What do we mean by ‘uncomfortable histories’?

By Dr Victoria Grace Walden, University of Sussex

This exhibition invited participants to present artistic representations of their research related to ‘uncomfortable histories’, but what might this expression mean? It is striking to me that so many of the respondents chose to submit work related to the Holocaust. This is in part due to the curators’ most familiar academic network, nevertheless, the dominance of this series of global and complex historical events suggests that perhaps the Holocaust is simultaneously both demarcated in contemporary Western thought as the paradigmatic ‘uncomfortable history’ and yet not as ‘uncomfortable’ as others that remain lesser explored or absent from our exhibition. At the same time, its dominance here also perhaps represents the significance of Holocaust Studies in opening up ways to explore the uncomfortable elements of the past, and an increasing amount of scholarship in this field challenging established discourse about it too. 

Popular in universities and museology at the moment, much of the current rhetoric about decolonizing our education and museums encourages us to challenge established Western historical content, as well as the ways we do pedagogy and narrativize the past in Western institutions. Intellectual decolonization involves those of us in the West accepting a need to feel uncomfortable. It asks us to confront our nations’ involvement with violent acts in the past and the present, and their consequences, which continue to haunt contemporary cultures. By doing so, it is hoped that we will make our institutions not only places that are more inclusive but sites of transcultural listening where dialogues about the complexities of histories are encouraged rather than narratives of History dictated. 

The sense of feeling ‘uncomfortable’ is a critical position. It encourages us to question heroic tales of the past – stories of so-called explorers and discoverers who claimed the lands of other peoples, of inventors that sometimes took ideas from their workers or from other countries and were able to claim them as their own because of their social status. It also encourages us to be critical of officiated and accepted History of an event and to understand the ways in which complex webs of different experiences actually defined the past. The re-mapping project of Uncomfortable Oxford presented in the exhibition offers one way in which we can open ourselves up to different histories of single places in ways that challenge us to rethink our historical knowledge in such a way.

In British public consciousness, the Holocaust has long been considered part of our history because we can celebrate the role of the British victors. We commemorate and celebrate our nation’s role in the Kindertransport, in liberating Bergen-Belsen, in winning the war, and remember that we were one of the few nations not to be occupied by the German forces (that is if we conveniently disassociate the British Channel Islands from our collective identity). Yet, deeper exploration of any of these issues invites us to feel uncomfortable:

  • What happened to the parents of the children we refused to admit?
  • How do we reflect upon negative sentiment about taking Jewish child refugees from Europe in the 1930s, which disturbingly mirrors some of the more horrific comments about the refugee crisis today?
  • How many people died in concentration and death camps after we had solid evidence of what was happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and elsewhere?
  • What would have happened if the Soviet Russian Army had not been such a strong force in the final months of the war? How do we negotiate commemorating their involvement in the war with their status as our enemies in the Cold War that shortly followed and with the genocidal atrocities of Stalin?
  • How do we commemorate the victims of Occupation who lived in or were brought to the Channel Islands when our historical myth of the war is the celebration of Churchill as a leader that prevented us being invaded? 

Beyond Britain, questions about the affect gender had on differentiating victims’ experiences, the role of so-called ‘neutral’ yet Fascist states such as Franco’s Spain in the persecution of Jews, and the ways in which the transnational Holocaust narrative was affected by the Cold War all offer further challenges to established discourse about this period of history. In many ways, the exhibits about the Holocaust presented in Uncomfortable Histories open up the possibility to think through these issues. 

On the other hand, ‘the Holocaust’ has in some contexts arguably become a screen memory through which the humanitarian issues related to Apartheid in South Africa, genocidal colonisations and slavery in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, and other instances of conflict, and racial and other forms of segregation and marginalisation have been tackled through a distant lens. It is arguably much easier to discuss the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Australian classroom than it is to ask students to question the roles their ancestors played in genocidal acts against indigenous peoples in their region. Such practices, however, are perhaps too comfortable. They turn the Holocaust into a paradigm for the study of human rights at the risk of avoiding other uncomfortable histories closer to home.  

There has been much outcry at the way ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘holocaust’ has been adopted as a term by other non-Jewish and non-European groups, but as discussed in the volume Holocaust Memory in a Globalizing World, often this word is used specifically to draw attention to those histories which have been marginalised or are at risk of being forgotten. By controversially adopting the word ‘holocaust’ into discussions about Mauri or Indian genocides, for example, the ‘uncomfortable’ is brought to the foreground. As Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory recognises, multiple memories and different events need not create memory competitions, rather the types of public debates that arise in moments in which the meaning of particular sites are contested can create rather than hinder collective memory. 

The exhibition includes a piece about a Gibraltarian man Albert Fava, who lost his British citizenship – listening to this recording, it is hard not to reflect on both the Windrush scandal and the current vulnerability of Gibraltar with Britain’s potential exit from the European Union, hardly given any precedence in public discussions about the Exit Deal in the UK press. Such thoughts encourage us to reflect on the uncomfortable elements of our present as well as those of the past. Sylvia Necker’s audio piece about Grosse Bergstrasse also draws contemporary relevance by focusing on urban development in Hamburg – turning to the past helps us to recognise the issues of gentrification today. Siân Liddle’s piece about facial reconstruction surgery for soldiers of World War I offers reflection not only on how sanitised can be our commemorations of horrific conflicts, but also on the continued ‘look away’ that people offer those with significant disfigurements today. Whilst many of these works draw contemporary relevance from the past, we should not simply accept Hegel’s famous dictum that we learn from history that we do not learn from history, but to make ourselves feel more uncomfortable, we should ask, ‘is history really there for us to learn from it?’ ‘What indeed is history for?’ ‘Is there really a singular thing we can call “history”’? and ‘what can we learn from engaging with the very fact that some histories make us feel uncomfortable?’

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