Jeffrey Herf

Challenges of Integration: Germany, the Holocaust and Syrian Refugees

The following essay was published on December 8th in The American Interest magazine in Washington, D.C.

Whither Germany in the Face of the Syrian Migration? ‘Hard’ and ‘Easy’ Terms of Integration

The fact that Syrians are coming to Germany merits some reflection on the specific historical connection between these two countries and their utterly contrasting approaches since World War II to the conflict in the Middle East and the state of Israel. The question in months and years to come will not only be whether or not the refugees become integrated into German society or if terrorists have merged with the refugee stream of 2015.

The more enduring issue is also about the terms on which integration should take place. How is Germany going to respond to people from a country which has been at war with Israel since 1948 and was a loyal ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War? How will the refugees respond to a Germany in which the memory of the crimes of the Nazi regime, including the Holocaust, and support for the state of Israel have become core elements of a broad political consensus? The easy paths of integration would ignore these issues. That is a recipe for failure. The hard path of integration looks at these contrasting histories straight on in order to preserve Germany’s best postwar political traditions and foster successful integration of the refugees.

Following the attacks in Paris on November 13, the discussion in Germany, as elsewhere, has expanded about whether terrorists have used the refugee stream to come to their country. Berthold Kohler, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has criticized German government efforts to insist that the issues of terrorism and migration were not related. Kohler stated the obvious: It is entirely conceivable that there will be Islamist among in the approximately 800,000 migrants that the German government expects to receive in 2015. Christopher Caldwell, in The Weekly Standard, has examined “the bloody crossroads where migration and terrorism meet” in Europe and Germany. Since Merkel relaxed border controls in the summer, Caldwell writes, “migrants started pouring into the country without identity check or proper registration.”

Today, the German government does not know for sure who has arrived. Yet no matter what the outcome of the Syrian civil war is or when stability and elementary law and order return to other countries from which refugees are fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Syrians or people claiming to be Syrians are going to be living in Germany for some time to come. Especially after the Paris attacks, the connection between migration and terrorism is a fact. What’s done is done. Now the challenges facing Germany foster an integration on terms that preserves its values and political identity.

In 2008, in a remarkable speech to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.” In August 2015, Merkel expressed her welcome to refugees from Syria, confident her generosity was compatible with the commitments she had reiterated seven years earlier.

If the two are to be compatible, the history of the unrelenting hostility of Syria’s government towards Israel since 1948 and of the two decades of alliance between the former East Germany and the Baathist regime in Damascus must become matters of public discussion in Germany.
From its beginning in 1949, West Germany’s tradition of “coming to terms with the Nazi past” was opposed by those who wanted to forget and avoid discussion of the crimes of the Nazi regime.

Over time, however, a consensus emerged in the German political establishment from center right to center left in West German and then German public life that an honest reckoning was indispensable to the establishment of liberal democracy in West Germany, to its integration into the Western Alliance and to its support for the Zionist aspiration became reality in the state of Israel after World War II. During those same years, the Communist dictatorship in East Germany initially purged those Communists whose anti-fascism made room for memory of the Holocaust and who wanted close relations with the new state of Israel. Following the “anti-cosmopolitan” East Germany took a very high profile position in the Soviet-bloc alliance with the Arab states, including Syria.

From 1969 to 1989, the East German-Syrian military alliance became a cornerstone of East German policy in the Middle East.
Syria, both before and after the coup that brought the Baath Party to power in 1966 and Hafez al-Assad consolidated dictatorial power in 1971, was the most implacable enemy of Israel among the Arab front-line states. Syria’s armed forces fought to prevent the state of Israel from being established in 1948 and sought to destroy the Jewish state in the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Syria’s Air Force fought — and was thoroughly defeated — during Israel’s attack on the PLO during the Lebanon War of 1982.

