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Cristina Nord


Akinbode Akinbiyi, “Berlin, Wedding,” from the series “African Quarter,” 2005

Akinbode Akinbiyi, “Berlin, Wedding,” from the series “African Quarter,” 2005

The position one takes toward Israel, and to the responsibility resulting from the National Socialists’ destruction of the European Jews, can be dependent on cultural and societal contexts, although it doesn’t have to be. This is not to imply that there is something essentialist in the responsibility of Germans to deal with the crimes of National Socialism. On the contrary, adressing the Holocaust from an explicitly German perspective could fallaciously give rise either to a discursive hegemony wherein the search for absolution leads to an attitude of superiority or to self-accusation that turns into self-absorption. As the journalist, editor, and curator Cristina Nord suggests with regard to the debate about Achille Mbembe, the destructiveness of both colonialism and anti-Semitism make an exchange about these two legacies necessary, at the end of which the agreement is reached: “We agree that we disagree.”

Let’s begin in front of my apartment block, with a walk through the Afrikanisches Viertel (African Quarter) in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood. It takes just a minute to walk from my building to Lüderitzstraße, a street named after Adolf Lüderitz, a trader from Bremen who in the late 19th century paved the way for the colonization of what is today Namibia. Heading northwest along the street for around ten minutes, I arrive at the Dauerkleingartenverein Togo e.V. (Togo Permanent Allotment Garden Association), whose operators for a long time refused to give up the gardens’ original name of “Dauerkolonie Togo” (Togo Permanent Colony). A few steps later, on the edge of Volkspark Rehberge, is another allotment, named Kolonie Klein-Afrika (Little Africa Colony). Two minutes on foot to the west of this is Nachtigalplatz, a square whose namesake, Gustav Nachtigal, was made Imperial Commissioner of German West Africa in 1884. In 2018, members of the local district council resolved to rename the area’s streets that were named after colonial rulers. Objections submitted by local residents against the proposal mean this has not yet taken place. There is also a Petersallee; I’ll come to that later.

This text deals with the philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe. Born in Cameroon and now teaching in South Africa, his interest is in considering what colonialism was, how it extends into the present, and how its divisive, hostile legacy can be shifted toward a state of “togetherness.” [1] The text also deals with the debate that flared up when Stefanie Carp, director of the Ruhrtriennale festival, announced that Mbembe would be giving the opening speech at this year’s event. Lorenz Deutsch, a cultural affairs specialist and politician from the right-of-center liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP) from North Rhine–Westphalia, reacted to this announcement on March 23, 2020 with an open letter demanding the theorist’s invitation be retracted. The reason: Mbembe signed a call for boycott issued by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli artists, businesses, and academics. “Not only does he relativize the Holocaust,” Deutsch writes in the letter, “in the logic of his overall argument, he puts the Jews of today in the position of the white National Socialist criminals – a familiar trope!” [2] Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, sprang to Deutsch’s side, with journalists such as Alan Posener, Jürgen Kaube, and Tobias Rapp also adding their voices in support of him, not least because Stefanie Carp had previously wanted to invite certain BDS-supporting musicians to participate in the festival back in 2018. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, also joined in on the criticism. The backlash didn’t take long; it ranged from nuanced responses such as those of Eva Illouz, [3] Susan Neiman, and Aleida Assmann [4] to defensive statements that were deaf to problematic aspects of Mbembe’s texts and blind to his activities, which, while not part of BDS in the narrow sense, were certainly aimed in a similar direction. [5] The Ruhrtriennale had by then been cancelled due to the coronavirus, but the debate continued. A group of Jewish intellectuals and artists demanded that Klein be dismissed. [6] A further open letter, signed among others by Micha Brumlik and Wolfgang Benz, warned of the dangers of making careless accusations of anti-Semitism, and of putting comparison under suspicion when it is a necessary tool of academic work. [7] Mbembe defended himself by claiming he does not belong to the BDS movement and is no anti-Semite, insisting on his right to criticize Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank while also claiming that the attacks against him were at least in part an expression of racism. [8]

