By David Clarke, University of Cardiff

Human existence is inescapably marked by experiences of suffering. However, just as suffering is part of what it means to be human, so the attempt to make sense of suffering is equally a feature of our condition.[i] For religious believers, suffering can be understood as divinely ordained, even if it appears inexplicable or unjust from the human point of view. However, the experience of modernity (and its accompanying secularization) present new challenges in terms of making sense of suffering, which is increasingly understood not as the result of divine providence or fate, but rather as a product of human agency or human society.[ii] It is this recognition of the human causes of suffering that is fundamental to the emergence of the modern category of the victim, who is an individual suffering unjustly because of the actions of others or on account of the harms caused by a particular social order.

The status of the victim in contemporary memory politics is always allied to specific demands and expectations on the part of victims themselves and specific duties on the part of society. Victims are not simply people who suffer, but are rather those who are perceived to be owed recognition and reparation by a society that acknowledges their suffering as the result of an injustice. In this sense, we can speak of victimhood as socially constructed as opposed to an inherent quality:[iii] it relies both on the formulation of a claim by individuals or groups, which is a demand for recognition and for measures to address their suffering, and an acknowledgement on the part of society that certain harms must be remedied.[iv] For this reason, victimhood is also a contested category: not every claim to victim status is acknowledged and not all victim groups are acknowledged equally, sometimes giving rise to a sense of ‘competition’ between them.[v]

The acknowledgement of victim status in a given society also depends upon the symbolic value attached to a particular group of victims: the reasons for seeking to remember a victim group are themselves socially constructed and historically specific. In contemporary Western countries, the most prominent example of victim-focused memory relates to the figure of the Holocaust victim. This attention to the memory of human rights abuses, even those in which the community itself may have been implicated, marks a shift from an earlier ‘antagonistic’ memory of the nation-state, in which external aggressors were framed as the source of the suffering of one’s own people.[vi]

The special duty to remember Holocaust victims, and indeed to feel empathy for their suffering, has been understood as a means to combat extremism and resist anti-democratic ideologies in the present, although this belief is open to question from an empirical point of view.[vii] Nevertheless, what is clearly at stake in efforts to commemorate victims is the desire to underpin the acceptance of particular values in a given society. We see this, for example, in the practice of transitional justice, which often aims to memorialize, rehabilitate and compensate the victims of former dictatorships as a means to further the acceptance of democratic values in the present.[viii]

One of the consequences of all kinds of victim-focused memory is that it tends to demand purity of the victims: they must have suffered entirely innocently in order to fulfil their function as ‘moral beacons’ in the present.[ix] However, situations characterized by violence and persecution sometimes produce morally ambiguous behaviour on the part of individuals who are attempting to survive under appalling conditions. Furthermore, people who are themselves representatives of anti-democratic ideologies can also be victimized. The belief that victims must be pure in order to be vehicles for morally edifying messages about the past is problematic in (at least) two respects. Firstly, it robs victims of their moral agency and erases significant aspects of their experience of persecution.[x] Secondly, it can be instrumentalized in order to challenge or remove victim status where there is ideological competition between different victim groups.

Victimhood is particularly contentious, as we see in contemporary debates on questions of social justice, where it is mobilized not to support, but rather to challenge the political, moral or economic status quo. Where claims to victimhood are seen as illegitimate, they are often framed as an assault on society’s values. This largely conservative tradition can be traced back at least as far as Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), which claimed that moral reproach against the powerful on the part of the suffering weak undermines healthy values in favour of a degraded ‘slave morality’. To give only one example, we can see this rhetorical strategy at work in modified form in current debates on racism and the legacies of colonialism, in which conservatives reject demands for social justice as an attempt to undermine the values and self-confidence of ‘the West’ by fabricating claims of victimhood.

Challenges from groups attempting to underline the links between historical suffering and present disadvantage are often dismissed as special pleading on the part of individuals unwilling to take responsibility for their own success in life (or lack of it). Paradoxically, however, this anti-victimhood discourse often stakes a claim to victimhood itself: Western values and their defenders are presented as victimized by those making claims for social justice.[xi] It is in itself a sign of the potency of the figure of the victim in contemporary culture that such discourse seeks not to reject the notion of victimhood per se, but rather to claim it for its own side of the argument. Such debates demonstrate that, when we are discussing claims to victimhood, we are ultimately engaged in a struggle over wider societal values, to which the suffering of victims adds moral force.


[i] Wilkinson, Ian (2005) Suffering: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[ii] Amato, Joseph A. (1990) Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering. New York: Praeger

[iii] Jacoby, Tami Amanda (2015) ‘A theory of victimhood: politics, conflict and the construction of victim-based identity.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43(2): 511–536.

[iv] Clarke, David (2019) Constructions of Victimhood: Remembering the Victims of State Socialism in Germany Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

[v] See, for example, Jean-Michel Chaumont. 1997. La concurrence des victimes : Génocide, identité, reconnaissance. Paris: La Découverte.

[vi] Cento Bull, Anna and Hans Lauge Hansen (2016) ‘On agonistic memory’, Memory Studies, 9(4): 390–404 (here p. 395).

[vii] Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc (2014) À quoi servent les politiques de la mémoire. Paris: Science Po Les Presses.

[viii] De Greiff, Pablo (2012) ‘Theorizing transitional justice.’ In: Transitional Justice, edited by Melissa S. Williams, Rosemary Nagy, and John Elster (New York and London: New York University Press), pp. 31–77.

[ix] Bouris, Erica (2007) Complex Political Victims. Bloomfeld: Kumarian, p. 32.

[x] Spelman, Elizabeth V. (1997) Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering. Boston, MA: Beacon. Enns, Diane. 2012. The Violence of Victimhood. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.

[xi] Rothe, Anne (2011) Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, pp. 29-31.

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