Despite some severe disagreements with Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian regime was also a firm supporter of the PLO and of terrorist campaigns waged against Israel. Hafez al-Assad led the Arab states’ “rejection front,” which opposed the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

In the 1970s, Assad’s Syria became the lynchpin of Soviet-bloc policy in the Middle East. The Soviet Union and its East European satellites, including East Germany, became the primary source of arms and training of the Syrian armed forces. As I document in my forthcoming book, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989, East Germany’s relations with the Assad regime became very close during the last decades of the Cold War. When East Germany established diplomatic relations with Syria in June 1969 the diplomatic statement that accompanied the event extolled the shared antagonism of both regimes to American imperialism and to Israel, which it described as a regime based on racism and colonialism. In 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt adopted an official policy of neutrality in the Yom Kippur War, Erich Honecker’s East German regime sent a squadron of MiG fighter jets and two freighters full of heavy weapons as part of the Soviet-bloc arms supplies to the Arab states.

It stands to reason that at least some of the Syrian refugees who have arrived in Germany come with memories of their parents’ and grandparents’ stories about fighting against Israel. This family lore will have been reinforced by a steady diet of government- produced venom that for decades denounced the state of Israel and celebrated armed attacks on it. They will have heard the media outlets of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus extolling terrorist attacks as examples of heroic resistance by great martyrs. They also will have read vicious anti-Semitism from prominent members of the Baathist regime. Perhaps some of the Syrian refugees had occasion to read The Matzo of Zion, published in the early 1980s by Mustafa Tlass, Syria’s Minister of Defense from 1971 to 2004. Tlass, a key figure of the East German-Syrian military alliance, placed medieval blood libels about Jews killing children to bake matzos for Passover into an Arabic and Islamic context.

In the absence of a free press and unrelenting government hatred of Israel, the Syrian refugees arriving in Germany this year have likely seldom or never heard the case for Israel’s legitimacy. So it is likely that at least some of the refugees, even those that despise the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the terrorists of ISIS, will bring with them intense antagonism to Jews per so. For them, Merkel’s speech in the Knesset would amount to a revolting defense of a regime they had learned to despise.

An influx of people with such views will only add to the antagonism toward Israel that already exists in present-day German society. Many former members of the Socialist Unity Party — that is, the former ruling Communist Party of East Germany — became members of the Left Party in Germany, which has seats in regional and national parliaments. For many of them hostility to Israel has been and remains a core political conviction. Anti-Zionism and antagonism to Israel among new refugees may also strike a chord among some members of the Green Party and in the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party.

So for some Syrian refugees, one definition of integration into German society could be integration into the anti-Israeli mood that was state policy in East Germany and has come to define leftist politics in Europe since the 1960s and in unified Germany since 1991. Leftist parties could see the new refugees as an opportunity to expand their voter base. On the other hand, in light of the declaration of war on ISIS by French Socialist President Francois Hollande, the left of center parties in Germany may also now be more willing to speak frankly about the anti-Israeli ideas of immigrants with which they disagree.

The events of the last four years in Syria may contribute not only to Syrian refugees’ integration but to integration that is compatible with Germany’s best political and moral traditions. Many Syrians refugees undoubtedly feel gratitude to the German government and people for the welcome they have offered this past year. They are aware that without that welcome, they would have been at the mercy of Assad’s armed forces or ISIS terrorists or would be languishing in refugee camp cities in Turkey and Jordan. Relatedly, they must recall vividly the horror and massive violence inflicted by the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. Reflection on the over 200,000 Syrians killed by that regime may lead them to reevaluate the messages that they, their parents and grandparents heard from the Syrian government since 1948 about West Germany, and perhaps also about Israel, the Jews and the United States.

To the extent that is the case, those Syrian refugees may link their voices to those of Arab liberals such as Fouad Ajami, who examined the Assad regime’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria. Or, in reflecting on both Assad and ISIS, perhaps they will read Hisham Melham’s recent incisive examination in Al Arabyia of the connection between Arab political culture and the “cancer” that is ISIS.

Perhaps still others will know the work of Bassam Tibi, including his important date? book Islamism and Islam.

