The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago changed the face of Germany, Europe and international politics. If the Cold War, with its dangerous nuclear competition, was some kind of protracted crisis, then it was by definition an abnormal period, and therefore its conclusion would open the way to a return to normalcy for a reunified Germany. Such normalcy would be good for the Germans, no doubt. But—the inevitable question asked here in Jerusalem—would it also be good for the Jews?
Recently I had a conversation with a young German doctoral student at Hebrew University about the upcoming anniversary of German reunification and Germany’s troubled relationship with its Nazi past. While I shared his view that the collapse of communism was undoubtedly a positive development, as was the possibility of a Europe whole, united and free, I stressed that the path to a normal Germany was not so straightforward. No Jew, I reminded him, can ever forget that the civilization of Bach, Goethe and Kant had also produced Hitler, Himmler and Adolf Eichmann. Even had this student not been studying in Jerusalem, my comment would not have surprised him. Nor did his response surprise me: He pointed out the resentment that many Germans feel about being under intense scrutiny from the outside world when it came to their present attitudes toward Jews—particularly the majority of Germans alive today who were not yet born in April 1945. He seemed to ask: Is there no statute of limitation whatsoever on this scrutiny? Is that normal?
Certainly we both knew that, in one sense at least, Germany had become entirely normal: in relation to standard European Israel-bashing. More than two-thirds of the German population seem ready to believe that the Jewish State is, in the typical language of the pollster, the greatest single threat to world peace. In this belief Germans were among the leaders of the pack, along with the Greeks, Spaniards, Austrians and the Dutch. Equally distressing is the fact that Holocaust terminology is now used regularly in Germany, as it is elsewhere in Western Europe, to describe events like Israel’s Gaza campaign at the beginning of 2009. Israelis and sympathetic Jews, among others, worry that normalization of this sort has eroded the sense of responsibility that has acted as a moderating influence on German Mideast policy during the past six decades.
The first signs of this shift date back at least thirty years, when West German Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt began to call into question the “special relationship” with Israel, and to evoke Germany’s moral obligation to the Palestinians as Opfer der Opfer (“victims of the victims”) to justify juicy commercial deals with the Saudis. Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification, did not pursue this theme in the 1980s and 1990s, but other currents bore it aloft nonetheless. Kohl was especially insistent that Germany had become a “normal” Western democracy, anchored in the European Union (of which it was the paymaster) and, somewhat less intensely as time passed, in its partnership with America. It was also during Kohl’s long reign that conservative intellectuals became more assertive not only about the need to cultivate German pride and patriotism, but also to develop a more independent foreign policy. The latter was a political line continued by Kohl’s socialist successor Gerhard Schröder, whose re-election in 2002 was due in large part to his anti-Americanism and appeal to German pacifist sentiment.
Thanks first to Germany’s Europeanization and then to its more assertive sense of independence, the scene was set for the prominent German writer Martin Walser to make a speech at the 1998 Frankfurt Book Fair in which he deplored the abuse of the Holocaust as a “means of intimidation”, even claiming that the “constant presentation of our disgrace” (Auschwitz) was having a paralyzing effect on German culture. Walser was widely applauded and clearly spoke for many Germans. A survey conducted that same year showed that 63 percent of Germans wanted closure on the constant references to anti-Jewish persecution under the Nazis. More than half believed that Jews opportunistically manipulated the Holocaust for material advantage at German expense. Walser made such resentments more respectable by suggesting that postwar Germans were victims of Jewish pressure. It was the Jewish presence that allegedly provoked German guilt feelings and that had transformed the memory of Auschwitz, in his resounding phrase, into a “moral cudgel.”
Walser’s 2002 novel Tod eines Kritikers (“Death of a Critic”), an instant best-seller, then underlined just how far German culture had moved in breaking earlier taboos on the portrayal of Jews. The novel’s central protagonist, a Jewish literary critic, is depicted as a vulgar, corrupt and lecherous monster, with an insatiable lust for power, an obsession with sex and a will-to-power over German culture. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Jews, whether in German fiction or journalism, appear once more as persecutors rather than victims.
