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Contesting German Memory Culture. A Conversation with Jennifer Evans on the Catechism Debate

Jennifer Evans curated a series of articles in the New Fascism Syllabus (NFS), responding to a piece by historian Dirk Moses in the Swiss history journal “Geschichte der Gegenwart” [Contemporary History]. In “The German Catechism,” Moses (UNC-Chapel Hill) argued that it was time to abandon the catechism according to which it was heresy to compare the Holocaust to other genocides (which Moses claimed was the moral foundation of the Federal Republic). His article sparked a very spirited discussion. “The Catechism Debate” reached more than 36,000 impressions and attracted media attention in Germany, with further coverage in the country’s major newspapers. Our editor Ferenc Laczo talks about this debate with Jennifer Evans, who was one of its animators.

Ferenc Laczo: In recent months, you have coordinated and edited a series of articles under the title The Catechism Debate that has appeared on The New Fascism Syllabus website. This has been a rich and innovative exchange; I was excited to read all the diverse contributions. One of the starting points for The Catechism Debate was the publication of Dirk Moses’ polemical piece “The German Catechism” which appeared on the website Geschichte der Gegenwart back in May. What are the key theses in Moses’ article “The German Catechism” and what motivated you to organize a discussion in the wake of its publication? What was the rationale behind holding such a broad conversation a propos this article and why is such a debate taking place now, in 2021?

Jennifer Evans: Dirk Moses begins his catechism article by outlining a debate within academic circles in the early 2000s around the question of colonial violence and how to think about German colonization efforts in the 19th century in relation to the Holocaust. Moses says, quite rightly, that historians have had a robust debate on this, recognizing that there were important questions worth pursuing about how to think about the history of white supremacy and genocide, about similarities and differences, about the singularity of the Shoah. This amounted to a global turn in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. It was contentious but it deepened our thinking and gave us new tools to think with intellectually. He argues that something in these last months, maybe years, has changed, which motivated him to write the article in the way that he did.

What are the things he sees as having changed? He says that he was motivated to write in response to a most recent article in Die Zeit by memory scholar Michael Rothberg and historian of colonialism Jürgen Zimmerer titled “Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!” (Remove the Comparison Taboo) on how to think about comparisons and the reluctance to think about comparisons. He was also motivated by the strange take-up of Michael Rothberg’s very well-received monograph Multidirectional Memory once it was translated into German and even in anticipation of it being translated into German. Then there were recent discussions and policy decisions at the Bundestag around what constitutes antisemitism and whether historical comparisons and analogies to other conflicts and genocides relativize the Holocaust, maybe even disqualifying persons holding some of those views or just asking those questions. 

In essence, Moses is arguing that there has been a kind of a chill in the air around how we can talk about these issues that were once the stuff of albeit heated debate but were still part of the academic and public conversation. 

Alongside this chill in public discourse, Moses says that social media and the heightened tensions, most recently, in the Middle East have turned the temperature way up. His response was to fan the flames even more and to provoke conversation. 

His main argument in the piece is that public intellectuals and certain government bodies in Germany are gatekeeping the terms of debate around the Holocaust and German memory. He argues, most provocatively, that this amounts to a catechism, a kind of dogma. Arguments that step out of these points, which I am going to reference in a second, receive not just pushback, he says, they receive public censure. 

Moses says the uniqueness of the Holocaust is one of the aspects of this catechism: the first example of the destruction of a people on ideological grounds must be held as unique and not placed in comparison. Second, this uniqueness, which differentiated German crimes from all others, formed the moral foundation of the Federal Republic, it was the basis upon which the state understood its structural rebuilding after the war and its responsibilities to the world community. He argues that for this reason, Germany has or believes itself to have a special responsibility to Jews in Germany and to the State of Israel, maintains that antisemitism is a distinct form of prejudice, not to be confused with racism, and that anti-Zionism is itself a form of racism. 

