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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Auschwitz: The Ultimate Ambiguity


The myths of history are encapsulated in iconic images or events, as is evidenced in our continual repetition of the Holocaust as the moral paradigm for human evil. But Auschwitz, the iconic concentration camp of the Holocaust, prevents any simple images from being formed. It raises questions about our modes of memorialising, rather than providing ultimate meanings for immoral human actions.


Holed up by rain in a hotel room in Romania, with nothing to distract me but a badly-tuned channel of Romanian game shows, and the Discovery Channel, I ended up watching a string of programmes dedicated to finding the "Ultimate." Alternately backed by symphonic scores and ragged guitars, thunderous tanks hurled smoke behind and in front of them on desert plains; Apache Longbows sent flurries of rockets at unseen targets; huge bridges assembled themselves on graphic displays. The title, "The Ultimate," has a whiff of deification about it, as if this search has a spiritual dimension, a quest for the miraculous in a consumer age where the new tools of war or engineering must be bigger and faster than before. When these machines attain the title of the ultimate - however temporarily - they assume a metaphysical status, a thing that cannot be known or apprehended, the sublime approached with a mixture of awe and terror.

Producing politics for the Discovery Channel generation, in their presentation of evidence justifying the war on Iraq in 2003, the answer given by coalition governments was was ultimate, singular, encapsulated in three letters: WMD. The military excels in generating acronyms, alphabetical strings that imply strategies and intelligence briefings at which a naive public can only guess at. Thus WMD became a catch-phrase for a range of political reference points which may, or may not, have been related to advanced weaponry: terrorism, September 11th, the Middle-Eastern peace process, third-world poverty, religious fundamentalism. With the cultural "greatest" lists such as The Big Read or The 100 Greatest Movies, the risk is that the result of the lengthy and public debate is seen unambiguously to be the correct one. By extension, to read the winning book or to see the winning movie is to have experienced the aesthetic value of all those below the winner by proxy of the academic or critic who really has studied many of them. In a less flippant way, by destroying WMD, the implication was that the issues complexly twined around or loosely attached to it would be solved as well (conversely, when the acronym was dissolved by its not being found, so too did all the other explicit motivations for war for which it stood).

The contemporary political situation is a symptom of the linearising simplicity which occurs in the production of a national history, where one event is seen as synchronously contingent upon the previous. "History will remember..." seems to be the phrase used by the coalition in Iraq, as if to contextualise its immediate impact against the wide perspective of the past will cause us to forget the very prosaic, practical and immediate motivations for war. History acts as a filter in which ambiguities are forgotten or occluded in response to the natural desire to for the national consciousness to appear National, and unified. And when the narrative of history becomes neat, linear and concise, the national past becomes a myth, a story the facts of which no one can remember being told, but which seems to have been always present, in iconic images: every schoolboy knows Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, Churchill projected a V against the sky and won the war, Shakespeare is our greatest poet. These ambiguous and contestable narratives become symbolised by an ultimate icon - a text, a character, an event - which is taken to stand in place of all the complexities and varieties behind that history, as if to know the image is to know unproblematically the tradition it stands at the head of. Poppies, WMD, statues, minutes' silences: all act as points of focus for the recollection and memorial of past events and people. The danger of such images and constructions is that they serve to preserve the attitude towards the event or person its maker had in mind, and thus one historical opinion becomes literally and physically inscribed in stone, without any desire to deconstruct the myth, to uncover the ambiguities which go into it, because we have already seen the ultimate, stabilising, singular image of it.

This iconography can be seen at work in the Holocaust, an event which has taken on mythical status as a universal presence in the European consciousness. For me it was the dark paradox - horrific but surely impossible - looming monstrous in the middle of the twentieth century, darker and of more ominous consequence than the extended curtain of Communism, or the craters of the blitz. The Holocaust had for me the substance of myth, a universal story of which the moment of its first telling could not be recollected, simply seeming to have always been present. I can remember where I first learned about the numbers killed in the Soviet gulags: it was when I read Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad (a book which shows that the production of popular and lively history need not require producing simple, sensationalist, Ultimate versions of it). I cannot, however, remember when the figure of 6.6 million Jews first became lodged as a fact in my mind, hanging like a picture with its too neat figure, its gross symmetry: its pedantic decimalisation of the six-hundred thousand proves the unimaginable magnitude of the six-million others represented before the point.

