The debate over Dirk Moses’s German Catechism has led to a vigorous and interesting debate online in the last few weeks. The New Fascism Syllabus website has hosted a range of perspectives and responses, and scholars such as Neil Gregor have posted responses on their own blog sites. Doubtless someone, somewhere, is securing a book contract for the edited volume. And of course Twitter has lent itself to pithy and witty interventions, whether or not anyone was listening.
In which spirit, this is, as billed, the intervention in the German Catechism debate for which nobody has been waiting – but that in itself perhaps undermines the argument that the “gatekeepers” which Moses talks about are as effective as he suggests. The problem with which all of the world grapples, after all, is that the right to free speech creates neither a duty to publish nor an obligation to listen. Though as Jennifer Evans and Tiffany Florvil have pointed out, the debate has been conducted largely between and among white men of a certain age and socioeconomic status, ignoring the work of women and people of colour (and often both) in establishing, maintaining and hosting the debates themselves, while also employing arguments that have been currency outside that bubble for some time. The work of Anna Hajkova and Zoe Waxman, for example, in addressing challenging areas of research to do with sexual identities and sexual violence in the Holocaust, illustrates the difficulty of overcoming (in Waxman’s words) “opposition to feminist scholarship and thus to the very study of gender and the Holocaust itself rather than on any meaningful dialogue with the content of the research.” One might perhaps suggest that the debate at least began as a scrap among the gatekeepers themselves rather than those trying to get in.
(Disclaimer: I am hardly a break from the norm in several of the personal respects listed above, though as an independent scholar I do not have the status of many interlocutors. I will however, rigorously and professionally conduct meaningful Holocaust Education for your synagogue, community centre, youth movement, wedding or bar mitzvah.)
My own position is fairly straightforward. Moses is right to call out and protest unreflexive and inauthentic commemoration and research which does not take seriously the continuities and intersectionalities in the Holocaust. The fact that the Holocaust constituted the implementation of colonial warfare and ethnic cleansing against Europeans is an important and vital part of understanding the events. David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen (in The Kaiser’s Holocaust) used the figure of Heinrich Goering (father of the more famous Hermann) to illustrate this, noting that “While the father, whose prospective victims were black Africans, fits our view of a colonialist, the son does not. Yet the Nazis’ war in the East was one of imperial expansion, settler colonialism and racial genocide.”
Hitler himself in Mein Kampf set his purpose as “[drawing] a line under the foreign policy of pre-war Germany” and “putting a stop to the colonial and trade policy of the pre-war period and passing over to the territorial policy of the future” – by which he meant “the East”. What has been missing is the voices and likeness of the victims from which Hitler turned away. David Olusoga further illustrated – through the figure of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – in The World’s War (2014) how the First World War in Africa “far from being a meaningless side show in Europe’s war […] became the last phase of the Scramble for Africa.”
Nonetheless, Michael Berkowitz, in his introductions to the recently republished pamphlets by Alfred Wiener, The Fatherland and the Jews, passes over reference to “the Educational Service of the Lettow-Vorbeck Brigade”, noting that they “expressly advocated pogroms and public hangings of Jews” to buttress his claim that Wiener was “completely reasonable in leaving Hitler out of the picture”. Lettow-Vorbeck was (as Olusoga puts it) a “colonial specialist” having participated in the suppression of the ‘Boxer’ rebellion in China and the genocide of the Nama in South West Africa. The existence of a brigade named after him tells us much about the role of colonial mentalities in 1920s ex-soldier communities, yet here it is barely a footnote. The parallel debate about whether the recent “apology” for genocide in Namibia is sufficient or even genuine has perhaps been rather drowned out by the disputes about attitudes to memorialising the Holocaust.
At the same time, the fact that this debate is even taking place represents progress. A characteristically trenchant and engaging intervention from Neil Gregor is also right to remind readers that progress has been made, a point reinforced by Bill Niven. Historical understanding, by its nature, has to proceed at its own pace. There was, after all, a time in which Raul Hilberg was marginalised for pursuing research into the “machinery of destruction” which was set up to annihilate European Jewry. That European scholars have preferred to research topics in which they could retain some clear moral standing is understandable, though the work of scholars to recover and link this to the repression of colonial peoples and patriarchal attitudes to the history of gender and sexual identity should of course be encouraged. There is in some quarters possibly a desire to keep the debate on territory which the interlocutors are comfortable – though both Gregor and Niven have clear track records in both conducting and encouraging research “against the grain”.
