Repairing the Damage to Our Ethical Categories. A Conversation with Charlotte Wiedemann

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Charlotte Wiedemann – author of the just released German-language volume Den Schmerz der Anderen begreifen. Holocaust und Weltgedächtnis (To Grasp the Pain of Others. Holocaust and Global Remembrance) – explores the inequalities of the reigning “economy of empathy”; discusses ways to connect the histories of National Socialism and global colonialism to each other; reflects on problematic aspects of German memory culture today; and suggests paths through which more pluralistic and inclusive memory cultures might be fostered.

Charlotte Wiedemann is an expert on intercultural communication and postcolonial thought, and a foreign reporter who has been conducting research in over thirty countries with a focus on Islamic life worlds and on Southeast Asia. She has published in a host of leading print media and is the author of seven books, including volumes on Iran and Mali. Her newest book, Den Schmerz der Anderen begreifen. Holocaust und Weltgedächtnis has been published by Propyläen Verlag.

Ferenc Laczó: Your new book Den Schmerz der Anderen begreifen (To Grasp the Pain of Others) reflects on and critiques the reigning “economy of empathy,” especially when it comes to the current regime of memory and recognition. You show through powerful examples how recognition depends on a sense of proximity and connection, and how it remains highly unevenly distributed. Our own pain is recognized before the pain of others would even be considered, so very much depends on who we consider part of the “we group,” you underline in the book. Which examples would you highlight to expose the glaring inequalities of empathy and recognition? More generally, how would you briefly characterize the reigning memory regime when it comes to historical injustices? 

Charlotte Wiedemann: To become aware of what steers our empathy – individually and more importantly, collectively – opens doors to a more inclusive memory culture as well as to a more just approach to human rights issues of the present.

Let me take the example of Ukrainian war refugees: until the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainians in Germany were considered cheap workforce who tended to work as nurses caring for the elderly in German private homes or on strawberry fields. They had no voice and no lobby. They didn’t belong to us.

The picture has changed entirely. Since the German public and media considers Putin’s war to be a war against us, the West, the refugees belong to us and are considered part of the “we group.” They are allowed to work and have access to social security benefits – quite differently from the Syrian refugees who arrived in the recent past.

This example shows how empathy is steered by political assumptions. These assumptions make victims be perceived as similar to us, but might also make them appear unsimilar, alien. 

Currently we witness a mind-blowing contrast within the EU between the friendly treatment of huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees and the cruel treatment of small numbers of refugees at the Poland–Belarus border. The latter are considered aliens, “weapons” in the hands of a dictator to destabilize the EU who do not deserve any of our empathy. Babies die in the border forest, and we just do not care.

It is important that we do not confuse empathy with sheer emotion. 

Empathy is foremost an intellectual operation, an identification with another person that develops over time. Most important in this process is whether we consider the other equal to us – as a human being on eye level with us.

If we apply these ideas to memory culture and the categorization of victims, we can easily see how political assumptions and structural racism are intertwined. This is most easily visible in the neglected status of colonial victims. But how exactly does it work?

In my new book, I compare the German perception of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and the East African resistance against German colonial rule some forty years earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century. In the so called Maji Maji war approximately 200 000 Africans were either shot or starved. It was a desperate liberation struggle and a case of disastrously asymmetrical warfare. So why is the resistance in the Jewish Ghetto enjoying so much respect and empathy, whereas the Maji Maji liberation fight is of no interest at all, raising no respect, no empathy? 

I came to the conclusion that contemporary Germans easily identify with the fighting Jews but cannot identify with the fighting Africans. This happens for two chief reasons. Equating oneself with the Jewish victim is a strong feature of philosemitic German memory culture. 

In general, Germans like to put themselves in the shoes of Jews as a way of dealing with suppressed feelings of guilt. In a harsh contrast, hardly anybody from the majority society can image him/herself being a colonized black person, so in that case there is nothing on eye level at all. Second, whereas the picture of the Jew in German collective consciousness has changed substantially between the Nazi era and now, the picture of the African human being has not changed much between the colonial era and the present time. 

If we return to the comparison between the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Maji Maji war, we see what constitutes the difference: Africans are not considered to have a strong and principled desire for freedom, neither in the past, nor now. 200 000 of them dying in resistance therefore has no meaning and their desperate will to fight is not an object of admiration in Germany. 

With regards to divided empathy, we can see the most striking contrast between colonial victims and Holocaust victims, but if we take a closer look, we can also see a pattern of hierarchies applied to Nazi victims. Roma and Sinti used to be very close to Jews in the Nazi ideology, also constituting a race which had to be exterminated entirely. But their status in the public memory culture of today is much closer to African colonial victims: no voice, no respect. I call them “the victims who are not missed” in my book. Roma and Sinti in fact remain the most discriminated minority in Europe today.

