OP-ED

Lwazi Lushaba and his Hitler analogy: The cul-de-sacs and conundrums of ‘competitive memory’

By Steven Robins 15 April 2021

Dr Lwazi Lushaba. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

University of Cape Town lecturer Dr Lwazi Lushaba’s extrapolation from Aimé Césaire’s writings suggests that the international human rights community only really took notice when white people (Germans) went about killing other white people (Jews). Given recent South African debates on the relationship between the Holocaust and black historical experiences of colonial and racial violence, it seems to me that a zero-sum competition is both an intellectual and political cul-de-sac.

It was recently reported in the Sunday Times that Dr Lwazi Lushaba told first-year University of Cape Town political science students in an online lecture that Hitler “committed no crime” because “all Hitler did was to do to the white people what white people had normally reserved for black people”. 

This article, which came out the day before Holocaust Memorial Day or Yom HaShoah, created consternation on social media and was seen by some to be yet another antisemitic expression of Holocaust denial.

After reading this account, I listened to the online lecture, which has been posted on Facebook, and it became very clear that the broader context of Dr Lushaba’s lecture had been ignored in the Sunday Times article. In fact, apart from a systematic contextualisation of the lecture by journalist Chris Roper, most media reporting on the statement did not in any way clarify the broader context of the lecture. As Roper notes, the reporting and social media reactions were based on 12 seconds of a 55-minute video lecture.

In an SAfm radio interview on 12 April, Dr Lushaba claimed that the Sunday Times journalist did not understand the academic context within which these statements were made. As Roper indicates, the wider context of the lecture, and the logic of Dr Lushaba’s overall argument, do not in any way support Holocaust denial, and he certainly does not seek to argue that Hitler and the Nazis committed no crime in their acts of genocidal violence.

Instead, the lecture is a critical reflection of the racial blind spots of his discipline of political science, and why it was only after the Holocaust that genocide came to be recognised by scholars and human rights lawyers as a crime against humanity. 

In my response below, I focus on another aspect of the broader academic context of the argument developed in Dr Lushaba’s lecture. I do this in the spirit of public dialogue and mutual respect for each other’s pain in the wake of histories of violence and trauma.

In the lecture, Dr Lushaba makes an argument about colonialism and the Holocaust that resonates with the ideas of Aimé Césaire, the anti-Fascist Francophone and Martinican poet, Afro-Caribbean author, politician and co-founder of the négritude movement in Francophone literature [Aimé Césaire, Discourse of Colonialism (Discours sur le colonialisme), Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955].

Dr Lushaba’s seeming extrapolation from Césaire’s 1955 essay, Discourse on Colonialism, suggests that the international human rights community only really took notice when white people (Germans) went about killing other white people (Jews). 

As he notes in the lecture, events such as the 1921 Bulhoek Massacre in the Eastern Cape, in which 163 members of Enoch Mgijima’s Israelites breakaway church were killed by South African police during a protest, and the Herero and Nama genocide (1904-1907), were not regarded as crimes against humanity. 

He asserted that these massacres did not draw the same kind of international condemnation because in these cases “black people were being killed by white people”. As he concludes in the lecture, “we should not privilege one massacre over the other”.

A number of Facebook responses were outraged by Dr Lushaba’s apparent trivialisation of the Holocaust by describing it to first-year students as merely an example of “white people killing other white people”. 

As the son of a German Jewish refugee whose parents and siblings were murdered in Auschwitz and Riga, I too was deeply hurt and angry when I initially read about the Holocaust being referred to as just an example of “white people killing other white people”. This was especially problematic to me as there is so much literature on the extreme racialisation and dehumanisation of European Jews during the Nazi era. 

Yet, upon listening to the lecture in its entirety, it is clear that Dr Lushaba’s argument is certainly not about Holocaust denial. In fact, the lecture raises substantive issues about the relationship between the Holocaust and black histories of colonial violence that are certainly worthy of academic and public debate.

