Minimalism and Victim Testimony

This essay renews a discussion of how historians do, and should, represent atrocity. It argues that the problems of representing extreme violence remain under-conceptualized; in this context it discusses the strengths and weaknesses of minimalism, a style prevalent both in historiography and in an intellectual culture that values understatement in approaches to violence. The essay traces the general cultural preference for minimalist narratives of suffering, which, it claims, is driven by the widespread conviction that experimental and exuberant narratives convert victims' suffering into kitsch. It then focuses on two works, by Saul Friedlander and by Jan Gross, on the history of Jewish victims during and after the Second World War in order to assess how each uses sophisticated minimalist understatement to represent suffering, but with radically different effects. Finally, it asks historians to reflect upon the representation of extreme events by focusing on narrative style, on questions of ethics, and on the cultural narratives within which their own work on suffering and violence is inevitably embedded-especially given that historians are paying increasing attention to violent events that generate tremendous difficulties in relation to the representation both of victims and perpetrators.