With this image inscribed, only gradually did I uncover the roots of the event. As I studied history at school, I discovered the political origins, the way in which far from a single plan, the teleos of the Final Solution was reached through various and often uncoordinated attempts of the political circle to realise the hazily specified ambitions of the Führer around whose words they gravitated. I was forced to acknowledge the role the allies played in partially overlooking what was going on in the death camps. As I replaced the mythology with academic histories of the event, the authoritative accounts, written in tense and terse language, seemed partly to suppress any impulsive emotional response, their facts and figures, discussion of historical figures in terms of their contingent relation to the historical timeline, rather than in their morality, their emotions. However, the myth having been defamiliarised and exposed as historical fact, I became also aware of the way in which the event itself was represented in contemporary popular culture through moral and sentimental lenses (particularly Schindler's List, with its image of a girl in a red dress indelible, like a stain on the conscience). The fact that our impressions of the Holocaust are mediated through text and art was evidenced in Bernhard Schink's remarkable novel, The Reader. Later, I read a poem by Geoffrey Hill, a poet who recognises the inherent contradiction of creating elegy from material which, by being eulogised, consequently must be distorted, layered with an emotional empathy which, whilst bringing the event closer to those who didn't experience it directly, conversely disconnects from the narratives of the individual people which implicitly are woven into that image of the historical event:

Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen,
Of what they have witnessed and not seen?
(Deaths of the city that persistently dies...?)
Geoffrey Hill, "Two Formal Elegies: For the Jews in Europe"

The continual act of formal rhetorical remembrance is also impersonal, distracting us from sincere and unique feelings by unthinking repetitions of conventional lyricism. Hill's poem warns that the iconography of the Holocaust, repeated by the media as an ethical paradigm, can become a cliché, when that paradigm alone is seen as necessary and sufficient to educate. The parentheses in the final line enclose the replaying of destruction, whilst the ellipses that imply its continuation press against the bracketed screens - of language, of television, of the media - to which these pervasive histories are synthetically confined.

I felt, therefore, that visiting Auschwitz in 2004 should provide an opportunity to engage with the act without recourse to traditional modes of remembrance or to reading unsympathetic accounts in the history text books; to realise a personal response, to feel more rawly and more really, unrefracted through a third-party, the implications of what went on there. If the Holocaust has taken on the status of an icon, Auschwitz, more than anywhere, has provided the iconic image of the Holocaust. The unprecedented level of organisation of the Final Solution found its visual realisation in the rigorous lines of brick and barracks, the paths leading from the human conveyor belt of a railway, through the rows of accommodation blocks to the ovens and furnaces at the end. It was here that the Final Solution was expedited in its most controlled and extensive fashion. Auschwitz, with its cynically humorous motto Arbeit Macht Frei above the only gate, was a twilight-world in which arrival and exit were controlled so that the victims processed (were processed) in a kind of somnambulant, sub-human state.

In a scenic pathetic fallacy, I visited in grey light under a faint mist of drizzle. As I stood outside the entrance to the exhibition centre, I watched as a queue of tourists poured from a coach and waited to pose in front of a display board. No camera could possibly have picked up the small writing introducing the museum, and I wondered what caption could be applied to the image when they returned home. It was as if the introductory display board acted as the only substitute for a neon sign advertising in big letters, "Welcome to Auschwitz!" Indeed, apart from the iron gate, the monochrome and repetitive organisation of drab brick barracks has ensured that there is no single image which captures the nature of the camp and Auschwitz cannot be remembered by a single point of focus. Auschwitz is the image of the Holocaust, but there remains no image of Auschwitz, no girl in a red dress.

