Instead of Comparing


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October 19, 2020

Instead of Comparing

Six thoughts about engaging with a post-historical past

By Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

  • child parent separation
  • child separation
  • Democracy
  • WWII


“History” as an academic discipline – and I am trying to articulate a possible vanishing point of Reinhart Koselleck’s life work here – “History” as a discipline would never have come into being without the existence of the  “historical world view” as a specific social construction of temporality (we can call it a specific “chronotope”) with its own relationship to the past. The historical worldview had emerged during the decades around 1800 and soon rose to a sufficiently dominant position within Western cultures to be confused with “the only possible” or “the only correct” understanding of time. Different from other chronotopes, the historical world view, in the first place, conceived of the future as an open horizon of possibilities from which humans believed they could choose. Secondly, it understood the past as a dimension that was progressively receding behind us and thus losing its orientational value for the present. Between this past and that future, thirdly, the present appeared to be an “imperceptibly short moment of transition,” a moment of transition that was occupied, in the fourth place, by a Cartesian version of human self-reference as pure consciousness. Finally, the historical world view presupposed that time operated as an inevitable agent of one-directional change whose regularities could be identified and thus serve as a basis for the projection of prognostics into the future. Due to the fifth – and probably decisive – implication of time being an inevitable agent of chance (this is what we are mainly referring to when we use the word “history”), the historical world view and History as a discipline had always cultivated a deep skepticism (rather than an explicit prohibition) towards any type of comparison between different times and their phenomena. After all, the assumption of an ongoing linear change as the most elementary and basic form of temporality seemed to be at odds with looking for similarities between different moments in the past and did indeed exclude different situations or different events of the past from being subsumed under identical concepts. Any historical operation of comparing was therefore under suspicion of being “anachronistic” within the intellectual practice of History as a discipline.


While academic “History” may never have escaped the long shade of the historical world view, I am convinced that the latter has been progressively replaced, during the second half of the twentieth century and most palpably during the past thirty years, by a different chronotope that we can call “our broad present” and that now underlies “global culture” (understood as a projection of Western culture that is both firmly kept alive and limited in its extension by the daily practice of electronic communication). The broad present’s future, instead of being an open horizon of possibilities to choose from (as had been the case in the historical world view), appears to be occupied by multiple threats that are approaching the present (e.g. global warming, demographic development, exhaustion of resources). The new past, instead of progressively falling behind the present and largely due to the almost endless storage capacities of electronic communication, is aggressively invading the present (our calendars have no day left without multiple commemorative functions, and we rather dispose of too much than not enough source material for most moments in the past that we want to deal with as professional historians). Between that congested future and this inundating past, the imperceptibly short present of the historical world view has turned into an ever broadening present that tendentially contains everything we are capable of remembering and anticipating. Now if a Cartesian self-reference was associated with the “imperceptibly short” present of the historical world view, it seems plausible that we have recently re-included our physical existence in the revised human self-reference within the broad present (as much in the ongoing philosophical debates as in the common practice of early morning jogging). Finally, and also within the broad present, we no longer perceive time as the agent of a linear and regular change that we can capture. In my view there are but two segments of global everyday life that have not been taken over by the new chronotope. One of them concerns the sphere of democratic politics that decisively relies upon the assumption of an open future as a necessary presupposition for elections, i.e. for the basic mechanism of change within positions of power. The other institution that keeps the broad present at a distance is indeed the academic discipline of History that has maintained, with a spirit of sometimes narrow orthodoxy, the historical worldview as its ground and matrix. And yet we can observe a recent tendency, within academic History, to accept and even foster a practice of comparison against its traditional rejection as “anachronistic” – a tendency clearly related to the dominance of the “broad present” chronotope surrounding the discipline of History. An example from Germany may illustrate this shift in the thinking practice of historians during the past decades. Some thirty years ago, during the intense debates long canonized as “Historikerstreit,” the position of the Left was to insist, based on the logic of the historical world view, on the uniqueness of the Holocaust as an industrialized version of racial extermination; today, by contrast, Left-wing historians have surrendered to the politically correct authority of post-colonial studies and to their habit of comparing and even subsuming the Holocaust within a larger nineteenth- and twentieth-century horizon of anti-humanitarian crimes.


