This post is part three of a four-part forum: "Transnational Memories: Sites, Knots, Methods." An earlier version was presented as part of a roundtable at the Modern Language Association's 2015 Convention in Vancouver that featured Rosanne Kennedy, Ann Rigney, Michael Rothberg, and Debarati Sanyal.
In October 1998, a battle took place near Van in eastern Anatolia between the Turkish Army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK). In many ways this was an “ordinary” battle in an area some consider North Kurdistan. Over the course of the 1990s, the Turkish state waged a brutal war of counter-insurgency against Kurdish militants that killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians, destroyed thousands of villages, and displaced as many as a million people, all while denying the substantial minority of Kurds in Turkey basic human rights to language, culture, and political representation. The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, the US, and Turkey, has fought for decades in the name of Kurdish independence and autonomy. A certain liberalization and de-escalation of the crisis within Turkey occurred in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the reputation and political program of the PKK have been undergoing significant change. Yet, the Kurdish question remains an unresolved flashpoint in Turkey and the region, as recent fighting near the Turkish border in Syria and Iraq and the highly visible resistance in Kobanê make clear.
The battle in October 1998 ended as many did, with the army capturing and, it seems, summarily executing a number of the Kurdish fighters. Among those executed fighters was one who would become an icon of the Kurdish cause: Sehît Ronahî—Martyr Ronahî—from the YAJK, the women’s brigade of the PKK. While the iconography of Kurdish martyrs is extensive—and includes many women who have fought with this secular, revolutionary movement—Sehît Ronahî represents an unusual case. Ronahî was born in Munich in 1965 and was known by her birth name, Andrea Wolf, before she joined the PKK in the mid-1990s. Previous to enlisting in the women’s brigade, Wolf had been involved in radical left politics in Germany, had served time in jail, and may have been affiliated with the Red Army Faction. Her experience in the radical left—and possibly the threat of returning to prison—eventually moved her to align herself with the Kurdish cause.
In this short paper, I want to use the unexpected, but not unique, case of Wolf/Ronahî to reflect on some of the issues central to our roundtable. As a non-national who died in the national liberation struggle of a people long denied a nation-state, Wolf provides an occasion to reflect on memory and politics within and across borders. Her case challenges us to examine the status of lieux de mémoire beyond the context of the nation-state; the relevance of migration, media, and diaspora to memory studies; and the political and methodological implications of the transnational turn.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the years since her murder, Wolf has been transformed into a transnational lieu de mémoire that condenses an array of not-entirely-compatible currents. In addition to being a martyr for Kurdish national liberation, Wolf has become both a symbol of socialist internationalism and an object of human rights campaigns by Turkish, German, and European organizations. Various groups claiming allegiance to Wolf’s legacy have commemorated her death in multiple sites by constructing what Astrid Erll would call a “plurimedial” constellation of memory. In 1999, at the PKK’s yearly convention, the party voted unanimously to make Wolf a symbol of internationalist struggle, and her memory remains central to the Kurdish cause. In 2013, two years after a Turkish human rights organization discovered a mass grave holding Wolf’s remains along with those of forty other militants, a massive tomb in the region near Van where she died was named in her memory. Speaking at the tomb’s dedication ceremony in Çatak, a Kurdish guerilla evoked Wolf as “a manifestation of the diversity and internationality of the Kurdish movement.”
At the same time that Wolf circulates in the transnational Kurdish region, her memory has also remained present in Germany. There her story and image have been memorialized and remediated in books, posters, exhibitions, ceremonies, street demonstrations, and videos—most of them produced or organized by coalitions of radical German leftists and Kurdish activists in Europe. But her memory remains alive even in the mainstream press; a recent report in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel evoked Wolf while discussing the suddenly fashionable topic of Kurdish women fighters in Kobanê.
