Ethics of Historical Comparison: An Interview with Michael Rothberg*

Eneken Laanes

Michael Rothberg (Stockholm)On 17-19 March 2017, one of the leading scholars of cultural memory, Prof MICHAEL ROTHBERG from the University of California, Los Angeles visits Tallinn University in the framework of the symposium “Transcultural Memorial Forms: Contemporary Remembrance of War, Displacement and Political Rupture” where he gives the keynote lecture “Inheritance Trouble: Migration and Transcultural Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Germany”. Rothberg’s most influential book is “Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization” (Stanford University Press, 2009), in which he argues that cultural memory is multidirectional in the sense that we often remember a particular past by making reference to another one. In the book he shows how the Holocaust memory emerged in Europe in reference to other violent events, such as the Algerian war in the 1950s and 1960s. In the last decades of the 20th century, the Holocaust offered a consciousness and served as a model for remembering other histories of violence, such as slavery in the US or European colonialism. In his work Rothberg has opposed both sacralizing discourses about the Holocaust and comparisons that relativize it and developed a nuanced model for ethical historical comparisons.

Your work has had an immense influence in cultural memory studies. Historical comparisons had been visible in the political discourse in many European countries and in the US for decades, but it was your book that offered a way to understand what was going on in these comparisons in cultural terms. Is multidirectional remembering characteristic of our contemporary age or have historical comparisons been a more universal way of making sense of the past?

Michael Rothberg: I think there is probably something fundamentally human about the need to compare—to understand one thing by reference to another. In that sense, I suspect that multidirectional memory of the sort that I describe could probably be found in most cultures, at most times. Yet, there is clearly something about modernity and about our contemporary world that makes it even more likely that memory will take multidirectional forms. Certainly, the development of media is important: we live in a world where we have instant access to events taking place thousands of miles away and we have a digital archive that allows us to call up images and words related to historical events that took place decades or centuries earlier. In such a world, it is not surprising that we tend to remember one event through images, words, and frameworks that derive from other events that are either distant in time or geographically distant.

There is also something about the contemporary world that has made memory a particularly important aspect of collective identity. This is not entirely new, of course, but in many different realms of culture and in many different societies we see a similar fascination with the legacies of the past—whether we’re talking about the creation of new museums, the production of new kinds of historical novels and period films, or political debates about how to come to terms with past histories of violence. The traumatic events of the twentieth century also seem relevant here—the Holocaust, the world wars, Stalinist repression, colonial and anticolonial wars. They have left us with intersecting legacies that we are still processing.

Your book has inspired a range of studies on very different comparisons between the Holocaust and slavery, the Holocaust and European colonialism, the Holocaust and Soviet terror. Meanwhile it has become clear that historical comparisons are not only enabling, but they also raise important ethical questions. In your more recent work, you have talked a lot about the ethics of comparison. How can we assess historical comparisons from an ethical perspective?

Michael Rothberg: As I’ve already said, I think historical comparisons are probably unavoidable—especially in our age. Given that inevitability, I think it’s crucial to think about the ethical and political dimensions of comparison. After my book “Multidirectional Memory” appeared, one of the questions I often received was: OK, memory is multidirectional, but is all multidirectional memory the same? And the answer is clearly no, multidirectional memory and historical comparison take many different forms, some of which we might find inspiring and some of which we might find troubling. So the first thing I did after completing the book was to write an essay where I tried to work out an ethics of comparison for these kinds of connected memories. I picked one of the most difficult cases I know: the case of Holocaust comparisons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which can be found on all sides of the political debates about the occupation. I myself am very critical of Israeli policies and of the occupation, but I also found myself uncomfortable with many of the comparisons made between those policies and the events of the Holocaust, and I wanted to figure out why.

The schema I came up with for thinking about the ethics of historical comparison and multidirectional memory involves two intersecting axes. I call the first one the “axis of comparison.” Here I distinguish between comparisons that equate histories and comparisons that differentiate between them. The second axis I call the “axis of political affect.” It distinguishes between comparisons that produce competition and those that produce solidarity. I tried to show that you could map memories in the four quadrants of this schema—from “competitive differentiation” and “competitive equation” through “solidarity based on equation” and on to “differentiated solidarity.” The “map” has to do with figuring out what kind of comparison is being made and for what purposes. Speaking personally, I find memory that works to build “differentiated solidarity” the most ethically promising because it recognizes historical differences between events but still seeks to build solidarity across groups despite their divergent historical experiences. Too often it’s thought that solidarity requires full identification with others—what I call “equation”—but I don’t think that’s true: ethical solidarity involves recognizing the other person’s particularity.

It is easy to evaluate comparative discourses on the political level, but both you and I are scholars of literature and art. I personally have sometimes felt uncomfortable about making normative arguments about remembering in the aesthetic media. Can we as scholars prescribe how people should remember and with which aims? How can we study multidirectional remembering in the arts without resorting to the normative discourses of the ethics of comparison?

Michael Rothberg: In making the distinctions I describe between different forms of multidirectional memory, I’m not trying to be prescriptive. Obviously, we can’t control how people—or works of art and culture—remember. I offer my map first of all as a way of diagnosing or describing acts of remembrance that bring together different histories. Still, it’s true that I do have a normative or political perspective and I don’t try to hide that. As I said, my interest in this question came out of a very particular, very difficult political situation—the status of Israel/Palestine—and I think a lot is at stake in how we think about comparisons in that context. So, while I’m under no illusions that I can change the dynamics of a conflict of that sort through an academic discourse, I do think we as scholars can contribute in important ways to public questions—and, personally, I think it’s important to try to do so when we are in a position to make a contribution.

