History in Copresence: Creating a Multidirectional Memory of the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization



In this conversation with Michael Rothberg, we discuss his concept of “multidirectional memory,” which allows to place the living memory of the Shoah in a political and healing dialogue with other traumatic living memories, in particular those that were formed in the 1950s and 1960s by the violent counter-revolutionary efforts against decolonization movements.

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Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw sculpted by Nathan Rapoport in 1948 with materials originally ordered by Albert Speer for Nazi monuments. / Photo by Pudelek (2016).

Léopold Lambert: Your book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009) draws “transitional lines” and “parallels” between the Nazi Holocaust and the history of European colonialism. You quote Jurgen Zimmerer about the role German colonialism played in the acceptance, if not complicity, of German citizens in the construction of the genocidal machine. Can you talk about this, as well as your precise endeavor to de-exceptionalize the Holocaust, which does not reduce its place in the history of the world, but rather, makes it participate in a dialogue with other histories of European industrial violence?

MICHAEL ROTHBERG: The impetus to start working on Multidirectional Memory came from my sense that a history that should stand as a radical indictment of Europe — the Nazi genocide of European Jews — was often being used to prop up a perverse kind of Eurocentrism. In public discourse, especially, the Holocaust was treated as a unique, sometimes “sacred” event detached from the histories out of which it emerged and completely distinct from other histories of genocide and racial violence. While I don’t think the Holocaust is the “same” as other histories of violence, including other genocides, I don’t see how we cannot also note parallels, entanglements, and similarities. Making note of such connections does not reduce or relativize the significance of the Holocaust in world history — in some ways it increases its importance. I remain puzzled about what would follow from such an uncompromising emphasis on the uniqueness of an event — any event. Should we only remember unique events? Do only unique events make moral demands on us? Obviously not.

Scholarship sometimes contributes to this “exceptionalization,” but it also helps us understand the Holocaust as a secular event that can be contextualized in various ways and carefully compared to other historical occurrences. Especially in the last couple of decades, one of the most important tendencies in Holocaust research has been a widening of the geographical lens: scholars have emphasized that, even if the genocide was initiated and planned by Germans — who naturally bear primary responsibility for it — much of Europe was involved in its perpetration as collaborators, as beneficiaries, and sometimes even as independently acting initiators of mass killing. My colleagues Sarah Stein and Aomar Boum (along with other scholars) have also been pursuing the unfolding of the Holocaust in North Africa, which has not received as much attention as it deserves until now.

If we then widen the chronological lens as well, as numerous scholars also demand, it seems indisputable that Europe’s past played a crucial role in helping establish the conditions of possibility for the genocide. Within this widened chronology, we find not only World War I, the economic and political crises of the interwar period, and a long history of Christian anti-Judaism, but also necessarily the history of European imperialism. It is within the history of empire that ideas about racial superiority and inferiority developed, that certain groups were marked as disposable, and that a high tolerance for extreme violence against racial others was cultivated. How can that not be relevant?

There is ongoing debate among historians about what precise role colonialism played in the Nazi genocide. For me, it’s less about drawing a straight line from German colonialism to the Holocaust than about considering what I’ve called the conditions of possibility for the genocide: whatever the specificities of the Holocaust, I can’t see how we can discuss it without seeing that imperialism and the violent racialization it entailed — along with other racial regimes like segregation in the U.S. — are significant factors, as Hitler himself indicated at various points in his own writing and speeches.

As I was answering this question, I was also thinking about the famous line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” It seems to me we can say the same thing about the perpetration of the Holocaust: all Europe contributed to it —including the history of European imperialism. This is not a new idea; we see it in some of the earliest responses to the Holocaust such as Hannah Arendt’s study The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Aimé Césaire’s polemic Discourse on Colonialism (1950), both of which I discuss at length in Multidirectional Memory.

