Complicity, Past and Present: Portrayals of Involvement in Mass Violence and Terror in Documentary Fiction

By Juliane Prade-Weiss

One of the puzzling questions about Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and other conflicts is why people participate in, support, or condone mass violence[1] when it appears, for observers, so glaringly wrong. Reasons for becoming complicit with violence against civilians vary with individual positions as well as historical and regional contexts.[2] Participation in, aiding and abetting mass violence and the structures of authoritarian, totalitarian or other regimes exerting it are key issues in the social sciences and in history. Yet, literary texts can contribute to understanding complicity, too.

During the past fifteen years, literatures from Central and Eastern Europe have been marked by a boom of documentary fiction portraying historical involvement in twentieth-century mass violence and totalitarianisms in fictional plot or dialogue. These texts enfold complicity with Nazi occupation, Stalinist terror, or other forms of mass and political violence in both contemporaries and descendants. The mixing of fact and fiction may raise ethical concerns, however, these texts can give accounts of acts that defy conventional historiography due to a lack of surviving victims, and resistance against acknowledging these acts in perpetrators, accomplices, and descendants.

Yet why the interest in past complicities now? Some of these books have sold well and have been translated to several languages, such as Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory) or Radka Denemarková’s Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler),[3] while the stories they tell about complicity with violence are everything but consoling.

One hypothesis is that the texts address convergences between, on the one hand, involvement in past acts of mass violence and, on the other hand, current forms of participation in humanitarian, political, or other wrongdoing in a globalized world. While these issues differ in many respects, they are, still, related in structural and historical terms. Structurally, both present the challenge of forming a nuanced notion of participation, the idea and promise at the heart of democracy that is highly valued yet poorly conceptualized – and that increasingly exhibits a dark side in illiberal extreme populisms that promise mass participation. Historically, both issues are related since justifications of past involvement have established the terminology, narratives, and heuristics in which acts of mass violence are subsequently discussed by inscribing them into cultural traditions – hence they also form the framework for negotiating current problematic involvement. Works of documentary fiction thus address the difficult, and often politically sensitive issue of how the complicity of so-called ordinary people with mass violence and terror is excused, euphemized, glorified, but also denounced, or covered up in the cultural memory of mass violence.

This is of particular interest to understanding current conflicts because the cultural memory of wars and violence against civilians is often invoked in the attempt to justify mass violence. Notorious instances are Vladimir Putin’s 2022 claims to “de-nazify” Ukraine, to prevent a “genocide” of Russians,[4] which evoke the identificatory memory of World War II, and his later denunciation of US hegemony, which transfers a Cold War logic into post-colonial rhetoric.[5] Besides claiming the position of the victim rather than the aggressor, inscribing the cultural memory of war and totalitarianism into current discourses seeks, not least, to carry experiences of past endorsement of, and complicity with, violence over into the current war of aggression. While Putin claims that it is clear what exactly there is to learn from the violent past, i.e. the need for more violence, documentary fiction wonders who the violent past makes us, i.e. whether and how it is possible to remember it without becoming dominated by its authority. The complicity with past violence portrayed in these literary texts reflects the question of how individuals today are interwoven with a complex history of violence.

Yet, the charge of complicity needs to be handled with care. It has become a buzzword often evoked in popular discourse, suggesting that remaining inactive or continuing a certain habit renders the subject complicit in wrongdoings of humanitarian, political, ecological, moral, or other natures. While pervasive structures of complicity without explicit consent indeed pose the question of what participation and individual responsibility means in a world of globalized markets, conflicts, climate change, and digital media, the pervasive accusation of complicity raises the same question: Is there a point of view that is not involved in any such contexts? And is the assumption that the positions of analysis, critique, and opposition can be untouched of all wrongdoing not itself an instance of complicity by ignoring the complexity of involvements? It seems to exhibit a stance of “narcissism […] that keeps the privileged subject at the center of analysis” as a distanced judge untouched by the “implication” of which others are accused.[6]

