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Petra James

The trauma of 'enforced disappearance' as a topic in Central European fiction after 1989

13 Feburary 2019
  • Short Story
  • Novels
  • enforced disappearance
  • trauma studies


The article analyses various literary representations of one of the common features of 20th-century dictatorships and totalitarian political regimes: the ‘enforced disappearance’. The study focuses on several Central European novels and short stories (German, Czech, Slovak and Polish) published after 1989. The methodological framework adopted here is that of cultural memory and trauma studies that have lately received systematic scholarly interest in Central Europe (Kratochvil 2015; Lysak 2015). The study draws on the works of Paul Ricoeur (French), Michel de Certeau (French), Jacques Derrida (French), Berber Bevernage (Belgian), Alexander Etkind (Russian) and Stef Craps (Belgian), especially on the way they define and interpret trauma and the ‘work of mourning’. The mechanisms of the ‘work of mourning’ function also on a collective level and are one of the ways of dealing with a traumatic past.

Literature has played an important role in the debates on the legacy of communist dictatorships in post-communist Central Europe since 1989, and historical topics have flourished in Central European literatures. We propose to interpret them as specific ways of coming to terms with the legacy of the traumatic past of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially the long-term collective trauma caused by Nazi and communist dictatorships.

We want to address the concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ [places of memory], its limits and dangers as it is discussed (among others) by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) in his major contribution to this theoretical debate La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; Englishtrans. 2004). Furthermore, we will pay attention to the recurring patterns that keep appearing in contemporary Central European literatures. Indeed, in our previous research, we discovered recurrent patterns and structures that allow us to read many of these texts as commemorative rituals and the ‘work of mourning’ (we draw on the Freudian terminology here) for traumatic elements of the 20th century in Central Europe. The work of Paul Ricoeur inspires us to transpose the Freudian model of trauma and mourning (used in the psychoanalysis of an individual) onto the processes put in motion in national and other communities. As our topic focuses on the connection between literary representations of history and psychoanalysis, we should mention the crucial research of the French thinker Michel de Certeau (1925–86). He was directly addressing the link between literature, historiography and psychoanalysis in several of his studies, especially L’Écriture de l’Histoire [The Writing of History] (1975) and Histoire et psychanalyse [History and Psychoananlysis] (1987). We will also call on the works of the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and his concept of the ‘spectral’, ‘haunting’ past and the works of scholars that Derrida’s work inspired in their reflections on historical trauma and literature: those of Berber Bevernage, Stef Craps and Alexander Etkind.

We will focus on concrete examples of such texts, dealing with the traumatic aspects of 20th-century Central Europe, especially with the topic of enforced disappearance. More specifically on novels dealing with the memory of the German presence in Central Europe and post-Second World War expulsions. This topic keeps coming back as an almost obsessive theme in German, Polish and especially Czech post-1989 literature. A link to psychological trauma seems evident with this reoccurring theme.

The authors we will pay special attention to in our interpretations will be W. G. Sebald, Paweł Huelle, Pavel Vilikovský, Jiří Kratochvil, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa. All these authors and their works have received constant attention from literary theoreticians and the public. They have been awarded important literary prizes and have been taking part in the public debate on historical and social issues in their respective countries. Some of the books have been adapted for theatre or cinema. Each novel offers a critical evaluation of an individual’s encounter with dictatorship, of the massive expulsions of populations after the Second World War (especially that of the Germans from Central Europe) or of the Holocaust, topical issues and challenging topics linked to thecollective memory of today’s European society1 and even more so in postcommunist countries.

Enforced disappearance

‘Enforced disappearance’ has become an official term in international law. The United Nations (UN) established a committee on enforced disappearances that issued an official text entitled ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and enforced from December 2010.2 Enforced disappearance is considered a crime and, in certain circumstances, defined in international law as a crime against humanity. The convention stipulates, among other things, ‘the right of any victim to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person, and the right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information to this end’.3 It is this need and right to ‘know the truth’ and ‘seek, receive and impart information’ about the disappeared that is at the core of the literary works considered in the present article. As Berber Bevernage explains, the notion of the right to seek the truth was pioneered in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with cases on enforced disappearance. Furthermore, it was included in two reports by UN special rapporteurs Louis Joinet and Diane Orentlicher.4 The right to know, Joinet explains:

"is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related persons to know what happened, a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a ‘duty to remember’, which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved" (Bevernage 2018).5

The enforced disappearance causes trauma to the survivors; trauma that is both personal and collective. As stated by editors of a recent collective monograph on trauma studies, the theory and concept of trauma is still evolving (Bond, Craps, Vermeulen, 2017). Indeed, trauma officially gained the status of a disease in the Western world in 1980, when it was rape, military combat, earthquake, aeroplane crash or torture. Later, various long-termstress factors were added, such as witnessing or learning of one’s family or friends being exposed to serious danger (Bond, Craps and Vermeulen, 2017).

