In the wake of protests against police brutality in the United States brought on by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, anti-racists protests emerged around the world during the summer of 2020, including in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. In this photo essay, SOAS postgraduate Canela Laude offers a window into the “Justice pour Adama” protests against police brutality in France during June and July of 2020.
In June, anti-racists protests in France sparked in response to the death of George Floyd in the US and the protests that ensued across America. In France, the response was led by Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré, a young black man killed by the police by suffocation in 2016, and whose death circumstances are still under investigation.
Assa Traoré has been pushing for a new autopsy in order to unveil the true circumstances of her brother’s death, while connecting with other families who lost family members due to police violence, in order to lead unprecedented anti-racist and anti-police violence protests in Paris and all over the country. Soon after the French lockdown ended, 20,000 people were out in front of a Paris courthouse protesting alongside the family of Adama Traoré and chanting “Justice pour Adama.”
A protest sign reading “From Minneapolis to Beaumont sur Oise”, respectively the cities where George Floyd and Adama Traoré were killed, summarized the general feeling of international interconnection in the struggle against police violence. A second protest, 11 days later, saw the same renewed energy, with 15,000 people out in the streets on Paris’ Place de la République.
As summer in France rolls on, the movement has continued with a third protest on July 18th in Beaumont sur Oise, where part of the Traoré family lives and where Adama was killed.
“We are Black Lives Matter,” said Assa Traoré in an interview for the New Yorker. “The two fights echo each other, so that we’re pulling back the curtain on France, in saying, ‘People of the whole word, look what’s happening here.’ ”
In 1981, Provisional Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands – made famous as one of ten men to die during a hunger strike protesting the British government’s refusal to allow IRA members Prisoner of War Status — became the first Irish Republican to win election to the British Parliament. HIs victory, and subsequent death, opened the doors for an upwelling of political support for the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein. In 1983, Sinn Fein began to run for Northern Irish and British seats, even as the militant wing of the IRA continued to perform acts of violence — a strategy known as “The Armalite and the Ballot Box”.
Nearly 40 years after Sinn Fein’s first electoral victories, and 15 since the complete disarmament of the IRA in 2005, Sinn Fein’s historical association with IRA violence has continued to cast a long shadow, making the political party a pariah in Dublin and London even as it represents the largest Nationalist (pro-Irish Unification) party in Northern Ireland’s Assembly. Yet two recent elections in both the Republic and Northern Ireland might have forever changed this dynamic. As Sinn Fein witnesses a surge in political support, the question of whether the organization can ever move past its historical association with violence has come into focus, presenting larger questions as to the political normalization of groups previously associated with the terrorism label.
Two Elections, One Party
In the last year, two elections shook the foundations of Ireland’s political scene. During the December 2019 UK General Elections, Irish Nationalist parties won a majority of the votes in Northern Ireland, the first time the Assembly has ever seated more Nationalists than pro-UK Unionists. More recently, In an electoral earthquake in February 2020, Sinn Fein landed the largest share of votes in Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s parliament, overtaking the two dominant center-right parties that have exchanged power since independence.
Part of Sinn Fein’s newfound success may lie in the symbolic break from the past under a new generation of Republican politicians. Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has never been a part of the IRA and joined Sinn Fein only after the Good Friday Agreement ended Provisional IRA violence in Northern Ireland. In the 2020 Irish Elections, Sinn Fein positioned itself not as the political heirs of armed resistance, but as a left-wing alternative to the more center-right politics of the two dominant parties, emphasizing fair housing prices over Irish Unification. But even under a larger generational shift away from the conflict, Sinn Fein’s historical baggage has caused Ireland’s two other major parties to reject a governing coalition with the party. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland the nationalists’ victory has masked a loss in support for Sinn Fein as voters have migrated to less polarizing parties, such as the SDLP and Alliance Party.
On both sides of the border, Sinn Fein’s history has hindered it from forming cross-border political dominance that could lead to political unification of the island. Although the party has experienced electoral success that would have seemed unimaginable 40 years ago, the terrorism association remains a substantial obstacle — one that Sinn Fein may not be able to overcome.
Escaping the Terrorist Label
Given these realities, Sinn Fein presents an interesting case for the question of if former terrorist or insurgent groups can successfully transition away from the stain of past violence in a political process. While Sinn Fein attempts to reposition itself along the lines of leftist politics rather than sectarian identity, the memory of the IRA has remained strong enough to prevent the party from being fully normalized. Fair or not, the terrorist label remains, 25 years after the conflict officially ended.
