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date: 29 June 2022

Cultural Trauma and Religious Identity

Abstract and Keywords

Based on Niklas Luhmann’s argument, religion may be viewed as any communication governed by the distinction between immanence and transcendence. While some societies dispose of a religious foundation, others reject a presupposition of their unity with other societies that accounts for meaningful intersocietal communications. These presuppositions, despite the certainty with which they are held, are difficult to describe and can hardly be discarded with cultural discourse. This essay explores the notion of cultural trauma and its relation to religious identity. It first explains the concept of collective identity and how it differs from individual identity. It then turns to a discussion of triumphant heroism and the revolutionary origin of the demos. It also examines the liminality of the tragically failing hero, along with the collective identity and liminality of victims in contrast to that of heroes and perpetrators. The essay concludes with a discussion of the contemporary shift from triumphant to traumatic foundations of collective memory, as reflected in rituals and monuments.

Keywords: religion, cultural trauma, religious identity, collective identity, triumphant heroism, demos, liminality, victims, collective memory, heroes

Following Niklas Luhmann’s suggestion, we may conceive of religion as any communication that relies on the distinction between immanence and transcendence. This implies that not all societies dispose of a religious foundation. Some very simple societies do not reflect on the difference between their own society and other societies. They see themselves as coextensive with humankind and consider other people as nonhuman. Most societies, however, dispose of a presupposition of their unity and it is this unity that generates meaningful relationships and communications with others. Cultural discourse can hardly dispense with these presuppositions. Despite their utmost certainty these discourses are difficult to describe; they are what Levi Strauss has called “empty signifiers” that can be imagined in quite different ways and that can be related and imputed to quite diverse objects, moments, and places.i

This reference to the whole and the sacred, to the horizon or to the unclassified world, reaches out to something invisible that is beyond the realm of everyday acting and ordinary conversation. Neither the monotheistic God nor nature, neither reason nor the Hegelian “Geist”, neither life nor culture can be perceived by or are at the disposal of particular persons. They contrast to the particular things at hand--to the world of useful and transformable objects, to things that perish and decay, to the world of immanence. Only by special methodical procedures such as prayer and experiment, criticism and drug use can the everyday certainties be suspended and access to transcendence be gained. Victor Turner has called these extraordinary moments “liminality” (Turner 1967). The great transcendence is omnipresent, disembodied, and eternal. Asking for its origin is pointless. The great transcendence is a sovereign singular—to vary Koselleck’s famous term: we cannot think of a plurality of “reasons” or “natures” (Koselleck 2010).

There are, however, also “middle transcendences”. They, too, resist any fixed representation by events or objects, but they allow the questioning of origin. Individual persons, but also nations and states, as well as religious communities are cases in point: they have a beginning, an origin, a founding moment. They are commonly called “identities”. On the one hand these identities cannot be confined to a particular representation and to a particular event; on the other hand, however, they can be thought of in several different ways, as, they presuppose a difference from other identities, and they presuppose the difference between their prehistory and their history. Nations can be conceived only in contrast to other nations; states can be conceived only in contrast to other states, and a European identity can be outlined only in distinction to, for example, Asia or America.

The reference to identity is unavoidable. Let’s consider first the case of individual identity. If we talk about actions, intentions, aims, interests, plans, responsibility, guilt, etc. we have to presuppose a source of agency, an actor who is distinct from his actions, but whose existence relates different perceptions and states of mind to each other, who can choose between a limited set of alternatives and who, hence, can be held accountable for her actions (Anscombe 1966).

But in spite of its presuppositional nature, identity has to be represented. Representations, however, will never give a complete, exhaustive, and undistorted account of identity. Any attempt to represent identity in social interaction can always be contested and questioned; it represents only one perspective among others, it is only partially true at best. What we are fighting about in identity wars and identity politics is not identity as such, but particular representations of identity, which are claimed and denied, rejected or recognized. (The only case in which identity as such is denied is the case of the victim who is dehumanized and treated as an object, as a case within a category, without a name and without a place to remember him/her as a person).

In distinction to these symbolic representations identity is absolutely certain but nontransparent to us. This holds true not only for our enduring existence but also for the events limiting it: We know that we have been born, but we cannot report the experience of birth; we know that we will die someday but we are unable to communicate the experience of our own death. It is only the birth and dead of others that we are able to observe and to describe.

