A New German Historians’ Debate? A Conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg (Part II)

By Jonathon Catlin

This is the second installment of Jonathon Catlin’s two-part conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg about recent debates in Germany concerning the history and memory of the Holocaust and colonialism. Part one explored the central issues at stake in the latest debates and their relation to the German Historians’ Debate of the 1980s. Part two engages the relationship of minorities to official Holocaust memory in a diversifying Germany, the role of scholarly positionality, and the relationship between scholarship and activism.

Jonathon Catlin: Michael, you have been working with Yasemin Yildiz on book called “memory citizenship” about German-Turkish and other migrant encounters with Holocaust memory in Germany. You describe a “double-bind”: minorities in Germany are told they must remember the Holocaust in order to become Germans, but also that they cannot remember the Holocaust because it is not their history. The formation of German identity as a nation of guilty perpetrators thereby inherently tends to exclude minorities from becoming “real” Germans.

Scholars working on this issue from an ethnographic perspective, such as you, Sultan, as well as Esra Özyürek and Irit Dekel, have shown how aspects of German Holocaust memory culture, such as discourse and memorials centered on a special German-Jewish or Judeo-Christian bond, often exclude and marginalize people of color in Germany. Some argue that guilt and the accusation of “ontological” antisemitism is “subcontracted” (Özyürek) or “outsourced” (El-Hassan) to those with migrant backgrounds. While some with migrant backgrounds have been charged with being insufficiently empathetic to Holocaust victims, Sultan’s fieldwork suggests that they can relate quite strongly to the history of the Holocaust, but often as victims of contemporary racism and discrimination. I was struck by a line in a forthcoming article of yours, based on field work visiting Auschwitz with a school group, in which you show how Holocaust memory is “universalized” while at the same time those with migrant backgrounds can be excluded from identifying with it. One of the Muslim guides, you write, “internalized an external gaze onto Muslims, as if inadvertently confirming that Muslim difference is incommensurable with the notion of ‘humanity’ proposed for the trip.” At the same time, “The idea of identification with Jews as humans and erasing Jewish difference enabled some ethnic German students to imagine themselves under attack” from racialized notions of Islamist terrorism.

Michael and Dirk have also participated in the online video series “This is Germany,” which pokes fun at the German phrase “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” (people with a migration background) by turning it on its head with the phrase “Menschen mit Nazihintergrund” (people with a Nazi background). Dirk, as you recently put the issue pointedly at the Einstein Forum symposium, the Holocaust memory regime that “had once discursively empowered multiculturalism is now directed against migrants and refugees, especially from the Middle East.” You have also written of the “affective colonization” of Middle Eastern, and specifically Germans of Palestinian origin, whose perspectives seem to be inassimilable. As Sultan has written, “instead of civil courage,” the value ostensibly taught by the civil education programs examined in your fieldwork, many educators of minority backgrounds leading those trainings “learned to self-silence or to talk in whispers and cry behind closed doors, not knowing how to address the generationally transmitted experience of displacement they were feeling.”

Many have noted the lack of diversity in the memory debates with which we began, and in German media and academia generally. Against this tendency, Zoé Samudzi has powerfully stressed historical links between the Nazi period and racial science and colonialism in Africa. Mirjam Brusius has argued that the debate is not about historical comparison as such but rather “about finding more nuance, complicating what we believe we know, and looking for the ways in which other groups of people have used these histories to give force to their own struggles.” It has become clear that Germany has poor vocabulary for discussing “race,” a notion tainted by its role in Nazi thinking. At the same time, I was struck by how Sultan emphasizes the role of religion and the othering of Muslims as evidence of not so much an “incomplete secularization,” but rather the way “religious reason, memory politics, and citizenship are enmeshed in the secular state with far reaching consequences as to who belongs.” To what extent do you see the doubling down on what Michael calls “competitive memory” in recent years as activating older histories of prejudice, versus as a new chapter in addressing the “minority question” in Europe?

Sultan Doughan: Allow me to clarify the dynamics in my fieldwork. I worked with civic education projects primarily funded to combat Islamic extremism. They mobilized Holocaust education and memory to teach tolerance, but they were not based at memorial sites. In fact, they regarded Holocaust memorials as old-fashioned forms of engaging history: frozen, moralizing, and too ritualized. Yet the schools they catered to thought memorial sites, especially former concentration camps, had a certain authenticity. Thus my research took me to Auschwitz and other sites of mass extermination. Most of the educators, social workers, and community organizers I encountered were of Middle Eastern descent, and based on my findings, I can say that individual guilt was not forced onto them. Most of the hard discourse about memory and migration in public is much softer in these domains because you must reach immigrant communities. You cannot punish them if you want them to change. My fieldwork taught me a lot about the delicate nature of this work, and about my own assumptions and prejudices.

Educational practices were rather playful, game-like, and based on role play. The organizations usually emphasized responsibility and agency, while guilt was seen as obstructing a renewed bond with the past. These are civic education projects invested in forging liberal subjects for a demographically changing Germany; hence they emphasized to the students that they were defenders of liberal democracy and that they should regard this as a gift. The students, in contrast, complained that they were discriminated against and that they were victims: “what about us?” or “why always Jews?” were common reactions, which was interpreted as victim-competition, and as potentially antisemitic. On an institutional level, I think there is an extreme anxiety that these new immigrants (actually German-born citizens) could in fact bring back discussions about race and racism, equal rights despite religious and ethnic difference, and a rethinking of secularism, which are basically unfinished debates German-Jews began some two hundred years ago, before their collective claims were disrupted by the Holocaust.

What you quoted from my forthcoming article, “Desiring Memorials: Jews, Muslims and the Human of Citizenship,” deals exactly with that anxiety, which was shared across ethnic and religious backgrounds. For many middle-class people who have undergone German education and socialization, talking about race, racial relations and ethno-religious differences is extremely uncomfortable. I include myself in this. I had to wrap my head around how race was so easily invoked in the U.S. context. In Germany, you downplay differences and try to look for commonalities, or you just practice mimicry and assimilate. At the same time, many things that would be considered racist in the U.S. pass in Germany as an “objective” description of how Muslims, and sometimes Jews, are. And this is a problem, because on the one hand, you cannot describe differences other than through a racializing language and on the other, you have internalized that racism and racialization are strictly Nazi procedures and do not exist.

I have another forthcoming article in which I discuss “postracial pedagogies” in Germany after the Holocaust and how this ultimately turns into a play of seeking out depoliticized sentiments and prejudices such as hate based on the wrong ideology. This becomes particularly complex in educational praxis that centers the figure of the Jew as the historical and categorical victim of racism. The premise here is that Jews are not different at all, but were made different by the Nazis through pseudo-science. As an anthropologist, I would rather ask how Jews were governed with regards to their traditional and religious particularities, because this is where the issue of race emerges. Why should Jews or Muslims resemble Christians or Christian-secularized Germans? Can there be any space for self-determination for minorities in Germany? But this is not the conversation we are having, and I think if this conversation happens at all it should not be about Jews, but about the Christian-secularized gaze and the universality it assumes.

The notion of humanity (Menschheit), as my interlocutors mobilized it for their Auschwitz trip, appealed to a shared commonality of being human, before and outside of betraying ethno-religious differences. But this notion became difficult to maintain, for each new ethno-religious difference that was revealed became provocative, and sometimes purposefully so. The notion of the human centers the figure of the victimized Jew, but it does so by disregarding any potential difference besides the reference “Jewish.” What made the person recognizably Jewish was the experience of the Holocaust and the loss of Jewish communal life. Students encountered a Jewish person as a Holocaust survivor and took from that encounter that she was a normal person, just like anyone else. Certainly, the experience of the Holocaust belongs to survivors and their descendants, but is this the only feature of being Jewish in Germany? So the notion of humanity, and specifically the secular human of German citizenship, mobilizes the figure of the Jew, but in a way that it resembles a Christian-secularized German. This has a lot to do with how Holocaust memory is organized in the Western European public sphere. Although displayed and visible, it conceals the crux of the matter, namely that we are dealing with longer-standing structural issues of religious difference, minoritization, and the crisis of citizenship.

So let me be clear: I do not think that “Muslims are the new Jews.” We are in a very different historical and political time, and yet, the exceptionalism and triumphalism of Holocaust debates in Germany occlude unreflected issues surrounding religious difference and citizenship. The minority question is certainly connected to these debates, because the last two decades have delayed equal collective rights, as they are constitutionally outlined, with the security argument that Muslims are not fit for German secularism and liberalism. The Muslim has emerged as a problem and is being managed. What is new this time around is that neoliberal work on the self, or “Muslim improvement,” as I would call it, has replaced older forms of labor and is funded by youth projects, surveilled by administrative institutions, and amplified through social media. The major difference between now and older racial relations is that German Jews could become liberal subjects, and perhaps that’s why they were so threatening to Christians in Germany. Today’s range of immigrants, I believe, will remain immobile Muslim laboring subjects, not improved enough yet, or with one slight mistake can be disposed of again. So, yes, in my scholarship I address the minority question as one that cannot be asked in Germany.

JC: Another question that often remains unaskable is the role of identities in scholarly debates. Michael, I was struck by the frankness with which you write about your own positionality as a scholar in your 2019 book, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Your family, with a European Jewish background, emigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the last century, such that you are not directly complicit in formal slavery in the U.S., nor were your ancestors directly victimized by the Holocaust. Yet you remain implicated, in separate, though sometimes overlapping ways, by lines of historical domination and victimization, advantage and disadvantage, that continue to bear on the present. Reflecting on your own experience led you to develop a moral theory of “implication” that goes beyond the reductive binary of victim and perpetrator. Dirk, you come from a settler colony, Australia, which in my understanding exhibits more public consciousness of that history of violence than the U.S. You have said that in the German context something about your Australian approach “triggered” what you call “anxieties in Holocaust and genocide studies” about repressed histories of colonialism. Sultan, you have also addressed these issues in both German and American academic contexts for many years. How much room do you allow for positionality in your roles as public intellectuals, especially when speaking to a German audience with evidently little appreciation for histories of colonial violence and of the diversity of non-Zionist Jewish orientations?

Dirk Moses: You are right to note that my hailing from the settler colony of Australia is a key formation for me. Indigenous colleagues and friends played an important role in broadening my horizons. You are also right to point to the limited imaginative capacity of German journalists and even some academics to understand positionality, in part, I think, because they continue to inhabit a revolutionary temporality. Because the Historikerstreit began a moral refoundation of the German republic in a twenty-year period from the mid-1980s, subsequent memory debates are framed in its terms. Thus I am often denounced as a leftwing Nolte despite the absurdity of the moniker. Its memorable battles are restaged although circumstances have changed. Yet the trope is clearly irresistible, as even such a careful and distinguished historian as Sebastian Conrad was denounced as a latter-day Nolte by his colleague Martin Schulze-Wessel for daring to contextualize Holocaust memory in global perspective rather than adhere to it as an article of faith.

SD: Like Michael and Dirk, I am of course implicated in different histories of violence and domination. My father came to Germany in 1961 as a guest worker from Turkey, but he was actually not Turkish-Sunni, but Syrian-Alawi. Although indigenous to the region, my father’s family culturally perished between what is now Turkey and Syria and assimilated into Turkishness. My mother’s family is of central Asian descent and migrated to the Black Sea region, but because they were Sunni and acquired land, they rose successfully into the Turkish middle-class. In Germany, where I was born and grew up, I was just a Turk, of course, and that was both a self-identification and an official insult in my childhood.

During my fieldwork some people refused to work with me or do interviews because they saw me as either too pro- or anti- their work, or either too committed or not committed enough to their worldview. These were perceptions of me, of course, because I never claimed such positions. In hindsight, I can see that I must have made many people uncomfortable with my mere presence in places where they discussed Muslim youth and their antisemitism and extremism—especially because I did not just nod and agree, but asked questions. The most common response was: “Why do you ask that question?” For me this indicated that I should not question the way the world is, that I should not participate, but just observe. In a way this is indicative of the minority position in Germany: you are on the receiving end and disagreement or deviation cannot be accepted as a different position that can coexist, but is often seen as hostile and destructive. German academic spaces were not any different. I think I have no place in German academia. Regardless of my achievements, I have been told I am still not the right kind of German. Shouldn’t this make us all consider where we are with regards to incorporating differences and diverse viewpoints in German institutions? I speak from the position of the scholar in exile, as do many other German women and scholars of color who work on Germany critically but from abroad, where our work is respected and valued. At Clark, I certainly allow my students to develop their scholarly positionality, but I also encourage them to question and rethink set positions. Thinking for yourself can be the most dangerous activism in our times.

