9/11 and the Holocaust: How Do We Remember the Past?

About the author
Natalie Kulenicz read History at Magdalen College, Oxford.


The practice of history through the use of memory has always been problematic: it is open to distortion, to censorship, to all forms of manipulation.

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Personal narratives in particular are susceptible to restrictions exerted by patrons, by political conditions, or by self-censorship — either a willing or accidental forgetfulness of details. But the very precarious nature of memory has made it an even more popular method of examining the past, academically because its flaws make for an extremely layered subject, and socially because the intricacies inherent in a web of personal testimony make it necessary to find a more concrete, accessible form of remembrance: the memorial.
Memory as memorial is a particularly interesting area of investigation in the field of history and memory. Why do we remember the past? What makes the remembrance of traumatic events a more institutionalised practice than the remembrance of triumphs? How deeply are we supposed to experience remembrance? Using two memorial-based case studies — the Holocaust and the events of 9/11, it is possible to go some way towards unravelling this complex issue.

Problems in the Historiography of Holocaust Memorial

Image of the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, with the motto over the gate, 'Arbeit Macht Frei' or 'Work Sets You Free.'
Auschwitz concentration camp now receives more than 1.4 million visitors per year. It has a 5 star rating on TripAdvisor.

Firstly, it is instructive to look at a chain of problems highlighted in the historiography of Holocaust commemoration. An important term which has surfaced in Holocaust historiography is ‘trivialisation’, a term used largely with reference to the production of commercial films about the Holocaust, especially Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar-winning picture Schindler’s List, and the earlier American docudrama Holocaust, which screened in 1978. Judith E. Doneson points out that in the wake of the overwhelming popularity and success of Schindler’s List, “Schindler’s List tours have become part of the Polish landscape”, indicating a decidedly commercial connection between the public consciousness of a world-changing event, and its assimilation into the public collective memory and even economy.[1] In the same article, she draws attention to an advertising slogan created for a Holocaust memorial foundation — initiated by a Holocaust survivor — which claims: “You will cry, you will laugh, but you will never forget”; a slogan which seems more akin to a Hollywood film tagline than a piece of writing designed to raise awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust. The accompanying advertising flyer contains ‘competitive’ wording: ‘What makes the Holocaust Survivors’ Memorial Foundation unique among American and international organizations concerned with the Holocaust?’ which, as well as demonstrating a keenness to appeal to visitors via traditional marketing strategies, tellingly alludes to the fact that there are several competing Holocaust memorial foundations worldwide, strengthening the impression of a Holocaust memorial ‘business’ which stretched outside of its geo-historical context. By reducing Holocaust memorial to the medium of commercial venture, the gravity of this darkest of periods in human history seems crassly undermined.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."However, a vital aspect of commercial Holocaust memorial initiatives resides in their ability to reach wide audiences. The same flyer which could be construed as offensive because of its carefully constructed, potentially cynical advertising copy, claimed that what set it apart from other organizations concerned with the Holocaust was that ‘[it] has one overriding purpose — to help prevent future holocausts.’[2] Whatever gloss this statement might carry, it is an important one, and one which provides a strong undercurrent to Holocaust studies. Whilst the doctrine of the importance of using history to learn from and therefore avoid the mistakes of those who have gone before might seem a truism, Holocaust history is one area where this concept really carries weight. With this in mind, it becomes much harder to condemn commercial Holocaust memorials, since they play such a fundamental part in keeping alive the memory of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust — an important role to play not just out of respect to the innocent dead, but as an earnest, genuine warning against the repetition of the same, or similar, event reoccurring.

