In Germany, Coming To Terms With Its Past Is An Ongoing Struggle

The Holocaust and colonialism in the competition over who controls German memory.
Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (Source: N0TABENE – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (Source: N0TABENE – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In 2009, Michael Rothberg, now professor of Holocaust Studies at UCLA, published Multidirectional Memory, one of the most influential books in memory studies of the last decade. In it, he argued that memory is not a zero-sum game, that’s to say, the collective memory of one event need not drown out the memories of other events. To the contrary, the memory of one event – say, the Holocaust – can interact with and enliven the memories of other events – say, of decolonization.

With examples ranging from Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois’ visit to Warsaw after World War II to the emergence of Holocaust memory in France during the Algerian War (1954-62), Rothberg showed that memory is not a competition in which there are only winners and losers; rather, “far from blocking other historical memories from view in a competition struggle for recognition, the emergence of Holocaust memory on a global scale has contributed to the articulation of other histories – some of them predating the Nazi genocide, such as slavery, and others taking place later…”

With the publication of Rothberg’s book in German, we can see a new debate taking place in the country which, more than any other, has grappled with its past crimes and has even come to be regarded, not least by itself, as a model of ‘coming to terms with the past’ (or Vergangenheitsbewältigung).

During the period of post-Cold War unification, many commentators argued that Germany would abandon – or at least minimize – its commitment to memory work, as visions of a revivified nationalism fuelled fears of a return to a pre-war imbalance of power in Central Europe. Yet such fears were misplaced, as the Federal Republic in the 1990s renewed its commitment to commemorating the victims of National Socialism, through education programmes and, not least, the building, after much public debate (which was itself instructive), of the Central Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of the now unified Berlin.

It is striking then that what is happening now seems to be an insistence in certain quarters that only Germans have the right to pass judgement on German memory culture, and that the German ‘protection’ of Holocaust memory guarantees its sanctity. In light of the ‘Mbembe Affair’, when Cameroonian scholar of postcolonial theory, Achille Mbembe, was disinvited from the Ruhr Triennial festival because of his supposed stance vis-à-vis Israel and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, the atmosphere surrounding Holocaust memory in the German public sphere has become febrile, with critics ready to launch into the sort of zero-sum logic that Rothberg warned against.

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In an article in the Spiegel, Tobias Rapp argued that German memory is “tied to places, to family histories and to experiences that are passed down” the generations. In Die Welt, Thomas Schmid claimed that the early post-war Federal Republic had but the vaguest idea of what was going on in what he called more “exotic” parts of the world. Thanks to the fact that Germany’s overseas empire had lasted a mere thirty years, with its possessions being taken away after World War I, any suggestion of links between colonialism and fascism was unpersuasive, in the German case at least. And in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, despite noting that many families in Germany today have origins outside of the country, Claudius Seidl argued that this has no impact on Holocaust memory, which, in the final instance, “cannot be globalised”.

In their response to the critics, Rothberg, along with the Hamburg professor of African history, Jürgen Zimmerer, argued that the taboo on comparisons with the Holocaust needs to be lifted. The argument of Multidirectional Memory is not that the Holocaust is the same as other atrocities, whether colonial violence, slavery, or other genocides. It is that Holocaust memory can be a spur to reflect on those other atrocities. In the German case, ideas about race and space which informed imperialism are not irrelevant to understanding the rise of Nazism and its subsequent crimes. Even if there was no direct line ‘from Africa to Auschwitz’, seeing Nazism as unconnected to Europe’s wider histories of colonialism and race thinking is to quarantine it in a way that de-historicis\zes it, preserving it in aspic, unable to inform the present.

Insisting on the Holocaust’s uniqueness, Rothberg and Zimmerer argue, not only prevents meaningful comparisons – that is, comparisons which explain differences as well as similarities. It also perpetuates a notion of the Nazi crimes as uniquely German, something that only Germans can and should talk about as a crime committed in their name. Yet the Holocaust, although a German-led project, could not have been so ‘successful’ were it not for the willingness of many of its collaborators across the whole of Europe, from Axis states (such as Croatia, Hungary, and Romania) – the latter of which carried out its own genocide against Jews and Romanies with minimal German assistance – to collaborating regimes (such as Vichy France), to institutions (such as Ukrainian or Baltic auxiliary police forces, or the Polish Blue Police). Writing them out of the picture leaves us with a Holocaust memory which is akin to the state of historical knowledge half-a-century ago and dangerously allows for revisionist narratives of the sort promoted by Victor Orbán in Hungary.

None of the German critics of Rothberg’s book represent the radical right – very far from it (this point must be emphasized, these are not revisionists or icebreakers for fascism and the far right). But they stand for a provincialisation of German memory culture which isolates the Holocaust from world history, preferring to ‘keep’ it to themselves as a purely German phenomenon. Doing so will, in the end, not only make the rest of Europe feel justified in arguing that the Nazi crimes had nothing to do with them, it also paves the way for those on the radical right in Germany to keep the Holocaust as a German affair, making it easier for them to remove it from memory debates.

German historians, artists, filmmakers, authors and politicians have, in a long and torturous process over the last seventy years, ensured that Holocaust memory is central to the Federal Republic’s self-understanding. It would be more than ironic if, in coming to terms with coming to terms with the past, the meaning of Nazism and the Holocaust for Europe as a whole – and its complex intertwined history with the rest of the world, were to be lost. In fact, it would make the radical right’s task in Germany easier.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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