Nowadays, memories of the Second World War are expressed in a variety of ways. But what are the consequences of these divergent renditions of the past? Which voices are being heard, and which are not? How does this influence the way in which we see ourselves? Prof.dr. Kees Ribbens talks about this in an interview with VPRO Gids. In an essay in Trouw he further expands the notion of shaping the past. He points to “the recent development of Anne Frank to a commodity” and wonders: who actually has control over the collective memory? Where lies the boundary between serene commemoration and banal commerce?
Ribbens is endowed professor in history at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and senior researcher at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Video journals about Anne Frank, tv series like World on Fire and Het Verhaal van Nederland, and movies such as De Slag om de Schelde all serve us a different bite of history. One more nuanced than the other. It seems like within our memory culture, stories that deviate from the dominant idea that we, in Kees’ words, “were merely victims in the fourties of the past century” are carefully being explored. According to him, there have been fruitful attempts to illuminate the Netherlands as perpetrator, but one shouldn’t speak too soon: “the question is whether we are also willing to alter the prominent position of the Second World War in our memory culture. The focus on this war is immense and stands in stark contrast with the interest in the decolonisation.”
“A culture which consists solely of memory consumers is of course as interesting as watching paint dry.”
The media that are being utilised to demonstrate the past are also becoming more diverse. On the one hand we see a comeback of the comic book, but more modern media like games and the YouTube series Anne Frank Videodagboek are also popping up. One more true to historic sources than the other.
According to Kees it is, above all, important to view historical stories through a critical lens. “Sometimes it is good to shake up the existing view of the past, for example by associating the Second World War with (de)colonisation. It sparks commotion, and questions. A historical culture that doesn’t pose questions is a culture that, in the end, consists solely of memory consumers. And that is of course as interesting as watching paint dry.”
“For 22 dollar there is an ‘Anne Frank Ceramic Latte Mug” for sale with the lettering ‘Think Of All The Beauty Still Left Around You And Be Happy.”
Anne Frank as a marketing stunt
So, the memory culture these days is more diverse and dynamic as ever. This also leads to a certain discomfort, Kees poses in an essay in Trouw, because the rules of the game appear to be fading. It used to be an unwritten rule that one was not allowed to make profit from the Holocaust, but nowadays this isn’t so self-evident anymore. For example, there is an immense amount of Anne Frank souvenirs and paraphernalia. “The supply is so big that one could decorate an entire Anne Frank Home with it”, Kees states, after which he takes the reader along in the design process.
Kees Ribbens” “There is a wide choice of mugs for the kitchen of the Anne Frank Home. For a little less than 22 dollars there is, for example, an ‘Anne Frank Ceramic Latte Mug’ for sale with the lettering ‘Think Of All The Beauty Still Left Around You And Be Happy’. A happy drawing of Anne Frank can be ordered as a set of coasters. The inevitable fridge magnet also comes up here. Local souvenir shops sell prints of a variety of historic buildings, among which the famous facade on the Prinsengracht. For less than three euros the buyer gets a miniature facade of the well-known hiding place, in colour or Delfts blue-white. Adding an American ‘Inspirational Quote Magnet’ is possible, like the one with ‘How Wonderful It Is That Nobody Need Wait A Single Moment Before Starting To Improve The World’. The accompanying illustration shows a woman doing the laundry with a baby smiling in the grass – an idyll that Anne didn’t get to enjoy.”
According to Kees this is a worrisome development: “it shows interest and engagement, but doesn’t automatically lead to a better understanding of the complex reality in which this mass murder emerged. Hopeful, universal messages are not per se the only logical outflow of commemorating a fifteen-year-old girl that died in 1945 in a concentration camp. At the end of the day, only the memories that hurt and spark questions can bring us closer to the past.”