Analogies are in. Memes, podcasts, op-ed pieces and scholarly debates compare Trump to Hitler or Mussolini. Trump, in turn, trades in false moral equivalencies, seeing “very fine people on both sides” of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Politicians reference Nazi concentration camps to describe ICE detention on the US Southern Border. To this, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum strenuously objects on the grounds that the Holocaust was unique and incomparable, while ICE itself unwittingly proves the point in its own attempts to deny the fascism analogy (“We’re not Nazis. We’re just following orders”).
This much is not new, especially on the internet where Godwin’s law has long since defined the reductio ad hitlerum as a key rhetorical pattern of online debate. Analogies anchor political arguments and give them affective charge. They build conceptual bridges between otherwise unconnected structures and events. Analogies provide an opening for the critical work of imagining what could change in the future. They can produce powerful flashes of insight, and they can capture significant discursive energies, bundling and redirecting them for all sorts of political purposes, whether salutary or destructive. At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the trouble with comparisons. Analogies tend to decontextualize. Freezing complex historical processes into handy symmetries, they sap specificity and downplay difference. Rapid news cycles and social media favor the replication of quick analogies that seem to define our present moment but explain very little about the events of any given day, week, or month if we don’t restore the ambiguities and contradictions.
Comparing with Germany
What strikes us today, as two white Germanists working in the United States during the Trump Presidency and after almost a decade of organizing by Black Lives Matter, is the increased two-way traffic across these conceptual bridges over the Atlantic. This is no longer just a question of whether Hitler provides a model for Trump, or whether the situation in America in 2020 is analogous to that in Weimar Germany during the 1920s. Commentators or public figures amplify already ubiquitous Nazi analogies by comparative references to different forms of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or mastering the past; to colonization, enslavement, reparations and reconciliation; to policing after the Holocaust on the one hand, and after Jim Crow on the other. Recent months have seen a surge of memes on social media comparing German and US memory cultures and declaring the former’s coming-to-terms with the Holocaust far superior to the way America deals with its legacy of slavery.
Offering Germany as a model for thinking through American conflicts, these memes fundamentally rely on making the two countries, their histories, their memory cultures, and their identity politics analogous. A trained scientist, Merkel becomes the model for everything Trump is not; Drosten is the more effective Fauci; German memorials become the right way to remember genocide and slavery alike. The search for similarities has also gripped the two countries’ memory cultures (albeit selectively), shaping debates on policy and identity on both sides of the Atlantic.
But at what cost do we engage political analogy, and more specifically, what do such analogies mean for the relationship between Germany and the United States? We have learned to beware of tabulating comparative evil, but how much better is it to engage in what Susan Neiman calls “comparative redemption”? If Germany leads the way in memory politics, can we forget its colonial past? If Germany’s coming-to-terms now is to provide a template for anti-racist work in the United States, where does that leave American civil rights history? How does the invocation of fascism analogies in the history of Black anti-racism factor into the current debates about the usefulness and limits of comparing the Trump present to the Nazi past? What is gained and what is lost in analogy?
Neiman had primed this discourse with her provocatively titled book about German lessons for how the U.S. might work through its racist past. Calling her project Learning from the Germans, she deliberately reversed the terms of postwar German “reeducation” by the Allies. Even more recently, Isabel Wilkerson has expanded the comparison to include India in her widely discussed Caste: The Lies That Divide Us. The American concept of race, she argues, sets African-Americans apart like the Dalit in the Indian caste system, and indeed like the Jews in Nazi Germany.
Both of these provocative interventions have kindled productive debate but also seen their share of critique for analogic thinking, which inevitably glosses over historical discrepancies and all too easily reduces transhistorical comparison to ahistorical equations. What neither Neiman nor Wilkinson could have anticipated, though, is how their comparative frameworks would play out as the largest protest movement in the history of the United States captured international attention. As graffiti covers the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, and the surrounding park becomes a staging ground for antiracist protest, the transatlantic parallels that Wilkerson and Neiman draw between racism and memory politics in Germany and the US have become an accepted idiom for interpreting civil unrest – nowhere more so than on social media.
Analogies Accelerate in Digital Media
Much of the traffic in analogies occurs on Facebook and Twitter, in videos, memes, or personal posts algorithmically amplified through retweets and likes. Each seems primed by content creators to carry affective weight and elicit an emotional reaction. The speed of communications technology, combined with a global shift to the right, has reinforced a style of analogic thinking grounded in a meme-based syntax: A Nazi flag appears next to a Confederate flag under the heading “Flags for Losers.” A photo from the liberation of the camps in 1945 implies an analogy to Confederate statues by exhorting viewers/readers to “remember history[:] Jewish people wanted the world to remember the Holocaust. They didn’t build statues to Hitler and his henchmen to accomplish it.” A viral tweet paints this picture: “Say you’re Jewish, walking in Germany & see a statue of Hitler. You’re upset & want it torn down. Only for someone to say ‘how dare you? My ancestor was a nazi. This is my heritage’ Crazy right? Well this is a reality for black people everyday in America.”
