of traumatic past depends partly on the fact that we live in a historical moment in which the last survivors of the Second World War and the Shoah, events «founding» Western memory, were children during those events. The (then) children are often the only direct witnesses available today: this forces us to recognize the child's testimonial skills and his ability to act in history. A second reason that helps to explain the centrality of the child in the language of postmemory is the fact that the discourse on the victim and that on the historical trauma, dominant models of interpretation of the present, and reading keys used to rethink Western history at least starting from the Holocaust, have entered in a short-circuit with the discourse on the child and the childhood suffering because of history. Children are the victims of trauma par excellence. A particular psychoanalytic trope goes from Freud to Lacan to the work of modern trauma theorists, such as Cathy Caruth: the figure of the wounded/dead child7. Along a literary line beginning with the little Eva of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the angelic and mortal children of Dickens, the trope of the wounded/dead child enters the psychoanalytic field with Freud's dream of the burning child, reported in The Interpretation of Dreams, in which the father dreams of the burning son, but when he wakes up he can not save him. According to Caruth, this dream would represent the passage of the trauma, its transmission, from the dead to the living: the dead child transmits the trauma to those who come later8. Children and traumas are increasingly united: children's literature itsself, which for a long time considered it necessary to avoid the trauma, adresses it with increasing frequency9. Obsession for historical trauma becomes obsession for traumatized children. The third reason is that the child as a symbolic figure is traditionally charged with future, hope and unpredictability; for this reason the child is a central figure in all discourses of commemoration and reconciliation. It represents the past from which society comes but also the future towards which society goes. Children are often presented as the end of the search for truth and justice, to prevent crimes from being committed to another generation of children10. The child moves at the intersection of a past that led to his birth, and a future made of promises and potential, to which he looks; for this reason the child plays a central role in the organizations of the second and third generations, as well as in the creations and artistic representations of postmemory. Postmemory, both as an analytical category and as a set of cultural productions, has not much reflected on how the present and the implicit or explicit options on the future can give shape to the past: the perspective we have on the future plays an important role in the memorial processes. I think that postmemory risks to overstimate the power of the past, whose effects are thought to continue, generation after generation, apparently without a term ad quem. The ubiquity of the figure of child shows on the contrary how much any discourse on memory is a discourse on the future as well as a discourse on the past. The child has always been a “metaphor of the future”. But what kind of future? My impression is that postmemory implies the imagination of a future, as different as possible from a past made of violences and misfortunes, a past in which politics has invaded the intimate and familiar space, a past whose wounds have to be repaired. The child, as a figure that embodies irresponsability, innocence and extraneousness to politics, is destined to inhabit this kind of future, from which the sufferings of the past will be finally banned. The discourse of postmemory introduces - it seems to me - a double shift: on the one hand it overestimates the power of the past (perhaps in front of an uncertain projection in the future, proper to the historical moment in which we live), on the other hand it is unaware that it is still bearer of a vision, however weak, of the future: a future in which politics, responsibility and the public sphere are given a less important weight than family, affections and innocence embodied by the figure of the child.
Mathieu Ducournau, Menine 100 x 145 cm, 2017.
In what follows, I'd like to explore the centrality of childhood in German postmemory: I will examine the German discourse on the second and third generations, on the descendants of those who have lived Shoah, Nazism and the Second World War from radically different positions. I will show how the “space” of memory related to these events, central to the European history of the twentieth century, is occupied by different figures of children, sometimes in competition with each other. In the different ways in which, at the beginning of the Millennium, Germans try to relate to their past, the figure of the child plays an increasingly important role11. Especially after the Unification, German memory has undergone a phase of remarkable transformations, which makes it an interesting observation field. I will therefore dwell on the case study of Germany, a country which more than any other continues to confront its own past; but it would be interesting to examine and compare other postmemories and other images of childhood. In fact, the child is pervasive not only in German memory: it plays a major role everywhere we are faced to intergenerational transmission of a historical trauma, to difficult pasts and to the memory of those who “come after” the events: Soviet regime, Balkan wars, South American dictatorships, slavery, Italian terrorism, 9/11...