Michael Rothberg: I just want to affirm what Sultan has said. I know so many German scholars of color who have left Germany because they can’t bear the everyday racism and because they know that they have little chance of success in the German academy. The U.S. and U.K. have been more welcoming, despite all the serious problems here. I also know scholars of color in Germany and who, with good reason, are afraid to speak about the issues we’re discussing because they worry about the fallout of being perceived as deviating from the “catechism.”

As far as my own self-positioning: I always thought of The Implicated Subject as a kind of “autobiographical” project, but it was only after a colleague urged me to speak about my own position that I decided to include that passage in the introduction. I’m glad I did, and whenever I speak about the book I start from my own implication as a beneficiary of histories of racial violence and colonialism in the Americas.

When we were preparing the interview that opens the German translation of Multidirectional Memory I deliberately decided to speak autobiographically. I naively believed that presenting my Jewish-American “credentials” might ward off some of the accusations of “antisemitism” and “Holocaust relativization” that I knew were a possibility—though I never imaged things would get as bad as they did. I was wrong, as I started to realize when the Spiegel published a picture of me with the caption “Scholar Rothberg: Holocaust memory functions like a zero-sum game”—a complete inversion of my argument. Or when another critic intoned, “Rothberg will not take away German responsibility” (Claudius Seidl)—as if that had anything at all to do with my argument. Although there were many people who welcomed the book—and the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (The Federal Agency for Civic Education) even issued a paperback version of it—there was a surprising inability to grasp the basic arguments. But I think that reception also tells us something important about the current state of discourse on antisemitism and the Holocaust in Germany: not only do “Muslims,” Palestinians, and other people of color continue to be targeted for the kind of disciplining that Sultan describes, but there is no (longer?) hesitancy in targeting Jews and Jewish organizations as “antisemitic” when they challenge aspects of the hegemonic discourse, especially on Israel. So, in the U.S., I think of self-positioning as a way of taking responsibility for my status as an implicated subject, while in the German context I think of it as testing the limits of what is sayable.

JC: As you have all alluded to, academic freedom and freedom of expression in the public sphere in both Germany and the U.S. have become a matter of concern. Dirk writes of a “new illiberalism.” Aleida Assmann proclaimed in the wake of the Mbembe affair that the specter of the accusation of antisemitism is “haunting Germany,” and figures ranging from Peter Schäfer of the Jewish Museum Berlin to German-Palestinian doctor and journalist Nemi El-Hassan have lost their positions in pressure campaigns Micha Brumlik has likened to a McCarthyist witch hunt. As a result, scholars contributing to this debate have felt pressured to remain silent or publish anonymously. Even in the U.S., Princeton University withdrew support for an event on the topic of our exchange here.

You have all taken stances on contentious issues that came with risks to your careers and reputations. When you were at the University of Illinois, Michael, you were an outspoken advocate of Steven Salaita, an Indigenous Studies scholar with a Palestinian background who was fired from a position at that university for political speech critical of Israel and ultimately paid out a remarkable settlement. At that time, you defended the right of scholars “to engage the uneven field of interpretive power” in the public sphere and “to offer counter-narratives,” even unpopular ones, against hegemonic accounts. How do you balance the scholarly and political aspects of that task? To put the question more pointedly to Dirk: your polemical approach in “The German Catechism” has met significant criticism, even among generally sympathetic thinkers. In light of the backlash that ensued, would you still defend the approach you took?

MR: I don’t consider myself a political activist (or at least not a very good one!), but I do think that ideas are political and intellectuals have political responsibilities. What I’ve noticed about myself is that I respond very strongly when I recognize an injustice that is being performed in my name. In the case of Steven Salaita, or again with Achille Mbembe, I felt that prominent actors were speaking in the name of or in defense of Jews—or at least of perceived Jewish interests—in ways that I found disturbing: ways that essentially collapsed the State of Israel with Jewishness as such. That makes me angry, and it makes me want to speak out. Of course, there are lots of things done in my name that I object to—and that’s why, like many people, I’ll go to antiwar demonstrations, or what have you. But in cases like those of Salaita or Mbembe the additional factor is that they also speak to my expertise as a scholar in Jewish studies and Holocaust studies. Not only am I angry, but I feel I have something to say because I know some things about the relevant topics! It was clear to me in the Mbembe case, for instance, that his statements were, among other things, part of the tradition of multidirectional memory I trace in my book and that they had nothing to do with antisemitism or Holocaust relativization. In such moments, the scholarly and the political can overlap, though of course that’s not always the case.

DM: I don’t think my intervention was that polemical; certainly not compared to attacks endured by Mbembe, Michael, and others. If anything, it was written with an “Arendt-inspired tone,” as Dan Stone observed. Amazingly, the mainstream view is that all was well in Germany until I made waves by casting a pebble into its placid pond. That is of course a self-serving and fanciful notion in view of the cases you mentioned. I did not start anything; rather, I simply called out this sort of bullying and proffered an explanation for it: namely, that a fairly small group of opinion-formers in the media, politics, and academia seek to control public narratives about Holocaust commemoration and the country’s security commitment to Israel that they enforce as the country’s Staatsraison. I then showed how each of the catechism’s five articles of faith can be rethought by applying the findings of academic research. None of this made any impact other than provoking indignation. Of course, why would one expect these authorities to admit the abuse of power they wield? Quite predictably, they dug in their heels, blissfully unaware of their blind spots. For instance, in a radio debate with Jürgen Zimmerer in January 2021, the historians Norbert Frei and Sybille Steinbacher in one breath denied the existence of the catechism and in the next asserted that Germans must abide by the Staatsraison, all while equating postcolonial studies and far-right politics. Who can be surprised, then, that the “debate” was marked by serial misquoting to the point of inventing quotations, confirming my observation about the degeneration of public discussion: “the high priests want to conduct it like an inquisition, denouncing heresy and ritually incanting the catechism as a substitute for argumentation.” Yet they have failed profoundly: a huge percentage of Germans are racist against Jews, Muslims, Blacks, and others, while about a third wrongly think their grandparents resisted the Nazis. Neither did their Holocaust education prevent the rise of the AfD. Instead of accepting responsibility for the inability of their pedagogical model to reach Germans, they lash out at critics.

That said, I think the historian Wolfgang Reinhard’s intervention, which seemed to imply that Holocaust memory from the U.S. has been imposed in Germany, is neither accurate nor helpful. His tone and terms are reminiscent of the resistance to Holocaust memorialization in the 1980s and 1990s. He also underplays the important West German activism on the subject analyzed by Jenny Wüstenberg in Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany (2018). As I have written in a number of places, this activism was very important in liberalizing Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem is the perversion of this admirable enegy into coercive state policy over the last fifteen years. That is where the illiberalism lies. It is remarkable that certain colleagues seem to miss this distinction.

I noticed that the political-theological language I used triggered many of those invested in this culture. They may not realize that political theology is a venerable German intellectual tradition, as is the collective psychological approach of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. Together, they supply the analytical tools to account for the intense emotions I explored in my first book. Iris Hefets’s psychoanalytical approach accounts for the failure of reality-checking, and thus of learning processes, in the German public sphere. The psychic defense mechanisms are so entrenched that my little essay was hardly likely to destabilize them. What is remarkable is that it touched a nerve. This sensitivity warrants reflection. Unfortunately, the febrile political culture is deteriorating further as we see in the cases of Nemi El-Hassan and the Dokumenta 15: more heresy trials. Some German colleagues I know are reasonably sanguine about the situation, but they live in villa districts and don’t mix with people like Nemi El-Hassan. Other colleagues, who are Germans of “migration-background,” assured me that the catechism essay expressed what they long said in private company but dare not utter in public for fear of retribution. There you have the enlightened Germany that has mastered its past.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Cracking stelae of the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was completed in 2004 (courtesy of Pexels, creative commons).


A New German Historians’ Debate? A Conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg (Part I)

By Jonathon Catlin

This is the first installment of Jonathon Catlin’s two-part conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg about recent debates in Germany concerning the history and memory of the Holocaust and colonialism. Part one explores the central issues at stake in the latest debates and their relation to the German Historians’ Debate of the 1980s. Part two engages the relationship of minorities to official Holocaust memory in a diversifying Germany, the role of scholarly positionality, and the relationship between scholarship and activism.

In recent years, several U.S.-based scholars have found themselves at the center of fierce public debates in Germany about the history and memory of the Holocaust and its relation to colonialism and other forms of historical violence. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin put three scholars in conversation to explore these debates from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Sultan Doughan, an anthropologist, is the Dr. Thomas Zand Visiting Assistant Professor in Holocaust Pedagogy and Antisemitism Studies at Clark University. Her research on civic education programs for people from migrant backgrounds in contemporary Germany investigates these practices as strategies for incorporation into the secular nation. A. Dirk Moses is the editor of the Journal of Genocide Research and Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In May 2021 he published “The German Catechism,” a critique of aspects of German Holocaust memory culture that set off a new round of debate. Michael Rothberg is Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A German translation of his 2009 book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization appeared last year and been a significant touchstone in ongoing debates. The conversation that follows revisits some themes from Moses and Rothberg’s 2014 exchange on the politics of memory in a transcultural sphere.

Jonathon Catlin: A series of debates about the memory of the Holocaust and colonialism have roiled the German public sphere the past two years. Some have dubbed this the “Historikerstreit 2.0,” a name that suggests a relitigating of the original “historians’ debate” set off by the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte in 1986. This framing has been criticized for a number of reasons. For one, the present debate has been fueled not primarily by historians, but by journalists generating hot takes. The scholars involved have mostly been foreign, with the notable exception of the German historian of Africa Jürgen Zimmerer, who shares many of your positions. Protagonists such as Achille Mbembe—a leading African intellectual whose disinvitation from a German literary festival in April 2020 was a major flashpoint—and you, Michael, are not part of the historical guild, but cultural or political theorists. Gavriel Rosenfeld and Dirk have also noted that several other debates since 1986 have already been dubbed the “second historians’ debate,” among them the Friedländer-Broszat exchange in 1987, the Schneider/Schwerte scandal and reactions to the Wehrmacht exhibition in 1995, the Goldhagen debate in 1996, the Walser-Bubis affair in 1998, and debates about the Berlin Holocaust memorial throughout the 1990s. Yet again, most figures involved have been white and male.

Michael, you have also criticized the parallel to the Historikerstreit because it has been used by representatives of “official” German memory to suggest that scholars such as yourself relativize the Holocaust à la Nolte. On the contrary, you argue, raising the issue of colonialism in discussion of Holocaust memory functions as a call for more responsibility for both crimes, not trivializing either one. Dirk, you opened a new chapter in these debates by arguing that that German Holocaust memory has calcified into a quasi-theological “catechism” that has been wielded against minorities and progressives. Your essay activated longstanding currents of what Theodor Adorno, already in the 1950s, called German “guilt and defensiveness” about the Holocaust, which has now turned into its opposite: what Anson Rabinbach calls Germany’s “negative exceptionalism” about its crimes and pride in its memory culture in recent decades. Already in your first book, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (2007), you refer to such memory debates as exemplifying “manifest enactments of an underlying structure of German political emotions” (5). Susan Neiman began a recent symposium (and forthcoming publication) at which you spoke by suggesting that emotions have run so high because of the context of a “hysterical” liberal reaction to the rise of the far-right AfD: the Bundestag’s 2019 anti-BDS resolution overcompensated for a pro-Israel proposal from the AfD itself.

Let’s begin by situating the latest debates amidst these histories. What are the most salient continuities, repetitions, or ruptures? Did anything in the latest debates surprise you?

Michael Rothberg: I don’t know whether the term “Historikerstreit 2.0” is the right one for the current debates, but I do find the reference back to the 1986 debate illuminating for understanding how much has changed in the last thirty-five years. There have, of course, been countless debates in the German public sphere about National Socialism and the Holocaust. In my opinion, the current controversies share something with the “original” Historikerstreit that controversies such as those over the Wehrmacht exhibit or Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners do not necessarily possess. Both the 1986 debate and the current one turn on a similar problem, even if they naturally cannot be reduced to a single factor: how to conceptualize historical comparison in the context of the Nazi genocide of European Jews. In each case, the point of comparison is different: in 1986 it involved the relation of the Holocaust to the crimes of Stalinism; today the most relevant referent is colonialism, especially German colonialism.

