How the Holocaust Became Traumatic, Alexander

For some time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of collective or historical trauma. Only individuals can experience trauma, so what sense does it make sense to say that a society is traumatized? Literally it makes no sense, unless it is seen as some sort of additive statement, such as this person was traumatized, and this person was traumatized, and this person, and so forth. But society is not additive; it is an abstraction. How can an abstraction be traumatized?

Looking at Jeffrey Alexander’s account of how the Holocaust became traumatic helps to explain the process, as well as raising some questions.

Alexander holds that nothing is traumatic in itself. Trauma is made, or constructed, by the meaning we give events, a social process involving the representation of trauma, as well as the political and persuasive power of those who do the representing. It also requires the receptivity of the larger society.

The claim that nothing is traumatic in itself doesn’t sound very convincing if we think about the trauma suffered by those who survived the Holocaust. Did someone who was imprisoned in Auschwitz have any alternative but to construct his or her experience as traumatic? Even the term “construct” suggests an agency that was largely lacking. Just read Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.

Alexander writes about how is trauma transmitted from those immediately impacted to the wider society, so that it makes sense to say things like “after the Holocaust we will never look at evil in the same way”?

The Holocaust was not immediately regarded in this way. It took decades. As Alexander points out, “what was a trauma for the victims was not a trauma for the audience.” (p. 55) American society was the audience. For the audience, it was not the Holocaust that was important. Important was that America had defeated an evil enemy which threatened the world. In defeating the Germans totally, the mass murder of the Jews was avenged, and a new order put in its place. The Nuremberg Trials were not primarily undertaken to punish the leading Nazis for the Holocaust. They were undertaken to punish German aggression. A fourth count, “crimes against humanity,” was added only in the months immediately preceding the trial. (pp. 46-47)

What turned the Holocaust into a social trauma (for a group larger than its survivors) was the end of progressive history. Over the decades following the war, the mass murder of the Jews was taken out of the context of exemplar of German atrocity, and came to be seen as not being typical of anything at all. Wartime atrocity became the Holocaust when it was lifted out of history, becoming an historically unprecedented event, evil on a scale that was unique. The Holocaust began to carry with it what Geoffrey Hartman, co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony, called an excess.

The scholars most deeply involved often admit an “excess” that remains dark and frightful . . . Something in the . . . Shoah remains dark at the heart of the event . . . A comparison with the French Revolution is useful. The sequence French Revolution: Enlightenment cannot be matched by Holocaust: Enlightenment. What should be placed after the colon? “Eclipse of Enlightenment” or “Eclipse of God”? (Hartman, pp. 3–4)

Primo Levi (p. 29) captured this excess when he tells of a guard’s answer to his question about why (Warum?) he had snatched an icicle out of Levi’s hand just as he was about to suck on it to relieve his terrible thirst. “Hier ist es kein warum,” replied the guard. Here there is no why, no reason, no answer.

With the decline of the progressive narrative of history, when World War Two no longer signaled human progress against evil, the Holocaust became the predominant representation of trauma.

The Holocaust implied the sacral mystery, the “awe-fullness,” of the transcendental tradition. Holocaust became part of contemporary language as an English symbol that stood for that thing that could not be named. As David Roskies once wrote, “it was precisely the nonreferential quality of ‘Holocaust’ that made it so appealing” (p. 58)

In this way, the Holocaust became a linking metaphor, by which the trauma of the Jews became a trauma for humankind, or at least North American and European humankind. “This transcendental status, this separation from the specifics of any particular time or space, provided the basis for psychological identification on an unprecedented scale.” (p. 60)

Relevance for trauma theory

This interpretation shows how dependent aspects of contemporary trauma theory are upon this historical transformation of the meaning of the Holocaust. Only with the decontextualization of the Holocaust does it make sense to argue that the Holocaust cannot be represented by those who have experienced it, for it is an event which cannot be witnessed (Caruth, p. 154). This view, in turn, is influenced by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who argues that the real is that which cannot be spoken. And it culminates in Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that the concentration camp is an instance of the Lacanian real (p. 50)

Other than demonstrating the dependence of a popular strand of trauma theory on the social construction of the meaning of the Holocaust, are there any other lessons? One is that the tendency to lift the Holocaust out of history should be resisted. The Holocaust is not inexplicable, just unbelievable, but only because we do not want to believe. Give men unlimited power over another group of men, imbue them with an ideology of purification (all ideologies have this quality to one degree or another), and it can happen again. And has, in Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere. Not in exactly the same way, but we make too much of killing factories, and too little of the pleasures of sadism and domination. The language of purification is part of almost every mass murder. The term “ethnic cleansing” should never be used except in quotes, for it is itself an ideological justification, not a description.

How does this affect trauma theory?

If trauma is not an absence, then it may be seen as an overwhelming presence of unbearable feelings that remove the traumatized individual from the ordinary sense of time passing. In trauma, time folds back on itself. The individual is stuck in traumatic time, the past that never lets the present be. Though there is no direct connection between individual and social trauma, there is an analogy. Resituating the Holocaust in historical time, historical context, allows us to understand it, rather than being mesmerized by its ever presence.

Alexander thinks that the contextual isolation of the Holocaust renders its trauma more shareable, and that this represents moral progress. I think that the isolation of the Holocaust means that it too closely resembles a key symptom of trauma: it is lifted out of historical time. This renders the Holocaust less explicable, and less in need of explanation. That’s not good.


Jeffrey Alexander, Trauma: A Social Theory. Polity Press, 2012

Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Geoffrey Hartman, The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Indiana University Press, 1996.

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989


Comments (2)

  1. William Earnest

    “With the decline of the progressive narrative of history, when World War Two no longer signaled human progress against evil, the Holocaust became the predominant representation of trauma.”

    I think you’re in the ballpark here, but it would be me accurate to refer to the failure of the Soviet attempt to build socialism as undermining the progressive narrative. The Holocaust in this sense resonates strongly with the Soviet purges and the most vicious phase of collectivization. When Adorno wrote of the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, I would imagine those events had further discouraged him. Further, if you consider the claims of an end to history after the collapse of the SU, doesn’t it seem that discouragement of progressive, or utopian, hopes is part of routine ideological functioning in whatever phase this is of capitalism? To the extent that’s the case, there’s reason to be very careful about claiming that the “inexplicable” Holocaust is central to disillusionment. Disillusionment has many sources, and it is an intended, preferred state. Finally, we should give some consideration to Finklestein’s concept of a ‘holocaust industry,’ wherein universal horror is harnessed to special pleading.


      Dear William Earnest, thanks for the thoughtful comment. One thing that bothered me in reading Alexander (and there wasn’t space to mention everything) is that he didn’t explain or even address WHY the progressive narrative declined. I think your explanation is good too, though I think it probably fits intellectuals more than the average American. Then again, I imagine the “average American” didn’t think about this issue very much, at least as an abstraction.

      One thing I still wonder about. How much is the Holocaust itself a source of decline in the progressive narrative? For a group of intellectuals I think it is central, and being among them, even in a modest way, I agree.

      Nevertheless, the point of my post was that contemporary history should not be reduced to the Holocaust. On the contrary, the Holocaust needs to be seen in the context of history. Fred

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