The Future of Holocaust Studies in Light of the ‘Catechism Debate’: Reflections from an Observer

This post has been adapted from a talk by Joseph Cronin, a former Researcher at the GHIL and now a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, delivered at the Holocaust Research Institute’s New Directions in Holocaust Studies workshop, which was held at Senate House London on 4 November 2021. He would like to thank Sandra Lipner and Kate Ferry-Swainson for giving him the opportunity to speak at this event. The talk was prompted by and reflected on Joseph’s perceptions of the ‘German Catechism’ debate that took place in the summer of 2021.

In spring 2021, something was very distinctly rumbling on the horizon of the German intellectual landscape. February saw the publication of memory scholar Michael Rothberg’s book Multidirectional Memory in German translation. The English original, which appeared twelve years earlier, had been well received as an analysis of the Holocaust’s place in increasingly plural societies. By contrast, the German edition provoked hostile reactions from commentators in the conservative press, who accused Rothberg of minimizing or even relativizing the Holocaust because he argued that its memory should be positioned in relation to the memories of other atrocities, such as the Atlantic slave trade and European colonial violence.

In March, Rothberg and the Hamburg-based historian Jürgen Zimmerer, who studies German colonialism, published an article in Die Zeit titled ‘Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!’ (‘End the Taboo on Comparison’), in which they argued that a de facto ban operated in Germany on comparing the Holocaust with any other genocides or atrocities, something they felt was stifling both historical research and public discourse. The following issue of Die Zeit contained a furious reaction from journalist Thomas Schmid, who accused the two scholars of trying to insinuate that the Holocaust was a ‘colonial crime’.

In the penultimate week of May 2021, I taught an Erasmus+ short course on postwar German history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The atmosphere in seminar discussions became heated at times, particularly when we talked about memory politics in the Federal Republic. The course took place against the backdrop of an escalating Israel-Palestine conflict and consequent pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Europe, some of which featured antisemitic slogans, imagery, and even attacks. When one student suggested that these demonstrations were antisemitic per se, however, the room erupted.

The course finished on 22 May, and the following day, a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that a Swiss blog called Geschichte der Gegenwart (‘History of the Present’) had just published an article by the well-known genocide scholar A. Dirk Moses called ‘Der Katechismus der Deutschen’ (‘The German Catechism’). I didn’t think too much about the implications of the title but simply retweeted it, putting the text into English:

As you can see, nobody paid much attention to my post. But when I checked Twitter again later that day, it was clear that Moses’ article had created quite a stir. And I confess, it was only at this point that I thought: I should probably take a closer look at this.

I won’t summarize the entire text, but here are the five points that constitute, according to Moses, the ‘German catechism’ – a rigid and dogmatic set of beliefs about the Holocaust:

  1. The Holocaust was a unique event, different from all other genocides in that it aimed for the complete destruction of Jews for purely ideological reasons (i.e. it was not limited by any pragmatic aims, such as territorial acquisition or security concerns).
  2. It thus constituted a civilizational rupture (Zivilisationsbruch).
  3. This magnitude bestows upon Germany ‘a special responsibility to Jews in Germany, and a special loyalty to Israel’.
  4. Antisemitism is furthermore ‘a distinct prejudice’ that ‘should not be confused with racism’.
  5. Anti-Zionism equals antisemitism.

Two days later, on 25 May, the first response to Moses appeared on the website of the New Fascism Syllabus – a North-American blog. Little did I know then that it was to be the first of many responses, some 22 articles on that website alone, written by leading historians, German studies scholars, journalists, writers and activists from a wide range of backgrounds. To my mind, the best responses came from women scholars: Tiffany Florvil, Mirjam Brusius, Paula Villa Braslavsky and Zoé Samudzi to name a few. All of these articles appeared within the space of less than a month – a remarkable feat that was overseen by the blog’s editor, Jennifer Evans.

This first round of responses, all of which appeared in English, was generally quite positive about Moses’ thesis, if with some caveats: his choice of religious language, his tendency towards exaggeration and polemic. But few disputed that German memory culture had become curdled, perhaps even toxic, over the issue of the Holocaust’s place in contemporary German society.

