In the late 1980s, mostly German intellectuals discussed the question of the “uniqueness” or “comparability” of the Holocaust. In the Cause Mbembe, the fronts, the participants and the course of the discussion have changed fundamentally – but the political and ethical stakes remain the same.

  • Michael Rothberg

    Michael Rothberg ist Professor für Holocaust Studies und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft an der University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Im Dezember erscheint auf Deutsch sein Buch "Multidirektionale Erinnerung. Holocaustgedenken im Zeitalter der Dekolonisierung“.

In the mid-1980s, the West German public sphere was the site of a dramatic debate about the merits of compa­rison. Featuring some of the most promi­nent intellec­tuals and jour­na­lists of the time—including Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Nolte, Michael Stürmer, Andreas Hill­gruber, Rudolf Augstein, and many others—the debate, which came to be known as the Histo­ri­ker­streit, raged across the pages of major news­pa­pers such as Die Zeit and the Frank­furter Allge­meine Zeitungduring the second half of 1986 and the first half of 1987. At stake in these exch­anges was—as the subtitle of the first docu­men­ta­tion of the contro­versy put it—a “dispute about the singu­la­rity of the Holo­caust” (or in German, the “Kontro­verse um die Einzig­ar­tig­keit der natio­nal­so­zia­lis­ti­schen Juden­ver­nich­tung” [contro­versy about the singu­la­rity of the National Socia­list exter­mi­na­tion of the Jews]).

Parti­ci­pants from the right and left sides of the poli­tical spec­trum weighed in on what it meant to compare an event considered unique to another history of violence, in parti­cular that of the Gulag. In some versions of the right-wing argu­ment, such as Nolte’s, Stali­nist crimes and an alleged Jewish “decla­ra­tion of war” against Germany were seen as the “origin” of Hitler’s geno­cidal actions—an expl­ana­tion that func­tioned as an excuse. For those on the left, this effort by intellec­tuals on the right to rela­ti­vize the Holo­caust through juxta­po­si­tion with Stali­nist crimes was part of an effort in the conser­va­tive Kohl years to reorient Germany’s national narra­tives. Habermas, in parti­cular, responded by diagno­sing such revi­sio­nism as a dange­rous neocon­ser­va­tive attempt to revive a tradi­tional national iden­tity purged of respon­si­bi­lity for the geno­cide. In the months and years follo­wing those intense and very public exch­anges, scho­lars within and beyond Germany continued to work over the contro­versy at a meta-level in order to make sense of its larger signi­fi­cance for the Federal Repu­blic and for the poli­tics of history more broadly.

A new culture of remembrance

While the Histo­ri­ker­streit has remained a touch­stone of debates about National Socia­lism over the past thirty-five years, the world changed drama­ti­cally soon after the initial contro­versy subs­ided. The Berlin Wall fell and the Third Reich’s two successor states were unified in the new Berlin Repu­blic. With the end of the Cold War, the signi­fi­cance of the Holo­caust shifted; it came to occupy a central role in memory cultures that we now take for granted but that was—as the Histo­ri­ker­streit itself indicates—still in forma­tion up through the 1980s. The new centra­lity of Holo­caust memory to Germany, Europe,  the US, and—to an uneven extent—global conscious­ness can be quickly located in a few exem­plary lieux de mémoire: the proxi­mate opening in 1993 of the United States Holo­caust Memo­rial Museum and Steven Spielberg’s world­wide sensa­tion Schindler’s List; the Stock­holm Decla­ra­tion of 2000 making comme­mo­ra­tion of the Nazi geno­cide central to Euro­pean iden­tity; and the 2005 dedi­ca­tion, after years of debate and contro­versy, of the vast Memo­rial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin. In the rapidly growing Holo­caust memory culture of the 1990s and early 2000s one can see the victory of the Haber­ma­sian perspec­tive: the singu­la­rity of the Holo­caust becomes linked, as Daniel Levy and Natan Szna­ider have influ­en­ti­ally argued, with a cosmo­po­litan memory and a universal regime of human rights that seeks to under­mine the kind of narrow natio­na­lism Habermas found in the neocon­ser­va­tive position.

Fast forward to 2020 and the intellec­tual and poli­tical context has changed drama­ti­cally again. While Holo­caust memory main­tains its status as a touch­stone of American, Israeli, German, and Euro­pean poli­tical culture, it now coexists unea­sily with a new, global right­ward turn. Brexit, the elec­tion of Trump, the ascen­dance of the far-right AfD, the ongoing domi­na­tion of Israeli poli­tics by Netan­yahu, and openly revi­sio­nist govern­ments in Poland and Hungary are only some of the recent pheno­mena that mark a changed envi­ron­ment for thin­king about the meaning of the past today. While defense of Israel is wide­spread on the right, anti­se­mi­tism and Holo­caust rela­ti­vi­za­tion also flou­rish there—often in the very same spaces. But the changed meaning of Holo­caust memory is not only due to the rise of the popu­list right. Other curr­ents asso­ciated with the left have also come to compli­cate the centra­lity of the Shoah, as calls for more atten­tion to histo­ries of colo­nia­lism, slavery, and anti-Black racism become incre­asingly visible in the public sphere. In other words, from the left and from the right, recent years have seen a shuff­ling of the elements that defined post-Histo­ri­ker­streit and post-Cold War memory cultures.

