A living story told from innumerable perspectives, history is largely shaped by the way it is remembered. But when traditionally accepted versions of history are challenged or expanded, it can be frightening and even destabilizing — both to people and to societies.
Michael Rothberg, UCLA’s 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Professor of Holocaust Studies, was one of the first scholars to recognize and write about the troubling, disruptive echoes that linked remembrances of the Holocaust and the end of European colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s.
Rothberg’s most globally influential book to date, “Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization,” was published in 2009. A formative work in the then-new field of memory studies, the book’s premise is that there is value in widening collective cultural memory to explore how people look back at events like the Holocaust not as outliers, but alongside the remembrance of other traumatic historical events.
Twelve years after its U.S. publication, in 2021, a translation was published in Germany, and the book caused a national uproar. In an unusual turn of events for a primarily scholarly work, it attracted widespread attention in the mainstream German press. Journalists and commentators attacked “Multidirectional Memory” for proposing that, as a matter of scholarship, the Holocaust could be analyzed in relation to other cataclysmic events rather than as a unique and unparalleled civilizational rupture.
“Globally, there are many examples of the sort of comparative or multidirectional memory that I describe in my book, where people have remembered the Holocaust alongside other forms of political violence, like slavery and colonialism,” said Rothberg, who in April won a Guggenheim Fellowship. “But in Germany, it’s considered dangerous to associate the Holocaust with these other historical episodes. It’s perceived as threatening to the consensus about history that they’ve established there.”
In the months after the German translation was published, Rothberg — who also is a professor of English and chair of UCLA’s comparative literature department — found himself defending his approach in articles for German media, taking part in various interviews and podcasts and speaking at public and scholarly events.
“It was definitely exciting to see my work taken up by a broad public, but it was also sobering to see how difficult it can be to translate scholarly work for a general readership in a different national context.”
Although the book did not focus on Germany, the timing of its translation hit a nerve because it coincided with a debate about Germany’s lack of accountability for its colonialism in Africa — in particular, the perpetration of the Herero and Namaqua genocide between 1904 and 1908 in what is now Namibia, the first genocide of the 20th century.
That Germany’s debate about the relationship between the Holocaust and colonialism played out in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that echoed across the United States and world was not coincidental, Rothberg said.
“My book’s contribution — which is why some people found it disturbing but others embraced it — was to say that you don’t have to give up memory of the Holocaust in order to also remember colonialism. You don’t have to give up the fight against antisemitism to also fight against racism,” he said. “These different phenomena and these different histories are actually interwoven with each other. That’s one of the reasons American protests about police violence resonated so strongly in so many different parts of the world.”
Informed by his experience navigating Germany’s reaction to his work, Rothberg is devoting his Guggenheim fellowship to reflect on the firestorms that can emerge when people draw analogies between historical events.
He will explore “comparison controversies” including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of detention centers at the U.S.–Mexico border to concentration camps on Twitter in 2019, the adoption of Holocaust-inspired Jewish stars by anti-vaccination protesters, the labeling by some progressive scholars of former President Donald Trump as a fascist, and the idea that climate change could be described as a genocide.
“These kinds of comparisons and analogies are not going away in our public discourse,” said Rothberg, who co-organized the UCLA Working Group in Memory Studies in 2018. “Even though it is very clear that some are simply wrong, there are many others that deserve a more nuanced discussion. There’s a lot at stake, because it has to do with how nations confront their pasts, how societies address various forms of prejudice in the present, and how we imagine future threats to the planet.”
Recognizing and honoring that responsibility is especially important, he said, because the privilege of memory carries with it a burden that all humanity must shoulder together.
“As critical as I am about some aspects of the way that Germans now remember the Holocaust, they’ve done more to confront their difficult pasts than we have in the United States,” he said. “It’s imperative for Americans to look more honestly at our own past — in terms of slavery, in terms of the genocide of Indigenous people — and to confront the afterlives of those histories in the present.”
The potential real-world impact of academic research is never far from Rothberg’s thoughts. As the world confronts climate change and other major global challenges, he said, there is much to be gained by better understanding the complex shadows cast by history.
“Even as we face new challenges, history can provide resources for thinking about any situation, no matter how uncertain,” Rothberg said. “Many of us in the humanities are working on issues that have a very clear, real-world significance, and it is our responsibility to communicate our contributions broadly to the general public — even if that comes with some risks.”