Perpetrator Studies Network


10 - 12 September 2015
Utrecht, NL

Workshop: Teaching about Perpetrators

The figure of the perpetrator occupies a paradoxical position in contemporary society, characterized by a constant oscillation between fascination, repugnance, demonization and, in some cases, sympathy. This moral uncertainty is difficult to reconcile with contemporary memory culture and commemorative practice, particularly with respect to the commemoration of state crimes, which depends on a clear distinction between victim and perpetrator. And yet, it is precisely this uncertainty that has the potential to open up new and productive avenues for dealing with the legacy of past atrocities. In this context, the figure of the perpetrator has taken center stage in a large number of recent cultural representations of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and other instances of political violence or genocide. These representations, in literature, film, theater, and at sites of memory, present a nuanced image of perpetratorship and question simplistic dichotomies of good and evil.

At the same time, the ambiguity and moral uncertainty surrounding the representation and reception of perpetrators in contemporary culture presents an opportunity and a challenge for teaching and learning about past atrocities. Indeed, 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. Conversely, a more nuanced depiction of perpetrators should not result in a relativization or justification of their crimes.

This international and interdisciplinary workshop discusses key cases, methodologies and approaches from a variety of perspectives, disciplines, and practices. It is organized in the context of Susanne C. Knittel’s ongoing research project Faces of Evil: The Figure of the Perpetrator in Contemporary Memory Culture (supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, NWO), in collaboration with the Utrecht Forum for Memory Studies.

For more information please contact Susanne C. Knittel at