How do we account for the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in American popular memory, culture, and discourse? For some observers, the Nuremberg trials, conducted at the end of World War II, represent an exemplary, and thus to be celebrated, first effort to establish international norms of conduct between nations in the wake of unimaginable atrocity. Rather than exercising arbitrary or indiscriminate retribution, the war’s victors turned to law for redress against Germany and in the process laid the foundation for a normative framework that might subsequently be employed to adjudicate global conflict. Little appreciated in such legal-centric accounts of the impact of the trials or explanations of their lasting importance is the role of visual texts in the proceedings and, more specifically, the prosecution’s use of concentration camp liberation footage to provide evidence of Nazi criminality. In the context of the trials, these texts established a certain regime of truth, fortified a particular moral position, and fixed as self-evident Nazi lawlessness. Significantly, they have since come to securely anchor what people believe animated the trials’ legal arguments and thus what the trials were about. To understand, therefore, the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in popular memory, culture, and discourse, one must consider how the prosecution incorporated and used visual texts and how these texts then helped shape not only popular renderings of the postwar proceedings but an enduring belief in the magically transformative nature of law to counter (Nazi) evil and reestablish humanity’s common bonds.
It is without doubt that the 21st century is marked by ever-present 24-hour media. Mobile phones, iPads, and Wi-Fi networks mean that many people in many different parts of the world are “connected” to each other and to global events as they happen in ways not really imagined less than a century ago. Of course the nature of this connectivity is variable. It dominates more in some parts of the world than others, in urban areas more than rural, among wealthier communities more than poorer ones, and perhaps among younger people more than older people. Such variations notwithstanding, it is the case that the minute-by-minute live reporting of events, as they happen, exposes the nature of those events to people not necessarily close to them or impacted by them, albeit vicariously. Such exposure means that people are potentially witnesses to events and images they would not otherwise have experience of. It is within this context this article considers the concepts of victim, witness, and the linkages between them.
The concept of the witness has a varied history, from its presence in the law, to its connections with religious affiliation, to its legacy in experiences of atrocity. These different historical legacies are suggestive of different claims to victimhood. Simultaneously, these different claims to the status of victim (who constitutes a victim and under what conditions) have become conflated. In mapping the trajectories of each of these concepts, it is possible to discern considerable fuzziness in the relationship between victim and witness, suggestive of a continuum from the victim as witness to the witness as victim. Moreover, when these two concepts are put in such a relationship with each other, it is possible to observe how transgressive capacity takes its toll on people, how to make sense of the issues that concern them, and how best to respond to those concerns. This article considers the questions posed by the relationship between being a victim and being a witness, paying particular attention to who is and who is not considered to have a legitimate claim to victim status, and the role of ever-present media coverage in contributing to such claims and/or even creating them.
The concept of a “wound culture” was introduced, in the later 1990s, to provide an alternative description of contemporary society, and, more exactly, to set out an alternative account of the modern and contemporary forms of crime and violence, and the forms of media and institutions, proper to this type of world. In short, the concept redescribed new species and scenes of death and life in a public culture in which addictive and spectacular bodily violence has become public spectacle. Moreover, the paradoxes of self-amplified violence make visible wound culture’s autotropic, or self-turned, character. They raise the question of how we live in, and with, autotropic violence, and how such a world renders its own reality comprehensible to itself. Self-torn forms of life and death become perspicuous, and appear on countless stages throughout our self-reporting world. These are some of the forms though which wounds communicate, and some of the modes in which wound culture itself becomes a medium.