There are several aspects that justify the interpretation of the literary texts within the methodological framework of trauma studies. The plots of the texts are constructed around an absence that implicitly points to a traumatic disappearance. The disappearance further infers a missing, disappeared body (with clear hints of its previous maltreatment or torture). The disappearance might concern an individual or a whole group. The topic of enforced disappearance can even serve as metonymy of a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime. The disappeared groups represented in the texts of our corpus might be Jews (systematically exterminated during the Second World War as one of the consequences of totalitarian fascist ideology), the bourgeois middle classes (as an integral part of the Soviet application of the Marxist theory of the class struggle in the Soviet Union and in countries of the Eastern Bloc), or the Germans expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. All these motifs and topics can be found in the studied texts. Thanks to the crucial work of Paul Ricoeur L’Histoire, la mémoire, l’oubli (Ricoeur 2000), we can apply the Freudian model of trauma and mourning on the mourning mechanisms of groups and communities. Indeed, the texts are constructed as mourning rituals, revealing the mourning processes described by Freud and Ricoeur. Furthermore, the contributions of Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012), Alexander Etkind (Etkind 2013) and Stef Craps (Craps 2013) help us to see the specificities of trauma as they are expressed in the literary texts of contemporary Central European authors.

Literary texts as ‘places of memory’?

We would like to reflect on the problematic aspects, dangers and limits of the concept of ‘places of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) introduced in the 1980s by the French historian Pierre Nora. The concept is indeed closely related to our topic. Nora directed a large research project published in three volumes between 1984 and 1992 under the same title, Lieux de mémoire [Places of Memory]. His ambition was nothing less than describing the basic elements that, in his opinion, constitute French national identity.

The present paper is inspired, among others, by the methodology and theoretical concepts of Paul Ricoeur as he developed it in his book La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli [Memory, History, Forgetting] (Ricoeur 2000; English translation 2004)]. Our starting point is Ricoeur’s commentary on the work of Pierre Nora andon the concept of ‘places of memory’. Ricoeur pinpoints the major dangers and limits of Nora’s concept and shows that Nora himself changes his way of perceiving the ‘places of memory’ and that, during the preparation of the successive volumes, Nora already realizes the potential abuse of his concept:

"Nora himself complains of a similar assimilation of the theme of the ‘places of memory’ by ‘commemorative bulimia (that) has all but consumed all efforts to control it’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 609)".6

"The destiny of these Lieux de mémoire has been a strange one. The work was intended, by virtue of its conception, method, and even title, to be a counter-commemorative type of history, but commemoration has overtaken it ... What was forged as a tool for maintaining critical distance became the instrument of commemoration par excellence" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1404).7

The concept of ‘places of memory’ has been very successful and has been widely used in Central and Eastern European Studies after 1989. It has been applied also in studies dedicated to contemporary literature of this region (see for example Smorag-Goldberg and Tomaszewski 2013). Nevertheless, one needs to keep in mind that the concept of ‘places of memory’ can be used as a tool for commemorative needs for various interest groups that do not aim at historical objectivity. The notion of the problematic aspects of memory was also one of the major motivations for Ricoeur’s work as he himself admits in the introduction:

"Public preoccupation: I continue to be troubled by the unsettling spectacle offered by an excess of memory here, and an excess of forgetting elsewhere, to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and abuses of memory – and of forgetting. The idea of a policy of the just allotment of memory is in this respect one of the avowed civic themes" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 51).

In countries that have been undergoing essential geopolitical changes, as is the case for Central European post-communist countries, the question of public memory and commemorations is an important one. Indeed, the commemorative strategies are an integral part of the identity-creating process. The fragile national identity of the new geopolitical units is also projected on the way society deals with its memory. As Ricoeur notes, the fragility of identity opens possibilities for the manipulation of memory (Ricoeur 2000, 579). This is the reason why this study focuses more on the aspects of trauma expressed in literary texts than on the way they deal with memory and commemoration.

Trauma, the work of mourning and the haunting past

In our analysis, we use the parallel that Paul Ricoeur draws between the work of mourning (‘le travail de deuil’) as it is described by Freud and used in psychoanalysis and the work of memory (‘le travail de souvenir’) and of forgetting in the collective memory of communities and societies, especially in connection to traumatic collective memory:

"It is the bipolar constitution of personal and community identity that, ultimately justifies extending the Freudian analysis of mourning to the traumatism of collective identity. We can speak not only in an analogical sense but in terms of a direct analysis of collective traumatisms, of wounds to collective memory. The notion of the lost object finds a direct application in the ‘losses’ that affect the power, territory, and populations that constitute the substance of a state. Mourning behaviours, from the expression of affliction to complete reconciliation with the lost object, are directly illustrated by the great funeral celebrations around which an entire people is assembled. In this way, we can say that such mourning behaviours constitute a privileged example of the intersecting relations between private and public expression. It is in this way that our concept of a sick historical memory finds justification a posteriori in this bipolar structure of mourning behaviours" (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1214).8

