eipcp Policies
12 2011

Memorial Sites as Contact Zones

Cultures of Memory in a Shared/Divided Present

Translated by Aileen Derieg

Nora Sternfeld

Nora Sternfeld


Aileen Derieg (translation)




The role of memorial sites in society has changed substantially in the past thirty years: following decades of struggles on the part of survivor organizations for remembrance and against suppressing, denying and forgetting the history of the Nazi mass crimes, memorial sites are now finally state organized and professionalized institutions that no longer have to fight for public attention. In fact, now they are more likely to have to ward off many exaggerated expectations that they are confronted with: public wishes and attributions range from the idea of a “vaccination against right-wing extremism”[1] to education in human rights. The practice of memorial sites has thus today become an acknowledged sector of cultural policies.[2] The question is therefore no longer whether to remember[3], but rather how.

For as much as the late official engagement with the sites of Nazi crimes is to be regarded as an achievement, it is still linked with questions that are to be pursued in this text: What is the task of a memorial site? With which historico-political curtailments, exclusions and governmental strategies is the acknowledgment of negative remembrance of the history of crimes connected? Which prescribed purposes and meanings are associated with the official recognition and transnationalization of remembrance? And how much scope is still left in these cultural policies of memorial sites for historico-political approaches that allow for ruptures and take anti-fascist positions. In other words:

How Governmental is the Transnationalization and Actualization of Remembrance?

As a result of the increased public attention for the criminal history of these sites as well, a very specific sector of the exhibition and cultural field is also involved here, which does not need to struggle for references to “social relevance”. On the one hand, this is self-evident, and on the other, it is something that memorial sites are constantly confronted with from different sides: “Memorial sites have never been only cemeteries,” writes Jan Philipp Reemtsma. “At the same time, the sites should be something else, something that goes beyond the engaged memory of those who feel themselves to be descendants, a place ‘for future generations’ and for the future generations of ‘all nations’.”[4] What this involves is therefore a strong appeal to the present and the future, apparently associated with a transnational or even universal claim. And precisely these two aspects – actualization and transnationality – are both necessary and controversial in contemporary migration society.[5] For the fact of migration society must ultimately have implications for cultures of remembrance in a divided/shared present: it calls for going beyond the mono-perspectivity and the exclusions of the still dominant nation-state paradigm. At the same time, however, this has long since been transcended in a way that is not necessarily critical: as early as 2001 – a year after the Holocaust forum in Stockholm – Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider wrote that the “cosmopolitization of Holocaust remembrance has meanwhile become an integral component of European policies”.[6] And Enzo Traverso calls attention to the danger of a concomitant de-politicization of the culture of history. He says this consists “not in forgetting the Shoah, but in misusing the memory of it, embalming it, locking it up in museums and neutralizing its critical potential, or even worse, using it apologetically to support the current world order”.[7] What is therefore at stake is the question of which transnationality and which contemporary references appear meaningful, important and admissible, with which means these can and should be established, and what memorial sites conversely cannot and should not provide.

For in the past twenty years, a “new master narrative” has prevailed[8], which makes it possible to integrate the negative memory of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust in a positive narrative of identification. “Today’s public memorial events in remembrance of the obliteration of the Jews undoubtedly bear witness to a late, but real rising consciousness in all European countries,” writes Enzo Traverso, “but no one can claim that the memorial event for the liberation of Auschwitz in the presence of Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, Jack Straw and Jacques Chirac evinces a critical use of remembrance.”[9] Against this background, the historian Cornelia Siebeck warns against increasingly “normatively founded remembrance stories with a happy end”, which are interpreted as a sign of European identity or even a global value community.[10] If we take seriously this justified skepticism about a new transnational remembrance culture that is morally charged and neutralizes every critical potential at the same time, and yet still want to presume that actualization and transnationalization represent essential aspects of memorial site work today, what can we do? Is there a different transnationality? And what can the cultural policies of a memorial site look like, that do not seek to pacify and instruct in terms of anti-fascism and anti-racism, but rather to repoliticize?