Judgments were formed faster than I was able to order Politik der Feindschaft, [9] the book containing most of the contentious passages, let alone read it. It is not my intention to add another judgment with this text. Instead, I would like to attempt to introduce observations and impressions drawn from my experience working in the international cultural sector to an entrenched and often seemingly irreconcilable debate, one full of tit-for-tat responses and calls for resignations. At the same time, I also want to become more clear about my own views. I had the greatest respect for Achille Mbembe at the beginning of the debate; for me, his Critique of Black Reason is a key text for understanding how white supremacy came into the world and what it has wreaked upon it. Mbembe has also made valuable observations regarding the handling of those cultural artifacts that were stolen in colonial expeditions and today belong to European collections. I would have been happy to have greeted him as a guest in one of the workshops organized as part of Everything Passes Except the Past, an international project at the Goethe-Institut in Brussels that I was involved with that looked at what European cultural institutions, museums, and film archives can or should do with the colonial artifacts at their disposal. [10] That this never happened is above all due to the fact that he is a sought-after speaker with a full diary.

Grace Ndiritu, “Healing the museum,” AfricaMuseum, Tervuren, 2019, performance

Grace Ndiritu, “Healing the museum,” AfricaMuseum, Tervuren, 2019, performance

I therefore initially observed the debate with disbelief: What in the world could be the basis of Deutsch’s and Klein’s accusations? But the deeper I involved myself in the matter, the more my feeling of unease grew. Causing my discomfort were the oft-cited passages from Politik der Feindschaft, which, while perhaps still debatable when taken individually, in their frequency and concentration are reflective of a wretchedly unreflective position toward Israel. In addition to this came drastically formulated sentences from Mbembe’s short contribution to the book Apartheid Israel, [11] the pressure Mbembe exerted in 2018 in order to ensure that an Israeli academic not attend a conference, and finally his signing of a declaration demanding the University of Johannesburg end its relationship with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University. It took me some time to understand the cause of my uneasiness: that two fundamental imperatives, two core ethical beliefs, had come into conflict with one another within me.

It was back in March, before the debate around Mbembe flared up, that I came across Samuel Salzborn’s polemic Kollektive Unschuld (Collective Innocence). Salzborn writes that the prevalent self-image within Germany, which holds that the country has dealt with the crimes of the National Socialists and overcome anti-Semitism, is a chimera. Denial of guilt, reversal of the roles of perpetrator and victim, leveling of memory on the basis of a falsely understood universalism, Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism, and hatred against Israel are all essential parts of contemporary German society, Salzborn claims: a situation made many times worse by the presence of the far-right and revisionist AfD party in parliament. He writes:

It is nothing less than the federal republic’s greatest delusion: the belief that the past has actually been accounted for. A small, educated, left-liberal elite sees a societal phenomenon in something that does in fact exist within intellectual discourse, but which is only rudimentarily anchored within society at large, and which actually faces more resistance now than ever before: the attempt to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past, leave behind the myth of the country’s own victimhood, and confront the history of anti-Semitism that exists within practically all German families. [12]

I experienced within my own family the way in which the guilt of the perpetrator can lead to self-victimization. I grew up in a rural, lower-middle-class milieu, where no attempt was ever made to openly confront National Socialism and one’s own involvement with it. One grandfather’s bookcase contained anti-Semitic books up until his death in 1981; my other grandfather was a member of the SS, and when he spoke of the war years, which only happened rarely, he always claimed to have only ever tried his best to prevent the worst from happening. When my grandmother told me of her 1944 visit to Bad Saarow, where my grandfather was stationed, it was as if she had been at a holiday camp. She didn’t grant a single word to the bunker facilities that were built there, or the forced laborers who constructed them. Her memories of her husband returning from the war, by contrast, were clear in her memory and often recounted. Her then two-year-old daughter, my aunt, had failed to recognize her own father, shyly asking who this man was. This is how quickly narratives of victimhood are formed.