Descendants and German memory
Even if they make up heterogeneous groups and belong to different contexts, children involved in the violence of history, their children and their grandchildren, have given life to associations, conferences, forums, literary and artistic representations, memories and testimonies, in addition to being in turn the subject of research and studies in the psychological and historical, within trauma and memory studies. The paradigmatic and also the best known case concerns Jewish children who have survived the Holocaust. In addition to a National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors (NAHOS) that has sponsored numerous conferences and considers surviving children those born between 1920 and 1943 and a World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, there are in fact hundreds of local groups of surviving children, who produced oral and written testimonies, life stories, novels, movies on Kindertransport such as Into the arms of strangers by Mark Jonathan Harris or Vojages by Emmanuel Finkiel. Starting from the 1980s with the studies on the Holocaust survivors by psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg, who first revealed a sort of syndrome of the surviving child, research on this topic is not counted. Susan Rubin Suleiman spoke about who was a child during the Shoah as of the 1.5 generation: the children survivors of the extermination, not belonging to the first generation (who lived the war already adult) or their children (the second generation, on which concentrates the notion of postmemory): generation 1.5 is such in the sense that it is composed of those “too young to have an adult understanding of what was happening to them, but old enough to have been there during the Nazi persecution of Jews12”. According to Suleiman, this generation has developed in recent decades a delayed generational consciousness, evident from a multiplication of organized groups and meetings as the explosion of testimonies and written and oral memories. Indeed, one could speak according to Suleiman of a collective project, “or at least of a shared one13”, in the desire of this generation to recognize childhood traumas and to transmit a memory to subsequent generations. According to Suleiman, in literary and artistic works of children who survived the Holocaust there would be a family air, in terms of tone and gender, in emotional and narrative contents. Their children, what might be called Generation 2.5, are also trying to relate their childhood to that of their parents. The successive generations to the Holocaust have had in the last decades a cultural protagonism that no other twentieth-century generation has known in these terms. Through hybrid forms of initiatives and elaborations, between artistic and performative practices, the descendants have endeavored to come to terms with the past traumatic experience and its symptomatic effects perceptible at a distance of time and space. It is a memory that concerns above all descendants of Jews who emigrated to the United States, within the Americanization of Holocaust memory that has been studied by Hilene Flanzbaum14. At the same time, studies on the second and third generations are so many that they constitute a sub-genre in Holocaust studies, a well-defined academic research field.
But in recent years – and with a few decades of delay in respect to the memory of surviving children and their children – other children have appeared in the public arena, this time almost exclusively the German one. They are the sons and nephews of Nazi criminals, who have produced a mass of literary and cinematographic works in Germany. Among the most famous, Bettina Göring, nephew of Hermann Göring, who decided to be sterilized “to prevent another monster from being born”; Niklas, son of Hans Frank, author of books about his father and witness in the schools of his break with the family and collective past; Rainer, nephew of Rudolf Höss, who cut off all relations with his family and in particular with his authoritarian and violent father, superimposed on the figure of his grandfather; Monika, daughter of Amon Göth, and her daughter, Jennifer Teege, author of a book based on her mother's memories, deliberately provocative, Amon. My grandfather would have killed me; and finally Katrin Himmler, a political scientist and nephew of Heinrich Himmler. To them is dedicated the documentary Hitler's Children by the Israeli director Chanoch Zeevi (2011), which alternates interviews with adults today to memories and images of their childhood or the childhood of their parents. As Magdalena Zolkos wrote, the image of the grandchildren “symbolize the hope for a community unburdened from the collective legacies of perpetration15”. According to Zolkos, in the testimonies and in the positions taken by many descendants of Nazis there would be a fantasy of closure with the past: the effort carried out in the first person definitively closes with the past, exempting the generations to come from this burdensome obligation. The image of the child, who comes later and therefore has no fault, contains both collective guilt, in a trajectory “according to which such guilt is managed and extinguished”, and hope for redemption, because the child wins over the dark forces of history, by distancing himself from the past and opening up to a future free of faults. A fantasy of reconciliation also involves meetings between descendants of victims and descendants of executioners. It happens more and more frequently: the documentary Inheritance (2006) by James Moll shows the meeting between Monica Hertwig, the illegitimate daughter of Amon Göth, commander of the concentration camp of Krakow Plaszow, who was only 10 months old when his father was killed, and Helen Jonas, Jewish and handmaid of Göth in the villa where he lived at the camp. Monica