Intellectual history

“Never Again Auschwitz” or “Never Again War”? An Interview with Andrew I. Port

By Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

Andrew I. Port is a Professor of History at Wayne State University, the former editor-in-chief of Central European History, and the author of Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic (Cambridge, 2007). His latest book, Never Again: Germans and Genocide after the Holocaust (Harvard/Belknap, 2023), examines how divided postwar Germany mobilized the memory of its National Socialist past as it confronted other genocides abroad. From the mid-1970s, as harrowing reports of mass killings in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda reached Germany, different political factions recognized aspects of their history and drew often-conflicting lessons from it: Germans had to collectively ask whether “Never Again” meant “Never Again Auschwitz,” and thus entailed support for humanitarian military interventions to prevent genocide, or “Never Again War,” proposing “total peace” as the antidote to “total war.” The question was: “Did the Nazi past oblige Germans to take action to prevent atrocities—or compel them to refrain from intervening at all?” (27). Port’s timely book appears amidst debates about the meaning of Holocaust memory in a diversifying Germany, especially regarding historical comparisons, and at a moment when Western states and commentators have compelled Germany to take a stronger stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Port about his new book.


Jonathon Catlin: Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann has argued that “we can first speak of individual human rights as a basic concept (Grundbegriff ), that is, a contested, irreplaceable and consequential concept of global politics, only in the 1990s,” which saw the first “political or military intervention that was justified through human rights” (282, 285). To put this Carl Schmitt- and Reinhart Koselleck-inspired claim more bluntly: concepts only realize their true force when they are used to kill. Your book offers a parallel argument about the notion of “Never Again” in German politics, which similarly begins with the Bosnian genocide in 1995. Can you begin by explaining why the 1990s are such a pivotal period in your narrative?

Andrew Port: The 1990s are so important because they marked the first time since World War II that Germans soldiers participated in combat missions abroad, most famously—or infamously, depending on your point of view—in the Balkans in 1999. Kosovo was in a league of its own, but the Rubicon had already been crossed earlier that decade. German military medics and border guards were sent to Cambodia from 1991 to 1993 following the end of a decade-long, post-genocidal civil war. This was the first major deployment of the Bundeswehr since 1945, as well as its largest “out-of-area” assignment beyond NATO territory up to that point. The deployment to Bosnia in 1995 marked an even greater break involving active participation in noncombat military measures, a novum solemnly and sometimes angrily acknowledged by leading German politicians. Not by chance, these missions involved countries that had recently experienced the scourge of genocide, and they would have been unimaginable before the end of the Cold War.

There were good reasons, to be sure, why unified Germany assumed a more interventionist political, humanitarian, and military role on the world stage at precisely this point in time. Unification was a watershed moment, and the now fully sovereign country had greater room for maneuver. This allowed it to be more self-assertive and more interventionist. That said, German leaders remained committed to the same core principles that had guided the Federal Republic’s foreign policy since its inception: caution and a commitment to working together with others in a multilateral framework. Nevertheless, leading public figures in Germany and abroad began to call for—and the Federal Republic proved willing to assume—greater international responsibility and a more robust role on the world stage.

All of this coincided with the emergence, as you note, of a post–Cold War “liberal consensus” about a duty to defend human rights and use military force to protect civilians. The decade also witnessed an explosion of NGOs dedicated to humanitarian work around the world. Germans who wished to make a difference had greater opportunities to participate in the global maze of transnational networks and connections. That desire, in turn, had a great deal to do with the relationship of many Germans to their country’s past—precisely at a time when most Germans had come to feel deep shame for the extermination of the Jews, and to recall their own suffering and sense of victimhood during the 1940s.

