Illustration Moa Thelander

Illustration Moa Thelander

Essays The Holocaust, post-colonial studies, and German politics of memory Historians in a new dispute

Ashort article by the Australian historian Dirk Moses published on May 23, 2021, in the Swiss journal Geschichte der Gegenwart has sparked a heated debate among German intellectuals and historians on the singularity of the Holocaust. The debate partly presents itself as an updated version of the German historians’ debate (Historikerstreit) from the late 1980s.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 14-17
Published on on January 24, 2022

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Ashort article by the Australian historian Dirk Moses published on May 23, 2021, in the Swiss journal Geschichte der Gegenwart has sparked a heated debate among German intellectuals and historians on the singularity of the Holocaust. The debate partly presents itself as an updated version of the German historians’ debate (Historikerstreit) from the late 1980s. Back then, West German conservative historians, most prominently Ernst Nolte, had argued for considering National Socialist war crimes and the Holocaust to be a mere consequence of and reaction to Stalinist atrocities committed in the Soviet Union. Nolte suggested that the Gulag was a model for Auschwitz and called the Holocaust an “Asian deed”. Soon, the historian found his most prominent opponent in the philosopher Jürgen Habermas who accused Nolte and others of historical revisionism and of diminishing the horrors of the Holocaust. Habermas was supported by influential West German historians such as Jürgen Kocka, Hans Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Heinrich August Winkler. Other intellectuals and leading West German newspapers positioned themselves, too, turning a scientific dispute between historians into a fundamental debate on German post-war identity, German guilt and the singularity of the Holocaust. When the discursive waves had calmed down, West German society settled on a memory policy grounded in the understanding of the Holocaust as ‘rupture of civilisation’ and singular event.

During the past decades, the singularity of the Holocaust and its role for post-war German identity and German memory politics has been questioned several times. The publication by Dirk Moses, however, sticks out as this time the rhetorical attack is launched by a researcher from the political left. Moses is professor of global human rights history at the university of North Carolina in the US and has published extensively within the fields of postcolonial studies and genocide studies. In contrast to Nolte, Moses does not pursue a revisionist approach but urges letting go the hypothesis of the singularity of the Holocaust in order to be able to acknowledge the atrocities of other modern, particularly colonial genocides.

In his article, Moses polemically refers to the German policy of remembrance as a “catechism”, which he sees protected by “self-appointed high priests”, criticism of whom is met with “public exorcism”. According to Moses, the German catechism consists of the following five convictions: Firstly, since the Holocaust was pursued exclusively for ideological reasons and lacked any pragmatic reasoning it cannot be compared with other genocides. Secondly, remembering the Holocaust as a singular “rupture of civilisation” represents the moral basis for Germany or even the entire European civilisation. Thirdly, Germany bears a special responsibility for Jews living in Germany and is obliged to loyalty towards Israel. Fourth, anti-Semitism needs to be considered as an ideology sui generis and not a mere variation of racism; fifth, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. According to Moses, since the beginning of the new millennium this catechism has been adopted by millions of Germans as salvation history, with the Holocaust functioning as a “holy trauma.” Since this trauma and its processing has legitimized the very existence of post-war Germany, it must not be weakened or relativized by the comparison with other atrocities such as colonial genocides. Moses identifies a “commemorative orthodoxy” where the remembrance of the Holocaust fulfils the function of salvation, paving the way for the German nation back to the geopolitical stage. By flagging its successful memory politics, Moses argues, Germany could once again take on “its role as beacon of civilisation,” stand “proudly side by side with the other nations” and could “be respectfully patted on the head by the political classes of Israel and the United States.”

According to Moses, the commemorative catechism is clearly expressed in recent German politics: “German elites instrumentalize the Holocaust in order to neglect other historical crimes”, he states, referring to the atrocities committed by German colonial troops in what is today the state of Namibia. Moses draws on research by Jürgen Zimmerer and Michael Rothberg, among others, who have outlined a direct connection between the German colonial genocide and the Holocaust. In international research, this line of argumentation is not new. However, not least because Rothberg’s book has only recently been translated into German, it presents itself as new for a broader German public. As another problematic consequence of the “catechism,” Moses points out Germany’s position in the Middle East conflict and its approach to Palestinians and other Muslims now living in Germany. Today, the largest Palestinian diaspora in all of Europe is located in Berlin. Not least due to the fact that more and more young Germans have a migration background and/or Muslim roots, the catechism of Holocaust remembrance, Moses argues, no longer reflects the younger generations’ reality. “It is good that there is a Holocaust memorial in Berlin,” he states. “However, the country has changed.”