The traumatic collective memory and traumatic ‘losses’ mentioned by Ricoeur correspond to losses put forward in numerous novels by Central European authors after 1989. The burden of history, its taboos and deformations constitute central preoccupations of the literary texts that we analyse. However, the Freudian ‘complete reconciliation with the lost object’ that Ricoeur refers to does not seem to happen in these texts, which maintain the haunting presence of the lost object.9 Indeed, the recent contributionsto the classical works of trauma studies (we mean works by Cathy Caruth, Marianne Hirsch or Dominick LaCapra) address the limits of the Freudian model (we mean Western, modernist concept of mourning) according to which a successful work of mourning is when the mourning person totally reconciles themselves with their loss. Historian Berber Bevernage (Bevernage 2012) and literary theoretician Stef Craps (Craps 2013) both draw on Jacques Derrida and his Specters of Marx (1993, English translation 1994) while addressing the limits of the Freudian model of mourning.10 Indeed, Derrida proposes against Freud’s model of a concept of ‘demi-deuil’ (semi-mourning).11 Both Craps and Bevernage bring evidence from Western and non-Western examples of mourning (be it personal or that of a community) that do not correspond in their practice to the Freudian ideal model of the final and utter ‘dismissal’ of the lost/grieved object. Instead, the traumatized individuals and communities maintain a certain way of contact and spectral presence of the grieved object, person or past. It goes with the observations of Derrida in Specters of Marx who claims that the possibility of a just future (when we talk about traumatic pasts of communities or nations) depends on our readiness ‘to learn to live with ghosts’ and ‘thinking the possibility of the spectre’. Berber Bevernage, inspired by Derrida, uses the term ‘haunting past’ in order to describe the reality of people and communities dealing with historical trauma. Instead of being able to draw a thick line over a traumatic past, the communities are faced with the necessity of coming to terms with a ‘haunting past’, which maintains its presence in the everyday lives of its members.12 Bevernage’s book pleas for a different approach to history. Inspired by Michel de Certeau and his L’Écriture de l’Histoire [Writing history] and in accord with current tendencies in historiography, Bevernage questions certain concepts of modern historiography. Many theoreticians have dealt with the link between artistic creation, historiography and the work of mourning:

"a close relationship exists between the writing of history and the work of mourning. Dominick LaCapra, for example, analyzes post-holocaust historiography by using the psychoanalytical concepts of ‘working through’ and ‘acting out’, and he has proposed that the German Historikerstreit should be interpreted as a form of collective mourning. Jörn Rüsen argues that in relation to the traumatic character of the experiences of the last century, the writing of history can be conceived as a ‘procedure of mourning’. [...] I agree with LaCapra, Rüsen, and Domanska that a closerelationship exists between mourning and historiography, and I think that these authors are right when they argue that a lot can be learned about the writing of history by analyzing it from the perspective of the practice of mourning or the discourse on death" (Bevernage 2012, 147, Kindle loc. 3595).

It is in this sense that we adhere to Bevernage’s comment:

"one can analytically distinguish between at least two profoundly different concepts of mourning and death that relate to different notions of historicity: namely, a modern (mostly Western) concept of mourning and a non-modern (but not necessarily non-Western) concept of mourning. The most important difference between the relatively young modernist theory of mourning and the much older and much more widespread non-modern concept of mourning, I will argue, can be found in different ways in which they relate the notions of ‘loss’ and ‘absence’" (Bevernage 2012, 148, Kindle loc. 3614).

This seems to be the recurrent pattern of the representation of history in the chosen corpus. The texts are full of ghosts and spectres of the past. The characters are incapable of drawing a thick line over the past that maintains a haunting presence and interferes with the lives of the characters.

The expulsion of Germans: whose trauma is that?

In the case of ‘German memory’, we suggest drawing again on the parallel made by Paul Ricoeur between the process of personal and collective ‘work of mourning’. The events linked directly or indirectly to the expulsion of Germans from Central Europe after 1945 and the loss of German cultural heritage can be viewed from this perspective: the loss that must be worked through during the process of mourning. The obsessive reoccurrence of the topic of German memory in post-1989 Polish (see Huelle, Chwin, Tokarczuk), German (see Reinhard Jirgl or Uwe Johnson) and especially Czech literature (Jiří Kratochvil, Jáchym Topol, Kateřina Tučková, Radka Denemarková and Jakuba Katalpa) seems to prove the importance and extent of this collective trauma. It is important to note that contemporary Central European writers focus almost exclusively on the topic of expulsions and not on numerous other aspects of the long history of the Germans’ presence in the culture, politics and economics of Central Europe. Interestingly enough, this omission is mirrored in the works of Czech historians. Those who focus their research on Czech-German relationships, work mostly on the post- Second World War period and the topics related to the expulsions. It is, of course, connected to the fact that Central and Eastern European historiography has undergone important changes since 1989 primarily thanks to the opening of numerous important archives that were inaccessible before 1989. It is nevertheless interesting to note that the highly relevant and significant period of Czech-German tension and armed clashes between 1918 and 1923 when many German-speaking inhabitants of the Sudeten region contested (sometimes armed) their inclusion in post-First World War Czechoslovakia.