A common rendering of the claim that not only actions, but also inaction, make individuals complicit in wrongdoing.
Credit: Liudmila Chernetska, 13 July 2022, Ukraine
Source: istockphoto 140803536

Works of documentary fiction portray and often explicitly name complicity in a much more precise manner. They portray actions and words of individual characters in complex historical situations of repression and terror while refraining from sweeping charges or judgements. This also sets them apart from the usage of complicity in the juridical sense. Still, what makes complicity productive for reading literary texts are the complications it creates in juridical discourse. As a legal term, complicity describes the way a crime is committed, namely by aiding or abetting wrongdoing. Complicity poses a challenge to the law as it undermines the principles of individual accountability and autonomous action: dependent on the actions of a principal wrongdoer, the accomplice is still autonomous insofar as aiding or tolerating wrongdoing makes a difference.[7] Accountability is based on individual intentionality, which creates difficulties in current corporate and international law since corporate and state complicity with human rights infringement often evades sanction as corporations and states are not understood to have intentions. Legally this renders them, paradoxically, actors without intent.[8] Complicity marks the limits of legal discourse by pointing beyond the law’s methodological individualism to fundamental structures of social relationality. In totalitarian regimes, this connectedness is exploited by reassuring the individual’s sense of guilt while undermining individual action and personal accountability – a process outlined in Hannah Arendt’s maxim, “Where all are guilty, nobody is”.[9]

To move beyond methodological individualism, legal research proposes the evaluation of the causal contribution to wrongdoing independent of intent,[10] or notions such as “shared responsibility”[11] and a “participatory conception of collective action”.[12] This issue is where literature can make an incisive contribution. Assessments of historical involvement in wrongdoing rely on reconstructive narratives,[13] and conceptual analyses are based on hypothetical scenarios.[14] The structure of these narratives, i.e., the relation between fictional, documentary, and prescriptive legal speech is hardly reflected. However, the medium of language is, a good model for approaching the complication of complicity, i.e. individually responsible participation in a communal structure. Responsible individual speakers can only use predefined phonetic, semantic, and syntactic structures. The relational aspect of human action that poses a problem to legal thought is the focus of literary discourse, which foregrounds language as principal medium of human interaction. In analyzing literary texts, the notion of complicity is useful not because it provides clarity (it does not), but because it marks problematic participation, enmeshment, and degrees of responsibility that may evade straightforward legal culpability. Complicity is an ambivalent term as it is hardly functional within and too general outside a legalistic framework. Yet, complicity can be analytically productive if used not as a charge but as a marker for complexity.[15]

Works of documentary fiction present such complexity. Katja Petrowskaja’s autofictional Vielleicht Esther (Maybe Esther), for instance, finds that the narrator’s Ukrainian grandfather survived the Mauthausen concentration camp, a Soviet filtration camp, but might have contributed to Stalinist terror as an agricultural official in the reforms that entailed the Holodomor[16]: “was even he complicit?”[17] Radka Denemarková’s Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler) portrays the fictionalized biography of a Czechoslovak Holocaust survivor who, after the war, finds herself accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupation due to her German native language.

Focusing on particular characters, literary portrayals of complicity with violence give ample detail about specific historical contexts. Yet for all of their individual and regional specificity, these portrayals have one trait in common: their caution against claims to purity that point out complicities merely to delegitimize aspects of current cultural memory – not to approach the complex and arduous task of developing “practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.”[18]

Analyzing negotiations of complicity in Central and Eastern European literature is necessary for two reasons. First, to better understand regional specificity: “Th[e] ‘double experience’ of two totalitarian regimes – National Socialism and Communism, […] constitutes a common feature that sets the whole region apart from the West of Europe” and is “also morally troubling. Categories such as victims, perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, often used in the Western discourse about World War II, are very difficult to apply in discussing the memories of those from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Both individuals and national and ethnic groups in this region often shifted their roles with the many, often violent, turns in the history      of the ‘century of extremes’. The same people who were victims at one stage could become perpetrators at another, and vice versa. The same military formation could be seen as heroes and liberators by one group and as criminals or traitors by another (this is for example the case with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA […]). Until today expressions of moral judgment regarding these kinds of events […] continue to evoke high emotions and heated debates.”[19]