It was thanks to two engaged youth education facilities in North Hesse, the Jugendbildungswerk Kassel and the Jugendhof Dörnberg, that I was able to travel to Poland in the 1980s with a group of other young people. We visited Auschwitz twice, and although my teenage self was overwhelmed by these visits, I had a moment of profound recognition: the delivery notes and invoices for chemicals and oven parts, which lay in glass vitrines and at some point caught my eye when I could no longer take the more immediate evidence of the destruction, may not have passed through many hands, but they certainly passed through some. There were procedures, work processes, and delivery chains; companies with bosses and employees were involved – too many for my grandparents’ mantra that nobody knew anything to still be believable. Studying the papers also meant that I was able, in the middle of this incomprehensible situation, to find something that could very well be comprehended and analyzed, and from which lessons could be drawn. It was comparable to a later experience, when I watched Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: by looking closely, one recognizes many small steps, many participants, helpers, railway workers, suppliers, etc. In short: a logistics of genocide. As someone born later, I bear no guilt, but I do bear a responsibility. And this includes the responsibility to act in solidarity with survivors of the Holocaust and the descendants of those European Jews who were murdered. This solidarity reacts allergically to BDS’s extortive and discourse-stifling methods, [13] and it includes Israel’s right to exist. Unconditionally. That is the first imperative.

In order to arrive at the second imperative, I would first like to take a detour. It leads to the southern fringes of Bonn. In the summer of 2018, I took part in an intercultural training program organized over several days by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a federal agency that provides services relating to Germany’s international cooperative development projects, in preparation for a planned stay of several years in Kenya. Things turned out differently, and Nairobi became the Afrikanisches Viertel in Berlin, but that’s another story. And so it was that in July 2018 I came to be sitting in a bright seminar room with two trainers and around a dozen people, all of whom had the idea of living in Nigeria or Malawi, Congo or Namibia. We learned how important it is in Sub-Saharan Africa to develop a feeling for indirect communication, how many ways of saying “no” exist without the word ever needing to pass anyone’s lips, and why it should be taken as a compliment when someone greets you by telling you “how fat you’ve become!” Above all, we learned how misleading it can be to condemn from the off any behavior whose meaning cannot immediately be understood, or to accuse others of acting in bad faith. Such an attitude leads one to build barriers where this is unjustified in 99 of 100 cases. The alienation of others is only rarely motivated by bad intentions. For an employee to say he needs to take leave in order to travel to his mother’s burial, only to do the same the following year, for example, does not mean he is lying, contrary to what one might think. In order to know this and be able to respond accordingly, one must engage with a different understanding of motherhood, one that includes aunts and other female relatives in addition to one’s birth mother.

Adam Pendleton, “Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer,” 2016–2017, video still

Adam Pendleton, “Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer,” 2016–2017, video still

There is nothing essentialist about such differences; one may observe them without judging them or deriving hierarchies out of them. But this is very often precisely what does happen, and that this is the case is neither coincidental nor trivial, but rather – at least if one follows Mbembe’s texts – a constitutive element of European societies, economic systems, and ways of thinking. Since the deterritorializations that began with Columbus’s arrival in the West Indies, real and constructed differences have provided constant cause for the formation of judgments, hierarchies, exclusions, and asymmetries of power. Slavery, forced labor, and colonialism are extreme manifestations of this; they also served as the basis for an accumulation of knowledge, culture, and capital that first made it possible for the bourgeoisie to strengthen in relation to Europe’s nobility.

With their ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had certain people in mind; others didn’t count as humans, but rather as goods or property, closer to animals than humans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, philosophers and scientists went to great lengths to provide scientific evidence that – in the point of view of the time – proved the existence of inequalities between people of different ethnicities, thereby providing a justification for the glaringly unequal treatment afforded to certain groups.

Mbembe describes these processes in Critique of Black Reason; in Necropolitics, he looks at, among other things, the ways in which the logic of segregation, classification, and degradation continues in the democracies of today. The aim of his considerations is to overcome this destructive logic. “Is there anything that could connect us with the Other, so that we could say together that we are? What forms could this care take? Is another world politics possible, one that does not need to be based on difference or otherness, but rather on a belief in the idea of the human and the shared?” [14] With this, I come to the second imperative: racism blocks the “idea of the human and the shared”; it should therefore be confronted wherever it appears.

Before setting foot on the precipitous and difficult terrain where each of these imperatives gets in the way of the other, I would first like to take the time for a short but important parenthesis. Both imperatives run the risk of leading to dead ends. In the first case, the danger is that of using one’s responsibility, as a German, to engage with the crimes of National Socialism as the basis for a hegemonic discourse that then makes one’s own reformation – whether real or supposed – a mark of superiority. This is particularly ugly when non-Jewish Germans attempt to dictate the behavior of Jewish Germans, Jewish Israelis, or Jews in the diaspora. In the second case, the risk is of self-recrimination leading to a negative narcissism where one assumes the West to be responsible for everything bad that happens in the countries of the Global South without considering the influence and agency of local politicians, businesspeople, militaries, and militias. Just as colonial masters in the late 19th century considered themselves bringers of civilization, many of today’s critics tend to see the West’s role as a bringer of destruction as being absolute. In doing so, they erase local actors’ responsibility for a second time, reducing them to the status of extras.