In that changed—and charged—environment, Germany has expe­ri­enced what some have already called the Histo­ri­ker­streit 2.0: the contro­versy around the work of the South Africa-based, Cameroo­nian intellec­tual Achille Mbembe. To what extent can we compare these two contro­ver­sies over compa­rison? How has the poli­tical valence of compa­rison changed? I argue that not only does the Mbembe affair help us track the poli­tics of compa­rison today; it also casts a new light on the original Histo­ri­ker­streit.

Histo­ri­ker­streit 2.0

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.

With the unique­ness of the Holo­caust once again at the center of a highly poli­ti­cized debate in the German public sphere, Histo­ri­ker­streit 2.0 is an under­stan­dable short­hand for the contro­versy of 2020, but it shouldn’t block from view the way the new debate diverges from—and indeed casts a diffe­rent light on—the old one. As with the original Histo­ri­ker­streit, contro­versy about the Mbembe affair raged for weeks in high-profile jour­na­li­stic venues. Once again, promi­nent intellec­tuals weighed in and lines were drawn. Yet, signi­fi­cant diffe­rences also deserve atten­tion. The cast of parti­ci­pants has changed almost enti­rely from the original debate, with Micha Brumlik perhaps the only intellec­tual to take part promin­ently in both. The original cast had been prima­rily limited to a cohort of German male intellec­tuals who had been alive during the Nazi period, while the new discus­sion involves postwar gene­ra­tions and promin­ently features women, inclu­ding Aleida Assmann, Susan Neiman, and Eva Illouz. Beyond gene­ra­tional change and gender diver­sity, the discus­sion has also become more inter­na­tional, not only because of the parti­ci­pa­tion of Mbembe himself, but also because a number of Israeli intellec­tuals weighed in along with UK- and US-based scho­lars (inclu­ding the author of this essay).

The promi­nent place of Israel in the Mbembe affair was not present in the original dispute and indi­cates two further diffe­rences. Given the broad consensus that exists in Germany about the need to stand behind Israel as part of Germany’s culture of respon­si­bi­lity, the strict left/right clarity that charac­te­rized the earlier debate may have been some­what blurred in the recent contro­versy. I will continue to speak of left and right and progres­sive and conser­va­tive camps, but it is doubt­less true that some who criti­cized Mbembe probably think of them­selves as on the left; in contrast, I cannot think of any leftists who would have sided with Nolte. Finally, toge­ther with the promi­nent place accorded in the debate to South African apart­heid and to colo­nial lega­cies, the Israel refe­rent also illus­trates how the histo­ries at stake went well beyond the borders of the Euro­pean continent.

A Provi­sional Appraisal

It is, of course, too early to know how to evaluate the controversy’s outcomes, but we can offer a provi­sional appraisal. In 1986, the act of compa­rison seemed clearly part of the arsenal of conser­va­tive thin­kers. In 2020, in contrast, compa­rison was derided by conser­va­tives and defended by progres­sives such as Brumlik and Assmann. What has changed? I don’t think that there has been a funda­mental shift in histo­rical metho­do­logy. After all, compa­rison has always been key to the writing of history, even if it is also true that the field of compa­ra­tive geno­cide studies has blos­somed precisely in the years between Histo­ri­ker­streit 1.0 and Histo­ri­ker­streit 2.0. Rather, we might say, memory culture has changed in the inter­vening years. And indeed, as Jeffrey Olick remarked in a thirtieth-anniversary forum on the debates of the 1980s, the initial Histo­ri­ker­streit was always less about history than about memory—that is, about the meaning of the past for the present. Signi­fi­cantly, the 1980s were a moment when grass roots initia­tives led the way in grap­pling with National Socia­list lega­cies and helped created what we now see as the “German model” of memory and working through the past, as Jenny Wüsten­berg has shown in Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany. Since the 1990s, however, such grap­pling has become offi­cial state policy and has lost its insur­gent qualities.

Sie können uns unter­stützen, indem Sie diesen Artikel teilen: 

With the conso­li­da­tion of offi­cial Holo­caust memory culture in the two decades after unifi­ca­tion, other ques­tions started to perco­late to the top that were absent from the debates of the 1980s. In parti­cular, new points of compa­rison have emerged. The juxta­po­si­tion of Nazism with Stali­nism remains a hot issue, at least in Eastern Europe, but in other parts of the world, inclu­ding Germany, colo­nial violence, slavery, and, more broadly, anti-Black racism are now promin­ently on the agenda in discus­sions of coming to terms with the past. While Mbembe himself rarely compares the Holo­caust to colo­nial racism and probably does not under­stand his major contri­bu­tions to concern cultural memory, the debate around his work and the call for his disin­vi­ta­tion frequently refe­renced these issues. Compa­rison of colo­nial violence to Nazi geno­cide has a tradi­tion that stret­ches back to the early postwar years—as I have demons­trated in my book Multi­di­rec­tional Memory—but acti­vism by Nami­bian and Black German acti­vists, among others, has now made it an unavo­idable, if still frequently margi­na­lized, refe­rence in main­stream German debates.