These are big claims and big charges. When I first read this article, I was stirred with a whole host of responses and emotions, just like everyone else, I believe – it was written just in that way. I thought this was an opportunity, especially in the context of where we find ourselves right now, in a world in which we have seen unprecedented forms of police violence made visible through social media and photography (which is not to say the police violence is new, it is to say that we now are taking it seriously); heightened concern over far right infiltration of institutions, police, military, government; we are all living within this pandemic, we are not outside of that just yet; we are watching memory wars flare in different places and spaces over colonial violence and how to mark these memories productively; we see renewed conflict in the Middle East, in Israel, most recently, and debates around the world on how to define antisemitism and hateful speech, and whether or not we should recognize Islamophobia as a form of hateful speech – which in my own country, Canada, was not something that was able to pass within Parliament just a few years ago, which might be somewhat surprising.And, of course, we live in a populist moment with a widespread critique of authority and expertise and subjecting facts to all sorts of let us say craziness. 

This seemed to be a perfect moment to really have a concentrated and careful conversation around something so challenging and so difficult that cut through many of these issues. I thought it might spark debate on issues related to this idea of the catechism and of a state and society’s relationship to scholarship, memory, and the past in general. This was my motivation.

I should say that German memory culture has received a lot of attention in recent decades, not just within Germany, but it has become significant the world over. Many of these discussions within Europe have tended to highlight what is original and what is praiseworthy about Germany’s self-critical examination of its national past and especially the way postwar Germany has come to terms with or meaningfully pulled apart ugly aspects of its past. Some have even presented Germany as a sort of model when it comes to dealing with the past – we have seen that in Susan Neiman’s book with instructions for Americans on how to deal with the history of slavery in a productive way. Others within Germany have cautioned against this kind of memory pride. I think these are some of the main reasons why this debate has caught on in Germany and why I wanted to speak to it as well.

Ferenc Laczo: German memory culture has indeed received much attention in recent decades. Now the picture of German memory culture that emerges from the contributions to The Catechism Debate tend to be nuanced but also more critical than many mainstream discussions over here in Europe. May I ask, what do you see as some of the major achievements of German memory culture and what do you view as some of its key shortcomings? Could you also tell us a bit about significant perspectives and insights that have sadly remained marginalized within the German public sphere and that you have aimed to amplify through curating this new series? 

Jennifer Evans: That is indeed why I tried very hard to reach out to various corners of the field and outside of the field to bring people into conversation in different ways around the issue of German memory. For two chief reasons: on the one hand, in North America and the Anglo-American world we have certain conversations around race, colonialism, and memory that are very commonplace in our institutions and increasingly in our public sphere. It is not to say there is a delay, but there is a different academic culture in Germany and in parts of Europe where some of these ideas have not gained the same currency. On the flip side, the intensity of the conversations in the public discourse in Germany has not always been on the radar of Anglo-American scholars, so I thought this was also a great possibility for looking across the Atlantic and the Pacific a little bit – we, of course, have colleagues from Australia working on German themes. This was an opportunity to step outside of our comfort zones and see what the conversations are like elsewhere.

The various entries on The New Fascism Syllabus have in common the strengths of the German “coming to terms with the past” or “working through the past” as a kind of civil rights framework or initiative and as a core feature of civic education. How a nation steeped in race thinking, responsible for incalculable violence and suffering managed to turn away from this past and instructed citizens in their responsibility to guard against such things is a phenomenal thing – it is a phenomenal thing to have on an official level. My own country, Canada is in a sense only at the very beginning of figuring out what reconciliation for colonial crimes actually means and what that would mean in education. 

What we also see in these reports, and in history writing more generally around memory politics in West Germany or in Germany, is that while there were these great and momentous changes, there were always huge struggles and there remain to be huge struggles around whose memories enter into the public sphere and into public consciousness. That is something that I think most people do not fully appreciate. Some would argue that there is even a deliberate act of forgetting certain victim groups and certain experiences of inequality in the mainstream. For some people, black Germans, Sinti and Roma people, Muslim Mitbürgern and, of course, Jewish Germans, the struggle continues amidst ongoing structural violence around race, sexuality and ethnicity.

