Rethinking Memory and Knowledge during Times of Crisis

Sep 15, 2020  | 12pm ET [9am PT & 6pm CEST)]

Part 1 of Virtual Panel Series Racism in History and Context | Panelists: Ana Lucia Araujo (Howard University), Manuela Bauche (FU Berlin), Norbert Frei (Universität Jena), and Michael Rothberg (UCLA) | Moderators: Akasemi Newsome (UC Berkeley) and Francisco Bethencourt (King’s College London)

Racism in History and Context is a virtual panel series presented by the German Historical Association, the German Historical Institute Washington and its Pacific Regional Office, and the Institute of European Studies at University of California, Berkeley

> Watch a recording of the event

The Black Lives Matter protest movement and the accompanying efforts to topple monuments to colonialism and slavery on both sides of the Atlantic have put the issue of racism back on the agenda in the United States, Germany, and beyond. Much of the public debate invokes racism as a shorthand for long and complex histories of inequality and oppression that resurface, rather than originate, in our momentous present.

These current movements and debates have unfolded in tandem with the global coronavirus pandemic. While the current health crisis has intensified and exposed deep-seated social and cultural fractures in modern societies, deadly world-threatening epidemics that recur in waves are a historical phenomenon that have existed throughout history. Some of them, such as the bubonic plague, or Black Death, that emerged and raged in the mid-14th century and reappeared regularly up into the early twentieth century, became a permanent part of cultural memory precisely because they initiated revolutionary political and social processes and changed societies significantly.

The German Historical Association (Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands e.V., VHD), the German Historical Institute Washington with its Pacific Regional Office, and the Institute of European Studies at University of California, Berkeley, have invited scholars from the United States and Europe to explore recent assertions of historical understandings of racism by scrutinizing how current debates construct and represent this history in a two-part virtual panel series this fall. What and who defines the deeper and historically longer-term contexts of the present-day phenomenon? How do the various discourses and memories of racist violence differ in quite diverse national contexts and narratives, and what interdependencies can we discern? How do social and cultural tensions take form under the pressure of condemning racism in moments and historical narratives of crises?

On September 15, the panel will focus on conflicting memory cultures to shed light on  narratives and practices of racist inequality which gained particular relevance as a framework for understanding the consequences of the current epidemic. The second panel on October 29 will discuss protest movements, state power, and violence. The panels will be held in English via Zoom. The audience will have the chance to ask questions via chat.

Panel Series Report

“Racism in History and Context”
A Virtual Panel Series on the Historical Relationship between Crisis and Racism

The clearest connection between historical trajectories of racism and present events is that racism makes structural vulnerability appear as fate. There is always a naturalization of race and of the racial hierarchies. That naturalization becomes more apparent in times of crisis: “You’re shaping your own fate, and this is fate. Deserved.” The racialized are always associated with infection. But the discourse is larger: association with infection, lack of civilization, close-ness to nature. It is contradictory. 
– Manuela Boatcă

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for existing areas of societal conflict. Open or hidden inequalities, which are often the result of long-term historical processes, are becoming much more visible under the conditions of the pandemic – as if in a crucible. The topic of racism forms one of the central as-pects of discussions since the pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020 in the US and Europe. The virtual panel series “Racism in History and Context,” held in the English language in the fall of 2020 with a total of more than 500 participants via Zoom, took up these debates as a central challenge for our societies. The series elaborated histor-ical and sociological perspectives on the various contexts and pasts of the present crisis.

The pandemic crisis has been accompanied by a broad debate about racist inequalities and discrimination in the societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Spurred by the death of US citizen George Floyd at the hands of police offic-ers in early June, people around the world have taken to the streets to protest racism and police brutality. In the US, movements like Black Lives Matter have been strengthened. In addition, the US African American population continues to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In Europe, too, and beyond, anti-racist protests have prompted a critical engagement with the remnants of colonial and slavery traditions. In Germany, the issue of addressing the country’s colonial past from a historical-political perspective has gained momentum, crystallizing, for example, in a sometimes fiercely polarized debate about renaming streets and public squares and buildings or about the no less disputed question of just how widely and deeply racist attitudes are anchored in the majority society or concretely within police departments. In many contexts, the crisis has uncovered modern racism, which has specific causes and can be traced to various historical contexts in each society where it finds its own expression.

The Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschland (VHD), the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) and its regional office in Berkeley, as well as the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley took this transatlantic diagnosis of the times as an occasion to illuminate present societal forms of racism from a historical perspective. The participating institutions invited sociologists and historians from North America and Europe to join the panel.

Memory and Knowledge

The first panel “Rethinking Memory and Knowledge during Times of Crisis” dealt with the questions of how the memory of and knowledge about racism, racist inequality, and racist violence have changed since the end of World War II, and which actors have played a role in knowledge production in each case. Ana Lucia Araujo (How-ard University Washington DC), Manuela Bauche (FU Berlin), Norbert Frei (Universität Jena), and Michael Rothberg (UC Los Angeles) were the panelists. The moderators were Francisco Bethencourt (King’s College London) and Akasemi Newsome (UC Berkeley).

