Geographies of Perpetration

Re-Signifying Cultural Narratives of Mass Violence

by Brigitte E. Jirku (Volume editor) Vicente Sánchez-Biosca (Volume editor)
©2021 Conference proceedings 270 Pages


This volume maps cultural representations of Mass Violence from the perpetrators’ perspective. It analyzes spaces where political crimes have been committed and how these places have undergone successive resemanticization in collective memories. The chapters comparatively examine scenes of Mass Violence carried out in very diverse regions of the globe, from the Third Reich to the Argentinian Dictatorship, from the Gulag to Francoist Spain, from the Cambodian genocide to terrorism. They explore, from a "cultural" point of view, how the events have been represented, i.e. visualized and narrated, and how the crime scenes have been reappropriated for the sake of memory, mourning, and prevention, in accordance with political, social, and ideological frameworks.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Mapping Cultural Narratives of Mass Violence. An Introduction (Brigitte E. Jirku/Vicente Sánchez-Biosca)
  • Crime Scenes and the Politics of Memory
  • Contested Heritage. From Rashomon Crimes Scenes Towards a Multi-level Perspective on Social Change (Christophe Busch)
  • Ghetto, Memorial, Modern Town? Theresienstadt/Terezín as Postcatastrophic Space (Anja Tippner)
  • The Silence of the Perpetrators–the (Post)Colonial Museum as a Crime Scene (António Sousa Ribeiro)
  • Memory and Post-Colonial Experience. Victims and Perpetrators in José Eduardo Agualusa’s Novel Teoria Geral do Esquecimento (A General Theory of Oblivion) (Dagmar von Hoff)
  • Cemeteries as Sites of Memory of the First World War Dead (Ana R. Calero Valera)
  • Our New Brave “Heroes”? (Philippe Mesnard)
  • Scenes of Mass Violence and the Phantoms of the Perpetrator
  • Showing the “Crime Scene”: Statements of ESMA Perpetrators and the Memory of Argentina’s Dictatorship (Claudia Feld/Valentina Salvi)
  • The Scene of the Crime: Vestiges of the Past and Cartography of Basque Political Violence (Santiago de Pablo)
  • Belchite: A Crime Scene Peopled by the Dead and Their Ghosts (Stéphane Michonneau)
  • Mass Graves as Crime Scenes: Forensic Operatives and Scenographies in Contemporary Spain (Francisco Ferrándiz)
  • Reenactment—Artistic Representation of the Crime Scenes
  • Can We Find the Perpetrator on the Landscape? (Luba Jurgenson)
  • The Perpetrator Visits the Crime Scene. A Cambodian Tragedy in Two Acts (Vicente Sánchez-Biosca)
  • The Killer Does Not Always Return to the Crime Scene. A Look at the Representation of the Victimizers in Documentary Film (Lior Zylberman)
  • Bodies Tossed to the Sea: Forced Disappearance in Chilean Narrative and Memorial (Jaume Peris Blanes)
  • El Patronato de Protección a la Mujer: Space, Image and the Mark of Perpetration (María Rosón)
  • The Female Body as Memorial Site: Literary Archives of Mass Rape (Brigitte E. Jirku)
  • List of Authors
  • Series index

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Brigitte E. Jirku/Vicente Sánchez-Biosca

Universitat de València

Mapping Cultural Narratives of Mass Violence. An Introduction1

Abstract: This study presents an introduction to the discussion of cultural narratives of mass violence by focusing on the concept lieu de mémoire in relation to perpetrator studies. Through space and time it explores the resemanticization of crime scenes into sites of memory in relating the issue of mass crime perpetration and the social implications that the processes entail.

Keywords: Spatial Turn, Memory Studies, Perpetrator Studies, Crime Scenes

“Telle est la géographie du crime: invisible à qui ne cherche pas”

Rithy Panh: La paix avec les morts. Paris: Grasset 2020, p. 38.

“What do these places do to us?”

Maria Tumarkin: “Twenty Years of Thinking about Traumascapes”, Fabrications 29.1 (2019), p. 10.