This is not easily seen when we emphasize success stories. Of course, great strides have been made, especially over the context of 1970s and early 1980s memory culture in Germany, but there were battles waged to attain those gains and for some people, those battles remain. 

I will give some examples to concretize that. Many of us who lived through die Wende remember the heinous arson attacks in the early 1990s in Solingen and Mölln. It might be startling for us that asylum seekers were murdered in their asylum homes by far-right nationalists – truly awful examples of the violence of the early 1990s and the continued presence of far-right ideology and practice among youth groups. It is startling to learn that these victims of far-right violence are not commemorated by official monuments, that families and community groups have had to take up these initiatives themselves because even when commemorative events took place, there was a reluctance to call out the racism that continues to affect people’s everyday lives, and especially the lives of migrants and new Germans. 

The speech that is given every year to commemorate the Mölln arson attack is now, since 2019 held in exile in Frankfurt where cabaretist Idil Baydar received death threats for contributing. The reason the speeches were moved is because the family members of those who perished felt that there was no honest and deep conversation about racism as lived experience today. This shows you that there is still so much to do in this one instance and for this one community in Mölln.

Another example would be the struggle within the queer community. We have a monument to those persecuted by Nazis in the Tiergarten in Berlin, which is interestingly in what is a cruising zone today. For many, this monument is an emblem of how far German memory culture has come: it is a great sign of success, especially considering that homosexuality was illegal in the post-war period. It was not only just illegal, but there was a huge struggle to recognize gay and lesbian victims in the post-war period. There was no official apology until very recently. There were no reparations made for crimes committed before or after 1945 with the same Nazi paragraph.

The monument in the Tiergarten betrays something more though: that there was a battle, not just for recognition as victims, but there were battles also within the queer community itself about including lesbians and lesbian experience as part of that commemorative strategy, but also on the plaque itself outside of the memorial which says that Germany has a special relationship to sexual freedom because “there are places in the world where a kiss is still dangerous.” This almost suggests that homophobia is something that happens outside Germany and is no longer part of German culture and society. These are interesting blind spots.

It is useful to point out that arguments made around these issues of marking the experiences of lesbians in the monument or more recently at the Ravensbrück Memorial or calling attention to the limits of Western liberalism as papering over examples of structural racism and ongoing homophobia, which is very much established in academic literature as well, has experienced pushback from some members of the queer community, some high-profile journalists and memory workers. 

This reluctance to think critically, to draw on expertise and challenge the myths of success and integration shows us that there is still so much work that remains to be done.

These are some of the reasons why I think that the debate around Dirk Moses’ article could generate this kind of conversation around what we have achieved, what still remains, and the intense struggles that mark some people’s entrance into the memory sphere.

Ferenc Laczo: It is remarkable how some of the most contested issues in this discussion are deeply interconnected. The exact connections between the history of colonialism and that of Nazi Germany or, more specifically, between colonial crimes and the Holocaust remains disputed. There are also fierce debates surrounding the state of Israel and the situation of the Palestinians, debates to which both the history and memory of the Holocaust and those of colonialism are often quite central. Then there are contentious discussions today regarding antisemitism and racism, and regarding antisemitism and anti-Zionism. We cannot quite discuss all these connections in depth today, I am afraid. 

Let me ask you though, also since you are a citizen of Canada, a fourfold question how do you view the value of the colonial paradigm when it comes to the interpretation of Nazi Germany and Nazi crimes? Can this paradigm perhaps also help us analyze the ongoing conflict and violence between the state of Israel and the Palestinians? Perhaps most crucially, how would you assess the moral and political implications of applying this interpretative scheme to both? These are obviously highly contentious issues, and so I was just wondering whether you could perhaps tell us a bit about your intellectual strategy of dealing with them in substance and still prevent discussions from turning too contentious and toxic?

Jennifer Evans: First and foremost, I suppose I should say that I am speaking to you from occupied and unceded land. 

