From why historical analogies matter to the trouble with comparisons, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Peter E. Gordon
New York Review of Books
n June 24, 2019, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a formal statement that it “unequivocally rejects the efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” The statement came in response to a video posted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, in which she had referred to detention centers for migrants on the US southern border as “concentration camps.” If the historical allusion wasn’t already apparent, she added a phrase typically used in reference to the genocide of European Jewry: “Never Again.” Always a favorite target of right-wing politicians, Ocasio-Cortez drew a scolding retort from Liz Cheney, the Republican Congresswoman from Wyoming, who wrote on Twitter: “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” In the ensuing social media storm, the statement by the Holocaust Memorial Museum against historical analogies gave the unfortunate appearance of partisanship, as though its directors meant to suggest that Cheney was right and Ocasio-Cortez was wrong.
Much of this might have been a tempest in the tweet-pot were it not for the fact that, on July 1, 2019, an international group of scholars published an open letter on The New York Review of Books website expressing their dismay at the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s statement and urging its director to issue a retraction. “The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical,” they wrote. “Scholars in the humanities and social sciences rely on careful and responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison, and argumentation to answer questions about the past and the present.” Signed by nearly 600 scholars, many working in fields related to Jewish studies, the letter was restrained but forthright. “The very core of Holocaust education,” it said, “is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering.” The museum’s categorical dismissal of the legitimacy of analogies to other events was not only ahistorical, it also inhibited the public at large from considering the moral relevance of what had occurred in the past. Granting the possibility of historical analogies and “pointing to similarities across time and space,” they warned, “is essential for this task.” [continue reading]
I thought of myself as calm. Competing for a grant that paid for three years of graduate study at any university in the nation seemed straightforward, even though $100,000 was at stake and I had at most $500 in savings. The interview should have been easy, plus I was hard to rattle.
My nerves did not forewarn me that they were not in agreement.
On the flight to San Francisco in 1983 I reviewed what the panel might ask. I needed to explain why I wished to earn a Ph.D. in history even though my major and minors had been in literature, philosophy, and political science, and I had taken only three electives in history. The professor who taught those three classes was the most interesting one I had ever had, and he convinced me to switch disciplines for graduate school. Everything had been in preparation for the study of U.S. foreign relations, a bright and promising endeavor where I could apply all my tools. [continue reading]
U.S. President Donald Trump praised the famously anti-Semitic Henry Ford’s “good bloodlines” during a visit on Thursday to a Ford plant in Michigan. “The company [was] founded by a man named Henry Ford,” Trump said in remarks at the plant. “Good bloodlines, good bloodlines. If you believe in that stuff, you got good blood.”
Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Co., was one of the most influential anti-Semitic figures in American public life in the early 20th century. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called on the president to apologize, saying Ford “was an antisemite and one of America’s staunchest proponents of eugenics.” [continue reading]
Twenty-three years after the end of colonial rule in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has announced that it is imposing a long-dreaded “national security” law on the territory, effectively criminalizing dissent. Just as stunning as the content of the law is how it will be passed: Instead of moving through Hong Kong’s legislature—which is already rigged in favor of the city’s unpopular pro-Beijing establishment—the law will be enacted unilaterally by China’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. It’s a declaration of both the law’s incontestability and Beijing’s total authority over Hong Kong and its people.
Something profound has been lost. It is not democracy, because Hong Kong was never democratic. It is not autonomy, because Hong Kong never enjoyed self-determination. It is certainly not the will to resist; as I write this, activists are already planning a full calendar of mass protests, determined to fight until the bitter end. [continue reading]
New York Review of Books
In the 1980s, German intellectual life was very much agitated by something called the “historian’s dispute” (Historikerstreit). It began when Free University of Berlin professor Ernst Nolte—an unknown high-school teacher before he wrote a brilliant comparative study of fascism in the 1960s—insulted Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander at a dinner party.
As it unfolded, the dispute concerned many things. It started with Nolte’s pernicious suggestion that the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann had declared war in 1939 on Germany on behalf of the Jewish people, as if that licensed what Germany did next. The dispute proceeded through Nolte’s contention that Adolf Hitler had acted in response to Josef Stalin’s prior atrocities, as if two wrongs could make a right. But a major part of the dispute turned on the propriety of comparison. It was about the plausibility of analogizing National Socialism to other phenomena before and after. [continue reading]