The position one takes toward Israel, and to the responsibility resulting from the National Socialists’ destruction of the European Jews, can be dependent on cultural and societal contexts, although it doesn’t have to be. In some places, things are different to how one imagines them from here within Germany, or to how Germans proud of their own reformation imagine them. I was first made rudely aware of this when studying in Costa Rica in the mid-1990s. My friends – ecologically minded, left-wing, in solidarity with the indígenas – surprised me one beautiful day by speaking of the small Jewish community in San José in an account that included every anti-Semitic cliché one could imagine. Shocked, I objected, telling them these were hostile images and perceptions that had been circulating for centuries, and whose consequences when taken to extremes could be seen in National Socialism. They responded in unison that German history meant I had a skewed perception; in Costa Rica, Jews really did behave exactly as they described. The conversation was at an impasse. The uncomfortable memory remained with me and has occasionally been refreshed in the time since during encounters with other leftists from Latin America, Spain, or France.

That is a simple example. The following one is more complex. I spent several years working for the Goethe-Institut in Brussels. Belgium is very close to Germany. If one ignores the Belgian talent for friendliness and equanimity, there is little to be found in the way of cultural differences or even any somehow different mindset. The country’s culture of remembrance, by contrast, displays many differences, due among other things to the fact that the First World War plays a far greater role in the consciousness of most people there than the Second World War. To remember the former means being on the side of the victors, while remembering the latter involves engaging with a difficult task, since one then has to talk about collaboration. Anyone who visits Fort Breendonk, a fortress built in the early 20th century before being repurposed as a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1940 during the occupation of Belgium, will be astounded to see how many Belgians joined forces with the Germans here in the imprisonment, forced labor, torture, and murder of resistance fighters. Not far from this fortress and its history, of which W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz provides an urgent testimony, is another important site for remembering the Second World War. The Dossin barracks in Mechelen, a small city halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, is a museum and memorial. This historic site informs visitors about the persecution, detention, and extermination of the Belgian Jews. While Fort Breendonk was made a memorial immediately following the war, in Mechelen that process took until 2012.

A new multistory building now serves as the site’s museum, while the barracks in whose courtyard Jews were made to congregate before being deported are now home to a memorial, but also to normal apartments. I was lucky enough to be given a tour along with a colleague by the museum’s director, Christophe Busch. He explained that insisting on the uniqueness of the Shoah is of little use in trying to memorialize and spread knowledge about it within Belgium; educational work around the issue requires references be made to the present, and to other genocides and their backgrounds. The museum therefore includes information boards, photos, and exhibitions on, for example, Srebrenica, the crimes conducted in the Congo Free State and later in the Belgian colony of Congo, and Rwanda. Busch is aware that this approach would be seen as unusual in Germany, since it could give the impression of trying to level out the uniqueness of the Holocaust. It can however be assumed that Busch and his colleagues know what they are doing and are acting in good faith, not seeking to relativize the Shoah. Even if one subscribes to the singularity theory and finds the inclusion of other atrocities inappropriate, one must be clear that this stance can at most be extrapolated to an argument, and not to a verdict. An argument to which the other side is then able to respond, so that an exchange develops, at the end of which may lie an agreement, or maybe just the statement “We agree that we disagree.”

In discussing the row around Mbembe, it doesn’t hurt to know that South Africa and Israel maintained relations at a time when the apartheid regime was still intact, and when other countries had backed away from economic and military cooperation with the former. The ANC sought and found exchange with the PLO. Contemporary diplomatic relations are difficult, and the South African ambassador was withdrawn from Tel Aviv in 2019. Protests against Israeli policy regarding the Gaza Strip and West Bank are common in South Africa. The statement calling for ties to be severed between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University was signed by over 240 of Mbembe’s fellow academics. It seems that a critical-to-hostile attitude toward Israel is mainstream in post-apartheid South Africa. I would like to know more about this, but I find little on the subject in the pages of German newspapers. Were the Frankfurter Allgemeine ever to fill its feuilleton pages with essays by South African journalists on the theme for a week, instead of downplaying colonialism as usual, [15] I would happily treat Jürgen Kaube to a bottle of champagne. [16]

„El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale“, Installation on the façade of Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2019

„El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale“, Installation on the façade of Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2019

To point to this other context is not to let Mbembe off the hook; it simply means recognizing a reality. Mbembe writes about “the wide world that we share with one another, for better or worse”; [17] anyone who fails to recognize its particularities, or chastises them from the outset, plays their part in making it worse rather than better. And anyone who pursues cultural work in a global context needs openness and flexibility. It is impossible to succeed in cooperating with others if you are unable to empathize with other points of view, but this does not then in turn mean that one endorses them, adopts them for oneself, or even, struck by culturally relativist blindness, gives a platform to glorifications of violence or propaganda. Stefanie Carp may be wrong in many respects, but she hit upon something essential, asserting:

if we begin to scan and inspect an artist’s every sentence and text, we can no longer have any productive and open working relationship with them. Artistic communication includes the devisal and realization of a program and artistic collaboration on productions; it can and must not be dictated by partial political interests within a particular local context. It must be defended as autonomous terrain. That is our vocation. [18]

It would be naive to assume one might attach a catalogue of questions – similar to the ESTA form that must be filled out before travel to the USA – to the initial invitation extended to any filmmaker, intellectual, or artist: “Have you supported the BDS movement?” We are not schoolmasters charged with teaching others how they should see the world. And Germany’s past means that any German who does nonetheless assume this role is bound to suffer from cognitive dissonance. If the children and grandchildren of Nazis jealously guard over and refuse to share the power to determine the way in which the crimes of their parents and grandparents are interpreted, they may have failed to draw the right conclusion from history.

I recall the performance Healing the Museum in early 2019. As part of the previously mentioned project Everything Passes Except the Past, the artist Grace Ndiritu, who was born in Kenya and now lives in London, performed at the AfricaMuseum just outside Brussels, more specifically, in its mineral room, whose sparkling ores and crystals tell a story of accumulation and exploitation. Ndiritu orientates herself around shamanic techniques and meditation and yoga exercises; all these things my rationality instinctively resists. She asks us to remove our shoes and sit on the floor, to close our eyes and pay attention to the presence unfolded by the objects in the vitrines. Do they speak to us? Do we sense them? I lock myself off, feel nothing. I think about the history of the building, its deep entanglement with colonialism, built as it was by Leopold II in the early 20th century in order to promote colonialism to his subjects. The artist’s performance does not nullify this history, I think to myself, just as it does not undo the unholy fusion of the European sense of superiority with economic exploitation. But something is still happening: Ndiritu is making another experience of this space possible. Guido Gryseels, director of the Africa Museum, took part in a meditation exercise and said afterward that he had never before set foot in the museum without shoes on, nor sat on its floor. It makes a difference whether one stands and looks into the space or instead walks through it with eyes closed, or maybe sits on the floor. For both mean relinquishing power – and what else could constitute a step toward a real engagement with the history of colonial justice, if not a readiness to relinquish power and privilege?

There are conflicting experiences, a lack of understanding, conversations are broken off, certain moments are hard to bear. As part of the Tashweesh project (Arabic for “white noise”/“disturbance”/“interference”), which I myself was involved in, feminist artists and theorists from the MENA region were invited to participate alongside others with post-migrant backgrounds in a series of events organized by the Goethe-Institut in Cairo and Brussels and the Beursschouwburg art center in Brussels. The Brussels-based activist and artist Rachida Aziz participated in a panel discussion in which she demanded that the cultural sector be radically reformed in order to reflect the diversity of the population. She spoke mostly of a study trip to Eritrea, praising the country in the highest possible terms for its success in fighting poverty, ensuring that women occupy decisive roles across all areas of society, and decolonizing university curricula. People in Asmara read James Baldwin! I felt uneasy, thinking of the many people who disappear into Asmara’s jails, never to emerge from them alive. Feverishly, I considered if and how I should contradict Aziz’s account of the country – as the organizer, I was responsible for what was said – or whether it would disavow itself. But before I could finish my brooding, Aziz’s counterpart, Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, an academic at SOAS University of London, began to deconstruct the basis of the former’s romanticized description of Eritrea herself.

