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Unmarginalising genocide

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French historians Annette Wieviorka and Sylvie Lindeperg talk to the Post about their research on the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Photo by:
Anne-Laure Poree

Annette Wieviorka (left) and Sylvie Lindeperg in Phnom Penh late last year.

FRENCH historians Annette Wieviorka and Sylvie Lindeperg have dedicated much of their careers to tracking high-profile international trials for crimes against humanity. Wieviorka's research has focused on the Holocaust, while the work of Sylvie Lindeperg, a lecturer in film history at the University of the New Sorbonne in Paris, has emphasised the power of images to retell history. They recently published a book together titled The World of the Concentration Camp and Genocide: Watching, Knowing, Understanding.

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge, not much is taught about the history of the regime.
Annette Wieviorka: It is first necessary to consider the place of history in different cultures. In France, history is very important. It is taught several hours each week at school, and teachers are organised in associations to maintain these standards. The Second World War was introduced in our schools during the 1960s, 15 years after the war. The genocide of the Jews was not introduced until the 1970s, some 25 years after it happened, under the pressure of [author] Serge Klarsfeld. He published Vichy-Auschwitz in 1983 to prove the responsibility of the French Vichy government in the so-called Final Solution. He also instigated judicial processes.

Another thing is that documentation had been collected at the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, which supplied the French prosecution at the Nuremberg trial. It allowed [historians] Leon Poliakov and  Joseph Billig to write the first stories on this period.

Sylvie Lindeperg: In earlier years, French history centred on the resistance, and the genocide was marginalised. Eichmann's trial contributed to the emergence of a specific story on the Jews' extermination.

What stays in the mind of many young Cambodians is the moral lessons of their parents or grandparents, who criticise them for not finishing their bowl of rice. What are the risks of this mentality?
Annette Wieviorka: This is rather a psychological question. What the children of former prisoners in concentration camps say is that they never have the right to complain. They feel a weight because they cannot express any pain, any suffering.  

Sylvie Lindeperg: Often the dialogue about the experiences skips a generation, from the grandparents to the grandchildren.

The trials of former KR leaders are scheduled to take place 30 years after the fact. In France, trials for crimes against humanity were held well after the fact. What was the significance of these trials for public opinion?
Annette Wieviorka: The question is not when it takes place but how it takes place. It seems the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was not very convincing, whereas Nuremberg, which also took place very quickly, remains a great trial. In France, the trial of Papon, a former high-ranking civil servant of the Vichy's regime, arrived at a time when questions on the war's period involved no more political stakes. There had been huge media coverage. Papon remains the symbol of Vichy.

You worked together on audiovisual archives, in particular on Eichmann's trial. How have these materials contributed to your research?
Annette Wieviorka: I had already written a book on the Eichmann trial. Later the idea came to me to revisit this trial seen from the point of view of witnesses. For my research, images brought information on how the trial was perceived and how the media impacted it.

Sylvie Lindeperg: I have always worked with images. They allow us to rethink the events of history. Images have also a particular power to fix the imagination, they crystallize something. From these images, a series of other stories will emerge.

interview by Anne-Laure Poree

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