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Home World Holocaust and Colonialism Debate: Praise the Doubt

Holocaust and Colonialism Debate: Praise the Doubt


The debate about the relationship between the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of colonialism is characterized by the competition between victims – and it is too irreconcilable.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Photo: Rolf Zöllner / imago

Michael Rothberg’s book “Multidirectional Memory. Holocaust remembrance in the age of decolonization ”, it seems, has reignited the so-called“ Mbembe debate ”. Or rather, it has steered the debate, which was largely a series of irreconcilable positions, further in the direction of irreconcilability.

After Achille Mbembe was placed at the center of a polemical debate about his – alleged or actual – anti-Semitism last year, the front lines now run along Rothberg’s theses on the need for a related culture of remembrance of Holocaust and colonialism in the post-colonial age.

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At the center of the discussion is again the question to what extent the comparison (not: equation) of anti-Semitism and Holocaust with forms of racism and colonialism relativizes the singularity of the former. Rothberg’s well-meaning but by no means uncritical analysis of anti-colonial, anti-racist intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire or W. E. B. Du Bois and their position on the annihilation of European Jews appear to some to be a banalization of the Shoah, especially in the German memory discourse.

Let’s leave aside whether Michael Rothberg of all people, the Jewish-American professor of Holocaust studies, can be accused of trivializing anti-Semitism. It is noteworthy that surprisingly few historians have spoken out in these bitter struggles for the interpretative sovereignty of German, European and global history. Andreas Eckert, Professor of African History in Berlin, was an exception.

A “second historians’ dispute”

Why is that? The spheres of the culture of remembrance and the science of history move, despite their common reference to the past, in two different discourse spaces. Rothberg is a good example of this. Although he uses historical examples to support his thesis of the necessity of dialogical recollection, he regularly emphasizes that he no A historian, but a “historically informed literary scholar”.

One could therefore object that this debate is by no means a “second historians’ dispute” – as Eckert correctly observed, there are hardly any historians to be heard in public among the now diverse voices.

Research into the differences and entanglements between colonialism and National Socialism and the ideologies on which they are based has been part of historical practice for some time. A good and sober example of this is the study on similarities and differences in the colonial racist or anti-Semitic charge of central topoi such as “work” by Felix Axster.

Beyond the competition for victims

So can the historicizing view of the current irreconcilability with regard to the stimulus words “singularity”, “victim competition”, “relativization” and “equation” counter? That depends entirely on the willingness of the non-academic, but historically interested audience to grapple with the ambivalences of history, its entanglements and confusing contradictions. without to fall into the ultimately sterile debate about historical and current victim competitions in history and memory.

With regard to the resistance against (colonial) racism and anti-Semitism, we can historically refer to numerous examples of entanglements. The solidarity of Jewish Americans with the civil rights movement around Martin Luther King in the 1960s is famous. At the forefront was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fled Berlin in 1939.

Another, little-known example from my own research: In the 1930s, London-based black activists and intellectuals from the former British colonies, such as Jomo Kenyatta, who later became the first President of Kenya, often referred to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. On the one hand, they wanted to draw attention to the conditions in the British colonies, on the other hand, to show solidarity with the disenfranchised Jews.

More ambivalence, please

Incidentally, this solidarity was reciprocated by the London Jewish population at demonstrations by black, anti-colonial organizations against British colonial policy in the 1930s.

In view of the current irreconcilability of debates on politics of memory, these examples may come as a surprise at first glance. But why actually? Does the ambivalent historical reality not dictate that we also talk about continuities in the context of the politics of memory and At least worry about breaks in Holocaust, anti-Semitism, colonialism and racism, listen to the (sometimes better, sometimes worse) arguments for a stronger entanglement without insisting on the absoluteness of your own position?

In any case, the current debates on remembrance could use a little more doubt on all sides, a little more reflection on their own genesis and basic assumptions, without directly devaluing a specific group of victims in their specific historical experience.

Michael Rothberg summed it up – banally, but still aptly for the current debate: “It is possible to remember more than one thing.” Given the diverse society in which we live, this is necessary.

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