JC: You devote considerable attention to the West German Green Party, formed in 1980, whose changing orientation toward pacifism is particularly striking because of its roots in the dissident student radicalism of the Cold War. In 1995, its leading figure Joschka Fischer called for Germany to offer a “military guarantee” for Bosnian-Muslim safe zones and to use “all means at their disposal” to confront this new “fascism,” or risk a “political and moral failure” like their complicit forebears under National Socialism (3). “For Fischer,” you write, “the primary lesson of National Socialism was ‘Never Again Auschwitz,’” whereas his opponents’ dictate was “Never Again War” (3-4). Was Fischer a unique or exemplary voice in this debate?

AP: Joschka Fischer’s call for a “military guarantee” came after the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. When the true extent of the carnage became known that fall, the future foreign minister upped the ante and called on the international community to adopt a “genocide clause” that would oblige the UN to intervene militarily whenever the threat of genocide arose.

His proposals caused a storm within the party, which reached its climax that December at a major conference in Bremen. As I recount in the Prologue, Fischer’s genocide clause failed to carry the day, but it did receive support from almost 40 percent of the delegates. He and his supporters considered this a victory of sorts, given previously lopsided Green Party votes rejecting the use of military force under any circumstances.

There was certainly considerable support for Fischer’s views within the party leadership and even the leftist press. The situation at the grassroots looked much different, and I know this from the many letters to the editor published at the time, as well as from the stack of protest letters I found in the archives accusing Fischer of “selling out” the party’s pacifist principles for supposedly venal political purposes. All of this foreshadowed the nasty debates between so-called Realos and Fundis that would tear the party apart later that decade, when Fischer, now serving as foreign minister, came out strongly in favor of German military action in Kosovo.

Fischer was a dissenting voice for much of the 1990s, then, but the Greens as a whole gradually moved in his direction. Take the current German foreign minister, Green politician Annalena Baerbock, who commented last year, just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that NATO was the “guarantee for our security and freedom.” That must have come as a shock to her party’s founding generation, which, let’s not forget, had called for the dissolution of the Western military alliance in the 1980s! Fischer and his supporters may have lost the battle in Bremen in 1995, but they eventually won the war.

That said, most Germans—including the Greens—felt and feel ambivalent about the use of military force and especially the deployment of German soldiers. Differences of opinion went straight through all the mainstream parties and their constituencies in the 1990s—and, as one Green parliamentarian commented in 1995 following Srebrenica, “also through many of us” individually (278). And that continues to be the case today.

JC: You also pay close attention to distinct waves of Holocaust memory in the two Germanies. While there was in fact significant attention to Nazi crimes in both East and West Germany in the immediate postwar decades, until the 1970s, it tended to overlook the specific persecution of Jews and to relativize it against the wartime suffering of bombed German cities and expellees from the East. In the first section of your book on Cambodia, you note that the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was driven from power the very same month the miniseries Holocaust, which was watched by nearly half of West Germans, first aired in January 1979. In the West German press, especially on the anticommunist right, analogies abounded between Pol Pot and Hitler and descriptions of the atrocities as “Asia’s Auschwitz” and Holocaust in Cambodia. Beyond this episode becoming “an ideological Cold War cudgel (63), I also see it as illustrating Michael Rothberg’s notion of “multidirectional memory.” Following Croce, it’s clear that aspects of the past always achieve new significance in light of present concerns, but Rothberg goes further in emphasizing the potential for revisiting traumatic histories, in particular, to generate new intersectional solidarities. You seem a bit more circumspect, noting the dangers here as well.

AP: I’m not sure I understand the negative response, in some circles, to Rothberg’s concept of “multidirectional memory.” To suggest that there are potential (scholarly) benefits to “cross-referencing” different types of historical violence strikes me as eminently reasonable—almost banal. But Rothberg’s larger point is a different one: There is no need for an “ugly contest of victimization.” Oppressed groups can learn from the experiences of others, not least to articulate—and cope with—memories of their own painful past. The fear (and danger), as Rothberg realizes, is that this will lead to a relativization of the other group’s experiences, and concerns on that score seem greatest when it comes to the Holocaust. As I have argued elsewhere, these debates are often about inferred intent and supposed subtexts, frequently leading to claims that those who compare the Final Solution to other atrocities do so to diminish Jewish suffering. That is no doubt the case in some instances, but not always and not (necessarily) in the main.

