The Uniqueness of the Shoah and the Postcolonial Challenge to German Memory Culture

The Uniqueness of the Shoah and the Postcolonial Challenge to German Memory Culture
Dr Urs Lindner (University of Erfurt, Germany)
23.02.2023, 16h (Finnish time)

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Since spring 2020, German memory culture is shaken by a highly polemical controversy about the relationship between Nazi and colonial crimes, between Holocaust memory and postcolonialism, which is frequently framed as a second “Historikerstreit”. The controversy started with antisemitism allegations against Achille Mbembe, when he was invited to a cultural festival in the Ruhr area, continued on occasion of the German translation of Michael Rothberg’s book on multidirectional memory and Dirk Moses’ polemic against the “Catechism of the Germans”, and erupted again with the Documenta in Kassel, Germany’s most prestigious art exhibition, where a banner of the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi had to be removed due to an antisemitic picture element.

One topic that has constantly popped up in all these contestations is the thesis of the uniqueness/singularity of the Shoah, the view that the Nazi genocide of European Jewry was an unprecedented crime in world history. In fall 2022, the German foreign ministry announced with regard to its cultural institutions abroad that “the uniqueness of the Shoah must not be questioned at any point in time”. One of the several things that are problematic with this announcement is that it remains unclear what the “uniqueness of the Shoah” exactly means and what it implies.

The talk will provide a critical reconstruction of the uniqueness thesis, presenting some results from a recently started research on its philosophy and history. First, it is examined what kind of statement the uniqueness thesis actually is. Second, six of its versions, which have been prominently championed during the last fifty years, are differentiated. Third, it is discussed whether the uniqueness thesis necessarily implies – as postcolonial critics have argued – a hierarchy and competition of victimhood. Fourth, the normative consequences of the uniqueness thesis are addressed, especially with regard to the universalization of Holocaust memory. Fifth, the question about its future role in German memory culture is raised. The general thrust of the argument is that the uniqueness thesis and postcolonial perspectives need not be antagonistic, but may mutually enrich each other, thereby contributing to a more self-critical, reflective and inclusive German memory culture.

Urs Lindner is a philosopher at the Max-Weber-Kolleg of the University of Erfurt. Currently, he is finishing his habilitation/second book, which is on the egalitarian justification of affirmative action. During the last years, he has also been an activist in local civil society initiatives, which aim at coming to terms with Germany’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. In a new research project, he is investigating the history and the philosophical implications of the uniqueness thesis of the Shoah. First results of this research have been published recently in the German journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft under the title “Die Singularität der Shoah und die postkoloniale Herausforderung der deutschen Erinnerungskultur“. See here:

Last updated: 15.2.2023