Image shows the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

However, this leads onto another problem — the true virtue of remembering history. It is a painful process, but eventually it is inevitable that historical events, however barbarous or tragic, pass into myth. And with the preoccupations and increased pace of life in our modern day, it seems as though this process may become accelerated. As such, some commentators might argue that the emphasis on the commemoration of tragic events located in the past should be lessened. When the last of the Holocaust survivors are gone, what will be the virtue of, and who will provide the impetus for, the continuance and development of Holocaust memorial? Especially given that Holocaust memorial is supported to a considerable extent by personal testimony, surely its relevance will decline as new testimonies with the ability to strike a resonant chord become less available? However, this is an extremely cold, not to mention selfish, view to take. Just because the relevance and worldwide connection to, or understanding of, a historical event may inevitably be stronger in the decades which immediately follow it, memories and interpretation of the event should not consequently be ignored- especially given the fact that so much of Holocaust memorial is intended to keep alive reminders and warnings about the potential scale of human cruelty and worldwide disaster. It will do no one any good to forget the lessons of the human potential for atrocity which the Holocaust, and Holocaust memorial, taught.
However, this in itself leads onto another problem — that of how to fit earth-shattering events like the Holocaust into a normalised pattern of civic memorial. Dan Stone raises the question of whether ‘Holocaust memorials and museums actually subvert the good intentions of their authors, since the continuity (in time, in the community, in national identity) they imply is untrue to the civilization-shattering occurrence they supposedly represent?’ That is, the fact that ‘traditional, old established’ memorials are meant to be instantly recognisable and to have a universal impact makes their representations of the Holocaust too accessible, tying it neatly into the sane, linear progression of the human story.[3] This is turn means that the confusing, unimaginable and inherently disruptive nature of the Holocaust is undermined, and becomes a too-comforting element of the memorial landscape. Stone draws an important comparison between those who wish to follow this traditional path of memorial and those who seek to find methods of commemoration which ‘themselves embody a fundamental uneasiness or mistrust of the possibility of Holocaust commemoration.’[4] An example of this is Rachel Whiteread’s memorial to the Jews of Vienna and the Nazi book burnings — sometimes known as the ‘Nameless Library’ — which stands in the city’s Judenplatz. Whiteread used her signature method of creating a cast, to design a single-storey library with books lining the walls, but with the books all facing inwards with no literary text visible on their spines. The two doors at the front are imposing, and are sealed permanently shut:


Whiteread’s sculpture is unsettling and complex due to its powerful incorporation of blankness, and succeeds in creating a potent yet relatively inaccessible memorial to the Holocaust. However, if we are to accept the argument that Holocaust memorials should not be comforting, should not be easy to understand, the view that we should commemorate historical events in order to warn future generations of a possible recurrence is considerably complicated.

Problems with the Commemoration of 9/11

With regard to the second case study, the events of 9/11, the issue is complicated by the proximity of the occurrence to the present day, but many of the same hallmarks are apparent. There are very current debates raging around the upcoming National September 11 Memorial & Museum, expected to open next year, related to the potential entry fee of $25 which might be charged. The museum is an interesting example of the incorporation of the commemoration of traumatic events into the popular consciousness. Its mission statement reads:
‘- Remember and honor the thousands of innocent men, women and children murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.
– Respect this place made sacred through tragic loss.
– Recognise the endurance of those who survived, the courage of those who risked their lived to save others, and the compassion of all who supported us in our darkest hours.
– May the lives remembered, the deeds recognised, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen out resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance.’

Image shows the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero at night, with the skyscrapers behind lit up.
The 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.