Holocaust comparisons in Germany are particularly instructive in this context. The evocative imagery and jarring language used to describe foreign genocides—stark references to gas and ovens, the use of loaded terms like concentration camp and extermination: All of this contained unmistakable echoes of the past. But to what end? Germans made such allusions to convey their shock in the most effective and damning way available to them: by associating horrific developments abroad with what was commonly considered the worst crime in the history of humanity. Motivations varied. Some hoped to appeal to emotion to compel their government and fellow citizens to act. Foreign genocide could also serve as a cudgel to score points against political adversaries at home. For others, comparison was a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung by proxy, an indirect way to “come to terms” with their country’s dark history through the prism of other genocides.

Did the inflationary invocation of the Final Solution run the risk of “trivializing” the Holocaust? The common use of superlatives to describe foreign atrocities as “unprecedented”—including, by implication, ones committed during the Third Reich—seemed to veer in that direction. There were certainly concerns in Germany, especially on the Left, that frivolous comparisons and the use of loaded terms were reckless and dangerous. But my impression is that there was no exculpatory undercurrent, by and large—at least on a conscious level.

JC: Your epilogue discusses the relevance of this history for Germany’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. You’ve noted that Germany now has a Green Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, a strong supporter of Ukraine in both words and arms, who belongs to generation ’89, not ’68. She and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have rallied Germany against Russia’s war of aggression. At the same time, figures such as Jürgen Habermas have repeatedly opposed military support for Ukraine, arguing that it will prolong the war’s bloodshed; acknowledging his own generation’s fears of another world war, he instead calls for “Besonnenheit” (prudence) and negotiations. Timothy Snyder and others have lambasted the provinciality of Habermas’s stance, which directly relates to his generational German identity and its incumbent taboos. Both sides invoke German historical responsibility—in Habermas’s case, to minimize global conflict, in Snyder’s case, to support Ukraine given Germany’s past brutal occupation of the country. I heard echoes of these debates about Germany “paying” rather than “playing” in your chapter on Germany’s moral duty to militarily intervene to prevent further atrocities in Bosnia, which Germany also invaded during the Second World War, and Rwanda, which had been part of Germany’s East Africa Colony. Could you discuss this ambivalence of historical responsibility?

AP: There was indeed a keen awareness of historical responsibility, but it was a two-edged sword, especially in the debate about “proper” responses to Bosnia. Most striking to me was the fungible quality of that history. Both sides of the debate—those vehemently in support of, and those just as adamantly opposed to, German participation in some sort of humanitarian military mission in the Balkans—drew on the supposed lessons of the past to advance diametrically opposed arguments.

The substance of those lessons remained a matter of spirited dissension. In response to those who believed that German criminality during World War II imposed a “special restraint” on their country, especially in the Balkans, those in favor of some sort of German military participation argued that it was precisely Germany’s past that obliged them not to shirk from such missions. “It is correct that German soldiers were misused in the past by a shameful terrorist regime to break international law and disrupt peace,” one politician argued. “But can that mean that we, as a democratic country dedicated to human rights, offer excuses today by saying we are not prepared to defend international law and secure and serve the cause of peace? That, I believe, is a completely erroneous interpretation of our history” (203).

I should add that the Third Reich was not the only past that mattered. Many focused as well on Germany’s experiences after 1945. For some, Germany now had a “special responsibility”—as a formerly divided nation itself—to oppose the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines. Others, pointing to the support the Federal Republic had received from its allies after 1945, argued that they could not now leave their partners in the lurch if military action were taken there.

The Rwandan genocide elicited a different response, especially when it came to a sense of historical responsibility. Few Germans seemed to be aware that contemporary Rwanda had been a part of German East Africa, the Wilhelmine empire’s largest colony from 1885 to 1919. The focus instead was on Belgian and especially French responsibility. I suspect that the discussion might look different today, as German scholars and the media pay more and more attention to their country’s colonial past—including its past colonial atrocities.

