Exploring the fraught nature of memory and comparison

Michael Rothberg poses for a portrait under the arches of Royce Hall.

David Wu/UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies

Michael Rothberg: “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.”

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.”

Read the full story, including an interview with Michael Rothberg, on UCLA Newsroom.