Once we situate the question of comparison at the heart of the two debates we can begin to see how different they are and how different their contexts are. As you note, my argument has been that comparison was deployed in the Historikerstreit, especially by Nolte—but implicitly also by someone like Hillgruber—to minimize German responsibility for the Holocaust. I don’t know anyone on “our side” of the debate today who argues that granting colonialism the attention it is due would minimize German responsibility for the Holocaust. To the contrary, for many of us, it involves multiplying the forms of historical and political responsibility to include colonialism as well as more recent and current forms of racial violence (at a minimum).

That difference is fundamental—and frequently ignored by those who criticize people like Dirk, Jürgen Zimmerer, and me. But recognizing it also encourages us to highlight other differences that separate us from the moment of the Historikerstreit. A generational shift has taken place since the 1980s, from a moment in which the most significant participants had living memories of the Nazi period to one in which almost all of us belong to postwar generations. The debate has also internationalized and the media of debate have changed. Some of the venues are the same as they were in the 1980s—the big German newspapers, FAZ and Die Zeit—but blogs like the Swiss Geschichte der Gegenwart and the Anglophone New Fascism Syllabus, as well as less traditionally prestigious newspapers like the Berliner Zeitung have also driven the debate.

The biggest difference of all, however, concerns the status of the Holocaust as such. The Historikerstreit illustrates just how contested the meaning of the Shoah remained in Germany even forty years after the defeat of National Socialism. But it was precisely the triumph of the Habermasian position—which highlighted the exceptionality of the Holocaust and of German responsibility for it—that became the clear cross-party consensus just a few years later with the end of the Cold War and the need to provide a unifying historical narrative for both a new Germany and a new Europe. With the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 and the completion of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin in 2005, among other developments, a new threshold was reached in Holocaust consciousness and commemoration.

To be clear, I’m not calling for a “forgetting” of the Holocaust in Germany or globally. But what we are seeing in current hostile responses to what I call multidirectional approaches to the Holocaust is a loss of the progressive, critical dimension of Holocaust memory that both Habermas and grassroots memory activists of the 1980s championed. The tasks of the present are different from those of the 1980s; you cannot simply assert the same slogans about the Holocaust’s uniqueness in a moment when the agents and contexts of comparison have changed. In contrast to 1986, today it is anti-comparative approaches that tend toward exculpation.

Dirk Moses: I agree with Michael, and remind readers that I wrote an article in August 2021 arguing that we don’t have a new Historikerstreit but, rather, a crisis of illiberalism. To explain that development, we need to register a dynamic I have called the “Dialectic of Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” in which the state’s appropriation of the critical approach Habermas articulated in the 1980s, which has been contested by conservatives ever since, has transformed its emancipatory effect into its opposite: a censorious culture of political correctness reminiscent of the establishment’s reaction to the Fischer Controversy in the 1960s and New Left in the 1970s. In a presentation at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam in October 2021, I argued that the two decades from 1985 to 2005 witnessed the moral refoundation of the republic. One could even term it a revolution in moral coordinates in which many—though not all—Germans began to identify with the victims of their Nazi grandparents rather than with those grandparents. In doing so, they began to relinquish the national self-pity that characterized national sentiment, namely empathizing with the suffering of one’s “own people.” Now their victims’ suffering moved to the center of identification and emotional connection. I welcomed this development at the time because the denationalization of politics could encourage multiculturalism. However, the opposite has occurred. As I put it in Potsdam: “When black and progressive Jewish voices are disciplined, indeed cast out by non-Jewish German politicians, journalists and even scholars with pompous displays of self-righteousness, I sensed that things had gone awry here. That moral revolution was eating its children.” Now Germany’s vaunted “coming to the terms with the past” seems inimical to multiculturalism as it becomes the vehicle for a new form of postnational nationalism, and as German elites wring their hands about the “imported antisemitism” of Arab refugees and others who disturb the tidy terms of redemptive philosemitism.

Sultan Doughan: I wish I could say that I am surprised by the current debate and how it has generated a new terrain for placing some scholars as friends and others as enemies. The debate seems to me very polarized: “more or less Holocaust memory,” “comparing or not comparing genocides,” “Europe vs. the rest.” There is very little nuance in the debate itself, which is not reflective of actual scholarly debates, at least judging from the viewpoint of the American academy. Michael’s statement on the Habermasian position as the winner of the 1986 debate shows how this is more than a debate among historians and about history. Rather, it is about the normative relation one should have with the Holocaust within a range of modern genocides.

Certainly, the debate of 1986 cemented the public meaning of the Holocaust after the Cold War. The memorial debates in the 1990s, spearheaded by Reinhart Koselleck, were concerned with how to represent victimhood and death, specifically that of Jews vis-a-vis other groups who were victims of the Nazi regime, in memorial practice. What is interesting about that debate is the emergence of certain questions after the Historikerstreit. If the Holocaust is unique, how do you represent death—Jewish death, that of Roma and Sinti, but also death of “homosexuals”? Are they all equal victims of war united by death? Or do you have to represent how they were killed in order to explain how they were governed during and before the Holocaust? These questions underlie past debates about building a Holocaust memorial with the aim of giving space to the victims, and it becomes a problem of how to represent hierarchies of religious, racial, and sexual differences and intersections without reifying Nazi categories. In a way, Koselleck makes a binary argument, claiming that you can either represent the victims or the system. As an anthropologist, I hold that you can show the workings of the system through the lived experiences of the victims. But this is not just a question about representation, it also reveals how descendants of those groups are regarded in society today, what kind of positions they can take, and how they have to speak. So, instead of arguing for more or less Holocaust memory, I would urge us to pay attention to its quality. More Holocaust memory can also mean blurred memory and less specificity, as we are currently experiencing. In fact, I think that we are mistaking performed national memory for Holocaust history. Beyond representation and meaning, I focus on what these debates do, what memorials do. What does exceptionalizing the Holocaust do? What do these discourses bring into motion? How do they inform policies?

My research on citizenship, religious difference, and migration grows out of the debates and developments of the early 2000s that Michael laid out, but there is an additional layer to my work: “the war on terror.” Securitization discourse has shifted former immigrant groups, specifically Middle Easterners, from the category of the Auslander to Muslim. This shift came at a time of civic and legal equality for Middle Eastern migrants, who had just been greeted into Germany as a nation of immigrants. Within ten years of liberalizing citizenship for non-Europeans, I observed how a new integration policy targeted these former labor migrants and refugees as Muslims, and with that as potential Islamic extremists and antisemites. And I actually regard these integration policies and the hyper-vigilance that came with it as part of liberalism.

Holocaust memory became a moral compass in this time. Many of my interlocutors, mostly civic educators and social workers, did not have any issue with learning or teaching Holocaust memory. Quite the opposite, they often found the question of religious and ethnic difference buried in it, or the experience of being a refugee, or the question of Palestine. They would regard Holocaust history as opening up a world and a language for their own experiences. But as you know, this in itself can become a problem in Germany, if you regard the Holocaust as a nodal point of histories and political structures, rather than the unique exception of modernity. This is perhaps already an element of multidirectionality—not on the epistemological level Michael describes, but rather as a lived reality for many immigrants. In a sense, what Michael is demanding publicly is already experienced but not verbalized openly. To say this publicly would cause social death, especially if you are a person of color and visibly Muslim. Certain accusations with regards to the Holocaust and antisemitism can force people out of their jobs, socially isolate them, or revoke their funding, etc. and have their colleagues dissociate from them as if they had never known one another. The consequences are real and painful, as I know from some of my interlocutors, because there is no space for reconciliation or clarification.

JC: Dirk, you have been called a “Gleichmacher”—an equater or relativizer with respect to the Holocaust. This accusation paints you as violating the German taboo about challenging the Holocaust’s uniqueness, which you argued in “The German Catechism” is an essentially theological claim, not a social-scientific one. You argued in response that Vergleichung, comparison, is not Gleichsetzung, conflation, and that we historians “trade in complexity and not in binaries or simplicity.” “Where journalists and politicians see historical facts,” you said, “we see contingent interpretations.” Indeed, many of the “intertwined” histories of colonialism and genocide, including the Holocaust, that you’ve worked on were already accepted by the Anglophone historiographical consensus in the early 2000s. One can follow this comparative approach through dozens of articles, volumes, and issues of The Journal of Genocide Research since you became its editor in 2011. Recent debates, then, are not really about new facts or even interpretations. Similarly, Michael’s book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, from 2009, was only just translated into German; and it did not invent new comparisons, but gives a history of decades of comparisons undertaken by mostly Black and Jewish thinkers since the Second World War. How do you explain these divergences and temporal lags between historical understanding and public memory?

Michael Rothberg: To address the politics of comparison generally, beyond the German case—and also Sultan’s earlier comment on “lived multidirectionality”—I would say that sometimes public memory and activist discourse run ahead of scholarship as well. One of the most remarkable discoveries I made when working on Multidirectional Memory was the prevalence of connections made between the Holocaust and the October 17, 1961 police massacre in Paris of peacefully demonstrating Algerians. Right from the moment of the event, observers on the left saw disturbing echoes of the Nazi period in the rounding up, detention, torture, and massacre of Algerians. It was only decades later that it was revealed that the man responsible for the events of 1961—Paris police chief Maurice Papon—was also responsible for the deportation of Jews to Nazi camps under the Vichy regime; activists were ahead of historical research in this case. And, in general, it was only activists, writers, and non-professional historians who kept the memory of the October 17 massacre alive when it was being largely ignored by both scholarship and the state. So, like Sultan, I believe that multidirectional connections often exist at the everyday level long before they are granted recognition or legitimacy by the historical guild.

Dirk Moses: I began the Catechism piece by observing that we scholars had been discussing these issues for over twenty years—and were in effect reprising debates Michael and others honor from the 1950s. In my latest book, The Problems of Genocide, I show how they can be traced to the late 1930 and 1940s. Commentators have always understood Nazism as a form of violent expansionism that imported and radicalized modes of colonial rule and destruction into Europe. The current debate makes clear that the scholarly and public spheres operate according to different rules because they have contrasting purposes. The scholarly sphere is driven by innovation, the public sphere by stability, because it constitutes a site of collective identity formation. German president Steinmeier said words to this effect in his speech opening the Humboldt Forum. Unlike other commentators, he respected rather than disdained academic work, but insisted on the significance of the political domain. I don’t dispute that, and I welcomed Jürgen Habermas’s intervention, which Steinmeier effectively endorsed by suggesting that public memory was not “frozen” and needed to account for migrants’ experiences.

JC: Let’s address Habermas’s evolving position directly. He was the central figure on the liberal side of the 1980s Historikerstreit, and in September 2021 he also weighed in on the latest debate. In the 1980s, he exemplified what Dirk has called “the non-German German,” opposing revisionist, conservative positions such as that of Nolte, and advocated German acceptance of singular guilt for Nazi crimes. In his recent short essay, Habermas reiterated the centrality of the Holocaust to postwar German memory and identity, but he also admitted that the hard-won “catechism” no longer reflects the changing composition of German society, in which upwards of a quarter of the population now has a migration background and the first Black German woman recently entered the Bundestag. Memory, he suggested, should not remain a frozen catechism but must evolve and expand with the diversifying body politic to include other historical traumas such as colonialism, racial violence, and migration. Dirk has already noted how a similar position was recently articulated by President Steinmeier, such that one could even say the correct interpretation of official Holocaust memory is multidirectional memory! On the other hand, figures such as the U.S.-Israeli scholar Omri Boehm have argued that Habermas’s resigned liberal politics of communicative rationality has betrayed itself on issues like his silence about human rights abuses and violations of international law in Israel. Were you surprised that Habermas revised his position? Does he still have insights to contribute on this issue?

MR: I really welcomed Habermas’s intervention, and I was also impressed by Steinmeier’s speech at the opening of the Humboldt Forum (though I liked Chimamanda Adichie’s speech even more). Habermas seemed to “get it”—to realize that we are not still fighting the 1986 Historikerstreit; he understands that different things are at stake and that Germany today is a different country (not that it wasn’t already “postmigrant” in the 1980s, however). A new memory culture is to be welcomed—and does not have to necessitate the erasure of the gains that were made through grassroots and public sphere struggles in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, it was then disappointing to find Habermas’s same short essay appended to a new volume collecting journalistic pieces by Saul Friedländer, Norbert Frei, Sybille Steinbacher, and Dan Diner about these debates. While these are all scholars I admire enormously and who have made untold contributions to our understanding of the Holocaust, their contributions to this volume display precisely the rigidity and dogmatism the three of us are responding to. They are not in touch with—and don’t even seem to acknowledge—the demographic and cultural changes in Germany in recent decades or the ways that the hard-won liberal discourse of Holocaust memory has begun to have illiberal effects in the public sphere, as a whole host of examples illustrate.

