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.

  • A. Dirk Moses

    A. Dirk Moses ist Anne und Bernard Spitzer Professor für Politikwissenschaft am City College of New York.

The heated German debate about Achille Mbembe’s alleged anti­se­mi­tism, Michael Rothberg’s book, Multi­di­rec­tional Memory, and Jürgen Zimmerer’s Von Windhuk nach Ausch­witz? linking German colo­nia­lism to the Nazi war of anni­hi­la­tion, has foreign obser­vers like me scrat­ching our heads. After all, we have been raising these issues for twenty years. Roth­berg and Zimmerer attended a confe­rence I orga­nized in Sydney on “Geno­cide and Colo­nia­lism” in 2003, and Zimmerer published one of many articles on colo­nia­lism and the Holo­caust in a book I edited the next year. By the end of the decade, many scho­lars had come to accept that the NS regime and the Holo­caust could also be unders­tood in imperial-colonial terms.

So what is new here? Certainly not the counter argu­ments, which were raised at the time by German and other histo­rians, like Birthe Kundrus, Robert Gerwarth and Stefan Mali­nowski. This debate depro­vin­cia­lized Holo­caust histo­rio­graphy and forced all parti­ci­pants to sharpen their thin­king. The situa­tion is diffe­rent now. The vehe­mence of the reac­tion to Roth­berg and Zimmerer’s article in Die Zeit, “Entta­bui­siert den Vergleich!” indi­cated by the denun­cia­tion, sarcasm, and indi­gna­tion are remi­nis­cent of heresy trials. Outrage replaces sobriety, perhaps exacer­bated in social media’s capa­city to channel and publi­cize poli­tical emotions. We are witnessing, I believe, nothing less than a public exor­cism performed by the self-appointed high priests of the Kate­chismus der Deut­schen. This cate­chism has five elements

The Cate­chism

  1. The Holo­caust is unique because it was the unli­mited Vernich­tung der Juden um der Vernich­tung willen(exter­mi­na­ting the Jews for the sake of exter­mi­na­tion itself) distin­gu­ished from the limited and prag­matic aims of other geno­cides. It is the first time in history that a state had set out to destroy a people solely on ideo­lo­gical grounds.
  2. It was thus a Zivi­li­sa­ti­ons­bruch (civi­liza­tional rupture) and the moral foun­da­tion of the nation.
  3. Germany has a special respon­si­bi­lity to Jews in Germany, and a special loyalty to Israel: “Die Sicher­heit Israels ist Teil der Staats­räson unseres Landes” (Israel’s secu­rity is part of Germany’s reason of state)
  4. Anti­se­mi­tism is a distinct preju­dice – and was a distinctly German one. It should not be confused with racism.
  5. Anti­zio­nism is antisemitism.

This cate­chism replaced a previous one about 2000. The older German cate­chism was committed to norms of national honor and tradi­tion, and regarded the Holo­caust as a histo­rical acci­dent committed by a small group of fana­tics, which Nest­be­schmutzer (soilers of the nest) instru­men­ta­lized to dishonor the nation.

Alan Moore, Blind Man in Bergen-Belsen, 1947

Many German fami­lies witnessed the scene of gene­ra­tional confron­ta­tions during the 1960s and 1970s between this older sense of German­ness and a new one borne by the younger 68er gene­ra­tion. That did not yet mean the 68ers believed in the Holocaust’s unique­ness: in their anti-imperialism, many compared the US-led war in Vietnam to Nazi Germany (“USA-SA-SS”). By the 1980s, however, the under­stan­ding of the Holo­caust as histo­ri­cally special had broken through in the West, and now many leftist and liberal Germans began to under­stand that being a “good” post-Holocaust subject meant incor­po­ra­ting this belief into their self-understanding and inter­na­tional image.

The new cate­chism did yet not triumph in the Histo­ri­ker­streit of the mid-1980s as commonly supposed. It was one episode among others – debates about multi­cul­tu­ra­lism, Goldhagen’s contro­ver­sial book, the Wehr­machts­aus­stel­lung(Wehr­macht exhi­bi­tion) and the Holo­caust memo­rial in Berlin – in which conser­va­tives, led by the Frank­furter Allge­meine Zeitung, fought a rear-guard action in defence of the old one. But, even­tually, they too came to under­stand that the country’s geopo­li­tical legi­ti­macy depended on accep­ting the new cate­chism thra­shed out with American, British, and Israeli elites. 

