The New German Chauvinism (Part 1)

ANALYSIS, 22 Apr 2024

Bue Rübner Hansen | Lefteast - TRANSCEND Media Service

One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive. 

-Theodor W. Adorno

19 Mar 2024 – In Germany, people are currently forced to choose between two critical and profound commitments: to accept their government’s complicity in the mass murder of civilians or to be accused of antisemitism. Perversely and devastatingly, the national memory of the Holocaust makes it seem as if concern for human life and international law (the ban on collective punishment, on the use of white phosphorus, on deprivations of civilians and hospitals of water, energy, and food etc.) were at odds with their nation’s historical responsibilities and commitment to solidarity with Jews wherever they are. Why are the actions of Israel’s far-right ethnonationalist government defended by Germany, from the International Court of Justice to the cancellation of innumerable Jewish diasporic intellectuals at German cultural institutions? Why do so many Germans use the memory of one genocide to defend what is, according to the ruling of the International Court of Justice, a plausible genocide in the making?

From outside, it is easy to believe all this expresses a deep German consensus. Yet in a poll  of German attitudes towards the Israel/Palestine conflict conducted in the summer of 2023, only 18% said the conflict matters to them, while the vast majority said it matters little (40%) or not at all (33%) – many fewer than in any other countries. Incredibly, outright support for Israel, while the second highest in any country after the US’s 29%, was only at 17%, with support for Palestine only marginally lower at 14%. After October 7, sympathy for Israel in Germany leapt to 38%, but has since dropped significantly. In December 2023, 59% of respondents to a German poll stated that “Israel follows its interests without concern for other peoples,” 41% said Israel is “aggressive,” and 56% said that Germany has no special responsibility to Israel. In short, Israel-solidarity isn’t as common sensical in Germany as it may appear to be from the outside. Rather, it is a project promoted and policed by actors consciously involved in the fight over the definition of German nationality, Germany’s place in the world, and the place of West Asian and North African migrants within it. Put differently, the extreme force with which Israel-solidarity is promoted by many German pundits, intellectuals, cultural leaders, party leaders, and left-wing activists isn’t a sign of the power of the pro-Israel consensus in Germany, but rather of its shallowness, and the anxieties and mistrust it provokes in its proponents.

Part 1 of this text explains the historical background for the idea that Germany’s atonement for the Holocaust is essentially connected to support for the state of Israel. It is about many actors’ profound and well-founded vigilance about the dangers of right-wing revisionism, antisemitism, and a return of fascism, and how this was enrolled in defending (West) Germany’s opportunistic geopolitical interests today and during the Cold War. It is about how the left’s fight for a national self-critique was coopted into a reconstruction of German (ethno-)national identity on the foundation of Schuld (guilt/debt/liability), an identity seeped through with the moral chauvinism of the repentant. The tragedy, as we will see, is that many of those left-wing and civic voices who could be expected to question such dynamics instead align themselves closely with the geopolitics and moral superiority of this new national identity. In the process, German progressives have isolated themselves from progressive forces in the rest of the world.

In part 2 of this text, we will explore the consequences of the marriage between German memory culture and support for Israel in Germany itself: the embrace of racist policing of migrant youth claiming that Palestinian lives matter, the silence about the rapid anti-Muslim alliance between the German and Israeli right, and the cancellation of anti-antisemitic Palestinian voices and Jews who object to mass murder – all of which amounts to a serious undermining of the fight against racism and antisemitism. In this second part of the essay, we will also explore the neglected and marginalised basis for another culture of memory and anti-fascist struggle: the resistance and lives of all those targeted by the Nazis.

The aim of this text is to open a space for German and Austrian self-inquiry, and help outsiders grasp the rationales and contradictions, impasses, and consequences of the dominant politics of memory. I wrote this living and working between Austria and Germany, as a foreigner with a deep sense of suffocation amidst the jingoism and silence of this part of the world. My hope is that this text – through the reflections and refutations it provokes as much as through its arguments – can create conversations and increase the courage to speak up among the growing number of people who are fed up with the moral pressures to support the unsupportable.

Communities of memory

The contemporary hegemony of guilt in post-Nazi memory culture has only really been established during the last three decades. But this hegemony was shaped through decades of struggles over the meaning of Nazi history and the Holocaust, hearkening back to the early post-war years. In 1946, Karl Jaspers, one of the few intellectuals who neither left Germany nor submitted to the Nazis, launched an impassioned plea for Germans’ Schuld, a multidimensional concept of guilt, responsibility, and debt. In The Question of German Guilt, the Heidelberg philosopher proposed what was eventually hailed by Habermas as the first contribution to “the postwar consensus of the Federal Republic,” and “the founding text of the new narrative of the ‘European German,’ of a neutral, pacifist, and above all, ethical Germany”. 1

Jaspers distinguished between four types of guilt, shared unevenly by the wartime generations: firstly, there was the criminal guilt of the Nazi leaders and collaborators, who were (or should have been) tried at the criminal court assembled by the victors in Nuremberg. Secondly, Jaspers spoke of the political guilt of every member of the German polity, understood as the “joint liability of all citizens for acts committed by their state,” a liability that is very real and enforced politically by the victors, yet “leaves the soul untouched.” Thirdly, there is the moral guilt of each at the tribunal of their own conscience – the widespread guilt of not speaking up, of believing Nazi ideology, of eagerly obeying the regime, or relativising the crimes of the Nazis with reference to “the good they also did.” More radically, there is the moral guilt of those who did not act, who chose blindness and indifference towards acts of evil and the suffering of others, and who ran with the pack to maintain their jobs and social connections. Finally, there is the metaphysical guilt of survival itself – of which God is ultimately the judge. Jaspers defines metaphysical guilt as “the lack of absolute solidarity with the human being as such,” which – if it had been heeded – would have induced the individual to sacrifice their very life against Nazi injustices from the 1933 destruction of the constitution, through the later pogroms, deportations, and war of aggression, to the Holocaust itself.

