The Holocaust “comparability” debate

The question of how to understand the Holocaust has troubled historians since the first knowledge of the war of extermination against the Jews of Europe became widespread in the 1940s. Is the Holocaust unique in human history? Can the crimes of the Holocaust be compared to other periods of genocide in the twentieth century? Is there a connection between Hitler’s war on the Jews and German character, German colonialism, or German philosophy?

The most recent iteration of the debate is taking place through a spate of articles, books, and internet contributions by talented scholars like Neil Gregor, Michael Rothberg, Jurgen Zimmerer, Achille Mbembe, Dirk Moses, and others, and the debate has been intense. A. Dirk Moses, author of The Problems of Genocide, frames the debate in a contribution to Geschichte der gegenwert (History of the presentlink) that has stimulated a series of excellent responses in the New Fascism Syllabus (link). Moses’ article is short and polemical, provocatively titled “The German Catechism” (link). Moses believes that the politics of the Federal Republic of Germany over the past several decades have led to a dogmatic and limiting set of assumptions about how scholars and the public should understand and remember the Holocaust. And he believes this set of strictures makes it difficult to bring forward the facts of genocide and atrocity that were part of the European colonial practice in Africa and other parts of the world. Moses puts his view in these terms:

For many, the memory of the Holocaust as a break with civilization is the moral foundation of the Federal Republic. To compare it with other genocides is therefore considered a heresy, an apostasy from the right faith. It is time to abandon this catechism. (link)

Moses describes the debate as revolving around a “catechism” of beliefs about the Holocaust which, according to some, should never be questioned:

  1. The Holocaust is unique in that it involves the unrestricted annihilation of Jews for the sake of their annihilation.In contrast to the pragmatic and limited goals for which other genocides were undertaken, a state here tried for the first time in history to wipe out a people solely for ideological reasons.
  2. Since it destroyed interpersonal solidarity in an unprecedented manner, the memory of the Holocaust as a breach of civilization forms the moral foundation of the German nation, often even of European civilization.
  3. Germany bears a special responsibility for the Jews in Germany and is obliged to show particular loyalty to Israel: “Israel’s security is part of the raison d’être of our country.”
  4. Anti-Semitism is a prejudice and ideologem sui generis and it was a specifically German phenomenon. It should not be confused with racism.
  5. Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. (link)

The discussion of Moses’ polemical piece has alternated between general support for Moses’ ideas in broad strokes and criticisms of the sharper edges of his piece. On the “support” side is a very thoughtful piece by Neil Gregor (link), including this general remark about the importance of understanding the Holocaust in a broader historical context: “For a long time, the history of National Socialism has made much greater sense to me when understood as European history as well as German history, and I have always thought it important to locate it within wider histories of European colonialism and racial science, to read its ideological drives within the contexts of more generic nationalism, militarism and anti-democratic thought, and to see it as having been incubated by powerful tendencies in not just German, but European histories from the nineteenth century onwards.” Gregor also offers a series of thoughtful hesitations about Moses’ article, mostly having to do with its categorical and polemical tone.

The heart of the debate has to do with the status of the Holocaust in world history. Is the Shoah historically unique and incomparable to other terrible events? Does it represent a “civilizational break”? Do historians diminish the moral importance of the Holocaust by discussing it in the context of broader historical circumstances and actions in Europe and the world? Is a concern for colonial violence and European racism in Africa, Palestine, or other parts of the colonized world a tacit diminishment of the importance of the Holocaust? Is it possible — as historians do in the nature of their work — to analyze the Holocaust in a comparative mode, considering regimes of killings in other parts of the world as well?

A very basic thread of this debate is the relationship between the crimes of the Holocaust by the Nazi regime and the crimes of colonial powers in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. From outside the debate — and outside Germany — it seems clear that it is necessary to be able to consider the historical causes of multiple human catastrophes — as Timothy Snyder does in treating the Holocaust and the Holodomor in the same book (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). This effort at placing large events in a historical context and considering their dynamics in comparison to other historical processes is at the heart of the historian’s craft. This does not imply one evil is the same as another; it simply reflects a very ordinary moral conviction that it is crucial to honestly recognize the crimes of the past, whoever the perpetrators and whoever the victims.

The fifth item in the catechism is especially politically charged in the context of today’s geopolitical realities. It implies that criticisms of the military and governmental policies of the state of Israel are inherently anti-Semitic. And yet this position is plainly fundamentally unacceptable from a moral point of view. It is evident that scholars and citizens alike must be free to express their disapproval and alarm about official actions of the government of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied territories, and Israel itself. The equation of criticisms of state policies by Israel with anti-Semitism connects directly with international disagreements about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), as well as efforts in Germany and the United States to limit support for BDS. Again, whatever the justice of the demands associated with BDS, it seems evident on its face that a liberal state cannot enact legislation prohibiting support for the BDS movement.

A recent eruption in the controversy about memory and the Holocaust is a debate that arose in Germany in 2020 concerning the writings of Achille Mbembe (link). Mbembe is a noted Cameroonian scholar on post-colonial history, with a long record of highly-regarded scholarship. He has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century” (foreword to Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy). He has expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) as a response to policies and military / police actions of the state of Israel against Palestinian citizens. The controversy was taken up officially in Germany by Felix Klein, the first Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism. Mbembe was accused of anti-Semitism for his position on BDS, and he was accused of relativizing the Holocaust, apparently because of his use of the concept of apartheid in application to Israel. Mbembe has vigorously denied the charge of anti-Semitism at all levels.