While the notion of identity has been largely accepted with respect to individual persons, it has been heavily contested when applied to collectivities. The concept of collective identity is, of course, a notoriously complex and essentially fuzzy one (Wagner 1998; Brubaker/Cooper 2000; Giesen 1999). But although social boundaries are contested and communities are constructed, there are striking similarities between personal and collective identities: The constitution has to be set by a pouvoir constituant, by a sovereign who has an enduring existence independent from the constitution. We cannot hold nations responsible for their history if we do not accept the idea of a transgenerational and transconstitutional collective identity. We would have no reason for solidarity beyond kinship ties, etc.

Identity is not just a heroic creation of the actor or of a community that sovereignly and autonomously defines the actor’s self. Representations of identity are obviously not just an (individual or collective) actor’s self-definition that has to be accepted and recognized unconditionally by outsiders. The ego that defines one’s identity cannot dispense with the alter ego’s approval because the ego’s own identity remains nontransparent to him—or herself; it is almost impossible to think of one’s own identity in complete isolation without at least referring to an imagined other. In order to imagine and to describe this nontransparent identity and in order to calm down its own insecurity, ego needs communication with others. A similar indispensable reference to others can be found on the level of collective identity. We are not sovereign and autonomous in creating our collective origins and destinies, in commemorating our ancestors, and in admiring our heroes. Our neighbors may object to our claims, despise what we are proud of, and contest our achievements.

Triumphant Heroism

Let’s now consider the representation of collective identities. The question as to what existed before the origin is commonly answered by mythical accounts. The founding myth of a community bridges the gap between prehistory and history, and this founding myth allows for no further questions. This founding myth often centers on a figure of triumphant heroism. By definition the hero is in a liminal situation: He stands above the rules, defies conventional wisdom and the risk of death; he crushes the existing order and ventures out into the unknown (Rank 1922; Campbell 1971). Situated between gods and ordinary human beings, he (or she) is subject to no rules, commands a divine violence, and creates the new. The triumphant hero represents autonomy, uniqueness, and sovereign subjectivity.

Triumphant founding myths frequently narrate a story of immigration into or conquest of a land that is imagined as wild and empty and that was rendered fertile by the act of conquest or of occupation. If human beings lived on this land before the occupation they are regarded as uncivilized, savage, and crude; their resistance to the occupation is seen as unreasonable and rigid, akin to pagans resisting baptism. Expelling the native population, or even killing them, appears justifiable, especially if we presuppose that they, in their turn, have occupied the land since time immemorial. This heroic narrative of conquest can provide a founding myth for the United States and Israel, Australia and Argentina, but it is certainly unable to match the European case.

Many foundation myths of political communities, however, refer to the narrative of triumphant heroism in a different way. Instead of conquering “savage” territories in these founding myths, the hero stands up against oppression and foreign rule. With the advent of modernity, the sovereignty of the monarch relied on this charismatic core of political authority. The divine right of kings and the notion of absolute princely authority presuppose a superhuman reference as embodied in the figure of the triumphant hero.

Modem democracy turned triumphant heroism from an individual into a collective mode. The people who rise against the personal rule of the prince or against foreign domination break the unjust social contract, relapse into a state of nature, seize power violently, and create a new constitution by themselves. The revolutionary self-constitution of the demos is the central foundation myth of modem democracies. It imagines the people as the collective sovereign that exists before constitution and law are established and that has to be appealed to in order to be changed.

The myth of the revolutionary birth of the people not only imagines the origin of the demos, but also legitimizes public protest marches, acts of civil disobedience, or the symbolic occupation of public spaces by protesters. Because these forms of protest are related to the collective heroism of the people on the barricades, they are—to a certain degree at least—sanctified in democracies. Political authorities cannot treat them as straightforward acts of law-breaking—whoever violates parking rules is fined, but thousands of protesters blocking a road are exempted from legal prosecution because they are symbolically related to the revolutionary birth of the demos, which existed before the law existed and is considered to be the source of the law.

Solemn ritual performances and annual celebrations remember and re-enact the revolutionary origin of the demos. Its ritual form is the public parade displaying the power of the people in front of their representatives; it represents the people’s triumphant seizure of public spaces. The annual Soviet parades celebrating the October Revolution, the French parades on Bastille Day, 14 Juillet, the American celebration of Independence Day, July Fourth, or the many postcolonial parades in Africa and Asia are cases in point.