These debates might not only have become even more heated since Sindbæk Andersen and Törnquist-Plewa published these lines in 2016, it has also become clear that debates over the roles of historical agents often merge directly into present political abuses of the past in the form of polemical accusations of complicity that serve the purpose of instilling enmity and hate: the UPA, which Sindbæk Andersen and Törnquist-Plewa mention in the above quotation (which is not their only example), is used as a basis for Putin’s 2022 claim to “de-nazify” Ukraine, and has become a staple in propaganda seeking to justify the war of aggression against Ukraine.[20] This points out that understanding complex relations between perpetration and victimization in history also serves the purpose of working against simplistic shortcuts from past to present in current conflicts.

This dimension of analyzing discourses on complicity is directly related to the second reason why analyzing negotiations of problematic involvement in Central and Eastern European literature is necessary: A more complex regional image of complicity can contribute to a more complex systematic understanding of complicity. This is particularly relevant for the translation of insights into the complexity of historical complicity into the consideration of complicity in the present. Works of documentary fiction make use of various poetic devices to bridge the gap between the narrated past and the present of reading, between past complicities and the readers’ current interest:

Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther repeatedly addresses the reader directly, stating for instance:

“Aber das Wissen Sie bestimmt. [Kyiv] ist von hier genauso weit entfernt wie Paris” (“But you surely know that. [Kyiv] is just as far from here as Paris”).[21] The verbatim assumption of the readers’ knowledge implies the opposite, their ignorance. The address targets the common spatio-temporal distancing of onlookers located in the West from events in the European East that entails a symbolic geography gauging a perceived historical and moral distance from the Western European self-image, which projects repression and anti-democratic tendencies to the East.[22]

Credit: Lobro / Alamy Stock Photo

Valerie Fritsch’s 2020 Herzklappen von Johnson & Johnson (“Hearth Valves by Johnson & Johnson”) is an ambivalent portray of the transgenerational heritage of complicity with the perpetration of mass violence that implicates the narrator, and the reader, in the perpetrator’s point of view. The narrator undertakes a journey to find the places of her grandfather’s implication in Nazi mass violence throughout Eastern Europe, and with the journey, the narrator’s unsettling lack of distance from his accounts is translated into a reenactment: Europe’s East appears as an empty plane for the projection of the narrator’s imagination of a violent past. One place stands out in the text that hardly identifies any cities or landscapes: the forest of “Bronitza” (Bronica) near the Ukrainian town of “Drohobytsch” (Drohobych).[23] The fact that it is singled out suggests that this place also stood out in the stories the grandfather told the narrator. Yet, they are not given in the text, which also desists from giving any historical background. In 1941, with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a ghetto was established in Drohobych, from where Jewish inhabitants of the town and the region were deported into concentration camps; the ghetto was dissolved in 1943, and the remaining prisoners were massacred in the nearby forest of Bronica.[24] As such context is not given in Fritsch’s text, the name of the place stands out just as traumatic experience remains unconnected to other, previous and later, experience. While setting out to uncover crimes of the past, the text literally presents the perpetrator’s ambivalent stance of remembering (only the name) and forgetting (the context and acts of killing).

Linda Kinstler’s Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends researches the role of the narrator’s grandfather in the Arajs Kommando, a unit of the Latvian NS Auxiliary Police, but quickly turns to Herbert Cukurs, its Latvian SS commander. Supposedly killed by the Mossad in Montevideo in 1965, five years after Eichmann was brought to justice, Cukurs shall currently be exonerated, in Latvian courts and public opinion, as national hero who rescued Jews. Kinstler’s text outlines conflicting expectations and hopes about justice, revenge, and identity that underlie reconstructions of the past, and grapples with the element of fiction that permeates not only its political instrumentalizations, but even her documentary endeavour: “Where does the fiction begin and end, in this story? Are its tentacles sunk too far in to be properly extracted?”[25]

