News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - German / European History - Europe - Africa Comparing Comparisons: From the “Historikerstreit” to the Mbembe Affair

In the late 1980s, mostly German intellectuals discussed the question of the “uniqueness” or “comparability” of the Holocaust. In the Cause Mbembe, the fronts, the participants and the course of the discussion have changed fundamentally—but the political and ethical stakes remain the same.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr/^CiViLoN^

In the mid-1980s, the West German public sphere was the site of a dramatic debate about the merits of comparison. Featuring some of the most prominent intellectuals and journalists of the time—including Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Nolte, Michael Stürmer, Andreas Hillgruber, Rudolf Augstein, and many others—the debate, which came to be known as the Historikerstreit, raged across the pages of major newspapers such as Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung during the second half of 1986 and the first half of 1987. At stake in these exchanges was—as the subtitle of the first documentation of the controversy put it—a “dispute about the singularity of the Holocaust” (or in German, the “Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung” [controversy about the singularity of the National Socialist extermination of the Jews]).

Michael Rothberg holds the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). This article first appeared in Geschichte der Gegenwart.

Participants from the right and left sides of the political spectrum weighed in on what it meant to compare an event considered unique to another history of violence, in particular that of the Gulag. In some versions of the right-wing argument, such as Nolte’s, Stalinist crimes and an alleged Jewish “declaration of war” against Germany were seen as the “origin” of Hitler’s genocidal actions—an explanation that functioned as an excuse. For those on the left, this effort by intellectuals on the right to relativize the Holocaust through juxtaposition with Stalinist crimes was part of an effort in the conservative Kohl years to reorient Germany’s national narratives. Habermas, in particular, responded by diagnosing such revisionism as a dangerous neoconservative attempt to revive a traditional national identity purged of responsibility for the genocide. In the months and years following those intense and very public exchanges, scholars within and beyond Germany continued to work over the controversy at a meta-level in order to make sense of its larger significance for the Federal Republic and for the politics of history more broadly.

A New Culture of Remembrance

While the Historikerstreit has remained a touchstone of debates about National Socialism over the past thirty-five years, the world changed dramatically soon after the initial controversy subsided. The Berlin Wall fell and the Third Reich’s two successor states were unified in the new Berlin Republic. With the end of the Cold War, the significance of the Holocaust shifted; it came to occupy a central role in memory cultures that we now take for granted but that was—as the Historikerstreit itself indicates—still in formation up through the 1980s. The new centrality of Holocaust memory to Germany, Europe,  the US, and—to an uneven extent—global consciousness can be quickly located in a few exemplary lieux de mémoire: the proximate opening in 1993 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Steven Spielberg’s worldwide sensation Schindler’s List; the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 making commemoration of the Nazi genocide central to European identity; and the 2005 dedication, after years of debate and controversy, of the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the centre of Berlin. In the rapidly growing Holocaust memory culture of the 1990s and early 2000s one can see the victory of the Habermasian perspective: the singularity of the Holocaust becomes linked, as Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider have influentially argued, with a cosmopolitan memory and a universal regime of human rights that seeks to undermine the kind of narrow nationalism Habermas found in the neoconservative position.

Fast forward to 2020 and the intellectual and political context has changed dramatically again. While Holocaust memory maintains its status as a touchstone of American, Israeli, German, and European political culture, it now coexists uneasily with a new, global rightward turn. Brexit, the election of Trump, the ascendance of the far-right AfD, the ongoing domination of Israeli politics by Netanyahu, and openly revisionist governments in Poland and Hungary are only some of the recent phenomena that mark a changed environment for thinking about the meaning of the past today. While defence of Israel is widespread on the right, antisemitism and Holocaust relativization also flourish there—often in the very same spaces. But the changed meaning of Holocaust memory is not only due to the rise of the populist right. Other currents associated with the left have also come to complicate the centrality of the Shoah, as calls for more attention to histories of colonialism, slavery, and anti-Black racism become increasingly visible in the public sphere. In other words, from the left and from the right, recent years have seen a shuffling of the elements that defined post-Historikerstreit and post-Cold War memory cultures.

In that changed—and charged—environment, Germany has experienced what some have already called the Historikerstreit 2.0: the controversy around the work of the South Africa-based, Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe. To what extent can we compare these two controversies over comparison? How has the political valence of comparison changed? I argue that not only does the Mbembe affair help us track the politics of comparison today; it also casts a new light on the original Historikerstreit.