In his 2004 paper “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists”, Charles Tilly states that the “terrorist” label becomes defining for any group that commits acts of terror or terrorism, to the point that a group’s non-terrorism activities and goals become submerged by its acts of violence intended to cause terror. Once identified as “terrorists,” political compromise becomes untenable with organizations linked to acts of terrorism, even after such groups have abandoned violence. For Sinn Fein, while “The Armalite and the Ballot Box” strategy may have permitted electoral success, the strong memory of the Armalite – a weapon used for decades as the IRA’s preferred tool for assassinations – has for now closed the door to achieving political power. The terrorist label persists, years after the men and women who committed acts of terror have been replaced by a generation that hardly remembers the conflict. This reality extends beyond Northern Ireland, from the political toxicity of forming coalitions with Spain’s Basque and Catalan Nationalist parties to the ethically and politically fraught prospect of forming a Taliban power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan.
Yet keeping formerly terrorist-linked parties out of government poses its own risks. In Northern Ireland, the dissident Real IRA has been linked to the nationalist political party Saoradh, which has capitalized on some nationalists’ discontent with the speed of the political path towards Irish Unification and has been connected to recent shootings and deaths, including of Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee. Even as Sinn Fein is rejected in the Dáil Éireann for past violence, still more extreme organizations wait on the sidelines, prepared to return to violence to achieve their aims.
It is of course up to the people of the island of Ireland to determine whether Sinn Fein can be separated from the terrorist label and be allowed to move past its historic support of violence. For now, the elections in both the North and South have shown that the debate over Sinn Fein’s legitimacy and normalization has not subsided, even as more and more Irish voters seem prepared to offer the political party a second look.
The day to day life of a sex worker is not only exhausting, but comes with its own dangers. These individuals put their bodies on the line day in and out just to make ends meet. The UK has no problem with that. Prostitution, as many know, is legal in this country. Yet a place for sex workers to conduct their business, such as a brothel, is not legal. Why?
The push for sex work to be normalized has ensued for years, many saying that it contributes to the economy and is a sound choice made by the individual worker. The UK seems to agree, as the consensual exchange of money between adults for the purchase of sex is legal. The UK has implemented several laws making it almost impossible to continue this kind of work. This includes prohibiting prostitution for personal gain or pimping someone out, soliciting sex in the street, and causing a nuisance to citizens in the form of advertisement. The UK has made these practices surrounding sex work and brothels illegal. So, why is sex work legal at all when workers can barely find ways to conduct their business without breaking some other law?
Some progress has been made in the field of sex workers’ rights. In 2016, a group of Members of Parliament called for the soliciting of sex workers to be decriminalized. Due to the illegalization of soliciting and having three or more sex workers together being considered a brothel, many sex workers are forced to work in isolation and away from areas protected by police. Many are subsequently fearful for their safety, yet must continue to work in such conditions. The call for decriminalizing soliciting came as a result of an increase in sex workers killed during the past decade. While it would be expected that the population of a state that does not allow brothels must make it unlawful in an attempt to please public protests of sex work, a report from RightsInfo showed that nearly 50% of British people surveyed were in favor of legalizing brothels in the UK.
While some question whether brothels will bring real improvements to the rights of sex workers and their clients, comparisons to countries like Germany, the United States, and Switzerland – where sex work is taxed – show clear benefits. Germany has even passed the Prostitutes Protection Act which requires permits and certificates for all those engaged in prostitution, and even permits sex workers to be recruited through HR companies.
In the United States, the state of Nevada allows prostitution, under regulation, as well as brothels, which are subjected to paying federal income tax. The brothel industry in Nevada also charges almost three times that of the average sex worker, although many clients and sex workers agree that the safety that comes with such establishments is worth the amount spent. These brothels also conduct health checks on their workers, which brings an extra level of security.
Switzerland is by far one of the most progressive nations in its legalization of sex work. In Zurich, sex work is an open profession, practiced in a location designed specifically for the work that comes with the job. The city spent £1.5 million in building what are known as “sex boxes” for sex workers and their clients to meet. These “boxes” are set-up as one room buildings lined consecutively, drive-thru style, and have space for smaller types of vehicles including cars and motorcycles. The government also allocated money specifically for security enforcement at these locations and social services provided to its workers. This initiative was supported by half the city’s voting population with the intention of preventing harm against sex workers and human trafficking. Zurich is an example of a community which recognized the unsafe climate surrounding sex work on the streets and put in place an alternative that not only profits the workers, but adds to a thriving economy for the city.