These instances show that the purpose of documentary fiction portraying complicity with violence is neither to forge historical facts, nor to form juridical decisions, but to confront audiences intellectually and emotionally with complex situations of ethically problematic involvement. Works of documentary fiction rely on the fact that all reading is based on participation, as texts speak to readers, and that literature requires the participation of audiences, be it the voice and imagination of the reader or (in theatre texts) the gaze of the spectator. Fiction, moreover, depends on a “willing suspension of disbelief”.[26] Documentary fiction relies on reader participation to reflect on instances of historical participation in terror and violence. The point of this aesthetic reflection is neither to prove the readers’ distance from a difficult past, nor to definitively rule out such readings (which cannot be done), but to draw attention to the issue of distance, be it hedonistic or analytical. Both imply emotional distancing, while reading requires participation.

A comparative analysis of documentary fiction portraying complicity in Central and Eastern European literatures can make three contributions to a fuller understanding of why people participate in, support, or condone mass violence: First, due to literature’s focus on individual actors, it can outline the seemingly small and historically hard to reconstruct steps in which “conformity can, over time, effectively turn into complicity”,[27] and hence reinstall a precise meaning of the often rhetorical or exaggerated charge of complicity. Second, it can explicate the implicit cultural memory[28] of willing and coerced complicity with violence, that is to say the ways in which being involved in wrongdoing has become normalized throughout the violent history and its aftermath. Thereby it can, third, help cultivate “mnemonic care”[29] by forming a nuanced picture of widespread implication in violence that pays heed to the relationality which makes people susceptible to complicity. Mnemonic care counteracts “selective political remembering”,[30] i.e., demonizing villains and glorifying heroes. With such mnemonic individualism, “the ‘nation’ or the ‘people’” are collectively “absolved of historical responsibility,” and “the community’s hermeneutical space” remains numbed toward injustices, which entails “reproducing the very widespread practices and relationships of exclusion – economic, political, cultural – that led to violence in the first place”.[31]

Portrayals of complicity in documentary fiction have a double outlook onto involvement in past violence and in the present stance of commemoration. The point is not to equate the two but to link them heuristically as modes of complicity often stand out more clearly – and are acknowledged more readily – in past instances. They appear more complicated, but are just as active, in the globalized world of the present. Documentary fiction on complicity seeks to counteract reader distancing from complex violent pasts because mnemonic care, as all care, starts with perceiving that all is not well, and being affected by discomfort.


Footnotes

[1] Exerted by groups of people in and outside war, mass violence comprises killings and other forms of violence that aim at exterminating large groups of civilians, such as expulsion, enforced hunger, forced labour, collective rape, and strategic bombing; cf. Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 1.

[2] This is not the place to give an exhaustive overview; exemplary media discussions of complicity with Russia’s war against Ukraine can be found here: Andrei Kolesnikov, “Wait and See: How Ordinary Russians Are Adapting to the New Reality”, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center 04.08.2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/russia-eurasia/politika/2023/08/wait-and-see-how-ordinary-russians-are-adapting-to-the-new-reality?lang=en; Mikhail Komin, “Loud complicity: Why Russian officials are breaking their silence on Ukraine” European Council on Foreign Relations 21.09.2023, https://ecfr.eu/article/loud-complicity-why-russian-officials-are-breaking-their-silence-on-ukraine/; Bennett Freeman, “Groups that stay in Russia risk complicity in Putin’s war crimes”, Financial Times 28.02.2024, https://www.ft.com/content/81db4adf-0b46-4bee-bd02-51e7f9d1b0f2 (all accessed 21.05.2024).

[3] Radka Denemarková, Peníze od Hitlera (Letní mosaika), Brno: Host, 2006; Radka Denemarková, Money from Hitler, trans. A. Oakland, Toronto: Women’s Press, 2006.

[4] Vladimir Putin, “Обращение Президента Российской Федерации” (Address by the President of the Russian Federation), 24.02.2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843. English version: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843 (accessed 29.07.2022); Vladimir Putin, “Обращение Президента Российской Федерации” (Address by the President of the Russian Federation), 21.02.2022, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828; English version: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828 (accessed 29.07.2022).