Jaspers’ text constitutes a powerful appeal to assume all these forms of national guilt. To accept the trials of the allies, to assume political co-responsibility as a nation, to engage in moral self-inquiry, and to understand that each and every member of “the German nation” was, under the eyes of God, guilty for not having sacrificed themselves in resistance to the evils of Nazism. For Jaspers, lifting this weight of guilt was “a common inspiring task – of not being German as we happen to be, but becoming Germans as we are not yet but ought to be.”  And through it, Jaspers projected the possibility of a national moral strength, through which “we feel the entire task of renewing human existence from its origins,” a task that is given to all men, but “which appears more urgently, […] when its own guilt brings a people face-to-face with nothingness.” In this vision, we may see the seed of Germany’s eventual moral self-congratulation. This is a vision of moral self-elevation premised on identification with the perpetrators, an elevation that effectively excludes all those migrants who identify with the victims rather than the perpetrators from the moral lessons central to contemporary Germanness.

Perpetuating Nazi conceptions of the nation

When Jaspers chastised “the German nation” and affirmed its world-historical moral mission, he implicitly accepted National Socialism’s excision of the victims of the Nazi mass murder from German nationhood. This historical erasure of Jews, Roma, Sinti, and resistant leftists, continues to shape, as we will see, the German memory complex along ethnonationalist and Cold-War lines. The ascription of political and metaphysical guilt to the whole German nation was, for Jaspers, not just a situational analysis of the guilt of the generations that were adults during Nazism, but of a national guilt stretching through the generations. “We have to bear the guilt of our fathers. […] our national tradition contains something, mighty and threatening, which is our moral ruin.” These ethno-genealogical elements, by no means Jaspers’ alone, are an important psychosocial aspect of the continuity of German guilt.

While this thought rejects the content of nationalist thought, it retains its form: accepting the idea of the nation as a unit of common destiny, with a necessarily shared national affect and a common moral foundation. Common to this is a deep identification with the nation state as a carrier of collective (rather than class-based) liabilities. While this framing is unsurprising from the Christian existentialist and anti-Communist Jaspers, it is more surprising that it is so often repeated by leftists who lost tens of thousands of political ancestors in the camps and to firing squads. To understand the continued power of the belief in national destiny on the left, we shouldn’t look to the continued strength of German feelings of guilt, but the reverse – the recurrent refusal of guilt and responsibility on the German right and in wide parts of the population.

Refusals of guilt and the repression of antisemitism

In a large empirical study from the mid-1950s, translated as Guilt and Defense, Theodor Adorno and his colleagues from the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research wrote of the many strategies of denying, minimising, relativising, or claiming ignorance about what happened during National Socialism: “We didn’t know what was going on,” some would say, while others claimed that fewer Jews were killed than estimated by the Allies, or that Germans were also victims, “as though Dresden compensated for Auschwitz.” The study also revealed a generalised repression of antisemitic and Nazi signifiers, but which returned in euphemisms, jokes, and revealing negations (“I have nothing against the Jews”). Post-war psychologists and psychoanalysts documented a refusal to examine their past complicity in horrific crimes, an inability to mourn, and an “overall derealization that warded off feeling implicated and guilty”.2 This had severe consequences for the children of the war generations, who inherited an unconscious and somewhat public awareness of an unspeakable crime.3

In the GDR, anti-fascism was official state ideology. Yet this left little space for atonement and memorialisation. Instead of commemorating the Shoa, it celebrated anti-fascist resistance. Instead of persecuting Nazi criminals in its own ranks, it criticised the Federal Republic for failing to do the same with its (much greater number of) state-employed ex-Nazis. Instead of returning state-owned properties the Nazis had confiscated from Jews, it attacked the complicity of West German capital in the genocide.

In the late 1960s, East German critiques of the Federal Republic were amplified and extended by the youth struggles in West Germany. This was of momentous importance in forcing the question of guilt onto the agenda of the Bundesrepublik and bringing the repressed out in the open. This movement addressed all the types of guilt outlined by Jaspers but focussed its energies on materialist and institutional critiques of the criminal and political culpability of the parent generations and German Federal Republic, focussing on the many continuities of personnel from the Third Reich in the new West German state. The “consensus” claimed by Habermas wasn’t so much a reality as a project, which the very invocation of a consensus was designed to promote.4 Another consequential development of this movement was a rejection of Jaspers’ limitation of moral judgement to the individual’s self-assessment – a call all too easily escaped by postwar Germans. As a result, a kind of moral activism was born, whereby the youth actively demanded moral introspection of a generation where anyone could have potentially been a Nazi, and a generalised vigilance towards any signs of proto- or crypto-Nazism.

Right-wing revisionism

In the mid-1980s, conservative revisionism went into the offensive. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at the military cemetery of Bitburg. The joint commemoration aimed to affirm West Germany’s solid belonging in the Atlanticist camp and to normalise the relationship by symbolically equating dead German and American soldiers – an aim which was undermined when it became public that the cemetery counted a number of SS soldiers.