Tibi, a great scholar who was born and grew up in Damascus, did his doctorate with the German-Jewish social theorist Max Horkheimer in Frankfurt/Main in sociology and politics in the 1960s and then went on to a distinguished career at the University of Göttingen, where he wrote about international relations in the Middle East and the intersection of Islamism and politics. Syrian refugees could become part of a grand tradition of European history — the de-radicalization and disillusionment following the disasters brought about by decades of dictatorship and political fanaticism.

Europe’s and Germany’s successes since 1945 rested to no small degree on movement away from extremes, a willingness to learn lessons from past disasters, rejection of totalitarian ideologies, self-criticism and assumption of responsibility for building a different future. It may occur to some of the Syrian refugees that decades of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and hatred of Israel coming from the Baath dictatorship had something to do with the self-destruction that has now engulfed their native land. For this welcome outcome to occur, German intellectuals, scholars, politicians and government should remind incoming migrants of the importance of Germany’s tradition of facing the Nazi past honestly and insist that most of what the Syrians have heard from their own government over many decades about Israel, the United States, West Germany, Zionism and the Jews is false.

The hard path to successful integration for Syrians in Germany, one that is compatible with Germany’s best traditions, will require that Germans themselves confirm their rejection of the worldview offered for decades by the Baathist dictatorship in Damascus. Assad’s torture chambers, barrel bombs and chemical attacks open the possibility of a Syrian reassessment of Baathist policies against the West and Israel. The barbarism of ISIS makes evident the inhuman consequences of radical Islamic ideology. That the refugees are fleeing both Assad’s regime and ISIS may contribute greatly to de-radicalization of Arab hatred of Israel and the West, just as many Europeans did in the aftermath of Nazism and gradually in the decades before the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Yet perhaps, the Syrians and the Germans will take the easy path, one of silence and avoidance of difficult truths. That too is a well-trodden path in post-1945 Germany. Yet the path to an easy integration that does not challenge seven decades of dominant ideas in Syria would add to the ranks of voters who do not want to hear about the German preoccupation with the Nazi past and the Holocaust. Silence about the Baath regime in Syria would reinforce the reluctance to look honestly at the Nazi past in Germany. If so, the Syrian exodus to Germany could weaken Germany’s traditions of coming to terms with the Nazi past, foster a growth of anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe and thus stimulate a Jewish exodus out of the country, .

For this historian of the Nazi years, it was moving to see people in need seeking to move towards and not away from Germany. It was an indication of how much had changed since Nazism. Yet I also confess to uneasiness at the enormous enthusiasm with which these refugees have been greeted. Did the Germans welcoming them with open arms not know of Syria’s antagonism to Israel? It was hardly a secret. Was there some conscious or unconscious element of common cause in welcoming these people from a country that has been Israel’s most uncompromising enemy for so many decades? Among former citizens of East Germany, were there fond memories of the East German-Syrian alliance of the Cold War era? I’d like to think probably not, and that the welcoming culture was simply the expression of elementary decency in the face of persecution and terror.

Yet, in a bitter of irony of history, the American and German failure to intervene to stop the slaughter in Syria has led to a migration of Syrians to a country still haunted by its role in the murder of Europe’s Jews. Moreover, Germany is welcoming victims of the Assad regime and ISIS, both of which would gladly destroy the Jewish state of Israel if they had the means to do so. Will Germans insist that the price of integration for the Syrian refugees is to accept and understand the German reckoning with Nazism and the related commitment to the safety and survival of Israel? Or will Germany take the easy path, one of lesser resistance and allow its own best traditions to wither as it seeks to accommodate newcomers whose parents and grandparents waged wars against Israel and the West?

No one today has answers to these questions, but the two options must be discussed. The welcoming culture should be one that expresses both pride in what Germany has come to understand about its own past as well as frank criticism of what the Syrian regime had said and done for the past seventy years. These Syrians have voted with their feet against the regimes and organizations that terrorized them. Hopefully there are Syrian refugees who are now willing to hear criticism that they were not allowed to hear in that native land and will now be prepared to articulate their views in words — now that they are finally free to do so. That will only happen if the Germans who have saved their lives and welcomed them refuse to squander the hard won lessons of the traditions of a frank coming to terms with the Nazi past.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.