Tragic Heroes and Liminality

Triumphant heroism is not the only mode of heroism around which a collective identity can crystallize. There is also the liminality of the tragically failing hero who is defeated by the adversity of the world but in his defeat and because of his defeat can keep his pristine purity and sacredness (Jaspers 1948). In contrast to the victorious hero who has to accept compromises in order to stabilize and routinize his rule, the tragically failing hero symbolizes the irredeemable tension between the sacred and the profane. He was defeated but not profaned. He, too, represents liminality, but he demarcates the chasm as unbridgeable. The defenders of Masada, the early Christian martyrs, Imam Hussein, the murdered founder of the Shia Islam, the defeated Serbians of the battle of Kosovo, the failed Irish insurrectionists who fought against British rule, the Japanese “nobility of failure” (Morris 1975), the Warsaw uprising against the German occupation, the defenders of the Alamo, and even the German resistance against Hitler are mythical embodiments of tragically failing heroism that became an integral part of their respective national or religious mythologies. These myths of failing heroism frequently ascend to the status of a community’s official trauma, although traumatic memories in the strict meaning of the term resist any official representation and remembrance. They are always reflected upon in our minds but they can hardly be spoken of aloud.

The most important ritual form of remembering failing heroism is not the public parade, but the historical museum or the memorial site. In the historical museum mostly silent visitors are representing the living people and are confronted with the remainders and relics of the dead heroes. In contrast to public parades there is no place for the ruling political authorities in this ritual form. Telling the stories of courageous resistance and desperate uprisings not only saves the honor of the community, but also inspires the resolve of the people to be on the alert and to ensure that the enemy never defeats “our people” again.

A more complex reference to failing heroism in constructing identity can be found in a melancholic abstention from profane engagements, which are viewed as futile and vain. Existentialism and romanticism, but also stoicism and retreatism, are cultural movements that—as different as they are—center the chasm between this-worldly and otherworldly realms and recommend distance and abstention from profane involvement as the prime path to personhood and subjectivity. Hence, even some ways of constructing the axial-age tension outlined so brilliantly by Eisenstadt crystallize in the figure of the tragic hero (Eisenstadt 1982. In a way, the melancholic abstention from military intervention, the skepticism with respect to progress, the chasm between morality and money are special features of a European perspective on identity—at least if seen from an American point of view. But the melancholia of the hero who knows that he is doomed to failure hardly provides an identity that includes all social strata and all nations in Europe. As in the case of triumphant heroism, tragically failing heroism is a matter of particular nations—it undercuts the European level while the cultural universalism of the Enlightenment exceeds it.

Heroes who, in triumph or failure, were able to remain unique and sovereign subjects represent the liminal position between gods and humans. At the opposite end of the human condition we find the liminality of the victims. Victims are human subjects who are treated as objects; as cases of a category without a name, a face, and a place within the community (Bauman 1989; Todorov 1996). The perpetrators try to disperse their remains and to blur their traces, relegating them to the outlands of human society. Nothing should remind the people of their existence. Like heroes, they are exempted from the regular social order, but—unlike heroes—they are pushed beyond the margins of social community; they live in extraordinary spaces, such as camps (Agamben 1996. Heroes are incomparable; victims are counted by their numbers. They have been recognized as persons before their victimization, and they still are viewed as persons from an outside perspective, but the perpetrators have turned them into profane objects that can be killed, traded, used, or deported like cattle (Giesen 2004).

Being a victim not only means being reduced to a profane object but also facing mortality and, in many cases, being killed. Death is the liminal horizon of human life—absolutely certain, but impossible to communicate as experience (Heidegger 1986). The mind has to ignore the possibility of its own mortality. While death as voluntary sacrifice is invested with profound meaning by most cultures, death by victimization disrupts the web of meaning—it does not fit into a meaningful sequence of narration. It is an inconceivable event (Caruth 1996), and this restraint is the basis of traumatic memories. Therefore, the experience of the surviving victims resists being told to others, the trauma is enclosed in the victims’ bodies.

Only from a distance, after a long time or from the position of following generations, can the horror and the suffering be spoken of aloud and worked through (Alexander/ Eyerman/Giesen/Smelser/Sztompka 2004). This is exactly what happened in the classical cases of victimization that, later on, were turned into central representations of collective identity in the respective communities. The Shoah, African-American slavery, the great Irish famine, and the Armenian genocide were widely ignored when they occurred (Laqueur 1980). They entered the arena of public attention only after a period of latency. Subsequent generations assisted by few surviving witnesses try to preserve the collective memory of victims and to give them back their name, their face, and their place within the community. During the last century, the figure of the victim has gained prominence as a symbolic representation of individual and collective identity (Giesen 2004). The suffering of the past seems increasingly to provide an attractive reference for the imagination of collective identity—in particular in Western nations where the victim seems to replace the hero as a figure of heightened subjectivity.