It is surprising to discover that the Germans represented in Czech contemporary novels are mostly depicted as positive characters or as (innocent) victims described in a way that inspires compassion. This approach, whereby the honouring of a certain memory causes the amnesia of other memories, leads inevitably to certain distortions. As Václav Maidl states in his study, if we look at the literary representations of German-speaking characters and the German environment over the last 200 years, their image in Czech literature is mostly negative (Maidl 1998). For Kateřina Tučková especially, her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch has a performative function. It is her ‘duty of memory’ and ‘duty of commemoration’ that she claims to honour in the prologue because she has the impression that the political representatives do not do fulfill these duties sufficiently well. We can thus legitimately ask the question whether both historians and the writers do not take part in a process of consciously creating a new Czech post-1989 ‘European’ identity, forming what Berber Bevernage designates as ‘reconciliation historiography’ or ‘shared history’:

"Bridging can happen negatively through levelling attempts to expose myths of conflicting parties or it can happen through the construction of so-called positive histories which stress common traditions, shared values and cultural exchanges in the past. Bridging reconciliation historiographies are also often referred to as shared histories. Yet, the term ‘shared history’ is often used more broadly among scholars and practitioners focusing on reconciliation and can refer to at least three potential aspects of reconciliation historiographies: it can refer to shared methodological procedures or shared authorship, to a focus on shared events, values or actions in the past, orto the construction of a single ‘common’ narrative which claims evenhandedly to represent the different perspectives of conflicting parties" (Bevernage 2018).

These questions, however, need more space and thought than is possible within the scope of this study. But we can certainly argue that texts of contemporary Central European writers reveal much more of the circumstances of the time of the writing of the novels than about the actual historical subjects they try to present and assess.

If we apply Ricoeur’s adaptation of Freud’s psychoanalysis to the collective wounded memory, Ricoeur justifies this methodological transfer (as we have already stated) by the fact that Freud himself alluded to ‘situations that go far beyond the psychoanalytic scene, in terms of both the work of remembering and the work of mourning’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203). Furthermore, ‘all of the situations referred to in the psychoanalytical treatment have to do with the other, not only the other of the “familial novel”, but by the psychosocial other and the other, as it were, of the historical situation’ (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 1203).

The link between personal work of mourning and collective sick memory is alluded to in the very title of one of the analysed novels – Jakuba Katalpa’s novel The Germans: Geography of Loss (2012). The process of personal mourning for the loss of a mother of one of the central characters (Klara, the mother, left for Germany after the Second World War and left her baby behind in Czechoslovakia) stands here for the collective mourning for the expulsed German minority (or maybe more for the act of expulsion?). Katalpa’s novel can thus be seen as a literary transposition of a commemorative mourning ritual. Klara, the main character, of Katalpa’s novel, comes closest to the idea of a ‘pure’ German among all the Czech contemporary novels that deal with the topic of expulsions. She is born in Germany to a wealthy family and hardly questions Germany’s political orientation under Hitler. She is a teacher and refuses to intervene for one of her Jewish students when she asks for help. After a series of personal tragedies (the death of her fiancé among others), she decides to accept a placement as a teacher in the Sudeten region. She works with German-speaking children but is seen as a stranger by the local Sudeten Germans. She becomes pregnant and is welcomed at the end of the war by the family of one of her Czech friends in Prague. She gives birth to a boy and finally decides, under circumstancesthat are never totally explained in the novel, to leave the baby behind when she has to depart form Czechoslovakia as a German. The boy, Kurt, is then adopted by the family that welcomed Klara and the fact of his adoption is revealed to him by his foster mother when he becomes an adult and father of three children himself. The boy is the father of the narrator of the novel. After her father’s death, she decides to find out the truth about her real grandmother and she meets Klara’s two daughters in Germany. She even meets Klara, an old woman in an old people’s home. Klara has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot help the narrator with her quest for the ‘truth’.

Jiří Kratochvil draws a link between personal psychological trauma and a collective one in most of his novels. The metaphor of schizophrenia that structures his first novel Medvědí román (Bear’s Novel, 1985, 1990) covers both a mental breakdown of one of the central characters and a schizophrenic psychological split of people living under communist dictatorship. His novel Slib (The Pledge, 2009), which features as one of its themes the expulsion of Germans from Brno, has a subtitle: The Requiem for the 1950s. The topic of expulsions in Kratochvil’s novels is always closely connected to the questioning of the legacy of communism.

One of the dangers of obsessive insistence on the topic of expulsions as the central moment of German memory in Central Europe is the distortion of history by the feeling of the ‘duty to remember’ or ‘duty of commemoration (memory)’ as we have already stated. Ricoeur talks about the ‘devoir de mémoire’ (duty of memory) and going back to Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’, he evokes the potential ‘abuse of commemoration’ (Ricoeur 2000, 528).

We therefore argue that the representation of the expulsion of Germans always closely reflects the communist dictatorship in Central Europe.13 Indeed, in all analysed texts, the authors choose to present history from (or even before) the Second World War until very recent times (often up until now). In relation to the expulsion of Germans and dealing with Germans, 1945 is often interpreted like a first step in the establishment of communist rule in Central Europe (this is most strongly present in Kratochvil’s writings). The trauma of the communist past is being projected onto the topic of the expulsions of Germans. Paradoxically, the texts focus more on the Czech collective historical trauma than on the suffering of the Germans. The vision of history thus seems to fall into a narrow frame of a national trauma that it finds difficult to overcome. We conclude this part by statingthat even in the case of literary representations of German memory and especially of the expulsions, the process of mourning at work in the novels is not so much about the loss of the German community but about the long-term legacy of communism in Central Europe.