At the time I tweeted my grievance that nobody seemed to be disagreeing with Moses – something I later regretted:

By this point I had resolved, or rather, had walked into retweeting everything that appeared on what was now being called the ‘Catechism Debate’. Jennifer Evans led the coverage on social media, while another scholar, Serdar Güneş, built an entire database containing everything that appeared on the debate.

By mid-June, the New Fascism Syllabus run of articles was reaching its end, and it looked like things were starting to calm down. But then, no sooner than the debate in English had finished, the debate in German began. Whereas the English debate had been conducted entirely online, the German debate was confined largely to the pages of the Feuilletons – the opinion columns in broadsheet newspapers. And I was amazed by the change in tone. The articles that appeared were written almost exclusively by white, male authors and were all vehemently opposed to the idea of a ‘German catechism’ about the Holocaust. They accused Moses and his acolytes of seeking to displace the Holocaust as a core component of German national identity, potentially of trying to downgrade its importance altogether, and of doing this for essentially political reasons: namely, opposition to the state of Israel.

So, what had looked like the end of the debate was actually the beginning of a new phase: one that can only be described as a backlash. Before long, esteemed historians of the Third Reich and the Holocaust had weighed in – Dan Diner, Götz Aly, Saul Friedländer – to reassert the Holocaust’s singularity. Götz Aly, in spite of having just written a book about the German colonial period, argued that Moses, Rothberg and Zimmerer were wrong to situate the Holocaust in relation to colonial atrocities.

These older historians’ rejection of any kind of Holocaust comparison has a lineage going back to the famous Historikerstreit, or ‘historians’ dispute’, of 1986–87, which was the first major debate on how the Holocaust should be remembered in German political culture. Back then it was the conservative historians who argued that the Holocaust should be understood in relation to other events: either as a reaction to Stalin’s gulag (Ernst Nolte), or set against the catastrophe inflicted on (non-Jewish) Germans by the reckless Nazi regime (Andreas Hillgruber). The Holocaust was not, therefore, a crime unique in history. In the Historikerstreit, it was the left-wing historians who asserted that the Holocaust was singular and insisted that it be remembered as a separate event in German history. In 2021, however, it was the left-wing historians arguing for Holocaust comparison and the conservative historians for its singularity. It’s more complicated than that, since what Nolte and Hillgruber were advocating was not so much comparison as relativization (making the Holocaust seem less important by equating it to something else), but nonetheless, there has been a certain reversal of positions.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas embodies this shift – as the only actor to have played a role in both the Historikerstreit and the Catechism Debate. In the former he argued famously for the Holocaust’s singularity; by 2021 he accepted that Germany’s memory culture should not be ‘frozen in ice’ and now needed to change to reflect the experiences of a more diverse population. His earlier position had been, he maintained, the product of a particular place and time, when the major threat was a nationalist tendency to downplay the Holocaust’s significance.

While the Catechism Debate has now cooled down, the questions it raises are so profound, so fundamental to the future of Holocaust studies (not to mention Germany’s political culture), that its effects are likely to be felt for some time. Let me end by posing three of these questions. Firstly, while there’s been a lot of hypothetical discussion about whether Holocaust comparison is appropriate, what would this comparison actually look like in practice? How would people react to a comparative study on, say, massacres that took place during the Holocaust and massacres that took place in European colonies? I haven’t yet seen many examples of this sort of study.

Secondly, is this debate just about Germany and Germany’s memory culture, or is there a broader ‘catechism’ when it comes to the Holocaust? Some US scholars speak of ‘Holocaust orthodoxy’, for example, and it would be revealing to look for similar concepts elsewhere.

And finally, we also need to think about why we study the Holocaust. What’s the end goal? Is it about preserving memory, or are we trying to prevent similar things from happening again in the future? Because if it’s the latter, I would argue that comparison is really the only way forwards.

The featured image adapts a photograph by Ank Kumar, provided under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.

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Joseph Cronin

Joseph Cronin is Lecturer in Modern German History at Queen Mary University of London. He specialises in modern German, Jewish and East European history, particularly Jewish life in Germany after the Holocaust, and on Jews who found refuge from Nazi persecution in South Asia. He is also interested in the histories of antisemitism, European socialism and, most broadly, the ways in which political decisions, policies and ideologies affect the lives of ordinary people. His most recent book is Russian-Speaking Jews in Germany’s Jewish Communities, 1990–2005 (2019).