To conclude, there is an economy of empathy which is at the same time an economy of values attached to different lives. We should include in the picture that this economy has also been structured by recent wars and by the treatment of victims in these wars. Victims of drone strikes in Afghanistan were considered “collateral damage” or – as I put it in my books – as neglectable lives. “As if they had never existed” is a common statement by the relatives of those victims whose deaths have never been acknowledged, not to speak of the lack of payment of any compensation. 

I argue in my book that we have to repair the psychological and moral damage such Western policies have afflicted on our consciousness and on our ethical categories in order to be able to develop inclusive memory cultures. One of the most important lessons of the Holocaust is that there is nothing like a neglectable life. 

Therefore, I consider the efforts to rescue refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as a model of a well-conceived and active new memory culture. 

You cite numerous important examples of cross-referencing and cross-fertilization when it comes to the interpretations of racist violence, of colonialism and antisemitism, of slavery and genocides. One conclusion that has stood out for me is that discussions of the connections between Nazi and colonial history, and Nazi and colonial violence, more specifically – an awareness of what these histories share and how they might be distinguished analytically – are in fact nothing new. The drawing of such connections and comparisons have been around for numerous decades and may in fact have been less contested in the past. Would you be willing to discuss some key examples of how the history of National Socialism and that of global colonialism have been related to each other in the past? What do you see as fruitful approach through which more solidarity could be fostered? 

I dedicate a whole chapter in my book to the colonial soldiers in WWII, especially to the one million Africans who fought under French flag. I do this for several reasons. 

In Europe, WWII has not been sufficiently understood because the fact that huge parts of the world were still under colonial rule is still often excluded from the picture. Without the contribution of one million African soldiers France would most likely not have been among the victorious nations. Moreover, the fact that France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council illustrates the long-lasting impact of colonial domination during WWII and its aftermath.

To explore the other side, West Africans developed after WWII a memory culture of self-respect, which connected their war participation to the process of anticolonial emancipation. 

I interviewed war veterans who told me how the respect they gained through their contribution to the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule impacted the first general strike of West African railroad workers aiming at equal pay for black and white employees. In Europe, we have not yet learned to connect the liberation from Nazi rule with the liberation of colonized subjects. 

At the same time, it is true that the limitations of the white European concept of universalism have already been discussed and challenged some seven decades ago. This is not surprising at all. 

Parallel to the Nuremberg trials, European nations were committing mass atrocities in their colonies for which the definition of crimes against humanity is equally fitting. 

In the year 1947, when the first edition of Anne Frank’s diary was released in Amsterdam, the Dutch army annihilated the male population of entire villages in Indonesia during its attempt to suppress the Indonesian anticolonial struggle.

That implies that laws and institutions that are depicted as an outcome of the Holocaust are deeply stained by double standards. This is also true for the Genocide Convention, which was conceived in a way that it could not apply to colonial military campaigns against civilians or the violent suppression of liberation movements.

Regarding all these connecting dots between German National Socialism and colonialism, there is a huge gap nowadays between public memory culture and the results of historical research in the past two decades or so. The term Nazi colonialism has been used by historians for the last twenty years but is still causing a hiccup of sorts in public memory culture. 

I came across one fascinating example when studying the language used by the Wehrmacht in Eastern Europe. They called the non-German auxiliary forces in extermination camps, some of whom were Ukrainians, Askari – exactly as the African auxiliary forces were called in colonial wars in German East Africa. The word is Arabic for soldier. It entered colonial parlance through Swahili and from there – through the interwar colonial nostalgia in Germany – it entered the language the Wehrmacht deployed at sites of the Shoah. 

Unpacking these kinds of stories and connections can already change people’s mindset.

Your book offers a rather critical take on what one might call the dominant memory culture in Germany. You plead for pluralism and inclusiveness and argue that Germans should learn not to place themselves into the center of their own narratives, but rather to observe their own perspectives on history also with the eyes of others living in different parts of the world. In an autobiographical passage, you state that you personally consider the Shoah unique and underline that its utter horror and our inability to come to terms with it have shaped you profoundly. You also state that you have come to realize how this strong conviction concerning the Shoah’s uniqueness is the result of personal experiences you have made – with experiences that have much to do with you having been born and raised in West Germany in the postwar period. Would you perhaps be willing to discuss this process in some detail, that is to say how you came to be personally impacted and shaped by the memory of the Shoah, what triggered your reflections on your own specific positionality, and what motivates you personally to argue so powerfully against attempts to create “hierarchies of victims”?

Born just nine years after the liberation of Auschwitz, at some point I had to realize that I was living in uncomfortable closeness to the perpetrator generation. I grew up with the obdurate silence of my parents, including about my father’s NSDAP membership, and the gradual groping of the abyss beneath my Germanness. 