To answer these questions, we must first continue to remain skeptical: for the tendency to a governmental transnationalization of remembrance in Europe meets national cultures of history that are still largely characterized in their self-understanding and didactics by majority-society mono-perspectives. So far, there have only been few approaches that do justice to migration society. In her study “Entliehene Erinnerung” (“Borrowed Memory”)[11], Viola Georgi addresses the question of young migrant people’s references to Nazism and the Shoah from the perspectives of research on historical consciousness, showing that these young people often see themselves as being excluded from the communication of this history and its narratives.[12] Yet even education that seeks to challenge the majority perspective remains entangled in schools and memorial sites as pedagogics, raising many questions and problems.[13] An especially difficult aporia is the question of how the mono-perspectivity of the nation-state paradigm can be challenged, but without conversely undertaking ethnicizing attributions and differences.[14] In other words:

How can we talk about difference without (re-)producing difference?[15]

For this I would like to introduce the term “contact zone”, which was coined by the post-colonialist theoreticians Mary Louise Pratt and James Clifford in the 1990s and which has helped to conceptualize museums and education processes in recent years as spaces of negotiation. Pratt and Clifford describe contact zones as social spaces, in which diverse social and cultural positions come into contact and have to coexist – more or less conflictually – and be negotiated.[16] Although the two post-colonial theoreticians, coming from comparative literature[17] and museum theory, were probably not thinking of the post-Nazi context when they developed and described their concept, the idea of the contact zone still seems productive for the context of memorial sites: with it, it is possible to imagine connections between different positions against the background of the history of Nazi crimes, but without making appropriating or unifying assumptions. The term describes shared/divided[18] social spaces of contact, challenging existing concepts of community at the same time: it thwarts notions of “authenticity” as well as those of “powerlessness”. This means that different histories, references and power relations can come into view, but without having to assume or construct cultural differentness at the same time.

Hierarchies are neither considered here as the sole factor producing meaning, nor are they disregarded. For even though everyone within a contact zone is influenced by specific conditions and power relations, but nevertheless not wholly determined by them, it becomes possible to envision a power of agency in theory and practice. This possibility of agency is available to all participants in a contact zone – albeit in different ways against the background of existing asymmetries of power relations. Contact zones are thus power-charged spaces of agency.

In these divided/shared spaces, actors interact with one another under different conditions. What is productive about the concept is that the formation of the subject is not presumed to substantially precede the contact, but instead first emerges through joint agency and negotiation:[19] it is based neither on the western humanist idea of seemingly universal equally acting people, nor on the culturalist notions of a predetermination due to origin. In the theory of the contact zone, subjects and actors are therefore not constructed essentially – in keeping with an interaction of a preceding culture or social position – but rather in process and in relation to one another.

A further level of the contact zone, which is often misunderstood or forgotten in the use of the term, is that of conflict. An encounter in unequal power relations obviously holds many potentials for conflict. And these are not repressed in the term, but are instead an integral component.[20] In this way, contact zones are no longer seen merely as powerful spaces, but rather as organic structures, in which different social struggles are reflected as ongoing processes of fighting for the power of interpretation. This results in a hegemony-theoretical conclusion: to the extent that organic structures are involved, which are the results of struggles within power relations, these are also not immutable, but can be called into question and redefined.

So, what does this have to do with me, anyway?” – A project between research, education and exhibition

The fact that this orientation to an open and conflictual contact zone is associated with many questions and challenges in practice is to be illustrated here with a concrete project: from September 2009 to September 2011 we worked as a transdisciplinary project team of educators and scholars affiliated with the Viennese agency Büro trafo.K[21] within the framework of the project “So, what does this have to do with me, anyway? Transnational Perceptions of the History of National Socialism and the Holocaust” with school pupils on perspectives of a transnational conveyance of history in terms of Nazism and the Holocaust in a migration society. In cooperation with educators, teachers[22], students[23], scholars[24] and designers[25], the pupils developed interventions in a memorial site[26] located in their school – the secondary school Brigittenauer Gymnasium, where a Gestapo prison was located during Nazism.