In order to make an epistemological argument against such a practice of historical comparison one would indeed have to invoke (and return to) the canonical status of the historical world view as the only (academically) legitimate grounding of our relationship to the past. But as I happen to think that it could turn out intellectually challenging (not to say “healthy”) for History to be more open towards the new everyday chronotope in its environment, I do not want to go this route. My main impulse against historical comparison results rather from the fact that I was born into an average German family barely three years after the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the unconditional surrender of the state that he had shaped. Instead of integrating the German past between 1933 and 1945 into comparisons or typologies, it existentially matters to me to view the atrocities committed by the generations of my ancestors in their singularity. With this commitment in mind I will try to circumscribe a hitherto hardly developed relationship to the past based on both the chronotope of the broad present (with its revised human self-reference that re-includes the physical side of our existence) and on a reading of some motifs to be found in Walter Benjamin’s legendary “Theses on History” from 1940. In doing so, I will follow an intuition of my Brazilian friend Marcelo Rangel who, based on Benjamin’s situation towards the end of his life, argues that the “Theses” are an early example of a reflection that abandons the historical world view.


With “the seizure of power” (“Machtergreifung”) by the National Socialists on January 30, 1933, there was no German future left for a Jewish intellectual like Walter Benjamin, which explains why his lingering political and existential commitment to Marxism and above all to the Soviet Union as promises of a bright open future became much more decided and indeed partisan during the otherwise precarious years of his French exile. With the so-called “Molotov-Ribbentrop peace treaty,” however, signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Russia on August 23, 1939 (exactly one week before the beginning of World War II and the German invasion of Poland), there was, quite literally, no open future left for Benjamin. This must have been why, in Thesis IX and inspired by Paul Klee’s drawing, he described “the Angel of History” as turning her (or his – the angel’s gender is theologically uncertain) back to the future and facing the past: “ein Sturm weht, vom Paradiese her, der sich in seinen Flügeln verfangen hat und so stark ist, dass der Engel sie nicht mehr schließen kann. Dieser Sturm treibt ihn unaufhaltsam in die Zukunft, der er den Rücken kehrt, während der Trümmerhaufen vor ihm zum Himmel wächst. Das, was wir den Fortschritt nennen, ist dieser Sturm.” (a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which is back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.) While History can thus no longer gauge the future, its Angel continues to perceive an energy (“diesen Sturm”) that propels her into a direction that continues to stand for better times – whose expectation Benjamin had not yet completely abandoned. But I want to concentrate above all on the Angel’s gaze back as an inspiration to imagine a non-traditionally “historical” relation to the past. Benjamin describes it as a gaze shaped and penetrated by an overwhelming emotion that comes from its object of attention: “Ein Engel (…), der aussieht, als wäre er im Begriff, sich von etwas zu entfernen, worauf er starrt. Seine Augen sind aufgerissen, sein Mund steht offen und seine Flügel sind aufgespannt.” (An Angel (…) who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.) What the Angel looks at, we read in Theses (VII), (VIII), and (XVII), is “die Tradition der Unterdrückten” (the tradition of the oppressed), the “Barbarei” (barbarism) that has happened all over the past, and the accumulating “Trümmerhaufen” (wreckage) that it has left behind. Above all, the Angel and “materialist historiography,” as Benjamin does not cease to emphasize, no longer experience the past in a narrative way, that is as a plot or as a sequence of actions and events – but in an unmoved structure of stasis: “Zum Denken gehört nicht nur die Bewegung der Gedanken, sondern ebenso ihre Stillstellung. Wo das Denken in einer von Spannungen gesättigten Konstellation plötzlich einhält, da erteilt es derselben einen Chock, durch den es sich als Monade kristallisiert (…). In dieser Struktur erkennt (der historische Materialist) das Zeichen einer messianischen Stillstellung des Geschehens, anders gesagt: einer revolutionären Chance im Kampfe für die unterdrückte Vergangenheit.” (Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives the constellation of a shock, but which thinking is crystallized as a monad (…). The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it conforms him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the signs of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in a fight for the oppressed past.) Benjamin enthusiasts seem to find it obvious towards what specific political or even utopian vision their hero tries to push (rather than unfold) the gaze of the gaze of the Angel of History in these passages – whereas I will admit that I have never quite understood (beyond an initial plausibility) how messianic stasis can be truly connected to revolutionary action. Therefore, I would like to associate the stasis of the past in the Angel’s gaze with a more elementary, less politically ambitious attitude.