Critical engagement with racist pasts has always been largely determined by political and cultural developments, and it varies from country to country. A comparative view, however, makes transnational patterns and intersec-tional entanglements apparent, with the memory of the Holocaust and decolonization, especially, playing a central role – the latter understood as a political process that even today is an ongoing cultural (knowledge) process. In the Federal Republic, Norbert Frei and Manuela Bauche averred, the memory of the Holocaust only became a central anchoring point of national self-understanding in the 1980s after decades of repression. And only in the last several years has there been an increasing awareness of critical engagement with racist violence in the colo-nial era of the German Empire or in the Federal Republic and in the GDR as more than a mere remnant of the Nazi era. In France, by contrast, as Michael Rothberg explained, political decolonization, and particularly the Algerian War of Independence, called for critical engagement with the Holocaust and the occupation period as early as the 1960s. Ana Lucia Araujo pointed out that the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery from the 16th to the 19th centuries did not follow a linear development of ever-expanding historical consciousness in the societies that participated in these historical processes. Rather, it was highly dependent on regional contexts: In the US, the civil rights movement played a decisive role in the 1960s; in Latin America, the military dictatorships and, in South Africa, the Apartheid regime long suppressed any 
critical, memory-culture engagement with these topics. The panelists regarded the late 1980s, and above all the 1990s, shaped as they were by the end of the Cold War, as a turning point because at that juncture, global spaces of memory for the Holocaust and slavery were able to become established.

An overarching pattern in the more recent history of knowledge about racism in the transatlantic world seems to be the perpetual challenge of national narratives of memory “from below.” According to Norbert Frei, the need to break through the broad collective silence about the Nazi past in the Adenauer era presented an important point of crystallization for the protests of 1968. In the 1980s, the history workshops decisively shaped the memory of the Holocaust above all at the local level and often from a life-world perspective. The memory of slavery, too, Ana Lucia Araujo noted, was (and continues in many cases to be) made more visible by means of identity-forming memory narratives of family history. Similarly, Manuela Bauche pointed out, today numerous postcolonial groups and movements shine a spotlight on the long-forgotten racist violence of the colonial era, thus contributing meaningfully to the recalibration and differentiation of national memory narratives. The point of departure for the second panel of the series was the fact that racism constitutes a reality of the present, as well as of recent history, and has in no way been overcome; it manifests itself not only in intentional acts of violence but also as pragmatic, historical, institutionalized everyday knowledge. As such a phenomenon, it has only come to be more widely discussed in the last few years, at least in Germany.

Health and Violence

Entitled “Rethinking Health and Power during Times of Crisis,” this second panel explored the historical and pre-sent intersections of racism, health, and state power. The panelists were Manuela Boatcă (Universität Freiburg), Teresa Koloma Beck (Bundeswehr Universität München), Monica Muñoz Martinez (UT Austin), and Kathryn Oli-varius (Stanford). The panel was moderated by Elisabeth Engel (GHI Washington) and Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley).

From the perspective of her research on experiences of violence in wartime societies, Teresa Koloma Beck exam-ined the reorganization of everyday life during times of pandemic, revealing that considerations of security and risk take on a new centrality around which people increasingly orient fundamental rules of behavior. For exam-ple, by constructing dangerous situations and characterizing certain persons or groups as risky, one can call up historically developed racialized attributions in the promise of providing orientation in a muddled conflict situation. For instance, the information that COVID-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan was translated in practi-cal everyday terms into the rule, built upon existing racist stereotypes, to be “cautious around people who look Asian” – racial profiling as a meaning-generating, socially enacted othering in everyday life. Another example that Manuela Boatcă highlighted reveals the effectiveness of racist structures and the reservoir of well-established lines of argument available in society for characterizing Eastern European seasonal workers as uncivilized, less domesticated groups that are robust in body and accustomed to illness. This argument allows their labor to con-tinue to be exploited as usual in the German food industry under pandemic conditions without further concern. 

Such forms of practical everyday racialization of groups of people are not new phenomena in the present, nor are they restricted to times of crisis, but rather, they have been documented in the historiography in their function of creating order. Monica Muñoz Martinez demonstrated how actors in Texas and other US states in the early 20th century tried to legitimize racist violence and mob law, among other things, by characterizing immigrants from Mexico as a risk to the “nation’s health.” And, as Kathryn Olivarius explained, in the context of yellow fever epi-demics in the American South in the early 19th century, the concept of “immunity capital” – built upon the racist hierarchy of slavery – made both the rights and privileges of whites, but also the market value of slaves for their owners, dependent on their “acclimatization” status. Since it was not discovered that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever, the usual preventive measures largely failed to have any effect. Consequently, immunity by means of natural infection remained the only way one could “acclimatize,” so that having had an infection came to be a sort of entry ticket into the world of the Cotton Kingdom. In this way, the white plantation owners’ attempts to generate meaning through these powerful interpretations of the yellow fever epidemics strengthened existing racial inequalities between poor and rich, thus cementing the social and economic order as natural and thus logical and just.