JC: At least one important part of the academic historical consensus does seem to have changed. As Michael notes, leading historians have advanced paradigms for understanding the Holocaust as a singularly “fundamental” crime (Saul Friedländer), as “incongruous” (Götz Aly), or as a “civilizational rupture” (Dan Diner)—now hegemonic approaches that are canonized in the new volume with a foreword by Habermas. Lately, however, these frameworks have been challenged as particular ways of narrating the Holocaust from a Germanocentric standpoint. As the German-Jewish intellectual Micha Brumlik put it, if the by now well-established historical understanding of colonialism as not a barbaric exception but an essential part of Europe’s “civilizing mission” is true, then “‘Auschwitz’, in all its singularity, must be seen as the climax of a trend that began long before—at the latest with the expansion of Europe towards Africa and the Americas.” To what extent do “multidirectional” and “entangled” approaches still allow for retaining the special place of the Holocaust in German history and memory?

DM: Brumlik made that concession in a regrettably querulous discussion of my essays, although without having read my book, which makes precisely that argument about the Holocaust being a climax of a trend. You can see him losing faith in Diner’s “civilizational rupture” argument as he finally contemplates all the mass crimes committed in western civilization’s name that academic scholarship has laid bare. Of course, the descendants of those victims have been telling their stories all along, but few in Germany are interested in hearing them because they believe that the answer to the Nazi past is returning the country to the fold of western civilization. As a result, liberal elites such as the contributors to that new book berate younger and non-white scholars and attack postcolonial studies and Black Lives Matter because they undermine this “answer” to the Nazi past. They are finally prepared to acknowledge, say, the Imperial German genocide of the Herero and Nama people, but only if it’s seen as categorically different—i.e., subordinate to—the Holocaust. I covered these debates already twenty years ago. To be clear, I think Holocaust commemoration should retain its central place in Germany, but not in its current partisan form that is implicated in an illiberal political culture characterized by taboos, inquisitions, and denunciations directed against migrants and progressive Jews.

MR: I agree with Dirk about the parochial or provincial nature of the German insistence on a “unique” civilizational rupture, but I do also think there’s a real issue here—one that is related to Sultan’s point about the “quality” of the memory at stake and about the risks of blurring different histories. One frustrating aspect of these debates is how often we seem to be speaking past each other, perhaps because we’re operating at different levels of abstraction and addressing different phenomena (history vs. memory, for example). There is a place for large-scale arguments of the sort that Dirk makes in The Problems of Genocide that allow us to see long-term patterns and discourses; and then there’s also a need to zoom in on the particularities of different histories. The Holocaust has crucial aspects that are particular to it; so does the transatlantic slave trade and the genocide of indigenous peoples in settler colonies. Since my focus is the memory of political violence rather than the history of political violence, the questions that seem most urgent to me concern the ethics of comparison, which we need to take into account in the evaluation of memory cultures. In a follow up to Multidirectional Memory called “From Gaza to Warsaw,” I map out different versions of multidirectionality and make an ethical and political case for what I call “differentiated solidarity”: the ability to create transcultural links without erasing distinctions, which I see in a text like Du Bois’s “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto.” That’s the ultimate direction of the normative project of multidirectional memory.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Cracking stelae of the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was completed in 2004 (courtesy of Pexels, creative commons).


University at the Crossroad: An Interview with Emily Levine

Emily J. Levine is Associate Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. She received her PhD in History and the Humanities at Stanford and her BA from Yale, where she later returned as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is the author of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which was awarded the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize by the American Historical Association, and Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, which was published in September 2021 by the University of Chicago Press. Levine has published in The New York Times, the LA Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as in such top scholarly journals as the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History.

Ariel Yingqi Tang spoke with her about her new book, which is the first history of the ascent of American higher education told through the lens of German-American exchange. In the book Levine offers a framework she calls the academic social contract to describe the changing relationship between the university and society, including its many different contracting partners in Germany and America. She argues that we must understand the history of the university in order to envision its future, especially when it comes to what its purpose is and whom it serves.

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Ariel Yingqi Tang: In attempts to articulate future orientations of the university, historians of education and academic reformers often turn to the medieval university and the first modern research university, the University of Berlin, as sources of inspiration. However, your book tells us that the idea of the university is an evolving concept, animated by its founding ideals as well as the series of institutional adaptations in subsequent eras. The process of “negotiating space for academic autonomy” is captured by what you called “the academic social contract” (252). What are the parties involved in this contract, and what does it entail for them each?

Emily J. Levine: First of all, thank you for this invitation and this excellent first question. Allies and Rivals tells the story of the university as a history of compromises iterated over time by cultural brokers, in which they reconciled aspects of the university ideal with broader social needs and political stakeholders. This is what I call the “academic social contract,” and it entails that universities receive patronage and a great deal of autonomy in exchange for providing services to that society. It is usually a tacit agreement between universities and their patrons about the purposes of higher education, involving questions such as who should pay for it and why. My argument is that this formulation makes the modern research university distinct from its antecedents and a building block for the modern nation state.

As such, it must begin with the University of Berlin, which was established in 1810 as an institution with the dual tasks of knowledge creation and dissemination (that is, research and teaching). Here scholars were free to pursue Wissenschaft, or scholarly research, in exchange for training a new civil service and an army that would serve the needs of the state and the aspirations towards nationhood.

I would add further that if the academic social contract is constant, the partners of it evolve with time. As the society that the university served evolved, the university co-evolved into such forms as the central state university in Berlin, the land-grant university in California, and the privately funded urban university in Baltimore, and each time, the academic social contract was reconstituted. The premise is that once an academic social contract was exhausted, academic entrepreneurs rushed in to find new partners, formulate new ideas, and establish new institutions—sometimes even outside the university.

YT: Despite the embeddedness of modern research institutions in specific social and political contexts, the university still seems to uphold certain aspirations operating independently of the shifting historical landscape. As you articulate in the book, “Germans’ and Americans’ scholarly codependence persisted despite—and because of—their political rivalry” (77). We also learn that institutions including Black Mountain College and the Institute for Advanced Study provided refuge for itinerant scholars who would have otherwise lacked an intellectual home. Unlike transnational corporations or political parties, the university seems to be negotiating with the state and the society on its own terms. What are the unique features that distinguish the university from other types of transnational networks and intermediary organizations?   

EJL: This is another thought-provoking question. Universities have long stood at the crossing of nations and the wider world. Even as universities served the nation, they promoted the exchange of ideas and the free movement of scholars and students. In a lecture titled “Science Goes Global” that Lorraine Daston delivered recently at the National Humanities Center, she described the origins and emergence of what we now call the “global scientific community,” which I think provides a counterpoint to my story and helps me to answer your question. Daston explained how institutions such as the International Astro-photographic Congress in Paris or the International Meteorological Committee developed, following the University Postal Service founded in 1874, and created a template for what she called “internationalism without nations.” This was not the case for universities, which remained indebted to their nation-states, despite their participation in a cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. If universities were exclusively global, they could rebuff political pressure at any time. But for better and worse, the terms of the academic social contract tied them to the states, nations, and societies that supported them, even as they remained conduits for our shared humanity.

YT: The title of the book “Allies and Rivals”—instead of “allies or rivals”—is as captivating as it is provocative. Besides capturing the entanglements between the university and the state as well as the competitive emulation between German and American academic institutions, it also seems to hint at the ambivalent fruits of international knowledge exchange and the twin faces of internationalism in general. “Two very different streams flowed through the conduits of international exchange. The first circulated the values of international peace and the universal pursuit of science,” you wrote, whereas “the second fomented racist, nativist, and eugenicist ideas and politics”(207). Far from being synonymous with a vehicle for mutual understanding, the translation of ideas across political contexts risks spreading peace and prejudice alike. Do you think this is an inevitable danger or an unfortunate anomaly? 

EJL: The quotation that you cite comes from the penultimate chapter of the book, which details how Hitler took only three months to co-opt the German universities, previously the premier universities in the world, and to use them as a tool for his racial war. German historians have long debated whether or not Hitler and Nazi Germany was the logical conclusion of 19th-century mass politics or an aberration from it. Insofar as the university is a constitutive feature of the nation, the story of Hitler’s coordination or Gleichschaltung of the universities contributes to that debate. I think the takeaway from that moment is that rather than a rupture, the Nazification of the German universities highlights the malleability of the preexisting relationship—that is, the academic social contract. If anything, Hitler’s regime exposed how vulnerable the university was to deployment in the services of goals that most academics today find repugnant.

YT: The book elucidates the ongoing debates about higher education in numerous ways. One example is your illuminating account of the mistranslation of “academic freedom” from the German context to the U.S. While “academic freedom was from its inception a freedom from rather than a freedom to,” you suggested that it is not to be taken for granted as an unconditional right, as “the precious freedom enjoyed by the Ordinariat in Germany was connected to their role as civil servants” (169). To what extent shall we expect this condition to apply to our understanding of academic freedom today?

EJL: We see the repercussions, in the last months, of the origins and mistranslation of academic freedom in America. But let me clarify my argument here. The American version distorted the German concept, which viewed academic freedom as part of an academic social contract. The German model recognized that the university occupied a negotiated space between two worlds—the ideal and the economic and political. In America, academic freedom did not require that service to the political order as it had in Germany, which in many ways was a positive thing. But the American version also ignored the fact that in Germany, the academic freedom worked and was needed because there was more freedom inside the university than in the wider political culture. The philosopher Immanuel Kant captured this German compromise succinctly with his famous words—“Argue as much as you please, but obey!” The American version, in contrast, had one goal—to permit tenured faculty to express controversial views without fear of dismissal. They were successful in creating a vision for academic freedom, as a freedom from rather than a freedom to, defined as negative rather than positive liberty, to use Isaiah Berlin’s term. But this has mistakenly elided academic freedom with civil liberties in the US. As I have written elsewhere, it has decoupled academic freedom from its original social contract, effectively freeing academics from any responsibility to society or citizenship, or at least certainly not making that responsibility an essential feature of that exchange. This is surely not to diminish the many challenges we face structurally in the university, but I would like to see academics talking about not just what we are owed, but also what we owe society.

YT: In the past twenty years, we have seen the rise and retreat of universities with global campuses, a novel institutional setup for higher education. Yet both in the success cases such as Bard College Berlin and the abortive experiments of Bard College in Satin Petersburg and Yale-NUS, the two enduring forces in the academic contract—state and capital—seem to assume an overpowering status, sometimes eclipsing completely the vision of the university educators. Can we claim that an academic social contract is fraying in these circumstances? On what grounds can the university reassert itself in the negotiation, or is it time to sign the academic social contract anew? 

EJL: That is a great connection to make, and I think the crucial word here in your question is “an”—an academic social contract, or the previous one, is indeed fraying. But since these contracts are usually tacit agreements, that makes them vulnerable to manipulation, as the Hitler example revealed. The book also shows how the breakdown of a contract creates the conditions for a new one to emerge. In the case of the closing of global campuses, we are beginning to see them flow to more free societies, which leads the universities to bring their benefits to other communities that wish to host them. As with the Central European University, for example, where nationalism threatened their project, one could say that the institutional leaders used their globalism and their cosmopolitanism, which were under attack, to their advantage and emigrated to Vienna, which will now benefit from that institution. The point, again, is that the academic social contract is not a fixed or a singular concept, but an evolving one.

And I might add that there is also no necessary progress—history does not follow a logical pattern, and institutional change certainly does not either. Change can be for better or worse. In that vein, it is certainly possible that we have seen the fruits of some of the best academic social contracts, for example, at the end of the last 19th century or in the immediate post-World-War-Two era, and that these simply will not be replicable in the future.

YT: Much evidence in the book has been convincingly drawn from archival research conducted on both sides of the Atlantic, which involves an impressive combination of institutional archives and personal papers. Can you tell us why you selected the archives that you did?

