Anyone in Germany who tells a Jewish joke runs the risk of landing himself in very hot water. What is considered as perfectly acceptable in neighbouring European countries is seen as tastelessness and insensitivity towards German history. The Third Reich and its most monstrous legacy, the Holocaust, continue to shape the German mentality. As a result, attitudes towards the idea of Jewishness are particularly sensitive.
The Nazi period is now 60 years past. Germany is now firmly established in the European Union, occupying troops left Germany after reunification and the wounds of defeat have finally healed. Many Germans think it is high time to start looking forward, instead of always defining themselves by Germany’s past, especially as it was so horrible. In Germany today Jewish life has reappeared; the number of Jews living there has risen from 20,000 at the end of the war to 100,000. In January 2003 a state contract was signed between the German government and the central Jewish authority aiming to promote Jewish life and to firmly anchor it in German society. Remembrance of the persecution of the Jews during the Third Reich has been formally established by places such as the Jewish Museum or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
A mark of respect or a ‘stain’?
Have the Germans finally achieved a ‘normal’ attitude towards the abnormality of their predecessors’ evil deeds, a "détente" in their relationship with their past, as Roman Herzog called for in his inauguration speech as State President? By no means. Debate over the Holocaust memorial has been raging now for 15 years and exemplifies how the Germans are torn between the need to punish themselves for their past and the desire to draw a line under it all. For one side the planned field of concrete pillars represents a tragic, but integral part of German identity and symbolises the need for humanity, but for the other this stony acknowledgement of guilt is simply a sharp poke in the eye. The argument came to a head at the end of 1998 with author Martin Walser’s speech during the ceremony for the German book trade’s peace prize. According to Martin Walser’s speech the “long term representation of our shame” was being “exploited for current purposes,” and the memorial was a “football-pitch sized nightmare.” (Martin Walser in his 'Peace prize speech, October 11 1998, Frankfurt Paulskirche). The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, barely concealed his approval when he said, “A writer is allowed to say such things. I’m not.” He would have preferred a memorial “that people actually want to visit,” thereby sweeping history under the rug of today’s ‘fun-loving’ generation in one swift movement. Just a few weeks later, Rudolph Augstein, a journalistic icon who has since died, clarified Walser’s somewhat vague and literary criticism stating that Auschwitz had been used to claim exaggerated compensation payments from German industry for those Jews subjected to forced labour. Instead of seeing it as a mark of respect he described the memorial as a “stain on the city and on the newly reconstructed Germany that has been developed in Berlin.” Augstein made unrestrained use of anti-Semitic stereotypes when he claimed that a, supposed, powerful “Jewish East coast” had been the driving force behind plans for the memorial, “Because of the New York Press and legal sharks nobody dares keep the centre of Berlin free from such a monstrosity.” It’s not the actual historical events that Augstein finds monstrous but their representation, which prevent Germans from finally becoming normal. Augstein’s polemic culminated in a quote from Konrad Adenauer, “Global Jewry is a huge power.” (Rudolph Augenstein, article in 'Der Spiegel'49/1998, "Wir sind alle verletzbar") Portraying Jews as an overpowering, secretly operating cartel is a widely used anti-Semitic cliché. The number of Jews living in Germany is grossly overestimated nowadays – 31% of Germans believe there are more than five million Jewish citizens in Germany, 50 times the actual number. In the same survey, 23% of those asked admitted to anti-Semitic views. Five years ago this figure was 20%.(Representative survey from FORSA, in 'Stern' 48/2003).
Playing down history
Universal calls for drawing a line under the continued rehashing of Nazi history in Germany go hand in hand with a relativization of the Holocaust. For example, animal rights’ groups talk about ‘concentration camp hens’ when they mean battery hens and the slogan ‘Auschwitz never again’ is used as justification for the foreign deployment of troops. In 2002 during the general election campaign, the minister representative for Nordrhein-Westfalen, Jamal Kersi, implied that the Israeli army were using “Nazi methods” and criticized the “considerable influence of the Zionist lobby.” His patron, Jürgen Möllemann often repeated, in a manner reminiscent of a prayer wheel, that it was perfectly acceptable to criticise the Israeli government and laconically stated that anti-Semitism only existed in Germany because it was provoked by Jews like Michel Friedman and Ariel Sharon. In other words, Jews are the real perpetrators and if they’re hated it’s their own fault. The role reversal of victim and perpetrator is a strategy also used by the German MP, Martin Hohmann. In a speech to mark the anniversary of reunification on October 23 2003 he put forward the theory that it was “quite justifiable” to describe the Jews as a “nation of perpetrators” because of their involvement in the Bolshevik revolutions in Russia. This creation of supposed atrocities on the part of the Jews is to put German guilt into perspective and so enable them to appear ‘more normal.’ In no way though should ‘normal’ mean the fatalistic acceptance of human atrocities, but rather the responsible acknowledgement of German identity, which, as with every other national identity, is shaped by history. And if German history isn’t exactly glorious, then they have all the more duty to show consideration and humanity. Drawing a line under the Nazi period and happily returning to ‘acceptable’ anti-Semitism should never be allowed to happen.