Hertwig had long been convinced that her father had died as a war hero; only at the age of 11 seh discovered the truth; later she was traumatized by Spielberg's vision of The Schildler's List, where her father had been played by actor Ralph Fiennes. The two women (who appear in pictures as children) are both victims: the first of a father she would have never wanted and a mother who soon committed suicide, leaving her alone; the other enslaved as a child in the service of a brutal man. The documentary Descendants de nazis, the héritage infernal, by Marie-Pierre Raimbault and Michael Grynszpan, deals with the conversion to Judaism of many descendants of Nazi criminals, including Mathias Göring, in search of an acquittal on the part of the Holocaust victims themselves. With very different tones and results, the theme of the encounter between descendants is at the center of the third generation comedy Die Blumen von gestern (2016) by Chris Kraus, who discovered the truth about his Nazi grandfather after his death. The protagonist of the film, nephew of an SS who throughout his life has tried to redeem his family's past becoming a serious and brilliant Holocaust historian, falls in love with a young French woman, whose grandmother was killed by the National Socialists, after having met her on the occasion of the preparation of a congress on Auschwitz. The two are both suffering from their family history: he is sexually impotent and is going through a marriage crisis; she is on the fifth suicide attempt. They decide to undertake a trip together to Riga, where their grandparents had attended school together, to discover that his grandfather probably killed her grandmother. They fall in love because, as she says, “meine Geschichte is Deine Geschichte” (“My story is your story”). In contrast to them, so emotionally involved, sincerely “disturbed” by that past, the colleagues involved in organizing the congress seem to be venial and only concerned about fund raising. The theme of reconciliation between second and third generations is therefore very current. The descendants of the perpetrators and those of the victims are more and more often protagonists of the same narrative or at least of a shared narrative: the same documentary, the same essay, the same film, the same conference. There are some similarities between the psychological attitudes of those who are descendants of victims compared to those who are descendants of perpetrators: in both cases we can arrive at compensatory and redemptive behaviors. At the same time, it is increasingly rare to come across criticism toward considering the two generations of descendants as comparable: more and more often the trauma of the executioners and their descendants is assimilated that of the victims and their descendants16.
However, other figures of children appear at this beginning of the Millennium, in particular in the German public discourse about the Germans as victims. In 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the first Internationaler Kriegskinder Kongress (International Convention of War Children) was held in Frankfurt, dedicated to the generation born between 1930 and 1945, who lived its childhood during Nazi Germany and war. The congress gathered hundreds of witnesses and scholars from different disciplines, from history to literature, from psychoanalysis to gerontology, causing protests from the Jewish community according to which the program would not have given sufficient relevance to the suffering of Jewish children victims of the Shoah. The discourse about war children in Germany has had a growing circulation in the media, at least since the Unification. In fact, starting from 1990, the depoliticization of the memories of the two Germanies, no longer opposed, offered “a chance, indeed, for an articulation of German suffering as suffering, as an existential experience17”. After having been silent for a long time, war children, victims of a destiny they have not chosen, have almost the duty to talks about their tragic experience. The discourse about war children has a clear psychological and psychotherapeutic declination, sometimes at a good level, like in the studies of Michael Ermann on the long-term effects of childhood suffering, referring to a project of the University of Münich on childhood in war; more often instead of a very simplistic and deterministic psychology, based on the idea that speech itsself is a salvific act. It should be added that Kriegskinder are also the generation that “with its courage and its strength”, quoting an article of the newspaper Die Zeit, has been able to rebuild Germany: Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, the latter orphan of a father who died in the war, are both Kriegskinder18. It is not an ordinary generation: those same children, whose memories of childhood have been removed of a long time and are now occupying German bookstores, television, newspapers, are also those who, as adults, have rebuilt Germany realizing the post-war economic miracle. To this generation, German television has newly given voice through a series of documentaries: that of Tima Soliman entitled Kriegskinder erinnern sich, broadcast on 3 SAT, which begins with images of the bombing of German cities (as if there had not been a “before” and a chain of responsibility), thus operating a real historical decontextualization; the Kriegskinder of the Anne Frank Center in Berlin, which insists on intergenerational dialogue between the young people and the Germans who were children during the war; and Wir Nachkriegskinder, a documentary aired on the ZDF, in which next to each interviewee appears a picture of him or her as children, besides the filming of united and happy families, later dispersed from the war. Family albums and oral testimony in the form of interviewes are the keys to access to the past19.