Reactions to Moses’ article were strong, at least partly due to the polemic style. In an article published on July 7, 2021, in Die Zeit, Saul Friedländer, still one of the world’s most famous historians specialising in Holocaust studies, contradicted Moses emphatically. It was wrong, Friedländer argued, to present the singularity of the Holocaust as an issue of interpretation rather than as historical fact since the Holocaust differed fundamentally from all colonial atrocities. Furthermore, Friedländer sharply asked Moses to take notice of frequent anti-Semitic utterances and actions, not least within the context of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Against this background, Friedländer commented, it was more than problematic to question Holocaust remembrance from the stance of post-colonial studies and to vaguely criticize “American and Israeli elites.” Volkhard Knigge, historian and former director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, expressed his critique likewise in Die Zeit. “I do not understand why one needs to downplay or side-line the Holocaust in order to remember other crimes,“ Knigge stated and argued that, on the contrary, intense Holocaust remembrance would strengthen awareness for all kind of atrocities. Götz Aly, best known outside of Germany for his study Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, also rejected Moses’ claim of a “remembrance catechism”. In Germany, Aly stated, the commemoration of the Holocaust had developed slowly and bit by bit into “a movement with broad social support”; it was not controlled “from above”. In an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine, historian Omer Bartov, himself a critic of the idea of the ‘singularity of the Holocaust’, considered Moses’ line of argumentation to be a new kind of historical revisionism. Even more aggressively, the conservative historian Michael Wolffsohn called Moses’ article an expression of “anti-Semitism from the left.” So, what should one think of Moses’ claims?

To be sure: Moses is an experienced and well-read researcher who is unlikely to pursue a hidden anti-Semitic agenda. Furthermore, Moses’ sharp critique of German Erinnerungskultur has revived the overdue debate on German national identity at a time when more than one in four Germans has a migration background. However, Moses’ critique is not only sharp, it is also multidimensional. And this is precisely where the problem lies. On one hand, Moses criticizes the political uses and misuses of history in recent political debate. He identifies one such misuse of history in Germany’s hesitation to speak out for the rights of the Palestinian people and to criticize Israeli settlement policy more firmly. He sees it in Germany’s long-term reluctance to acknowledge that German colonial troops committed genocide when mass-murdering Herero and Nama in the early 20th century. Furthermore, Moses denounces German moral presumptuousness towards young Germans with a migration background whose main concern is not the remembrance of the Holocaust but another kind of individual or collective suffering. Unquestionably, these observations are worth considering. It proves, however, problematic that Moses combines his critique on the uses of history with the scientific debate on the singularity of the Holocaust. In his research, Moses has claimed to denote the Holocaust as genocide, and not as an event sui generis. According to Moses, all genocides in history are the result of paranoid security concerns. Hence, Nazi anti-Semitism should also be considered as nothing but an extreme version of such a paranoid struggle. Moses asks research to point out more clearly the continuities between European colonial policy and National Socialist policy, both in the prevailing ideologies and in the manner of their murderous implementation. These arguments, which have been part of the scientific debate since the 1990s, have been responded to, among many others, by Yehuda Bauer, who pointed out the singularity of the Holocaust due to “the ideological, global, and total character of the genocide of the Jews.” Certainly, it is fruitful to continue this scientific debate. By connecting it with a critique of the political (mis-)uses of history, however, Moses takes up a problematic position.

The ambitions of postcolonial studies to question existing power structures and to reveal hegemonic patters of thinking are honourable and could also add to the field of Holocaust studies. When applying this approach to memory policy, however, it is important to remember that within the German context, the initial impetus for coming to terms with the war crimes of National Socialism, and above all the Holocaust, came from below. The same memory policy which Moses now renounces as “catechism” was originally an uprising against the ruling political, economic, and cultural elites in post war Germany, large parts of which had been entangled in the Nazi regime. In many cases, this uprising took place within the family with the younger generation questioning their own parents’ role in Nazi society. To be sure, grassroot movements can also gain hegemonic status, and if that has become the case, they need to be critically questioned and reconstructed. So be it with the recent German memory policy. Its roots, however, should not be overlooked.

Furthermore, it appears that Moses — maybe because he does not live and work in Germany — fails to see in which direction the German debate on memory policy is heading right now. In 2017, Björn Höcke, the head of right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland in Thüringen, demanded “a turn by 180 degrees in memory politics.” Alexander Gauland, head of the federal AfD, claimed that the years between 1933 and 1945 did “not concern our [German] identity anymore.” Instead, Germans had the right, “to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” In 2018, Gauland called National Socialism just “a splash of bird shit” in German history. Even though the AfD lost support in the national elections in September 2021, the party still accounts for more than 10% of all votes nationwide. In Thüringen and Sachsen, the AfD even turned out to be the strongest party, overtaking both CDU and Social Democrats. Intellectual deconstruction of supposedly dominant patterns of thinking can be seen as an act of grassroot democracy. However, all deconstruction is followed by reconstruction. Moses may have had good intentions in deconstructing the supposed German “catechism”. But since he misses out the step of putting the pieces together again, actors from the extreme right will be delighted to do this. What their reconstruction of memory policy looks like with regards to German colonial crimes can be read in a motion submitted to parliament by the AfD in December 2019: The party suggests “processing the German colonial era in cultural and political terms in a nuanced way”. Although Germans had executed “disproportionate severity and cruelty” against Herero and Nama, it was “by no means a genocide.” Instead, the “beneficial aspects of the German colonial era” should again be given “more space in memory policy.”

