A different Germany
By Maoz Azaryahu | 08/10/2009
“The New Germany is for the most part an illusion of normalcy that is based on self-deception: time has healed the wounds, the past is past, a line can be drawn, we can pretend that it's possible to make a fresh start. Memory means forgetting, reparations mean acceptance, morality and preaching morality are one Via Lewandowsky, “Berlin Room”, 2002, from
and the same thing.” the exhibition “Berlin-Moscow/Moscow-Berlin"
Maoz Azaryahu on what
stands between Germany and the purging of its past: the State of Israel
The problem is that the account between Germany and the Jews is not closed, for the simple reason that there was no Jewish revenge. Action without reaction is not only contrary to the laws of Newton; it is also contrary to human nature (yes, there is such a thing). And in a situation in which the account has remained open, the gap between the two sides cannot be bridged
The New Germany is hyper-moral. This sometimes leads to embarrassing situations, such as the enthusiasm that is typical of many Germans, certain that they standing on the right side of the moral barricade, and who make a point of explaining to their Jewish interlocutors the “correct” lessons of the Holocaust, and how Jews have to understand it
Israel and Germany drew different lessons from their common history. Germany is committed to peace at any price, to the belief that a conciliatory policy is the best response to threat. Israel reached the opposite conclusion: Military might is a necessary condition for Jewish survival in a world where anti-Semitism is only dormant, at best
When I arrived in Germany in the early 1980s as a young university student (for the sake of proper disclosure – I am a native-born Israeli whose family emigrated to the land of Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1920s), I was acutely aware of its problematic history, but also equipped with an almost inexhaustible reservoir of curiosity and openness toward the nation and the people. I had no problem with the idea of staying in Germany for an extended period of time for the purpose of studying. By the time I left the country a few years later to go back home, to Israel, I was convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that, to my mind, too many Germans were doing everything they could to prove that the prejudices about Germans – those same stereotypes that every civilized person is sure to condemn – are not necessarily baseless. The curiosity had given way to the understanding that the New Germany is not the definitive correction of what might be considered the most monstrous phenomenon created by the 20th century. The New Germany is for the most part an illusion of normalcy that is based on self-deception. Time has healed the wounds, the past is past, a line can be drawn, we can pretend that it's possible to make a fresh start. Memory means forgetting, reparations mean acceptance, morality and preaching morality are one and the same thing.
Germany is identified with the dark chapter in its past: Auschwitz is a metaphor for absolute evil. Last summer, the prime minister of Italy compared the German representative in the European Parliament to a guard in a concentration camp. The scandal that erupted due to the apparent lack of sensitivity on the part of a leader of a large European nation emphasized the frustration many Germans feel at the fact that they are still burdened by a heavy ethical mortgage from which they cannot free themselves. And the feeling is not without foundation. If a character in a Hollywood action film speaks in a German accent, it is obvious that he is the villain; the representative of the forces of evil in “Star Wars” looks like an SS soldier.
Forgetting is denial. In the early 1990s, an important German historian, who is involved in research about the shaping of national memory, presented his thesis that Christian culture is based on forgetting as an expression of forgiving, whereas Jewish culture emphasizes memory at the expense of forgiveness. For my part, I wondered what the meaning of forgiveness is if you have already forgotten why it is being sought.
The problem is not only a culture gap or the lack of a common language. The problem is that the account between Germany and the Jews is not closed, for the simple reason that there was no Jewish revenge. Action without reaction is not only contrary to the laws of Newton; it is also contrary to human nature (yes, there is such a thing). And in a situation in which the account has remained open, the gap between the two sides of the memory equation cannot be bridged.
The moral miracle
De Gaulle is supposed to have said that because of his great love for Germany, the existence of two Germanies made him extremely happy. Aside from the barbed irony of this same man leading Free France and creating the myth surrounding it, Germany's division after World War II was an expression not only of the Iron Curtain that descended on Europe during the Cold War, but also of a smokescreen that concealed what could be called the “moral miracle”. Much has been written about the “economic miracle” that turned a bombed and defeated Germany into an economic superpower. Too little has been written about the “moral miracle” that attended the process of Germany's return as a member in good standing of the family of peace-loving nations.
The creation of the other Germany is a project in alchemy, and at a superficial glance the project seems to have succeeded. Germany, which was reassembled in 1990, is a peace-loving nation, its constitution is a model for imitation, it is a rich country with enviable social services, a soccer superpower, without ambitions of political hegemony in Europe or elsewhere. Germany seems to have learned the lesson of defeat well, and it now lies on the right side of the moral barricade. In the mirror world of images, “moral miracle” is the correct and moral interpretation of German history after 1945, according to which Germany was not occupied, but liberated. The New Germany is therefore a story of the victory of the Germans over Nazism, or how the “good” Germany beat the “bad” Nazis.
This was particularly clear in communist East Germany, where anyone who supported communism was automatically certified as morally upright. In West Germany, which was not dominated by a doctrine of redemption as in the East, things were more complex, mainly because many of those who had served the old regime were well integrated into the institutions of the new regime. In the 1950s, the East German claim that West Germany was a direct continuation of the old Germany carried real weight.