Mathieu Ducournau, Rembrandt, 100x145, 2017.
The generation of war children is joined today, in the German public discourse, by the generation of the Kriegsenkel, the war grandchildren, born between 1960 and 1975, sons and daugthers of the Kriegskinder traumatized by the war. The dominant idea is that war children would have been bad parents because they were marked by the violent events of their childhood and would therefore have compromised the happiness of their children, the war grandchildren, troubled by a sense of existential insecurity and discomfort. Forums of war grandchildren (www.forumkriegsenkel.de), mutual aid groups, associations, testimonies, films, literary texts, university researches, congresses, have appeared, with the effect of drawing an historical narrative made out only of children, based on individual memory, and in which suffering is what matters20. At the base there is a certain naive optimism: the idea that only an exchange between these two generations, the first finally willing to speak and the second willing to listen, can “cure” German society from suffering and have a cathartic function. Reconciliation here is not with “the other from oneself” (as it happens with the descendants of the Holocaust who meet the descendants of the Nazis), but it is the reconciliation between two generations of victims, all German, who have not been able to understand each other because they did not recognize themselves as victims. The meetings are between parents and children. The sons no longer accuse their fathers of complicity with Nazism, as it happened in the so-called Väterliteratur of the seventies and eighties, but despite attributing to the previous generation their own suffering, they recognize it as a victim too. The discourses about these two generations feed and amplify each other: Andreas Fischer, belonging to the Kriegsenkel generation, is the author of two documentaries, Söhne ohne Väter (2007) and Töchter ohne Väter (2016) dedicated to the generation of his parents. The Kriegsenkel generation resorts to a very direct and sometimes flat autobiography to relate to the past. The tones of the interviews, the autobiographical texts, the group meetings, the websites are very plaintive. The level of their productions is rather low. Their public activities and group identity reveal the connection between the two memories, familiar and affiliative, of which Hirsch speaks, but with a predominance of the second – of the generational identity – on the first. The discourse on the war grandchildren privileges the therapeutic and psychologizing plan to the detriment of the historical and political one, as if the memory, rather than being addressed with the tools of historical awareness, would be a pathology to be treated with therapies of dubious value. The gaze to historical events is a prepolitical one. In recent decades we have spoken of a judicial reading of history and of “legalization of memory21”; here we are faced with a psychologizing reading of history, which relegates the political responsibilities, individual and collective, to the margins. There is also a problem of professional skills: which professional categories are more qualified to speak in the public arena about the collective past? Traditionally historians and politicians were at stake: here psychologists and psychotherapists connote the discourse on the collective past and offer the most suitable therapy to heal it. In the discourse of and on war grandchildren, the suffering of children is never contextualized. Once removed the political and historical plan, the crimes remain without any responsibility or origin: only children and grandchildren, by definition not responsible, occupy the scene. In the case of the Kriegsenkel, the child really functions as a figure that depoliticises suffering.
