In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spiraled—and before the subsequent string of wildfires, hurricanes, protests, and political violence hit the United States and Europe—there was a minor scandal involving Germany’s Ruhrtriennale, a cultural festival established in 2002 in hopes of revitalizing Germany’s former industrial heartland. The controversy has been largely overshadowed by the pandemic, but it points toward a rapidly growing crisis in the country’s attempts to balance its history and its future.
The festival’s directors had chosen the renowned Cameroonian social and political theorist Achille Mbembe to open the festival of arts and culture. Felix Klein, Germany’s federal government commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism, objected to the choice. Mbembe, who—in the process of attempting to situate Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories within the history of colonialism—compared the occupation of the West Bank to apartheid in South Africa, could not, in Klein’s view, be granted a prestigious position in a festival supported by German tax dollars.
Klein’s denunciation of Mbembe led the festival to withdraw its offer. It also raised the ire of progressive Jewish scholars worldwide. Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and Eva Illouz offered their support for Mbembe, while an illustrious group of scholars of the Holocaust said “Klein has done a disservice to the urgent fight against real antisemitism.” But Klein not only refused to issue an apology—he extended his critique. There was a broader question at stake, he told Die Zeit, going on to identify a broader relationship “between postcolonial studies and anti-Semitism. Some of these theories very clearly stand in opposition to our culture of remembrance, which I regard as a great achievement.” The culture Klein had in mind was Germany’s sweeping complex of memorials, museums, and educational apparatus—and the special status accorded to Israel in diplomacy and cultural discourse—that has emerged as the country tries to grapple with the horrors committed against Jews in World War II.
The dispute sparked by Klein quickly spread throughout the pages of Germany’s feuilletons—the intellectually ambitious and highly visible culture pages of the country’s newspapers. In the process, it drew comparisons to Germany’s so-called Historikerstreit (“historians’ dispute”) of the late 1980s, in which a reactionary contingent of historians, led by Ernst Nolte, attempted to relativize the Holocaust. According to Nolte, the special status accorded to the Holocaust in contemporary historiography ignored the genocidal behavior of the United States in Vietnam, of Pol Pot in Cambodia, and, most importantly, of Joseph Stalin. Germans had been badly disserved, Nolte argued, by historians obsessed with the singular evil of the Nazi regime.
The controversy surrounding Mbembe amounts, as Mara Delius pointed out in Die Welt, to a Historikerstreit 2.0—but with the roles reversed. Germany’s broad left once treated any comparisons between the Holocaust and the deeds of other abusive regimes as mitigating German guilt. This tendency reached its apotheosis with the anti-German movement on the German left, which seeks to demonstrate its solidarity with Jews with unquestioning support of Israel. The United States, because of its crucial role in protecting Israel, is also beyond critique for the most stringent anti-Germans, who have therefore taken to staging leftist protests by eating as a group at a McDonald’s. Refusing such comparisons is now seen by the same broad ideological group as evading German complicity in a long and ongoing history of violence and discrimination.
Meanwhile, it’s the far-right that increasingly insists on the singularity of the Holocaust. “The Holocaust was a huge crime. A break in German history. And the singular lies not in the number of those murdered, but in the industrial method, in the thoroughness with which it was committed,” Götz Kubitschek, the intellectual head of Germany’s alt-right, told Der Spiegel in a 2016 interview. This affirmation of the Holocaust’s singularity adheres to the traditional “culture of remembrance” cited by Klein, but it does so in service of new political ends: namely, to relativize all other crimes. Thus, Bernd Baumann, a politician from the Alternative for Germany party, complained bitterly when his party was accused of racism on the floor of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in 2017 while attempting to introduce legislation intended to deport Syrian refugees back into a war zone. “Our democratically elected colleagues are being decried as racist,” he complained at the time, “and that in Germany, where the term ‘racism’ is associated with millions of dead people.” In this way, the incomparability of the Holocaust has become a shield wielded by right-wing German politicians. Their proclaimed hypersensitivity to one instance of human suffering renders them insensitive to other forms of human despair.
Germany’s increasingly scrambled cultural politics surrounding the Holocaust aren’t merely the product of political calculation or circumstance. Rather, the political distortions and cultural warping reveal that the traditional historical posture may be running against its own limits. Germany’s Holocaust remembrance is cracking under pressure from within.
Those cracks are on full display at demonstrations against Germany’s widely popular coronavirus measures. The current face of inappropriate Holocaust comparisons in Germany is a 22-year-old widely dubbed “Jana from Kassel” in the press. “I feel like Sophie Scholl,” she said at a recent demonstration against Germany’s widely popular measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She was referring to the leader of the anti-Fascist resistance group the White Rose who was executed by the Nazis in 1943 at the age of 21. “I’ve been active in the resistance for months. I give speeches, I go to demonstrations, I distribute flyers. … I’m 22 years old, just like Sophie Scholl when she fell victim to the Nazis.”
The response was instantaneous. “Jana from Kassel has gifted us the moment we’ve all been hoping for,” wrote Krautreporter, and the flurry of opinion pieces, explainers, parodies, tweets, and posts at Jana from Kassel’s expense indicate a long-running frustration on the part of many Germans about the casual ways in which the Querdenker movement, which has arisen since the pandemic began to protest the lockdown measures, has invoked the legacy of the Nazis. Protesters carry signs comparing Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler, they wear armbands with a Star of David and the inscription “Unvaccinated,” and an 11-year-old compared her furtive birthday party to Anne Frank’s life in hiding from the Nazis.
