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Compa­ring Compa­ri­sons: From the “Histo­ri­ker­streit” to the Mbembe Affair

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.

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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