Faces of Evil: The Figure of the Perpetrator in Contemporary Memory Culture

01-02-2014 tot 01-02-2017

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 http://perpetratorstudies.sites.uu.nl.


Events Organized by The Perpetrator Studies Network 


International Conference: Double Exposures: Perpetrators and the Uses of Photography

Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Mechelen, Belgium, 11-13 January 2018


Susanne C. Knittel, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Christophe Busch, Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Mechelen, Belgium

Stefan Hördler, Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial,  Nordhausen, Germany

Hans-Christian Jasch, Haus der Wannseekonferenz, Berlin, Germany

Ugur Ümit Üngör, Utrecht University and NIOD Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Keynote Speakers:

Ulrike Weckel ( Justus Liebig University, Gießen, Germany)

Paul Lowe (University of the Arts, London, United Kingdom)

In addition to eyewitness accounts and written texts or documents, photography serves as a key medium through which acts of perpetration become known. Photographic images of perpetrators and their acts are produced for different purposes (documentation, evidence, self-promotion, propaganda, etc.) and come to us from different sources (journalists, victims, the perpetrators themselves, documents, archives, government agencies, etc.). But they all contribute to shaping the way that we see and think about perpetrators and perpetration: the historical and cultural imaginary is saturated with images, some of which acquire iconic status. While photographs undeniably play a crucial role in raising awareness about atrocities and other forms of mass violence, their omnipresence can on the one hand feed fascination and voyeurism, and on the other hand lead to decontextualization, desensitization, and trivialization. This means that perpetrator studies must think very carefully and critically about how photography is used, not only in the media but also in academic scholarship, at sites of memory, and in educational practice.

This conference explored the past, present, and future uses of photography of and by perpetrators of mass violence, genocide, and other forms of political violence. We explored the questions and problems that arise in the context of photography of/by perpetrators in the media, public discourse, in cultural representations, at sites of memory, as well as in education and academic scholarship.

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 examined how our contradictory attitudes toward perpetrators in society and culture can in themselves be made the object of enquiry. Furthermore, we explored 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 (September 10–12, 2015, Utrecht University).

Workshop 2: Teaching about Perpetrators: Theories, Concepts, Approaches (April 28-30, 2016, Utrecht University).

Workshop 3: Teaching about Perpetrators: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics (November 10-12, 2016, Utrecht University).

International Conference: Representing Perpetrators of Mass Violence
August 31 - September 3, 2016, Utrecht University


Susanne C. Knittel, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Utrecht University

Ugur Ümit Üngör, Associate Professor of History at Utrecht University and Research Fellow at the Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (NIOD) in Amsterdam

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. Scott Straus (U Wisconsin, Madison)

Milo Rau, International Institute of Political Murder (http://international-institute.de)

This conference explored the questions and problems that arise in the context of the representation of perpetrators in the media, public discourse, in cultural representations, as well as in education and academic scholarship. The conference title invokes all forms of representation, including but not limited to self-representation (in social media, auto-documents, interviews, testimonies), representation in the news and the media, fictional representation (in literature, film, and the arts), legal representation (either contemporary or historically), representation in the accounts and testimonies of their victims and survivors, and representation in academic scholarship of various disciplines (including history, sociology, anthropology, political science, literary and cultural studies, media studies, philosophy, law, criminology, religious studies, etc.).

The conference also featured the English-language world premiere of The Woman at His Side, a staged reading that explores the complicity of wives of SS officers in the crimes of their husbands, and a screening of Milo Rau’s film Hate Radio, which investigates the role of “Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines” (RTLM) in the Rwandan genocide.