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  • Johanna Schuster-Craig is an Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on the history of “integration” in Germany by contrasting integration rhetoric in media scandals with its more practical application in social work projects.

  • Johannes von Moltke teaches as Professor of Film, Television and Media and German Studies at the University of Michigan, where he conducts research on film history, critical theory and new media. He is currently president of the German Studies Association.

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”).

Protester in front of the American embassy in London, 2017; source: independent.co.uk

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.”

source: facebook.com

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.

source: facebook.com

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.

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  • Johanna Schuster-Craig is an Assistant Professor of German and Global Studies at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on the history of “integration” in Germany by contrasting integration rhetoric in media scandals with its more practical application in social work projects.

  • Johannes von Moltke teaches as Professor of Film, Television and Media and German Studies at the University of Michigan, where he conducts research on film history, critical theory and new media. He is currently president of the German Studies Association.