Césaire was one of the key black intellectuals of the 20th century who sought to address the relationship between Nazism and colonialism. Césaire, who was anti-Fascist to the core, argued that Nazism was made possible by the normalisation of colonial violence and what he referred to as the “barbarism of colonialism”. (University of the Western Cape anthropologist Heike Becker initiated an interesting Facebook discussion on the problems with Dr Lushaba’s loose borrowing from the ideas of Césaire.)

For Césaire, Hitler’s rise to power was itself a product of the Western, Christian bourgeois culture of the 20th century. He adds that Nazism was not an exception in European history, but instead the result of a civilisation that justified colonisation without acknowledging the threat this posed towards creating the very conditions for Nazi savagery.

Dr Lushaba correctly calls attention to the erasure of black histories of colonial violence and contrasts this with the centrality in the public sphere of the history of the Holocaust. He is of course not the first to be caught up in controversy concerning comments on the relationship of the Holocaust to black historical experience of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. 

It is worthwhile considering another relatively recent example of this involving Black First Land First (BLF) activist, Andile Mngxitama. Although the content and circumstances of Mngxitima’s intervention differ quite significantly from the current debate surrounding Dr Lushaba, it provides a window on to how public debates and reactions on the relationship between the Holocaust and black historical experiences of colonial violence have unfolded in recent years in South Africa.

In August 2017, Mngxitama tweeted that the Holocaust was experienced by “white people” (ie, European Jews) for a mere moment, while black people had experienced five centuries of suffering. Mngxitama articulates a position that pits Jewish and black histories of collective suffering in direct competition with each other and insists that the centuries of suffering of the “black holocaust” have been ignored. He also positions Jews as simply “white people” who were, and are, complicit in colonialism, apartheid and the repression of Palestinians.

What this position implies is that Jews were/are not the “real victims”, and only black people can occupy that position by virtue of centuries of suffering. He also seems to imply that a massive international Holocaust memorial culture is responsible for erasing histories of black suffering. From this perspective, the status of Jews as white, middle class and connected to a powerful Israeli state that represses Palestinians negates their capacity to claim any relationship to a history of victimhood compared with the ongoing legacies of centuries of black suffering.

Some may argue that these kinds of perceptions are reinforced by an influential and well-resourced US and European-centred Holocaust memorial culture — of museums, memorials, films, theatre and books — that insists upon the historically unique character of the Holocaust, thereby rendering it incomparable with any other histories of genocide and violence.

Surely it is possible to acknowledge the traumatic histories of the Holocaust while simultaneously calling for more recognition of histories of systemic racism in South Africa and elsewhere? 

Michael Rothberg, whose book Multidirectional Memory was translated into German this year, argues that this taboo against comparison has been especially strong in contemporary Germany where the Holocaust is at the centre of national political and cultural identity (Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009).

What is the way out of this ideological and conceptual cul-de-sac? Can one simultaneously acknowledge both black and Jewish historical experiences of racism and suffering, in all their historical specificities, without resorting to hierarchies of suffering, facile comparison or arguments about absolute uniqueness?

It would seem that German civil society groups such as Berlin PostKolonial are doing precisely this when they highlight the unacknowledged historical connections between Germany and its colonies through their demands for changes to the colonial names of buildings and streets in Berlin and other German cities. Why then should this be so difficult?

Rothberg writes about a “zero-sum competition” between collective memories and commemorations of slavery, colonialism and anti-black racism on one side, and the Holocaust on the other. One of the examples he cites is the former Nation of Islam and later the New Black Panther Party leader Khalid Muhammud’s provocative public statement after visiting the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994: “The black holocaust was 100 times worse than the so-called Jew Holocaust. You say you lost six million… we lost 600 million. Schindler’s List is really a swindler’s list.” Rothberg calls for “multidirectional memory” as an antidote to this type of “zero-sum competition”.

By highlighting multidirectional memory networks and solidarities across these histories of racial violence, Rothberg has become the unfair target of recent accusations of relativising and trivialising the Holocaust. Yet Rothberg, himself Jewish and an established Holocaust studies scholar, does not in any way relativise, trivialise or equate the Shoah with other histories of violence. Neither does leading academic Achille Mbembe, who was also recently criticised in Germany on similar grounds. So why is acknowledging both Jewish and black histories of violence, pain and suffering so difficult and fraught?