One of the most recent hotspots of comparative and competitive discourses on memory is Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States, who have sought recognition for their histories of Stalinist repression by comparing them to the Holocaust. You have personally criticized the thesis of double genocide which for some people has been represented in the 2008 Prague declaration and which has been popular in Lithuania, for instance, and to a much lesser extent in Estonia. What is the problem with the double genocide thesis?

Michael Rothberg: The question for me is always about how we bring together different histories—in this case the histories of National Socialism and Stalinism. My objection to certain articulations of the double genocide thesis is related to my map of multidirectional memory: the thesis tends to fall squarely on the side of equation. That is, I get a strong sense of a desire to equate the forms of violence that characterized Nazism and Stalinism and to bring both under a single concept—“genocide.” Now, I understand why people might want to do that in this case. When you emerge from a period of political oppression there is a desire and a need to assert your own historical experience. Given the already strong recognition of the Holocaust in Western Europe, it is natural to use that history as a measuring stick for another history of repression. I don’t object to that or deny the need to remember Stalinist crimes. But I think there are historical problems with the thesis because it tends to flatten out significant differences in how and why those two regimes acted. The other, even more difficult question we need to ask, though, is what is at stake in making this comparison or equation. I have the sense that there is often a competitive move being made in the double genocide thesis—that is, the attempt isn’t necessarily to establish a more democratic memory in which everyone’s history of victimization can be recognized, but rather, ultimately, to pit one history against another. Finally, I think the thesis risks covering over complicity with the Nazi genocide in societies that also suffered under Soviet occupation or annexation. These histories are complex and can’t be subsumed under such a symmetrical concept as “double genocide.”

Your current work deals with what you have called “implicated subjects”. You have drawn attention to the fact that trauma theory, which has been the prevalent approach in memory studies, has limited the analysis of historical violence to the subject positions of victims and perpetrators. You argue that scenes of historical violence also include implicated subjects. What is an implicated subject and what could we gain from thinking about past and contemporary conflicts with the help of this concept?

Michael Rothberg: My concept of the implicated subject emerged out of a dissatisfaction with our limited vocabulary for talking about historical and political responsibility for acts of violence and exploitation. We don’t have a good way of talking about people who are not themselves perpetrators but who nevertheless participate in, benefit from, or “inherit” violent histories. This is relevant to the past: how do we characterize, for example, third-generation Germans after the Holocaust? They’re not perpetrators and they’re not guilty of the genocide. But they’re not unconnected to that past: they remain in some sense responsible for confronting Holocaust history; they are in my terms “implicated subjects” by virtue of their national and generational identity. You could say the same thing about white Americans in relation to slavery or Jim Crow. Those of us born in the last several decades are not “guilty” of perpetuating slavery or segregation, but we continue to benefit from its legacies and that makes us implicated in the history, even if our families immigrated to the United States after slavery ended. I think the concept of implicated subjects is also useful for events happening now: if our tax dollars finance distant wars or our clothes were produced in sweat shops, we are not “guilty” of being imperialists or exploiters, but we are certainly implicated subjects in a world of war and capitalist globalization. The notion of implicated subjects is also meant to recognize that people (and groups) can move from one position to another: from being victims to becoming perpetrators (or vice versa); or at least becoming implicated in new forms of violence. I think this is also very relevant to your question about “double genocide,” because the histories of Eastern Europe—along with many other places—are complicated in just this way.

Your keynote lecture deals with the relationship of European migrants, including Muslim migrants, to the European history of the Holocaust and more widely with the questions of migrant memory and citizenship. What is the future of collective remembering in the age of mass migration and the refugee crisis?

Michael Rothberg: The question of memory and migration is also, in part, a question of implicated subjects. Migration—which is a constant in human societies, it must be recognized—transforms the national framework that remains powerful for collective memory. It forces migrants to confront their relation to the history of the place to which they have moved. As the Turkish-German writer Zafer Şenocak once asked, “Doesn’t immigrating to Germany also mean immigrating into Germany’s recent past?” But migration also challenges the memories and identities of those who have not physically moved. Today, Europeans are forced to confront their implication in histories of Africa or the Middle East that they might think are distant from them, but in which they actually participate at a distance. Migration has moved those histories even closer to Europe.

My lecture will deal with a special case: how immigrants from Turkey and their descendants engage with German Holocaust memory. Such immigrants are told they have to adopt German responsibility for the Holocaust in order to become German, but at the same time they’re told they can never be German and are probably anti-Semitic, too, since they’re Muslims. This isn’t an inviting context for immigrants, to say the least. Nevertheless, my co-author Yasemin Yildiz and I have found a remarkable archive of works of memory by Turkish Germans that confront the Holocaust and also bring it into dialogue with other histories, including that of the Armenian genocide.

I think considering histories from the perspective of immigrants and refugees can help us construct the kind of transnational model of memory we need today, in Europe and beyond. By necessity immigrants and refugees are always juggling different histories and can’t take their relationship to national histories for granted. That uncertain position can sometimes lead to a very creative approach to the relationship between past and present dilemmas that everyone—migrant or not—can learn from.

*The interview was published in the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp 17 March 2017.