Germany and the Holocaust: a New “Historians’ Dispute”?

Does the Holocauste constitute a unique crime that marks a turning point in European history? Or should we count it just as another crime that is not extraordinary in itself? More than thirty years ago, this question divided the German intelligentsia into a conservative right and a liberal left. One might has thought this debate to be settled in favor of the left, which insisted on distinctive qualities between the various political crimes in Europe. Apparently, this is not the case. Today, on the German media and intellectual scene, the debate is resurfacing in a new form, which no one anticipated.


Friedrich Hundertwasser, “The tower of Babel pierces the sun” © wikiart


Thirty-five years ago, the enlightened German bourgeoisie rose up in unease and disquiet. One beautiful day in July, the moral conscience of this class, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, had put pen to paper and set off what future generations will call the “Historians’ Dispute”. A vituperative article published in the left-liberal weekly « Die Zeit » sufficed as the casus belli. The strike was fierce and overt. The attack had been launched against a group of German historians then seeking to place the destruction of European Jewry in the context of a longer history of atrocities committed on the continent. This school of historians had already produced several books, and had started, in the months before Habermas’ broadside, to address the wider German public in the great national periodicals of the era. Motivated by an ethos common to the historians of the nineteenth century, who saw their role as creating in their work possibilities for positive identification with the past, these historians were attempting, in a more or less subtle manner, to minimize the crime committed against the Jews. The most-debated of this school’s theories was that of the group’s most eminent proponent, Ernst Nolte, a renowned historian who tried to corroborate his theories in the course of his research in Nazi and pre-Nazi archives. According to him, the destruction of European Jewry was a mirror-image enactment on the part of Germans who had suffered or feared suffering massacres at the hands of « barbarous Asiatic hordes, » or such was the perception of Nazi leaders. Fearing annihilation at the hands of the Soviets, the Nazi hierarchy would have implemented this self-same strategy – in a mode of preemption – against European Jews. Nolte’s theory was intended not to explain the reason for the choice of Jew as victim, but to explain how the extermination could have been so radical and so absolute. There was a mode of action for such extermination in the east, and Germans felt above all threatened by what laid eastward.

The Angry Outburst of Jürgen Habermas

Nolte, indeed, wrote, in a few lines that would help elicit the reaction of Habermas: “There is a striking absence in the writing on National-Socialism, which this literature either does not acknowledge or does not want to acknowledge, i.e., the extent to which what the National-Socialists did, with the exception of the gassing procedures, had already been described in an abundant literature reaching back to the twenties. Did the National-Socialists, Hitler included, commit an « Asiatic » act because they considered themselves real or potential victims of an « Asiatic » act?[1]

Propaganda poster against Bolshevism, Germany 1918.

The stakes of the debate were political for all the actors involved. The historians endeavored to render less singular and less incomprehensible the extermination of European Jewry, contextualizing it so that generations born in post-war Germany could reconcile themselves to their national history. The Holocaust, as a civilizational rupture, tarnished the glorious German past, and cast doubt on pre-Nazi Germany, too, which was seen as preparing the ground for the great crime. Discarding this idea of a great rupture, understanding the Holocaust against the backdrop of European politics and policies, opened a boulevard to the (re-)creation of the German nation.

Habermas attempted to smother in the cradle this attempt to provide positive historical identification to the German people. He was convinced that the sole route to a modern and democratic Germany lay in constitutional patriotism, therefore, a Germany founded on a rock-solid identification with a democratic institution upholding human rights. Did Habermas fear that the womb from which Nazism emerged was still fertile? Did he want to banish forevermore the idea of the nation due to this reason? This is possible, even probable. Whatever the case, Nolte and his comrades made Habermas’ work easy: as unabashed nationalists and conservatives, these historians could easily be written off, in their attempt to place the Holocaust in the line of other European atrocities, above all those committed in the East, as not committed to prudent historical inquiry incorporating all the relevant facts, but rather concerned with a second attempt to unify the German people at the expense of the Jews, this time at the expense of the murdered Jews.

