``The past isn't dead," wrote novelist William Faulkner, ``it isn't even past." History has a way of remaining ever present. President Bush appeals to memories of 9/11 to sustain a global war on terrorism, while his critics warn against imperial overreach by citing the mistakes of Vietnam. As Harvard professor Susan Rubin Suleiman shows in ``Crises of Memory and the Second World War," nine essays that focus on memory and World War II, how we look at the past can be one way of approaching the future.
Postwar France is a good example. France's Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis during the war. ``Choosing Our Past," Suleiman's first essay , examines how philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre helped create the myth that all of France had been united in resisting the Nazis. This myth of unity, while at odds with the historical record, served the postwar future of France. Suleiman brilliantly analyzes three essays written by Sartre after the liberation, pointing out precisely where Sartre either conveniently sidestepped or otherwise eluded France's collaborationist past . For instance, Sartre never mentioned how French police rounded up Jews who would later be transported to Nazi concentration camps.
Suleiman's next essay examines how two aging heroes of the French Resistance, Lucie and Raymond Aubrac , were ``placed under suspicion of having betrayed their comrades, and in particular the Resistance hero Jean Moulin." The 1997 ``Aubrac Affair" compelled France to re examine a past many wanted simply to forget. With the same meticulous and provocative approach that she used on Sartre's essays, Suleiman examines the transcript of a one-day roundtable discussion among the Aubracs, French historians, and scholars. The back-and-forth of all these people trying to make sense of events that happened half a century earlier makes for fascinating reading, posing complex challenges of memory and interpretation.
Suleiman's essays, which originally appeared in scholarly journals, are written in an accessible and interdisciplinary style that allows her to examine history, literature, film, philosophy, psychology, and more. She might refer to Freud on one page, then Jacques Derrida or Samuel Beckett on the next.
While Suleiman's first three essays consider France's murky history of wartime resistance and collaboration, the next five focus on memories of the Holocaust. In ``History, Memory, and Moral Judgment After the Holocaust," Suleiman discusses Marcel Ophuls's Academy Award-winning documentary ``Hotel Terminus," about Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, who was extradited to France in 1983. As head of the local Gestapo in Lyon, Barbie rounded up French Jews for deportation. Suleiman uses Ophuls's film as a way to examine moral issues triggered by the Barbie case.
As Ophuls discovers, some in France would rather ``turn the page" and ignore Barbie, while others remain haunted, determined to ``never forget." Suleiman also writes about Holocaust memoirs and the challenges of remembering: ``People of irreproachable moral character and the best intentions inevitably distort details, forget or invent whole episodes, and commit other `sins of memory' in recounting their past." In another essay, she describes how writer Jorge Semprun's account of entering Buchenwald changed through the process of revision. There's also an analysis of the 1995 fraudulent memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor. Suleiman shows how the line between memoir and fiction can be maddeningly difficult to locate.
She finishes with the fascinating topic of forgetting and forgiving. In ``Amnesia and Amnesty," she notes that postwar amnesties in France for Nazi collaborators didn't ``close the chapter" on those dark days, but merely hindered France from working through the collective trauma. Suleiman's erudite and elegant essays display a profound understanding of the complexities of memory.