Finally, at an angle to both radical and mainstream currents in Germany, the internationally known artist Hito Steyerl—who was Wolf’s friend as a teenager in Munich—has produced an ongoing series of videos, essays, and performances that reflect on Wolf’s engagement with the PKK and mourn her death at the hands of the Turkish army. Videos such as November (2004) and Abstract (2012) constitute a requiem for internationalism, an interrogation of what she calls “traveling images” of revolutionary martyrdom, and an indictment of contributions by the German state and multinational corporations to the Turkish war against the Kurds. Steyerl begins her aesthetic engagement with Wolf’s memory by asking how a German “friend” can become a Kurdish “terrorist.” But Steyerl’s attempt to answer this question takes a self-reflexive turn as she realizes that she has herself in some fashion become, through her work, a “Kurdish protestor” and that the art world in which she moves is itself implicated in the transnational economies that produce the military technologies that killed Wolf.
What can we make of this heterogeneous mnemonic activity, which I have only superficially evoked, and how does it help us think anew about transnational memory? Many of us have criticized Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire project for the way it remains within a nation-state framework and purifies the nation of colonial, postcolonial, and minority memories. Yet, Nora’s paradigm does help illuminate this case study. As Ann Rigney has often pointed out, lieux de mémoire make available an impressively flexible methodology because they highlight centripetal, condensed meanings along with the possibility of centrifugal ongoing metamorphosis. Following Rigney, we might say that this combination of condensation and displacement also has the potential to speak to the transnational work of memory. In this case, the mnemonic figure of Wolf-as-Ronahî condenses Kurdish nationalist aspirations, radical internationalist ideologies, and mainstream Euro-American fears about Third World terrorism. At the same time, those meanings demonstrate the possibility for mnemonic metamorphosis, as the recent reactivation of Wolf’s memory in the context of Kobanê exemplifies.
But the Wolf case also reveals the limits of Nora’s project. If, as he puts it in “Between Memory and History,” the “differentiated network” of memory sites ultimately operates at the level of “national history,” then the conditions of possibility for Wolf to become a lieu de mémoire lie, as I have tried to indicate schematically, in the interaction of activities at a series of scales: between national aspirations, state repression, diasporic political organizing, histories of internationalist solidarity, and transnational media—a mixture that pushes the limits of the metaphor of the “site,” no matter how flexibly we conceive it. Steyerl’s notion of “traveling images”—which anticipates Erll’s notion of “traveling memory”—may be more evocative.
Wolf’s story also complicates the linear narrative of continuously eroding “real” milieux de mémoire central to Nora’s project. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fully globalized context that made Ronahî possible and that has nourished her rise to iconic status, “real” communities continue to cluster around her memory sixteen years after her death: both in the Kurdish struggle and in extreme left milieus in Germany.
But this case study also poses challenges to the emergent transnational memory studies that has arisen in response to Nora and what Erll calls the “second phase” of memory studies. Most important, from my perspective, it requires that we think more imaginatively about the status and scale of the political in memory studies. Nora’s focus on the nation retains plausibility because the nation-state continues to function as a memory-wielding agent of legitimation, discipline, and identity formation. Thus far, the primary referent for memory politics beyond the nation has been human rights, as Rosanne Kennedy discusses with great nuance in her contribution to this forum. As I’ve suggested, the discourse and practice of human rights do play a catalytic role in the Wolf case. Yet, the human rights framework is insufficient to describe both the salience of Ronahî’s memory and the political aspirations it evokes. An alternate term also emerges from this material: I want to propose that internationalism retains power both as a memory and an aspiration. The concept of “internationalism” may seem passé, and it is certainly not innocent, but it best describes the tradition of long-distance solidarity for which the traveling memory of Wolf stands. Remembering Ronahî leads us across national boundaries; but it also leads us to confront the borders that still exist and that are themselves forms of violence and injustice—in Kurdistan and elsewhere. We need new internationalisms because we still live in a world of nations.
Other Posts in this Forum
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