Same Story, New Actors…

Today, more than a quarter of a century later, history appears to be repeating itself. Germany has in the meantime been reunified and undergone a slow transformation into a society of immigration. These two processes have posed anew the question of the integration of the population, now many of them newcomers, into a German nation-state. Habermas’ ideal of constitutional patriotism was undermined by the refusal of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) to adopt an updated constitution after the addition of the former Lander of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to a new whole. And in general, the proposition made to the new arrivals is not very enticing: do not share in a glorious past, but assume the guilt for the destruction of European Jewry and the waging of a war of aggression that left the continent in ruins.

This recent constellation of events has teed up a new « Historians’ Dispute”. The bone of contention is the same: must we understand the Holocaust as an exceptional crime, a watershed event in human history, or must one place it in the context of European criminal policies? While the questions in the debate remain the same, some of the parameters have shifted. The most noteworthy is that none of the partisans of the continuist viewpoint are German nationalists in search of a positive national story, but rather left-liberals, Jews and non-Jews, Germans and non-Germans, on a quest… for what exactly?

Let us first revisit the debate. In 2020, the Great Art Festival of the Ruhr invited African post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe to deliver the event’s opening address. An avowed backer of the BDS movement, who has compared in his writings Israel to the worst apartheid regimes the world has ever seen[2], his potential appearance led to an outcry from a part of Germany’s intellectual and political class. There were calls for the invitation to be rescinded due to anti-Semitic statements on the part of the invitee. This in turn drew the ire of the festival organizers but also that of voices on the cultural and intellectual left, both in Germany and abroad. Two main arguments were made: first, that critique of Israel is not automatically reducible to anti-Semitism; two, comparisons to European criminal state policies is legitimate, especially when that comparison emanates from peoples, or representatives of those peoples, who have themselves been at the receiving end of those policies.

The second argument is the crux of the new « Historians’ Dispute, » the principal actors of which – one should note this! – are not historians, but rather philosophers, literary theorists and adherents of post-colonial theory, as well as columnists and editors of major-circulation German newspapers. What is the logic of this campaign? The right to compare, and the right to compare in a certain manner. Here, Mmembe sets the tone, when he writes in his  Necropolitics: “The apartheid system in South Africa and the destruction of Jews in Europe—the latter in an extreme fashion and within a distinct context—constitute two emblematic manifestations of this fantasy of separation.”[3] This fantasy of separation is said to be constitutive of the European conception of politics, and as such the Holocaust must be understood in the context of European crimes perpetrated in former colonies.

Mur en Cisjordanie, Creative Commons.

On this occasion, one draws a through-line not between the Holocaust and Europe’s murderous internal politics, as Nolte advocated, but rather between the Holocaust and European powers’ actions in the exterior. This is a substantial step, allowing the new theorists to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors, the conservative historians, whose abstruse theory posited that Germans imitated the violence of « Eastern barbarians,» the barbarism of which found no origin in Germanness. Moving the locus of discussion to the exterior of Europe renders the theory more coherent and plausible in the claims of continuity: Germany is a European country, a former colonial power, whose rule was as brief as it was cruel. When it endeavors to exterminate the Jews, the nation acts in a manner consistent with the immanent logic of European powers, this fantasy of separation also being evident in the colonial enterprise. Germany transposes this exterior policy to the interior of Europe, and kills a people resident on the continent. But in Mbembe’s perspective, this does not disprove the continuity between the Holocaust and colonial atrocities. The « technical procedure of gassing, » here too, does little to change a political comportment that has already been observed.

The Sense of Comparison

« Comparing must be possible, » such is the new credo of the continuists. The most visible defender of this perspective on the German intellectual and media scene is now the American literary theorist Michael Rothberg, the author of the 2009 book Multidirectional Memory, the recent translation of which into German has inspired renewed debate. The author has already waded into the Mbembe Affair, and has proven unrelenting in pushing the following message: « We must remove the taboo of comparison. »[4] Which is to say, the comparison between the Holocaust and other crimes committed by European states, namely colonialism. One wants to say, « Why not? » But first we must grasp what is meant by comparison.