Three days later, the West German Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker held a powerful speech that is taken by many as the starting point of official German memory culture. The speech proved enormously resonant and paved the way for von Weizsäcker to make the first German state visit to Israel in October 1985.

Bitburg became the spark of the 1986-1987 Historikerstreit (“historians’ dispute”), in which conservative historians rehashed many of the minimising and relativising motifs of the early postwar period to a broad audience – fiercely contested by Jürgen Habermas and innumerable liberal and Marxist historians. The overall thrust of the conservative revisionism was to reject the “obsession with guilt” – a meme that continues to be central to the politics of the new German right. The right-wing historians compared Germany’s crimes to other acts of genocides and mass murder, from Stalin to Pol Pot. The aim, according to Habermas, was to make the Holocaust into yet another genocide in a murderous century. In this logic, he warned, the specificity of Auschwitz appears as a simple technical innovation (the gas chamber) and Nazism as a strategy within the dialectics of mutual threats of annihilation, as expressed in Ernst Nolte’s infamous claim that the Nazis carried out an “Asiatic” deed “because they saw themselves and their kind as the potential or actual victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed” at the hand of the Bolsheviks.

Habermas’s intervention in the Historikerstreit served to instantiate much of what the genocide expert Dirk Moses has described as the “New German catechism.” This catechism has quite specific and understandable political aims: the affirmation of the absolute singularity of the German crime against the Jews serves to fend off right-wing relativisations of the Holocaust. The passionate affirmation that the whole German Volk carried responsibility for Nazi crimes aims to fight off right-wing claims of German victimhood, and to dismiss the idea that the deaths of Dresden and the murder and expulsion of German populations from Eastern Prussia and Transylvania balance up German crimes.

The key reason many German liberals and leftists have very little capacity to listen to outsiders’ critique of German guilt culture is that any such critique invokes the moral danger of a renewed German nationalism, liberated from guilt. In this context, the affirmation of German guilt is not simply a statement of fact, but a political defence mechanism, a response to the return of the repressed, and a renewed act of repression. Understanding the outline of these debates explains the deep unease that German leftists feel with the current pro-Palestinian slogan “Free Palestine from German guilt” or academic articles with titles such as “Germany’s Never-Ending Guilt Trip.” Such statements by non-Germans are not returns of the repressed, but they do bring up the same signifiers involved in such a return. This causes alarm and frequently leads to projections of antisemitism onto those who express them.

However understandable, this pattern of thought is also deeply wrong. In 1986, Habermas correctly identified a conservative project of providing historical legitimation to the aims of the political system, as expressed at Bitburg: to avoid the path of neutrality and to affirm the Federal Republic’s firm rooting in “the Atlantic community of values” through regaining a level of national self-confidence through an identification with parts of the past.5 Yet in extending this analysis only to Kohl at Bitburg and not to his party colleague’s subsequent speech, Habermas missed something essential: that Holocaust relativisation was no necessary condition for a renewal of German confidence on the world stage. Whether by chance or design, the symbolic acts of the two Christian Democrat politicians established the basic dialectic of official German memory culture, whereby Holocaust memorialisation and Israel-solidarity become the means through which Germany’s military could be cleansed, and Germany’s geopolitical confidence and aspiration can be publicly assumed. When, in November 2023, the chief of the German Luftwaffe travelled to Israel to donate blood to Israeli soldiers, we see how successful this cleansing has been: today, the state that claims to represent all Jews gladly accepts German military blood in the veins of its soldiers.

The incomprehension of this dialectic makes it hard for many leftists to see how strange it is that their politics align with the German state’s geopolitical agenda, especially its support for Israel as a “frontline state of the West.” But if we are to understand why Israel-solidarity is pushed as a national ideology, which is accepted by the right and far right, we cannot ignore the racist and anti-liberationist geopolitics behind this policy.

The geopolitics of Israel-solidarity

Germany’s relations to Israel cannot, of course, be understood outside the framework of the hegemonic memory culture of those countries. Yet the relation between national memory and support for Israel was not clear from the beginning. In West Germany, support for the State of Israel started under the Adenauer government in the 1950s, and thus before widespread public and institutional reckoning with the Holocaust. The West German-Israeli alliance was kept secret until 1965, in part because of its sensitive nature in Israel, in part to avoid provoking Arab states into recognising the GDR.

Meanwhile, the GDR supported both Jews’ and Arabs’ right to self-determination on the general principle of national self-determination. Thus a 1948 Central Committee statement described the foundation of “a Jewish state [as] an essential contribution enabling thousands of people who suffered greatly under Hitler‘s fascism to build a new life.” Yet as a part of the wider Soviet-led strategy to support Arab nationalism in the Cold War, the GDR held back on recognizing Israel until 1988. In a sense, East German support for Israel rested only on the past, and this was a past that was not subject to any serious production of national memory and affect, nor of justice.