The trauma of the enforced disappearance and the figure of absence

Common to the analysed works is the use of a subjective and individual perspective to represent the enforced disappearance. In Central Europe, under both Nazi and communist regimes people were made to ‘disappear’, often leaving their families without news as to their fate. The enforced disappearance is often represented by an absence. There is an absent body, an absent person, whose loss is being mourned. Austerlitz’s trauma in Sebald’s novel (Sebald 2001) of the same name stems from the disappearance and the absence of his parents and from the lack of any precise information concerning their death. Austerlitz is a Jewish child born in Prague and sent to safety by his parents thanks to one of the trains heading from Prague to England during the Second World War. In the course of his investigation in the 1990s, he finds out that his Czech-Jewish mother was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and very probably died in a killing facility in Poland. This was most likely the fate of his father too, who went to France and was sent from Paris to one of the concentration camps in the south of France where he disappears without trace. Nevertheless, Austerlitz learns nothing certain about their fate nor can he find the place of their burial. The whole book thus seems to be constructed around this traumatic loss and absence.

In Huelle’s novella Mercedes Benz (2001), the two dictatorships (fascist and communist) and their treatment of people are juxtaposed, making the parallels between the use of enforced disappearance by both dictatorships deliberate and evident. The whole family of the central character, the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein, meets a ‘terrible end’, ‘in a mass death-pit near Buczyna’ (Huelle 2001, 101). The Jewish brothers Baczewski, whose ‘vodka and liqueur factory’ is ‘bombed by the Luftwaffe’ (Huelle 2001, 95), die from ‘no less cruel death’, ‘in the Donbas mineshafts’ (Huelle 2001, 101) in 1940 after having been deported by the Soviets. Their deaths are thus emblematic of the end of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe during the Second World War and the way Jews have been targeted both by the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships (topics difficult to address in Polish fiction or historiography before 1989). As we will see, it is their disappearance that is interpreted as a major force behind the creation of Mercedes Benz.14

In Pavel Vilikovský’s novel The Autobiography of Evil (2009) the major character of the first part of the text, Jan Karsten, after being kidnapped by the Czechoslovak secret police during his tentative escape to Austria, decides to commit suicide when he realizes that he has adopted the same behaviour as his tormentors. He kidnaps a girl whom he believes to be the daughter of one of the agents (which she is not) and holds her prisoner. Finally, he decides to let her go. Nevertheless, his decision to stick to his humanity leads to his suicide as he does not see any other outcome of the situation he finds himself in. His body is disposed of and his family is never informed about his final fate. The disappearance and absence of his father shapes the life of his son, the central character in the second part of the novel. At the end of Vilikovský’s novel, Igor talks about the book he plans to write. Writing about the mysterious disappearance of an unknown woman dating back to the 1970s might be seen as compensating for the impossibility of discovering the truth about the disappearance of his own father. It is at the same time an act of mourning over the absent body and the missing story of his disappeared father.

In Kratochvil’s novel The Pledge (2009), the beloved sister of architect Modráček dies after being interrogated by the Czechoslovak secret police in the early 1950s. Having not been allowed to see the body of his dead sister, he does not believe that she committed suicide as the police claim. He vows to avenge his sister’s death and to punish the policeman, Láska, whom he believes to be responsible for his sister’s death. Modráček captures Láska and holds him prisoner in his underground prison alongside more and more people who could endanger his secret and destroy his plan for vengeance. At the end of the book, Láska’s daughter appears and talks about the mysterious and never-explained disappearance of her father that haunted her and her mother their whole lives. The book is thus conceived by the author as a requiem for the victims of the Stalinist era of 1950s Czechoslovakia, represented in Kratochvil’s text by his mother (herself a victim of the communist persecution to whom the book is dedicated and who appears as a minor character in the novel), Modráček’s sister, and the policeman Láska, unjustly imprisoned and punished.

The motif of traumatic disappearance also appears in the novels that deal with German memory. In Kratochvil’s novel Uprostřed nocí zpěv [In the midst of the night a song] (1989), the Germans are represented intriguingly by a couple of lesbian women who are ostracized by everyone – their Czechneighbours as well as the other Germans; they finally die during the expulsion process and their absence haunts the memory of one of the main characters of the novel, Petr, for the rest of his life.

In her novel The Expulsion of Gerta Snirch (2010), Kateřina Tučková tells the life story of Gerta Snirch, a girl from Brno, born to a mixed Czech- German family.15 After the war, she is included in the ‘death march’ of Brno Germans destined for expulsion. Gerta finally avoids the expulsion and comes back to her hometown. Her life seems to be returning to normal as she attempts to rebuild her life with her teenage love who had become a committed communist in the meantime. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show-trial with the communist leader Rudolf Stránský and his collaborators in 1952. It is this traumatic disappearance that seems to shape Gerta’s life most profoundly. Each text is characterized by the absence of bodies; the people simply disappear, making the process of mourning, if not impossible, at least extremely difficult.