Its five elements have become articles of faith in Germany over the past gene­ra­tion, inter­na­lized by tens of millions as the path to national redemp­tion from its sinful past. In short, the cate­chism implies a redemp­tive story in which the sacri­fice of Jews in the Holo­caust by Nazis is the premise for the Federal Republic’s legi­ti­macy. That is why the Holo­caust is more than an important histo­rical event. It is a sacred trauma that cannot be conta­mi­nated by profane ones – meaning non-Jewish victims and other geno­cides – that would vitiate its sacri­fi­cial func­tion. The histo­rian Dan Diner even takes the Holo­caust, as civi­liza­tional rupture, as substi­tu­ting the place occu­pied by God before the Enligh­ten­ment. The evidence lies in how the universal signi­fi­cant of the suffe­ring of Jews in this geno­cide becomes the basis of a new world; but that, accor­ding to Diner, remains closed to those who through their “sacred temporal blockage” (he refers to Arabs) remain caught in the past before the “sacri­fice.” Nazi mora­lity must be negated: instead of “redemp­tive anti­se­mi­tism” (Saul Fried­länder) – “redemp­tive philosemitism.”

A redemp­tion narrative

A central role in this Christologically-informed redemp­tive narra­tive is also discer­nible in the “Wieder­auf­ste­hung” of the victims. Since unifi­ca­tion of the two German states and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the German state has under­taken various measure to “refo­rest” Germany with Jews. So the discourse about migra­tion of Jews from the former Soviet Union is accom­pa­nied by the redemp­tive narra­tive in which the Jewish migrants were blended with Holo­caust victims to restore the “German-Jewish symbiosis.” Having under­gone the most thorough working through of history in history, Germany can once again stand proud among the nations as the beacon of civi­liza­tion, vouched by appro­ving pats on the head from American, British and Israel elites.

Keeping the faith requires constant vigi­lance. Led by a govern­ment offi­cial with the impo­sing title of Beauf­tragter der Bundes­re­gie­rung für jüdi­sches Leben in Deutsch­land und den Kampf gegen Anti­se­mi­tismus (Federal Commis­sioner for Jewish Life in Germany and in the Fight against Anti­se­mi­tism) the priests are forever on the lookout for the heresy of anti­se­mi­tism and signs of the old cate­chism, like recur­ring Schluss­trich­de­batten (debates about drawing a line under the past) Indeed, having symbo­li­cally expunged Nazis from the nation-in-redemption in serial scan­dals about the Nazi past since the 1960s, the compul­sion conti­nues long after they have gone. Now the priests detect new Nazis – like Pales­ti­nians and their non-Zionist Israeli friends in Germany and beyond who are expe­ri­men­ting in non-nationalist modes of coexis­tence. Its most porten­tous mani­fes­ta­tions is the BDS-Beschluss des Deut­schen Bundes­tages (2019) that condemns the Pales­ti­nian Boycott, Dive­st­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment because – some­what provin­ci­ally – it reminded the parlia­men­ta­rians “of the worst phase in German history.” The reso­lu­tion and its broad support indi­cate a consensus that extends from the Anti­deut­schen sect to the AfD. Any alter­na­tive paths that Pales­ti­nians might pursue to resist the colo­niza­tion of their land did not appear to concern these poli­ti­cians because they don’t feel they need Pales­ti­nian appr­oval for an ethi­cally upright self-image and their inter­na­tional reputations.

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The moral hubris leads to the remar­kable situa­tion of gentile Germans lectu­ring American and Israeli Jews with accu­sing finger about the correct forms of remem­brance and loyalty to Israel. Not that this has prevented them from main­tai­ning disci­pline, even forcing some confor­mity from the AfD which, in trying to revive the old cate­chism, under­stands the public image neces­sary to avoid public banish­ment. Besides, it admires Israel as an anti-Islamic state that tightly regu­lates migra­tion. So fearful are people in Germany that a contri­butor to a forum on the Mbembe debate that I published in the Journal of Geno­cide Rese­arch insisted that their iden­tity be protected.