Blessed by late birth
From another angle, the history of the New Germany is the story of the desperate, almost Sisyphean attempt to break free of the burden of guilt. What was so clear after the war – that a decisive majority of Germans bore guilt for the horrors they had perpetrated, or that had been perpetrated in their name – naturally ceased to be so simple as the years passed, when biology came into play, and the generation that was personally involved in the crimes of the Third Reich made way for a new generation that was, as Chancellor Helmut Kohl put it, “blessed by late birth”. Anyone born after World War II cannot be responsible for the crimes of the parents' generation. For many Germans – some in key positions in contemporary German politics and culture – the moral commitment is now expressed mainly in an extroverted commitment to tolerance, pluralism and love of foreigners per se.
But the moral account is not so simple. Perhaps, as the prophet Jeremiah said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge”, but this should not be taken to mean that there is an automatic transfer of guilt from one generation to the next. The relevant question is how the generations of sons and daughters deal with the sins of the fathers and mothers. Whereas in East Germany the process of moral cleansing was primarily a switch in ideological loyalty, the moral catharsis in West Germany was embodied in the 1960s student rebellion. As an act of liberation, the struggle of radical students against the reigning establishment was an anachronistic attempt to fight the Nazi regime, since a large percentage of those filling senior and junior positions in the political establishment and judicial system of West Germany had previously served as leaders and officials in the Reich regime. But in spite of the belligerent revolutionary rhetoric and the anti-Fascist slogans, this was a war against ghosts rather than opposition to a tyrannical regime.
However, self-righteous rhetoric is hardly the same as real moral resolution. In Germany, a concrete demand to conduct comprehensive trials of war criminals was blatantly absent. This is not surprising, if we remember that many of them were the parents of the demonstrators. According to official statistics, the West German judicial system tried approximately 6,000 for crimes committed in the service of the Nazi state. In the plainest sense of seeing justice done, the New Germany, even the one shaped by the graduates of 1968, failed the most basic test: trying, convicting and sentencing the guilty parties. In this context, it is not surprising to discover that the demand to establish an international court for war crimes, which was promoted with such great enthusiasm by official Europe, and by Germany in particular, came only after the criminals of the previous war – the Belgians, the French, and of course, the Germans – had disappeared, due to constraints of life expectancy.
The setting on edge of the children's teeth is not only a result of the crimes of the fathers' generation; it is also an expression of the avoidance of a concrete act of justice, wrapped in self-righteous rhetoric and empty symbolic gestures, such as Chancellor Willy Brandt's public request for forgiveness at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970. As a demonstrative show of caring and compassion – always suspect of being lip service – confrontation with the past became an inseparable part of public life in Germany. Politicians that transgressed and said what they felt was the truth, were sentenced to disappearance from the political arena, partly for daring to tear open Germany's mantle of morality. The building of monuments and the placing of memorial plaques created the impression of a moral commitment to memory, which was attended by a certain feeling that these things were being done in order to do one's duty: to remember in order to forget. The paradox, of course, is that anything done in the name of Germany will be suspect: absence of commemoration means ignoring and forgetting, commemoration means avoidance of true confrontation and reliance on an outward show of memory.
The new Europe
Beyond symbolic and rhetorical gestures, which are always suspect, because they are an evasive maneuver, the attempt to rid themselves of the burden of guilt was embodied in the Germans' adherence to Europe. United Europe is of course a multinational project, but the France-Germany axis led the move to unification. Whereas France wanted to see the European Union as a tool for realizing the dreams of grandeur of a former superpower that had come down in the world, for Germany, Europe was also an opportunity to become part of a large super-entity that would serve as a substitute for the very problematic German identity. “European” sounds much better than “German”; therefore, the political and cultural merger that is taking shape will bring with it the solution to the moral deficit involved in using the problematic name “Germany”.
As opposed to the propaganda emerging from Brussels, which is being marketed with the help of trans-national elites all over Europe, the New Europe is not so new. The European army began with the Dutch, Belgian, French and Norwegian volunteers who joined the ranks of the SS during World War II. “Fortress Europe” is a Nazi propaganda expression; the idea of “united Europe” is not a new idea, as it turns out. [In World War II, Hitler ringed all the coasts of Europe with gun emplacements and airfields, and talked about the impermeable “Fortress Europe”. Today the expression is used to describe the strict border and visa controls being enforced by EU countries to curb immigration.] And now the France-Germany axis has been created, concealing the imperialist interests of each of the two countries under a rhetoric of progress, peace and the brotherhood of nations: All the fine words that were once part of the propaganda arsenal of the Soviet Union, and are now enjoying a second career in the propaganda spread by the institutions of the EU.
Beyond the curtain of propaganda, the “New Europe” is nothing but the old Europe wrapped in the rhetorical garments of political correctness. In addition to the establishment of supranational institutions, the shapers of the “New Europe” want to shape a pan-European identity as well. The anti-American feelings that erupted in full force before and in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, swept up both the enlightened left and the conservative right. This indicates not only to what extent the “New Europe” is built on grudges and frustration: There is nothing like a common hatred to create a feeling of partnership; the hatred of America is a glue that allows for the creation of an illusion of European identity anchored in lofty ethical principles.