‘State-sponsored violence’ and the tortured bodies

The trauma of those left behind is magnified by unverifiable images of torture. Enforced disappearance can hardly be dissociated from political violence and torture. It is the ‘state-imposed violence’ that Berber Bevernage uses as part of the title of his book. Michel de Certeau wrote a decidedly relevant text on the subject ‘Corps torturés, paroles capturés’ [Tortured bodies, captured speech] included in the volume Histoire et psychoanalyse (1987). He claims that violence is systemic in the imposition of social order, especially in dictatorships: ‘Totalitarian violence needs credibility and, scientifically, it strives to produce the ersatz with living bodies’ (Certeau 1986).16

The frequent use of metonymy in the studied texts might be connected to the theme of torture, as Alexander Etkind remarked in his book Warped Mourning when he spoke about prevailing features of post-1989 Russian literature: ‘In this process, the metonymical poetics of magical historicism emulate the “piecemeal” logic of torture, which also manipulates parts of the body with the aim of changing the whole truth, integrity, and history’ (Etkind 2013, Kindle loc. 4329).

This might be also the reason why the main characters in novels dealing with the memory of expulsion of the Germans are subjected to horrible violence. Female Germans are often subjected to rape, physical torture and abuse. As if this violence suffered by individual examples of Germans was to stand in for the suffering and violence inflicted on the expelled German community.

The haunting past and rituals of mourning

How is the absence of the disappeared personified in the texts? Very often old photographs are used as a link to the missing era, person or community. Sebald and Huelle even incorporate black-and-white photos directly into their books, Huelle using authentic photographs from his family’s archive. When in 1992 Austerlitz finds his former nanny in Prague, she shows him two photographs from before 1939 (the time of Austerlitz’s early childhood), possibly depicting Austerlitz’s parents. While looking at the photos, Austerlitz affirms that it seems as if the pictures had their own memory and were remembering the dead and those who survived (Sebald 2001, 266). When Austerlitz tries to find some traces of his parents in the archives in Prague, he also watches one of the films made in Teresienstadt. Austerlitz describes the music that accompanies the film as a funeral march coming from the ‘subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths’ (Sebald 2001, 356). This description is a direct reference to the underworld of the dead and the phantoms of classical antiquity. In the archives, Austerlitz also finds a photo of a woman who might be his mother but he says that she looks rather like a phantom.17 Sebald’s writing illustrates perfectly Derrida’s semimourning and Derrida-inspired Bevernage’s term ‘haunting past’.

Indeed, photography has a close link to memory, trauma, death and forgetting18 – it also shows the limits and failings of photography to bring back the disappeared. Especially in Sebald’s work, the figures in the photos look rather like ghosts (Lachmann talks about phantasma and simulacrum, Derrida about spectres and revenants) and the found pictures problematize rather than facilitate the process of mourning (Sebald 2001, 117).19 As Carolin Duttlinger puts it:

"it is the latency and the transience of the photographic image, rather than its permanence and stability, which serve as a model for the process of memory, as the image of neither photography nor memory can be grasped or arrested, and are hence both prone to disappearance. Photography is thus figured as a model not for the permanence of memory but for the phenomenon of forgetting" (Duttlinger 2004, 158).

Whereas Sebald stresses in his use of photography the haunting character of the past, Vilikovský and Huelle are more affirmative about the charm of old photographs and their capacity to perpetuate objective memory. Igor, the protagonist of Vilikovský’s novel, contemplates the significance of the photography and what impresses him most is the lasting trace of a human life that photography saves even after the death of the portrayed person (Vilikovský 2009, 147). In Huelle’s Mercedes Benz, when the narrator’s grandfather, Karol, understands that Poland is subject to the double invasion of Hitler’s Germany and of the Soviet Union, he reacts in a surprising way – on his return from the eastern part of Poland invaded by the Russians, he starts to sort out family photographs:

"When he got home at last, instead of reporting for work at the now German factory, he spent days on looking through old photographs, putting his archive in order, writing the missing dates and names of people and places on their cardboard backing. As he unrolled it again, this particular reel of time already felt like something very different from a catalogue of ordinary memories; it felt as if those moments captured in the past by the cold shutter of his Leica now made up a completely new volume that he’d never intended to create, consisting of chance moments, twists and turns of light, bits and pieces of matter and voices that stopped sounding long ago; it was like a suddenly open, secret gate, revealing a previously unknown vista to the astonished passer-by, a wonderful spectacle of phantoms of time and space, swirling like golden pillars of dust in a dark old granary" (Huelle 2005, 96).

Photography functions in Huelle’s work as witness to history. At the same time it also works as means of transmitting cultural memory. The fact that Karol buys his rolls of film and photographic paper from the Jewish photographer Chaskiel Bronstein is particularly important. Karol pays the last visit to Chaskiel just after having sorted out the family photographs. On this occasion, the Germans have already closed down Chaskiel’s shop and Karol learns that Chaskiel’s family was sent to the ghetto. On leaving, Chaskiel gives the last rolls of film to Karol to show him his gratitude. With the means of capturing images (the rolls of film), he also transmits to Karol the duty to remember. Indeed, the memories from the past in Huelle’s book come back to life through photos that accompany the book (alongside theposter of Chaskiel’s shop, making the link between history and literature explicit). Writing is then an act of invocation of phantoms from the past through a kind of funeral ritual (Huelle 2001, 145). The commemorative aspect of Huelle’s text is thus evident.