Conflicts and debates about the public recognition of a group’s claims to victimhood are certainly driven by hidden interests. Big money is at stake; self-appointed advocates of victims stage their cause in public arenas and require compensation. But revealing these interests does not answer the question of why these claims are publicly recognized, why people visit monuments remembering the victims of the past, why today’s serious intellectual debates about collective identity focus more on victims than on heroes.

Explanations of this remarkable phenomenon cannot ignore the level of structure and culture in a society. The collective identity of victims is, of course, a retrospective one: It is not our own suffering here and now, but the suffering of the past, the suffering of others that is turned into an identity in the present. Today, African Americans and Jewish Americans can, as persons, hardly claim to be victims, but they can claim the collective identity of a group whose members have been victimized in the past. The figure of the victim seems to gain salience as a pattern of collective identity when the surviving individual victims are disappearing (Giesen 2004). There is also another structural reason for the increasing focus on victims. In identifying with the victims of the past we avoid retroactively the position of the bystander, the noninvolved third party who ignored the suffering and failed to intervene (Hilberg 1992). When we identify with victims and remember their suffering, we reverse the depersonalization of the victims; we give them back their names, faces, and place within the community. A hidden and haunting awareness of the dangers of objectification in modern social systems might foster this retroactive recognition of personhood: What has been treated as an object is invested with the qualities of a subject again (Bauman 1989).

In a way, the increasing focus on victims as embodiments of collective identity is also reflecting the Christian heritage of Western culture. The suffering and the crucifixion of Christ sets the mark for an insurmountable victimhood. Many Christian martyrs tried to follow this path and construct their own heightened subjectivity by suffering and death. Thus it is only superficially that victimization and suffering appear to ask for revenge; rather, they provide an opportunity for sanctification. What from a modern point of view is conceived of as collective trauma reveals its religious core if set in the context of the Christian tradition. We will return to this religious core of seemingly totally secular rituals later on.

The perpetrator is the counterpart to the victim. Perpetrators have, by their voluntary decision, moved beyond the regular social order and have trespassed against the basic norms valid in a community. In particular they have, without any authorization, made decisions about the life and death of others, and thereby they have disdained the sacred core of other persons (Giesen 2004). As with heroes, the liminal position of perpetrators results from a sovereign subjectivity that has cut its ties with regular order and legal norms. Unlike heroes, however, the extraordinariness and rule-breaking power of perpetrators, their venturing out into the wild outlands of morality, lack the recognition and respect of the social community. It is the admiration of the social community that sacralizes the often violent deeds of the charismatic hero. Without this support heroes are turned into evildoers, demons, perpetrators. Sometimes this shift of perspective is produced by a major historical event—a defeat or a change in political authority. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein had been viewed as redeemers before and as demons after their death or defeat; their special forces—the SS, the Tscheka, etc.—were heroes before and perpetrators afterwards.

Such a total change of perspective is acted out by the social community through its ritual expulsion of the perpetrators by putting them on trial, killing them, or banning their actual or symbolic presence. Much more difficult to cope with is the situation of followers and bystanders who admired the perpetrators but were not directly involved in acts of victimization. These ordinary members of the community had acted according to the regular social order, but they had ignored and disregarded the signs of horror and crime and had continued to trust in their political leaders. After the defeat or the change of regime they have to realize that, by their very inactivity, they have been accomplices in a mass murder.

This traumatic experience occurred in postwar Germany. After the Second World War, German national identity experienced a traumatic period. A period of latency in which a coalition of silence about German guilt united the new Federal Republic was followed by a period of “speaking out” in which a new generation, the “68ers”, accused their parents’ generation of being responsible for the Holocaust (Assmann/Frevert 1999; Dubiel 1999; Giesen 2004). To this public accusation of an entire generation was added a new political ritual of remembering the responsibility for the genocide of the European Jews. It was originated by Willi Brandt’s sudden and unexpected gesture of atonement at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970 (Giesen/Schneider 2004; Rauer 2004; Schneider 2006). The German chancellor, undoubtedly innocent as an individual (he was persecuted by the Nazis), knelt down as a representative of the nation of perpetrators. The individual guilt of perpetrators and collective trauma of the nation of perpetrators are disconnected here. Since then a new public culture of mourning and confessing the collective guilt of the nation has been arising in Germany. It has resulted in historical exhibitions and historical research, TV series and public addresses, and has produced an extraordinary sensitivity within public life regarding anything that can be interpreted as belittling German guilt.