Perhaps this explains the urge of so many visitors to record, in the absence of a defining image, every possible vision. In the undiscriminating way digital photography allows, people snapped each other, swapping from viewer to viewed so that there could be no doubt, when they went home to their respective families, that they were Here. At the perimeter fence, a woman leaned nonchalantly on a warning sign with its skull and crossbones and bold red letters; a Japanese tour group paused outside the block dedicated to the Polish victims, and at steps stood their tour guide, with whom various cameras were exchanged; a man pointed his camera up at the machine gun tower at the entrance, the semantic irony of his "shot" of a shooting post flitting across my mind as he did so. Many of the walls of the various corridors are lined with photographs of the victims, deindividuated with their identical shaven heads. With camcorders pressed to their faces like searching bionic eyes, people strode up and down, swinging their cameras to the left on the way up, to the right on the way back, as if in a procession passing by some absent head of state. Stopping at locked doors, with the press of a button they expanded their lenses through keyholes as if checking on the ghosts of prisoners, zoomed to focus into the ruined ovens, as if to double-check that the dead are still not there, still rightly dissolved in their inevitable history.

Perhaps this view of the camp through the medium of the lens is the only way of dealing with an intrinsically discomforting experience. Through the lens is the route a prurient media age most often takes in its experiences of death, war, bone. But is it good to witness always on a brief screen, to have seen but not experienced, to have distanced oneself from the significance of the site by continuing to live, as directors and viewers, the myth as it has been visualised and recorded? Is it not better to experience the myth as it can be relived if one walks around with an imagination activated by the self, rather than disengaged from its responsibility by the machinations of directing one's personal movie?

For perversely mirroring the ability to record everything, is the ease with which such digital records can be removed from the digital memory banks. In our occasional determinations to clear out accumulated junk, when we unpack our boxes of music records and curling brown newspapers, our obsolete foreign coins, our books won as prizes at school - all the random, disconnected and important detritus of a rounded human life - we often end up placing these items on the sideboard. Here, half-way between the bin and the attic, our determination to throw away stalls, as we touch and revitalise our contact with things and events which, it turns out, were not actually forgotten but merely suppressed. Destroying them becomes a physical and an emotional event which requires a sequence of determined actions - to fetch the ladder, to bring down the boxes, to sort, to sideboard, to bag - before anything can be placed in the bin; at any point in this process may our resolve be broken, and destruction forestalled. With the computer, however, a single press of the delete key, a click of the mouse on the confirm box - the all too effervescent digital sideboard - and they are gone, photographs and documents, lost to all in a scramble of magnetic alignments. Computer software, soft, transient; more so than human memory which, though it may record badly or with distortion, can recall events which happened a lifetime ago with secure enough clarity. Is this why the ability to track through this camp through the lens becomes so necessary, as if although purposefully recording for the moment one's presence there, by denying their closeness to what happened, by keeping a digital record rather than a neurological one, it may be purged more easily with a press of a button if found to be too problematic? Or perhaps the inverse may be true. Perhaps these images, taken home to be replayed, are the equivalent of the candle placed on the spot. Perhaps the camera makes the act of remembrance distributable, so endlessly repeatable in the living rooms of our daily lives that it becomes a more authentic, more personal memorial image.

But, regardless of motivation, there are places where photography seems inappropriate, too prurient and voyeuristic, intrusive on sanctity. As we entered a courtyard surrounded on two sides by an accommodation block and the prison block, and which ended with the shooting wall where thousands of individual executions took place, the silent echoes of memory rang from the walls, the eyes of ghosts watching from cell windows, following our tread towards the end wall speckled with bullet-holes. Retracing their final march across this no-man's land, these purgatorial yards between a starving half-life and final death, suddenly here I heard and felt and discovered the chill of emotion, of how this may have been experienced at the time, unmediated by retrospective narrative. Suddenly, though, the echoes were broken by the real and noisy chatter of a large school party, marshalled by an even louder guide. Marching them up to the wall, he issued a few words of instruction, before allowing them to wander around. One munched on a sandwich, others picked up the wreaths placed at the bottom of the wall, one ran his finger daringly through the flame of a candle, and the majority took turns to pose for photographs. Thus this sanctuary of bullet-holes and blood-stains, of flowers and candles, became the backdrop of the picture-postcard, another cultural icon to be ranked with the Eiffel tower, and Buckingham Palace, and the Statue of Liberty: this is me in Paris, this is me in London, this is me in New York, and this is me where the Jews died. Where ghosts live with guilt, where monument combines with memory to educate and remind, is today perceived as a theme park of the deceased, a Disneyland of the dead, a paradigmatic experience to be seen, done, and left with the pictures to prove it. The spectacle of Art is found in Florence, Rock rings most loudly in Graceland, no Greater Grave than Auschwitz. Each flash, albeit triggered by small, unwitting hands, seemed an insult of what Auschwitz represents today, how it stands in relation to history.