Sex work is just like any other business. Its profit margins surpass that of the average market shop. In the early part of 2019, one of the UK’s larger brothels shut down, The Libra Club, was found to have made around $7 million over a five year period. That speaks volumes. As workers of the UK who contribute to the nation’s economy and engage in daily business, sex workers also have workers’ rights according to UK law. Conducting that work has to be done in a specific way to avoid illegality, but it is in fact work condoned by the state. Therefore, sex workers’ safety is, by law, a responsibility of the state as a self-employed person. If the UK were to legalize brothels, the responsibility to protect sex workers would then fall on its employer and can be regulated as such.
Prostitution is economically beneficial, but for many sex is unattainable according to UK law, making it much more difficult for sex workers to conduct such business legally while putting them in harm’s way. These laws are discriminatory in applying only to individuals in this profession, who typically earn low incomes. While the UK has only begun the process of fully legalizing sex work, the next step is allowing brothels. In doing so, the UK government can ensure sex workers’ safety and establish thriving businesses that continue adding to the UK economy.
I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in 2017 properly jaded. I had just completed a year-long stint with the U.N. office of PAX, where I worked on a series of reports outlining the particular cruelty and inhumanity of the sieges in Syria at the height of media coverage of the siege of Aleppo. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of feelings about spending the next month somewhere that had been kept under the longest siege in Europe since WWII.
A frequent theme my cohort returned to—as is often (justifiably) the case in these conversations—was the failure and inadequacy of organizations such as the U.N. or USAID, and the Western states that frequently dominate them, to deliver on their promise to protect civilians and maintain international peace and security. And this is a fair point, the U.N. is one of the most powerful international institutions, but still is unable to effectively prevent, end, or resolve violent conflict—and if the UN is unable (or unwilling) to stir up political will to prevent or end conflicts, then what hope is there?
During one incredibly poignant moment of my month in BiH, I was sitting at the back of the bus with a member of my fellowship who had lived through the war. He told me that as a child he hated the U.S. because of its inaction and resented having to suffer through trauma that no one should have to, while the U.S. stood by waiting, watching, pretending to care. But that wasn’t what stuck with me—it was that he shrugged, rather casually, and said, “but look at what is happening in Syria, and here I am, I’m doing nothing. So, who am I to judge?”
But isn’t that the whole point of an international community? Aren’t we exactly who is to judge? If not each of us, then who will judge the massive failure of the West and its international institutions?
It is in the spirit of these questions that I compiled this photo essay during my time in Sarajevo. I wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of what the U.N. presents in official documents versus the lived experience of conflict. I was inspired by my colleagues—as well as the speakers who addressed us over the month we were there—to explore a Sarajevo that feels quite distant from the city you’ll find today. It is actually there, right below the surface, which in many ways feels like it is begging to be shown, not to be forgotten. I spent several days reading through UNSC resolutions about Bosnia, especially any that were around key dates and times. I explored the few resources online about the siege, and compiled enough information to create my own “walking tour” of the city.
I wanted to explore things that felt important to me personally, but also call attention to sites that—specifically tourists—might walk past without a second glance. Because of this, all of the sites photographed are easily accessible, notable, and are frequently seen or visited locations. The project is organized more or less chronologically, in order to give the viewer a visual timeline of the siege. The third photo in the series is irony meeting irony, as the canned beef monument—a literal larger than life rendering of a can of beef much like the ones dropped by ICAR, which Sarajevans would “rather die than eat”—is itself a jab at western aid agencies’ complete failure to provide humanitarian assistance.
In the background of the fourth photo, you can see the Hotel Holiday—the infamous yellow hotel that was notoriously inhabited by journalists bravely covering the siege—sitting along what was once one of the most dangerous streets to navigate, but is now one of the main thoroughfares and trolley lines in the city. The photo of the brewery was taken only one block from my apartment in Sarajevo, which felt exceptionally moving, to learn that there had been, within my lifetime, a massacre at a place I had just gotten drinks.