To deal with the dilemma described above between homogenization and the attribution of difference, we developed an open project structure, with which the young people were essentially involved in the course of the project in as many places as possible. These were arranged in the project so that we offered contents on the basis of exhibition visits and inputs, but generated a structure at the same time, in which the pupils could pursue their own questions. All that was defined was that the project was situated within the thematic complex of Nazism, Holocaust and Second World War. The concrete aspects and questions to be treated within this context first emerged in the course of the project process. Two essential means for this were the development of the pupils’ own research questions and the inclusion of experts for exactly these questions. This was intended to facilitate the formulation of focal points on the part of the pupils themselves. Based on this method, which is fundamentally open in terms of results, the title question of the project “So, what does this have to do with me, anyway? was to be made concrete in respectively specific and different ways. Similar to research questions and working topics in scholarly research, the question can be answered again and again and in repeatedly in different ways in the course of a project. The questions were formulated concretely in cooperation between the pupils, scholars, educators and teachers.

With the help of the conceptive decision to involve experts, we wanted to counter a conventional, common pedagogical tendency to advise the pupils so that they merely ask questions that the educators can answer themselves or from thematic fields they are already familiar with. Our aim was to create a setting, in which we would not be afraid of our own unknowing. Rather, it was specifically the objective of the project to bring up aspects of the thematic complex of Nazism, Holocaust and Second World War, which are generally marginalized, which we might not know and therefore could not anticipate or prepare for in advance.

The young people thus developed twelve research questions. Their scope provides a telling insight into the references that young people choose for themselves, when they formulate the topic that they are interested in dealing with: Which role did Turkey play in the Second World War?[27] Why did the Balkan War start? Are there connections with the Second World War?[28] Who profited from “Aryanizations” and the solidarity of the “Volksgemeinschaft”?[29] What are the forms of organization and expression of right-wing extremism in Austria?[30] How does propaganda work (taking election posters as an example)?[31] How does society deal with homosexuality (from the “Third Reich” up to the present)?[32] How ambivalent is assimilation?[33] What is the role of the memorial plaque for the remembrance of the Gestapo prison in the school Brigittenauer Gymnasium?[34] What happened at the “Anschluss” in 1938?[35] How did organization and everyday life work in the concentration camp Mauthausen?[36] What were the crimes of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union? How are they portrayed in school books?[37] How did NS medicine define “unworthy of life”?[38] Both the scope and the quality of the results make it clear that conveying history in a way that can traverse the national borders of classical history teaching and yet still dispense with identitary attributions and definitions, enables highly productive and intensive process that are edifying for everyone involved.

During the two years of the project, however, we were not only confronted with serious and successful working processes (as is evident from what is described above), but also with numerous forms of defensiveness and disinterest on the part of the pupils.

In order to do justice to the conflictuality of the concomitant situations in theory, it seems appropriate to expand Clifford’s concept of the contact zone with a democracy-theory approach to dealing with dissent: Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonism.[39] By condensing Clifford and Mouffe, it becomes possible to describe our processes with the idea of an “agonistic conflict zone” as one that is open and decidedly partisan at the same time. In the agonistic contact zone it is not a matter of “socially acceptable speaking”, but rather of the possibility for all those involved to take a position. Our position here is therefore not exclusionary, but also not at all neutral, but rather dissentual and convincing.

Shared/Divided Places of Remembrance

If we take the two problems seriously that have been addressed, all too simplistically endowing the sites of industrial mass murder with meaning on the one hand and the danger of ethnicization with the desire for pedagogical transnationalization on the other, then certain conclusions can be drawn in reference to the opening up of conventional self-understandings:

There are two different aspects involved in memorial sites: first, the aspect of what happened there. And secondly, what this means for society today. These two sides of communicating history are categorically different from one another. We can only approach what happened historically. We must adhere to the concrete material (documents, traces in the specific places, statements from survivors) and to the historiographical interpretations based on this material. This must be taken seriously and not allowed to recede into the background through simplistic gestures of loftiness and creating meaning. Beyond this, it seems that a revision of the cultures and forms of teaching history is needed. What do we know about the European dimension of complicity in the crimes? Why is there nothing in Austrian textbooks about the crimes in Yugoslavia, about the role of the partisans? How familiar are we with post-colonial perspectives of Nazism? How differentially can we see the role of Turkey in the Second World War? We must continue to insist – counter to mere avowals and rhetoric – on historical work and on its concretion and methodology.

