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Germany’s Guilty Pleasure

Since Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, we are witnessing a shocking global uprise in antisemitic violence and sentiments. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, so too in my native country of Germany: Jewish graves have been desecrated, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Berlin, and Israel flags are being burnt at anti-Israel demonstrations, where the journalists present are called supporters of a “Jewish press”. That is not to mention the outpouring of hate against both the State of Israel and Jewish citizens on social media.

But recently, antisemites in Germany have focused their hatred on yet another target: A video of a pro-Palestinian protest on October 19 shows a group of apparently young leftist Germans in front of the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin enthusiastically clapping and chanting “Free Palestine from German guilt”. The protesters’ outrage is directed specifically at German leaders, at Germany’s declaration to stand with Israel, which, these people are convinced, must be motivated exclusively by a sense of guilt about the past.

In fact, across the country, attacks are being committed against the very symbols of Germany’s famous Erinnerungskultur (“remembrance culture”): At the memorial site Ahlem in the city of Hannover several stickers were found on memorial plaques, reading “Free yourself from the cult of guilt”, next to stickers depicting the Palestinian flag. In Göttingen, a s.c. stumbling stone, commemorating a Jewish woman deported and murdered by the Nazis, was destroyed. More memorial stones and plaques, often in places of former synagogues, are attacked and demolished in German cities.

Already on October 9, in the city of Schwerin, an attacker daubed a swastika on a container of the exhibition #StolenMemory, a project with seeks to identify and return stolen objects to the victims of Nazi Germany. Memorial sites of concentration camps also see a rise in vandalism.

According to Oliver von Wrochem, director of the memorial site in Neugamme, many of the perpetrators are of the extreme political right, often vocalizing relativism or outright denial of the Holocaust. Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, a politician of Germany’s far-right party AfD, uploaded a TikTok in which he claimed that Israel was collectively punishing the Palestinians for the crimes of Hamas. “The same applies to the Germans and the Holocaust”, Tillschneider concludes in his video. “You cannot hold the entire German people responsible for the crimes of a rare few.” But why, in the shadows of the deadliest attack on Jews since the Shoah, do some people in Germany attack the very memory of these atrocities committed?

While Germany has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, there has long been identified a German-specific form of secondary or guilt-deflecting antisemitism, or even antisemitism “not despite Auschwitz, but because of it” (Henryk M. Broder). This secondary antisemitism in its most extreme version can include blaming Jews for the Holocaust or outright denying it. In its much more common form, its supporters do not (at least openly) deny the Holocaust, but criticize and attack Germany’s remembrance culture, demanding closure instead, especially when remembrance is initiated by Jewish organizations.

An obsession with the concept of German guilt has been at the center of this false narrative from the very beginning. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, National Socialists turned to establishing the narrative of a German Schuld-Kult – a “cult of guilt”. In fact, this conspiracy theory can be traced throughout the decades of Germany’s post-war history and has in recent years resurfaced once again, in particular through representatives of Germany’s far-right AfD. Already in the 1950s, Germany failed its attempt at denazification, as former National Socialists were reintegrated into German society, which itself quickly adapted an impressively selective memory in order to “move on”. While Germany wished for closure, the blame was soon shifted onto its Jewish citizens, who now for some Germans were the ones keeping the memory alive. Still, the public acceptability of antisemitic sentiments seemed to have decreased over the decades throughout the Federal Republic.

That is, until the end of the millenium: Generally credited with breaking the public taboo is German writer Martin Walser in his speech at the award ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1998. Standing in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, which famously held the first National Assembly 150 years prior, he called the project for the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin the “monumentalization of our shame”, stating that the memory of Auschwitz should not be instrumentalized to keep Germans in a state of guilt. He demanded “freedom of conscience” instead (and to strengthen his point made the choice to quote German philosopher Martin Heidegger). Not only did Walser’s audience applaud him, but in the following years, he amongst other antisemitic intellectuals received much media attention, which proved that a new form of secondary antisemitism had now become publicly acceptable. What was formerly openly rejected by a German majority, now seemed to have been normalized – signaling an “Ende der Schonzeit” (“end to the kid gloves“), as expressed by historian Salomon Korn, who described this phenomenon not as a new form of antisemitism but merely as the open expression of a latent German sentiment. In 2017, AfD politician Björn Höcke publicly repeated Walser’s phrasing, in a speech in which he demanded a U-turn in Germany’s politics of memory. Clearly, what happened at the Paulskirche broke a public taboo and its echoes we still feel today, as the same memorial that Walser first called “shameful” is now being patrolled by German police in the year 2023.