Historikerstreit 2.0

Mbembe, one of the world’s most prominent theorists of race, colonialism, violence, and human possibility, was slated to speak in August 2020 at a cultural festival in Germany, the Ruhr Triennial. A regional politician, Lorenz Deutsch, decided to try and block Mbembe’s appearance by issuing an open letter that presented a handful of citations from Mbembe’s work mentioning the Holocaust, apartheid, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. On the basis of these short and decontextualized excerpts, Deutsch accused Mbembe of “anti-Semitic ‘Israel critique,’ Holocaust relativization, and extremist disinformation.” Deutsch’s interpretation of Mbembe’s work—which I consider tendentious, partial, and misleading—was taken up and affirmed by a more prominent voice, that of Felix Klein, the German Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and for the Fight against Antisemitism. Although the Ruhr Triennial was cancelled because of the coronavirus, Deutsch and Klein nevertheless wanted its director censured and Mbembe disinvited because the latter had allegedly profaned the Holocaust, demonized Israel, and offered support to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). BDS, a non-violent campaign that calls for the end of the occupation, the return of refugees, and equal rights for Palestinians, was deemed intrinsically antisemitic in a controversial 2019 Bundestag declaration, despite protests by intellectuals and activists, including many Jewish ones. Mbembe stated that he was not a member of the BDS movement, but even a tangential association with BDS has proven enough to tarnish reputations in contemporary Germany—as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, also learned last year.

With the uniqueness of the Holocaust once again at the centre of a highly politicized debate in the German public sphere, Historikerstreit 2.0 is an understandable shorthand for the controversy of 2020, but it shouldn’t block from view the way the new debate diverges from—and indeed casts a different light on—the old one. As with the original Historikerstreit, controversy about the Mbembe affair raged for weeks in high-profile journalistic venues. Once again, prominent intellectuals weighed in and lines were drawn. Yet, significant differences also deserve attention. The cast of participants has changed almost entirely from the original debate, with Micha Brumlik perhaps the only intellectual to take part prominently in both. The original cast had been primarily limited to a cohort of German male intellectuals who had been alive during the Nazi period, while the new discussion involves post-war generations and prominently features women, including Aleida Assmann, Susan Neiman, and Eva Illouz. Beyond generational change and gender diversity, the discussion has also become more international, not only because of the participation of Mbembe himself, but also because a number of Israeli intellectuals weighed in along with UK- and US-based scholars (including the author of this essay).

The prominent place of Israel in the Mbembe affair was not present in the original dispute and indicates two further differences. Given the broad consensus that exists in Germany about the need to stand behind Israel as part of Germany’s culture of responsibility, the strict left/right clarity that characterized the earlier debate may have been somewhat blurred in the recent controversy. I will continue to speak of left and right and progressive and conservative camps, but it is doubtless true that some who criticized Mbembe probably think of themselves as on the left; in contrast, I cannot think of any leftists who would have sided with Nolte. Finally, together with the prominent place accorded in the debate to South African apartheid and to colonial legacies, the Israel referent also illustrates how the histories at stake went well beyond the borders of the European continent.

A Provisional Appraisal

It is, of course, too early to know how to evaluate the controversy’s outcomes, but we can offer a provisional appraisal. In 1986, the act of comparison seemed clearly part of the arsenal of conservative thinkers. In 2020, in contrast, comparison was derided by conservatives and defended by progressives such as Brumlik and Assmann. What has changed? I don’t think that there has been a fundamental shift in historical methodology. After all, comparison has always been key to the writing of history, even if it is also true that the field of comparative genocide studies has blossomed precisely in the years between Historikerstreit 1.0 and Historikerstreit 2.0. Rather, we might say, memory culture has changed in the intervening years. And indeed, as Jeffrey Olick remarked in a thirtieth-anniversary forum on the debates of the 1980s, the initial Historikerstreit was always less about history than about memory—that is, about the meaning of the past for the present. Significantly, the 1980s were a moment when grass roots initiatives led the way in grappling with National Socialist legacies and helped created what we now see as the “German model” of memory and working through the past, as Jenny Wüstenberg has shown in Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany. Since the 1990s, however, such grappling has become official state policy and has lost its insurgent qualities.

With the consolidation of official Holocaust memory culture in the two decades after unification, other questions started to percolate to the top that were absent from the debates of the 1980s. In particular, new points of comparison have emerged. The juxtaposition of Nazism with Stalinism remains a hot issue, at least in Eastern Europe, but in other parts of the world, including Germany, colonial violence, slavery, and, more broadly, anti-Black racism are now prominently on the agenda in discussions of coming to terms with the past. While Mbembe himself rarely compares the Holocaust to colonial racism and probably does not understand his major contributions to concern cultural memory, the debate around his work and the call for his disinvitation frequently referenced these issues. Comparison of colonial violence to Nazi genocide has a tradition that stretches back to the early post-war years—as I have demonstrated in my book Multidirectional Memory—but activism by Namibian and Black German activists, among others, has now made it an unavoidable, if still frequently marginalized, reference in mainstream German debates.