Present considerations to secure economic vitality by achieving “herd immunity” or by issuing “immunity pass-ports” show that the “immunity capital” chapter of history has not yet come to a close. In these approaches, the state once again assumes the role of a central distributor of privileges, largely leaving already marginalized groups out. These groups, moreover, often have no opportunity to avoid the virus. However, the beginning of a transformation of structural inequalities has always taken place within the context of crisis situations, and this insight, too, all the panelists believe, is essential to understanding the entangled dynamics of the pandemic, rac-ism, and state violence in historical perpective.

Report by Frank Kell

Participant Bios


Ana Lucia Araujo is a professor of history at Howard University in Washington DC. She has authored seven books, including Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past (2020), Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History (2017), and Shadows of the Slave Past: Heritage, Memory, and Slavery (2014). In 2017, she joined the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project. She also serves on the board of editors of the American Historical Review (the journal of the American Historical Association) and the editorial board of the British journal Slavery and Abolition. In addition. She is a member of the executive board of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide Diaspora (ASWAD), the editorial review board of the African Studies Review, and the board of the blog Black Perspectives maintained by the African American Intellectual History Society.  

Norbert Frei is one of the most distinguished German scholars of the Third Reich. He holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at the Universität Jena and leads the Jena Center 20th Century History. Frei's research work investigates how German society came to terms with Nazism and the Third Reich in the aftermath of World War II. His books include Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit (1996; American edition: Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past. The Politics of Amnesty and Integration, 2002) and Der Führerstaat. Nationalsozialistische Herrschaft 1933 bis 1945 (1987, 2013; English edition: National Socialist Rule in Germany. The Führer State 1933-1945, 1993). Norbert Frei is the editor of  Die Deutschen und der Nationalsozialismus (2015 ff).

Manuela Bauche is a postdoctoral fellow at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin and the director of the project “History of Ihnestraße 22,” which aims to develop a concept for remembering the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics at the historical site of Ihnestraße 22. Her research focuses on the history of colonialism and of the life sciences of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her dissertation, published in 2017, examines the relationships between state rule, racism, classism, and the fight against malaria in Cameroon, German East Africa, and East Frisia around 1900. She also has several years of experience in historical-political education and is one of the initiators of the project DEKOLONIALE Memory Culture in the City, which highlights traces and repercussions of histories of (anti)colonialism in Berlin.

Michael Rothberg is the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He works in the fields of Holocaust studies, trauma and memory studies, critical theory and cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and contemporary literatures. He is on the editorial board of the journals Memory Studies and Studies in American Jewish Literature. He is a founding member of the advisory board of the Memory Studies Association and a partner of the Network in Transnational Memory Studies and Mnemonics: Network for Memory Studies. Rothberg’s books include Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000), Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), and The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019). Currently, Rothberg is completing a book with Yasemin Yildiz that focuses on the intersections between migration, citizenship, and confrontation with National Socialism and the Holocaust in contemporary Germany. 


Akasemi Newsome is an associate director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research on the politics of labor, immigration, and comparative racialization addresses topics at the forefront of international and comparative political economy, including rights and global governance, institutions, capitalist development, and social movements. In addition to two co-edited special issues and published articles in the Journal of European Integration, Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, Perspectives on Europe, and PS: Political Science and Politics, her book manuscript “The Color of Solidarity” examines the conditions for labor union support of immigrant claims-making in Europe. She is also a co-editor (with Marianne Riddervold and Jarle Trondal) of a book on EU Crisis forthcoming.

Francisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Chair in the history department at King’s College London. He is a leading historian of the Portuguese-speaking world; he also contributes to Global History. He is the author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (2013) and The Inquisition: a Global History, 1478-1834 (2009). His first monograph on the history of magic and witchcraft was published in Portugal and Brazil. He has edited or co-edited more than twenty volumes on many different subjects, particularly the most comprehensive history of the Portuguese expansion in five volumes, but also on inequality, cosmopolitanism, nations, memory, utopia, communication, and correspondence.

About the Organizers

The German Historical Association (VHD) is the representative organ of German historical scholarship in the public. The core task of the VHD is to organize the Biennial Convention of German Historians (“Historikertag”) – one of the largest conferences in the humanities in Europe, most recently with more than 4,000 participants. As a lobby group, the VHD is committed to the interests of its members in a variety of ways and, as a professional association, is in constant dialogue with universities, university-related institutions, and society. The VHD currently has about 3,400 members.

The German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) is a center for advanced historical research. Working with junior and senior scholars around the world, the GHI facilitates dialogue and scholarly collaboration across national and disciplinary boundaries. The GHI was established in 1987 as an independent non-profit foundation. Since 2002 it has been part of the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland (Max Weber Foundation – International Humanities Institutes Abroad), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which coordinates an international network of humanities institutes. In 2017, the GHI opened its Pacific Regional Office on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, to foster cooperation with a myriad of world-class scholars and renowned research institutions on the West Coast, and to extend its public outreach effort there.

The Institute of European Studies (IES) at the University of California, Berkeley, is the leading center for research and education on Europe in the Western United States, and among the top three such organizations in the U.S. Through interdisciplinary public events, research programs, grant opportunities, and community outreach, IES seeks to enrich America's understanding of Europe – its people, developments and challenges – at Berkeley and throughout the state of California.