What we have seen in recent weeks displays (consciously or unconsciously) a new generational resentment towards this concept of “German guilt” – and what was once a right-wing conspiracy theory made it across the political spectrum: A few days after the abovementioned Berlin sit-in, the “Berlin Culture Workers for Palestine” published a statement, adressing Germany’s remembrance culture as a “state campaign”, claiming that “this state-sponsored attempt to banish fascism and present Germany as a special haven for Jewish cultural life has, in a historical paradox, hardened into another form of national chauvinism”.

When IDF soldiers draw parallels between the mass atrocities committed by Hamas and the Shoah, this evokes a strong response in some Germans, albeit for the wrong reasons. One YouTube comment on a German news report reads: “Why do Israeli soldiers always need to compare everything to holocausts (sic)? What do they want to tell us? I am asking myself, aren’t our politicans in questions regarding Israel indirectly controlled because of our history?” Comments like this display the abovementioned conspiracy theory of a “cult of guilt”, fused with the antisemitic trope that “the Jews control the media” – for the latter becoming mainstream we need to look no further than a recent, now deleted, Instagram post by the international Fridays for Future account, which claimed to explain “how western media brainwashes you into standing with Israel”. What we are witnessing right now, globally and in Germany, is yet another normalization of antisemitism, directed, once more at the state of Israel as “the Jew among the nations”. People from across the political spectrum are closing ranks with Hamas-supporters, and words such as “colonialism”, “apartheit” and “genocide” have quickly become normalized in both online and public space.

In recent debates about a stricter immigration reform, some German politicians once again rely on the talking point of an “imported antisemitism”, arguing that citizenship should only be granted to immigrants who recognize Israel’s right to exist. The Minister-President of Bavaria has even advocated to remove German passports in cases of antisemitism. The sad irony is not lost on us, that the same man just weeks ago refused to distance himself from a leading member of his party when antisemitic leaflets and writings from his youth resurfaced. Many still prefer to turn a blind eye to both the political left and right in a country that never really had to import antisemitism in the first place. All the while, any “imported antisemitism” only takes root in a ground that allows it to. If anything, the last weeks have once again proven that antisemitic sentiments are found not exclusively among immigrant communities, but also with people born in Germany, and across the political spectrum from neo-Nazis to the radical left. It shows itself in violence on the streets as well as in self-proclaimed intellectualism: In a discussion of the war between Israel and Hamas, one of Germany’s beloved public intellectuals Richard David Precht confidently stated, that orthodox Jews today were not allowed to take up work “aside from a few things like diamond trading and financial transactions”. Precht later apologized for his statements. Unfortunately, we know that he is not the only one in Germany today whose knowledge about Judaism and Jewish life can be described as embarassingly ignorant. But is is now, that many feel confident to publicly voice these sentiments without any critical reflection.

A survey by the Bertelsmann-Foundation in 2021 has shown that 49 percent of the Germans asked wished there would finally be a line drawn under history. But what, one might ask, would happen on such day? “Collective guilt”, German philosopher Karl Jaspers already wrote in 1948, is always political, since even those Germans who did not commit but silently tolerated the Nazi crimes shared political guilt, while moral guilt was reserved for those planning and executing these mass atrocities. Jaspers also argued, that by acknowledging this, Germany had the potential to develop into a morally responsible society. Still, in post-war Germany until today, for some people remaining in a state of preoccupation with an imagined “cult of guilt” is much more comfortable than facing actual moral responsibility.

Declarations by German leaders to stand with Israel are not motivated by guilt but represent a conscience and responsibility which we need to uphold– the very conscience that Martin Walser had lamented 25 years ago and that indeed seems to be at stake once more. German politicians often refer to the “civic duty” of protecting Jewish life. The people failing this duty, I fear, are not only the ones openly attending anti-Israel demonstrations. But also, the currently rather silent majority, who do not call into question the ongoing normalization of antisemitic language and discourse. The conspiracy theory of Germany’s “cult of guilt” is once again instrumentalized to open the door for what will be possible to say. It is clear that Germany is facing another watershed moment and will have to defend its moral concience against those who seek to give new impetus to further radicalization in language and action.

About the Author
Katharina Hillmann is a PhD student at the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University.
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