Maybe it is worth dusting off a text by German historian Bernd Faulenbach which he wrote in 1995, still under the impression of the German re-unification, with regard to the question how Germany should come to terms with its dual past — a past which included both National Socialist and socialist dictatorships. Faulenbach saw the need for a “collective memory, which preserves diverse and contradictory memories of the different pasts of the 20th century without levelling out the importance of National Socialism.” Such a collective memory, however, should “include resistant and democratic agency,“ and it would “raise the everlasting task of guaranteeing human and civil rights in Germany every day.” A similar thought might be a solution for the recent debate, too. Memory policy is no zero-sum game. It can include different memories. Its focus, however, should be the present and the future.


  1. Dirk Moses, “Der Katechismus der Deutschen”, Geschichte der Gegenwart, May 23, 2021, accessed October 21, 2021,
  2. Ernst Nolte, “Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6, 1986.
  3. Jürgen Habermas, “Eine Art Schadensabwicklung,” Die Zeit, July 11, 1986.
  4. Dan Diner (ed.), Zivilisationsbruch: Denken nach Auschwitz, (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1988).
  5. Moses, “Katechismus.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Earlier this year, the German government officially recognized the genocide of Herero and Nama committed by German troops from 1904—1908 and assured payments of 1.1 billion euros to the Namibian government. In order to prevent creating a binding precedent, however, German government decided to execute this payment in the form of development aid and not as reparations to the descendants of the victims. “Deutschland erkennt Völkermord an,” Tagesschau, accessed October 21, 2021,
  9. Michael Rothberg, Multidirektionale Erinnerung. Holocaustgedenken im Zeitalter der Dekolonisierung (Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2021); Jürgen Zimmerer, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust (Berlin: LitVerlag, 2011).
  10. Moses, “Katechismus.”
  11. Saul Friedländer, “Ein fundamentamentales Verbrechen,” Die Zeit, July 7, 2021, accessed October 31, 2021,
  12. Christian Staas and Elisabeth von Tadden, “Wie gerecht ist unser Denken? Interview mit Dirk Moses und Volkhart Knigge”, Die Zeit, June 30, 2021, accessed October 31, 2021,
  13. Götz Aly, “Es gibt nichts, was deckungsgleich mit dem Holocaust wäre,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, July 13, 2021, accessed October 31, 2021,
  14. Omar Bartov, “Blinde Flecke,” Frankfurter Allgemeine , October 13, 2021, accessed October 31, 2021,
  15. Michael Wolffsohn, “Jetzt kommen Holocaust-Relativierer auch von links,” Die Welt, August 17, 2021, accessed October 31, 2021, 233186137/Vergleich-mit-Kolonialverbrechen-Jetzt-kommen-Holocaust-Relativierer-auch-von-links.html
  16. In 2020, 26.7% of the German population had a migration background, here defined as being born without German citizenship or having at least one parent being born without German citizenship. Cp. Statistisches Bundesamt, “Migration und Integration,” accessed October 31, 2021,
  17. Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2001), 50.
  18. Björn Höcke, speech in Dresden on January 17, 2017, in: 17.01.2017: Dresdner Gespräche mit Björn Höcke — YouTube; Alexander Gauland, speech at Kyffhäuser memorial on September 2, 2017, Alexander Gauland’s controversial speech at the 2017 Kyffhäusertreffen, AfD, English subtitles — YouTube; Alexander Gauland, speech in Seebach on June 2, 2018, Dr. Alexander Gaulands Vogelschiss-Rede beim Bundeskongress der Jungen Alternative am 02.06.2018 – YouTube.
  19. Der Bundeswahlleiter, Bundestagswahl 2021, accessed October 31, 2021,
  20. Alice Weidel, Alexander Gauland und AfD-Fraktion: “Antrag,” September 12, 2019, Deutscher Bundestag, printed matter 19/15784, accessed October 31, 2021,
  21. Bernd Faulenbach, “Die doppelte ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung.’ Nationalsozialismus und Stalinismus als Herausforderungen zeithistorischer Forschung und politischer Kultur,” in Die geteilte Vergangenheit. Zum Umgang mit Nationalsozialismus und Widerstand in beiden deutschen Staaten, ed. Jürgen Danyel (Berlin: Akademie Berlin, 1995), 124.
  • by Ann-Judith Rabenschlag

    PhD in History and postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History at Stockholm University. Current research concerns historical semantics (discourse analysis, conceptual history); migration, integration, intercultural communication; identity building in societies and nations. She has a focus on modern European history.

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