One of the historians whose work has been at the center of the debate about comparability is Michael Rothberg. His Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization makes the effort to draw own the relationships that exist at multiple levels — structural and moral — between the extermination campaign against Europe’s Jewish population and the systematic violence and murder that occurred through colonial governance in Africa and elsewhere. The idea of the “multidirectionality” of memory plays a key role in his treatment; instead of comparison, we are invited to consider a range of facts and causes of the evils of genocide, slavery, and mass violence. Here is how he formulates the basic issue in Multidirectional Memory (discussing Walter Benn Michaels’ treatment of the parallel facts of US slavery and the Holocaust):

In this passage Michaels takes up one of the most agonizing problems of contemporary multicultural societies: how to think about the relationship between different social groups’ histories of victimization. This problem, as Michaels recognizes, also fundamentally concerns collective memory, the relationship that such groups establish between their past and their present circumstances. A series of questions central to this book emerges at this point: What happens when different histories confront each other in the public sphere? Does the remembrance of one history erase others from view? When memories of slavery and colonialism bump up against memories of the Holocaust in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue? (kl 154)

Rothberg is a participant is the current debate about historical memory, and his interpretation of the Mbembe affair is especially helpful for readers trying to understand the terms of the debate (link). Here is Rothberg’s summary of the circumstances of the affair in Germany:

Mbembe, one of the world’s most prominent theorists of race, colonialism, violence, and human possibility, was slated to speak in August 2020 at a cultural festival in Germany, the Ruhr Triennial. A regional politician, Lorenz Deutsch, decided to try and block Mbembe’s appearance by issuing an open letter that presented a handful of citations from Mbembe’s work mentioning the Holocaust, apartheid, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. On the basis of these short and decontextualized excerpts, Deutsch accused Mbembe of “anti-Semitic ‘Israel critique,’ Holocaust relativization, and extremist disinformation.” Deutsch’s interpretation of Mbembe’s work—which I consider tendentious, partial, and misleading—was taken up and affirmed by a more prominent voice, that of Felix Klein, the German Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and for the Fight against Antisemitism. Although the Ruhr Triennial was canceled because of the coronavirus, Deutsch and Klein nevertheless wanted its director censured and Mbembe disinvited because the latter had allegedly profaned the Holocaust, demonized Israel, and offered support to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). BDS, a non-violent campaign that calls for the end of the occupation, the return of refugees, and equal rights for Palestinians, was deemed intrinsically antisemitic in a controversial 2019 Bundestag declaration, despite protests by intellectuals and activists, including many Jewish ones. Mbembe stated that he was not a member of the BDS movement, but even a tangential association with BDS has proven enough to tarnish reputations in contemporary Germany—as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, also learned last year. (link)

Rothberg suggests that we would be well advised to reconceive the issues by recognizing that comparison is not the most fundamental issue; instead, the subtext of both historians’ debates has to do with responsibility and the denial of responsibility.

The juxtaposition of Historikerstreit versions 1.0 and 2.0—as well as the wide-ranging discussions about Holocaust memory, colonialism, slavery, and Israel/Palestine that continue in Germany and elsewhere—clarifies the need to link memory to solidarity and historical responsibility: that is, to the ethical and political commitments that subtend public forms of remembrance. Beyond comparison lies the implication of the intellectuals who debate comparisons in the histories they dispute. In the simplest terms, we can say that the original Historikerstreit involved a clash among Germans over Germany’s particular responsibility for the Holocaust. In the new discussions, the participants are not all Germans and the histories at stake are more than European. Far from diluting the participants’ implication in historical and contemporary injustices, however, this enlargement of the field of comparison sharpens the question of responsibility. The new Historikerstreit is not a controversy only for Germans and Europeans, but it is not one they can evade either.

Dirk Moses offers a very extensive reply, rebuttal, and reinforcement of his views in a concluding post in the series (link). There is a great deal of developed argumentation in his closing article, and it is worth reading carefully. However, it doesn’t become less polemical. If anything, Moses raises the stakes in his polemics, making German white supremacy the key to the German catechism that he attacks. But as numerous contributors to the debate have already shown, the motivations and moral positions of the scholars and thinkers whose work led to what Moses describes as “the catechism” were anything but reactionary and racist.

Plainly these debates are complicated and intertwined with academic, political, and emotional allegiances. Johannes von Moltke’s contribution to the New Fascism colloquium is an especially thoughtful effort to disentangle the many threads of the debate (link). Here is a very concise statement of Moltke’s position from the end of his article in the New Fascism colloquium:

However, especially in view of the analogy that Moses admittedly furnished by his choice of imagery, it is worth noting that the parallels end right there. For where Moses critiques the catechism in the name of greater differentiation, where Rothberg and Zimmerer call for more multidirectionality and comparison, the far-right advocates for its outright abolition as the only way to free the Germans from the burden of guilt. To them, the problem lies, neither in the singularity thesis nor in the ritualization of Holocaust memory per se, but in their “psychological and political effects on the German Volk.” The purpose of critique, consequently, is not inclusiveness, recognition, or solidarity across multiple identity groups but ethnonationalist retrenchment. Agreeing at first blush with the thesis of a catechism that rules Germans lives, Sellner winds his way to conclusions diametrically opposed to both the letter and the spirit of Moses’s intervention. If for the former the catechism demands to be countered by “inclusive thinking,” the latter sees it only in terms of its “inescapable consequences”: “the exchange of the population through replacement migration as well as the routine, targeted traumatization of indigenous youth.” By which he presumably means “bio-Germans.” Moses, Rothberg, and Zimmerer want a different culture of memory; Sieferle and Sellner want none.

The contributions to the extended series in New Fascism Syllabus are deep and provocative. The series is an important contribution to the large topic of how to make sense of the atrocities of the twentieth century, and a collection of the articles would make an excellent short book. These contributions by leading scholars of genocide and the Holocaust provide a great deal of insight into the difficult question of how to confront evil in history. 

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