Towards Negative Possession of Identity

In: Populism, Memory and Minority Rights
Author: Gergely Romsics

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Abstract

In this paper, I present an interpretation of German, Austrian and Hungarian politics of memory, with a focus on the emergence and integration of perpetrator legacies into practices of remembrance. Practices of claiming collective ownership of perpetrator roles in genocide represent a more radical approach to memory work than mere acknowledgement of past crimes. I investigate these practices through the concept of “negative possession of identity” (npi) as proposed by Arie Nadler, who built upon Jean Améry’s theorizing on the subject. Sections on Germany, Austria, and Hungary revisit the histories of collective memory in the three countries to determine the social and political conditions that made such radical practices possible and how, if at all, these societies arrived at these conditions. I treat the German case as paradigmatic, representing successive waves of norm entrepreneurship, which have pushed German mnemonic practices towards negative possession of identity. I argue that Austria’s relative belatedness in fostering reflection on perpetrator legacies is due to the priority accorded to reconciling the left- and right-wing political traditions in the wake of an interwar cycle of civil violence. In Hungary, as a consequence of the failure to achieve post-civil war reconciliation, memory work about the Holocaust has been mapped onto existing ideological fault lines in society, hampering norm entrepreneurs in their attempts to achieve wider success in integrating perpetrator perspectives into practices of remembrance. Everywhere – including Germany – npi has remained an ongoing process embedded in heterogeneous national memory landscapes, with many groups in society sustaining alternative modes of remembrance. At the same time, as the main empirical section on Hungary demonstrates, it is possible to identify structural variables, which work against the internalization of perpetrator legacies through mnemonic practices. A comparison of Austria and Hungary suggests that the establishment of common societal values and identities represents a precondition for the configuration of national practices of remembrance through negative possession of identity.

Populism, Memory and Minority Rights

Central and Eastern European Issues in Global Perspective

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