Of course, children cannot be blamed for their naivete, and it was towards the fact that their education here had clearly not impacted, not driven home any sense of the complex emotions that surround this place, that my anger was directed. Some aspects of the educational project of the Auschwitz museum must be called into question. The museum was extremely accessible, well laid out, with six main blocks examining the different aspects of life for a prisoner at the camp; photographs, objects and text were deployed in a clear way to give a precise picture of life in the years it was active. But what then? If Auschwitz has come to be the paradigm of the Holocaust, the name to send reverberations of its horror echoing in the mind more than any other, here, surely, we should come to learn what the Holocaust - of which it was a symptom, not the cause - "meant."

Instead, the lessons taught here seemed too safe, politically and emotionally. The text on the boards hermetically quarantined the guilty to a particular group of people inhabiting a particular point in time. In discussing those who ran the camp, it was never "German" or "Axis" soldiers, never "men"; rather, the recurring, iconic name of responsibility was the "S.S.," as if this was somehow, with its mirrored-initials, its military acronym, am organisation not constructed or participated in by any ordinary people: Germans, conscripts, civilians. By denoting this group as the principal perpetrators responsibility shifted from nations of people, to a unique organisation, one which seems to have transcended national distinctions. This icon of evil allows the reader, standing in the twenty-first century, in an era of European integration and relative peace, to avoid comparisons; to visit, objectively to condemn them, and subjectively to walk away.

Corollary to this, there was an absence of those truths more difficult to deal with, historical facts which make it impossible to seal the Holocaust as an twentieth-century event perpetrated by the Other: by another race, under another political system, in another time. Troubling as it is, the motivations of the event cross generations and nationalities. How can we sit easily when we learn that it was the British who developed the technique of concentration camps in the Boer war? That the allies turned away ships crammed with Jews, as Hitler's accelerating policy became clearer even before the war? That in 1995 there was a genocide in Rwanda and that, even as I right this, one is developing in Sudan, and that international community turns its eyes to these atrocities usually half-closed, and always too slowly? That twenty years after the War, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments in America which seemed to show that killing was a capacity of us all, given an authoritative, though not violently so, context? As far as I am aware, none of these ambiguities and conflicts were mentioned in the museum. But it is by noting these other narratives that we all assume the responsibility that comes with a potential power, whether we were alive at the time or born after it, whatever our nationality. For the motivations behind the Holocaust were - and this is the greatest horror - terrifyingly deep-rooted and universal, an almost inevitable capacity within the human make-up, perhaps even coded in our selfish genes, certainly in our innate psychological respect for the badges and costumes of authority. The fact that anti-Semitism, on the rise in Europe, gets disproportionately more media coverage than the racism of colour is an indication of how sensitive we are to the idea that it may be a global disease of the twenty-first century, not confined to Germany in the twentieth. Why, then, was this contemporary challenge not raised in the consciousness of the visitor?

Possibly (and, if true, understandably) it is because of the paradox that to recognise the universal characteristics which were displayed in the one event is to argue against its uniqueness. This was the largest programme of mass extermination ever conducted, and so to connect it with the genocide in Bosnia is to take the view of the ethical absolutist, to suggest that morally there is little difference between the murder of 200 000 there, and the murder of thirty times that number; to make the comparison with other massacres is implicitly to argue that there is hardly a line to be drawn between principally religious and principally geographical persecutions. Indeed, the images of museum challenge continually challenge so as to make it impossible to maintain this detached, relative perspective, to argue consistently that in comparison to other events this one was morally no worse. In glass cabinets two metres deep and five or six metres wide the artefacts taken from prisoners on their arrival were piled. It is impossible to take in this giant sculpture of human debris at once, to identify the small things of which it is constituted. Instead, one is drawn to the larger picture of repeating patterns, the swirls of hair, the mosaic of light reflecting from the pots and pans. It is only when looking closer that you start to notice colours in the hair, see a complete tea service and then, looking closer still, a name on a shoe, a baby's shoe, pathetically, significantly small. It is like travelling on a grotesque fractal voyage, where each pattern repeats and repeats: each pair of glasses represents a man who was short-sighted; each man who was short-sighted represents perhaps one of every three people taken there; each person taken there...and here it breaks down into incomprehensible magnitude: constellations of families, galaxies of lives.