The patterns of mourning that transpire from these texts have a clearly cathartic function – writing becomes a funeral ritual and at the same time a commemorative act (with all the dangers Ricoeur warns against). The Jewish photographer Chaskiel of Huelle’s story cannot share the story of the life and death of the Polish Jewish community, but with the remaining films delegates the task to Karol who transmits the duty of remembering and the transmission of cultural memory to his grandson (the author of Mercedes Benz). The text of Mercedes Benz is evidence of the fulfilled pledge to the narrator’s grandfather. And we can assume that it is the collection of photos sorted by Karol before his stay in the concentration camp and later transmitted to the narrator that serves as the starting point to the text of Mercedes Benz: ‘when I got home and sat at the table, I spread out the small set of photographs from Chaskiel Bronstein’s company envelope, and the first sentence rolled out all by itself ’ (Huelle 2001, 154). The texts thus have the cathartic and ‘memorial’ function assigned to literature by Renate Lachmann:

"At the beginning of memoria as art stands the effort to transform the work of mourning into a technique. The finding of images heals what has been destroyed: The art of memoria restores shape to the mutilated victims and makes them recognizable by establishing their place in life. Preserving cultural memory involves something like an apparatus for remembering by duplication, by the representation of the absent through the image (phantasma or simulacrum), by the objectification of memory (as power and ability, as a space of consciousness, or as thesaurus), and by the prevention of forgetting through the retrieval of images (the constant recuperation of lost meaning)" (Lachmann 2008, 302).

Writing as therapy to historical and personal trauma is present also in Denemarková’s book. The main character, Gita Lauschmann, dies in the middle of the process of writing her memoirs that would say and explain ‘everything’. Her last thoughts are ‘not yet’: ‘But indeed, I am not ready yet, noteven close to ready, I do not feel like dying yet, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, I am not properly dressed, I haven’t said everything yet ...’20

Time has run out for Gita and prevented her from finishing her story. In Denemarková’s book the trauma of the past maintains its haunting presence and the wish to know the truth and to arrive at a total reconciliation with the loss is not totally fulfilled (as it is implied in models of trauma and mourning commented by Bevernage and Craps).

The narrator of Katalpa’s The Germans chooses to overcome the trauma and the depression that haunted the life of her father (and the whole family) after the revelations concerning his biological mother. If we go back to Ricoeur’s comparison of the individual work of mourning in psychoanalysis, Kurt, the father, chooses the sadness of acedia (lack of care), whereas his daughter goes through the work of mourning towards life (through the work of sublimation), very much in the sense of the short epilogue that Ricoeur adds at the end of his book:

"Under history, memory and forgetting.
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.
Incompletion" (Ricoeur 2004, Kindle loc. 7535).21

Indeed, her success at the work of mourning is due to her acceptance of the incompletion of this reconciliation and thus of the work of mourning: ‘I turn the envelope in my fingers. It came from Germany, so it is clear that it constitutes another piece of our investigation, information as useless as the previous one. What should interest us now does not lie in the past.’22

The narrator receives a letter from Germany that could give her some new information. But instead of opening it and going back to the past and the wounded, sick memory (as Ricoeur calls it), she chooses life and goes out to join her little daughter who is playing in the garden, accepting the incompletion of her quest for the truth.


All the interpreted texts have a common topic: the enforced disappearance (of an individual or that of a whole community). As we have shown, these literary works also share descriptions of historical trauma and themechanisms of the work of mourning. ‘The haunting past’ maintains its disturbing presence and does not allow the Freudian-ideal final reconciliation with the lost object or past. The successful work of mourning seems to depend rather on the capacity to accept its incompletion and to learn to live with the spectres of the past (as suggested by De Certeau, Ricoeur, Derrida, Bevernage, Craps and Etkind).

As we have disclosed, the texts only partly become ‘lieux de mémoire’, places of remembrance of the dictatorships of Central Europe and its victims. Indeed, the authors put topics that have been taboo for decades into the public realm through artistic representation. These texts are rather literary transpositions and representations of historical traumas and their possible mourning mechanisms. Indeed, we have shown the tricky limits of Pierre Nora’s concept of ‘lieux de mémoire’ as it is discussed by Paul Ricoeur. Indeed, the reserve expressed by Nora himself and shared by Ricoeur of memory being consumed and dissolved in commemoration seems to be justified in relation to these interpreted texts. By its nature, literature can be used as a tool for subjective depictions of history and contemporary writers are taking part in debates on highly sensitive political and social issues (such as the Holocaust and massive expulsions). It seems that (often unintentionally) the writers might put themselves in the service of various ‘memory activists’. In extreme cases, far from giving ‘objective’ descriptions of national history, they are not only not participating in the noble cause of the struggle against politically imposed amnesia of the communist past but might be taking part in promoting other, new political causes. The mourning in these texts could often bring back memories and reveal a point of view of a specific social group that particularly suffered under communist rule in Central Europe – for example, that of the bourgeois elites of the interwar period (the texts of Huelle and Kratochvil are the best representations of this perspective). This topic is certainly worth further analysis and examination.

