Holocaust memory after the multidirectional turn

In the 21st century Germany needs to recognise a diversity of memories, writes the American Holocaust researcher Michael Rothberg.

The Memorial to the Murderd Jews of Europe in Berlin
The Memorial to the Murderd Jews of Europe in Berlindpa/Christoph Soeder

Berlin - German Holocaust memory culture finds itself at a crossroads. The belated public consensus on the singularity of the Holocaust and its centrality to German national identity, which emerged definitively in the post-unification period, has been buffeted by a series of social and cultural transformations as we move into the third decade of the 21st century. More than 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of National Socialism the generation of eye-witnesses is steadily shrinking—an inevitability that has been discussed for decades but that becomes increasingly actual with each passing day. Meanwhile, multiple postwar waves of migration have transformed German demography, with a large percentage of the population able to trace its family roots beyond the Federal Republic. Some of those who come from immigrant families carry memories of political violence and genocide—sometimes highly contested and controversial ones—that originate outside Germany. Many of the most recent migrants also bring with them embodied experiences of extreme violence, trauma, and deprivation from their homelands and from the perilous journeys that they undertook to get to Europe. As these migrant journeys as well as other phenomena such as the coronavirus pandemic make clear to anyone who might have doubted it before, networks of communication and commerce have long since brought the disparate corners of the globe into contact. There is no isolated German culture—and certainly no isolated German memory culture—in the 21st century, if there ever was.

These changes and all they imply about the mixed but uneven nature of social and cultural life in our moment have also brought with them plenty of anxieties, as change and mixture often seem to do. The global rise of the right and the increasing prominence of conspiracy theories as a force in contemporary politics signal a desire by many of the world’s citizens to hold on to certainties of identity and explanation that they see threatened by the entangled nature of social reality. In Germany, the rise of the right also poses a challenge to the consensus view of the singular importance of the Holocaust to the Federal Republic, as the offensive statements of various AfD politicians make clear along with the proliferating minimisations of the Nazi past found in the motley group of “Querdenker” and anti-maskers who have appropriated Jewish victimisation and compared leading public health officials to the infamous Dr. Mengele. In such a context of change, conspiracy, and contestation, it may seem risky to raise questions about Germany’s hard-won strictures surrounding the conceptualisation of the Holocaust and Jewish victimisation. Yet, a rethinking of dominant memory culture is precisely what is needed today.

Rethinking memory culture

Official German memory of the Holocaust is characterised by a deliberate absolutism: the Shoah is considered absolutely unique as is Germany’s responsibility for it. There are understandable reasons for this absolutism, which follows decades during which Germans often saw themselves as the primary victims of World War II, evaded empathy with the actual Jewish victims of the genocide, and attempted to draw a defensive line under the moral claims arising from the nation’s culpability. The absolutism of this memory culture leads, however, to unnecessary simplifications, and those simplifications have begun to feed further controversies that threaten to erode the democratic nature of German culture. Like many other countries that are struggling to address legacies and actualities of racist violence—including my own—Germany needs to recalibrate its approach to national and global pasts. The need for such a recalibration is obvious in the ongoing debates about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and, more broadly, about the legacies of German colonialism, just as it is in the recent debate about the Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe and his writings on the Holocaust, South African apartheid, and Israel/Palestine.

In a book on Holocaust memory that was published in English more than a decade ago and has now been translated into German, I put forward the concept of “multidirectional memory,” which is meant to offer a conceptual and historical alternative to the insistence on the Holocaust’s absolute uniqueness prominent in Germany and much of the Western world. I did not write Multidirectional Memory for a German audience, nor did the book end up treating German matters directly. The book was rather my response to early 21st century discussions about the “competition of victims” that were prominent in the US as well as elsewhere at the time. Such questions frequently turned on the topic of “Blacks and Jews,” two groups with long histories of suffering that were now seen as pitted against each other in a kind of zero-sum struggle for recognition. As the book took shape, it ended up engaging especially with French and Francophone intellectuals and activists as well as with thinkers and writers of what Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic.”

Holocaust remembrance vs. the remembrance of slavery and colonialism

In the field of memory politics, the so-called competition of victims expressed itself in what I called “competitive memory,” that is, in the idea that articulations of remembrance crowd each other out of the public sphere. For some, the prominence of Holocaust memory in the post-Cold War world was responsible for the dearth of remembrance of slavery and colonialism. For others, the mention of the Holocaust alongside those other histories was a sure sign of relativisation and even denial of the Holocaust’s distinctiveness. But cultural memory does not work this way, I argued. Rather, memories of different historical traumas feed into each other; their contact—and even their conflict—produces more memory, not less. Memories—especially publicly articulated memories—echo each other, appropriate each other’s forms and figures, and develop in dialogue with each other.