I think the exceptionalist approach to the Holocaust is not as strong as it was 20 years ago when I started writing my book. Movements like Black Lives Matter as well as calls for restitution of colonial plunder and reparations for slavery have brought other (non-identical) histories of racialized violence into public consciousness in necessary ways. One place where exceptionalism remains strong, however, is Germany, where the translation of Multidirectional Memory was attacked viciously by many in the mainstream press for allegedly relativizing the Holocaust through reference to colonialism and “taking away” German responsibility for the genocide — which is really the last thing I’m interested in doing!

At the same time, in thinking about the conditions of possibility for the Shoah and about comparison between different histories, I believe we need to be careful about falling back into a linear conception of time. That slippage can happen if we talk about certain histories, like colonialism, “causing” the Holocaust — which is, in any case, a caricature of what historians like Jürgen Zimmerer actually argue. In my account, a multidirectional approach means thinking about how the significance of events can reconfigure the meaning of what came before them: in other words, it’s not just that we need to think about the history of imperialism to understand the Holocaust, but also that the Holocaust can transform our understanding of what came before it. This kind of multidirectional interaction plays out very clearly in the realm of memory, which is my central object of study: one of my arguments in the book is that the unfolding of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s helped shape how we think about the earlier events of the Nazi genocide, but that subsequently our new understanding of the Holocaust would change how we come to terms with colonialism and slavery. This mutual interaction continues today and is visible in almost all the debates coming to terms with the past in Europe and the U.S., at the very least.

The unfolding of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s helped shape how we think about the earlier events of the Nazi genocide, but that subsequently our new understanding of the Holocaust would change how we come to terms with colonialism and slavery.

At a greater level of abstraction, I would say that to understand memory and especially memory’s multidirectionality we need a new concept of time. I draw on the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s critique of the “progressive,” linear conception of history, a conception that he saw as useless in the struggle against fascism. In his final text, “On the Concept of History” (1940), Benjamin argued that ideas of linearity and progress “cannot be sundered from the concept of […] progression through a homogenous, empty time.” Anti-fascist historical materialists thus need a new concept of time, which Benjamin associated with the idea of the “constellation” and of “time filled full by now-time [Jetztzeit].” This is the concept of time that I attempt to mobilize in Multidirectional Memory.

LL: You write that memories are simultaneously individual and collective. Similarly, the way you seem to understand the concept of memory makes of it a sort of entity of its own, which circulates, evolves, branches out, or disappears, as the beautiful title of your book’s second part suggests: “Migrations of Memory: Ruins, Ghettos, Diasporas.” If we are to stop reading time through a paradigm of linearity or progression as we propose in this issue, we might see memory, not as the reminiscence of the past, but as what we call “the past” happening simultaneously with what we call “the present.” What do you think these two affirmations entail for the way we approach “the present?”

MR: For me, memory is an important category because of the constellation it implies between past and present. I’m not an expert on the neuroscientific or cognitive-psychological dimensions of memory, but I think any scholar in the field would say that remembrance is an act that takes place in the present even as it refers to the past. And I think most would agree that the act of remembrance does not simply “resurrect” a fully formed past, but rather brings into being a particular version of the past in a past-present constellation; there is a performative dimension to memory and this has important implications.

The importance of the present, performative moment of remembrance is for me also one of the grounds for talking about memory’s multidirectionality. What I argue is that because we always remember a particular event from our location in a different time and a different place, memory involves a dialogue across different times and spaces. Remembrance is intrinsically a productive, multidirectional process of bringing different histories and actualities into relation. Even if we return to a site, the site is no longer the same. Think of the film Shoah (1985), where Claude Lanzmann brings camp survivors back to the site of the genocide: there is not really anything there to see; it is now a new site, even if traces of the past can be found. As a constellation of past and present and of here and there, memory necessarily possesses a “comparative” or relational dimension. To give an example that’s central to my book: when W.E.B. Du Bois travels to Warsaw in 1949, his confrontation with the ruins left by the Nazis’ absolute destruction of the ghetto they had established there changes the way he remembers and conceptualizes the anti-Black racism with which he is intimately familiar. The site of remembrance inflects the experience being remembered.

