Alexander, Jeffrey, C., with Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu and Ruth Katz. Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate.

Author:Hare, J. Laurence
Position:Book review
 
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Alexander, Jeffrey, C., with Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu and Ruth Katz. Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xvii + 205 pages. Cloth, $27.95.

While reading Jeffrey C. Alexander's excellent essay in this book, this reviewer was reminded of Wolfgang Borchert's 1947 play, The Man Outside, in which the main character is a German soldier who returns to a ruined home after the war. Confronting both his own plight and the suffering around him, the soldier declares at last, "We are murdered each day and each day we commit murder." (1)This final scene at once exculpates and condemns the protagonist, placing him impossibly between the victims of Nazi crimes and complicity in a far broader nexus of guilt. In so doing, it anticipates the struggle that lies at the heart of Alexander's essay, "The Social Construction of Moral Universals," which concerns the historical development of Holocaust memory. For Alexander, a professor of sociology at Yale University, the meanings derived from the Holocaust are informed by socially-constructed representations "[which] are best studied by taking a sociological rather than philosophical approach." He thus sets out to explain how depictions of the Holocaust transformed the mass murder of Jews during World War Il into a "generalized symbol of human suffering and moral evil" (p. 3). To accomplish this, he traces the development of two narratives: a particularist, "progressive" version that casts the event as a crime of Nazism to be overcome by Enlightenment rationalism, and a universal variant in which the Holocaust exists without precedent as a "metaphor of archetypal tragedy" (p. 58). Alexander asserts that the former narrative was prominent in the early postwar era, but it is the latter, with its more encompassing implications, that has since become dominant in representation.

Alexander's essay is indispensable reading for students of the Holocaust, or for that matter anyone with an interest in the moral history of the postwar world. Accompanying his essay in this book are six commentaries from leading social scientists, whose criticism of Alexander's thesis frame a larger debate about the ways in which we remember the Holocaust and connect it to subsequent tragedies. Each of the essays proves an excellent addition, and, as a whole, they provide a welcome variety of disciplinary and global perspectives. Though they...

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