I am very aware of the fact that I am in a country that is currently undergoing a much needed and very painful series of discussions around our ongoing implication in colonial violence and genocide. 

It is everywhere we look here in Canada, and it has always been there, but we have not always seen it. That is a sea change which, of course, shapes how I think about all manner of things. I certainly see it as useful and generative to find ways to have difficult conversations around contentious but important issues, especially issues that cut quickly to how we see ourselves and our work as people, as historians, and as citizens in the 21st century.

I think no serious historian denies the importance of thinking about continuities and ruptures over time, about the power of white supremacy, about nationalism and race thinking in the 19th century as animating national and colonial projects and how European modernity itself was made on the backs of others.

How to square this with Nazi genocide, which was built out of this infrastructure while taking on entirely new proportions? That is why we write what we do. 

It is not something we can solve with one debate or one answer here today – the answers are there deep in the literature and in the scholarship. It is that question of nuance and of complexity that we as historians are trying to bring into the public sphere, in social media, in newspapers, in feuilletons. It is a challenge to us historians how to do that meaningfully and well, especially when there is so much emphasis on quick and easy solutions, on soundbites and sound clips – a challenge of the age in which we live beyond the challenge of the subject matter itself.

The effects of white supremacy, of nationalism, of settler colonialism are, of course, all around us still. They structure not just my life in Canada, but they are very much with us regardless of where we are located. What is important, regardless of when and where we were born and wherever we find ourselves, is to recognize that we are implicated in these questions and that we need to be guarded against efforts to simplify complex issues, especially in social media, and we need to work within and with various communities across differences, to be willing to open ourselves up to new ways of thinking about issues we may believe we have already sorted. 

I think we have almost lost the fine art of disagreement and debate. In a way the debate on The New Fascism Syllabus was meant to capture a little bit of that contentiousness and force us to concretize our ideas quickly. That is the age in which we live: we need to get these ideas out quickly but also responsibly in a way that is truthful to the literature and the historiography that we all read.

Do I have an answer for how to think about post-colonialism versus Holocaust historiography? I do not know why there has to be a versus there and it was certainly not my purpose as editor to answer such questions. Instead, I wanted people to appreciate that there are these different issues percolating out there based on where one is situated in their own life course, where they are living and where they are working and writing.

I wanted this to be very front and center, so that we can come up with a language for how to express very difficult ideas, instead of canceling ideas that we see as unpalatable. Let these ideas live and breathe a little bit and come up with ways to really argue our positions. It is difficult to do that in social media, as we know, and this debate was especially challenging to, so to speak, bring to the world. I was very careful in how I put myself out in social media, so as not to ally with one article over another, or with one view or another. I really took seriously this idea of letting them all speak for themselves. When I edited the contributions, I was very careful to allow them to speak with the voice and in the terms of reference that they chose. 

This is perhaps a bit different from how a journal might work in terms of peer review. The authors here had much more control over what ultimately went into the public. The goal was a diversity, a plurality of positions and then for the reader to figure out what kinds of constellations they saw forming.

Ferenc Laczo: I wanted us to talk precisely about the reception of the discussion next. Since you are also a historian of post-war Germany, I thought we could try to historicize it a bit. A rather popular remark on the debate you have curated, which has at times been labeled as a major part of a second, ongoing Historikerstreit, is that back in the 1980s left-leaning participants, such as, perhaps most famously, Jürgen Habermas, have emphasized the uniqueness of the Holocaust whereas critically minded scholars today rather insist on the need to embed the Holocaust in global historical frames and are eager to explore its connections to other mass crimes in history and memory. Would you say it is fair to compare these two discussions in this way? And, if so, what might that reveal about the evolution of our academic and more public discussions?

Jennifer Evans: Let me start by saying that I am all for comparison and complexity but only when we are mindful of the differences. That includes the differences between the contexts, between the then and now. Habermas was, of course, responding to very particular arguments during the Historikerstreit and to very real efforts to relativize Nazi crimes. It was also a climate in which Helmut Kohl’s government was endeavoring to place World War II firmly in the past, while other groups – not just Jewish Germans, but of course them as well – were saying that not only have they not entirely arrived but that there is so much more that has yet to happen. For some, the desire was to move on, while for others historical reckoning with the Holocaust and the subjective experiences of victims was only just really beginning – not to mention the height of the Cold War and the geopolitical configurations, which make that moment in the 1980s quite unique.