Rothberg reminds us that in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, black and Jewish intellectuals had indeed identified continuities and connections between the Holocaust, colonialism and histories of anti-black racism. For example, in 1949, in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, the German Jewish refugee scholar, Hannah Arendt, used the concept of the “boomerang effect” to identify links between European imperialism and the Nazi genocide.

In 1950, in the essay titled Discourse of Colonialism, Aimé Césaire drew on the concept of “backlash” or “reverse shock” to describe the unanticipated debt of Nazi totalitarianism to colonialism. Two years later, in an article titled “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto”, African American scholar WEB du Bois rearticulated his concept of “double consciousness” to incorporate the historical experiences of European Jews.

Similarly, in my 2016 book, “Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa”, I identified continuities between German racial science and eugenics developed in the early 1900s in the German colony of South West Africa, and Nazi racial hygiene policies that ultimately led to the mass killings of Jews, Roma, Sinti and other victims of Nazism (also see David Olusoga & Caspar W Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide. London: Faber & Faber, 2010).

Given recent South African debates on the relationship between the Holocaust and black historical experiences of colonial and racial violence, it seems to me that a zero-sum competition is both an intellectual and political cul-de-sac.

By representing the Holocaust as “white people killing other white people”, Dr Lushaba ignores the profound racialisation of German Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. In other words, he essentialises “whiteness” by failing to acknowledge how German Jews were racially Othered and dehumanised, along with Roma and Sinti.

In Letters of Stone, I show how this decade-long systematic racialisation of Jews began in 1933 with the Nazi regime’s implementation of hundreds of racial hygiene laws and eugenics-based policies. I also show how, in the early 1900s, these racial policies were developed by the German scientist Dr Eugene Fischer in his “social laboratory” in Rehoboth in German South West Africa. Two decades later, Fischer’s policy recommendations were implemented by the Nazi state in relation to Jews, Roma and Sinti.

Even the Yiddish-speaking, working-class East European Jews who arrived at the tip of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were initially not seen to be “white enough” by the English establishment in the Cape, and they only really “became white” following their upward social mobility in the later decades of the 20th century.

Surely it is possible to acknowledge the traumatic histories of the Holocaust while simultaneously calling for more recognition of histories of systemic racism in South Africa and elsewhere? 

Similarly, it is surely possible for Jewish and white South Africans to do more to acknowledge black histories. This need for acknowledgement is especially important in a world in which anti-black racism is far from over. It is of course equally important for everyone, not only Germans, to acknowledge the ongoing pain of Jews, Roma, Sinti and numerous other victims of the Nazi genocide.

Given recent South African debates on the relationship between the Holocaust and black historical experiences of colonial and racial violence, it seems to me that a zero-sum competition is both an intellectual and political cul-de-sac.

Perhaps we can find a way out of this by learning from Césaire’s generation of postwar black intellectuals — they were able to translate their solidly anti-Fascist, anti-racist and internationalist commitments into a radical politics that paid close attention to the complicated historical connections between Europe’s “culture of barbarianism” in the colonies and its catastrophic expression in Nazi Europe.

In doing this, they were able to avoid facile hierarchies of suffering or zero-sum competition regarding these devastating histories of violence. Theirs is a critical intellectual legacy worth remembering, debating and teaching at this historical moment.

Hopefully, we can go beyond sensationalist and decontextualised media headlines and social media denunciations, and focus instead on these important debates of public concern. DM

Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.

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  • In this recognising of others’ histories, let’s not forget what the British did to the Boers in the concentration camps. Perhaps for some this was OK too, as it was white on white? In a way, most of us live with pain from the past. No point in comparisons; better to look forward and build a future.

  • You over-think the issue. The Holocaust and the historical treatment of blacks are two different things. Attacks on the “Jew Holocaust” is pure anti-semitism even when disguised as academic debate.

  • There is of course also Bauman’s analysis, Modernity and the Holocaust which traces the ‘provenance’ of the holocaust to modernity – a broader social analysis. And it resonates with Braidotti’s analysis of the “high-tech economy of cognitive capitalism (that) caused the problems in the first place”.

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