It is precisely this shift in memory culture from a bi-lateral National Socia­list vs. Stali­nist frame to a more open-ended and global field of compa­rison that marks the diffe­rence between the two itera­tions of histo­rical debate. The point of repea­ting the name “Histo­ri­ker­streit” makes sense, not only because it serves to situate the Mbembe affair in rela­tion to a precursor, but espe­ci­ally because it allows us to reread the past from the present. From the perspec­tive of post­co­lo­nial critique and a globa­lized memory culture, the Mbembe affair shines an illu­mi­na­ting light on Histo­ri­ker­streit 1.0 and the limits of the progres­sive posi­tion arti­cu­lated in the 1980s. Habermas’s explicit aim in publicly condem­ning Nolte and other conser­va­tives was to protect what he called “the grea­test intellec­tual achie­ve­ment of our postwar period”: “the uncon­di­tional opening of the Federal Repu­blic to the poli­tical culture of the West.” For Habermas, this meant embra­cing “consti­tu­tional patrio­tism” and affir­ming “binding univer­sa­list consti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples.” The American lite­rary critic Vincent Pecora was one of the few early commen­ta­tors to note that Habermas’s “rhetoric subtly serves . . . to absolve the West from its own obvious compli­city, not only in Germany’s war crimes, but also in the long narra­tive of Western impe­rial power.” Without gain­saying the value of the consti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples Habermas arti­cu­lates in the after­math of a fascist dicta­tor­ship, it must be said that an uncon­di­tional commit­ment to the “West” will ring hollow to those whose socie­ties have expe­ri­enced centu­ries of Euro­pean and US impe­rial rule, as Dirk Moses also pointed out in the thirtieth-anniversary forum.

Beyond Compa­rison: The Ques­tion of Responsibility

If contro­versy over compa­rison consti­tutes the surface level of the two debates, even more important ques­tions lurk under­neath. Or, to put it another way, the problem was never compa­rison as such; the problem was poli­tical and histo­rical respon­si­bi­lity. Juxta­po­sing the Gulag and Ausch­witz is not itself unthinkable: how one does it and why are where the crux of the ethical and poli­tical matter lies. Thin­king in these ethical and poli­tical terms shows conti­nuity as well as reversal in the posi­tions both conser­va­tives and progres­sives took in the two debates. If Histo­ri­ker­streit 1.0 involved an attempt by Nolte and other conser­va­tives to rela­ti­vize respon­si­bi­lity for the Nazi geno­cide, Histo­ri­ker­streit 2.0 involves an attempt by critics of Mbembe to embrace and instru­men­ta­lize such respon­si­bi­lity in order to avoid addi­tional forms of ethical and poli­tical impli­ca­tion. In parti­cular, defense of the Holocaust’s unique­ness and poli­cing of the boun­da­ries of what is awkwardly called “Israel critique” help displace respon­si­bi­lity for other German atro­ci­ties such as the geno­cide of the Herero and Nama and parti­ci­pa­tion in colo­nia­lism more broadly and distract from German entan­gle­ment in the dispos­ses­sion of Pales­ti­nians. It was this entanglement—marked initi­ally by the crea­tion of a new refugee problem in Palestine—that Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Tota­li­ta­ria­nism, a work that was also one of the first to suggest a colo­nial genea­logy for Nazi crimes.

Is the progres­sive posi­tion also marked by conti­nuity in addi­tion to reversal? If the right went from promo­ting compa­rison to denying its legi­ti­macy in the case of the Holo­caust, it main­tained a commit­ment to mini­mi­zing German respon­si­bi­lity in each case. The left’s shif­ting stance on compa­ra­bi­lity differs from that of the right: while embra­cing compa­rison in the Mbembe affair instead of cautio­ning against it, as in the original Histo­ri­ker­streit, the left’s newfound defense of colo­nial compa­rison does not imply a shift on the ques­tion of respon­si­bi­lity for the Holo­caust. The progres­sive posi­tion of figures such as Assmann and Brumlik does not seek to release Germany from the regime of memory and respon­si­bi­lity that emerged in the 1980s and was conso­li­dated in the 1990s and 2000s. Rather, it takes inspi­ra­tion from it in order to expand the scope of entan­gle­ments. The logic of the progres­sive posi­tion is not zero-sum or either/or; it is an exten­sion of German memory culture that also holds the poten­tial for a multi­di­rec­tional revi­sion of remem­brance beyond resi­dual Eurocentrism.

The limited terrain of comparison—on both sides—in Histo­ri­ker­streit 1.0 suggests the produc­tive advance made in the new debate beyond a prima­rily national frame. 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.


Photo-credit for the portrait of M. Roth­berg: David Wu, UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies