by Jonathon Catlin

Hans Kundnani is former Europe program director at London’s Chatham House as well as a visiting fellow at NYU’s Remarque Institute. He is the author of Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust (Columbia, 2009) and The Paradox of German Power (Oxford, 2014), and writes regularly for venues including The Guardian, The New Statesman, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement. His latest book, Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire, and Race in the European Project (Hurst, 2023; extract in The Guardian) explores racial and colonial dimensions of European integration that have become especially salient since the euro and migrant crises of 2010 and 2015. Criticizing what he calls “the myth of cosmopolitan Europe,” Kundnani argues that the continent has long been held together by “ethnoregionalism” centered on Christianity, whiteness, and a (neo)colonial “civilizing mission.” As an expert on the politics of Holocaust memory in Germany, Kundnani also argues that making lessons of the Second World War and the Holocaust cornerstones of European identity was a recipe for “imperial amnesia” with regard to colonialism. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Kundnani about his recent work.

Jonathon Catlin: The past year you’ve been living in New York City at a time of significant Palestine solidarity activism. Columbia University in particular is historically famous as a site of student protests against the Vietnam War and racism in 1968. Once again, many universities have called in police to arrest their own students. I thought I’d start off by asking you to reflect on how the current political climate reflects the topic of your 2009 book Utopia or Auschwitz; similar protests in Germany, including occupations of Berlin’s Freie Universität and Humboldt Universität, have also been shut down by police. 1968 in West Germany centered on a generation of students coming to terms with the crimes and complicities of their parents’ generation during the Third Reich, as well as anticapitalism and anticolonial opposition to the Vietnam War. But Utopia or Auschwitz shows that the “lessons” drawn from the Holocaust were incredibly varied and ambiguous. Does it feel to you like we’ve just lived through another historic ’68 moment?

Hans Kundnani: There are definitely striking parallels between 1968 and now—especially, as you say, in New York—and because of my work on 1968 I couldn’t help but watch this year’s events through the prism of it. The Columbia students protesting the war in Gaza were themselves very conscious of the university’s history of protest. For example, they called their encampment on the South Lawn a “liberated zone” and the occupation of Hamilton Hall was also inspired by the famous occupation in 1968. But these parallels themselves also illustrate the differences between then and now—university administrators seem to be much less tolerant of dissent, at least on this issue, than they were in 1968, and the police are much more militarized than they were then. One thing that was on my mind as I watched the protests was that 1968 ended in defeat—in America, Richard Nixon was elected in November 1968. Obviously, 2024 may end with the re-election of Donald Trump.

JC: Your recent essay in Dissent historicizes the intensification of German support for Israel and anti-antisemitism policies. Its provocative title, “Zionism Über Alles,” is a quote from the CEO of the conservative Springer media company that captures the view popular among Germany’s political class that Israel’s security is part of German “Staatsraison,” or national interest. While a growing number of German intellectuals have condemned their country’s complicity and silence with regard to mounting Palestinian civilian casualties, German officials have until quite recently continued to defend Israel’s conduct in venues like the International Court of Justice. Domestically, in Susan Neiman’s words, Holocaust memory gone “haywire” has resulted in “philosemitic McCarthyism,” restrictions on democratic rights, and disinvitations of progressive Jewish figures such as Nancy Fraser, Masha Gessen, Judith Butler, and Candice Breitz. (By one estimate about a third of such cancellations—in the name of combatting antisemitism—have been of Jews.) Much of this traces back to the Bundestag’s 2018 anti-BDS resolution and the effective disinvitation of Achille Mbembe in 2020 over his criticisms of Israel (discussed on the Blog here). But surely the story starts much earlier. In your telling, how did we get here?

HK: In the essay for Dissent I argued that, in the last two decades, Germany has gone from a universalist understanding of the idea of “Never again Auschwitz” to a particularist one—that is, whereas Germans used to think that the Holocaust gave them a responsibility to speak out against, and take action to stop, any genocide anywhere in the world, they now seem to think that they only have a responsibility towards Israel as a Jewish state. I thought of this essay as a kind of epilogue to Utopia or Auschwitz, which told the story of the 1968 generation—that is the children of the “Auschwitz generation”—and their struggle to learn the right lessons from the Nazi past. The book ends with the “red-green” government between 1998 and 2005, which included several figures who had been influenced by 1968 and its aftermath, like Joschka Fischer, the Green foreign minister. In an essay published in 1985, Fischer wrote that “only responsibility for Auschwitz can be the basis of German Staatsräson.” As foreign minister in the “red-green” government, he invoked this idea of “Never again Auschwitz” to justify German participation in the NATO military intervention against Serbia in 1999, which was meant to protect the largely Muslim population of Kosovo.

Angela Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005. When she spoke in the Knesset in 2008, she said Israeli security was a part of German Staatsräson—in other words she had taken Fischer’s idea of a German Staatsräson derived from the Nazi past, but applied it specifically to Israel. What is extraordinary is how, since then, the entire German political establishment, including Fischer’s successors in the Green party, have gone along with this shift from a universalist understanding of the lessons of the Nazi past to a particularist one. It’s hard to avoid concluding that they care more about Israeli lives than Palestinian lives—and yet they somehow imagine this as anti-Nazism. What is even more odd, as you said, is that this hyper-Zionism, as I call it, targets even Jews who are critical of Israel—that is, Germans feel able to lecture Jews about the right lessons to learn from the Nazi past.

JC: I’ve been disappointed to see little coverage of the racialized effects of German memory culture in the crackdown on political expression there since October 7th. Here’s where I think your argument in Eurowhiteness is illuminating. In your chapter on conceiving Europe as a community of Holocaust memory, you quote David Theo Goldberg: “There is no racism because race was buried in the rubble of Auschwitz” (93). Among German liberals, to speak of “race”—Rasse is an irredeemably Nazi concept in German—and to recognize racial difference is itself racist. Scholars of color in Germany have thus criticized the lack of vocabulary for describing racial discrimination, violence, and inequality in Germany (and, for different reasons, France). Yet the crackdowns on pro-Palestine solidarity have disproportionately suppressed the political expression of Arab-Germans, and even before October 7 Nakba Day demonstrations in Berlin, home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe, were banned. Shortly after October 7, Chancellor Olaf Scholz also called for a “massive program of deportation” of unauthorized immigrants. Your book tells a troubled story about (white) Europe advancing Holocaust memory while having little to say about these forms of racial othering and discrimination.

HK: Yes, in Eurowhiteness I describe how, from the 1980s onwards, the Holocaust became a central collective memory within what became the European Union, while the history of European colonialism remained forgotten—even though, as we now know from a decade of scholarship, European integration itself began as a colonial project. What essentially happened, it seems to me, is that German memory culture was expanded to and taken up at the European level. I think part of the reason this was possible is the way the Holocaust fit quite neatly into the story of the centuries of conflict between Europeans that culminated in World War II—after all, the Holocaust took place in the context of World War II. Thus, I argue, the narrative of European integration came to be based on the internal lessons of European history (that is, what Europeans did to each other) rather than on the external lessons of European history (that is, what Europeans did to the rest of the world).

However, although in the book I argue that the EU became a “community of memory,” what has happened since 7 October last year has illustrated the limits of Germany’s ability to impose its memory culture on to the rest of Europe—which in a way brings me back to the argument I made a decade ago in The Paradox of German Power that Germany can never be a hegemon, only a semi-hegemon. There is no shared European position on Gaza—while Germany has been particularly extreme in its unconditional support for Israel, countries like Ireland and Spain at the other end of the spectrum have a very different view. The former Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said that the reason the Irish empathize so much with the Palestinian people is that they see their own history in that of the Palestinians—and he is not even on the left. I think Spain is a slightly different case—it is extremely polarized on questions of memory but happens to have a left-wing government under Pedro Sanchez right now which is supportive of the Palestinians. But both cases show that not all Europeans value the lives of white lives more than non-white lives.

JC: Since October 7 we have seen a rift regarding Holocaust memory culture widen. Some, like Andrew Port (whom I interviewed here last year), maintain that Germany has learned valuable lessons from its past, drawing upon cases like Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia in which “Never Again Auschwitz” was mobilized to defend human rights. In the other group, thinkers like Masha Gessen and Pankaj Mishra lament the betrayal of the universalist Jewish tradition exemplified by Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, and Zygmunt Bauman, which holds that “Never Again” means never again for everybody. These figures on the left reject the way Holocaust memory has been cynically “hijacked” by the far right and weaponized by the likes of Netanyahu to justify the war. Your chapter on Europe as a “community of memory” is critical of the way, in Tony Judt’s words, “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket.” Emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, you suggest, has enabled forgetting colonialism and seeing Europe’s only “Other” as its own (defeated) fascist past (92). This seems rather explicit in the recent case where an initiative to commemorate Germany’s colonial genocide in Namibia was criticized by a number of Holocaust memory institutions, which argued that it “relativized” the Holocaust. Does universalist Holocaust memory still have a present role, and a future?

HK: Absolutely. I think that is exactly the fight we need to have—to insist that we draw universalist lessons from the Holocaust rather than particularist ones. This is also why I wrote the Dissent essay—to show that Germany had abandoned universalist approach for a particularist approach in a way that aligns it with the Israeli right. It seems to me that this is also the way to reconcile Holocaust memory and the memory of European colonialism—we have to think them together rather than playing them off against each other. What is extraordinary is that this now seems so difficult. There was a time—and I touch on this briefly in Eurowhiteness—when it was not controversial to think of Nazism and colonialism as being connected. Non-European thinkers like Aimé Césaire and W. E. B. Du Bois saw them as connected. But so did European thinkers like Hannah Arendt, who writes about these connections in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Now, however, making arguments like the ones Arendt made will get you accused of relativizing the Holocaust—especially in Germany.

JC: Your central argument in Eurowhitness is that pro-European “regionalism” is not the opposite of nationalism but rather analogous to it. Europe, you argue, is an “imagined community” on a larger scale that similarly constructs exclusionary boundaries (the Mediterranean) and retains an ethic/cultural core: the co-constitution of Europe with whiteness and Christendom from the age of Charlemagne to the Cold War defense of “the West.” You quote Arendt in 1948 arguing that a European federation will “make it only too easy to apply their former nationalism to a larger structure and become as narrowly and chauvinistically European as they were formerly German, Italian, or French” (28). These values, you suggest, continued to exist alongside Europe’s civic and universalist values of diversity, inclusion, and openness. You criticize pro-Europeans like Jürgen Habermas for committing the “Eurocentric fallacy,” for they did not see that “European integration is not global integration” (14). Such lofty visions now seem naively optimistic with their view that integration would bring Europe ever-closer to the Kantian Enlightenment ideals of cosmopolitanism, perpetual peace, and a world without borders. As have seen, events like the 2015 migrant crisis sparked “ethnoregionalism” and the once-oxymoronic prospect of “a far-right EU.” Your work historicizes that pro-European attitude of cosmopolitanism as a particular phase of European identity predominating between the loss of European colonies in the 1960s up to the beginning of the Euro Crisis in 2010. But isn’t that cosmopolitan view difficult to dethrone as an ideal? What’s the alternative?

HK: I am not questioning cosmopolitanism as an ideal. I’m just challenging the idea that European integration is a step towards it. It seems to me that the tendency to imagine the EU as an expression of cosmopolitanism is itself an illustration of the Eurocentric fallacy—that is, the tendency to mistake Europe for the world. When you say you are European, for example, you are not saying you are a citizen of the world but rather that you are a citizen of a particular region. So, my argument is that we should think of the EU as an expression of regionalism rather than cosmopolitanism—it is the political form that European regionalism takes, just as the nation state is the political form that nationalism takes. I don’t think that regionalism is automatically more cosmopolitan than nationalism is and I don’t think that the EU inherently has more cosmopolitan potential than nation states do. Rather, like nationalism, European regionalism has both ethnic/cultural elements and civic elements. What worries me, as you suggested, is that the ethnic/cultural elements in European identity may now be getting stronger—and that is what gives my argument in Eurowhiteness its political urgency.

JC: You describe how your background, being born to an Indian father and a Dutch mother, and being raised in the UK—itself perpetually both inside and outside Europe—gave you a unique perspective on Europe. That skepticism found its historical substance in insights from recent works in global history on “Eurafrica” showing the colonial roots of European Integration from the beginning—the “original sin” in the way “European integration intersected with the end of European colonialism rather than following it,” such that it “was not even a post-colonial project, let alone an anti-colonial project” (74–75). Notably, access to markets in the French empire served as a “dowry” enticing German business interests into the economic community. How did these perspectives come together in your attempt to “provincialize” European integration?

