Traumatic Realism in Memory and Coming to Terms with Comparisons to the Holocaust

By: Bryce Greer

I want to preface by saying that I take my reflection in a slightly different way then most of my other responses to other week’s readings. This week spoke different volumes to me when discussing memory in history.

Back in high school, maybe when I was 14 or 15, I remember my high school history teacher bringing in a guest speaker. It pains me that I do not recall her name, but what she talked about- her experiences of the residential schools in Canada- have been deeply rooted into my memory. The Indigenous woman, who stood before me in the classroom, spoke of her trauma on a history that I had never been previously taught. It was her voice and her story that I came to recollect in my own memory when reflecting on the readings this week. It is why I want to reflect on traumatic realism in memory as something that I think can speak to one of the lessons from the atrocities committed by Nazism with regards to the Holocaust.

The use of the phrase “traumatic realism” I take from one of Michael Rothberg’s book titles as a way to primarily have a conversation with his article “Comparing Comparisons” this week. In the article, he discusses the Historikerstreit and the debate around the uniqueness of the Holocaust, something recently returned in the contemporary alongside the rise of the far-right. I could not help but see the political use of the Holocaust by both the Left and Right today as something that highlights the exact issues when coming toward the debate. And Rothberg sums it up well on how we need to approach the debate: comparing an atrocious genocide to Auschwitz is not “unthinkable [but] how one does it and why are where the crux of the ethical and political matter lies.”

To me, there is a political game being played around the current debate of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. To look at it simply, the truthful answer is that the Holocaust is unique. The violence, the suffering, the trauma, it is all unique. On a global scale: colonialism, the Gulag, and the current Chinese internment camp of Uyghur Muslims all hold their own uniqueness to the violence, suffering, and trauma. Where the comparison of these atrocities lie is by understanding the histories through the stories of those who hold the memories, the traumas, as they come forward to speak about them. It takes sympathetic ears to see how trauma is something shared in each of these histories.

Mary Fulbrook had noted in her book that the evolution of memory culture was abused outside the stories, creating a sense where those who were “uniquely” suffering or suffered the most, became this desirable status in a perverse twist. (366) Yet the trauma in memory is unique to every individual, and hearing the story sympathetically is the way forward for the listener and the speaker in continuing the memory. Sympathy to these traumas should not be ranked. The story of Hugo Spiegel in Helmut Smith’s reading is unique to him, and as I read and come to learn of his story, it will become one that I remember as he spoke of his trauma following the Holocaust. Now, when I look back at the Indigenous woman who spoke to me only 8 years ago, I see her unique story compared to his as both memories of a past downplayed to simplicity. One must escape bureaucratic history-making for comparison, as it is the memory of these stories that can show comparative sympathy to both victims of the past and those that still suffer today.


Mary Fulbrook. Reckonings : Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Michael Rothberg, “Comparing Comparison: From the “Historikerstreit to the Mbembe
Affair” Geschichte der Gegenwart September 23, 2020

Helmut Walser Smith, “It Takes a Village to Create a Nation’s Memory” Zocalo Public

One Reply to “Traumatic Realism in Memory and Coming to Terms with Comparisons to the Holocaust”

  1. Hi Bryce, your post for this week was very touching and I think it perfectly put into words the emotions that came up when reading this week’s sources. I liked hearing about your personal anecdote of hearing someone share their trauma of systematic oppression and abuse and connecting it to the topic of traumatic realism. I think you were spot on in saying that the truth is the holocaust is unique. It’s so very easy to compare now-a-days, but a big part of reconciling the past is listening and accepting the unique traumas and experiences of those who had to go through the terrors and hardships. In learning about historical events, it’s simple to look at it from an outside perspective and compare the facts. But it definitely takes sympathy and empathy to fully understand the lasting lessons and legacies of these horrid actions.

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