Contesting Remembrance(s)

Reflections on a post-colonial debate

“What does it mean to live in the myths and traditions of others? What happens when one realizes that these myths and dreams, which one thought were truths, turn out to be legends? Does one reject them completely, or does one adopt them in the hope that they will orient one’s existence in a life-affirming way? Every colonized person asks him- or herself these questions. They are not abstract. They determine our existence.”

–Achille Mbembe, “Letter to the Germans”

Vandalized statue of Belgian colonialist Émile Storms in Brussels, June 2020. picture alliance / NurPhoto | Jonathan Raa

Contributions to the “Causa Mbembe”

By Florian Weis

In April 2020, a fierce debate broke out in Germany following sharp criticisms made by Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, at the invitation of Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe to speak at the opening of the Ruhr Triennale. Klein accused Mbembe of antisemitic positions in his criticisms of Israel, his endorsement of the BDS campaign, and other statements. In the ensuing debate, which subsequently overlapped with the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement in Germany, Great Britain, and several other European countries, postcolonial, anti-racist, and anti-antisemitic approaches and positions increasingly crossed paths.

Florian Weis is a historian (specializing in modern and contemporary British and German history) and works for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Translation by Jacob Blumenfeld.

Such a debate can create opportunities for expanding the often too narrow German or European perspectives on various forms of oppression, discrimination, exploitation, and genocide. However, it is not per se wrong if the debate in Germany and other European countries, where antisemitism raged most violently, puts antisemitism and one’s own German and European experience in the foreground of self-critique. Nor is it a problem when anti-discriminatory impulses arise from a country’s own colonial and postcolonial experience of exploitation, as in Africa, for instance. All too easily, however, a situation occurs that can shamefully be called a “competition of victims”, as Michael Rothberg notes:

When memories of colonialism, occupation, slavery, and the Holocaust bump up against one another in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue? ... I argue against a logic of competitive memory based on the zero-sum game, which has dominated many popular and scholarly approaches to public remembrance. According to its understanding, memories crowd each other out of the public sphere—for example, too much emphasis on the Holocaust is said to marginalize other traumas, or, inversely, adoption of Holocaust rhetoric to speak of those other traumas is said to relativize or even deny the Holocaust’s uniqueness.

For Germany, this requires further developing the culture of remembrance, which, with regard to the Nazi regime and the Shoah, must now take into account the almost complete absence of surviving Nazi victims as well as the transformation of Germany into a more diverse country of immigrants. Confronting these changes does not mean relativizing the Shoah and the numerous other crimes committed by Nazi Germany, even if such an attitude can unfortunately be felt sometimes. Rather, it is about opening up new contexts, broadening approaches, and being able to relate the history of violence and oppression to one another without erasing differences.

The debate becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, when numerous preconditions are established all too quickly. Certainly, in an environment like the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, there is agreement that certain points of view, such as relativizing and trivializing the Shoah, have no place in a debate. But where should the lines be drawn?

When the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung deals first with Achille Mbembe and then only secondarily with the debate about him in Germany this spring, this does not mean that all actors involved relate positively to Mbembe through and through. As a foundation with the subtitle “Critical Social Analysis and Political Education”, we must, can, and want to endure differences and, if possible, process them in such a way that a dialogue—even a contentious one—becomes  possible.

In many debates, this is easier said than done. To put it bluntly, it cannot be a matter of playing antisemitism off against racism, or misogyny and anti-feminism off against classism. Rather, the task at first is to endure contradictions and ambivalences in order to then, ideally, connect and dissolve them in common emancipatory perspectives: i.e., “solidarity across difference(s)”.[1]

At the (tentative) climax of the British Black Lives Matter protests and the debate about the British colonial past and its expression in the culture of remembrance, London Mayor Sadiq Khan (Labour Party) pleaded exactly this: to recognize contradictions and, in certain cases, to endure them. He referred to individuals as different as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X:

Pressed on Sky News about where to draw the line, given Winston Churchill held some racist views, Khan said the cases of Churchill, Gandhi and Malcolm X showed that many great historical figures were not perfect and history should be taught ‘warts and all’. But there were clear-cut figures such as those actively involved in the slave trade and ownership who should not be celebrated, the mayor said.

Winston Churchill, for instance, Great Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister during World War II, not only changed party and opinion several times in his long career. He also stood for a truly consistent fight against Nazi Germany and thus its antisemitic genocide and war of annihilation. At the same time, however, he was also unwilling and unable to recognize that Britain’s rule over India and other countries was as imperialistic as it was amoral and ultimately also untenable in terms of realpolitik. Looking more closely at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, the question as to what extent Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were influenced by antisemitic and racist prejudices has been heavily debated, and not only in 2020.

Moreover, as Micha Brumlik, Wolfgang Benz, Eva Illouz, Moshe Zimmermann, Susan Neiman and others pointed out in their appeal from May 2020, the Mbembe controversy is also about the foundations of scientific debate itself:

History as a scientific discipline cannot do without analytical comparisons. Without comparative analysis, it would be fundamentally impossible to gain knowledge in historical studies, as in most other academic disciplines. To accuse our colleagues of trivializing the Shoah or even equating the genocide of European Jews with the racist regime of Apartheid South Africa calls into question a fundamental basis of science, and is therefore wrong. Historical comparisons, which serve to highlight differences and similarities between events, discourses, and processes, are necessary and legitimate.

The following article by Dorothee Braun, who heads the East Africa office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Dar es Salaam, aims to give German and European readers a different reading of Achille Mbembe’s work than that of an internationally renowned African intellectual. Such access to Mbembe and his work was often lacking in the heated German debate in spring 2020.

Of course, this article cannot and does not want to give a comprehensive account of Mbembe’s work and impact, nor can it comment on all aspects of the controversy here. With this text, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung seeks to make a contribution to clarifying and familiarizing the work of an important author and scholar. More will follow. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung will also be publishing more of its own analyses on antisemitism in Germany and Europe, and the fight against it as well.[2]

[1] This is a thoroughly universalistic approach, which is also not uncontroversial.

[2] A study commissioned by the RLS, “Contemporary Antisemitism in Germany—Interconnections, Discourses, Findings” by Anne Goldenbogen and Sahra Kleinmann, is expected to be published in November 2020. We would also like to point out the short introduction by Tsafrir Cohen, Katja Hermann and Florian Weis from 2019 to a report by Peter Ullrich on the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism.