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As far as can be seen, Texte zur Kunst is the first journal to present a conceptual-philosophical framework capable of sublating, in a Hegelian sense, the difficult disputes between postcolonial criticism and Zionism. It’s therefore no coincidence that Noit Banai and Sabeth Buchmann’s text “Cinema with/in History” (from issue 119) deals with works of art, since their manifold allusions and references mean that many (but by no means all) artworks seem most closely to correspond to the concept of solidarity with all victims of history.

In fact, the critique of postcolonial criticism of Zionism – especially critique of the texts of Achille Mbembe – that is so brilliantly documented in Texte zur Kunst is also an expression of a particular philosophy of history. The significance of any such philosophy clearly lies in the role it plays with regard to memory and commemoration within particular human societies or groups, and this is particularly true of January 27, a date now recognized worldwide – and even by the United Nations – as Holocaust Memorial Day. However, this is not the only day of remembrance to be recognized by the UN (or, more accurately, UNESCO); less well known is the existence, for some years now, of a UN memorial day commemorating the beginning of the Haitian slave revolt in 1791. Since 1998, the UN has marked August 23 as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition, offering the following explanation:

"This International Day is intended to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples. In accordance with the goals of the intercultural project “The Slave Route,” it should offer an opportunity for collective consideration of the historic causes, the methods and the consequences of this tragedy, and for an analysis of the interactions to which it has given rise between Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean." [1]

This begs the question of whether the murder of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany can serve as the single (and singular) “great narrative” tasked with advancing awareness of human rights worldwide.

The sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider noted 20 years ago in their study Erinnerung im globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust:

"New spaces are opening. And the mass culture that is derided by many historians is forcing its way into the space that has been freed up. This space of remembrance will become the cosmopolitan memory. […] In order that related questions of the unique and incomparable nature of the Holocaust then lead to these distinctions being abolished. The Holocaust becomes comparable as a unique event. The particular experience of the victimization of the Jews can be universalized.” [2]

As evidence of their thesis, Levy and Sznaider presented an announcement that, 20 years earlier, had been placed in the New York Times, produced by the three most significant American Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League) and published on August 5, 1992, after the first pictures of Bosnians locked in Serbian camps had gone around the world. “Alongside the bloodstained names of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other Nazi death camps,” they wrote, “must now be added the names of Omarska and Brcko […] Is it possible that, fifty years after the Holocaust, the nations of the world have decided to stand by passively and do nothing, claiming that they are helpless to do anything? […] We hereby underline,” the announcement concluded, “that we are prepared to take all necessary steps, including the use of violence, to stop the madness and bloodshed.” [3]

It was in this spirit that representatives of 40 countries came together in Stockholm at the turn of 2000/2001 in order to discuss human values in the digital age, and against a backdrop of renewed racism. The aim was to see what lessons might be learned from the Holocaust – that is, from the industrial mass extermination of European Jews as perpetrated by Nazi Germany, along with its murder of millions of Poles, Soviet citizens, and further minorities. The closing statement of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, by the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, accordingly declared:

"With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. […] Our commitment must be to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice." [4]

The American literary scholar Michael Rothberg (already mentioned elsewhere in this issue) sought to radicalize this same idea in his groundbreaking 2009 book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization – a work that opens up the possibility of overcoming entrenched positions, not least in debates around Achille Mbembe’s work or postcolonial criticism. According to Rothberg, “multidirectional memory” becomes meaningful precisely when differing memories, and differing memories of different crimes, each serve to further illustrate that thing around which they all revolve – the crime of genocide in its widest sense. Rothberg succeeded in developing this concept by choosing not to limit his analyses to historiographic works in the narrowest sense; instead, he focused primarily on literary and filmic artworks, along with diary sketches. Rothberg is able to demonstrate that 1961, the year the trial of Adolf Eichmann began in Jerusalem, plays a central role in this respect: not only did the trial start in that year, but October 17, 1961 also saw the massacre of peaceful Algerian demonstrators in Paris – an attack carried out by police officers on the orders of the police authorities, and which claimed 200 victims. Many French intellectuals and writers (such as Charlotte Delbo, [5] who was an ex-prisoner of Birkenau and Ravensbrück, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the historian of ancient Greece whose parents were murdered in the Shoah) reacted to the massacre at the time by recalling the atrocities of the National Socialists and their French collaborators, [6] especially the then prefect of the Paris police, Maurice Papon (1910–2007). Years later, Papon would face trial in France for his role in collaborating with the Germans to deport Jews; in 1998, he was sentenced to ten years in prison, of which he served just three.

This situation need never have arisen. After all, Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book on the origins of totalitarianism, had already – even if only by a slip of the tongue – located racism’s origins in the experiences of Europeans in the colonies of Africa. As Rothberg emphasizes, the anti-colonialist author Aimé Césaire (born in 1913 in Martinique, and one of the founders of the concept of Négritude) then also went on to demonstrate the continuing influence of Hitlerite thought within the French bourgeoise, in an exchange with the critic Yves Florenne. [7] At the same time, however, Césaire was by no means the first and only anti-racism activist to examine the crimes of National Socialism within the context of anti-black racism.

The black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois was the originator of the anti-racist “color line” theory. Having previously studied in countries including Germany at the end of the 19th century, in 1941 Du Bois visited the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, describing the visit in a short sketch titled “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto.” The text was later expanded upon in his essay of the same title published in the magazine #KJewish Life#K, which states:

"The result of these three visits, and particularly of my view of the Warsaw Ghetto, was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem. In the first place, the problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it. […] The race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men." [9]

In this account, memory and remembrance do not only operate under the imperative of a universalistic morality that can for entirely good reasons invoke the singularity of the Holocaust within world history. Rather, it is also necessary – and particularly so in a globalized world – that they are interwoven with other memories, and in such a way that this does not become a zero-sum game.

But it was exactly this notion of memory as a mutually contingent balance of gains and losses that made the debate that raged in Germany this year around Achille Mbembe’s work so senselessly and unforgivingly acrimonious. Equally, Rothberg himself did not shy away from the Israel-Palestine conflict in the course of his project, as evidenced by his engagement with the Israeli historian Benny Morris. While Morris initially went further than anyone in his examination of the criminal aspects of the expulsion of Palestinians from the country in 1947/48, [10] he later went on to openly and entirely cynically justify their displacement. [11] Memory and forms of remembrance – as Rothberg emphasizes time and again – are not a zero-sum game.

If this is true, it raises the question of the singularity of the Holocaust within world history, as often asserted for good reasons (within Germany especially), and of whether any invocation of other crimes against humanity therefore serve to “relativize” the Holocaust. The following characteristics are usually provided as evidence of the singular and unprecedented nature of the Shoah: Firstly, its globally historic – in fact unparalleled – debasement of its victims, in that they were robbed of their names and given numbers, in order to then, secondly, be gassed. Thirdly, its equally unparalleled sense of purpose and unlimited readiness to mobilize any means in order to murder Jews – a task that was to be pursued anywhere in the world that Jews might be found, and at any time in the future – and this at a time when the war situation would have required all resources to be deployed toward withstanding the allied forces. Fourthly, then, the society that committed this crime against humanity was highly developed and bourgeois in every respect. Different to Stalinist apparatchiks or the young jungle fighters of the Khmer Rouge, it was the elite leaders of the German Empire, but also broad swathes of bourgeois society, who perpetrated these crimes. As I have tried to show above, however, nothing is taken away from the singularity of this crime by also remembering the singularity of the crimes of colonialism – whether in the Congo or in the transatlantic slave trade. Memory and remembrance are not a zero-sum game.

Rothberg concludes his book by once again referring back to Morris’s cynical justification for the expulsion of the Palestinians. The former’s words, which follow here, could serve as a maxim for future thinking in a globalized world – to which one might also add that Achille Mbembe himself would have been well advised to take them into account when writing his criticisms of Israel. With his concept of a “multidirectional memory,” Michael Rothberg succeeds in providing the wretched rivalries of remembrance – which can always be exploited to political ends – with a universalist perspective that stands in anamnestic solidarity with all victims of tyranny:

"I draw two corollaries from the kinds of memory conflicts emblematized by the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. First, we cannot stem the structural multidirectionality of memory. Even if it were desirable – as it sometimes seems to be – to maintain a wall, or cordon sanitaire, between different histories, it is not possible to do so. Memories are mobile; histories are implicated in each other. Thus, finally, understanding political conflict entails understanding the interlacing of memories in the force field of public space. The only way forward is their entanglement." [12]

With this, Michael Rothberg shows us a way out of the supposed impossibility, as suggested by the Mbembe debate, of relating the singularity of the Holocaust to other crimes against humanity. That this cannot in turn mean that genocidal crimes that range in their barbarity and magnitudes can simply be equated with one another should be clear by now. Particularly if “multiperspectival memory” is to give rise to a productive perspective that takes a solidaric and critical approach to historiography and societal analysis, it is essential to precisely name both similarities and differences alike.

Translation: Ben Caton

Dr. Micha Brumlik, professor emeritus; is currently Senior Advisor at Selma Stern Zentrum für jüdische Studien Berlin.


[1]“Commemorations: International Days Observed at UNESCO,” UNESCO website,
[2]Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, Erinnerung im globalen Zeitalter: Der Holocaust (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), p. 213 [quotation translated here by Ben Caton]. This text was later published in revised form in English as The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, trans. Assenka Oksiloff (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
[3]Quoted in Levy and Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, p. 159.
[4]Quoted in ibid, p. 186.
[5]See Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, trans. Rosette Lamont (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).
[6]Pierre Vidal-Naquet, La torture dans la République: essai d’histoire et de politique contemporaine (1954–1962) (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1998).
[7]Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 78.
[8]Shamoon Zamir (ed.), The Cambridge companion to W. E. B. Du Bois (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
[9]Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 116.
[10]Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 309, pp. 405–07.
[11]Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, pp. 309–12.
[12]Ibid., p. 313.