[5] Alexander Cooley, „The Uprisings of Gaza: How Geopolitical Crises Have Reshaped Academic Communities from Tahrir to Kyiv”, Political Science Quarterly 2024, Advance access publication 28.02.2024: 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1093/psquar/qqae006, 14, with reference to Vladimir Putin, “Signing of Treaties on Accession of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions to Russia”, 30.09.2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/resident/news/69465, accessed by Alexander Cooley 16 January 2024.

[6] Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019, 9.

[7] Pierre-Marie Dupuy, “Introduction”, in: Vladyslav Lanovoy, Complicity and its Limits in the Law of International Responsibility, Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2016, vii–ix, here vii.

[8] Ibid., viii.

[9] Arendt, Hannah, Responsibility and Judgement, ed. J. Kohn, New York: Schocken, 2003, 147.

[10] Chiara Lepora and Robert Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[11] Vladyslav Lanovoy, Complicity and its Limits in the Law of International Responsibility, Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2016, 11.

[12] Christopher Kutz, Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 11.

[13] Lepora and Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise, 13.

[14] John Gardner, Offences and Defences: Selected Essays in the Philosophy of Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 57–76.

[15] Paul Reynolds, “Complicity as Political Rhetoric”, in: Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford, and Michael Neu (eds.), Exploring Complicity: Concept, Cases and Critique, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 35–52.

[16] Katja Petrowskaja, Vielleicht Esther: Geschichten, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014, 227, 238; Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther: A Family Story, trans. Shelley Frisch, New York: Harper, 2019, 201–202, 211.

[17] Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther, 211.

[18] Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 8.

[19] Tea Sindbæk Andersen and Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Disputed Memory: Emotions and Memory Politics in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016, 2; cf. Mary Fulbrook, Bystander Society: Conformity and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Oxford University Press, 2023, 13.

[20] Vladimir Putin, “Обращение Президента Российской Федерации” (Address by the President of the Russian Federation), 24.02.2022.

[21] Petrowskaja, Vielleicht Esther, 218; Maybe Esther, 194. Alteration by author.

[22] Piotr Twardzisz, Defining Eastern Europe”: A Semantic Inquiry into Political Terminology, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

[23] Valerie Fritsch, Herzklappen von Johnson & Johnson, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2020, 144–147.

[24] Yitzhak Arad, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009, 337; 277283.

[25] Linda Kinstler, Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends, London: Bloomsbury, 2022, 91.

[26] Samuel Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. Adam Roberts, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015, vol II, 208.

[27] Fulbrook, Bystander Society, 13.

[28] Astrid Erll, “The hidden power of implicit collective memory”, Memory, Mind & Media 2022, 1, e14, 1–17.

[29] Mihaela Mihai, Political Memory and the Aesthetics of Care: The Art of Complicity and Resistance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022, 9.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 23.


About the Author

Juliane Prade-Weiss is Professor of Comparative Literature at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, working on modern German, English, Czech, and Russian literatures, European and global East/West-narratives, as well as the link between language and violence in the project Discourses of Mass Violence in Comparative Perspective, www.lmu.de/discoursesofmassviolence.

2019–20 she has been a European Union Marie-Skłodowska-Curie fellow at Vienna University with the project Complicity: A Crisis of Participation in Testimonies of Totalitarianism in Contemporary German-Language Literatures. 2017–19 she has been a DFG research fellow at Yale University to complete her habilitation, published with Bloomsbury in August 2020 as Language of Ruin and Consumption: On Lamenting and Complaining.


Citation: Juliane Prade-Weiss, Complicity, Past and Present: Portrayals of Involvement in Mass Violence and Terror in Documentary Fiction, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.06.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11rq1


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Forum Transregionale Studien (4. Juni 2024). Complicity, Past and Present: Portrayals of Involvement in Mass Violence and Terror in Documentary Fiction. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11rq1


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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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