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Friday, May 1, 2015

Professor Alejandro Baer and graduate student Yagmur Karakaya speak on the politics of Holocaust memory in Spain and Turkey

holocaust.jpgProfessor Alejandro Baer from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Yagmur Karakaya from the Department of Sociology led the penultimate session of this series of HGMV workshops by presenting their work on Holocaust memory politics in Spain and Turkey. Particularly relevant due to the timing of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Day of the Republic of Spain and the criminal implications of their work in Turkey today, Baer and Karakaya spoke on the effects of recognition and memory of genocide, in general, and the Holocaust, in particular, in the countries of Spain and Turkey.

Karakaya began by explaining how various governments and civic institutions choose to commemorate the Holocaust and how this has perhaps developed with the encouragement of transnational institutions like the UN, the EU and the Council of Europe. Karakaya laid out the debate surrounding whether such memory is transcending the nation-state with two schools of thought. Academics of cosmopolitan memory theory posit that societies have increasingly adopted universal and ethical criteria in memory discourses, demonstrating a shift towards heightened awareness of injustice. The Holocaust is the central paradigm for this process to proliferate on a global scale. This theory is challenged by critical genocide scholars who find that the Holocaust's iconic status promotes a false universalism and obscures other genocides and forms of violence.
In order to explore and address these issues, Baer and Karakaya wished to pose a series of research questions. How has the Holocaust been contextualized and rendered meaningful in different countries? How do these transnational, top-down initiatives interact or conflict with national and local contexts? How is the Holocaust understood and made meaningful in remembrance ceremonies? How can we link Holocaust remembrance to other traumatic histories?

In their preliminary findings, Baer and Karakaya focused on Argentina, Spain Germany, the US and Turkey as case studies. These countries were chosen due to a direct historical connection to the Holocaust or because they have integrated into the international network of Holocaust memory and possess their own memory debates. The speakers utilized various qualitative research methods, such as extensive study of the literature, video analysis, ethnography analysis, speech and discourse analysis, interviews and groups discussions. In the Spanish case, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust and crimes against humanity was established in 2005. This served to deeply polarize the left and right in Spain, reinstating civil war divisions, with the remembrance ceremony becoming a battleground for the different narrative debates. The Turkish case is the only Muslim country to participate in Holocaust remembrance, and has so since 2011.

Baer and Karakaya observed the initiative as an instrument to gain leverage in the international community, but can be useful for Turkey to examine its own violence record. Baer and Karakaya came to three main conclusions: Turkish officials involved in the ceremony frequently reiterated the tradition of tolerance in the Ottoman Empire, specifically in regards to the Sephardic Jews, emphasizing the harmonious nature of Istanbul, which they see as the cradle of civilization. Second, they observed a sort of silence in regards to minorities that have suffered in other conflicts. This manifests itself through the perpetuation of this notion of innocence of the Jews of Europe, expressing their victimhood without guilt. This creates implications for other minorities and their seemingly "deserved" fate, alluding to the Armenian case in WW1. Third, they discussed the "Turkification" or "muslimization" of the Holocaust in Turkish commemoration contexts, which often emphasizes the role of Turkish Ambassadors who saved Jews and the plight of Turkish Jewish citizens who died in the Holocaust.

According to their general findings, Holocaust memorialization is used as a tool in national memory conflicts. The Holocaust exists as a memory paradigm and not as a shared memory. They also observed a Europeanization of national and local memories for geo-political ambitions (EU membership) and the control of memory production. The group discussion found that such ceremonies push for action and increased education but can also provoke neo-nationalism, which is affirmative and not critical of their own narratives of mass violence.
-written by Marie-Christine Ghreichi