Logic has its constraints: there must be a common denominator as a prerequisite to comparison. We can compare whales and tigers in their common status as mammals; when we start to compare their prowess in traversing 100 meters, the comparison becomes absurd, since in this case, the common denominator (having members supporting locomotion) is so tortured as to be preposterous. Logically, one can look for a common denominator between the Holocaust and an object of comparison. The word « crime » here is the right term to serve as a common denominator, as « mammal » is the right term to designate the tiger and the whale. However, finding a commonality is not enough to draw a comparison. One must then delineate distinctions, otherwise, one could conflate tigers and whales.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Comparison of scalp, skin and onion”, 1489 © Wikiart

The continuist thesis, in terms of distinctions – and here again logic obliges – can only acknowledge numerical distinctions. The principle of continuity will only admit differences of degree. Mbembe says it straight-out: the question of the difference between the Holocaust and apartheid is one of scale. The « fantasy of separation » of Western politics can be more or less intense, even go to an extreme, while remaining the same in its essence.

The thesis of a historical rupture does not deny the idea of a common denominator in the form of « a crime. » This theory, maintains, however, that there are qualitative differences between the Holocaust and colonialism. Destroying a people constitutive of Europe, living in the interior of Europe, distinguishes itself from the destruction of an extra-European people in the exterior; the « technical procedure of gassing » does not distinguish itself from colonial executions in its ability to kill greater numbers, but rather the procedure changes the nature of the crime. The thesis of a rupture does not establish a hierarchy of crimes, but rather affirms the existence of differences that one must probe.

When History Becomes a Question of Faith

These several logical considerations are necessary if we are to examine the new iteration of the continuist theory. Habermas, in his time, had no need for recourse to logic. He was dueling with professional historians, scrupulous in their respect for the standards of their discipline, and thus assiduous enough to consult archives and documents in service of their theories. The weakness of the evidence and the obviousness of the political motive behind the presentation of archival proof was then clearly demonstrable: allowing Germans to construct a positive national mythos, unencumbered by the ash-heaps of the assassinated European Jews.

The current dispute is not about archives or documents. We are dealing with quasi-metaphysical assertions on the essence of European politics. In such a setting, no longer the setting of a debate on the correct interpretation of sources, situating the Holocaust on a historical continuum recognizing only quantitative differences becomes an act of faith. The new devotees of the continuist thesis not only believe it, but seem to believe that it is the exclusive truth. Therefore, they want to convert the Germans. Convert them to  cease viewing the Holocaust as qualitatively different from other crimes that Germany and Europe could have committed. Nolte and his protégés demanded something, too, of the Germans. They wanted Germans to identify themselves to a positive vision of Germany, that they create a nation in the image of other nations, replete with glorious events and the national pride that arises from such events. Holocaust memory was an impenetrable barrier to this operation. This memory is now again a barrier. But to what? Why does the conversion of the Germans to the theory of so-said « multidirectional » memory matter so much?

Joseph Beuys, Sled, 1969 © wikiart

Clearly, Rothberg and the defenders of Achille Mbembe do not have the ulterior motive of helping Germans construct a positive national history. This, however, would undeniably be the result if Germans converted to the continuist faith and started to consider their history as akin to those of other European countries, each with their share of crimes. It would be dishonest to suspect today’s continuists of having that as their goal. At best this is the price they are willing to pay to achieve their true aim. But what is their goal? Rothberg, in a text co-written with a brother-in-arms in the battle for the comparison of crimes, enunciates it clearly[5]: it is about transforming memory – global memory as well as German memory – so it no longer states: “either … or”. “Either” we remember the Holocaust, “or” we remember other crimes committed by the West. Encased in this logic of “either … or” Holocaust memory would block the memory of other groups victimized by European crimes and produce an ill-fated and acrimonious competition of victim groups. To avoid conflict and do justice to all victims of Western violence, we must create a collective memory in which the Holocaust and all other crimes are commemorated “at the same time”, on a plane of equality.

The Price for Peace

A peace plan as such is seductive and the political intention seems praiseworthy. This idea purports to be generous. Looking closely, however, it becomes clear that this intention hinges on one condition: that we accept that in this world there are defenders of the “either…or” position. In truth, no one ever has adopted this position. No one ever has claimed that one must not speak of German crimes committed against the Herero people because the Holocaust was more important to commemorate. No one launches petitions in Germany against the renaming of streets bearing the names of colonial murderers because all the names of streets once christened for Nazis have been redesignated. Likewise, in France, no one has tried to forbid the commemoration of colonial crimes in asserting that only Vichy memory counted. European countries encounter much difficulty in confronting their past that much is true. It is absurd, nonetheless, to claim that in Europe, Germany included, one neglects the commemoration of other crimes because the sole crime one wants to remember is the Holocaust.

