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Contested cultural heritages: the case of Holocaust

Jasper Chalcraft explains how cultural heritage is contested from within and from outside Europe as a consequence of European diversity
I think there are two principal ways to look at how cultural heritage is contested. The first, and the obvious one, is when different groups take different views of the past and represent their differences of views in different ways. And I’ll give you some examples in a minute. But I want to also mention the second way of contesting cultural heritage, which is to contest the very notion and idea of cultural heritage itself. This is something that has been less important perhaps in Europe, but elsewhere in the world with strong indigenous groups making different claims over the past, and I’m thinking in particular here of the Maori in New Zealand.
They view cultural heritage as it’s currently framed in the West as an alien concept to the ways that they want to manage and take control of their past. And one of the particularly interesting ways that they contest cultural heritage is to see this not as a question of owning the past or owning objects, but of having guardianship of them, a kind of management. And that’s something that in New Zealand has been quite well reconciled in the way museums are run and managed. Now, in Europe, that’s not necessarily the case. We have a much more difficult relationship with the past, but with particular pasts and the way that they’re contested.
Ownership remains a big part of the way we think about our cultural heritage in Europe, and that in itself is perhaps problematic. But it also accelerates the need for certain groups to make claims over the past– we have a right to represent British history, or Italian history, or the history of national socialism, or whatever it might be.
I think, first of all, I want to link this very quickly back to the first question, which is about contesting cultural heritages. There is here a core problem, which is that all heritage is used by those with power, or the most powerful in society, to legitimate their views of the past. What this means in practical terms is that for those groups with less power, it’s very difficult to challenge those official views. Now, this is something we see in particularly with regard to talking about and thinking about the Holocaust and the way the Holocaust is represented.
Perhaps the best way to think about this is to imagine what it’s like to be a visitor at Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. What exactly do you experience in the Field of Stelae. And we know that the memorial’s creator, Peter Eisenman, wanted us to feel very uneasy and to feel spatially disoriented and confused. But when you experience that, do you only have memories of the Holocaust alone? Do you only think about the Jewish Holocaust? Do you think about other genocides?
And if there are problems to do with the Holocaust and the way it’s remembered in Europe and elsewhere in the world, perhaps those problems are connected to the narratives that Europe itself has promoted and taken on for the Holocaust.
So there is this problem with Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is that it deals with only one group, European Jews, and ignored other people that were persecuted by the Nazis. We then have this later edition with the memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of national socialism. And again, we’re talking about very large numbers of people that were killed– between 220,000 to, some people say as many as half a million, which is a huge number. And it’s extraordinary that most people in the West are unaware of this history. One of the reasons they’re unaware of it is that Roma people themselves have never created their own monuments to their Holocaust.
And Europe needs to ask itself why this is the case. One of the reasons why it’s the case is that European nations– not just Germany, but across Eastern Europe in particular, but also elsewhere– have systematically continued to marginalise and exclude Roma peoples from their national histories, so it’s been very difficult to speak up about this shared dark past when you have no encouragement from the nation of which you’re a part.

Jasper Chalcraft, from the University of Sussex, explains why cultural heritage can be contested:

  1. When different views of heritage are opposed and conflictual

  2. When the very notion of cultural heritage is contested

He emphasizes the contrast between two approaches to cultural heritage: ‘guardianship’, defended by the Maori people in New Zealand, as opposed to ‘ownership’, which is dominant in Europe. Jasper Chalcraft then moves on to discuss commemorations of the Holocaust and argues that the genocide of the Roma people during World War 2 has been insufficiently included in European memory.

Share your opinion:

Can you think of other examples of contested heritage? In your opinion which factors explain the inclusion or exclusion of a community’s memory in European memory?

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Cultures and Identities in Europe

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