But priestly success has provoked a reac­tion. The purging of here­tics has led the libe­rals who run German cultural insti­tu­tions to worry that “die Gedanken” (thoughts) are not so free after all, and that they might be next. So, in December 2020, they issued the Initia­tive GG 5.3 Welt­of­fen­heit, a state­ment about freedom of expres­sion and the right to criti­cize Israeli policy. Even if many of them oppose BDS, they don’t think doing so should entail unem­ploy­ment and exclu­sion from public life. For the same reasons, some of them also supported the Jeru­salem Decla­ra­tion on Anti­se­mi­tism to counter the chil­ling effects of the IHRA defi­ni­tion of anti­se­mi­tism pushed by the Israeli govern­ment.

The other perspec­tive of migrants

The German popu­la­tion is also incre­asingly harder to disci­pline because of demo­gra­phic and gene­ra­tional change. Need­less to say, migrants to Germany bring their own expe­ri­ences and perspec­tives about history and poli­tics that are not going to indulge the self-congratulatory stories Wester­ners like to tell them­selves about spre­a­ding civi­liza­tion over the centu­ries. For many of them, the article of faith about the Nazi Zivi­li­sa­ti­ons­bruch (civi­liza­tional rupture) rings hollow, even if they reco­gnize the Holocaust’s unde­ni­ably distinc­tive features. Weren’t vast parts of the globe conquered by Euro­peans and Ameri­cans, and millions killed, in the name of Western civi­liza­tion, inclu­ding by German colo­nial authorities?

For incre­asing numbers of younger Germans, the cate­chism does not reflect their life­world – despite the best efforts of school­te­a­chers. Like their cohort in the US and else­where who marched for Black Lives Matter, many under­stand that racism against migrants – not just anti­se­mi­tism – is a general problem. They also observe that Israelis keep elec­ting right­wing govern­ments that entrench the sett­le­ment project, thereby ending the illu­sion of the two-state solu­tion that allows Germans (and Ameri­cans) to believe they can recon­cile their Zionism with justice for Pales­ti­nians. Joining them in Berlin are thou­sands of young Israelis and Pales­ti­nians esca­ping the night­mare enve­lo­ping their home­land. What is more, the demo­cratic anarchy of the internet means the priestly censors cannot control the conver­sa­tion like in the 1980s and 1990s. Social media enables subal­tern public spheres even if spea­king back to power remains limited by the cross-party consensus about the catechism.

At the same time, in this age of globa­liza­tion since the 1990s, German acade­mics joined colle­agues abroad in devo­ting more atten­tion to impe­rial history and colo­nial lite­ra­ture because they are not only inte­rested in the thoughts and deeds of white people. “Post­co­lo­nial Studies” is too complex an inter-disciplinary field to adequa­tely summa­rize, but one central point is to under­stand the metro­pole and colony as a single unit in which flows of infor­ma­tion, people, and culture takes place. Another point is to register how poli­tics was unders­tood in impe­rial cate­go­ries until quite recently: in terms of racial hier­ar­chies and histo­rical analo­gies: imita­ting Rome, for instance.

Victims of a massacre of suspected Mau Mau insur­gents in Kenya, early 1950s

Many histo­rians thus regard the insis­tence that the Holo­caust has nothing to do with impe­rial history as perverse as insis­ting that anti­se­mi­tism is utterly distinct from racism. As Claudia Bruns has shown, “Black­ness” and “Jewish­ness” over­lapped in the Enligh­ten­ment debates about Jewish eman­ci­pa­tion in which “colo­nial” solu­tions to the “Jewish Ques­tion” were proposed, and Wilhelm Marr, the noto­rious inventor of the term “Anti­se­mi­tismus,” was inspired by the rigid racial hier­ar­chies he observed in his travels in the Americas in the 1850s. Decades later, as Chris­tian S. Davis among others have written, German rule over Afri­cans provided the Alldeut­scher Verband with the model of racial subju­ga­tion, segre­ga­tion, and oppres­sion. For instance, in the 1890s, these anti­se­mites demanded that Jews be placed under a special alien law at the same time as they advo­cated that Afri­cans be subject to a sepa­rate “native law.” The under­stan­ding of the Jewish presence in Germany occurred in the context of a race-conscious world­view in which conquest and colo­niza­tion of foreign peoples, hier­ar­chies of civi­liza­tion, progress and decline, survival, and extinc­tion were central elements.

