Michael Rothberg

Associate Professor/University of Illinois, USA

Forschungsaufenthalt: 1. Mai bis 31. Juli 2004


Decolonizing the Holocaust:
Multidirectional Memory and the Legacies of Violence


The writings that have emerged out of and confronted the legacies of the Nazi genocide are rarely considered alongside the writings that have emerged out of and confronted the legacies of European colonialism. Yet these two bodies of writing are compelled to address many of the same questions and problems. Like the literature of the Holocaust, the literature of the colonial and postcolonial conditions testifies to the underside of Western modernity. Both literatures bear witness to forms of extreme and everyday violence perpetrated in the name of racial ideologies and imperial political projects. Both literatures grapple necessarily with the burden of history, the destruction of cultures and communities, and the fracturing of time—not simply into the familiar categories of before, during, and after, but into uncanny, if not traumatic, constellations.


Decolonizing the Holocaust is the first book to pursue the connections between Holocaust memory and the legacies of colonialism. Despite the litany of shared concerns, there is little evidence of cross-pollination between Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, the academic disciplines that consider these bodies of writing. For the most part, different groups of scholars have pursued these fields and remain ignorant or suspicious of each other's intellectual labors. Although understandable in a context of advanced academic specialization, this bifurcation between Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies obscures an already existing archive at the intersection of these two literary, historical, and critical fields.


Pursuing a series of little known encounters in which the history and memory of the Holocaust intersect with the history and memory of colonialism and decolonization I argue for the necessity of thinking differently about those varied histories and memories and reflecting on how memory works and how history is written. Decolonizing the Holocaust suggests, first of all, that memory of the Nazi genocide can be found in unexpected sites and configurations that emerge through encounters with other histories—in particular, those of slavery, colonialism, racism, and decolonization. These unexpected sites of memory further suggest the need to revisit the dominant narratives that have been told about the history of Holocaust memory. Instead of a simple movement from the private to the public sphere, or from silence to testimony—a movement whose first significant turning point is usually identified as the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem—I find a discontinuous series of emergences staged in locations such as Communist public spheres and anticolonial discourses. While this discontinuous series does not add up to a new narrative that would substitute for the dominant version of the story told compellingly by historians such as Annette Wieviorka, Tom Segev, and Peter Novick, I argue that paying attention to marginal and forgotten articulations of Holocaust memory can lead to new ways of thinking about the Holocaust as history. In some of the encounters considered here, an understanding of the Nazi genocide can be found that is at odds with conventional understandings of the Holocaust as radically different from other histories—instead, the Holocaust comes into view as both particular and still interwoven with other modern histories. With a very recent turn to considering the colonial antecedents of Nazi genocide, contemporary historiography is only just now beginning to rediscover some of these earlier insights.


Tracking the encounter between post-Holocaust and postcolonial discourses should not only shed light on the Nazi genocide; if the ultimate point is to move toward a more comparative, transnational history of interconnections, these encounters should also change the way we think about the issues and concerns of postcolonial studies and its adjacent disciplines. Indeed, at stake throughout Decolonizing the Holocaust are issues that have been at the center of literary and cultural studies in the last decades, including race,  resistance, violence, diaspora, migration, and identification. But if thinking about the Holocaust has sometimes been stunted by a resistance to comparison, it is no less true that much work in postcolonial studies—a far more obviously comparative discipline—has been limited by an insufficient acknowledgment of what can be learned from thinking about the Holocaust and about Jewish history and identity as well as antisemitism. Including these latter phenomena in the mix of contemporary cultural studies might lead in interesting directions for those concerned, for example, with whiteness, with religion and modernity, with extreme violence and biopolitics, and with transnational identity formations, just to name a few concerns that are at issue in this study.


Bringing together disparate histories and memories also ultimately has the result of encouraging new ways of thinking about the categories of memory and history themselves. At the center of this study stands the concept of multidirectional memory; this concept marks the recognition that the articulation of the past by individuals and collectives ineluctably opens up onto a multiplicity of pasts and presents in ways that exceed the intentions of the subjects of memory. Acts of memory are also acts of translation across space and time. As with translations across languages, the materials of memory—images, affects, ideas—move between systems of meaning that are already heterogeneous; meaning cannot be stabilized in either the source or target languages, in either the past or the present. Meaning’s ultimate lack of stability does not imply, however, that meanings are not made—in translation as in memory. As the case of Holocaust memory shows, a dominant conception of the events has displaced alternative conceptions, even as that dominant conception is contested and multiple versions persist in the cracks. Turning attention to those marginal memories (without assuming that they are intrinsically valuable based on their marginality) also means preparing the grounds for alternative narrations of history. The pursuit of transnational encounters where the aftermaths of the Holocaust and colonialism come into contact thus also suggests how multidirectional memories can serve as sites for the production of new historical objects. Decolonizing the Holocaust contributes to the emergent field of global studies by illuminating concrete histories and memories that show the European and non-European worlds as already joined in asymmetrical, hybrid sites of struggle and exchange.