Have positions become similarly irreconcilable with regard to Mbembe? It would certainly seem that way, judging from the debate around him. The only way out of this situation is for those involved to stop for a moment and reflect upon themselves. Mbembe would come closer to his dream of the “formation of a generally universal human community, from whose table no-one is excluded” [19] if he were to widen his project of opposing division, segregation, and the politics of enmity to include Israel, and learn to understand the country in all its complexity. The more heatedly the debate around him is conducted, the less likely it becomes that this happens. Anyone who genuinely hopes that Mbembe reflect upon his attitude toward Israel and anti-Semitism should ask themselves how they go about achieving their goal: By making the most serious accusations possible and withdrawing invitations? Or by making criticisms in a such a way that the person being criticized is allowed to save face?

I would like to finish this long and winding journey by returning to the Afrikanisches Viertel in Berlin Wedding, in Petersallee, which crosses Nachtigalplatz. Who was Carl Peters? In the 1890s, he took possession of the lands of what are today Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania for Germany; he was also chairman and director of the German East African Company and Imperial Commissioner of the Kilimanjaro region. He was so notoriously violent that news of his deeds even made it to Berlin: in 1895, he was subject to a disciplinary proceeding and removed from his office despite protests from right-wing nationalist circles, though he was then pardoned by Wilhelm II in 1905, thereby allowing him to bear the title of Reichskommissar a.D. (Imperial Commissioner, retired). In 1939, a street in Berlin Wedding was named after him. Two years later, the film Carl Peters was released in cinemas. Hans Albers played the lead role, and its script was written by Ernst von Salomon – one of those “soldierly men” analyzed by Klaus Theweleit in Male Fantasies in an effort to discover the psychological and social structures underlying the pre-fascist and fascist male. Today, Carl Peters is a Verbotsfilm, one of those rare films from the Nazi era that can only be shown under certain conditions – barred from public presentation, with educational material embedded in those viewings that do take place (which doesn’t mean the DVD can’t be bought online). It was in the mid-1980s that it became clear how sensitive an issue this name was, and Carl-Peters-Allee became Petersallee. The street’s new namesake was Hans Peters, a Christian Democrat (CDU) politician who was involved in the resistance during the Second World War and helped design Berlin’s state constitution after the war had ended. What a clusterfuck of memory politics! Even after the rededication, the colonial master remains present; and with Lüderitz and Nachtigal in the immediate neighborhood, he has all the back-up he needs to force the resistance fighter off the stage.

Translation: Ben Caton

This text was first published in German at


[1]Achille Mbembe, “Brief an die Deutschen,” Die Tageszeitung, May 11, 2020,!5681758.
[2]Lorenz Deutsch, “Antisemitismus keine Plattform bieten,” open letter, March 23, 2020, (Translation of this and all other German-language quotations by Ben Caton.)
[3]In an interview with Die Zeit from May 7, 2020, Illouz said: “Some of Mbembe’s positions regarding Israel are in truth hyperbolic. His assertion that the occupation of Palestine constitutes the ‘greatest moral scandal of our times’ could be interpreted as demonizing Israel. But we cannot deny the reality that many Palestinians have been incarcerated, tortured, and murdered by the Israeli army. It is however a shame that Mbembe doesn’t have more empathy for the tragic history of the Jews, and a greater feeling for the complexity of the Middle East.”
[4]A detailed and wide-ranging discussion hosted by René Aguigah for Deutschlandfunk Kultur saw both academics offer a mitigated defense of Mbembe. Among other things, they defended the method of comparison as an academic instrument and questioned the extent to which Mbembe represents positions that also exist within Israeli discourse, with Susan Neiman also raising the question of the singularity of the Shoah. It is important within Germany to insist on this, she argued, since references made to other genocides are often cited in the name of exoneration, thereby serving to deny German responsibility for the Holocaust. Things are different from a Jewish perspective; here a universalist view is more helpful, since it prevents the possibility of becoming perpetually stuck in the role of victim. Aleida Assmann and Susan Neiman, in conversation with René Aguigah, “Die Welt reparieren, ohne zu relativieren,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, April 26, 2020,
[5]“Never in my worst nightmare would I have dreamed that my invitation to Mbembe would be judged a ‘provocation,’ or that Achille Mbembe would be described as an ‘Israel-hater’ and anti-Semite, because Mbembe’s books barely touch upon the subjects of Israel, the Middle East, and the Holocaust. He never signed any BDS calls, and he is occupied by other issues.” Stefanie Carp, “Weshalb ich Achille Mbembe für einen Vortrag bei der Ruhrtriennale eingeladen habe,”, May 7, 2020,
[6]“Aufruf Felix Klein als Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für den Kampf gegen Antisemitisums zu ersetzen,” open letter to Federal Minister Horst Seehofer, April 30, 2020,
[7]“As academics, we reject this type of campaign, where people identified as political opponents are disavowed without evidence and on the basis of manipulatively distorted quotes and content. We also reject the misuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism.’ The seriousness of the threat posed by anti-Semitism and the urgent need to fight it should be especially clear in Germany. It is not the time to misuse this term in the service of political interests that have nothing to do with fighting anti-Semitism.” “Aufruf: Solidarität mit Achille Mbembe,” open letter, May 1, 2020,
[8]See, among others, the April 23, 2020 edition of Die Zeit, the May 12, 2020 edition of Die Tageszeitung, and a Facebook post from May 8, 2020 (at; quotation given here translated from French by Isolda Mac Liam), in which he strikes back at Lorenz Deutsch by accusing him of racism: “All I know is that he didn’t want me to give the big opening lecture at this year’s Ruhrtriennale festival. The festival was cancelled because of Covid-19. Our politician couldn’t say he didn’t want a negro [Mbembe uses the French term “Nègre”] at the festival. He couldn’t say that he opposed me because I defend anti-colonial arguments. Or because I took a stand for the restitution of African art objects. Or because I am opposed to Europe’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. So he went and found something more suitable. He came up with a diabolical idea. A negro anti-Semite, that would kill two birds with one stone!” It should be noted that Mbembe is deliberately offensive in his use of “Nègre”, since it constitutes an extremely condensed example of the object of his inquiry – namely the framing, othering, and denigration of black people.
[9]Translator’s note: Achille Mbembe’s Politiques de l'inimitié (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2016) was published in a German translation as Politik der Feindschaft (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017). While Necropolitics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019) contains some of the same material in English translation, no full English version of the book exists as yet. References made throughout this text therefore relate to Politik der Politiques de l’inimitié/Politik der Feindschaft, rather than to Necropolitics.
[10]Everything Passes Except the Past project website, Goethe-Institut Belgium,
[11]Achille Mbembe, “On Palestine,” foreword to Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, eds. Sean Jacobs, Jon Soske (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015).
[12]Samuel Salzborn, Kollektive Unschuld. Die Abwehr der Shoah im deutschen Erinnern (Leipzig: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2020).
[13]The author and journalist Ulrich Gutmair provided a good overview of this in his article “Es geht um 1948, nicht um 1967,” Die Tageszeitung, August 9, 2019,!5610738/.
[14]Achille Mbembe, Politik der Feindschaft, p. 77.
[15]Michael Pesek, an academic from Erfurt, wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s arts pages that Mbembe makes the same fatal mistake as Frantz Fanon in transferring the extremity of the Algerian situation to the rest of Africa, thereby giving rise to a false understanding that overestimates the power that was held by colonial masters. In reality, he claims, colonial power was limited to a few centers, beyond which it was largely impotent. He argues that it should instead be imagined as portrayed in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1976 film Noirs et blancs en couleur. No word about the brutality of the hands severed in the Congo Free State, of forced labor, of the genocide in the territory of what is today Namibia, of the murder of Patrick Lumumba, etc. – not to mention the notion of realism that Annaud promotes with his films. Michael Pesek, “Was weiß der Postkolonialismus vom Kolonialismus?,” Frankfurter Allgemeine, May 6, 2020.
[16]Jürgen Kaube is one of the publishers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a conservative German daily newspaper.
[17]Achille Mbembe, “Die Welt reparieren,” Die Zeit, April 23, 2020.
[18]Stefanie Carp, “Weshalb ich Achille Mbembe für einen Vortrag bei der Ruhrtriennale eingeladen habe.”
[19]Achille Mbembe, “Die Welt reparieren.”