In a historical narrative that moves between the early postwar years and the dawn of the 21st century, I demonstrate in Multidirectional Memory that public memory of the Holocaust has always been entangled with memories of colonialism and slavery and with ongoing processes of decolonisation. I show not only that remembrance of the Holocaust facilitated remembrance of other histories of racist violence, but also that those other histories have shaped how we remember the Holocaust. Key figures in this genealogy of multidirectional memory include intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire, who argued in the early 1950s that the Nazi genocide had colonial antecedents; novelists such as André Schwarz-Bart and Caryl Phillips, who narrate conjoined Black and Jewish histories in their fiction; and even real-life perpetrators such as Maurice Papon, the French police chief responsible for deportations of Jewish children during the Vichy period and for a large-scale massacre of Algerian protestors in 1961. Indeed, the 1961 massacre along with the larger context of the Algerian War of Independence proved to be one of the richest “nodes” for exploring the interlocking histories of Holocaust memory, colonialism, and decolonisation. The proximity of the events in time as well as France’s recourse to concentration camps and mass torture during the Algerian War called up uncomfortable memories of the Nazi occupation for many in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Multiplicity, complexity, relationality

Although not conceived for a German audience, the argument of Multidirectional Memory may be helpful for transcending some of the false premises of the German defense of absolute uniqueness. The book offers a way of conceptualising multiplicity, complexity, and relationality in a cultural and political field that insists on singularity, simplification, and absolutist claims. Multiplicity, complexity, and relationality need not lead to relativisation as it is commonly understood—that is, as a blurring of the Holocaust’s specificity and a loosening of German responsibility for the genocide. To say that memories are relational and evolve through a multidirectional dynamic does not mean that all memories are the same or that the events remembered are identical. To understand Holocaust memory as emerging in a dialogue across lines of identity and historical context with memories of slavery and colonialism need not relativise our understanding of the Nazi genocide: comparison and juxtaposition, which are basic faculties of human cognition, can highlight differences and distinctiveness as well as convergences and similarities. Although my argument is specifically about memory and not about the historical emergence of the Holocaust, other scholars have provided accounts of Nazi racial thinking and genocidal violence that link them to US American race law and to colonial atrocities in Africa. Such arguments do not erase the specificity of the Holocaust; rather, they allow us to perceive the circulation of racial logics and modes of violence that constitute some of the important conditions of possibility for the Holocaust.

The insistence on the uniqueness of German perpetration can discourage efforts to understand the motivations and actions of the willing collaborators

Michael Rothberg

In addition to helping us think differently about memory and history, a multidirectional approach also helps us think in new ways about historical responsibility. Perhaps the most significant component of the German Holocaust memory paradigm is the claim that holding on to the uniqueness of the Holocaust is essential to preserving Germans’ unique responsibility for the genocide. The moral stakes could not be higher, but here again the underlying logic is dangerously flawed. For one, although Germans initiated and bear primary responsibility for the Holocaust, they are not uniquely responsible for its perpetration. As the Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski recently argued in Haaretz, the insistence on the uniqueness of German perpetration can actually discourage efforts to understand the motivations and actions of the willing collaborators whom Germans found across Europe during the course of the genocide. Such a perspective inadvertently plays into the revisionist histories promoted by politicians in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere, and distracts from their responsibilities in the present. Indeed, Grabowski and his colleague Barbara Engelking have now been convicted in Poland for slander because of their work on Polish complicity.

Nor is the Holocaust the only history for which Germans should be held accountable, as current debates about colonial history and the plight of refugees illustrate. Far from relativising responsibility for the Holocaust, a multidirectional approach creates broader ethical and political demands by showing how we are always entangled in more histories that we might initially realise. Pursuing this kind of entanglement led me to formulate a theory of historical and political responsibility attuned to the kinds of issues currently being contested in Germany. In my most recent book, The Implicated Subject, I extend the multidirectional framework by offering an account of “implication” and “implicated subjects.” The implicated subject is someone who is not themself a perpetrator but is rather an indirect participant who enables, perpetuates, inherits, and benefits from violence and exploitation. The implicated subject takes the place of the more familiar concept of the bystander, a concept that suggests disengagement and passivity. Thinking of how we are “implicated” in histories that may seem distant from us provides a way of conceptualising historical responsibility over the course of generations and political responsibility across social and geographical spaces in the present. Taken together, Multidirectional Memory and The Implicated Subject suggest an alternative path for German memory and responsibility. As the recent “Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit” suggests, this alternative path is already beginning to gain traction in certain prominent circles, even as it remains subject to aggressive rebuttal among many journalists and politicians.

German culture is in dialogue with global cultures originating elsewhere

In addition to opening up our understanding of the history of memory and of the complexity of responsibility, a multidirectional perspective can help Germany attain a clearer understanding of what it means to live in a diverse, “postmigrant” society. Recognising memory’s multidirectionality allows us to see that there are multiple subjects of memory in German society and that German culture is in dialogue with global cultures originating elsewhere—including outside of Europe and North America. Minorities, migrants, and postmigrants in contemporary Germany have differentiated relationships to the history and memory of the Holocaust. Neither Jews, descendants of labour migrants, nor Palestinian refugees have a direct familial connection to Nazi perpetrators; they will have distinct ways of remembering Germany’s crimes. They may also possess memories of other histories of violence that sometimes—but do not necessarily—intersect with German history. Instead of understanding the heterogeneity of the population of the Federal Republic as a threat to German memory culture, as it so often is, we might instead think of it as a potential resource for richer and more complex discussions about implication and responsibility.

Such discussions are, in fact, already happening in some communities in Germany. Black Germans, Jews from Israel and the diaspora, and artists and activists from postmigrant milieus have developed new models of engagement with the past and the present. They prompt us to leave the pieties of the official memory culture behind and seek a new dialogue about the lasting legacies of racism, antisemitism, colonialism, and genocide in a heterogenous contemporary German society that too often persists in seeing itself as homogenous. To remain relevant in the 21st century, official Holocaust memory needs to follow suit and embrace a multidirectional turn.

Michael Rothberg is 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. His book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization was recently published in German: „Multidirektionale Erinnerung. Holocaustgedenken im Zeitalter der Dekolonisierung“, Deutsch von Max Henninger, Metropol-Verlag, Berlin 2021

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