The search for the truth
But this is not always the case: sometimes, little Telemachus, the child sets off in search of the truth, assuming an historical and ethical responsibility. In Memory, History, Forgetting Paul Ricoeur mentions the difference between a memory like mnēmē, as a spontaneous evocation, an unexpected appearance of memory, and a memory like anamnēsis, a search for truth, in which the anamnesis means “return to”, rediscovery of what was first experienced or learned; the child, the one who comes later, is the one who seeks the truth22. The anamnestic imperative moves some twentieth-century children and grandchildren, the children of postmemory. The topic of a pragmatic research, of the anamnēsis, is very strong. In the attitude of these descendants, the anamnesis aims at a shared knowledge, even if based on the history of their family. A past that arrives to successive generations in an often incomplete and almost always unsatisfactory way, stimulates a strong movement back towards what has been, a work of recomposing the traces. The children of postmemory are animated by a desire for knowledge and reconstruction of the past; they are often amateur historians; their way of reconstructing history coincides with a sort of Bildungsroman, a personal maturation in narratives of a progressive awareness. They tell us stories about lost innocence, when, by breaking for the first time the taboo of silences and family lies, the protagonist discovers the truth about one's relatives. Literature, especially non-fiction, offers many examples of this strong commitment to reconstructing the past. Daniel Mendelsohn in The Lost is a child obsessed with the past who collects memories of his grandfather and as soon as he can, undertakes a five years journey thorugh three continents, in search of the truth about the end of his European cousins; the child protagonist of Treichel’s Der Verlorene is involved by his parents in the search for his brother who died during the flight of the Germans from the East at the moment of the arrival of the Red Army; in Histoire des grands-parents que je n'ai pas eus Ivan Jablonka is the adult historian but also the child who has never known his grandparents and who sets off in search of their history before they were killed by the Nazis; in In den Augen Meines Grossvaters Thomas Medicus is the nephew who reconstructs the figure of his grandfather, an officer of the Wehrmacht killed in Tuscany, by doing archival research, interviewing witnesses, returning to places. The child of postmemory is not only passive: he sets off in search of his origins and the history of his family, againt the weigh of silences, removals and loss due to the passing of time. He believes in the possibility of accessing the truth of the past, even if the way to do it is long and tiring. In the child, in the one who comes later, there is the possibility of reconstructing the truth of the facts, but also the ethical truth. Thus, at least two images of children coexist: that of the child/victim, suffering from a trauma, irresponsible; and that of the child who seeks the truth, invested with the active task of witnessing, of clarifying a difficult legacy, of making anamnēsis. In any case, the child of postmemory is as far from the reality of nature and the primitive world, as from that of fantasy and play, areas traditionally associated with childhood; it is projected into the harsher world of history, driven to confront it with a strong principle of reality. It is a puer senex who studies and reconstructs the events of his own family to keep alive memory, who undertakes psychotherapy to heal its pain, who joins other children to share the experience of suffering.
Undoubtedly, the symbolic power of this figure lies in its innocence. As it has been said, the myth of the innocent child, in addition to having a strong class dimension (poor and unruly children are not innocent) is ambiguous: James Kincaid has claimed that the myth of child innocence “empties” the child of its own political agenda, making it a void container that can be filled by the wishes of adults23. The innocent child wants nothing and does not ask for anything but the recognition of his innocence. The term innocence derives from the Latin in nocere, do not harm: the true hero of postmemory is precisely the child «who does not harm», against an adult world of oppression. In a narrative about the “violence of history”, the quality of «not doing evil» occupies a preeminent place in the hierarchy of values. The child's extraneousness to politics, the link to the family nucleus and to the emotional and private sphere, its quality of “not being involved” in the public sphere, its coming later, are the characteristics that make it so attractive. The myth of the innocent child, traumatized by war and violence, is an antithetical figure to history, if by history we mean what happens in the public sphere, and implies a negative judgment on political life and on responsibility24.