Objections to Germany’s traditional approach to remembrance also come from more rarified corners and demand more serious consideration. When Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was being planned in the late 1990s, the enormously influential historian Reinhart Koselleck gave a harsh assessment in an interview with Der Spiegel. Much more than the design, Koselleck objected to the memorial’s conceptualization. Even something so seemingly necessary and unproblematic as erecting a monument to the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime was, in Koselleck’s view, fraught. If the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were accorded a monument, then other victims—the Sinti and Roma, homosexual Germans, political opponents, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the millions and millions of Eastern Europeans who were shot, beaten, starved, or hung by the Nazis would all have a moral claim to their own monuments. But who would visit a monument to the Sinti, Koselleck asked? And who would fund it? Even in the attempt to commemorate the atrocities of World War II, the Germans had reinscribed the Nazis’ own racial logic. “After 50 years,” Koselleck told the interviewer, “the different colored triangles worn by internees at concentration camps are returning in the form of memorials.”
Indeed, Koselleck’s prediction has largely been borne out. Monuments to the Holocaust’s homosexual, disabled, and Sinti and Roma victims were constructed after the monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe was created, but each encountered difficulties. The Sinti monument, designed by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan, consists of an endlessly dark pool, at the center of which stands a stone triangle where a single white rose lies. Though the design was widely praised, the inscription led to a furious and extended controversy, especially because Germany’s cabinet insisted that the monument be dedicated to the “Gypsies” of Germany when that term is widely held to be derogatory.
Romani Rose, chairperson of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, who lost 13 family members to the Nazis, advocated for a quote from former German President Roman Herzog, who had explicitly compared the crimes against the Sinti and Roma to those against the Jews. But Germany’s cabinet equivocated and advocated for inscriptions that did not engage in comparison. The monument was first proposed in 1992; arguments about its inscription delayed its opening until 2012. Now, despite its central location in Berlin, the monument is largely neglected. While the Jewish Holocaust memorial there is a standard tourist destination, the Porajmos, or Romani Holocaust, is largely forgotten, and Germany’s Sinti and Roma people face continuing discrimination.
Rather than insisting on sometimes brittle, inherited patterns of Holocaust remembrance, Germans should try to adapt to an ever-changing society.
The “culture of remembrance” or Erinnerungskultur that Klein considers to be such a great achievement as to necessitate silencing Mbembe is a rather recent invention. German attempts to come to terms with the past are generally held to have begun in earnest in the 1960s when student activists grappled with their parents’ brutal legacy. At the time, however, the term of art was Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It’s one of those German words that wears its etymology on its sleeve, and it makes sense to work through words like that carefully when they’re important. The vergangenheit is the past, or literally, “that which has gone by,” while bewältigung comes from walten, which means “to have power over” or “to control.” Somewhere in that semantic field lies the relationship to the past that Germans began to develop during the student movement in the ’60s.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the concept of “Erinnerungskultur” began to displace Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. Only, in other words, when the generation who lived through World War II began to die out did talk of the culture of memory begin.
The precondition for the culture of memory that Klein holds so dear is that no one is left who actually remembers, which makes sense—the people who experienced Nazism firsthand were all but guaranteed, by virtue of the collective trauma they lived through, never to forget again. They wanted to control the past, not remember it.
Even when there were still more firsthand witnesses to Nazism among them, the role of memory was controversial. Arno Mayer, who fled Luxembourg with his family in 1940, complained in his 1988 masterwork, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History, that the “cult of remembrance” had “become overly sectarian. … A central premise is that the victimization of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany and its collaborators is absolutely unprecedented, completely sui generis, and thus beyond historical reimagining.” Not that Mayer didn’t see a place for memory in the work of coming to terms with what had happened, but he feared that the memory of what he termed “the Judeocide” had served to displace historical inquiry into it. This reification of a specific kind of memory, in Mayer’s view, served the laudable purpose of ensuring that “neither Jews nor non-Jews forget or normalize the recent suffering of the Jews.”
Memory, by its very nature, is specific, limited, and personal. History, on the other hand, “is polyphonic and open to debate.” The Holocaust might well be incomparable in our memory, but it can’t be incomparable in history. Holding the Holocaust to be beyond compare is to not honor its victims. Instead, it places an undue burden on them—it assigns to them the work of historians rather than honoring their experiences. To only allow memory to speak of the Holocaust was, for Mayer, to expect “the survivors of the Jewish torment … to see the chronology of their own experiences and the historical context in which they unfolded.”
Klein’s attempt to put comparisons to the Nazis beyond reach and to forestall any criticism of Israel stems not from firsthand experience of life under the Nazis—he was born in 1968. Klein is not in a position to provide the “authentic testimony about the unspeakable brutality” of the Nazis that Mayer considered to be the proper role of memory. His memory is cultural, transmitted by a series of rituals, stories, and traditions. When he employs them to prevent Mbembe from speaking at a public forum, he does not merely silence a crucial voice from the global south; he pits Jewish memory of the Holocaust against the memories of
colonized people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas and risks trivializing their deaths, their torture, and their misery. When Klein denies Mbembe’s comparison between concentration camps run by Germans in Namibia and concentration camps run by Germans in Poland a platform, he does not merely silence a crucial voice from the global south. He contributes to making the work of history impossible.
The policies produced by this ahistorical approach to historical memory contribute to the further entrenchment of divisions in the Middle East. They endanger Jews in Germany and elsewhere by effacing Jewish voices critical of Israel. And finally, it is not Mbembe who will suffer most because of this withdrawn invitation. Instead, it will be Germans who, deprived of crucial perspectives and open debate on past and present politics, are forced into an entrenched and cramped position in the world—until the arrival of the inevitable reactionary backlash.