EJL: Certainly, this is a historians’ favorite question! I originally set out to research extra-university institutions in the 1920s, the period about which I wrote my first book, Dreamland of Humanists. I entered the Prussian archives in 2012 for what I thought would be some brief background, but I became engrossed in a lesser-known aspect of the university’s origins. The traditional story, as you know well, is that Americans went to Germany and “imported” the modern research university to America. But this does not hold up to the archives. In the archives, we learn about Germans who were traveling to America as early as the last quarter of the 19th century, eager to learn about American innovations in higher education, including co-education, philanthropy for scholarship, and the urban campus. I became persuaded that bi-directional transatlantic exchange spins the motor of intellectual, institutional, and political history, and I wanted to use the bi-directional exchange among the individuals whose stories I found in the archives to tell that narrative about the belated empires, Germany and America.

Therefore, my criteria for archival selection became the academic entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic who visited one another’s institutions, exchanged ideas about how to organize ideas, and made decisions about what innovations to adopt and integrate, inevitably with different outcomes. The result is a story that not only tells us something about the ascent of Germany and America at the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, but also shares more universal lessons about how ideas spread and how innovation occurs, namely through that two-way exchange.

YT: I find it fascinating that the grand narratives that you have constructed about transatlantic history does not obscure the agency of individual actors.

EJL: Not only are they not obscured, they are absolutely essential. Individuals pull the levers of change, which is the source of the institutional evolution.

YT: You wrote this book from the standpoint of an intellectual historian, but also from the perspectives of a university citizen and educator of future educators. I wonder—in what ways has the writing of this book been informed by your experience in the university? Does the thesis of the book renew your self-understanding as an educator?

EJL: Great question. I have spent time as a student, educator, and scholar at both private and public institutions in America as well as institutions abroad, mostly in Germany. I have always been attuned to how it was that specific times and places became conducive to robust intellectual life while other places remained off the map. Subsequently, I gravitated to stories about clusters of individuals and networks that illustrate how intellectual life takes shape and how it is that institutions create the conditions of possibility—to use a Kantian formulation of intellectual history—for certain kinds of scholarship and academic social contracts. Having now published the book, I think I am increasingly self-aware of our role and implication in those contracts as scholars and educators. I am devoted to fostering conversations about this, as I am at Stanford now with colleagues Mitchell Stevens and Caroline Winterer through our Stanford funded grant, “Recovering the University as a Public Good.” I am particularly invested in how we, as scholars, might turn the tools of historicism on our own institutions and take a more critical look at the ideas about higher education that often go unquestioned.

YT: Central to the early endeavors of the academic entrepreneurs who founded the modern research university was the idea of Bildung, which could be translated as self-cultivation, “a uniquely German concept that combined individual intellectual and moral betterment” (17). It is surprising to see how a seemingly peculiar concept born out of the German tradition came to blossom in a foreign land. To what degree is it still worthwhile to revisit the notion of Bildung in our contemporary discourse about education? 

EJL: You saved the hardest question for last. In many ways, Bildung is the overlooked child in the history of the university, in which scholarly research or Wissenschaft is continuously prioritized over an education of self-betterment in the evolution of the institution, which I think brings us back to where we began our conversation. Why is it that Wilhelm von Humboldt and Daniel Coit Gilman thought that uniting research and teaching under one roof made sense? Almost as soon as that institution was founded, there were cries that it was both entrenched and insufficient, a contradiction that persists today. By combining research and teaching under one roof, educators have ensured that these two very distinct value systems associated with research and teaching are awkwardly conjoined. The vertical value system of research supports lavishing the most resources on the best and the brightest, justified by the goals of advancing the frontiers of knowledge. At the same time, the horizontal value system of teaching and Bildung, or self-cultivation, encourages the democratic and personal uplift of everyone. The inefficiency of this duality has led to the undervaluing and under-supporting of the other half of the house, as Molly Worthen and Jon Zimmerman have recently written. But Bildung is linked to the project of teaching insofar as we as educators are invested in encouraging our students on a path of self-fulfillment, self-betterment, and what philosophers have called the good life. At Stanford, we are investing in reprioritizing the role of Bildung in undergraduate education. Supported by the Cornerstone Grant from the Teagle Foundation, we are redesigning the first-year course along these lines. I hope that it will be a model for other universities to emulate.

Ariel Yingqi Tang is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. Her dissertation “The Apprenticeship of Selfhood: Bildung and the Politics of Education” examines the entangled history of liberal education and liberalism during the Enlightenment and beyond.

Featured Image: University of Berlin, sometime between 1890 and 1900. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Race, Rights, and Reform: An Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan

Sarah C. Dunstan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary University of London and will be taking up a position as Lecturer in the International History of Modern Human Rights at the University of Glasgow in early 2022. She has published on questions of French empire and race in the Journal of Contemporary History, and on race, gender, and international thought in Gender & History, and Modern Intellectual History. Further research exploring the relationship between decolonization and language in the French and British imperial contexts, and making the case for thinking through historical iterations of Black internationalism and Pan-Africanism in relation to space and place, is forthcoming shortly in the Journal of Modern History and the Journal of the History of Ideas respectively. She is also a co-editor of the anthology of Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon, forthcoming in early 2022 with Cambridge University Press. For her current fellowship, she is writing a monograph that maps out how philosophical and cultural understandings of what it meant to be human were deployed in the mid-twentieth century to craft legal frameworks at the level of the international and the national.

Editor Anne Schult spoke with her about her first scholarly monograph, Race, Rights and Reform: Black Activism in the French Empire and the United States from World War I to the Cold War (out now with Cambridge University Press), which explores how Black scholars and activists grappled with the connections between culture, race and citizenship and access to rights, mapping African American and Francophone black intellectual collaborations from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to the March on Washington in 1963.

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Anne Schult: Your book is titled Race, Rights and Reform, and you describe republican citizenship, which weaves together these three concerns listed explicitly in the title as the shared central concept for Black political thinkers across the United States and the French empire. Despite intellectual flirtations with interwar internationalist endeavors as symbolized by the League of Nations or the Comintern, you argue that the national frame ultimately proved decisive for mid-20th-century Black liberation thought and was indeed constitutive of the Franco-American intellectual relationship you trace. How did this concept of citizenship allow the protagonists in your book to negotiate between national and imperial concerns, between American and European experiences, and beyond the linguistic specificities of French and English to find common ground? And what role did the notion of diaspora play vis-á-vis this republican ideal?

Sarah C. Dunstan: These are big questions, and certainly ones that get at the heart of what I was trying to achieve with the book. I’ll try to briefly gesture towards how I understand them. I would like to begin by clarifying the argument about the decisiveness of the national frame in this period. For quite a few of the figures I study in the book—scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and activists such as George Padmore—there is a very genuine commitment to internationalist or transnational organizing. Often involvement in such organizing ran in tandem with their efforts to create change in local and national spheres. Retrospectively, they seem to have had the most tangible success on a national basis, but the internationalist nature of their thinking should nevertheless not be underestimated. This is especially true for those within the French empire, like Léopold Sédar Senghor, who believed in the possibility of crafting forms of republicanism and citizenship that would allow self-determination without state sovereignty until French reluctance to commit to the true federations of its empire ultimately forced him into a situation where national independence was the best route for decolonization. It is easy to look back now and think that this might always have been the natural ending, but it did not necessarily look that way for the thinkers at the time.

As in any context, there is a gap between how people experience citizenship and how they think it ought to be. In the case of many of the activists I look at, they sought to leverage the difference between the promises of republican citizenship embedded in the legal frameworks of their respective nations, and their reality of disenfranchisement. You can see this, for example, in the figure of René Maran. The preface to his Prix Goncourt-winning book, Batouala, is a damning critique of French colonial practices in French Equatorial Africa. Many within the French colonial administration saw this as an attempt to stir up revolution in the colonies. Maran, who had himself worked in the French colonial administration in the Ubangi-Shari, instead saw this as an act of civic republicanism. He saw himself as exercizing the duties of a French citizen, by bearing witness to those failing to adhere to the founding principles of the French Republic. As such, in writing the preface, he was affirming the value of a true French Republicanism. In many ways, there is a similar dynamic often at play for Black activists based in the United States. As James Baldwin put it some thirty or so years after Maran, the American democracy had the potential for equal citizenship built in if only African Americans could successfully “make the machinery work for our benefit.”[1]

Insofar as diasporic solidarity is concerned, this is a term that could be said to encompass both the radical Pan-Africanism of the British West Indian activist George Padmore and the more conservative cosmopolitanism of the first African American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke, the imperial loyalties of the Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne and the reflective humanism of the Martinican sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal. For some, organizing along diasporic lines was about the opportunity to pool resources and share ideas. Du Bois’ Pan-African Congresses, for example, were about the assertion of a Black fitness for Western civilization, and of their worthiness for citizenship within their respective countries. Internationalist and diasporic organizing, in that case, went hand in hand with pushing for nationally-framed justice. Specifically, African American activists tended to invoke the so-called “colorblindness” of France in an effort to put pressure on the United States to act similarly. Leveraging such political myths could also be detrimental for activists of color operating within the French empire who were all too aware of the racism of the French imperial project, even as it operated in different ways. For others, forging bonds of diasporic solidarity was about a genuine commitment to overturning the world order as it then existed. Someone like George Padmore was less willing than Baldwin to believe that the ‘machinery’ built into existing nations was ever going to work for people of color, or for the working classes.

AS: In tracing intersections and interlocutions between African American and Francophone Black intellectuals, activists, and politicians, your work proceeds in a largely chronological fashion from the direct aftermath of the First World War up until the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. One advantage of this periodization across the two world wars, you posit in the book, is that it conjoins usually disparate historiographical threads that tended to focus on postwar Black thought in the shadow of either the Cold War (in the American case) or decolonization (in the French case) by revealing their common origin. Yet beyond the obvious reference point of the Wilsonian Moment, why do the 1920s constitute the starting point for your analysis? What changed for Black thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic at this particular moment in time, and does your analysis reveal any echoes of or continuities with an earlier Franco-American dialogue?

SCD: I do think that the First World War was a moment of great change for European empire and for world order. This is true not just in terms of the literal re-drawing of the world map at the Paris Peace treaties, but also in terms of the sweeping cultural change that came in the aftermath of the trauma of the War. These are, of course, interconnected phenomena. Specifically for Franco-American dialogue, the experience of African American soldiers in France during the War kickstarted a particular dialogue about the “colorblindness” of the French relative to the United States. As I show in the first chapter of the book, this was both a grassroots phenomenon and something that US military personnel and government officials were painfully aware of as a potential “problem” for the US image as representative of democratic virtues. This was, of course, not necessarily reflective of the reality of the experiences of people of color residing in the French empire, and in mainland France more specifically, but it did cement Black American interest in France as a working republican state. This interest was certainly not unreciprocated, as my book shows, and a large number of Black internationalist organizations emerged in this period. In part, this is connected by the upswell of Black and colonial populations passing through France in the interwar era, a considerably larger number than had lived there prior to the War. So, whilst African Americans had been coming to France since at least the end of the 19th century, and, indeed, anti-racist organizing along African diasporic lines certainly predated the War, this post- First World War moment was quite distinct from what came before.  

AS: From the Paris Peace Conference and the Pan-African Congresses to the Congresses of Black Writers and Artists: part of the intellectual corpus you examine resulted from organized meetings in which African American and Francophone Black thinkers encountered one another face-to-face, even if only temporarily, in a metropolitan setting. Focusing on interwar Paris, Michael Goebel emphasized this kind of urban co-mingling as crucial for the development of a transnational sense of anti-colonial ideology in his 2015 book Anti-Imperial Metropolis. In a recent talk at Queen Mary, you similarly suggested the importance of such urban encounters and shared experiences for the development of 20th-century Black internationalism. How crucial would you say intellectuals’ direct confrontation with urban city sites—in the US and Europe, but also in West Africa and the Antilles—was for the intellectual developments you trace in the book? Beyond evoking similar experiences of urbanity, might specific local conditions have also accounted for idiosyncrasies in thought and held the potential for disagreement?

SCD: Absolutely crucial. These urban sites of encounters were so key to shaping Black internationalism, and were in turn certainly shaped by it. Although this is not an analysis I lean heavily into with this book, the research I did has turned this question into a preoccupation of mine since. Indeed, the talk you reference is now an article coming out with the Journal of the History of Ideas (82.4). Perhaps self-evidently key sites of Black internationalism—like Harlem, Paris, London, Algiers, Dakar and Fort-de-France—were sites of residence, crossroads where peoples of different cultures pushed up against each other and shared ideas. They were also locations in which notions of Black group consciousness came to be physically and psychologically enacted in different ways, often through experiences of discrimination and segregation. Race had multiple and co-existing definitions in all of these locations that are significant to reconstructing the dynamics of Black internationalisms. As such, these 20th-century cityscapes became both symbolic vehicles for constructing visions of Blackness and African belonging, and mechanisms for their conscious and unconscious development. There has been some truly excellent work produced on these individual cities as sites of Black internationalism and anti-imperialism. You mentioned Goebel’s excellent book, but there’s also Jennifer Boittin’s Colonial Metropolis on Paris, Kennetta Hammond Perry and Marc Matera’s work on London, Jacqueline Nassy Brown on Liverpool…. Too many to list here! But I think we can learn a lot from thinking about the urban specificity of the encounters that took place in these cities, and even more from placing situated studies side by side to see how different or similar iterations of Black internationalism become in these diverse locations.