This shift has by now migrated from literature to politics, especially when it comes to reporting on Israel and the Middle East. Israelis, like Americans during the Bush years, have been consistently branded with the stigma of being alt-testamentarisch (advocating “an eye for an eye” in the Old Testament spirit) in their military response to terrorist threats; or else of being crassly materialistic, domineering and brutal in their humiliation of the Third World—especially of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians. Vulgar Stalinist and New Leftist variations on anti-Americanism often blend with conservative and far Right antagonism toward American cultural imperialism as well as classical anti-Semitism. Such attitudes explain the barely disguised schadenfreude felt by some Germans at the 9/11 attacks, which some read as a well-deserved payback for American “war crimes” going back to Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945. The liberal democratic consensus in the German media today likes to point out that, unlike the United States and Israel, it has learned the true lessons of World War II. Indeed, militant pacifism, oxymoronic as it sounds, has become something of a quasi-sacred credo in German leftist circles. Hence the startling appearance of Nazi imagery at German peace demonstrations against both America and Israel over the past seven years.
True, this kind of hysteria is widespread elsewhere in Western Europe and, as suggested, may therefore simply be another index of Germany’s current “normalization.” It is also true that over the past year an uncritical Obamamania has tempered longstanding German anti-Americanism. The installation of an American President with what can be read (if one really tries) as an anti-capitalist, pro-Third World ideology has at least temporarily blunted the stock clichés of the anti-globalist Left. For Israel, however, there has been little respite in the court of German public opinion, despite Chancellor Merkel’s more balanced and responsible position. Much media coverage typically presents Palestinians as totally innocent victims of Israeli “state terror” and aggression, while downplaying the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. As for Iran, it’s business-as-usual, with German companies shamelessly contributing to the Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons. That, too, it could be argued from a cynical standpoint, is another mark of German “normalcy” in a world governed by balance sheets and cold, calculating realpolitik.
To most Israelis, present-day Germany remains something of an enigma. On the one hand, every manifestation of neo-Nazism, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism is regularly reported on in Israel and abroad, sometimes being subjected to exaggerated scrutiny. Israelis are vigilant in the lookout for German demons, no less than are most Germans themselves. On the other hand, Israel has accepted for decades now the image of another Germany, democratic, stable and prosperous. Despite the hostile German media, Israel regards Germany (along with Italy) as its best friend in Europe. Certainly, Israelis find Germans far more friendly on the whole than they do the British, French, Spanish or Scandinavians.
More ambiguously, a significant number of Israelis of German descent applied for a German passport (in addition to their Israeli ones) as soon as the opportunity was offered. Moreover, no other Jewish community on the European continent has experienced such demographic growth as the one in Germany, reinforced in the past twenty years by relatively extensive Jewish emigration from Russia. It is significant that during the 1990s, when the new Germany experienced a significant wave of xenophobic hatred against Turks, Third World immigrants and asylum seekers, hostility toward German Jews actually declined. It was almost as if the Jews had been recognized as insider-outsiders who for historical reasons deserved a somewhat privileged status as “co-citizens” among foreigners.
These appearances can be deceptive, however. According to repeated surveys, at least one in five Germans is anti-Semitic, about two-thirds believe that Israel has waged a “war of annihilation” against the Palestinians, and racist xenophobia is still rife, Germany being home to more neo-Nazi skinheads than any other Western country. Against the background of the Holocaust this means that the Germany many Israelis admire for its Mercedes and BMW cars, its soccer prowess, economic strength and stable democracy will never be entirely “normal” in the deeper sense.
Then again, in the grand scope of history, and despite the deepest hopes of the Zionist founders, how normal is Israel? Sometimes, after all, the meaning of a question depends on who is asking it. So please repeat after me: “Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand, wer ist der Normalste im ganzen Land?”1