It is obvious that the children of whom I have spoken so far (Jewish children and their children, German children and their children, children descended from Nazi leaders ...) are all truly innocent. But once their innocence is universally declared, what is left? Which interpretation of history? Which image of ethical and political responsibility? What about a present that indicates its values through this image of innocence and childhood? There is no doubt that we are extremely sensitive to the suffering of children and their death has become intolerable. Viviana Zelizer has reconstructed the genesis of this sensitivity, showing how from the late 1800s to the 1930s the literary figure of the suffering and dying child was transformed into an active concern for the physical well-being of the child; already in the 1920s the social response to the accidental death of children had changed because of the “sacralization of children's lives25”. The child has gained an emotional and sentimental priceless status as long as it was losing its monetary worth, expelled by the marketplace. Nazism itself, so brutal with the children of the Jews, was extremely concerned with the welfare of German children. Today the figure of the brutalized child is at the center of media: mothers drowning children, priests who rape altar boys, children who attack and kill other children. Western public opinion “discovered” the war in Syria only when photos of wounded or dead children appeared. As Kenneth Kidd writes, in our relationship to childhood, “the sentimental has, it would seem, given way to the traumatic26”: childhood is increasingly imagined as a space for psychic development that is both sacred and violated.
What are the possible implications? I will try to indicate three of them. The first is to depoliticize suffering: there is the risk, already highlighted by Marianne Hirsch, that this legion of children (even the covers of books are full of images of children!), occupying an increasingly central place in the collective memory, depoliticize suffering, making it a private matter only, shared through artistic expressions or psychotherapeutic practices, and not through political battles. This identification, typical of postmemory, with the image of the child-victim and the child-witness risks to fade differences and otherness, context, specificity, responsibility, history. A world in which everyone is a child is “a night when all the cows are black”. The image of the child victim and witness of wars and violence, in the past or later as descendant, is a figure that creates around itsself a great social and cultural consensus: a figure that depoliticizes everything he touches, but that is actually political in a more insidious way. If there is always something or someone against which the child's innocence is built, here the negative pole is History as political action, from which the child, ideal citizen, must be protected. The familiar and private space, and not the polis, are the true values. In the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the past there is the tendency to marginalize politics and the public sphere, privileging the role of familiar and affective transmission and projecting all the evil in the past, for the benefit of a peaceful present, the one proper to contemporary liberal democracies.
The second one is to obscure other forms of suffering: by clinging to the obsession with historical trauma, the figure of the child could hide other forms of pain, those related to poverty, exploitation, sickness, abandonment, loneliness. Forms less related to a triggering and macroscopic event, such as war or genocide, less able, it would seem, to move our tendency to identification. Because domestic violence is generally lacking in postmemory, family and private appear as the realms of “good”, while history and public sphere represent “evil”. Symbolic violence also, not linked to direct physical action, and often exercised with the unaware consent of those who suffer it, is absent form this framework. The idea that the past leaves wounds, metaphor increasingly used by psychoanalysts and historians, is selective: includes some forms of suffering, but excludes others. However, children (and adults) suffer also because of more structural, hidden and silent forms of injustice.
The third implication is the commitment to reestablish the truth: the innocence of someone who comes after the events allows a moral authority, the liberty of the child who sees “the naked king”, and says aloud the truth. The effort of descendants is to recompose the fragments of the past, even at the cost of an important personal effort. Not in an attitude of criticism or recrimination: but to save the past from oblivion. Telemachus does not wait passively for his father, in a nostalgic-melancholic position, but goes to his research, retraces his footsteps, to be a right heir. Not everything is confined to the combination of trauma/victim: in the search for the truth there is also the active possibility of knowing the past. The fact that the image of the child, often linked to the figure of the traumatized and the victim, has become so pervasive in contemporary memory, is a syntom of an ongoing change in our relationship with the past, on which, I think, it will be necessary to continue to reflect.
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012 p. 162.
Froma Zeitlin, “The Vicarious Witness: Belated Memory and Authorial Presence in Recent Holocaust Literature”, History and Memory, vol. 10, n° 2, 1998, p. 5-42.
Helga Embacher, Children and War, Solihull, Helion & Company, 2013; Wolfgang Aschauer, Children and War, Solihull, Helion & Company, vol. II, 2016.