JC: Zooming out a bit, your book seems to harmonize with Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (2021), the publication of which happened to coincide with the U.S.’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of fruitless and destabilizing “forever wars.” This seemed to signal the end of an era of the postwar “liberal consensus” that crystallized in the 1990s regarding support for humanitarian interventionism—that was until less than a year later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought about “the end of ‘the end of history.’” Did the German counterparts of Samantha Power and Barack Obama also get seduced by the false promise of “humane” military intervention? How global is that story?

AP: I’m not sure it’s a global story per se, butsupport for humanitarian intervention in the 1990s was certainly a Western one. My first exposure to that aspect of this story was Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists (2004/2007), which looks at the evolution of French and German politicians like Bernard Kouchner, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Joschka Fischer, from their “radical” student days in the 1960s and 1970s, to their later espousal of “humanitarian intervention” in the 1990s. Berman’s book was a major inspiration for my own work, as was Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002).

But I take issue with the word seduced. Power revisited her earlier “idealism” in a recent memoir, and one might, in hindsight, be critical of those “forever wars.” But my impression is that most who called for some form of humanitarian intervention did so with noble motives. That was certainly the case in Germany in the 1990s. I was repeatedly impressed by the elevated level of discussion on both sides of the issue of humanitarian intervention using force. Proponents and opponents offered compelling arguments, with solemn recognition of the potential consequences of one’s position—and with an eye to the burden of German history.

German politicians and pundits have revisited the very same issues and rehashed many of the same arguments since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though, as I argue in my Epilogue, the Third Reich seems to weigh less heavily in the current debate. In a bizarre twist, Nazi crimes now serve as an admonition for others, for Russia. As one SPD parliamentarian declared last February, right after the invasion began, the “blood toll” paid by the USSR during World War II “compels us” to say to Putin, “Never again war!” That said, sending arms to Ukraine has roiled Germany like no other place in the West, and that in itself shows just how much the country’s conflicted past continues to count.

JC: In recent years, scholars have revisited the formation of the concept of genocide and its creator Raphael Lemkin, and cast doubt upon the efficacy of the concept itself. You write that Lemkin advocated the early German adoption of the Convention by appealing not only to its responsibility for the Holocaust, but also to support issues of national concern, including the expulsion of ethnic Germans from the East and the return of those held captive in the Soviet Union. Later, the designation of genocide in Bosnia clearly functioned as a bright line in favor of intervention. How does your book relate to this broader wave of critical scholarship?

AP: It is easy to criticize the concept of genocide as set forth in the 1948 UN Convention. It resulted from political haggling at the start of the Cold War, and the two emerging superpowers desperately wanted to avoid language that might be used on behalf of certain oppressed groups at home. (That is why, incidentally, the U.S. was one of the initial signers, but did not ratify it until forty years later—and also why Moscow insisted on excluding “political groups” from the official definition.) Until the 1990s and the creation of international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Convention remained a dead letter. It certainly never did much to prevent genocide, even though that task was given pride of place in the document’s very title. In a sense, it was not unlike the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 “outlawing war,” which one American Senator dismissively referred to at the time as an “international kiss”—a nice gesture that failed to stop major wars from erupting the following decade.

What I found especially striking when conducting research for Never Again was how little Germans debated whether developments in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda actually constituted genocide. The question of why such atrocities were taking place preoccupied Germans much more than that issue. At the same time, they focused on parallels to the Holocaust—or, in the case of the East Germans and the Khmer Rouge, on how it had been possible for self-styled communists to have committed such horrendous deeds. There was also very little discussion about the UN Convention and its significance. As you mention, the focus, from the very beginning, was on the potential benefits that might accrue to Germans. The (admittedly inchoate) obligations were a non-issue and remained so for the next four decades, until the early 1990s. The silences on that score likely explain why German leaders invoked the term with such alacrity. There seems to have been little awareness of or concern about the legal implications of its usage. At the very least, policymakers must have suspected it would have no real-world consequences, when no major power was acting to prevent, much less stop, genocide.