The multidirectionality of memory transforms both the thing being remembered and that which is put into relation with it. It also helps us think differently about the status of past and present. When it comes to questions of temporality, I draw on the work of the theorist of history Berber Bevernage as well as Benjamin. In his book History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence (2012), Bevernage distinguishes between history as “irreversible” and as “irrevocable.” Conventional history uses a conception of time as linear and therefore irreversible — what happened happened and it remains safely in the “past.” But some aspects of the past get “stuck,” in Bevernage’s terms, and thus break “with the idea of a ‘temporal distance’ between the present and the past that is so central to the irreversible time of history.” When Bevernage talks about moments getting “stuck,” he’s talking about traumatic violence and especially State-sponsored atrocity; one of his central examples is the Mothers of the Plaza del Maya in Argentina who declare that their children, who have been disappeared by the State, are not in fact dead. The Mothers’ refusal to mourn is a sign of what Bevernage calls the irrevocable and of the blurring of past and present: “they do not consider [their disappeared children] to belong to the past.” Unaddressed violence continues to haunt us and to make demands on the living.

What seems clear to me is that if there are pasts that remain irrevocable — that refuse to go away — then we need to think about how different irrevocable pasts resonate with each other as well as with other, more “conventional” historical moments. My work is dedicated to showing that the haunting of the irrevocable is frequently multidirectional — that is, that the specters of one traumatic history often resonate with other traumatic histories, whether or not those histories are connected to each other by empirical historical links.

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Index of Jewish Life from May 1952 featuring the essay “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto” by W.E.B. Dubois.

LL: The year 1961 is important in the second half of your book. It is the year that, through the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Holocaust emerges in an international memory, but simultaneously serves the Israeli colonial ideology. At the same…time, Maurice Papon who will (much) later be the subject of another trial, proving his responsibility in the deportation of 1,600 Jewish people in his collaboration with the Nazi occupation in France, is the Prefect of police of Paris and its close banlieues. He’s been called back to Paris in 1958 after years spent as a colonial prefect in Morocco and Algeria and in August 1958, he rounds up thousands of Algerians in Paris and detain them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium and in the Japy gymnasium, where less than 20 years earlier, thousands of Jews had been rounded up by the French police before being deported to Auschwitz. On October 17, 1961, the Paris police murder hundreds and detain thousands of Algerians in a massacre whose memory could not be more asymmetrical still today between Algerian French and white France. How is that simultaneity (simultaneity of time and simultaneity of place if that makes sense) are productive for the concept of multidirectionality?

MR: When I started working on Multidirectional Memory, I was well aware of the importance of the Eichmann trial and the year 1961 for thinking about Holocaust memory. But I knew very little about the history of decolonization and the Algerian War of Independence, and nothing at all about the October 17, 1961 massacre. My discovery of these simultaneities was really accidental and somewhat circuitous. For a few years I had been working on the project that would become Multidirectional Memory, but I didn’t have that concept yet and my focus had been primarily on “Black-Jewish” intersections. I’d written an essay about W.E.B. Du Bois and his visit to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, which I mentioned earlier, and I was starting to work on the writers André Schwarz-Bart and Caryl Phillips, both of whom bring together memory of the Holocaust and memory of transatlantic slavery. Then I happened to attend a lecture by Manthia Diawara, the scholar of African film, who was talking about his counter-ethnographic film about Jean Rouch, Rouch in Reverse (1995). In his talk, he mentioned Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 cinema verité film Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) and the fact that it staged an uncomfortable encounter between a Holocaust survivor and two African students. I said to myself: “wow, I need to see that film right away.”

So, I found it and was immediately fascinated. The scene Diawara described is truly discomforting: the Holocaust survivor Marceline Loridan expresses certain racist conceptions of Africans and the students initially misunderstand the significance of the tattoo Marceline received in Auschwitz. My sense was that, in addition to those tensions, there was something significant going on in the film’s overall juxtaposition of the memory of the Holocaust — through the testimony Rouch and Morin film of Marceline recounting her deportation — and the ongoing events of decolonization, especially in the Congo and Algeria. I wanted to understand why these different histories were intersecting in Paris at this particular moment.