In West Germany, reversely, the common theme of discussions over Israel during the 1950s wasn’t the past, as much as the question of West Germany’s geopolitical belongings in the Cold War. Thus, Israel’s status as a fellow frontline state and US client in the Cold War was not an insignificant enabler of this consensus, especially among the governing conservatives in the Bonn Republic. In a 1960 meeting with Ben Gurion, Adenauer himself described Israel as a “fortress of the West [which] has to develop in the interests of the whole world.” Meanwhile, he was systematically reversing the institutional de-Nazification process at home and giving positions to former Nazis with the support of the US. As detailed by Pankaj Mishra, “Adenauer himself explained after his retirement that giving money and weapons to Israel was essential to restoring Germany’s ‘international standing,’ adding that ‘the power of the Jews even today, especially in America, should not be underestimated.’” Statements such as these suggest that German Israel-support has always existed on a continuum with antisemitic attitudes, especially towards diasporic Jewry. Moreover, we see how Germany’s re-entry into the “civilised world” and the recoding of Jews from “Orientals” to front troops of the West were wedded to the geopolitics of the Cold War.

The project of civilizational belonging

Even debates over Nazism and the Holocaust were shaped by this desire to demonstrate civilisational belonging to the West and a distance from the Nazis’ “rupture of civilisation” (Zivilisationsbruch), the fact that “a civilised people could allow the monstrous to occur,” in Habermas’s words.6 While ostensibly meant as a break with human civilisation as such, the negative – the racist presumption of uncivilised, savage, and barbarian peoples – isn’t much further removed than it is in Nolte’s notion of “Asiatic deeds.” Thus, the object of both sides of the Historikerstreit was to define German national identity and geopolitical belonging through the past. Was Germany a part of “the West” because it fought Bolshevism, in which case the Nazis could be counted as front troops of Western Civilisation, doing its dirty work – Nolte’s, Hillgruber’s, and Stürmers’s argument, or was Germany’s belonging to the West, as per Habermas, dependent on principled convictions, repentance, and assumption of “Western” values like human rights and liberal democracy? This deep desire to reaffirm Germany’s belonging to “Western civilisation,” shared from the right to anti-Stalinist leftists, had an important duality. On the one hand, it marked a break with the previous identification of Germany as “Mitteleuropa,” a “central” power with its own regional hegemonic claim. On the other, and more urgently, it was a product of the Cold-War rejection of “Eastern totalitarianism.” In either case, it expressed a racist inability to understand the West not just as an incubator of universalist struggles, but as a global colonial and frequently genocidal enterprise. It is telling of centuries of colonial dehumanisation and metropolitan provincialism that the philosopher could state that until Auschwitz “we had simply taken the integrity of this deep layer [of solidarity among all who wear a human face] for granted”.7

In the simplest of terms, in the post-war period, Germans were motivated to take historical responsibility by three factors: moral and political pressure from within, from without, and the self-interest in doing this, as a condition of belonging to the West, geopolitically and ideologically. Jasperian memory culture only became hegemonic in Germany after 1989. To the elites of reunified Germany, it was politically expedient and opportune to build a new national culture around Holocaust memorialisation: as after 1945, the country received a push by Western states anxious about the risks of a reunified Germany. Holocaust memorialisation became a tool of German soft power. Moreover, this Holocaust memorialisation took the form most conductive to a negation of the specific East German narrative of Nazi crimes. Thus, it affirmed the idea of total German culpability, contributing to the erasure of the communist contribution to the defeat of Nazism, and thus to any memory culture indigenous to the East. Even at its utmost assumption of guilt, the new German subject, who Jaspers dreamed that would “renew human existence from its origins,” was, in practice, a creature of the Cold War. The idea of Germany’s unique moral post-war enlightenment combined with the belief in the West’s civilizational mission to form an inherently chauvinist and Western supremacist idea of Germany as a moral leader on the world stage, which is widespread from the German security establishment to parts of the German left. Implicitly or explicitly, it is suggested that only the Germans, having been forced to by bitter defeat, have truly learned the lessons of history.

Moral, political, and military support for Israel coded in Western supremacist terms is a key element of this ideology. It was epitomised by Merkel’s definition, in a 2008 speech to the Knesset, of Israel Security as being a part of Germany’s reason of state, Staatsräson, a remark that has since been treated as a quasi-constitutional credo. In that talk, Merkel noted a deep connection between Israel and Europe on the level of “shared values, challenges, and interests,” a logic invoked in December 2023, when Israeli president Isaac Herzog claimed that “his war is a war that is not only between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war that is intended, really, truly, to save Western civilization.” The moral elevation of the West, the othering and moral depreciation of non-Westerners, and the presumption that support for Israel redeems Germany’s historical crimes is a potent ideology. It allows for a renewed German chauvinism, where deadly geopolitics are coated in a moral self-elevation, which makes Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices troubling, impermissible, and ultimately incomprehensible.

Anti-anti-colonialism

German memory culture has been lauded internationally for its willingness to take responsibility for the state’s historical crimes. However, the singularisation of the Holocaust, originally a strategy for repressing right-wing relativisations of the Holocaust has turned it into an event outside history, a founding mythos of modern Germany, something that cannot be referenced in warnings about contemporary genocidal violence or as a reminder to reckon with Germany’s or Europe’s colonial history. In this context, the stress on the singularity of the German crime and frequent exclusive mention of jews as its victims reproduce a strong German intellectual, moral, and political provincialism.