HK: The reason I began the book in a first personal way is because I think that so much of how you think about Europe depends on where you’re looking at it from. As a Brit who has worked on Germany, I have always been struck by the different pathologies in relation to Europe that the two countries have—which I think ultimately have to do with their different geographies. As you mentioned, the UK is notoriously semi-detached from Europe. But the origin of my parents meant that I had an even more complicated relationship with Europe than most other Brits. I’ve noticed that those who are most likely to identify as European are those whose biographies cross borders within Europe—for example if they have two parents from different European countries. The fact that my mother is Dutch may have made even more predisposed to be “pro-European” than Brits with two British parents. But the fact that my father is Indian meant that I could never think of myself as being completely or only European. So perhaps this helps to explain my trajectory from being a “pro-European” to questioning “pro-European” assumptions.

I also got an interest in the history of European colonialism from my father, whose life was very much shaped by the independence of India in 1947—that was something that I grew up learning about. But it wasn’t until much later that I started to connect the history of European colonialism to the EU. In particular, reading Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson’s book Eurafrica (2014) transformed my understanding of the EU and in particular of the early phase of European integration—they show how, as I mentioned, it began as a colonial project. What I found extraordinary was how, long after the book came out, so few experts on the EU seemed to be aware of this history, which had been written out of the story of the European project. They would confidently claim that the EU is a post-colonial or even anti-colonial project, which is just historically wrong. That is in part what prompted me to start writing about these issues a few years ago—and ultimately produced Eurowhiteness.

JC: The last chapter of Eurowhiteness gives a revisionist account of Brexit, arguing that European integration and fixation on heroic anti-Nazi World War Two history became a vehicle for “imperial amnesia.” You claim that despite some Brexiteers being prominent right-wing populists, “Britain’s ethnic minority population identified even less with Europe than its white population did,” with many ultimately seeing the continent as white and racist (10). You thus see Brexit as an opportunity here for the UK to deepen its engagement with its own colonial history and former colonies—in short, to make the UK a less Eurocentric country (179). Is there a broader lesson here for Europe as democratic and cosmopolitan norms seem to buckle under increasing pressure from the populist right?

HK: One of the things that struck me during the Brexit saga was that suddenly many people, both in the UK and elsewhere, seemed to imagine that it was the most racist country in Europe. This didn’t seem right to me. I remember racism in Britain in the 1970s—and what was happening in the mid-2010s felt to me like something different, not least because at the center of it was freedom of movement within the EU rather than immigration from outside the EU. In particular, as you say, it was obvious that non-white people identified even less with Europe and the European Union than white British people did. It seemed to me difficult to square this with the idea that Brexit was a kind of racist or neo-colonial project as many people seemed to think it was. It also seemed to me that the UK had essentially abandoned its former colonies after they became independent and instead focused on becoming part of the “European community.” Immigration from Britain’s former colonies became harder and immigration from Europe became easier. Leaving the EU seemed to me to be an opportunity to go back and try to rethink those relationships with Britain’s former colonies, perhaps even a first step in a project of reparations.

I’m not sure if there is a lesson for Europe as a whole. In a way, what I’m suggesting is that the UK is exceptional in Europe. It joined the European Community rather late and then left. It always saw itself as being connected to other parts of the world in way that even other European colonial powers like France and Netherlands did not. Obviously, immigration is a big issue across the EU. But there was no other EU member state in which freedom of movement—that is, not immigration from outside the EU but from within in—became such an issue. There is certainly no other EU member state in which people felt so strongly about freedom of movement that they were prepared to leave the EU. I think that in most EU member states—and certainly in Germany—people feel that they have more in common with other Europeans than with people anywhere else in the world. They imagine themselves to be part of a European “community of fate.” I’m just not sure if that is the case in the UK.

Jonathon Catlin is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester, where he also teaches in the Department of History. He earned his PhD in History and Interdisciplinary Humanities from Princeton University in 2023 and is currently writing a history of the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought. He has contributed to and edited for the JHI Blog since 2016. He is on X @planetdenken.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: 1657 Jansson Map of the Empire of Charlemagne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.