Secondly, it is a matter of a participative dimension that is categorically different from the historical work: what can be negotiated today is not what was, but rather its significance for the present. To the extent that memorial site work seeks to be participative, however, this must be done constantly and respectively in common. In the sense of the contact zone, this means that not all the answers to what the mass crimes of the Nazis mean for us are already given. Rather, the point is to open up a space of negotiation with open objectives and which also makes dissent possible. Here it is worthwhile to conjoin the concept of the contact zone with Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonism. This enables a theory of democracy that allows for conflicts: Mouffe speaks of a “kind of conflictual consensus”, which “opens up a common symbolic space for opponents as ‘legitimate adversaries’.”[40] To avoid any misunderstandings: this does not at all mean that history work should be neutral. On the contrary, for Mouffe agonism means partisanship: “The fundamental difference between the ‘dialogical’ and the ‘agonistic’ perspective is that the latter aims to achieve a profound change in the existing power relations and to create a new hegemony. For this reason, the agonistic perspective can be called ‘radical’ in the proper sense.”[41] In this sense, an argument is to be made here for history work in shared/divided sites of remembrance, which is to be regarded as equally participative and reflexive, as well as anti-fascist and anti-racist.

If memorial sites are not merely to become moral instances of self-assurance, then it is necessary to insist on ruptures and questions that were associated with the words “never forget”, before they became a hollow phrase. The two aspects of history work addressed here – historical material and the contact zone – can be regarded as equally justified ways of resisting a top-down establishment of meaning. For neither the historical subject nor the acceptance of a multiplication of references to places of remembrance in the contact zone can be packaged into a simple morality. They represent often unexpected encounters and compel accepting ruptures and revising claims of establishing meaning.


[1]    In conjunction with the presentation of reform plans for the memorial site of the concentration camp Mauthausen in 2001, Ernst Strasser (Austrian People’s Party), Minister for the Interior at that time, said: “We want to create a contemporary form of remembrance for subsequent generations. With this, we want to find a kind of vaccination against right-wing radicalism, persecution and every form of reactivating Nazi ideology, and to secure Mauthausen as a center for the prevention of reactivation.” www.bmi.gv.at/cms/BMI_oeffentlicheSicherheit/2001/03_04/Artikel_14.aspx. This idea of a vaccination originally comes from Adorno, who spoke in 1959 in the lecture “Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit” (“What does working through the past mean”) about the establishment of psychological and pedagogical propaganda tricks in terms of this kind of “vaccination”. Theodor W. Adorno: “Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit (1959)”, Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, Frankfurt am Main 1971, p. 10-28, here p. 27.

[2]    Cf. Jan Philipp Reemtsma, “Wozu Gedenkstätten”, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 25-26/2010, p. 3-9, here p. 3. Volkhard Knigge – head of the concentration camp memorial site Buchenwald – speaks of how it became possible to establish “negative remembrance as a public task promoted by the state” in the Federal Republic of Germany. Cf. Volkhard Knigge, “Zur Zukunft der Erinnerung”, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 25-26/2010, p. 10-16, here p. 12.

[3]    Volkhard Knigge points out that the question of “whether” – “the question of how it can be politically implemented against sometimes vehement resistance” was in the foreground until into the 1980s. Volkhard Knigge, “Gedenkstätten und Museen”, in: ibid., Norbert Frei (Ed.), Verbrechen erinnern. Die Auseinandersetzung mit Holocaust und Völkermord, Bonn 2005, p. 378-389, here p. 402f.

[4]    Jan Philipp Reemtsma, “Wozu Gedenkstätten”, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 25-26/2010, p. 3-9, here p. 4.