Nothing is “pure”

In view of these kinds of connec­tions, the language of “rela­ti­vi­za­tion” makes no sense. It is theo­lo­gical rather than scho­larly. When Michael Roth­berg places the Holo­caust into rela­ti­onship with other histo­rical traumas, he does so by showing how this has been a global prac­tice since the Holo­caust. Memory is unavo­id­ably consti­tuted by recur­sive processes of inclu­sion and exclu­sion, analo­gi­zing and distin­gu­is­hing. Nothing is “pure.” The Holo­caust is part of many histo­ries: of anti­se­mi­tism, of mass enslavement, of colo­nial coun­ter­insur­gency, or popu­la­tion expul­sions, among others.

Combi­ning acti­vism from below and scho­lar­ship from above, the Zeit­geist has forced a recko­ning with colo­nial lega­cies in Western count­ries. How did those objects make their way into museums? Why are those streets named after colo­nial “heroes” and why do statues of them dot the urban land­scape? How did insti­tu­tions, indeed entire econo­mies, benefit from, and even depend on, the syste­matic enslavement of Afri­cans? What were Euro­pean powers doing in Africa and other parts of the world anyway, and should repa­ra­tions be paid to the descen­dants of peoples subject to their geno­cidal campaigns and hyper-exploitation? For Tobias Rapp in Der Spiegel, simply asking this ques­tion threa­tens the funda­ments of western civilization.

These deve­lo­p­ments have provoked the fami­liar reac­tion we observe today, which else­where I have called “Anxie­ties in Holo­caust and Geno­cide Studies”: panic that the iconic status of the Holo­caust will be dimi­nished as “just another” geno­cide in history, the sacred sullied by the profane. Some, like Thomas Schmid in Die Zeit, even worry about the “general suspi­cion of the white man.” For the ageing 68er gene­ra­tion, the influence of Post­co­lo­nial Studies is tanta­mount to the barba­rian conquest of Rome. A debate about these issues is timely, but the high priests want to conduct it like an inqui­si­tion, denoun­cing heresy and ritually incan­ting the cate­chism as a substi­tute for argumentation.

The fact is that German elites do in fact use the Holo­caust to blend out other histo­rical crimes. Consider Clau­dius Seidl who asked in the FAZ if “War der Holo­caust eine kolo­niale Tat?” (“Was the Holo­caust a Colo­nial Act?”) and in answe­ring in the nega­tive insisted that Germans have a special obli­ga­tion to Jews because of the Holo­caust. He negle­cted to mention such obli­ga­tions to Nami­bians. When they demand repa­ra­tions, the German envoy Ruprecht Polenz denied them because the Holo­caust, he declared, is “incom­pa­rable.” Mean­while, Schmid like­wise declared that “Der Holo­caust war kein Kolo­ni­al­ver­bre­chen” (“The Holo­caust was not colo­nial crime”)  and that the “‘Global South’ owes an expl­ana­tion for how it stands for a better deve­lo­p­ment” than the West. No wonder these descen­dants of victims of the German state, whose capa­ci­ties for deve­lo­p­ment were smashed by geno­cidal colo­nial warfare, expe­ri­ence German memory culture as racist: it posits a hier­archy of suffe­ring, degrees of huma­nity, and an embar­ras­sing lack of critical self-awareness.

The priests justify this hier­archy by poin­ting to the appa­rent empi­rical unique­ness of the Holo­caust: only Jews were killed for the sake of killing, out of hatred alone, while all other victims of geno­cide were killed for prag­matic reasons. While Nazis may have seen Slavs in colo­nial terms, they saw Jews through an anti­se­mitic lens, leading to their limit­less campaign, unique in history. What is more, so the argu­ment conti­nues, if colo­nia­lism was such an important factor, why didn’t France and Britain, with their far larger empires, commit a Holocaust?

