Deviation: The Present Orders

From the Series: The Politics of Memory

Photo by rh2ox, licensed under CC BY SA.

“The events of 1933 have occurred once and for all, but the experiences which are based upon them can change over time.” (Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past)

In the previous two posts of this series we read about present politics struggling to create new bright futures out of the shadows of violent pasts. Rosalind Shaw’s provocation demonstrates how a politics of future-making is highly dependent on the commemoration of past events. The war in Sierra Leone is returned to by virtue of narrative. Also time is re-set for the purposeful synchronization of individuals and the nation in order to forge a “trajectorist temporality.” Shaw concludes that narrative memories are at the heart of synchronization as techniques of post-conflict productions of the future. Noa Vaisman translates the question of synchronization into one of imagination. It seems that the concept of synchronization is discomforting for Vaisman. Synchronization figures in Vaisman’s post as an imposed political project by institutions on their political subjects. The narratives of violent events do not return to the past in a linear fashion; rather, they detour through other historical events and, in so doing, disrupt a linear temporality of the remembered national atrocities. Thus, Vaisman argues, one can inquire into the kinds of futures forged in relation to the violent past by considering how imagination features in their articulation.

But what if the time of war, crime, and violence had an origin one could return to, but each return would be under a different guise? It is true that nation-states construct the future in a linear fashion in empty homogeneous time. Nonetheless, they strive and work towards the future, just to envision an entirely different future in the wake of a new present. Hence, I propose that we rethink the categories of past and future, to reconsider them from a phenomenological perspective by considering how commemoration features in the production of political subjects in the present. While both Shaw and Vaisman seem to implicitly recognize the central role of the present in ordering past and future, here I would like to address this centrality more directly and explicitly.

As the historian Reinhart Koselleck notes, past and future may never coincide, but they are present-centered (2004:260). The past in this approach is a “space of experience” and incorporates events that can be remembered (Koselleck 2004: 259). As such, it provides the possibility to draw from it, to rework it and offers certain modes of conduct that need not to be conscious. The future, then, is conceptualized as the “horizon of expectation” similarly taking place in the present as a way to directing oneself toward that imaginary future that itself keeps moving further away with the ever promise of the “not-yet” to come. The future, as a thing made by expectation, is subject to shifting emotions and feelings, such as fear and hope, wishes and desires, cares. The categories of experience and expectation are subjective and intersubjective pertaining to individuals as well as to national collectives.

The genocide of European Jewry during the National Socialist-regime is a case in point. The memory of the Holocaust has been subject to several political shifts in Germany that have changed the experience of the Holocaust, the forms of commemoration, and influenced the expectation of a national future.

In the current political context, remembering the Holocaust has become the grounds for political participation, tolerance education, anti-Semitism prevention, and integration for Muslims into German society. At a time in which the German government is most keenly investing public money into gigantic memorials and museums that display and exhibit the history of an irreversible crime, it is also extricating itself from that crime and celebrating its self-proclaimed transition from a totalitarian regime into a liberal democracy. In the official narratives, as it is voiced by German politicians, intellectuals and historians, Germans have become a nation in spite of their peculiar relation to their difficult history. The desires to be a unified nation seem to be fulfilled.

For the German public, this unity would have been achieved, if it were not for the presence of the Muslim minority. The current expectation among German politicians within the entire political spectrum holds that Muslims in Europe in general – and particularly so in Germany – might not become assimilated nationals, despite their formal citizenship. This horizon of potential disintegration is counteracted by cultural education for newly immigrated Muslims, as well as special citizen tests for naturalizing Muslims.

My own research focuses on adolescents and selected groups of Muslims to commemorate the Holocaust in its everyday aspects. These mostly entail teaching stories of help, survival, civil courage, and resistance to authoritarian structures. Stories of “silent heroes” who hid Jews, who went against their society, and who had agency to resist the collective madness are exemplary of a more positive reading of the old past. Program instructors narrate these stories in order to create a sense of historical consciousness and abstract responsibility.Yet, these Muslims - who are themselves subject to Islamophobia, racism, and even verbal harassment in their daily live - relate to the history of Jewish persecution in complex ways that are markedly different from what is expected of them. Paradigmatically, many of them identify with the victims in stark contrast to the program’s core message: namely, that they are not victims but citizens who can act! Muslim participants are encouraged to think of themselves as agents of change in a liberal society. Yet, those participants who most sincerely identify with the content of the program do so by virtue of their own current experiences of racism.

Here, the same past provides two different simultaneous spaces of experience. Within the general German discourse it is a space that currently provides positive stories of helpers, the possibility of re-discovering the morally good, and the reassurance that society has become more tolerant since 1933. For the addressed Muslims, the past is a space of experience that opens itself up to current experiences of racism and religious discrimination.

The presence of the past is overshadowed by gloomy expectations of the future. As Shaw pointed out in her post, a politics of futurity does not break with the past; it re-defines the relationship with it. In addition, as I tried to demonstrate it opens up new relations within the space of experience for different groups. Vaisman’s point therefore that there might be a divide between the political imposition and the social imagination of the past is well taken. In this case it seems to be almost impossible to imagine a future horizon unthreatened by anti-liberal Nazis, in the form of Muslims. In order for the German majority to hope for a peaceful future, Muslims will need to be further regulated in the politics of memory. At the heart of this all is an uneven power dynamic that is at once both social and presentist working through uneven temporal relations that subsume the spaces of experiences to the horizons of expectation.

For many of those participants, who engage with these programs the images and stories of terror were sites of identification and compassion with the victims. So far, I have only met one educator who recognizes this asymmetrical comparison as a form of legitimate engagement with the past. It remains to be researched what kind of mnemonic excess these programs produce for the participants. What kind of own experiences are matched with a past unlived? What kind of futures are envisioned and directed to? But perhaps most importantly what kind of political subjectivities are produced both for Muslims and Christians in Germany in the absence of European Jewry? How can we think then the politics of memory in conjunction with a politics of citizenship?

Sultan Doughan is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her doctoral research focuses on the Muslim question in post-Socialist Germany in relation to a troubling national past. Her topics of interest include Islam, Europe, secularism, citizenship, memory, temporality, trauma, subjectivity, and embodiment.


Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe, New York:Columbia University Press, 2004.