My own “criticism” of the term genocide stems from a different issue—one that has little to do with Lemkin or the Convention itself. In popular parlance, also in Germany, there was and is a tendency to equate genocide with Auschwitz and the Final Solution. The term is more elastic than that in international law, but the connotation has become industrialized mass killing. And that is why many instances that could be categorized as genocide are not perceived as such, because they fall short of that awful threshold. Just to take one contemporary example: Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children would certainly fulfill Article II of the Convention. But, as we know, applying the term is no guarantee of action either.

JC: I want to end with a methodological question about ways you try to get at the complex “internal values and beliefs” of Germans regarding their unsavory past. Suggesting that “talk is cheap” (23) and that actions can say much more than “carefully crafted speeches at orchestrated unveilings” (13), you look instead to German strategies of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung in der Tat,” coming to terms with the Nazi past through deeds. You also suggest that German foreign policy was a form of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung by proxy,” a “way to ‘come to terms’ with their country’s dark history in a roundabout manner, through the prism of other genocides” (304). Can you say more about this “indirect, roundabout” method as a way of digging beneath clichés and settled platitudes and achieving a more “unvarnished” view of German Holocaust memory?

AP: One of the most innovative books I read as a graduate student was Hartmut Zwahr’s 1978 study about the formation of working-class identity in nineteenth-century Leipzig. Zwahr meticulously compiled mounds of data about whom working-class parents chose as godparents for their children. He found a remarkable shift over a forty-year period: They increasingly switched from choosing so-called Honoratioren (local dignitaries) to manual workers from their own factories and economic sector to, eventually, manual workers from other factories and economic sectors. Zwahr interpreted this as an indirect indication of growing working-class identity and solidarity. I’m not sure his interpretation was correct—one could explain the shift differently. But the approach inspired me, and it was what I tried to do when I wrote my first book about workers and farmers in the German Democratic Republic. I was interested, among other things, in popular opinion about the communist regime, and, inspired by Zwahr—and knowing full well the mendacious quality of official East German sources—sought similarly indirect indicators of what East Germans had thought au fond.

I took a similar approach when researching and writing Never Again. We have numerous studies about what Germans—primarily elites—have said about the Holocaust, the importance of “atonement,” and the need to ensure such atrocities happen “never again.” We also have wonderful work on monuments, cultural artifacts, and other forms of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. My book certainly looks at what Germans from all walks of life said about their country’s past, when responding to and reflecting on genocide elsewhere in the world. But it is equally interested in how Germans actually acted, in the belief that this offers a, yes, more unvarnished perspective on “memory work.”

That is why I focus so much on what German officials and citizens could and did do short of, say, sending combat troops: providing various forms of humanitarian assistance, welcoming large numbers of refugees to Germany, exerting diplomatic pressure behind the scenes, enforcing economic sanctions, trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. In short, reports of mass atrocities goaded Germans into action. They certainly failed to prevent genocide, but what they did went far beyond high-sounding speeches meant to abjure or atone for past atrocities. That is significant because it reveals a great deal about German values, mentalities, and “lessons learned” after 1945—lessons that should be of interest to Americans and others searching for effective ways to reckon with the more sordid aspects of their country’s past.

Jonathon Catlin is a Fellow in the Berlin Program at Freie Universität Berlin and a PhD Candidate in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is writing a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe. He has contributed to and edited for the JHIBlog since 2016. In the fall of 2023 he will join the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester as a Postdoctoral Fellow. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Nie wieder Krieg! (Never again War!), 1930s, promotional material for the German Peace Society (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft, Bund der Kriegsgegner), by the artist Bruno Rügemer, Würzburg, Germany.