Jan Assman, Cultural memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 52.
George Boas, The Cult of Childhood, Dallas, Spring, 1990, p. 13.
Francesco Orlando, Infanzia, memoria, storia da Rousseau ai romantici, Lucca, Pacini editore, 2007.
Jane F. Thraikill, Traumatic Realism and the Wounded Child, in C. F. Levander, C.l Singley (eds), The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, Baltimore-London, The John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Eric L. Tribunella, Melancholia and Maturation: The Use of Trauma in Amercian Children's Literature, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2009; see also the Forum “Trauma and Children's Literature”, Children's Literature, vol. 33, 2005.
Sharanjeet Parmar, Mindy Jane Roseman, Saudamini Siegrist, Theo Sowa (eds.), Children and Transitional Justice. Truth-Telling, Accountability and Reconciliation, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2010.
For an analysis of German Literature see: Nora Maguire, Childness and the Writing of the German Past: Tropes of Childhood in Contemporary German Literature, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Peter Lang, 2013.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child Survivors and the Holocaust”, American Imago, vol. 59, n° 3, p. 277-295.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child Survivors and the Holocaust”, American Imago, vol. 59, n° 3, p. 286.
Hilene Flanzbaum (ed), The Americanization of the Holocaust, J. Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Magdalena Zolkos, “Ancestral Guilt”: Childhood as Redemption and the descendants of Nazis in German Cultural Memory, in J. Faulkner, M. Zolkos (eds.), Critical Childhood Studies and the Practice of Interdisciplinarity: Disciplining the Child, Langham, Lexington Press, 2016, p. 52.
Bernhard Giesen, The Trauma of Perpetrators: the Holocaust as the Traumatic Reference of German National Identity, in J. C. Alexander, R. Eyerman, B. Giesen, N. J. Smelser, P. Sztompka (ed.), Cultural Trauma and collective Identity, Oakland, University of California Press, 2004. It is the same use of the concept of trauma that leads to unifying the different experiences of who is a victim, who is the executioner and who is a witness, all bearers of a trauma. See Didier Fassin, Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma. An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
Bill Niven (ed.), Germans as Victims. Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany, London, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 4. The discourse on the suffering of Germans is not entirely new; see the essay of Ruth Wettlinger in this volume.
M. Lohre, “Die Unfähigkeut zu vertrauen”, Die Zeit on Line, 2nd october 2014.
On the role of pictures and family albums in postmemory, see Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1997.
Sabine Bode, Kriegsenkel. Die Erben der vergessenen Generation, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 2009; Bettina Alberti, Seelische Trümmer: Geboren in den 50er und 60er Jahren: die Nachgriegsgeneration im Schatten des Kriegstraumas, München, Kösel Verlag, 2010; Luise Reddemann, Kriegskinder und Kriegsenkel in der Psychotherapie, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 2015; Anne-Ev Ustorf, Wir Kinder der Kriegskinder: die Generation im Schatten des Zweiten Weltkriegs, Freiburg, Verlag Herder, 2008; Matthias Lohre, Das Erbe der Kriegsenkel: Was das Schweigen der Eltern mit uns macht, Gütersloh, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2016; Raymond Unger, Die Heimat der Wölfe. Ein Kriegsenkel auf den Spuren seiner Familie, EuropaVerlag, 2016.
On the relationship between traumatic history and juridical processes, see Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious. Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2002.
On the theme of memory in Ricoeur's work, see: Olivier Abel, Enrico Castelli-Gattinara, Sabina Loriga, Isabelle Ullern-Weité (dir.), La juste mémoire. Lectures autour de Paul Ricoeur, Genève, Labor et Fides, 2006.
James Kincaid, Erotic Innocence. The Culture of Child Molesting, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998.
See Joanne Faulkner, The importance of being innocent. Why we worry about children, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child. The Changing Social Value of Children, New York, Basic Books, 1985.
Kenneth Kidd, “‘A’ is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the ‘Children's Literature of Atrocity’”, Children's Literature, n° 33, 2005, p. 130.