This was the case in the recent polemics that have been dubbed “Historikerstreit 2.0.” Here intellectuals and broadsheets attacked the contributions of Jewish-American scholar Michael Rothberg, whose seminal study Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization analysed how the Holocaust enabled the articulation of other older and newer histories of victimhood, principal among them the crimes of colonialism and slavery. Working in the same vein, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe was falsely accused of antisemitism and relativising the Holocaust, a suspicion that is now extended to all forms of postcolonial thought and politics in Germany. This provincialism continues to block any dialogue with anti-colonial thinkers who insisted that colonial racism was “the breeding-ground for the type of fascist mentality which is being let loose in Europe today” (George Padmore, 1936), that fascism was a “boomerang effect” of the violence that had hitherto been applied only to non-European peoples (Aimé Césaire, 1937), or contemporary historians who point out that Nazi Germany’s expansive drive was a delayed attempt to catch up within inter-imperialist competition.

What is worse, the analysis of the genocidal impulses of the pre-Nazi German polity is almost always limited to anti-Jewish speech and pogroms on the European continent. Only in 2021 did the German state agree to define the genocide against the Hereros and Nama of Namibia, which killed more than 100,000 people between 1904 and 1908, as a genocide. While insufficient (“the agreement falls short […] on meaningful apology and reparations,” according to some descendants of the victims), it nonetheless entails a noteworthy departure from the past stance of the Germans, which had hitherto used the idea of the incomparability of the Holocaust to deflect demands for reparations based on precedent. Although president Steinmeier issued an apology in November 2023, Germany has yet to acknowledge the genocidal character of its suppression of the Maji Maji uprising in German East Africa, which killed 250,000-300,000.

Later, we will see the frequency with which Palestinians are compared with Germans embracing Nazism, and Hamas with the Nazi party itself. Clearly, for many the aim of cordoning off the Holocaust from the wider history of the West isn’t to avoid relativising the Holocaust through comparison. Rather, by reaffirming the idea of the uniqueness of the German crime and path to it (the Sonderweg thesis), the idea of the morality of Western Civilization can be preserved – something that is essential for reunified Germany’s sense of moral restitution, and its claim to participate in the West’s self-proclaimed moral supremacism on the world stage.8

The anti-Imperialists and the anti-Germans

Apart from guaranteeing a reckoning with historical crimes, German memory culture, especially among its leftist proponents, was also supposed to serve as an inoculation against any kind of dehumanisation. Yet the dehumanisation of Muslim and Arab lives has seeped deep into German political culture, including parts of the left, in ways not entirely unrelated to the way the German memory complex was organised around the problem of Germany’s role within “Western Civilisation.” To understand why much of the left in the German-speaking realm has adopted an explicitly anti-terrorist discourse and is deeply sceptical about anti-, de- and postcolonial arguments, we need to understand the vexed history of anti-imperialist politics in this part of the world.

On the post-war left, support for Israel was widespread in the early 60s, as it was elsewhere in Europe. The existence of the state of Israel was seen as an act of atonement after the horrors of the Shoa, and Zionism as a sensible response to the real experience of persecution. The quasi-socialist character of early Israel, symbolised by the Kibbutzim, also gave it a somewhat utopian air. While West Germany’s military support for Israel remained secret, its official non-recognition of Israel was a source of leftist condemnation. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, attitudes on the left shifted quickly. More and more groups started to support the Palestinian liberation movement, prompted by inspirations from the anti-colonial movements of the age. This also meant a demystification of Israel, as the systematic exclusion of Palestinians and other Arabs both from Israeli “socialism” and from the narratives of the establishment of the state began to be recognised.

As elsewhere, German and Austrian anti-imperialist politics grew out of the solidarity and anti-war movements of the 1970s, specifically resistance to the war in Vietnam and support for third-world liberation. While these politics were deeply intertwined with the assault on Nazi continuities in the German state, some sects and groups took an antisemitic turn: in 1969, the leftist Tupamaros terror cell in West Berlin placed a bomb at a Jewish community centre. In 1976, German Red Army Faction and Palestinian PFLP-EO militants hijacked an Israeli passenger plane and steered it into Uganda’s Entebbe airport, where Jewish passengers were kept hostage and non-Jewish passengers released. And as late as 1992, the RZ (Revolutionary Cells – Revolutionäre Zellen) attempted to blow up a bus in Budapest filled with Russian Jewish émigrés.

On the wider German left, the perceived silence of other anti-imperialists about the antisemitic speech or actions of some of their comrades created a widespread sense of complicity. By the early 1990s, this exploded in a furious critique by the fractions that came to form a new pro-Israeli common sense on the left, whose strongest expression were the so-called anti-Germans. The anti-Germans came from the same broad political and class environment as the anti-Imperialists. Mostly students with middle class backgrounds or possibilities, they shared a deep pessimism and distain for the German working class, both due to its co-optation by Nazism and its perceived consumerist lethargy in the affluent decades of the “Wirtschaftswunder”. While similar attitudes had led anti-Imperialists to seek revolutionary potentials abroad, the anti-German tendency adopted the role of the secret battalion of right-minded people fighting fascism at home. Adopting a pessimistic, even fatalistic theory of the political potentials in Germany, known as the “fascisation thesis,” anti-Germans believed that, due to the particularities of German history, capitalist crisis would not create opportunities for the left, but a shift towards the far right and new fascism. As argued by Leandros Fischer in his comprehensive article on the anti-Germans, much of the trouble on Germany’s left has to do with the weakness of its connections to the working class and of radical class politics within that class itself.