The photo after this one is taken at the Markale Market in the center of the city, where some of the largest massacres once took place at the height of the siege. Today there is little more than a memorial wall, mostly hidden by the vendors. The Sarajevo Rose depicted is not one of particular note, as these memorials span the city, serving as their own unassuming reminder that we are never too far from history. I wanted to remind both myself and others, through the juxtaposition of the official documents about the conflict with the current state of the city, that the consequences of our actions are not theoretical—as they can sometimes feel as we sit in our comfortable London classrooms—but are in fact painfully real.
It’s something I have come back to a lot during my time at SOAS. As students at a highly critical university, learning about international institutions, norms, transitional justice, and peacebuilding through decolonial and feminist perspectives can make the world seem disheartening—but at the same time it helps prepare you for the realities of how the world functions. That being said, it’s natural to feel burnt out every so often, to wonder why we’re even bothering or if we should have just gone into banking or marketing. Or worse, to feel like you’ll have to end up working for and perpetuating the very systems about which you’ve spent an entire post-graduate degree learning. Because I very much want to continue working in the field of advocacy and transitional justice, this is something I have to reconcile on a daily basis.
This was as maddening to navigate in BiH as it is today. Once you become aware of just how deeply broken everything is, it is incredibly daunting—and to be frank, depressing—to feel like one day it will be up to you to fix it all. I wish I could tell you that I’ve come to the solution, but I think we’ll have to keep on working through it together. I desperately want to do something right in a world that makes it feel nearly impossible, I hope that exploring what you can do when your faith is shattered can be one small thing to help us understand our positionality a bit better.
Just as the walls have begun to come down in Northern Ireland, Brexit risks putting another back up. The question remains whether the Irish Peace Process can survive the shock.
At the time of writing, just under twelve weeks remain until the United Kingdom potentially crashes out of the European Union without an exit deal. This means that just under twelve weeks remain until border checks are reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a free-movement zone that has existed in some form since 1923, and completely since 1997.
It’s clear that the return of borders in Northern Ireland is now an all-too-possible reality. As recently as 4th January, the Guardian reported that some 1000 police officers from Scotland and England were preparing for deployment in Northern Ireland in the event of public disorder resulting from a no-deal Brexit. The return of armed officers from Scotland and England echoes the deployment of British soldiers during the worst periods of political violence in the “The Troubles,” a conflict which witnessed over 3000 deaths in acts of terror and assassination over the course of three decades.
The deployment is a sobering reminder that a conflict thought resolved is still anything but, and although violence almost certainly won’t return to levels seen during The Troubles, the process of reconciliation between divided communities remains fragile. Since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement brokered a political agreement between Nationalists, who favor becoming a part of Ireland, and Unionists, who prefer remaining a part of the United Kingdom, communities divided by decades of violence have struggled to reconcile. School segregation, housing discrimination, and even physical barriers have created divisions, both physical and otherwise, between neighborhoods which remain long after the conflict’s end.
Tearing Down the Walls
Bringing down physical walls is essential to peace to Northern Ireland. Some 99 “Peace Walls” alone separate Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from Unionist Protestant spaces in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, while even more exist in other towns such as Derry and Portadown. Before Brexit, the future of these walls looked to be ending: in 2017, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice proposed a deadline of 2023 for all Peace Walls to be removed. The first of these were demolished as of 2016, heralding positive signs for the island’s future.
But a hard border between Northern Ireland and its most important neighbor, Ireland, throws this progress into question once again. Complications don’t just arise due to trade barriers, or the logistics of moving from one part of Ireland to another– issues often cited in Westminster Brexit debates. For the people of Northern Ireland, the physical border is as much a psychological barrier to peace as a physical one. The free movement of people in Ireland is viewed by Nationalists as a step towards a United Ireland, in which Irish people on either side of a border are differentiated by little more than kilometers vs miles on roadside signs. For Unionists, open borders still allow Northern Ireland to remain an essential part of the United Kingdom, an important distinction for many Unionists who identify as British. It’s no surprise that over half of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, a vote largely shared in both Unionist and Nationalist communities.
In this light, a hard border in Northern Ireland doesn’t just mean leaving the European Union – it means tearing up twenty years of hard-earned peace, in which removing barriers between Ireland and Northern Ireland is just as important as tearing down the walls between Nationalist and Unionist neighborhoods. Already, radical political factions on either end of the Nationalist/Unionist divide have used the potential for a no-deal Brexit to push their own sectarian goals, to the detriment of the peace process. Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican party, has called for a referendum on Irish Unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a referendum Unionists vehemently oppose. For the hard-right DUP, currently in a loose coalition with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, a hard border is preferable to a possible compromise customs border in the Irish Sea, which the party believes would delegitimize the British identity of Unionists in Northern Ireland.
