Charlotte Schallié, Department of Central, Eastern & Northern
My dissertation (Heimsuchungen. Deutschschweizer Literatur, Erinnerungskultur
und Geschichtspolitik nach 1965) examines literary representations of Switzerland
in the Second World War. In my thesis, I will probe the importance of literature
as a receptacle for collective memory-work in Swiss-German society since 1965.
My thesis examines how ten representative Swiss-German authors explore the experience
of their country's role and attitude in the Second World War, and its ongoing
ripple effects in contemporary society. The year 1965 ushered in an era where
many intellectuals challenged the official historiography and semi-official
publications which perpetuated the notion that Switzerland remained politically
neutral between 1933 and 1945 by displaying a unified collective resistance
in the face of Fascism and the Holocaust.
Influenced by West Germany's emerging documentary theatre in the 60's (as represented by Peter Weiss, Rolf Hochhuth, Georg Tabori), Swiss authors introduced innovative historical techniques such as Oral History to subvert misguided collective assumptions and disclosed their country's economic-and to some extent ideological-involvement with the Third Reich. Their criticism focused less on what actually occurred during the decisive wartime years; rather it undermined the culture of amnesia in postwar Switzerland.
Beginning in the 60's, the issue as to who controlled memory and used it to
what end became a pressing concern in public debates. I focus on how exemplary
writers such as Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, W.M. Diggelmann, Niklaus
Meienberg, and Otto F. Walter evolved into outspoken public figures fiercely
criticizing their country's efforts at "Vergangenheitsbewältigung"
-efforts to master the past. Their writings portray a society in which individuals
fought any attempt to tarnish the nation's carefully constructed image of wartime
heroism. During the early Cold War years in particular, the political culture
of Switzerland discouraged any dissent and marginalized those who spoke out
against the 'Establisment' as deviant communists.
I propose looking at literature as a means of developing a more complex and differentiated understanding of memory and its expression. Whereas memorials commemorate history by its absence, literature reconstructs and reinacts what has been lost to the past. And whereas official history books often convey a prescribed intent, the literary text invites criticism and controversy.
Ultimately, the issue of how to understand and interpret one's past is linked to the question of how to deal with collective memory. My argument is that the notion of "memory" is by no means a strictly historical category. "Memory" rather is situated within the interdisciplinary realm of history, literary studies and psychoanalysis. The fact that literature employs various rhetorical strategies such as alienation or parody does not render literary texts ahistorical. Their examination of contemporary issues is often political and painfully thought-provoking. These writings, for one, follow Nietzsche's dictum: "Nur was nicht aufhört, weh zu thun, bleibt im Gedächtniss." (1) - "Only what does not cease to cause pain, remains in one's memory."
My research draws on the theoretical writings of Jan and Aleida Assmann, Pierre Nora, Maurice Halbwachs, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault (discourse and counter-discourse), Gilles Deleuze und Félix Guattari (minority literature).
On a theoretical and methodological level, I am interested in the question of how historians respond to literary texts which recreate historical events. In the German-speaking countries, the gulf between history and literature-fact versus fiction-is still deeply entrenched. The CSHC seminar could be a testing ground, stimulating and fostering non-dogmatic cross-disciplinary thinking. Instead of rejecting on another's paradigms, historians and literary scholars could exchange their views and complement each other in their work. One example could be the subject of research methods and narrative theories. Mutual research projects might be prompted by the question of how various forms of cultural representations such as literary texts, imagery, essayistic writing, and historiography-contribute to the definition of collective memory? What do these constructs have in common, and where do they set themselves apart?
As for organizing a symposium, I would like to be involved in a seminar / colloquium examining whether and how writers and public intellectuals in various countries challenge official memory politics. In the Swiss case study, historians remain almost solely devoted to research without leaving the confines of their well-guarded 'Ivory Tower'. Writers on the other hand bring unpleasant historical questions into the public realm with the potential to ignite heated debates. Could the same argument be made concerning writers in Canada, France, Italy or the US? Yet how should we define an intellectual mindset in the first place? For Edward Said, an intellectual is " . . . someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d'être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug" (2). How successful is intellectualism in attempting this, most notably and recently in the light of the U.S. led war in Iraq? What is the prescribed role of the intellectual voice in contemporary society?
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, "Zur Genealogie der Moral. Eine
Streitschrift," Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 5, eds. Giorgio Colli
and Mazzino Montinari (Munich/Berlin: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988) 295.
(2) Edward Said, "Representations of the Intellectual," Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: Vintage, 1994) 9.