Logo Utrecht University

Perpetrator Studies Network


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.