Gradhiva n°5


Seismography of terrors

Spring 2007

Special issue edited and presented by Jackie Assayag

During and after the Second World War, it seemed as if Europe and the Western world refused to take in the horrors of the genocides that had been committed. Was it impossible to look reality in the face? Impossible to imagine the unimaginable? Impossible to accept blame, as some people have suggested? Or yet more impossible to believe something beyond the bounds of humanity?

Gradually, however, from the 1950s onwards, things changed, despite the fact that « murderers of memory » and other « negationists » were hard at work to promote their own version of events. Alongside the growing awareness of the Holocaust and of the traumatic nature of the extreme violence and extermination involved, other conflicts and wars were requalified as « genocides » (including events occurring in the pre-modern era and in Antiquity). A kind of « competition of victims » developed among groups – ethnicities, « races », « communities », peoples, religions and nations – to obtain the gold medal for suffering. Some took perverse pleasure in all this, while others loudly denounced the so-called « genocide industry ».

A resolution gradually took shape – « Never again! » Not only should no one ever forget, but given the dark side of our modernity, it has become absolutely essential to remember, by commemoration or by celebration. Those who speak of the « duty of memory » frequently advocate ad hoc « memorials », either at the scene of the crime or raised within museum walls. Gathering places suited to solitary or collective commemoration must therefore be set aside and buildings raised to the religious, civil, or even aesthetic glory of a name or an image, a representation or a material structure, whether erected in haste or carefully architectured, discreet or ostentatious, abstract or figurative, filled with noise or with silence, meditative or pedagogical etc. We may then claim to have given living form to the Event, and to have rendered its violence and abjection intelligible, along with the traumatic consequences suffered by its survivors. A way of giving form to the unimaginable, of forcing disaster to take shape in our minds and also a way of rendering justice to the victim and denouncing the executioner. The undertaking is, in its own eyes, both healing and therapeutic, serving also as a message of vigilance.

Would the museal response resemble a « fire alarm », to use Walter Benjamin’s striking analogy? Everyone, young and old alike, would thus become a witness – after the fact – in his own right, thanks to such seismographs of mass terror designed, constructed and prominently featured today in museums in most parts of the world.

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Special issue: seismography of terrors

  • The spectre of genocide. Trauma, museography and extreme violence, by Jackie Assayag
  • Communicating fear, and thinking terror. The museums of a war-torn Europe, by Sophie Wahnich
  •  ‘Send the ghosts to the museum?’ The concentration camp visit as seen through the eyes of two surviving writers – Ruth Klüger and Imre Kertész, by Catherine Coquio.
  • ‘What really happened’ The Apartheid Museum experiment, by Didier Fassin
  • Keeping alive the memory. Genocide and trauma in Rwanda, by Célestin Kanimba Misago
  • Museal representation of genocides. Healing or reactivated trauma ? by Reesa Greenberg
  • Scrambled history. Museums and memorials of Cambodian genocide, by Jean-Louis Margolin
  • Speaking out against the outrage. A museum of the Soviet labour camp, by Elisabeth Gessat-Anstett
  • Germaine Tillion facing the extreme, by Tzvetan Todorov

Studies and Essays

  • "The race question". Unesco's program by Chloé Maurel

Scientific column


  • 144 pages (20 x 27 cm)
  • 61 illustrations
  • ISBN : 978-2-915133-55-4
  • 18 €