While the anti-imperialist scene was profoundly weakened after 1989, the anti-German current grew quickly in response to the risk of a renewed German nationalism following reunification and a series of neo-Nazi attacks centred in the old GDR. The anti-German term was taken up by the publication konkret to express solidarity with Israel during the Gulf War, as Iraqi missiles were fired at it, and the German government – refusing to support the US invasion – was once against perceived as failing its duty of solidarity with Israel. While the original critique of some factions within the anti-imperialist had good reasons, it was soon turned into a blanket incrimination of all anti-imperialism and a defence of US imperialism. Accordingly, the publication Bahamas congratulated the US coalition for its victory in Iraq, and recently described Israel’s actions since October 2023, which have killed tens of thousands of civilians, as a necessary part of “the denazification of Gaza.”

Over the last decades, the anti-Germans have profoundly reshaped the German left. While remaining marginal in terms of numbers and frequently ridiculed for their jingoism and crankiness, their geeky ability to see quasi-, proto-, and crypto-antisemitism everywhere on the left has profoundly reshaped leftist discourse. Given the extreme risks faced by any leftist in Germany who is falsely or correctly accused of antisemitism, large parts of the left have approximated anti-German positions or opted for tactical silence on many issues, in other to avoid damaging shit storms, defunding, and cancellations. This is especially the case after many people socialised in the anti-German milieu have gained leading positions in the cultural sector, foundation world, within the field of Jewish Studies, and as public “Commissioners for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism”.9 Put differently, the pro-Israel consensus on the German left is not as deeply rooted as it appears. It is less based on studied acceptance of anti-German positions than on the moral pressures and material and social sanctions that can be exercised over people who exist within a moral and civic space shaped by discourses and feelings of national guilt and responsibility.

From bottom-up to top-down memory cultures

In Germany conscious national memory culture, as a project, has been less uniform and successful than often imagined abroad. In political terms we can describe it as a project to formulate a new national self-understanding through a critique of the crimes and failures of past German nationalisms. In doing so, it tries to shape how people think and feel about the past. Thus, in psycho-social terms German memory culture may be better described as a memory complex, a set of past-oriented beliefs, affects, and identities organised around a wound. While in the post-war era this was a counter-hegemonic ideology, it has been transformed into a new national ideology in reunified Germany.

In Germany (as in Austria10), grassroots activism, especially from the left and antifa, played a key role in keeping questions of guilt and restitution on the national agenda, against decades of rightist calls to move on. Thus the left and civic memorial initiatives were ultimately successful in launching broad debates in civil society and cultural and educational institutions. But a condition of this success was that  the Holocaust was presented as a national crime, carried out by each member of the (ethnic) nation, rather than as a crime instigated by the right and its local and international collaborators, and supported by the state apparatus and capitalists who profited from conquest and a genocidal slave labour regime. Within such a Jasperian framework, the crimes of Nazism could be transformed into a national morality tale, a story of national redemption and rebirth. Support for the state of Israel became a central component of this story of German redemption, the rebirth of one nation from the ashes of moral catastrophe connected to the rebirth of another from the ashes of the Shoah. The moral appeal of such ideas is understandably profound for many German liberals and conservatives. Meanwhile, many former and current leftists see this as a consecration of a long struggle to force the German state and elite to assume its historical responsibility. However, behind the emotional appeals of this ideology also lie brute material interests. Rather than a victory of the left, we are witnessing a renewal of nationalist ideology and the use of Holocaust memorialisation to legitimise a foreign policy that long precedes this memorialiszation.

Speaking for this interpretation is the shift of the political character of Holocaust memorialisation. Thus the civic and democratic memory labour of the 1980s and 90s has been overlaid by a new “repressive consensus” and “theatre of reconciliation,” whereby the limits of acceptable speech are enforced by public shaming and defamation, and withdrawals of invitations, public funding, scholarships, and job offers. Most egregious is the 2019 BDS Resolution of the German Bundestag, launched by Merkel’s conservative government. The resolution called on public bodies to withdraw funding from cultural institutions hosting people suspected of sympathy with the BDS movement. While this resolution is not legally binding, it is still frequently referenced when sanctioning individuals and institutions.

The repressive shift in German memory culture has a lot to do with the dynamic of German foreign policy after 9/11, where changing geopolitical dynamics transformed the conditions for being a “part of the West.” During the War on Terror, the centre and the right began a new labour of undoing their states’ and populations’ inertial post-war anti-militarism. A key lever of this transformation was the re-coding of the historical responsibility to the State of Israel, in terms of the latter now being a frontline democratic state in “the West’s” fight against Islamist terrorism. In this context it should not surprise us that the BDS Resolution was provoked by similar proposals to ban such Israel-dissent by the far-right party AfD and the right populist neoliberals FDP.

Contemporary meanings of Israel-solidarity

“Israel-solidarity” means different things across the political spectrum: from self-laundering and anti-Muslim propaganda (the far-right and right), to geopolitical positioning and self-promotion (the right, centre and centre-left), to a perceived essential element in the fight against antisemitism (the centre and left).  Moreover, it functions as a means of external pression and internal discipline within Die Linke, who want to keep open the possibility of joining a government with the Social Democrats and Greens. As Leandros Fischer explains, “like obedience to NATO and the EU’s single currency regime, support for Israel forms part of the preconditions for joining the legitimate political game.” This pressure is not by any means unique to Germany, but a feature of Atlanticist politics.