AS: As is made clear throughout the chapters of your book, the link between American and Francophone discourses on political rights was often decisively forged by individual thinkers who functioned as both nodal points and cultural translators. One excellent example of this phenomenon are Martinican intellectuals and sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, who initiated La Revue du Monde Noir in the 1930s and became important reference points for initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic and for the Black diaspora more generally. In a nod to the Nardals’ crucial positionality, Ashley Farmer recently argued that “black women have been the philosophical epicenter and vanguard of black internationalism.” How central were female voices to the struggle for truly universal citizenship, and how does your work fit within the recent push by Keisha N. Blain, Carole Boyce Davies, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, and others to foreground the contribution of women of color in transnational intellectual networks and encounters?

SCD: Black women were always and have always been at the center of discussions of citizenship and human rights, even if their contributions have since been sidelined in favor of male protagonists and masculine oriented ideologies of reform. The work that scholars such as Ashley Farmer, Keisha N. Blain, Carole Boyce Davies, and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting are doing has been absolutely formative for me. Sharpley-Whiting in particular has obviously done some tremendously important work on the women of négritude and I certainly sought to build upon her scholarship in my book. Indeed, as per her scholarship, one of the key interventions of my book is to attempt to write women of color back into this genealogy of thinking about rights and citizenship. And in doing so, I wanted to portray them as key political thinkers and activists in their own right rather than participants in male-led movements. It was very important to me, for example, that my portrait of négritude placed the Nardal sisters front and center as pioneers, both intellectually and in terms of their role in introducing Harlem Renaissance writers to Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, amongst others. So, too, did I want to render visible women about whom we know very little—not because they didn’t write, but because too many of their writings have subsequently been lost. For me this included writing about Clara Shepherd, the African American teacher who not only published in La Revue du monde noir but also did editorial and translation work with the Nardals; the Guadeloupean writer Lucie Thésée, who worked on Tropiques; and Jane Vialle, the French Congolese Senator and UN Representative, amongst others. (In this regard, I really wish that Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel’s brilliant Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire had been out whilst I was writing my book. It’s a beautifully crafted exploration of the lives and contributions of seven Black women grappling to reconfigure French empire.)

I think it is also important to think carefully about the idea of “voices” when considering the genealogies of Black internationalism. Women often worked in activist contexts as knowledge facilitators, applying their political sensibilities and intellect to the tasks of translation and editing. Despite the clear intellectual value of this work, it has long been rendered an invisible, or less tangible, mode of knowledge production and activism. Someone like Christiane Yandé Diop is the perfect example here. The Sierra Leonean academic and diplomat Davidson Nicol, when reflecting upon his attendance at the 1956 Présence Africaine Congress of Black Artists and Writers, marveled at the way Diop had “quietly and with great effectiveness and patience” orchestrated the day-to-day running of the Paris Congress, facilitating the translation and publication of manuscripts, speeches, and comments. The entire congress—officially bilingual, unofficially multi-lingual, with delegates from francophone, lusophone, Hispanic, créole and multiple other language contexts—was dependent upon this translation for communication. Whilst some attendants were bilingual, many were not. Christiane Yandé Diop was key to ensuring that pre-circulated papers were translated in both English and French so that delegates could follow arguments in the language of their choice. She, alongside her husband, had also done a great deal of the legwork in coordinating the congress. Moreover, it is my understanding that she, alongside a number of African women students, was responsible for taking down the transcripts of the discussion sections. These transcripts were printed in the Congress special issues of the journals, allowing readers to follow not just the speeches, but also the dynamics of the discussions that followed. This was an extraordinary undertaking that allowed the ideas and debates of the Congress to circulate far beyond the halls of the Congress. Indeed, I relied upon them heavily for Race, Rights and Reform. Such work was vital to consolidating the Présence Africaine network but because Diop’s published work consists primarily of reflection upon her husband’s legacy, we rarely think about her as an important “voice” of Black internationalism. In my book, I wanted to “show the workings,” so to speak, of the gendered dynamics of the dissemination of ideas in this moment.

AS: You end the book with a vignette of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech “I Have a Dream.” Typically framed as a hopeful development, the March on Washington appears in stark contrast to the violence unleashed on the other side of the Atlantic by the Algerian War, which had just ended the year prior. Does the seeming asymmetry of these two political events symbolize a rift in the commonalities between American and francophone thinkers as well—i.e. does it mark the end of an initially “shared hope that the republican form could be mobilized to create a political citizenship that allowed for racial and cultural differences,” as you put it?

SCD: One of the reasons that I end the book in the early 1960s is because many of the Francophone thinkers I look at are then involved in the establishment of new nation-states in their respective African and Caribbean regions. Many still retain their belief in the possibilities of the republican form, but it is not the republican form of their contemporary France. Instead they are focused on building, from the ground up, political structures in independent nations that need to take them forward. So it is a moment of disenchantment and, very often, of violence, but it is also a moment of hope throughout the African diaspora.

Many of the relationships and collaborations I document in the book do actually continue on past this early 1960s moment. Indeed, you can see this particularly clearly in moments such as the World Festival of Black Arts held in Dakar in 1966—connected to the Présence Africaine project—or in the Pan-African Festival held in Algiers in 1969. The relationships between Black American groups and the Organisation of African Unity in the 1960s also show traces of the earlier history I look at in Race, Rights and Reform. It would take another book (or two), however, to do these later histories justice.

AS: For the final question, I would like to return to the introduction to your book, in which you reference African American novelist Richard Wright and his evocation of “a frog’s perspective,” a notion borrowed from Nietzsche, as the essential condition of the Black thinker. I find this an interesting moment to begin with, as it gestures toward both the specific relationship Black thinkers had with a decidedly white, “Western” canon in the early 20th century and the broader question of an (often unexpected) intellectual genealogy and adaptation across different political and geographical contexts. How would you chart your own intellectual genealogy that eventually led to this book? Did the theoretical and political force of the thinkers you survey here inflect how you framed your own research?

SCD: As an intellectual history, the book is an exercise in mapping. It is about charting the many contours in the landscape of Black activist thought across the French and American empires in this first part of the twentieth century. As such, it seemed fitting to begin with Wright’s challenge, his absolute confidence that he and his experience was constitutive of the Western experience in the 20th century.

Race, Rights and Reform is certainly the product of my own intellectual grappling with the way that I was taught to think about the past and about so-called Western canon. At high school, for example, we learnt about the French and American revolutions in terms of the fight for republican democracy and freedom. Neither rendering really dealt with the very important fact that many of the leading thinkers on the subject of democracy and citizenship in this period still thought of slavery as compatible with this republicanism. This vision of the past was obviously complicated by my studies of history at an undergraduate level in university. Ultimately, however, study of anti-colonial thinkers, or of race and decolonization, tended to happen in arenas other than the political histories of sovereignty, republicanism, and citizenship. And yet, they very clearly engaged with each other. This is not to flatten out the differences between them. As Brandon Byrd argued in his recent, excellent Modern Intellectual History article on African American intellectual history, Black thinking on these issues is distinctive. It has its own set of explicit intentions and purposes that need to be understood in those terms. What I wanted to do with my book, however, was to show that the very distinctiveness of this genealogy is as much a part of Western political thought as the work of white thinkers. Whilst the power dynamics and opportunities were most certainly asymmetrical, we cannot understand the history of the United States and the French empire without looking to the thought of those men and women who had to reckon with being excluded by virtue of their race. Of course, this is the argument that Wright was making in the anecdote that I use to begin the book. It is also the argument that intellectuals such as Jane Nardal, Suzanne Roussy Césaire, and Aimé Césaire made in their work. So there is definitely a reciprocal relationship between my engagement with the thinking of the figures that populate my book, and the choices I made in framing the material.

[1] James Baldwin, ‘Princes and Powers,” Encounters, (1947): 148.

Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fétiches, 1938. Oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Museum purchase made possible by Mrs. Norvin H. Green, Dr. R. Harlan and Francis Musgrave.


On Workers and Writers: An Interview with Javier de Navascués on Literature and Argentine Peronism

By Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Javier de Navascués is full professor at the Universidad de Navarra, in Spain, where he serves as chair of the Philology Department since 2012. He has devoted most of his research to Latin American literature, especially Argentine literature, and he is the author of Adán Buenosayres: una novela total (1992), El esperpento controlado. La narrativa de Adolfo Bioy Casares (1995), and Los refugios de la memoria. Un análisis de la obra de Julio Ramón Ribeyro (2004), as well as editor of De Arcadia a Babel. Naturaleza y ciudad en la literatura hispanoamericana (2002) and La ciudad imaginaria (2007). He also wrote countless articles, introductions, and book chapters, as well as several critical editions of Latin American literary authors. His latest book, Alpargatas contra libros. El escritor y las masas en el peronismo clásico (“Working Shoes against Books. The Writer and the Masses during Classical Peronism”), published by Iberoamericana in 2017, explores the relationship between Peronism, the greatest mass movement in 20th century Latin America, and professional writers. Peronism takes its name from the populist leader Juan Domingo Perón, a key actor during the 1943-1946 military dictatorship in Argentina. A colonel of the Army, Perón was Undersecretary of Labor, Secretary of Defense, and Vice-President before falling in disgrace with the military leaders of the government in October, 1945. A massive protest forced his liberation and the next year, with the overwhelming support of unions, the Catholic Church, and, most importantly, urban and rural workers, he was elected president and started a profound transformation of the country. He set up a welfare system that granted rights to workers and people in general, while at the same time forging an authoritarian political regime that attempted to control public opinion.

The government both depended on and encouraged social mobilization, and in this book Navascués discusses the role of pro- and anti-government intellectuals who engaged with the phenomenon of active political masses. In this context, “intellectuals” mainly refers to literature writers who, in the Latin American tradition of public intellectuals, often intervened in the political arena. The title of the book recalls an originally derogatory expression (alpargatas sí, libros no), coined by writers and artists to criticize the social policies implemented by Juan Perón in his first two terms as president (1946-1955). Most intellectuals considered that these policies were a direct transfer of goods and services from the state to the lower classes -identified with alpargatas (cheap typical shoes)- and an attack on (high) culture -signified by libros (books).

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia talked to Javier de Navascués about his recent book and the relation between literary criticism and intellectual history.

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia: In this book, even though you go back to authors and topics that you have already explored, there seems to be a new emphasis on the role of intellectuals, their biographical experiences, and their political stances, without disregarding the analysis of literary resources. Would you agree that this book makes the leap from literary criticism to intellectual history? Was that a deliberate decision or a shift spurred by the very objects of study?

Javier de Navascués: I think it was a decision taken beforehand. Because of my research, I have been drifting away from structural analysis to other frameworks, more open to the dialogue with historico-political contexts and processes. This book in particular focuses on the two countries that I have always privileged: Argentina, of course, but also Spain, since I started thinking about it with the arrival of the first big populist movement in my country, Podemos, whose first expressions and actions resembled Argentine Peronism. Therefore, in an oblique way, trying to understand Peronism and its relationship with Argentine intellectual figures was also an attempt to think about the relationship between Podemos and Spanish intellectuals, which I find is key to the development of this party. Of course, I was interested in studying populism through the modern concept of the “intellectual”, as a figure charged with the task of changing the society in which he or she lives, and a conventional narrative analysis was just not enough for that.

PMG: The most interesting aspect of the book, I believe, is precisely how the concrete and nuanced analysis of literary texts allows you to come and go from history to literature. That also allows you to create dialogues between authors that would be in the antipode from an exclusively political point of view. The phenomenon of the “masses” seems to have been a concern both for pro- and anti-Peronist writers. How did pro-regime writers reconcile themselves with their rejection of the masses? And how did writers aligned with the opposition, such as Julio Cortázar or María Rosa Oliver, handle their sympathies for an idealized people that did not correspond to the real one?