Not wanting to speak of other crimes because the only crime that is convenient to discuss is the Holocaust is an admonishment that one directs exclusively at Israel. Israel is said to prevent the international community from discussion of its crimes in the occupied territories in mobilizing Holocaust memory. And so the political intentions of the new continuists seem to come into view. What is at stake here is their ability to criticize Israel by comparing it to the worst regimes to ever come into existence, without risking the accusation of anti-Semitism. Germany, the official policy of Germany, seems to hinder the free circulation of this critique: the insistence on the Holocaust as a singular event, the condemnation of acts of terrorism against Israel, the commitment to the security of Israel, no matter the menace, this is all for Germany a “raison d’état.”[6] The recent decision to withdraw all public financing from people or organizations supporting BDS goes in the same direction. In asking Germans to convert to the “at the same time” approach, asking them to abandon a position of “either … or” that no one ever advocated, one asks them in fact to do something entirely different: renounce their inflexible solidarity with the State of Israel and their tendency to suspect of anti-Semitism whoever would menace the security of this state, in word by calling it a fascist state and finally in deed by exhorting the international community to treat Israel as one would a state of this nature.

Rothberg, elsewhere, is clear on this point in a text published during the Mbembe Affair, on no place other than a website of the Goethe Institute:

« Germans would do well, above all in the face of the fact that the consequences of the Nazi genocide are inextricably linked to the occupation of Palestine, to question their participation in this ongoing injustice. »[7]

Paul Klee, ‘Separation in the Evening’, 1922 © wikiart

Read these lines closely: Germans, because they committed the Holocaust, and thus spurred the creation of the state of Israel, must assume some responsibility for the crimes of this same state. The historical situation, however, is not static: Germany can reinsert the Holocaust in the line of general European crimes, of which Israel is the sole present culprit, and for which all “enlightened spirits” must stigmatize this state. Continuism decidedly has great virtues for those who know how to take advantage of it…

The question that bursts forth here is to know why it is so important, crucial, to be able to freely call this small democratic country, the state of the Jews, an apartheid state, a fascist or Nazi entity, without fearing suspicion of anti-Semitism. Why does the good of humanity depend on this radical notion of “free speech?”

The enigma remains intact. The protagonists do not reveal their answer to us. No one in fact has put the question to them. And in Germany, where the far-right commits “at the same time” racist and anti-Semitic attacks, there is no longer a clear-headed liberal-left able to pursue this line of inquiry. Habermas, in 1986, accused his conservative opponents of wanting to create a night in which all cats are gray, in order to camouflage the darkness of German history. Today, the love of conflation and category collapse seems to have changed camp.

Julia Christ


1 Some lines of Ernst Notlte’s text of in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 june 1986, quoted by Jürgen Habermas in his article “Eine Art Schadensabwicklung”, DIE ZEIT  le 11 july 1986.
2 Concerning the engagement of Achille Mbembe in campaigns to boycott Israel see the petition he signed in 2010. Concerning the comparison between Israel and the apartheid regime see his foreword “On Palestine” to the book Apartheid Israel. The Politics of an Analogy, Soske, Jon/Jacobs, Sean, Haymarket Books, 2015. Mbembe writes here: “I am willing to bet on the following: In Palestine, it would be hard to find one single person who has not lost someone – a member of the family, a friend, a close relative, a neighbor. It would be hard to find one single person who is unaware of what ‘collateral damage’ is all about. It is worse than the South African Bantustans. To be sure, it is not apartheid, South African style. It is far more lethal. It looks like high-tech Jim Crow-cum-apartheid”. And later: “The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century”.
3 Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, Duke University Press, 2019, p. 46.
4, 5 Michael Rothberg and Jürgen Zimmer, « Enttabuisiert den Vergleich ! », DIE ZEIT Nr. 14/2021, 31 march 2021.
6 Speech of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Knesset, 03/18/2018.
7 Michael Rothberg, “Das Gespenst des Vergleichs”.

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