What is specific to Germany is the power with which invocations of historical responsibility to fight antisemitism can be used to shore up support for Israel. All this relies on the widespread, but fallacious equation between support for Israel and anti-antisemitism. This idea is factually disproven by the rampant antisemitism of many Israel supporters from US evangelicals to the European far right. It is also boosted by the equation between Israel and Jews in general, an idea which is shared by the Israeli right and the German-speaking political class, left, and intelligentsia, but rejected even by the Israel-promoted IHRA definition of antisemitism, as well as the more scholarly definition of the Jerusalem Declaration. Belief in this equation greatly warps the analysis of antisemitism in Germany today, and pushes the fight against it into a terrain opposed by many diaspora Jews, especially on the left, like the Jewish intellectuals and artists who wrote an open letter to the German public in October 2023 condemning the restrictions of the freedom of speech and assembly which target both expressions of Palestine solidarity and calls for peace. It is the frailty of this consensus that explains, in Gramscian terms, its reliance on coercive measures (cancellations, bans, ostracism etc.), legitimised in the language of security and the need to fight evil.

Yet BDS bans and the idea that Israel may “suffer another Holocaust” unless defended (a dangerous misuse of Holocaust memory, in the words of Israeli Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov and his colleagues) are by no means unique to Germany. Rather, they are a part of a wider tendency to interpret the security threats to Israel as matters of antisemitism and religious fanaticism, rather than as opposition to decades of occupation (recognised both by the German foreign ministry and half a century of UN resolutions) which is merely contingently hegemonized by an Islamist party in one Palestinian territory aided by the Israeli right. The equation of Palestinian struggle with antisemitism, terrorism, and religious fanaticism has enabled the silencing and marginalisation of all Palestinian voices, including the secular and leftist, and conveniently ignores the fact that Hamas are not popular because of any generic hatred against Jews, but because they resist Israel. They do so with means and ideas one can forcefully reject and with good reason, but for reasons that should be plain for all to see; any people suffering the fate of the Palestinians would either resist or perish. The fact that this isn’t plain to see for many Westerners has much to do with the way the media and so-called War on Terror have deepened the disregard for Muslim lives in Europe and North America, and promoted a racist suspicion that every Muslim is secretly a terrorist sympathiser. It has also driven home, drone strike by drone strike, the idea that mass civilian casualties are inevitable when fighting guerrilla and terrorist groups, rather than one of the strongest contributions to their recruitment and resolve.

War by proxy and projection

While parts of the left have been sucked into the racialised security logics of the War on Terror, the security establishment has elevated antifascist justifications of unrestrained violence to reason of state. Today, the German state seeks moral righteousness through commitment to the cause of a pure victim. This victim’s acts are beyond reproach both because of their world-historical oppression and Germany’s world-historical crime. This allows Germans to claim, disingenuously, that they can’t make moral judgements, because who are they to judge their victim of yesterday as the perpetrators today? As if one doesn’t always make a choice between supporting specific actors who claim to represent a group: the right or left, the government or the opposition, the hawks, or the peace movement. The righteousness of the cause is elevated by describing the enemies of this historical victim as actual or would-be Nazis, and engaging in gross mystifications of German and European history in the process: the massacre on October 7 is described as a pogrom, usually defined as a civilian-led attack on a racialised or religious minority by a majority group, tolerated or encouraged by the state, and Hamas is described as threatening another Holocaust (as if such a thing as industrialised mass murder can be committed by the weaker part in a conflict).

The difficulty of naming the horror of Hamas’s attack without analogies from European history bears witness to a discursive field organised by guilt, narcissism, a propagandistic use of history, and an unconscious desire to relativise or share German crimes. While Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 statement that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had inspired Hitler’s “final solution” caused a justified outrage in Germany, comparisons of Hamas to the Nazis, of the slogan “Free Palestine” to “Heil Hitler,” and of the keffiyeh to a Nazi uniform have since become widespread in the German press. Arguably, such comparisons have become the key vector through which Nazi crimes are relativised and downplayed. This minimisation and projection of guilt is combined with repressive violence against racialised minorities in Germany and support for mass murder abroad.

Particularly the projection of Nazi-like intentions and powers to Palestinians serves to legitimise violence against Palestinian civilians, drawing on the common idea that immense German civilian casualties in World War II were necessary and desirable. This consensus ranges from Hollywood to the Kremlin, from anti-imperialists justifying the Red Army’s excesses to anti-Germans cheering German civilian casualties during World War II with slogans like “No tears for Dresden” and “Bomber-Harris – do it again!” But as much as violence is needed to fight Nazism, and however understandable these slogans are as a reaction to right-wing talking points and victim culture in Germany, they have toxic consequences. Firstly, they void one of the key lessons after World War II, namely the recognition that mass killings of civilians, be they in London, Dresden, Warsaw, or Hiroshima, must be banned by international law as both militarily irrelevant and morally repugnant. Secondly, they help justify mass murder of civilians. When one side in a conflict is seen as “Nazi-like,” its civilians become, like German civilians before them, legitimate targets of total warfare. This is the dark side of the idea of collective guilt, and a logic that is as problematic when it is extended to civilian Palestinian deaths as when it is used to legitimate or deny the slaughter of Jews and non-Jews on October 7th. When the bombardment of Gaza is received, as it is in some quarters, with particular glee and celebration and weapons shipped by the billions, self-critical Germans could do worse than ask themselves if their vicarious morality is connected to a kind of vicarious violence whereby members of the ostensibly peaceful nation get an outlet for their aggressive impulses while feeling smugly moral. Or, they may ask, is this a way to punish by proxy their forefathers who passed on so much guilt?