A Fragile Future
Neither of these options will bring about greater peace, but instead could very well serve to destroy it. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was created under the idea that Unionism and Nationalism could live side-by-side in Northern Ireland without violence, and its success was only possible when powerful leaders on both sides – such as Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Ian Paisley – decided to battle their differences in the halls of the legislature instead the streets of Belfast. Today’s leaders in the still paralyzed Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster of the DUP and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, increasingly treat Nationalism and Unionism as a matter of politics instead of peace, and the Brexit debate as yet another a vehicle for political goals. Their brinkmanship in these regards could once again send their tiny corner of the island of Ireland over the edge.
While working in Northern Ireland as a peace volunteer in 2017, I saw firsthand how the shock of Brexit might tear apart the fragile peace. Schoolchildren still receive education in segregated facilities; streets in Belfast are still defined as Nationalist or Unionist—with barriers between them; and the extremist militias of twenty years ago remain the forms of the Real IRA or the Red Hand Defenders, ready to take advantage of a return to sectarianism. While there is hope for Ireland’s future – with young people especially beginning to see past Nationalist/Unionist identities – it is an uncertain hope, and one that is very much fragile in the face of a no-deal Brexit.
Reconciliation is a slow, uneasy process, and Northern Ireland still needs its own time to heal from the traumas of the past. During the short-sighted Brexit vote, the peace process was all but forgotten in the rest of Britain, but as the fate of a no-deal Brexit becomes more certain, it can no longer be taken for granted. As the peace walls fall in Belfast and Derry, another still cannot rise in its place in Ireland if sustainable peace is to be achieved. Either a deal must be made where the return of the border is rejected outright, or better yet Northern Ireland could not leave at all.
The 27th of January marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and around the world people paid respect to the victims of the the Holocaust. In December, managing editor Megan Manion and senior editor Rachel Salcedo traveled to Poland and here offer some reflections on their visit to sites of Holocaust remembrance:
Poland in December likely wouldn’t strike most people as a desirable travel destination, but for us the dark, cold, and snow felt somehow fitting for what we had planned to be a decidedly sombre experience. We visited a number of memorials throughout the country—most notably, Auschwitz-Birkenau—as we sought to think through the vastly complex and layered histories of multiple occupations, mass atrocity, and the building of a national collective memory. As scholars of transitional justice, we were interested in understanding the praxis and politics of memorializing violence that occurs at such a large scale.
After suffering under the profound violence of German occupation, Poland was given little respite before Soviet occupation began, so remembering the damage of the Holocaust became caught up in the unfolding trauma of totalitarian repression. Thus, we considered the politics of identity in conflict settings and the narration of those identities in post-conflict reconstruction. We also contemplated what it means to memorialize certain instances of violence in lieu or at the expense of others. Below, we consider the politics of memorialization and the challenges of narrating a cohesive national memory that conflicts with the complexity of survivors’ realities.
What does it mean to be a memorial?
A memorial takes many forms, and largely depends upon who is doing the memorializing as much as what they are attempting to remember. A critical feature of memorials is that they engage the spectator in the experience of their subjects. Memorializing should be understood as an active process narrating an experience of violence; thus a site of that experience must be understood, at least in part, to be about evoking a response.
One of the key ways Auschwitz-Birkenau is effective in this regard derives from allowing visitors to live its history, standing where victims stood and imagining themselves amongst the prisoners. It is so difficult to fully understand how quickly and how brutally people lost their lives in extermination camps, particularly when today we are inundated with images of the Second World War and partly-fictionalized imaginings of what it was like for those who suffered in concentration camps. In reality, however, these images pale in comparison to what one is able to imagine when standing along the tracks leading to Birkenau’s gas chambers or in cells where prisoners were made to sleep eight to a bed, stacked on top of one another three bunks high.
Walking along these tracks toward the ruins of gas chambers that Nazi authorities destroyed before the camps were liberated, we imagined the racing thoughts that might have crossed a young mother’s mind as she made the same short walk seventy years ago: would she have been relieved by her decision not to be separated from her child? Would she realize that this decision sealed her fate, and that if she’d let an elderly woman take the baby she might have been allowed to live? Or would she be too tired and worn down and disoriented to have these thoughts, to be fearful anymore?