[5]    “The fact that all western European societies have meanwhile become immigration societies results in the necessity of the development of a transnational culture of remembrance.” Harald Welzer, “Erinnerungskultur und Zukunftsgedächtnis”, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 25-26/2010, p. 16-29, here p. 17.

[6]    Daniel Levy, Nathan Sznaider, Erinnerung im globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust, Frankfurt am Main 2001, p. 210.

[7]    Enzo Traverso, Gebrauchsanleitungen für die Vergangenheit. Geschichte, Erinnerung, Politik, Münster 2007, p. 71.

[8]    Cf. Cornelia Siebeck, "Gedächtnis, Macht, Repräsentation. Zur (Un-)Möglichkeit demokratischer Gedenkstätten" ["Remembrance, Power, Representation. On the (Im-)Possibility of Democratic Memorial Sites"]. Unpublished Abstract for a lecture at the 16th workshop on the history of concentration camps, "New Perspectives of Concentration Camp Research: Place, Occurrence and Remembrance". Oświęcim/Gedenkstätte Auschwitz, 21 to 25 May 2010.

[9]    Enzo Traverso, “Vom kritischen Gebrauch der Erinnerung”, Thomas Flierl, Elfriede Müller (Ed.), Vom kritischen Gebrauch der Erinnerung, Berlin 2009, p. 27-46, here p. 36.

[10]  Cornelia Siebeck, “Gedächtnis, Macht, Repräsentation. Zur (Un-)Möglichkeit ‘demokratischer’ NS-Gedenkstätten”,  Abstract for a lecture at the 16th workshop on the history of National-Socialist Concentration Camps in the Memorial Site Auschwitz 2010, unpublished.

[11]  Viola Georgi, Entliehene Erinnerung. Geschichtsbilder junger Migranten in Deutschland, Hamburg 2003.

[12]  Recall, for instance, the triad “perpetrators, victims, onlookers” noted by Raul Hilberg, which has had a strong influence on contemporary forms of education and leaves little scope for other historical perspectives (such as those of partisans, soldiers in colonialism or an army of the allied, etc.).

[13]  On this, cf. the reflective perspectives from Astrid Messerschmidt (Astrid Messerschmidt, Weltbilder und Selbstbilder. Bildungsprozesse im Umgang mit Globalisierung, Migration und Zeitgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main 2009) and Paul Mecheril (Paul Mecheril, “Migrationspädagogik. Hinführung zu einer Perspektive”, in: ibid. et al., Migrationspädagogik, Weinheim, Basel 2010).

[14]  “Neither ignorance with respect to the aspect of migration, nor its identitarian charge correspond to the societal-cultural facts. Instead, there should be a striving to contextualize migration in the context of manifold differences and belonging and a reference to experiences in a common social space, in which history is represented.” Astrid Messerschmidt, “Involviertes Erinnern. Migrationsgesellschaftliche Bildungsprozess in den Nachwirkungen des Nationalsozialismus”, Till Hilmar (Ed.), Ort, Subjekt, Verbrechen. Koordinated historisch-politischer Bildungsarbeit zum Nationalsozialismus, Vienna 2010, p. 277-299, here p. 278.

[15]  I owe the specific phrasing of this question to a working group following a lecture by Paul Mecheril at the symposium: Kunstvermittlung in der Migrationsgesellschaft, Eine Arbeitstagung, 27 – 28 May 2011, Institut für Kunst im Kontext, Universität der Künste, Berlin.

[16]  Pratt uses the term – in keeping with the subject of her research – primarily in conjunction with western expansions and ethnographic explorations. Clifford emphasizes that it can be expanded to social differentiations, such as in a city. With this background, it is suitable for describing divided spaces in migration society: “The notion of a contact zone, articulated by Pratt in contexts of European expansion and transculturation, can be extended to include cultural relations within the same state, region, or city – in the centers rather than the frontiers of nations and empires. The distances at issue here are more social than geographic. For most inhabitants of a poor neighborhood, located perhaps just blocks or a short bus ride from a fine-arts museum, the museum might as well be another continent. Contact perspectives recognize that ‘natural’ social distances and segregations are historical/political products.” (James Clifford, Routes, Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge 1997, 204).