JN: Coming and going from literature was a must, since populism -and I consider Peronism a form of populism, even if at the time it was not labelled as such- can be understood as a narrative, which sets its own space, time, characters, narrative flow, point of view, and causal connections. This narrative gives us a better understanding of Peronism than systematic doctrines do. That is why I focused mostly on the narrative genre, rather than on poetry or drama. I believe that narrative texts show the hidden drives of Peronism as a narrative by espousing emotional factors that are essential to its history. These emotional factors have been recently studied in very interesting ways, for instance in works analyzing Peronist banners and posters, graphic humor, and films.

Going back to your question, I think it was really difficult for Peronist writers to reconcile their views with “real” masses, or at least it was for the most important of them, Leopoldo Marechal. Like other authors of his generation, Marechal received a humanist education and became a modernist –avant-garde– writer. Since he had an ideological background based on Romanticism and Hispanic American Modernismo, he believed, like many others, that culture was a privileged activity reserved for a spiritual group. They were committed to spreading products of culture (books, discs, theater plays, etc.) among the masses, of course, but the point of departure was elitist. This idea was commonly accepted not only among conservative writers, but also in progressive circles -from anarchists to socialists-, as well as, of course, in the liberal group linked to the magazine Sur.

Marechal, and other Peronist writers, struggled to combine this concept of culture with his social and political views. As a matter of fact, he never supported governmental cultural policies; he was not an “organic intellectual” or an important officer. Moreover, his narrative work is relevant precisely because of its inner contradictions: his last novel, Megafón, o la Guerra, expresses the dramatic conflict between the main character, who wants to be the megaphone, the voice of the people (who has been double-crossed), and his own ideals as an intellectual. The novel narrates a series of humoristic and bloodless deeds, advanced by followers of the fictional leader Megafón, to reinstate the greatness and unity of the fatherland. Nonetheless, I insist, Marechal’s view, as presented in this novel, is that a group of selected followers, not the masses themselves, will save the fatherland. And, in the end, the main character sacrifices himself, which is perhaps a reference to the way in which Marechal saw himself as an intellectual who had been relegated to the margins of the cultural sphere by both Peronist and anti-Peronist supporters.

Regarding anti-Peronist writers, I focused mainly on the first works of Cortázar, where contradictions are apparent. In his last years, he re-evaluated the positions he held in his youth, saying that he was a-political. He was not, he had convictions, but, of course, they did not have the public dimension that his leftist ideas of the 60s and 70s would have. The younger Cortázar, who exiled himself from Peronist Argentina, had a very elitist anti-Peronist position, as it can be seen in some of his short stories, especially those included in Final del juego (End of the Game) or in the by-now classic interpretation of “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”, included in the same book in the English edition), and also in posthumous novels as Divertimento (not yet translated) or El examen (Final Exam). In these texts, he criticizes Peronism in terms that any member of Sur could have used. Since he rewrote his positions, he is rarely seen as a staunch anti-Peronist, but in his letters he clearly expressed support of General Aramburu, the second president of the anti-Peronist coup d’état.

Oliver is another fascinating case: a disabled woman, she was a convinced communist as well as a member of the upper classes. In my study, she appears as the representative of a “classical” left, which was appalled by Peronism. Her memoirs provide a good example of the reluctance of this classical left to accept Peronism, and even to understand it, not only from a doctrinal point of view, but mainly as a mass movement in the streets. In all cases, either from the left or from the right, Peronist and anti-Peronist writers experienced Peronism as an invasion of the public space.

PMG: You have somehow already answered this, so it might seem repetitive. The book privileges fiction writers, and among them narrative writers. You just said that you saw this type of writing as a fruitful entry into the grand narrative that Peronism may be. But, wouldn’t you say that this importance assigned to narratives has a specific Argentine form? Isn’t there a special feature that Argentine society demands from its most important fiction writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, or Ernesto Sábato, which urges authors to clearly and actively engage in politics? Were there authors that you excluded on account of their being “too theoretical” or “too political” and to keep the research strictly literary?

JN: During the 40s and 50s, there was an extraordinarily constellation of talented writers in Argentina, so I did not have trouble in enjoying reading them and choosing the ones that I liked. I believe now, since you mentioned it, that Sábato deserved more time; it is curious that no one pointed it out in the reviews of my book, probably because there is an expanding silence about his figure in today’s academia, mostly in Argentina but also elsewhere. However, Sábato was there, his opinions counted very much… And I still think Sobre héroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs) is a good novel. Maybe I followed families, groups, and Sábato remained isolated. Why did he resist taking sides? Why does he exhibit some kind of sympathy for Marechal while the whole group Sur demonized him? I think that to some extent he just did it to mess with Borges, who was his personal obsession. However, besides that, he always enjoyed playing the role of the independent figure, in the style of French intellectuals. And then, yes, I think I excluded essay writers such as Juan José Hernández Arregui, or more “battlefield” narrators, so to speak (although Beatriz Guido, whom I studied in detail, could fall in that category).

PMG: Pierre Bourdieu, José Ortega y Gasset, and Gustave Lebon are some theoretical references that you discuss to think about the definition of an intellectual. Were there other important  points of reference? Authors like Carlos Altamirano, Andrés Avellaneda, and Beatriz Sarlo are quoted many times as well. Is this a consequence of textual analysis or is it perhaps due to the need for specific tools when analyzing Latin American literature?

JN: Some of those authors, such as Le Bon or Ortega, are classic references and I included them in the book because their ideas shaped how Argentine writers thought about the public sphere at the time. The splendid Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti, was very important too. Regarding the other references that you mention, they are unavoidable when working with Latin American authors.

PMG: The presence of several female writers in the book may come as a surprise. Is this another decision you made as a historian, or does it reflect the Argentine cultural field at the time? Was Argentina an anomaly in this respect or was this typical in Latin America (or the Western World in general) and are we prejudiced in this sense?

JN: Maybe all of that. On the one hand, it is clear that we are in a much-needed shift regarding how we write history, which enriches history as a whole. History is becoming more accurate, more inclusive. In addition, in Argentina there is no need to dig too deep to find an important number of women writers already in the 1940s. This was not that unusual: right next to Argentina, Uruguay is a good example for the kind of access that women had to cultural circles. Maybe in the rest of Latin America or in Spain things were different.

PMG: You have already devoted major analyses to three writers studied in the book: Marechal, Borges, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Did you find many new aspects; did your perception change much?

JN: The three of them have always accompanied me. I like to think that they, who could not stand each other (I mean, Borges and Bioy on the one side and Marechal on the other), can be read and enjoyed beside their broad political and philosophical differences. The reason why they are present in the book is that they keep having a place in my speculations. I do not think I know Bioy better than I did before; Borges and Marechal, on the contrary, showed me new aspects for this book.

PMG: As a Spanish scholar, do you think the dialogue flows well with Argentine or Latin American academia? What about other centers of studies on Latin Americanism, such as the United States, France, or Germany? Does your location in Spain affect your research?

JN: It is a very interesting question and forgive me for answering with an anecdote. When I started my doctorate in the late 80s, I found out that I liked Argentine literature far more than Spanish literature. At that time, my country was starting to invest more in research, and I was lucky enough to get a fellowship to travel abroad for up to three months. I was in Argentina for three winters, and they were decisive for my growth. I learned to know and love the country. Going back to the question, it should not be strange for a scholar to study a country other than his own. France and England, countries with which we had some differences over time, gave us great Hispanists (Elliott, Deyermond, Parker, Dadson, Bataillon, Chevalier, etc.). Culture forges bridges. Moreover, one learns immensely when seeing things from a different place. At least in my experience. Of course, my position in Spain conditions me to understand Argentine culture, but I do not see it as a limitation. Sometimes distance helps.

There are some historical prejudices. In Spain, we have the sin of “Spanish-centrism”, which is being left behind even though nationalism comes back in intellectual production, as some best-sellers show… And in Argentina, they mistrust Spanish scholars, maybe as an inheritance of old liberal projects. I see that there is not the same mistrust -since you mention it yourself- towards the United States, France, or Germany. However, of course, I have found excellent and open colleagues, in very different ideological positions, by the way. All of them represent to me everything that attracted me to Argentina in my youth: open-mindedness, humor, ingenuity, creativity, and a certain charm in the art of friendship.

PMG: In the same venue, and to sum up, besides your interest in recent political movements, did the study of Peronism help you to review your ideas about the role of intellectuals in other contexts, such as in fascist regimes, liberal democracies, or communist countries? Is the Argentine case as extraordinary as it might appear?

JN: What struck me as exceptional was the almost totally unanimous opposition that Peronism had, from left to right. European fascisms, to which it was compared at the time, had a lot of influence in cultural areas. Contrarily, classic Peronism tended to overlook the role of the “organic intellectual”, as it was conceptualized in fascist and communist regimes that were characterized by a similar urge to transform society. Thus, its cultural policies were often in the hands of public agents who were “foreign” to cultural activities. Besides, despite all of Perón’s efforts, all attempts to discipline intellectuals, to group them in a union or to include them in an institutional framework, failed. Peronism in its original configuration -because it later underwent all sorts of metamorphoses- can be seen as a forerunner of today’s populisms. In that sense, it is an unavoidable point of reference when trying to understand our present world.

Translated by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia teaches at the Universidad de Navarra and at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where he received his doctorate. He specializes in Latin American Intellectual and Cultural History, mainly in the 19th century and the colonial period. He has published Lecturas del Martín Fierro. Del folleto al clásico nacional (2020) and La forja de una opinión pública. Leer y escribir en Buenos Aires. 1800-1810 (2021).

Featured Image: Book cover image. Courtesy of Iberoamericana Vervuert.


German as a Jewish Problem: An Interview with Marc Volovici

By Matthew Johnson

Marc Volovici’s German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism, was published by Stanford University Press in 2020. Volovici is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is also affiliated with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. His impressive first book, German as a Jewish Problem, offers a new perspective on the history of Jewish nationalism by delineating the varied and often contradictory meanings of the German language in the formation of modern Jewish identity and politics. As Volovici demonstrates, in a study that spans the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, “German has held a momentous and multifaceted place in the history of European Jews, serving as a catalyst of secularization, emancipation, and assimilation in various Jewish communities within and without German-speaking areas” (2). In his use of language as an analytic lens, Volovici opens up rich spaces of investigation and reflection at the intersection of politics, religion, science, and literature. In addition to scholars of modern Jewish history and nationalism, his book should be of interest to anyone concerned with the knotted relationship between language and identity. Matthew Johnson interviewed Marc Volovici about his new book.

Matthew Johnson: You write that your “book tells the Jewish history of the German language, focusing on German’s paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism” (3). Can you tell us about how you came to write about this topic? What does it mean to tell the history of a language and, more specifically, to tell its Jewish history? Why is German so important to the history of Jewish nationalism, even if, as you note, it “was not at the center of Jewish nationalism’s ideological debates” (3)?

Marc Volovici: My interest in the Jewish history of the German language emerged out of my fascination with its status in the postwar period—as a tainted language that carries the memories of the Nazi period and the Holocaust. This idea was integral to how the Holocaust was remembered and represented in Israel and the Jewish world in the immediate postwar period, and was frequently employed by numerous individuals and institutions who carried out a boycott of the German language. But whether German could be reduced to its role in the persecution of European Jewry was a matter of controversy and of political and intellectual debates. The more I delved into these debates, the more I reckoned how rooted they were in much longer and older trajectories of Jewish engagement with the German language, its allure and danger.

These trajectories go back to the late eighteenth century, when German served as a symbol and a catalyst of processes of social transformation in Jewish communities. The acquisition of High German was actively encouraged by state reforms in German principalities and the Habsburg Empire, and was also key to the early ideology of the Jewish Enlightenment. This tightened German’s association with enlightenment ideas, as well as with secular, progressive, and liberal currents in Central and Eastern Europe. German thus carried a symbolic value that exceeded its mere practical merit. Whether deemed a positive or a threatening presence in Jewish life, German was part and parcel of Jewish multilingualism. The history of German as an integral and contested part of the Jewish social landscape has been largely overshadowed by German’s “Nazification.”