Transcended, Negated Sites

Despite their frequent use and apparent transparency, both the expression and concept of “lieux de mémoire” prove highly ambiguous. The seminal work Lieux de mémoire, published in 1984 under Pierre Nora’s direction, dispelled from the very beginning the notion that its object of study could be reduced strictly to material spaces, as the project’s initial ethnographical dimension—as specified by its author—aspired to much more: “cartographier notre propre géographie mentale”.2 Nora understood the expression “lieu” as a symbolic crystallization of the French ←7 | 8→nation’s collective identity and, consequently, the research sought to reflect on the varied representations of national myths.3 In searching for these crystallizations of memory in a society that had seen the traditional “milieux de mémoire”4 disappear—that is, modern society—Nora and the numerous authors under his direction strived to examine both material and immaterial products, in such a way that the term lieu de mémoire was applied both to physical monuments and to more intangible symbols such as the flag, national colors, or the national anthem, in addition to the territory itself, words, or even unequivocal abstractions like the notion of glory. Having said this, the fact that nation-states’ foundational myths would be meticulously revised in the post-World War II era proved inevitable, both in memory culture as well as through institutions calling for memory politics.

Barely a year after Nora had stirred the intellectual community (and not just the French) with his encyclopedic work, the director of Les temps modernes and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann shook Holocaust studies with his documentary magnum opus entitled Shoah (1985). Its topic likewise rested on sites: specifically those where the planned destruction of the Jews of Europe was carried out; places disfigured not only by the passage of time, but by those who had constructed them, as they proceeded to systematically dismantle these spaces after they had served their purpose (that is, the extermination camps of the so-called Aktion Reinhardt: Bełżec, Sobibor and Treblinka). The filmmaker visited these sites, either alone or—whenever possible—accompanied by survivors and witnesses, scouring their innermost cracks and minimal details which lay behind beautiful landscapes or ruins that displayed themselves before his eyes. There the central aim was to unravel the ghost of annihilation, of violence, and of the genocide for which these very sites were the stage, which ultimately could only emerge spectrally through the light of storytelling. Curiously, in order to account for the erasure and simulation that inhabited these places, Lanzmann searched for a paradoxical term that had connotations of both recognition and rejection: “les non-lieux de mémoire”.5

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From disparate perspectives, and without any relation between one and the other as far as we know, the two projects had been developed in parallel over a matter of years and rather obsessively so, inasmuch as each project entailed both need and exhaustion: Nora’s project stemmed from a seminar that went on for three years (1978–1981) in the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and whose writing took the following three; Lanzmann, on his part, traversed the whole world over a period of eleven years (France, Germany, Israel, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, etc.) in search of the living word of those who had brushed with death and had returned from the experience profoundly transformed. His camera scrutinized the unrecognizable sites of murder just as they were—barely—conserved in the present. In both cases, the term lieu was evoked as a necessity, but also for both authors the physicalness of the sites was both insufficient and contradictory. This very dematerialization was at the heart of their analysis.

Despite their convergence, these two magna opera that articulate both memory and space point in two different directions: the first addresses the construction of national identity through its mental crystallizations; the second points to the destruction of one of the foundations of European identity as it existed in the first third of the 20th century (the Jewish population) by the Third Reich, which annihilated at the same time the memory of its crime by proceeding to destroy the very traces of this destruction.6 The foundational character of Nora’s work is confirmed in Étienne François and Hagen Schultze’s 2001 three-volume Deutsche Erinnerungsorte and, ten years later and with substantial changes, by Pim den Boer’s monumental Europäische Erinnerungsorte, which searched for myths and principles for a European identity that transcended the borders of the nation state, from the Krupp dynasty or Beethoven’s ninth symphony to physical places.

Two forces collided: the first, a return to a national memory under threat;7 the second, the demand for a transnational memory linked to catastrophe. In its ←9 | 10→own way, it is not exaggeration to hold that these works became, to a greater or lesser extent, lieux de mémoire themselves. In Lanzmann’s case, his film was recognized for decades as the Holocaust film and, with a certain excess, the director sought to dictate a specific poetics, consisting in rejecting the use of any archival materials whatsoever. Be that as it may, this metaphorization of space to address aspects that exceed a site’s materiality seems to indirectly confirm the primacy of time which had until then characterized memory studies. Certainly, memory itself constitutes a threat to the passage of time, as the past seems to be revived in memory, as if it had suffered no erosion at all.8


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 270 pp., 17 fig. col., 28 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Brigitte E. Jirku (Volume editor) Vicente Sánchez-Biosca (Volume editor)

Brigitte E. Jirku is a professor of German Studies at the University of Valencia. Her research centers on the study of gender, especially in relation to discourses of power and violence, on literary spaces, and on the problematic victim-perpetrator paradigm in contemporary German literature. Vicente Sánchez-Biosca is a professor of Visual Culture at the University of Valencia. He leads the research project From Spaces of Perpetration to Sites of Memory and has worked on the Spanish Civil War, the Shoah, and the Cambodian Genocide. His book La muerte en los ojos: qué perpetran las imágenes de perpetradores (2021) is a global study of perpetrator images.


Title: Geographies of Perpetration