Today, the playing field is very different, as you point out. I would say that in the Anglo-American academy especially, we are highly aware that these histories of violence still very much surround us, still very much implicate us, and yet it still remains a challenge for us to see just how much we are affected by these ongoing structural inequalities. This is where there remains a lot of work to learn from interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to historical questions by looking to critical race theory and postcolonial theory and decolonization projects, or ways to rethink what we believe we already know about power and authority and how it worked in the past. 

I ended The New Fascism Syllabus debate with my own reflection on the merits of thinking expansively on these issues. 

I use the examples of two survivors, one Jewish Canadian and the other Indigenous, and how they managed to find a common language, a vernacular that retained the uniqueness of their own experiences while also commenting on the larger structures of race, colonialism, and nationalism that marked their different genocides. 

A very real difference between the two was that one’s experience of genocide was firmly in the past and the others was still living and breathing in the structures of governance at work in Canada today.

What I think these two survivors really teach us is that they are able to speak about complex and difficult issues and place them in a comparative framework in a way that does not relativize the experience of the one or the other, and that actually shows us the power of multidirectional memory, of learning from the Holocaust and applying those ideas to other experiences of mass violence without somehow entering into this kind of “us versus them” zero sum game. 

It should give us great hope that we can have these kinds of conversations. If this is Historikerstreit 2.0, it is very definitely not about relativizing experiences, but really animating the differences and understanding them for what they are.

Ferenc Laczo: I wished to raise a final question about the reception of The Catechism Debate, also since you have written about key trends in reception. Which arguments in this broad and lively discussion have received most attention and what does that show? Have there been positive or perhaps negative surprises in the reception you would care to share?

Jennifer Evans: I know a little bit about what people read based on the analytics. I can see countries of origin, for example, and I got a sense of where the conversation was traveling, which was fascinating to watch. At one point I could see how somebody would tweet something contentious and could then see the numbers light up in terms of who was accessing which contribution – which was a little scary. There is indeed a lot that we can do, and I am hoping that some people will think more seriously about reception – always a challenging subject.

My own impressions were quite shaped by conversations online and offline that I had with colleagues while all of this was unfolding. It was fascinating to see that, for some, the center of the conversation and debate was Dirk Moses’ claims. If we were to measure The Catechism Debate through the legacy media, then that would bear out: Dirk’s theses have in fact taken quite a hold in the public discourse around this debate. If we were to measure the conversation differently, if we were to measure it through social media, we would see that very different actors played much more of a role. We would see, for example, that Fabian Wolff, the writer who also contributes to newspapers and journals, had a huge impact and audience.  Zoé Samudzi also had an overwhelming presence and reach online. What this is going to force us to ask when measuring outcomes is as follows: what are the different audiences being reached, what role does social media play, who is representing, who is moving the conversation along, is it historians, writers, activist-scholars?

The question of gender was very much part of this as well. Certain contributions, certain voices were not as well reflected in the legacy press or in cultural magazines, even though they had quite a presence online. There was also a really interesting way in which emotionality was recognized or not. One could argue that Frank Biess’ contribution was extremely emotional, which makes perfect sense considering his most recent book. He is certainly very personal in the way that he talks about his own experience with the catechism and how he wrestled with it. Mirjam Brusius is equally emotional and yet there was an interesting way in which public writing landed on her emotionality to make certain kinds of claims, while sort of forgiving Frank for doing what was essentially the same thing in his practice. 

We will have to ask questions about gender, status, and authority in order to really wrap our heads around some of these issues.

I hope that there was a lot of material for conversations to come. I think it is still percolating its way through various media, so I am happy at least for that.

The text has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Catherine Wright.