However, looking at the side of the display cabinets it seemed that these items had been placed on an artificial slope, making it appear as if the artefacts grew to a metre-high pile at the back of the room. After turning my eyes, after the swirling images dissolved, I wondered whether this act of distortion was a legitimate act of curation and eduction. Because most artefacts were destroyed in the panic of retreat at the end of the war, only a relatively small proportion of evidence was recovered; so the sloped displays more accurately represent the true number of effects stripped from the victims. But if the agents of the Holocaust could carry out their actions only by dehumanising, deindividuating the subject, is not the same effect implied here by presenting them as unidentifiable piles of clothes? The sheer bodily mass of it all as it was portrayed in the museum threatens to blanket the individual lives and the experiences - the romances, the jobs, the learning, the caring, the grief, the artistry - unique to each person killed. So my attempt to adopt a consistent moral line, to argue that Auschwitz needs to stand for something more than the Holocaust, if the Holocaust is to stand as something more than a unique event, breaks down. These numbers are unaccountable in two senses of the word, both in the sense that no historical mathematician can generate a final figure and, even if one could, it would be essentially meaningless because no one can conceptualise that number of dead. And if unaccountable, unprecedented and unfollowed, they cannot simply be extended to signify some broad moral paradigm beyond the historical moment of the event as it was experienced by its individuals, many though they were.

Should the Holocaust be extended to signify an aspect of something within us all which could happen again in a different context? Or should it stand as a memorial to what did happen in the past? Having visited Auschwitz to recover the reality from the iconography, and having failed to reach this in the present of my visit, I hoped that through the provocative process of writing in retrospect I might find an answer to these questions. That I have, still, ended this essay on a question shows the penetrative effect Auschwitz has had on me, in ways I only partly anticipated. This site of atrocity, this iconic image of human evil, has become, because of the power of its own image, a near theme park of horror. I wanted to find a meaning for the Holocaust that balanced sentiment with historical accuracy, but I left able to compartmentalise it in a box of blame marked "1940-1945: The S.S." But then again, perhaps this is the point, that it was so unique that it deserves such a specific confinement in order that it can stand as a memorial to what happened here, rather than to what it may signify beyond the circles of its wire and its particular moment. Perhaps to extend it to a universal paradigm of human morality, to connect it with those lives that have been lost in genocide since and before it, is to divert attention away from the individual lives which were lost, to turn them inhumanely into paradigms, rather than recognising their human personalities. But then if it is a memorial rather than a lesson, is it not a sacrilege to walk round and take photographs which record the posterity of having made a pilgrimage here? Or is to do so simply to extend the act of remembrance in an appropriate way, a manner consistent with the curatorial style of the memorial? These conflicting tensions raised in my mind are significant, because they prevent me from constructing Auschwitz as an icon of the Holocaust, the Holocaust as an icon of human evil. When this mythologised place is experienced, the myth and its imagery dissolves. If happy myths such as fairy tales are stories we all want to believe, yet know not to be true, this was a story I wanted to avoid, whose truth remains uncertain. Suddenly, somewhat uniquely in the context of our contemporary culture, there can be no Ultimate answers.


Visit the website for the Auschwitz Museum.

My visit to Auschwitz was part of a trip to Eastern Europe in 2004; you can read more about this journey from Prague to Istanbul in the East of Europe journal.

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This page was published on July 6, 2006 | Keywords: Auschwitz, Holocaust, concentration camp, museum

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