Faces of Evil: The Figure of the Perpetrator in Contemporary Memory Culture
Susanne Knittel has received a VENI grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) to carry out research (2014-2017) on Faces of Evil.
The fierce debates surrounding the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes
in 2006 exposed a central tension in public and academic conceptions of witnessing and the Holocaust. A fictional memoir of an SS-officer, the novel was a huge success, but opinion was divided about its artistic merits and ethical implications. Is it acceptable to present a Nazi as the ideal witness to the Holocaust? Is it possible to reconcile the critical imperative to understand the motivations of historical actors with the moral imperative not to rationalise the perpetrators’ acts? Littell’s novel forms part of a broader shift in contemporary culture away from the preoccupation with trauma and victimhood and toward a more nuanced engagement with the figure of the perpetrator. The aim of this project is to provide insight into the recent emergence in contemporary culture of the figure of the perpetrator as a viable perspective on the past, and to help develop a critical vocabulary on perpetratorship that is able to respond to this current shift. This project traces the figure of the perpetrator through post-1989 memory culture in Germany and Romania, where the joint legacies of Fascism and Communism render questions of perpetration and victimhood inherently ambiguous and complex. I analyse the role of perpetrators in literature, drama, film, and at documentary exhibitions in order to elucidate how these cultures create narratives about their own history through which they negotiate questions of complicity and collaboration in order to ascribe or disavow guilt and responsibility. Through a comparative and interdisciplinary analysis of the figure of the perpetrator across different literary and visual media in these two countries I will shed new light on how questions of perpetratorship and collaboration influence the construction of cultural identity, both at the national level and within the broader framework of European memory.
A further aim of this project is to build an interdisciplinary and transnational research network. For more information about the network, please visit The Perpetrator Studies Network online at
Future Events Organized by The Perpetrator Studies Network
Workshop Series: Teaching about Perpetrators
There is a growing consensus that presenting perpetrators of mass crimes as monsters or psychopaths is ultimately counterproductive, as it obscures the social, political, historical, and cultural mechanisms that enable them and inhibits an understanding of their continued relevance for today. Yet, the representation and reception of perpetrators and, more importantly, the pedagogical approaches to these figures in contemporary culture are still largely characterized by a distancing amalgamation of sensationalism on the one hand and moralistic condemnation on the other. This series of workshops aims to examine how our contradictory attitudes toward perpetrators in society and culture can in themselves be made the object of enquiry. Furthermore, we will explore the opportunities and challenges for teaching and learning about past atrocities through the figure of the perpetrator across disciplines.
Workshop 1: Teaching about Perpetrators: Documents, Media, Representations
, will take place on September 10–12, 2015 at Utrecht University.
Workshop 2: Teaching about Perpetrators: Theories, Concepts, Approaches
, will take place at Utrecht University in April 2016.
Workshop 3: Teaching about Perpetrators: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics
, will take place at Utrecht University in November 2016.
The first workshop is now full. Information about the second and third workshop will be posted on the Perpetrators Studies Network website in due course. Please visit: http://perpetratorstudies.sites.uu.nl
International Conference: Representing Perpetrators
September 1–3, 2016, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Organizer: Susanne C. Knittel, Utrecht University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keynote Speaker: Milo Rau, International Institute of Political Murder (http://international-institute.de)
The conference will also feature the English-language première of The Woman at His Side: Careers, Crimes, and Female Complicity under National Socialism, a staged reading by Inga Dietrich, Joanne Gläsel and Sabine Werner.
A full Call for Papers will be published on the Perpetrator Studies Network website, and on relevant mailing lists in early 2016.