The core problem here is the acceptance that time moves in one direction and that historical understanding is highly contingent. The literary scholar Lawrence Langer has recently published a collection of articles under the title The Afterdeath of the Holocaust. As well as commenting on core texts in Holocaust Studies, the articles also explore Langer’s own engagement with the subject of the Holocaust since the 1950s. He returns frequently – one might say almost obsessively – to his desire to avoid “redemptive” memory of the Holocaust. He insists that the Holocaust must be “a landscape of the imagination we never inhabited where solace perished along with the victims whose remnants lie scattered beneath its surface” and reiterates his opposition to “misguided” attempts “to find ways of coping with such desolation by striving to wrest some minimal meaning from the atrocity of mass murder.”
I am set to review Langer in more detail elsewhere, and I will use that space to detail the contradictions he entangles himself in there. But what comes through his writing is twofold: firstly, a profound sense of the lasting shock he experienced in his first encounters with the Holocaust; and secondly his clear frustration that the Holocaust has become normalised, in some important regards through his own work. The influence of his work on Holocaust testimony has been profound, as described by Noah Shenker in Reframing Holocaust Testimony (2015). Shenker notes that the Fortunoff Archive (informed in large part by Langer) has an “aversion to redemptive closure in testimonies” which means it can “miss those moments when a witness actually expresses some semblance of redemption.” It feels a lot like Langer is opposed to any kind of recovery or coping. Which is a heavy burden to live with, if true, for both survivors and subsequent generations.
In Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, “Artie” asks his survivor therapist to explain how Auschwitz was. “BOO!” he replies “It felt a little like that. But ALWAYS.” For the individual encountering the Holocaust for the first time, it is still a lot like that, but it is also part of a “Holocaust metanarrative”. As Donald Bloxham and Tony Kushner put it, “the bundle of ideas and preconceptions handed down under the label ‘Holocaust’ that shapes the contours and parameters of our understanding of the subject.” There is no going back – and as Robert Jan van Pelt realised when starting his expert report in defence of Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, that is a good thing. Deniers have to work against the Holocaust as historical and social fact: nobody really comes to it with an open mind in the sense of doubting it happened. As can be seen from the COVID conspiracy theory sticker which illustrates this post, the premise of the Holocaust has been very widely accepted. But this must not be allowed to solidify completely into slogans and parrot-like repetitions of formulaic ideas. As Moses reminds us, there is a duty on us to ensure that the contours and parameters of the subject mentioned by Bloxham and Kushner are debated, expanded and made more complex by the arrival of new and challenging research, and in a complex and diverse social milieu.
Ultimately, however, the tendency will always be to simplicity. Jay Winter and Antoine Prost have described how in the aftermath of World War 1, there was a conviction that the experience of combat could not be communicated, and could only be understood by those who were there. Yet a century later, the memory of the conflict is conducted largely through symbols which are easily recognised and understood: the poppy, some key photographs, pieces of poetry and other writing. If we tried to remember every crime committed by Europe in the modern age, we would have no space for any other activity, so we create ways of accessing the appropriate feeling when it is appropriate. Following Barthes, events become languages in which we speak of other things as well as themselves. Yet, as the work of David Olusoga, Santanu Das and many others illustrates, these moments of accessing the symbols of memory can also be occasions on which fresh thinking and energy can invest them with new meaning. In 2014-15 I was teaching an A-level class about India in the First World War and was able to use Olusoga and Das to talk about the conflict in a way which empowered students as agents of memory and change. The challenge of doing so for the Holocaust is the next stage: arguments such as these will recur, cynics may wonder (as Ian Kershaw noted of the 1980s Historikerstreit) whether they generate more heat than light. But as long as we strive to include as many voices as we can, and incorporate as many conflicting and challenging histories as possible, they will not abate – thank goodness.