Is it legitimate to compare historical events?

On 22nd October 2020 Professor Michael Rothberg gave an informal and highly stimulating talk at the Pears Institute on the subject of historical comparisons.

Noting that there has been a proliferation of historical comparisons in recent years and a flurry of “comparison controversies” he insisted that “Comparison is neither good nor bad. It is simply a fundamental part of human cognition, so we necessarily compare, we juxtapose, we put things in relation, we see patterns, even notice distinctions…”

So it becomes important to assess and distinguish between different kinds of comparisons, and Rothberg referred to his efforts to  develop an “ethics of comparison”, based on his reflections on the 2008-09 bombing of Gaza which led to his 2011 essay From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory.

That’s where his talk begins. You can listen to how he develops his argument in the podcast here (link is at the bottom of the page). (He refers to some Powerpoint slides which accompanied the talk. Unfortunately, they are not included with the podcast, but his meaning is nevertheless clear.)

And below is the blurb published by the Pears Institute in advance of the talk.

Comparing Comparisons: Preliminary Reflections on a New Era of Historical Analogy


For the last four years there has been an intensified debate—at least in Europe and North America—about the ethics and politics of historical comparison. With the global rise of a populist far-right—and, especially, with the election in 2016 of Donald Trump—many commentators have looked to the troubling past as a way of understanding the threatening present. In particular, references to fascism, concentration camps, and totalitarian dictators from the 1920s and 1930s have flourished. Such analogies have not gone uncontested; rather, a vigorous debate on the pages of blogs, academic journals, and serious journalistic venues such as the New York Review of Books and the New Statesman has unfolded. Sometimes institutions—such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum—have intervened and prompted further controversies and letter-writing campaigns by intellectuals. Nor has the recent wave of comparison politics been limited to the analogy between today’s far right and the fascist past. As the 2020 controversy around Achille Mbembe in Germany illustrates, there are other nodes in the network of contentious comparisons, not least Israel/Palestine and South Africa.

In this informal talk, Michael Rothberg will offer preliminary reflections on this spate of recent controversies while also situating them in relation to selected earlier disputes. While current controversies are not limited to questions of racism and antisemitism, those two categories are frequently invoked and often at stake in these ongoing debates. Central to this inquiry will be the question: what is the political valence of comparison today?

About the speaker:

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 is the author of The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2019) and Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Comments (2)

  • Julia Bard says:

    Michael Rothberg is a very important thinker, who has opened up a dialectical approach to understanding the relationship between collective memories of different communities and groups, particularly drawing on the work of WEB du Bois.
    We have an article by Michael Rothberg in the new issue of Jewish Socialist: “Collective memories in conflict: Michael Rothberg raises fundamental questions about the culture of memory” – about responses in Germany to comparisons and analogies between aspects of histories of oppression.
    The Jewish Socialist piece is not online at the moment but you can subscribe to the magazine and see the contents list, the editorial and selected features here:

    We have a special offer: subscribe before 31st October at the old price of £10 for 4 issues (£20 overseas).

  • Philip Horowitz says:

    You can also find the essay “From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory” at You can read it online if you join jstor. I think this is easy to do and it costs nothing; it is a useful resource in general.

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