There was something significant going on in the film’s overall juxtaposition of the memory of the Holocaust — through the testimony Rouch and Morin film of Marceline recounting her deportation — and the ongoing events of decolonization, especially in the Congo and Algeria. I wanted to understand why these different histories were intersecting in Paris at this particular moment.

As I read more about this moment of decolonization I came to see that there were several factors that were facilitating the multidirectional “mnemonic” transfer between Nazi violence and French colonial violence. The first was a basic chronological point: the time separating the Nazi occupation and Vichy period from the Algerian War of Independence was very slight. Indeed, if you think of the massacres in Sétif and Guelma, which took place on the very day World War II ended in Europe, there’s a complete temporal continuity. This meant that, biographically, many people involved in one way or other in the decolonization struggle in France had living memories of the occupation and a certain number had been involved in the resistance to the Nazis and had even been deported to Nazi camps. Marceline Loridan herself is an excellent example of someone who survived Auschwitz as a teenager and then, at the same time she was filming Chronicle of a Summer, was active as a “porteuse de valise,” one of the non-Algerians assisting the Algerian independence movement by “carrying suitcases” of money for the cause; she also made a film in Algeria with Jean-Pierre Sergent, who appears in Chronicle as well, immediately after independence. Even if few people had that level of involvement in both histories, I think we can say that the memory of Nazi crimes and of what we now call the Holocaust was fresh. In that context, the methods deployed by the French State reminded many people of what they had experienced or observed under the Nazis, especially the widespread use of torture and the detention of hundreds of thousands in concentration camps both in Algeria and in France.

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Still from the discomforting scene in Jean Rouch and Edgard Morin’s film Chronicles of a Summer (1961) described by Michael Rothberg in Multidirectional Memories and this interview.

Discovering this larger context of entanglements between the Second World War and the Algerian War of Independence eventually led me to the October 17, 1961 massacre. As you say, the memory of October 17 remains radically asymmetrical — both in terms of who remembers or forgets (Algerian French people or white French people) and also in terms of which events are prominent in public consciousness (the Holocaust or the massacre). Nevertheless, what struck me as I learned about October 17 was that right from the beginning the massacre triggered memories — at least for some — of the Nazi occupation, and even the Holocaust specifically. For example, just a week after the massacre, France-Observateur — the New Left newspaper in which I found many relevant sources, published a photograph of Algerians who had been rounded up on October 17 being held at the Palais des Sports with a caption that read “Cela ne vous rappelle rien?” (Doesn’t that remind you of something?). The clear reference was to the July 1942 rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’ when thousands of “foreign” Jews were rounded up by French police and then deported to the East. I found many other “multidirectional” references of that sort, and what is really fascinating is that they took place long before people realized that Papon had been involved both in the deportation of Jews in Vichy and in crimes against Algerians in Algeria and France. My colleague Lia Brozgal’s new book Absent the Archive (2020) also demonstrates the extent to which both Jewishness and Holocaust memory have played unexpected roles in coming to terms with the October 17 massacre, even as she warns (correctly) that the massacre also needs to be remembered on its own terms.

My point is neither that October 17 has only been understood alongside the Holocaust nor that it should only be remembered in that way, but more simply that it has often been understood and remembered in relation to the Holocaust and that that simultaneity and relationality have important implications for thinking about Holocaust memory in particular and about the workings of memory in general. Situating Holocaust memory in relation to the Algerian War of Independence and the October 17 massacre produces a kind of alienation effect. In place of the familiar narrative of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and its role in globalizing Holocaust memory, we now find a very different kind of catalyst for remembrance of the Shoah: one that is explicitly entangled with political struggle and is frequently deployed in anti-imperialist contexts. Certainly this is not the dominant story of Holocaust memory: rather, it is a persistent counter-narrative that can be traced back to the earliest postwar moments and that can be found today, for instance in the mobilization of Holocaust memory in relation to memories of colonialism and slavery and to ongoing struggles over migration in Europe and the U.S..