The memetic analogies that cast the statues glorifying Confederate soldiers as “bad” memorials, and that portray the solemn preservation of concentration camps like Auschwitz as a „good“ way to remember are just one method by which content creators imbue historical comparison with strong emotions. One of the memes circulating this summer juxtaposed the English language plaque at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which memorializes the site as a “cry of despair and a warning to humanity,” with the inscription on the Fame Confederate Monument in Salisbury, NC (dedicated 1909, restored 1991, removed July 2020), which addresses itself to the Soldiers of the Confederacy: “Fame has given you / An imperishable crown / History will record / your daring valor / Noble sufferings and / Matchless Achievements / To the Honor and / Glory of our land.” The manifest visual parallel underscores the difference between memorials that critically confront versus those that uncritically celebrate past violence.
There is no way to understand how these digital images function without acknowledging that white supremacy has produced chronic denial among white people of what the Civil War was actually about. As a high school student in the 1990s in Fayetteville, Georgia, I (Schuster-Craig) learned that states’ rights were the essential conflict of the U.S. Civil War. I don’t remember any attention paid to the suffering of enslaved people. But there are countless curricula and children’s books about the Holocaust in American schools that portray the dehumanization of Jewish people with empathy. If white people have difficulty empathizing with Black and Brown pain, it is significantly easier for them to draw analogies that invoke other people often deemed white in a US context. (While this recourse to the Holocaust is frequent, even it may be eroding. Douglas Macgregor, Trump’s pick for Ambassador to Germany, has decried Vergangenheitsbewältigung as a “sick mentality,” keeping with the Trump administration’s assault on history and temporality.)
Analogies are malleable. Memes compare Auschwitz not only to Confederate monuments, but also to their toppling. The meme below is one variant of a juxtaposition that was common on Facebook in mid-June and early July 2020. On the left, there is a viral image of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz – an image that can be found in hundreds of Facebook posts – and is captioned “Over 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz and it still stands 72 years.“ On the right, there is a Confederate statue crumpled around the pedestal which used to support it. There are no people in the foreground of either photograph.
Black-led protest movements have actively identified and torn down memorials in protest against injustice for decades. But here, Auschwitz is invoked as a warning against such activism. Memes that draw analogies between Confederate statues and Holocaust memorials – especially those like this one, which implies that Confederate statues should not be torn down – render Black suffering as well as decades of a Black-led memory culture invisible. Destruction can be an active form of remembering that requires engagement with and knowledge of history: who did what, where, and when? Can we deem this person and their actions worthy of memorializing? Do we still want to remember them? Especially in the US context, the visual strategy in the meme above re-centers a white subject (German, Jewish or white American) as the one who decides both what and how to remember. Such static frames reveal a stark ignorance of Black European activists, too, who Fatima el-Tayeb argues have created “counter-memory discourses” emerging from diasporic and transnational networks that bear myriad and heterogeneous memories.
Competitive Memory across the Atlantic
As in other countries across the world, Germans have come out to support the American street protests that demanded an end to murders committed by the police and a sustained and broad commitment to pursue racial justice. An expression of trans-Atlantic solidarity, the German protests had ambivalent effects at home. Though in some respects protests managed to combine support for BLM with increased visibility for Black Germans and organizations such as the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD), and supported calls to rethink race and the colonial legacy in contemporary Germany, we worry that an opposite effect could prevail: instead of new, multidirectional engagements, the protests may have provided an opportunity to renew many Europeans’ false sense of superiority around racism compared to conditions in the US. Haunted by the “specters of comparison,” white Germans revert too easily to a competitive paradigm in which one memory cancels the other – a paradigm that Michael Rothberg, in particular, has critiqued and rethought in important ways. The German legal framework prohibiting the display of Nazi insignia is now supposed to provide models for how to deal with Confederate flags. Monuments, street names, or Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) that dot the German built environment serve as reference points for tearing down statues and setting up memorials in the American South; bias training for American law enforcement should draw inspiration from history lessons for German police cadets. But these and other parallels occlude the specific histories on each side of the Atlantic. The focus on German models allows us too easily to forget the history of the civil rights movement, the achievements of the field of critical race scholarship, and the long history of anti-racist work in the United States, all of which has prepared the ground for BLM to galvanize a broad swath of the US population against endemic white supremacy. It is too soon to know how BLM will affect German culture and the public perception of years-long efforts by Black Germans to decolonize German spaces. Namibia’s recent rejection of German reparations for the genocide committed against the Nama and Herero also shows the limits of a German politics of remembrance.
Analogies exaggerate; they encode fears. But those fears also have histories, as murders by police continue, and police in Düsseldorf have been caught on video seemingly imitating the tactics of George Floyd’s murderers, potentially even for laughs. Politicized analogies – often presented in visual form through memes – are inherently contradictory and purposefully reductive. As a conceptual tool, analogy is static. It risks privileging the freeze frame over the inherent mobility and multidirectionality of intertwined histories and memories. To restore these requires differentiation and unremitting attention to the processes analogy condenses, if not conceals. Analogy works to arrest our attention – but only if we put the frame back in motion for context.