This statement is telling, firstly because of the primary and fundamental importance it attaches to the act of remembrance. As well as being an act of respect, the very act of remembrance is informed primarily by questions of fundamental humanity: ensuring that those who are now remembering do not coldly turn a blind eye to harrowing events. But the act of remembrance is more layered even than this, and has an important pragmatic angle. Because of the relative temporal proximity between the events of 9/11 and the establishment of the memorial, it is perceived as vital that the occasion is remembered so that the current struggles which form the context of 9/11 — the War on Terror — do not lose traction. It is thus simultaneously a method of preserving civilisation and society, and self-preservation.
Whilst the creators of the memorial will hope for that its message continues to accompany those who visit and view it after they have left, the wording of the mission statement also implies an important sense of location. As the memorial to the events of 9/11 can be found where the twin towers stood before their destruction, the place is ‘sacred’: the connection between loss and place is exceptionally strong, and carries connotations so sombre that religious, sacral wording is used to describe them.
The third part of the statement goes further in linking the memorial into broader society and civic consciousness by referring explicitly to survivors. This part of the statement sharply highlights the co-existence of loss and preservation, a co-existence which in turn creates a strong civic consciousness, even a civic identity, as living ‘relics’ of the events of 9/11 link the dead to the rest of the society affected by the attack. Additionally, though the point is not explicitly made — presumably due to a consciousness that the threat of terrorism is global — there is a hint that the ‘civic’ identity fostered by the events of 9/11 also includes a ‘national’ identity: ‘those who supported us in our darkest hours.’ The element of national remembrance and national identity linked into large-scale trauma is inevitable and vital to the continuance of remembrance, and whilst it is sometimes played down in order to avoid fostering degrees of jingoism, national identity is an accepted and inherent aspect of remembrance, when a traumatic historical event is place-specific. In the aftermath of an event of trauma and magnitude, the onus on survivors is heavy. Doneson has highlighted that witnesses and survivors are expected to tell the stories of those who did not survive, as well as their own. Those who pursue and commission memorials are aware of this pressure, which is part of the reason that more public memorials are created — ones which do not rely to such a great extent on personal testimony, as it is often a painful experience for a survivor to recollect, despite the competing need to remember.

Image shows the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to the Pentagon staff killed in the 9/11 attacks.
The Victims of Terrorist Attack on the Pentagon Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

It might be argued that the inclusion of a reference to survivors in the text of the 9/11 Memorial mission statement is unsurprising, or even ‘typical’ of American positivity. The need to focus on survival, renewal, and positivity, was one of the negative charges levelled at the ‘Hollywood’ treatment of the Holocaust, and whilst the wounds are too fresh for the term ‘trivialisation’ to be applied to the commemoration of the events of 9/11, the idea that everything will be all right in the end is paid homage to in the text of the memorial’s mission statement. This might undermine the earth-shattering nature of the events of 9/11 in popular memory — but there are commentators who have expressed an expectation that the events of 9/11 might, in time, change this ‘typically’ American outlook on historical events. As the problems with attempting to incorporate 9/11 memorials into a narrative, accessible landscape of commemoration become apparent, it seems a strong possibility that critics might take a similar line to earlier critics of Holocaust commemoration — that 9/11 commemoration should be more challenging, and less comforting. However, the comparison is at present impossible and rather unhelpful to draw, since the problems and tensions which caused 9/11 are still ongoing — and perhaps the time for final reflection is not yet arrived: whilst the War on Terror still rages, it is unlikely that people will become ignorant of the context of 9/11.
It seems as though the debate surrounding the propriety and proper methods of commemorating ‘events such as the Holocaust and 9/11’ will continue to rage whilst priorities remain different, and the fundamental dichotomy between those who wish to tie a message of positivity into the popular consciousness and those who want to keep the events as isolated, unimaginable horrors, remains. What seems certain though, is that the continuance of memory and memorial will remain key to the representation of historical events. Whether this is for personal, humanitarian, political or academic reasons — and more and more, the emphasis is on the humanitarian benefits that remembrance has for the creation of a shared civic or national identity — memory and memorial in history remain just as important as they have ever done.


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[1] J.E. Doneson, Holocaust Revisited: A Catalyst for Memory or Trivialization?, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 548, The Holocaust: Remembering for the Future (Nov 1996) pp.71-72

[2] Ibid.
[3] D. Stone, Memory, Memorials and Museums in (ed. D Stone) The Historiography of the Holocaust, Palgrave Macmillan 2004, p.509
[4] Ibid.

Image credits: banner; Auschwitz; Berlin memorial; Nameless Library; Ground Zero; Pentagon memorial