The colo­nia­lism of the National Socialists

As I argue in my new book, The Problems of Geno­cide, these fami­liar objec­tions are based on a faulty reading of history. They ignore the fact that the Nazi empire was a compen­sa­tory under­ta­king to ensure the German people were forever invul­nerable to the star­va­tion they suffered in the Allied blockade during the First World War. This meant the utopian ambi­tion of autar­chic terri­to­rial control over resources and the elimi­na­tion of inner secu­rity threats. Many Germans blamed Jews and the Left for defeat in 1918, and ever since the Nazis regarded Jews as an enemy people who impe­rilled the projected empire because of their perceived affi­lia­tion with the inter­na­tional ideo­lo­gies of libe­ra­lism and communism.

This may appear as unpre­ce­dented to the priests, but histo­rians know that elimi­na­ting entire groups in para­noid and vengeful secu­rity campaigns against “heredi­tary enemies” is a common pattern in world history. Hitler and other leading Nazis studied these patterns in ancient and modern empires in craf­ting a ruthl­essly modern version to house a reborn German people after the degra­da­tion of mili­tary defeat.

Like Rome and the ancient Germans, the new German Reich would save also Euro­pean civi­liza­tion from “Asiatic barba­rism”: from the “threa­tening storm of the inner-Asian East, this eternal, latent danger for Europe.” This was indeed a histo­rical German mission, Hitler continued in November 1944: “For centu­ries, the old Reich, alone and with allied forces, had to mount its struggle against the Mongols and later the Turks to protect Europe from a fate that in its outcome would look exactly like Bols­he­vi­siza­tion today.” Orien­ta­lism was intrinsic to an endu­ring tradi­tion of German Occidentalism. 


Those who fled the Nazis, inclu­ding Jewish émigré scho­lars, appre­ciated these connec­tions very well. Over a decade before Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon wrote about the subject, they unders­tood that the Nazis were importing into Europe the style of rule that Euro­peans had employed in gover­ning their empires. Not for nothing did Raphael Lemkin, who coined the geno­cide concept in 1944, define it in terms of colo­niza­tion – repla­cing popu­la­tions with sett­lers – and Franz Neumann, in his Behe­moth: The Struc­ture and Prac­tice of National Socia­lism (1942) called Nazism a “racial impe­ria­lism” that sought to inte­grate the popu­la­tion by promi­sing it the spoils of “world conquest,” meaning “redu­cing the vanquished states and their satel­lites to the level of colo­nial peoples.”

It’s time for inclu­sive thinking

The new German cate­chism takes histo­rical justice to consist in a tran­sac­tion between iden­ti­fiable and stable Völker: instead of murde­ring Jews, Germans should be nice and welco­ming. This philo­se­mi­tism conti­nues to view Jews in Germany as guests, not fully German, and the Jewish commu­nity as repre­sen­ting a foreign state, Israel. While this connec­tion is cherished by the German poli­tical class, it asks Muslim migrants not to iden­tify with Muslims abroad lest that foster Jihad. Rede­eming the Zivi­li­sa­ti­ons­bruch has empowered it to proclaim a new civi­li­zing mission that sees the problem of migrants’ “imported anti­se­mi­tism” as solvable with Holo­caust educa­tion rather than iden­ti­fying racism of all kinds with the confla­tion of the German Volk and poli­tical citi­zen­ship. One wonders how these migrants regard Germany’s sense of histo­rical justice if it means defen­ding a mili­tary dicta­tor­ship over Pales­ti­nians for over half a century.

To be sure, the cate­chism served an important func­tion in dena­zi­fying the country. It is good that a Holo­caust memo­rial exists in Berlin. But the country has changed. Not only has the cate­chism outlived its useful­ness; it impe­rils the very freedom that Germans osten­sibly prize. In its völkisch assump­tions and fetis­hiza­tion of Euro­pean civi­liza­tion vs the Asiatic barba­rians, the cate­chism is riddled with contra­dic­tions reve­aled by new German and non-German voices. The time has come to set it aside and renego­tiate the demands of histo­rical justice in a way that respects all victims of the German state and Germans of all kinds.