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Capsule Review

Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering

In This Review

Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering
Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering
Edited by Ron Eyerman, Jeffrey C. Alexander, Elizabeth Butle
Paradigm, 2013, 336 pp. $37.95 Purchase

In this book, a team of sociologists revisits some of the most horrifying cases of mass slaughter from the past century, including many episodes during World War II, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Greek Civil War and Cypriot partition, and the mass refugee crises in southern Africa. To a surprising extent, they find that politics and ideology, rather than the sheer moral horror of violence, have determined what subsequently registered as a painful and traumatic event, defined who was treated as a perpetrator or a victim, and dictated who deserved restitution. Political polarization leads Colombians to view kidnappings as individual private misfortunes rather than public problems. One-party rule led Poland to suppress the true story of the Katyn massacre of 1940, in which Soviet secret police forces killed more than 20,000 Polish nationals. The Holocaust sensitized the world to Jewish suffering yet desensitized many Israelis to Palestinian suffering. Germans view the Allied bombing of World War II as deserved retribution, whereas the Japanese view it as a complex and ambiguous national trauma. Readers might disagree with these conclusions, but the book makes a convincing case that the moral lessons of the last century remain ambiguous and contested.

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