Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1989

Abstract

Noting the enormous media interest in the war crimes trial of Klaus Barbie, and the surprising emphasis of this coverage on its cultural significance, this essay provides a literary reading of the trial as a contest over identity. More specifically, it treats the trial and its coverage as a struggle among competing groups - including the French state, various strands of the French left, the French right, resistance veterans, holocaust survivors, Zionists, Arabs, anti-colonialists - for the power to represent Nazism. All of these groups sought to define Nazism so as to claim a privileged identity as essential victims or opponents. Drawing on over 2000 media accounts, the essay explores how the historical background of the case caused it to assume such significance, how both international and french legal doctrine made the ideological content of Nazism particularly salient, and how French criminal procedure privileged these different interests as parties to the case and so brought them into public conflict with one another. The essay also reviews the theological conflicts within Judaism and the philosophical and ideological conflicts within the French left that were dramatized at the trial and in its media coverage. Finally, the essay treats the widespread urge to identify causes and communities in opposition to Nazism as a culturally prevalent trope, reflecting to a common crisis of faith and survivor guilt in the face of atrocity. The essay critiques this trope, however, as enabling groups to claim a fictitious coherence and conviction by ascribing an enviable and equally fictitious coherence and conviction to an enemy. The essay concludes by urging readers to resist the temptation to consume the Holocaust as an object of moral edification.

Publication Title

Yale Law Journal

First Page

1321

Last Page

1383

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