There is great irony in the fact that the effort (financial as well) that is being invested in the invention of a pan-European identity ignores the basic component of that identity: anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews. Even a superficial perusal of European history shows that the only common denominator of two countries that are ostensibly as different from one another as Portugal at one end of Europe and Latvia at the other, is the effort to get rid of the Jews. The clearest evidence of this common denominator can be found in the pathos of anti-anti-Semitism, which is so characteristic of the “New Europe”.
In that sense, what is called the “New Europe” is only a super-version of the “New Germany”: a collective pretense wrapped in hyper-moral verbiage. For Germany, the direct, and desired, result of Germany's dissipating into Europe was a shifting of the blame from Germany to Europe, which means a dilution of German guilt, as well as the discovery that the Holocaust was a pan-European project. The vicious anti-Americanism of the European elites allows Germany to settle accounts with the great victor of World War II, something that was impossible as long as the military defeat in the war was officially defined as liberation from totalitarianism.
Germany's new self confidence is the result of the feeling among the political class that Germany's central status in Europe allows it to do what was previously impossible. The other Germany is ostensibly the opposite of the old Germany. If the old Germany was militaristic, the New Germany is pacifist. If the old Germany believed in hard, military power, the “other Germany”, like the New Europe, believes in “soft power” – persuasion, peace processes, payment of protection money.
When the victim becomes the criterion for justice, one shouldn't be surprised by an inflation of victims. In Germany this is expressed in the view that the Germans are also victims: Not only the Jews, Gypsies, mentally ill and homosexual, but the women and all of the other German citizens whose cities were bombed in World War II, not to mention the refugees expelled from eastern Prussia, Silesia (today Poland), and the Sudetenland (the Czech Republic). In effect, they are all victims, which of course means that the difference between the criminals and their victims is blurred until it becomes indistinct. The desire to be included among the victims of the “war” expresses the German desire to be included in the moral order of the new enlightenment, but placing German suffering in World War II on the agenda of the moral discussion poses a real danger of moral reversal.
This is a matter not only of blurring basic distinctions between criminals and their victims, but of providing an opening for a new nationalism, centered on the demand to change the situation created after the end of the war. Even if there is still no specific demand for border changes, raising the subject of reparations for Germans who were expelled arouses discomfort among Germany's eastern neighbors. The combination of economic power and political status in the institutions of the EU endows the German demands with particular force, even if they are politely formulated, and are ostensibly based on universal principles of justice.
The other, New Germany is hyper-moral. This sometimes leads to embarrassing situations, such as the enthusiasm typical of many Germans who are convinced that they stand on the right side of the moral barricade, and make a point of explaining to their Jewish interlocutors the “correct” lessons of the Holocaust, and how Jews have to understand it. Words of criticism uttered by Germans are problematic, even if what they are saying is correct. When Germans level moral criticism in conversation with Jews, it is impossible to avoid the thought that the speaker's central message is: “My grandfather killed Jews, and I'll explain to them the moral message they should draw from that”. The subject of Israel is much more complex. I well remember my classmate in Berlin who explained to me 20 years ago that Zionism and Nazism are the same thing in principle, because both deal with collective categories – race or nation – rather than with Jews “as human beings”. At the time I dismissed these words as another proof of the fact that young Germans were in a state of moral convulsion, which characterized the collective German existence after Auschwitz.
But as it turns out, what seemed at the time like a localized tic was an expression of a tectonic shift that was breaking through to the surface. The view that the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is problematic in the postmodern world is held not only by “good” Germans, but is of special significance when is formulated by Germans who believe that they have internalized the lessons of the past. Germany's official spokesmen make an effort to emphasize that their country is Israel's best friend in Europe, the same Europe in which 95 percent of the inhabitants – according to a survey conducted by the European Commission – believe that Israel constitutes a greater danger to world peace than does Iran. The truth is somewhat more complex.
Germany wears two hats. As a sovereign state, its support for Israel is a basic principle that is formulated as an oath of loyalty; as a society with great influence in the EU, Germany is responsible for the shaping of the EU's anti-Israel policy.
In practice, the New Germany and Israel represent opposite lessons from their common history, both of which are based on the oath “Never again”. Germany, which represents the side of the criminals, is committed to peace at any price, to a view that a nation state is something whose time has passed, and to the belief that a conciliatory policy is the best response to threat. Israel, which is also committed to the oath “Never again”, has drawn the opposite conclusion: Military might and its use are a necessary condition for Jewish survival in a world where anti-Semitism is only dormant, at best.
But in a period when many enlightened Germans feel that the past is over, the real problem in the relations between Germany and Israel, as a perceptive German commentator claimed, is that Israel is actually all that separates the New Germany from total forgetting of the past. His conclusion was that this necessitates support for Israel.
Prof. Maoz Azaryahu teaches cultural geography at Haifa University