Whatever the case may be, the disregard for human life that the culture of guilt was supposed to extirpate is widespread in Germany. The selective coldness to civilian deaths emerges not from the failure of memory, as we see on the right, but through the specific form of the memory complex itself.

Silence or courage

The horrors of the conflict in Israel/Palestine are leading more and more leftists to take their distance from the arguments of the anti-Germans and the German state. Yet many lack the tools or the courage to formulate alternative positions. Instead, they join the majority of Germans who opt for silence and timid handwringing about the general tragedy of the conflict, ignoring that while the mass murder of October 7 is over and outside their influence, another, and disproportionately larger, is ongoing with the moral and military support of their government. What they fear is the great moral pressure that comes not so much from the fringe anti-German scene of publications, but from public and civic Holocaust educational institutions and public “Commissioners for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism” the media and political establishment, and the German security establishment. What they fear are also, understandably, critiques from Jewish organisations aligned with the Israeli government like the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, which is authorised by the state to represent all Jews in Germany, but which is answerable at best to the confessional communities (Gemeinden), which include only about half of the Jewish people in Germany. In this cross-political constellation, accusations of antisemitism serve to incriminate anyone daring to question the proportionality of Israel’s response to October 7th, their decades-long blockade of Gaza, or 75 years of displacement.

Yet there are signs of change in tides. The large radical leftist magazine Analyse und Kritik, the anti-fascist network Migrantifa, and the Jüdische Stimme offer people ways to think and express questions about the new German chauvinism. The growing Jewish population in Germany is shifting the composition of the Jewish population to the left, and the impact of leftist Israeli émigrés in Berlin is rising and significant.

Endnotes

  1. Anson Rabinbach, “The German as pariah – Karl Jaspers and the question of German guilt” – Radical Philosophy, 075, Jan/Feb 1996, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/the-german-as-pariah
  2. Orna Guralnik, “The Dead Baby,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 24, no. 2 (March 4, 2014): 129–45; Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior. (Grove Press, 1975).
  3. Kestenberg, J. S. (1982). The persecutor’s children, In M.S. Bergman & M.E. Jucovy (Eds) Generations of the Holocaust, NY: Columbia Univ. Press.
  4. Jeffrey K. Olick, The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility (Routledge, 2013).
  5. Jürgen Habermas, “A Kind of Settlement of Damages (Apologetic Tendencies),” New German Critique, no. 44 (1988): 25–39.
  6. ibid.
  7. Jürgen Habermas, “Historical Consciousness and Post-Traditional Identity: Remarks on the Federal Republic’s Orientation to the West,” Acta Sociologica 31, no. 1 (1988): 3–13.
  8. For a historical critique of the Sonderweg thesis, see David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). For a critico-theoretical appreciation of exiled German-Jewish intellectuals’ stress on the Holocaust as a part of Western Modernity, see Anson Rabinbach, “‘The Abyss That Opened up before Us’: Thinking about Auschwitz and Modernity (2003)” in Staging the Third Reich (Routledge, 2020). This is not to say the colonial othering of the colonised in terms of alterity and the Nazis othering of Jews as abject was the same. See Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, “The Pre-History of the Holocaust? The Sonderweg and Historikerstreit Debates and the Abject Colonial Past,” Central European History 41, no. 3 (September 2008): 477–503.
  9. For a brilliant analysis and sardonic characterization of the strange world of anti-Germans (“a white German male, geek club of people fighting about value-theory Marxism and who can identify antisemitic tropes better than everybody else”), anti-antisemitism commissioners and much more, listen to the interview with Emily Dische-Becker from the Jewish-German Diaspora Alliance in The Dig.
  10. In Austria, remembrance was severely delayed compared to Germany. After the war, the allies agreed to name Austria “the first victim of Nazism,” obscuring both the enthusiastic reception of Hitler in Austria and the fact that the country was already a fascist dictatorship – namely austrofascism under Dolfuß – at the time of the Anschluss. The post-war image of Austrian innocence, polished off internationally by the blockbuster musical The Sound of Music, aimed to keep Austria close to the Western fold as a buffer at the Iron Curtain. Austria’s special geopolitical status (it has yet to join NATO and only became an EU member in 1995), coupled with its victim-status, allowed it to become a diplomatic centre, hosting several UN institutions, and severely retarded the Austrian reckoning with its embrace of National Socialism. This was forced on the agenda by the Waldheim affair in 1985, when the Nazi past of Austrian presidential candidate and former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was revealed by investigative journalists. Despite this revelation, Waldheim was elected in 1986, marking the beginning of a serious expansion of leftist efforts to force a critique of Austria’s Nazi complicity on the national agenda.

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READ PART 2

The second part of this essay goes on to ask: Does the memory culture do what it is intended to do? Does it repress neo-fascism and antisemitism in Germany? It will also develop the critique of the national and ultimately nationalist framing of German liability, and provide a positive basis for another culture of remembrance: one based on the antifascist lives that were invisibilised in the hegemonic memory culture and which continue to be silenced today. 

Bue Rübner Hansen is an intellectual historian and sociologist who was previously based at the University of Jena, and currently at the University of Copenhagen. Specialized in theories of class and interest formation, he has written critically about nationalisms in Denmark, Spain, and Catalonia for magazines such as Viewpoint, Jacobin, Roar, Popula, Friktion, and OpenDemocracy. The main strand of his work, pursued also through the movement school Common Ecologies, concerns the conditions for socio-ecological solidarity and interest formation in the ecosystem crisis.

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