As the memorial stands, it demonstrates the damage of the Nazi regime and the evil contained in the camps by clearly showing the harm done to all groups targeted. In functioning as a museum, however, the site literally narrates the experience of a victim as they moved through the camp and the overall experience of those targeted by the Nazis. In this way, the amount of information presented to guests means that at times Auschwitz-Birkenau struggles as a site of memory: space for memorializing the victims is often truncated by the memory of what was done to them.
We felt this conflict through much of the camp, most palpably in the buildings that once housed prisoners at Auschwitz and which today display victims’ possessions. Walking along halls that contain thousands and thousands of shoes, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, looking almost as if they had been thrown into the display, our attention was drawn to the few dainty heels and sandals that lie alone toward the front. Another room offers the same organization of eyeglasses, another contains pots and pans, another suitcases—all labeled as though they might be reunited with their owners.
Another room contains orphaned prosthetics and crutches, another still is filled with hairbrushes and shaving materials. But none of these displays compare to the dimly lit room filled with a mountain of actual human hair, matted and tangled together so you can’t quite tell the hair color or type; in fact you don’t immediately identify the mountain as hair at all, in part because it is difficult to accept the reality that you are looking at. This literal dehumanization of victims in order to illustrate the dehumanization that occured at the hands of the Nazis acts at some points to overpower the individuals that were there.
Why is remembering different than memorializing?
Personal and public memory play different roles in post-conflict communities, and with those roles come particular politics. Remembering is a personal process of naming what someone has survived. To remember, one must engage in a performance of that trauma in order to take ownership of one’s narrative, body and agency. Engaging personally reimagines what it means to be a victim, and indeed, a survivor.
In the words of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, jailed by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self” (89). Personal memory—a survivor remembering what was done to them, or a perpetrator remembering what they did—establishes a socially liminal site at which healing is presumed to begin. Remembering then can be understood as distinct from memorializing, in that remembering atrocity allows someone to grieve and mourn harm done to them, while memorializing serves to create a publicly meaningful truth of what happened to others.
It is of note, then, that Auschwitz-Birkenau attempts to narrate the objective truth of WWII by identifying the victims who exist outside of public meaning. As the text throughout the camp and our guide articulated, though Jews were targeted most in number and were most prevalent in Nazi documentation, others also lost their lives and their freedom. Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and prisoners of war were targeted alongside Jews: Nazis stole their property, their dignity, and their humanity before murdering them. In a way that seems to controvert public narratives, Auschwitz-Birkenau made explicit reference to these victims who also lost their lives, but are pushed to the margins of memory and memorial.
Where do we locate a person’s humanity?
This question is a central one that drew us to work in human rights and transitional justice in the first place. A critical factor of understanding atrocity and conflict is unpacking profound questions of what gives someone the right not to be brutalized, what is right and just in war and politics, and ultimately, what makes us human and why. But the politics of identity are a very real framework through which we individually and collectively identify who has the right to be; however, this approach risks being reductive and may distract from the lived reality of mass atrocity for victims and perpetrators.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we struggled to comprehend what it must have felt like for victims who lived and died there. But we also considered the experience on the other side of the fence. What must it have been like for the Nazis, what makes someone comfortable with such cruelty? It should be noted that, according to our guide at the camp, Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps throughout Poland had to request placement there; thus, we must argue against common narratives of complicity—camp authorities and operators perpetrated atrocity with measured intent and even enthusiasm. How was cruelty and hatred so effectively and efficiently weaponized?
At least one explanation is derived from the politics of establishing the ideal enemy. The millions of people who counted as the enemy were subjected to unbelievable cruelty and violence because they were treated as if they were not human. Where the enemy is not even human, violence against them is allowed and, more importantly, just.
Reflecting on the memorialization of these events, as well as the events themselves, feels especially urgent at this moment in history. As we see a surge of right wing leadership globally, as well as a rise in nationalism and xenophobia overall, it is important for us to consider the narratives we have constructed through memorials of the Holocaust in order to prevent us from going down a similar path. If we really mean it when we say “never again”, then we must begin to have more open conversations about our histories, and our performance of public and private memory surrounding atrocities—we hope that this can be a starting point.