In the book I argue that the emergence of Jewish nationalist ideas in the late nineteenth century brought the profound ambivalence toward German in Jewish life to the fore. At a time when national movements championed their language as a bedrock of national consciousness and self-determination, Jewish nationalists faced a more complex linguistic predicament. Hebrew was revered as the language of Jewish ritual, but was only beginning to be used for modern domains and as a vernacular, and was entirely inaccessible to most Jews in Western countries. Yiddish was the language spoken by the vast majority of eastern European Jews, but until the late nineteenth century it was not considered a respectable language, or even a language at all. More commonly it was described (even by Yiddish speakers) as a German dialect, or distorted German. It is against this backdrop that German’s role in early Jewish nationalism can be characterized as paradoxical. German was adopted by political activists due to its presumed ability to advance the Jewish national cause, but in so doing it also embodied the chronic condition of Jews as a nation lacking a common language.

This paradox was enhanced by the fact that, on the one hand, German played an indispensable role in the formulation and dissemination of Jewish national ideologies. On the other hand, it was associated with historical currents of assimilation that undermined the postulate of Jewish national unity.

Even though German was not a Jewish national language, I argue that it is impossible to understand the language politics of Jewish nationalism without considering its critical place in the movement. As Jewish nationalists navigated between the ideological significance and the functional merit of German, key questions of the modern Jewish diasporic condition came to the surface.

MJ: One of your book’s methodological innovations is to turn our attention to “German-reading Jews,” not just to “German-speaking Jews” (7). Can you say more about why this latter category is important and about how it allows us to ask new questions? Who exactly were these “German-reading Jews”? And to what degree is your book, in fact, a history of reading?

MV: When we think about Jews and the German language, the first group that comes to mind is Jews in German-speaking lands who saw German as an essential aspect of their self-understanding and culture. But German is not only the language of the Germans, and we miss a great deal of the historical picture when we focus exclusively on “German-speaking Jews.”

The category of “German-reading Jews” introduced itself to me soon after I began looking for traces of Jewish thought about German. German-reading Jews were a broad, transnational collective of Jews spanning from Palestine, Europe, and the Americas that exercised various degrees of fluency in German, read German literature and science, engaged with it critically, and recognized the value of German for the advancement of Jewish society. They learned German at school, with a tutor, at the university, or on their own. Their motivations to learn German were manifold. It was a global language of science, culture, and politics, serving for many as a pathway to universal knowledge. A common motif in memoirs of young Jews in nineteenth-century Russia is a moment of realization that they wish to break away from the confines of Jewish traditional life. Learning to read German was often the first step that followed this realization. And it was indeed this scattered collective of German-reading Jews in Eastern Europe that imbued the German language with many of its layers of significance in Jewish historical memory. The very fact then that German had a distinctive status in Jewish diasporic culture cannot be understood by looking exclusively at German native speakers. The history of how German acquired a captivating and often haunting image—from the enlightenment to the Holocaust—becomes more comprehensible only by following Jews’ ambivalent attachment to German, an ambivalence that was cultivated more often through written rather than spoken German.

Beyond the case of German, studying communities of readers can help us challenge the common assumption that language is the spiritual possession of those who speak it—and speak it fluently. This assumption excludes those masses who approach, use, and mobilize a language in various ways, often leaving a profound imprint on how that language evolves. Sharpening our intellectual sensitivity to communities of readers holds particular relevance for Jews, a diasporic minority living at the crossroads of different languages.

MJ: While you focus on the German language, your book is also concerned with questions of multilingualism and of competing language ideologies, e.g., Hebraism and Yiddishism. You argue that “[w]hile Yiddishism was Hebraists’ main political rival, it was German that encapsulated the virtues and dangers of Jewish multilingualism” (102). Can you say more about these “virtues and dangers” and about the larger claims you are making about the role of German in “Jewish multilingualism”? 

MV: Both Hebrew and Yiddish were, in their own ways, a staple of Jewish nationhood. Yet in the formative decades of Jewish nationalism both lacked certain aspects cardinal to the idea of a “national language” at the turn of the twentieth century, such as the proven ability to form the basis of a modern literary and scientific corpus and to mediate between different Jewish communities in the diaspora. Questions of linguistic prestige and practicality were interwoven, and it was in this sense that German was more ‘dangerous’ than Yiddish to proponents of Hebrew—precisely because it was already serving as an international language of Jewish social, cultural, and political affairs. That Zionism emerged under Theodor Herzl’s leadership as a Germanophone movement was not merely a reflection of the cultural proclivities of the Zionist leadership, but was grounded in a longer tradition that deemed German a respectable European language that is well suited to advance political and diplomatic action in the Jewish social sphere. German’s omnipresence in Jewish political life was its main virtue and danger.

The book therefore considers the role of German in Jewish nationalism as one chapter within a longer history of a fraught reliance on German in modern Jewish culture. German appears from this point of view as a language that is both an insider and an outsider to Jewish life—and for this reason it defied the nationalist monolingual imperative.

MJ: Building off the previous question, you note that your “book examines […] Jewish secularization—in the sense of the neutralization of religious sensitivities, terms, and categories—in its multilingual and not merely Hebrew contexts” (11). In this regard, you also discuss the “theological meanings attached to German in Jewish culture.” How does German allow us to rethink the history of Jewish secularization? And how is this linked to your larger focus on nationalism?

MV: First, the acquisition of German by Jews in German-speaking lands since the late eighteenth century eroded Hebrew’s status as the primary language of Jewish religious ritual. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s a number of reformist communities introduced German sermons and even prayers into the synagogues. Abraham Geiger, the prominent German scholar and reformist rabbi, admitted in 1845 that, to him, a Jewish prayer in German “strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer.” But one did not have to be a staunch reformist in order to hold a close attachment to German in the religious domain. German orthodox Jews also read the Bible in German translation. No other language was so deeply associated with processes of departure from Hebrew as German—precisely because it coalesced the profane and the holy. Not for nothing did the Czech Jewish philosopher Hugo Bergmann call it a “half-holy language.”

Second, German had an active role in the creation of Jewish secular politics. German was relatively accessible to Eastern European Jews who turned to German when seeking to equip themselves with the contemporary scientific and political knowledge of the time—in particular around socialist and nationalist theories. In this sense, German had an auxiliary but important role in withdrawal from Jewish traditional political frameworks and in the formation of new ones.

And third, German facilitated the development of Jewish national thought. A key example of this is the 1882 text Autoemancipation!, which was written in German by Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish doctor who had not written political texts in German beforehand. He made extensive use of German political and scientific terms, attempting to align the Jewish national cause with the self-justification of national movements in Europe. In this sense, the “Germanness” of the text was a vital characteristic of it, and it is no coincidence that Autoemancipation! would later be considered a founding text of Jewish nationalism. The first translations of the text into Hebrew and Yiddish were characterized by their effort to “Judaize” the text, to set it within the religious, traditional conceptual apparatus of Jewish writing. For the translators, none of these languages and their readerships were equipped to handle Pinsker’s ideas in their German form. Speaking of a Jewish collectivity in secular terms was far more feasible in German than in Jewish languages.

MJ: In a memorable passage that seems to bring your work into conversation with the history of emotions and affect theory, you argue that “[t]he ideological excess of a language is transmitted not only in its representations and in discussions about it but also in the language itself. Words, sounds, accents, and concepts inform the image of languages. Though elusive in nature, it is often the sensory responses to language or to certain words within it that acquire added meaning as beautiful, lucid, irritating, or violent” (39). How did you access and analyze these “sensory responses to language,” which, as you note, are often “elusive in nature”? And how did such sensory responses become operative in the development of Jewish nationalism?

MV: It is difficult, if not impossible, for historians to capture the sensory responses to languages. What is possible, however, is to try and make sense of how individuals describe their relation to a certain language—the feeling of admiration, irritation, disgust or fear that a given language or certain words instill in them. And these emotions cannot be separated from the political context surrounding them, making certain views about the sound of a language meaningful and socially acceptable. That German was a “pure,” elegant language, was a household assumption worldwide. It is against this common perception of German that it made sense to designate Yiddish as an “ugly” language. German was a marker of high culture, refined poetical expression, rationality, and scientific precision. The self-understanding of many German Jews as equal and full Germans was predicated to a considerable degree on their rootedness in the German language. Gabriel Riesser, the foremost advocate of Jewish emancipation, wrote in 1830, “The thundering sounds of the German language, the songs of the German poets, are those that inflamed and fed us with the holy fire of freedom.” The sound of German was a liberating one. And yet at the same time German nationalists and antisemites rejected Jews’ relation to the German language as “inauthentic” and as dangerous to Germany.

After Hitler’s rise to power, the association between the German language and antisemitic hatred became a steady feature in Jewish nationalists’ debates of language matters, especially in Palestine. Hebraist activists repeatedly agitated against German, “the language of Hitler,” or “the language of our enemy.” Some commentators bound together Yiddish and German, calling to “cure us from the big Hitler in Berlin, and the little Hitler in the mouths of my brethren in Tel Aviv,” as one writer put it in 1939. During the war years, this argument became ever more common and was used to question the moral legitimacy of having German heard or even read in public venues in Palestine. Such a view did not go uncontested, but it persisted well into the 1950s and onwards. It is against this political background that the sound of German came to be associated first and foremost with Hitler and the Nazi movement. Yet as I argue in the book, the emotional association between German and antisemitic brutality is not merely an emotive response to the shocking violence of Nazi antisemitism; rather, it builds on recent as well as old trajectories of signifying German as a dangerous language to Jewish life.

MJ: Your book assembles a fascinating cast of characters and focuses both on well-known figures, like Martin Buber, and lesser-known figures, such as Simon Bernfeld. You analyze and compare the work of writers, translators, academics, cultural activists, philosophers, and politicians. Can you talk about how you chose the particular sources and protagonists for your book? How is your corpus linked to what you describe as the “diffused presence” of German in Jewish societies and to your stated effort to “de-Germanize the place of German in modern Jewish society” (12)?

MV: There is a vast and brilliant body of literature by literary scholars who have investigated the approaches of prominent Jewish writers—Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, Freud, and Heine come to mind—to the German language, emphasizing the different contexts that shaped their relation to German. Yet these figures were masters of German style who were highly self-reflexive of language matters. Their writings are ridden with references to what language in general and the German language in particular meant to them—as Jews, as intellectuals, as human beings. This is a crucial aspect of the Jewish history of the German language, but it is not the whole story. My aim was to broaden the scope of the historical study of Jews’ relation to the German language.

One way of doing this is by paying closer attention to figures who were not accomplished writers in the Germanophone literary sphere. I tried to trace the meanings of German in its more immediate, mundane presence—through the engagement of political activists, popular journalists, lay people, soldiers, and low-brow writers whose main concern was not with matters of representation and self-understanding, but with practical questions such as the usefulness of German as a language of political action and of knowledge. What mattered to them was not (only) how language can reach the depths of one’s soul, but rather whether it can get things done.

Another way of broadening the conversation is indeed by de-Germanizing the place of German in modern Jewish society,” that is, to consider German’s transnational quality in Jewish diasporic life. And it is through this angle that the book tries to study those figures who did not necessarily identify themselves as German writers, and to assess closely questions regarding the practical acquisition of German, its place in the multilingual fabric of empires and nation-states in Central-Eastern Europe, the role of German as a universal language of knowledge, and the affinity between Yiddish and German.

MJ: Near the end of the book, after an analysis of the transformed meaning of German in the wake of the Holocaust, you make (with reference to Hugo Bergmann) a powerful and provocative observation: “German, a language that until recently had been fundamental to Jewish life, had turned into a foreign language” (228). Can you say more about what you mean by “foreign” here? How is this linked to the ways in which your book puts pressure on categories like “internal” and “external” bilingualism and “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” languages?  

MV: One of the arguments I make in the book is that German did much to blur the very distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages. Precisely because it permeated the modern Jewish experience in crucial domains—as a language of Jewish enlightenment, of Jewish religious reform, of Jewish scholarly knowledge, and of Jewish nationalism—it came to occupy a profound place in Jewish political and cultural existence since the late eighteenth century.

Seen from this angle, Jewish nationalists, above all Zionists, gradually strove to emancipate Jews from the grip of the German language, namely from Jews’ practical and often emotional dependence on it. In other words, German had to be made a normal language—a language free of the historical baggage accumulated over centuries. The historical irony consisted in the fact that German was expelled from the Jewish public sphere not as a result of the efforts to build a Jewish national polity, but following an event unrelated to it—German’s turning into a Nazi language. While Jewish nationalists sought to confine German to the realm of ordinary, practical languages, German became tied even more powerfully with Jewish historical memory. But this was not due to its role in the social transformation of European Jewry, but because of German’s role in its near destruction.

Matthew Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago writing a dissertation on twentieth-century German-Yiddish literature.

Featured Image: Theodor Herzl and other delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897). Wikipedia.