I remember a situation involving my father when I was in my senior school years. I wanted to join a youth group and travel to the Soviet Union, and I had to get his permission for that. Upon hearing my request, my father replied: “There is nothing to see there, it is all flat.” To which I yelled back at him: “Yes, after you guys were there!” We never talked about this again. 

But I remember this as a crucial moment because I was not addressing him as an individual, I was addressing a whole generation, or the male part of that generation. 

Not long before my father died, he confessed jokingly that he had been a member of the NSDAP and that he threw his membership card into the drain after Hitler’s defeat…

Everything that had to do with National Socialism became like a second skin to me. Nothing else achieved this closeness in the long run. This intensely felt Germanness of mine was later combined with decades of experience in the non-European world: as a foreign reporter in Muslim countries; through stays in societies in West and East Africa, which were marked by the colonial experience; through years of living in Southeast Asia, where the image of the WWII is marked by the experience of the Japanese occupation; and most importantly, through friendship and love with people who look on us from elsewhere. 

All these experiences have motivated my search which led to me to write this book. 

It has emerged out of an inner dialogue and two great personal concerns: may we, as Germans, as “new Germans” and as “old Germans,” keep the memory of National Socialism close to us with sensitivity and with care, and may we, as Europeans, overcome a white way of thinking about history and be aware of the effects of colonial violence. In other words, keep the responsibility for Nazi crimes, but based on a new understanding of the world oriented towards respect and participation.

The Shoah is a tragedy of special significance, but this significance must not be used to degrade other sufferings. And Germans must learn that in a globalized world, people look at the extermination of the Jews from different angles – and they also look at Israel from different angles.

There have been several controversies in recent years concerning the German state’s uncritical official attitude towards the State of Israel, the rather grave difficulties the German public sphere appears to have to merely accept Palestinian voices and perspectives, and the recent attacks on Jewish dissidents. Would you care to comment on the position and chances of Palestinian voices and memory in German discussions? How would you interpret current forms of Jewish dissent when it comes to policies of the State of Israel, and the reception of such dissent in contemporary Germany?

There is a heated debate in Germany concerning these issues, which also has a lot of unpleasant features. Under the impact of the ever more rightist Israeli politics, spaces for fruitful discussion about Israel–Palestine have become narrower. Antisemitism is by now routinely conflated with anti-Zionism. And the special obligation Germany has to Jews has developed more and more into an unconditional loyalty to Israel’s policies. 

Palestinian voices are often excluded from public discourse, allegedly to prevent antisemitism. Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation policy or of the ethnonational character of the Israeli state also get accused of antisemitism. In a way, memory culture has been turned into a weapon against critical voices and minorities. 

I argue in my book that one possible way out of this situation would be to open memory culture for Palestinian narratives about history, about their history. 

I argue that we, the Germans of today, are implicated in the Palestinian tragedy, because without European antisemitism and the Shoah, the state of Israel would not have been founded under the conditions that it was and in the way that it was.

Your book sketches an attractive utopia of transcultural encounters based on the principle of equality that would foster a more pluralistic and inclusive cosmopolitan memory and could also revive anti-fascism as a powerful practice. You also point to the fact that the European and Western forms of dominance – which have resulted in so much exclusion, violence, and inequality of empathy in the past – are being challenged ever more in our increasingly interconnected world. How would you sketch a new, much more globally sensitive and egalitarian memory regime? And would you be willing to highlight some of the most positive developments you have observed towards the development of such a more pluralistic and inclusive cosmopolitan memory?

So far, the reception of my books has taken place on friendly terms, despite the palpable hostility against certain positions I hold. I take it as an indicator that a change of beliefs and attitudes is on its way, at least in some parts of society. 

The German government has recently restituted art objects to Nigeria, and the mutual agreement states that “a new ethic of relations” is necessary. The vocabulary used is taken from postcolonial artists and initiatives and has been employed in a document by the federal state for the first time.

Apart from a lot of novel resistance against progressive history policies, another important thing has changed as well: the German society of immigrants has abandoned the dangerous ideal of homogeneity, which opens the door to new understandings.

On the global level, there is still a huge imbalance. 

The prestige enjoyed by Holocaust memory, which is supported by numerous institutions in the Western world, causes a desire to attach other grievances and sufferings to this label in order to benefit a bit from that prestige. At the same time, Holocaust remembrance is becoming more fragile in Europe through historical revisionism. 

We are witnessing that too these days.

Curiously, the phrase “Putin is the new Hitler” is now employed by people who used the thesis regarding the singularity of the Holocaust just a short while ago as a weapon against the inclusion of the remembrance of colonial victims.

The current situation is unstable, to say the least, and it seems impossible to predict the future direction of memory culture.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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