The Holocaust or Colonialism? Beyond Competition: Reflections on Holocaust Memory Studies

The blog category ‘Student Essays’ collects a selection of excellent student contributions which emerged from classes taught by our Potsdam Postcolonial Chairs. This essay was written in Prof. Sarah Casteel’s class Global Holocaust Memory (summer semester 2021), which examined how Holocaust memory circulates across national and cultural borders.

In his Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire discusses “a great deal about Hitler” (15). The reason is, the author tells us, that Hitler is a symbol of the incapacity of the capitalist society to establish a moral frame for the respect of human life. This 1950 seminal discourse questions European colonialism by emphasizing that Hitler merely reproduced against white people and in European lands the same violent system established in the colonies against non-white people. Césaire’s discourse, which contains crucial ideas subscribed by the major cultural and political movement of Negritude, draws upon perspectives from both the Holocaust and the slave trade.

The resonance of recent public debates suggests that, despite early exploration of the connections between these oppressions and violences, the links between the systems of Holocaust memory and those of other atrocities have not been absorbed. Examples of this are the ways to approach and absorb the waves from events like the Black Lives Matter movement, the discoveries of mass graves of Indigenous children in former residential schools in Canada, or the demands to reconsider if painful symbols belong in public spaces in cities across the world.

Recently, I came across a Facebook post shared by a man from the island of San Andres, in the Southwest Caribbean region. The post was about Brazil, a reminder of over three hundred years of slavery in the country and its results in today’s unequal society. A person who posted a comment claiming that the Jewish people had suffered more than the African diaspora during the time of the slave trade yet complained a lot less, motivated a discussion of over twenty more entries. The man and several other islanders highlighted the time and scope of the event each had chosen to champion, while resorting to arguments shaped by concealed, unconscious xenophobia and racism.

In the multidirectional realm of memory, according to Michael Rothberg’s framework, it is important to open spaces to question memory and to compare systematic and systemic violences across lines of History. Doing so speaks to Césaire’s call for a moral correction of capitalism to provide guarantees not only for white Europeans but for humanity as a whole. However, it is also crucial that public discursive spaces operate beyond competition, which is not only unnecessary, but a potential source of violence in itself.

In 1987 Caryl Phillips, a British author born in Saint Kitts, wrote about contrasts and double standards, expanding Césaire’s reflections. In his book The European Tribe, Phillips chronicled his visit to Amsterdam. When he first learned about concentration camps, a very young Phillips had asked himself: “If white people did that to white people, then what the hell would they do to me?” (67). Later, Phillips noticed that the diversity of the Dutch society was misleading. From Curacao, Aruba, Surinam or Indonesia, the presence of people from former colonies in Amsterdam working in prostitution or searching for drugs appeared to him as disproportionate. Still, Dutch contemporary racism and colonialism, suggested Phillips, was largely ignored, contrary to the awareness of the Holocaust, which tended to be blamed solely on the German Nazi regime.

Phillip’s work moves away from competition. His remarks are based on how memory of the Holocaust speaks to, and affects, the memory and awareness of the major atrocities that the African diaspora underwent, and the systemic vestiges of it. Phillips is also emotional and poetic. He recounts how Anne Frank’s Diary and the Secret Annex motivated identification, a memory of the Holocaust leading him to Amsterdam. There, he wonders about the Jewish experience of solitude and violent isolation from society, which is, ultimately, a shared effect from the silence on colonialism. In his work, Phillips suggests that revisiting sites of memory can shed light upon contemporary responsibilities regarding why racism has remained unquestioned for so long.

The debate is ongoing. Although the memory of the Holocaust has been central, the demystification of it is vital in times when hate crimes and ethnic divides are reemerging, to avoid diverting attention from revising the modes in which power and discourses operate today, in our countries, affecting the people around us.

So, how to have a sensitive conversation around the interaction of different traumatic collective memories? Threading from the common grounds, that is. Abstraction can help, and so did Césaire with the notion of the moral, general, responsibility of capitalism—a system instead of a single personality. This is a hint on how to engage in public debates, considering the many implications that doing so has, in a world increasingly shaken by the diverse applications of colonialisms. To explore further in the field of Holocaust Memory Studies, it was Max Silverman in 2015 who introduced the notion of the poetics of memory, the palimpsestic memory, constructive, non-essentialist, that facilitates encounters instead of cancellation. What do the Jews, the African Diaspora, Indigenous communities and other victims of atrocities all have in common? Is there a better way to remember? What are the triggers to greater recognition of traumatic events? In the Facebook thread in the Southwestern Caribbean, these questions never emerged.

Cristina Bendek Gamez


Works Cited

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press, 1972. pp. 14-25.

Phillips, Caryl. “Anne Frank’s Amsterdam.” The European Tribe. Faber and Faber, 1987. pp. 66-71.

Silvermann, Max. “The Politics and Poetics of Memory.” Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film. Berghahn Books, 2015. pp. 11-38.  

Cite this article as: [author lastname, author firstname], "The Holocaust or Colonialism? Beyond Competition: Reflections on Holocaust Memory Studies," in Global Modernities, 01/10/2021,

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