[17]  According to the comparative literature scholar Pratt, the term Contact Zone comes from linguistics: “I borrow the term ‘contact’ here from linguistics, where the term contact language refers to an improvised language that develops among speakers of different tongues who need to communicate with each other consistently, usually in the context of trade. Such languages begin as pidgins, and are called creoles when they come to have native speakers of their own. Like the societies of the contact zone, such languages are commonly regarded as chaotic, barbarous and lacking in structure. (Ron Carter has suggested the term ‘contact literatures’ to refer to literatures written in European languages from outside Europe.)” (Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York, 2nd edition 2008, p. 8.)

[18]  The concept of shared/divided space, which is expressed in German with the double sense of the word “geteilt”, is thematized in post-colonial theory in reference to borders and conflicts. Cf., for instance, Michael Chisholm/David Smith (Ed.), Shared Space, Divided Space: Essays on Conflict and Territorial Organization, London–New York 1990.

[19]  This corresponds with the current state of debates in post-colonial theory. Cf. For instance the deconstructive Foucault reception and re-reading by Gayatri Spivak: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York–London 1993.

[20]  For Clifford, the Contact Zone – which he even refers to once as “contact (conflict) zone” – thus enables an analysis of the museum as a place where conflicts have become sediments: “When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship – a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull.” (Clifford, Routes, Travel and Translation, 192).

[21]  Renate Höllwart, Elke Smodics-Kuscher, Nora Sternfeld and Ines Garnitschnig (social sciences scholar) together with Dirk Rupnow (Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Universität Innsbruck)

[22]  The participating teachers for history and political education were Renate Pražak, Heldis Stepanik-Kögl and Michael Zahradnik. This cooperation was also made possible through support from the director, Margaret Witek.

[23]  Angelika Stephanie Böhm, Isabella Bugnits, Tobias Dörler, Cornelia Hauer, Werner Prokop, Anna Schähle, Melanie Wurth (students at the Institute for Artistic Teacher-Training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in conjunction with Maria Hündler’s course “School and Education”).

[24]  Marty Huber, Jasmina Janković, Martin Krenn, Peter Larndorfer, Hannah Landsmann, Walter Manoschek, Radostina Patulova, Heribert Schiedel, Adalbert Wagner

[25]  Toledo i Dertschei, http://tid.nextroom.at/

[27]  This was the question that Ömer Apaydin, Tanju Ersungur and Mustafa Şahan worked on.

[28]  Milos Stanišić, Mario Talaić, Paul Schutting.

[29]  Ali Asghari, Gentiana Kaba, Marijo Kajušić-Pavić.

[30]  Julia Herko, Maria Li, Daniela Ujhazi, Nicolette Wikgolm, Natascha Wurm.

[31]  Nina Aichinger, Besiana Grdela

[32]  Judith Frühwirth, Patrick Marksteiner, Shivam Subhash.

[33]  Ahmed El Arby, Nikola Ilić, Baran Şengül.

[34]  Paul Schutting, Ayşegül Şeker, Bernhard Teuschl

[35]  Frederick Dabe, Harald Sattler, Miloš Stanišić

[36]  Lisa Napravnik, Romana Prerad, Asmaa Soliman

[37]  Emil Proksch, Artur Tsal-Tsalko

[38]  Marijo Kajušić-Pavić

[39]  Mouffe understands agonism as “‘conflictual consensus’ that opens up a common symbolic space for opponents as ‘legitimate adversaries’.” She writes: “Different from the dialogical approach, I regard democratic discussion as real confrontation. […] The fundamental difference between the ‘dialogical’ and the ‘agonistic’ perspective is that the latter aims to achieve a profound change in the existing power relations and to create a new hegemony.” Cf. Chantal Mouffe, Über das Politische. Wider die kosmopolitische Illusion, Frankfurt am Main 2007, 69-70.

[40]  Chantal Mouffe, Über das Politische. Wider die kosmopolitische Illusion, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 70.

[41]  Ibid.

With support of the Federal Ministry for Arts, Education and Culture, IA/4.