The more general point that I draw about memory from this particular moment (1961) is the extent to which public remembrance is to a significant extent built on the entanglement of different moments in time that might, at first, seem to have little to do with each other. This entanglement is productive; it leads to more memory as well as new constellations of memory — but it doesn’t come with guarantees about the particular political valence of multidirectionality (which can be reactionary as well as progressive) and it does not mean that different memories automatically obtain an “equal” place in the public sphere. As the example of October 17 illustrates well: the field of memory is a field of inequality. Overcoming inequality requires mobilization and struggle. What I find, though, is that in that struggle, multidirectional currents often play a prominent role and can be resources for mobilization toward greater recognition and redistribution of “mnemonic capital.”

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A copresence of eras: a temporal overlay of the Eiffel Tower area of Paris — which includes the Vélodrome d’Hiver (large grey rectangular building a few centimeters above this caption) — in both 1942 (when 13,152 Jews were rounded up and detained at the Vel d’Hiv by the French police before being deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis) and 1958 (when Prefect of police Maurice Papon rounded up over 5,000 Algerians, many of whom were detained at the Vel d’Hiv). / Artwork by Léopold Lambert.

LL: Borrowing from Marianne Hirsch’s work, you evoke the concept of post-memory and the transgenerational transmission of trauma. Several researchers are working on demonstrating that this transmission might go as deep as in the formation of DNA itself. Without essentializing through a biologically-centered argument, could you talk about what this means for us to embody a sum of individual and collective memories; some of which coming from space-time we have not even experienced ourselves?

MR: Marianne Hirsch’s work has influenced my thinking since I was a graduate student, and I feel fortunate to call her a friend as well as a colleague. What she called “postmemory” about 25 years ago while writing about Art Spiegelman’s comic-book memoir Maus (1980) immediately took off as a concept among scholars — but also among artists and to some extent among activists — because it so clearly names a structure of experience that is widely shared. While most of her own work has concerned transgenerational memory and trauma in the context of the Holocaust, she has always been open to the “migration” of her concept into other realms and indeed she talks about how listening to Toni Morrison read from Beloved (1987) was, along with Spiegelman, one of her early inspirations. There is something “multidirectional” in the emergence of postmemory as a concept!

I don’t feel I have the expertise to assess the extent to which transgenerational trauma can be registered in DNA, even if I understand that there is interplay between social and biological factors. Certainly, in any case, postmemory is bodily and affective — transmission happens through a variety of channels. Hirsch quotes a powerful passage from Eva Hoffmann on this issue: “In my home […] the past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idioms of sighs and illness, of tears and acute aches that were the legacy of the damp attic and of the conditions my parents endured during their hiding.”

When I think about transgenerational transmission I also think about another, related tradition emerging from Black studies: the concept of the afterlife of slavery. Here the focus is not just on the kinds of intimate, bodily forms of transmission that take place — though surely those are important too — but also on the material continuities that continue to shape Black bodies and Black lives more than 150 years after emancipation. I’m thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s amazing book Lose Your Mother (2006), where she writes, “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery — skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.” The afterlife of slavery, then, is a kind of structural postmemory — not so much the legacies of an event as the persistence of material conditions of systemic violence.

There’s a flip-side to all of this that is important to me, too, however. Both Hirsch’s and Hartman’s writings help us understand what you call “a sum of individual and collective memories” possessed by those who are descended from victims of racial violence and/or continue to experience such violence in the present.

What happens when we think about the descendants of perpetrators and those who benefit from inequalities and violence both past and present?

But what happens when we think about the descendants of perpetrators and those who benefit from inequalities and violence both past and present? I believe we need a separate category here and, in my most recent book, The Implicated Subject (2019), I talk about those who enable, perpetuate, benefit from, or otherwise inherit histories of violence and structures of inequality that they did not initiate and do not direct but nonetheless participate in indirectly. I call them “implicated subjects” and I track “implication” in terms of both diachronic events and synchronic structures — as well as the entanglement of these two temporal axes. White supremacy and various kinds of privilege are also the outcome of transgenerational transmission and of the entanglement of past and present; we need to understand that kind of implication too if we want to build a more just world. ■