It is precisely this shift in memory culture from a bi-lateral National Socialist vs. Stalinist frame to a more open-ended and global field of comparison that marks the difference between the two iterations of historical debate. The point of repeating the name “Historikerstreit” makes sense, not only because it serves to situate the Mbembe affair in relation to a precursor, but especially because it allows us to reread the past from the present. From the perspective of postcolonial critique and a globalized memory culture, the Mbembe affair shines an illuminating light on Historikerstreit 1.0 and the limits of the progressive position articulated in the 1980s. Habermas’s explicit aim in publicly condemning Nolte and other conservatives was to protect what he called “the greatest intellectual achievement of our post-war period”: “the unconditional opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West.” For Habermas, this meant embracing “constitutional patriotism” and affirming “binding universalist constitutional principles.” The American literary critic Vincent Pecora was one of the few early commentators to note that Habermas’s “rhetoric subtly serves . . . to absolve the West from its own obvious complicity, not only in Germany’s war crimes, but also in the long narrative of Western imperial power.” Without gainsaying the value of the constitutional principles Habermas articulates in the aftermath of a fascist dictatorship, it must be said that an unconditional commitment to the “West” will ring hollow to those whose societies have experienced centuries of European and US imperial rule, as Dirk Moses also pointed out in the thirtieth-anniversary forum.

Beyond Comparison: The Question of Responsibility

If controversy over comparison constitutes the surface level of the two debates, even more important questions lurk underneath. Or, to put it another way, the problem was never comparison as such; the problem was political and historical responsibility. Juxtaposing the Gulag and Auschwitz is not itself unthinkable: how one does it and why are where the crux of the ethical and political matter lies. Thinking in these ethical and political terms shows continuity as well as reversal in the positions both conservatives and progressives took in the two debates. If Historikerstreit 1.0 involved an attempt by Nolte and other conservatives to relativize responsibility for the Nazi genocide, Historikerstreit 2.0 involves an attempt by critics of Mbembe to embrace and instrumentalize such responsibility in order to avoid additional forms of ethical and political implication. In particular, defence of the Holocaust’s uniqueness and policing of the boundaries of what is awkwardly called “Israel critique” help displace responsibility for other German atrocities such as the genocide of the Herero and Nama and participation in colonialism more broadly and distract from German entanglement in the dispossession of Palestinians. It was this entanglement—marked initially by the creation of a new refugee problem in Palestine—that Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, a work that was also one of the first to suggest a colonial genealogy for Nazi crimes.

Is the progressive position also marked by continuity in addition to reversal? If the right went from promoting comparison to denying its legitimacy in the case of the Holocaust, it maintained a commitment to minimizing German responsibility in each case. The left’s shifting stance on comparability differs from that of the right: while embracing comparison in the Mbembe affair instead of cautioning against it, as in the original Historikerstreit, the left’s newfound defence of colonial comparison does not imply a shift on the question of responsibility for the Holocaust. The progressive position of figures such as Assmann and Brumlik does not seek to release Germany from the regime of memory and responsibility that emerged in the 1980s and was consolidated in the 1990s and 2000s. Rather, it takes inspiration from it in order to expand the scope of entanglements. The logic of the progressive position is not zero-sum or either/or; it is an extension of German memory culture that also holds the potential for a multidirectional revision of remembrance beyond residual Eurocentrism.

The limited terrain of comparison—on both sides—in Historikerstreit 1.0 suggests the productive advance made in the new debate beyond a primarily national frame. The juxtaposition of Historikerstreit versions 1.0 and 2.0—as well as the wide-ranging discussions about Holocaust memory, colonialism, slavery, and Israel/Palestine that continue in Germany and elsewhere—clarifies the need to link memory to solidarity and historical responsibility: that is, to the ethical and political commitments that subtend public forms of remembrance. Beyond comparison lies the implication of the intellectuals who debate comparisons in the histories they dispute. In the simplest terms, we can say that the original Historikerstreit involved a clash among Germans over Germany’s particular responsibility for the Holocaust. In the new discussions, the participants are not all Germans and the histories at stake are more than European. Far from diluting the participants’ implication in historical and contemporary injustices, however, this enlargement of the field of comparison sharpens the question of responsibility. The new Historikerstreit is not a controversy only for Germans and Europeans, but it is not one they can evade either.