The ritual of publicly confessing and affirming the guilt of the past was not limited to representatives of the German nation. During the last decades, it spread rapidly among European nations that retrospectively discovered their entanglement in collaboration and their missing intervention during the Second World War. After celebrating the tragically failing heroism of resistance, For example, France is increasingly concerned with Vichy, with collaboration in the Shoah and with the French roots of anti-Semitism (Sternhell 1996), Poland is debating its own genocidal involvement in the case of Jedbawne (Gross 2006); the former Norwegian president Bruntland noted that more young Norwegians died in the ranks of the Waffen-SS than as victims of the German occupation; the Pope has apologized for the Church’s lack of official intervention against the genocide; the Italian postfascist leader Fini visited Auschwitz; the negligence of reports about the Holocaust by American and British authorities and the lack of intervention is publicly debated in the United States (Laqueur 1980), etc. The once clear-cut distinction between Germany as the nation of perpetrators and the occupied European nations as the victims is gradually being blurred. Most nations have been entangled in collaboration and many now acknowledge this by official apologies offered by political representatives who—like Brandt—are innocent as persons. Germany reluctantly rediscovers her own victims who died in the Allied bombing raids, as refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion, or as prisoners of war in Siberia or Eastern Europe. A widespread awareness of victimhood and perpetratorship seems to provide a new European collective identity.

In searching for the conditions fostering this surprising turn, we can point to the structural boundary separating the individual perpetrators from those who claim the collective identity of perpetrators. If we, as innocent persons, feel shame, remorse, and atonement on the part of the collectivity we belong to, then we oppose strongly the past of our collectivity—we insist that it should never happen again. We know that there is a bond of belonging between the perpetrators and us, but we strongly disapprove of their actions, and we identify with the victims. In this axial reversal we even hope to get rid of this bond of belonging.

Conclusion: Monuments and Remembrance

This turn from triumph to trauma is reflected in rituals and monuments. New national memorials and museums are rarely built to commemorate triumphant victories; instead they recall the victims of the past. The turn from triumph to trauma has been preceded by a major change in the monuments representing the embodiment of the nation in the hero. After the First World War, the monument to the anonymous soldier redefined the once-victorious hero who had a face, name, and story, recasting it as a monument to a tragically failing hero rather than to a nameless victim who ranges among other depersonalized victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide (Koselleck 1979). The new national memorial of the reunited Germany in Berlin is this type of memorial, honoring anonymous victims: It is a memorial constructed by the nation and for the nation of perpetrators. In remembering a collective trauma it includes victims as well as perpetrators, and it can do this because it represents the collective memory of the German nation instead of hinting at the personal guilt of individual perpetrators, very few of whom are still alive. Individual suffering and guilt on the one hand and collective trauma and responsibility on the other are decoupled here.

This contemporary shift from triumphant to traumatic foundations of collective memory contrasts sharply to the postwar attempts to purify one’s own community by shifting the guilt to one nation and within this nation to a limited group of criminal if not demonic perpetrators. Today the turn toward a collective memory of past trauma blurs the once clear-cut separation between the nations of perpetrators and the nations that could remember themselves as victims. This extends also to the German nation, which today not only commits itself clearly to the guilt of the past, but also starts slowly to rediscover and to remember its own victims—the victims of bombing raids and of ethnic cleansing after the war.

Again, this secular turn from triumphant to traumatic memories, from rituals of celebration to rituals of confessing a collective guilt seems to be driven by a religious core in the Christian tradition. Public confessions of collective responsibility for the genocide of the past have certain features in common with the self-sacrifice of Christ who, although ultimately innocent as an individual person, was humiliated and killed in order to atone for the wrongdoings of his people. In a way, Willi Brandt’s kneeling in Warszawa was a performance of Christo-mimesis (Schneider 2006). This holds true even though Brandt was not a religious person. The religious core of European or, more generally, of Western culture, prevails even through many translations and transformations.

The conjecture of a religious core is supported by the striking difference between the German readiness to confess the guilt of the past and the Japanese refusal to admit to any national responsibility for Japanese war crimes. This difference is not due to stubbornness or immorality on the part of the Japanese. Instead, it is a matter of religious identity. While Germany and other European nations are patterned by the axial divide (Eisenstadt 1982) that considers politics and the nation as accountable with respect to religion, to sacred or transcendental principles, the Japanese cosmology lacks such a divide: In Japanese culture the nation itself is sacred and the Tenno is God. Hence, the collective identity of Japan cannot be accused in the name of God, of the sacred, or of some universal principles. In traditional Japan there is no such reference to a realm that transcends the nation.

Individual persons can be held accountable for war crimes but never the nation itself. Thus, the religious core of cultures shapes and patterns their response to trauma and guilt.


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(i) Levi Strauss (1987) introduced the notion of empty or floating signifiers when he referred to the Australian “mana” or the Native American “Omph”.