The analysed literary texts show clearly common ways of expressing collective mourning. They reveal a more general pattern of dealing with the collective past, especially a traumatic one. However, this mourning is far from objective and expresses clear subjective bias. It is even more evident in the literary texts dealing with the memory of the German past. Indeed, even if the texts might be considered to a certain extent as ‘places of memory’ (as problematic as this concept might be), they are not so much places of memory as expressions of personal and historical traumas of the20th century in Central Europe. As writers have focused almost exclusively on the issue of post-Second World War expulsions from the long-standing history of the German presence in Central Europe, we feel entitled to ask whether we are not dealing here with the mourning process for the cleansed national memory? The novels dedicated to the memory of the German past would thus be less about the mourning of the loss of the cultural legacy of the lost German community and more about a way of coming to terms with the legacy of dictatorships of the 20th century in Central Europe, especially that of communism.



Petra James obtained her PhD in Comparative Literature and Slavic Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris in 2009. Since 2011 she has been chair of Czech Literature and Language and director of Centre d’Etudes Tcheques [Centre of Czech Studies] at Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium [Free University of Brussels]. Her book Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composer un monde blessant a coups de ciseaux et de gommes arabiques’ [Bohumil Hrabal: ‘Composing a wounding world with scissors and glue’] was published by Les Classiques Garnier in Paris in 2012. Her main research areas are the comparative history of the avant-garde and cultural memory topics in Central European fiction. The special issue of the Belgian magazine Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire entitled ‘How to Tell the Story?’ edited by Petra James on the relationship between history and fiction and will appear shortly.



1 Claus Leggewie, ‘Seven Circles of European Memory’, Eurozine, 20 December 2010.

2 ‘International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance’. Accessed 10 December 2017: www.ohchr.org.

3 Ibid.

4 The right to truth was eventually included in a resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005: ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.’ Accessed 8 February 2018: www.ohchr.org.

5 ‘Question of the impunity of perpetrators of human rights violations (civil and political)’ (final report prepared by Louis Joinet pursuant to Sub-Commission decision 1996/19) [26 June 1997]. Accessed 6 January 2017: documents-dds-ny.un.org.

6 Ricoeur 2000, 528.

7 Ricoeur 2000, 523.

8 Ricoeur 2000, 95.

9 Ricoeur intuitively senses that the Freudian model is not absolutely satisfactory. He writes further: ‘as for reconciliation with the loss itself, this will forever remain an unfinished task’ (Ricoeur 2009, Kindle loc. 1365). It is also interesting to note that the final epilogue (in form of a short poem) of the book finishes with the word ‘l’inachevement’ (incompletion).

10 Derrida’s work is today considered as one of those marking the so-called ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s (see especially Peeren and Del Pilar Blanco 2013 and Peeren 2014 and Del Pilar Blanco 2014).

11 “I claimed, moreover, that the spectral figure of the desaparecido and the idea of wandering ancestral spirits have to be interpreted as reflections of particular conceptions of historicity.” (Bevernage 2012, 148; Chapter ‘History and the Work of Mourning’, Kindle loc. 3607.)

12 Bevernage is basing his conclusion on field research in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina. See also the works by Esther Peeren on spectrality and the scholarship produced after the ‘spectral turn’ in humanities in 1990s.

13 To give one example, the main character of Tučková’s novel The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch, finally escapes expulsion and comes back to her hometown Brno. Life seems to be returning to normal and she is about to reconstruct her life with her teenage love, who has become an important member of the communist party. Nevertheless, her life is finally shattered when her lover disappears at the moment of the show trial with the communist leader Rudolf Slánský and his collaborators in 1952.

14 The research on the parallels between Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism were taboo in Soviet historiography before 1989 but some writers, such as Grossmann (Life and Fate), have addressed this question (see Etkind 2013, Kindle, chapter ‘Soviet hauntology’). Central European writers address this topic in their writings and it is clearly visible in the texts by Kratochvil and Huelle.

15 According to Tučková the character is based on a real person and the story is inspired by the personal diary of this woman that the author was able to access.

16 De Certeau 2016, 343.

17 See also Jan Ceuppens, ‘Seeing Things: Spectres and Angels in W. G. Sebald’s Prose Fiction’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 190–202 (Edinburgh, 2004, 2006), and Anne Fuchs, ‘Die Unerlösheit der Geschichte: Der Film als Fantom’ [History impossible to solve: Film as Phantom], in Die Schmerzensspuren der Geschichte: Zur Poetik der Erinnerung [To the Poetics of Remembering], in W. G. Sebald’s Prosa, 62–67.

18 See also the famous texts on photography by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag.

19 From the vast bibliography on the use of photography by Sebald, see in particular Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Traumatic Photographs: Remembrance and the Technical Media in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, in J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead (eds), W. G. Sebald, A Critical Companion, 155–71, and Alexandra Tischel, ‘Aus der Dunkelkammer der Geschichte. Zum Zusammenhang von Photographie und Erinnerung in W. G. Sebalds Austerliz’, in Michael Niehaus, Claudia Öhlschläger (eds), W. G. Sebald, Politische Archaologie und melancholische Bastelei [W. G. Sebald. Political Archaeology and melancholic DIY] (Berlin, 2006), 31–45.

20 Denemarková 2009, 230.

21 Ricoeur 2000, 257.

22 Katalpa 2012, 416.


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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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