The past of the repressed and the defeated, instead of presenting itself in sequences of action that may trigger questions about (different layers of) causality, as professional historians have pursued them over more than two centuries, the past of the repressed and the defeated, instead of developing conceptually sophisticated (and emotionally numbing) typologies within the new chronotope of the broad present, the past of the repressed and defeated in particular as “stasis” and “monade” may encourage or even solicit an approach of empathy. Not only in the sense of the traditionally much maligned relation of identification, that is as the willingness of imagining oneself “in the place of the  victims,” but as an approach of com-passion and pity in the literal meaning of the German word “Mit-Leid” – that is in the meaning of physically suffering with the victims of the past. The return of the bodily component of human existence into our revised self-reference under changed epistemological conditions may indeed be one reason for such a sharpening and concretization in the meaning of “compassion.” To imagine what it must have been like, for a former Jewish classmate of my father, to be driven through the streets of his (and my) hometown under police control, loaded on railroad wagons built for the transport of cattle, and processed to death upon arrival within the industrialized killing array of a concentration camp; to imagine what it must have been like for a black fellow citizen to be hunted and captured like game in order to be strangled and hung as humans by their Ku-Klux-Klan fellow humans; to imagine what it must have been like to spend one’s life as the physical property of another human person – can connect us to the past in ways whose power and whose consequences may have long (not so say systematically) been out of reach for professional historians.


Needless to say that I am by no means claiming to offer a hermeneutically correct reading of Walter Benjamin’s remarks about the gaze of the Angel of History; nor do I have detailed proposals for possible steps towards an intellectual and institutional transformation that might enable the discipline of History to open up for relationships to the past grounded in “Mit-Leiden.” I am barely using Benjamin’s images to imagine (tautology intended!) a gaze of the past that could have become possible under post-historical premises. This gaze may have an affinity with a recurrent motif in the work of the eminent – and always com-passionate – French thinker Simone Weil, who in a text from 1943 tried to bring into view, against the usual praise of individual “personality” as core of our existence, a more elementary resonance to the “souls” of other humans: “The part of the soul which cries ‘Why am I being hurt?’ is on the deepest level, and even in the most corrupt of men it remains from earliest infancy perfectly intact and totally innocent. To maintain justice and preserve men from all harm means first of all to prevent harm being done to them.” Now if stasis and space (more than narrative and time) are emerging as the dominant dimensions of an empathetic gaze, then we might reflect about further unexplored modalities of connecting with the past. We have all experienced how spatial proximity often intensifies our feelings about past events and their conditions. Knowing about Auschwitz or about the Forum Romanum will never be the full equivalent of being there, and “being there” adds much more to knowledge than a mere illustration of concepts. Often when I am sensing the touch-down of the aircraft at the end of a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, a thought, perhaps only the hint of a concept rushes through my mind of the German space being haunted (“verwunschen”) by a past that did happen there – and of course there is an endless number of subjective equivalents to the haunted ground and space of Germany. I also begin to ask myself whether this empathetic reaction may have a more objective side; whether a specific temporality exists in which such a condition of being haunted might be fading – a temporality that would be largely independent of the behavior and of the politics within contemporary generations. But it is probably not for me to develop such reflections and their ensuing (not only intellectual) praxis. After all I was born into the last generation growing up within the historical world view, into a generation that was struggling to live up to its challenges and promise – only to realize that the historical world view had almost treacherously vanished.

(Translations of the passages from Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ are from: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (eds.). Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 2003.)

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature, Emeritus, at Stanford University, a Permanent Visiting Professor (“Catedratico Visitante Permanente”) at the University of Lisbon and, for a term of three years, a Presidential Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Twelve universities in seven different countries have honored Gumbrecht with honorary doctorates.

Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. (Fortunoff Video Archive).

This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?

Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project here. Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here

The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research


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