Crime without punishment

11/24/2023   Read time: 10 min

German remembrance politics has become the opposite of its original intent.

By Katja Maurer

A video from 2010 is currently circulating on social media. It shows former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and historian Fritz Stern talking about Israel and agreeing that Merkel’s statement about Israel’s security being “part of Germany’s reason of state” is a German foreign policy whose ramifications have not been fully thought through. The elderly gents go even further, stating with a detachment that is second to none that Israeli policy violates international law and is “inhumane” (Stern), that Germany has “no alliance commitment towards Israel” (Schmidt). As the discussion stands today, Helmut Schmidt would probably be accused of antisemitism and Fritz Stern of Jewish self-hatred. The Antisemitism Commissioner might even feel compelled to issue a statement.

What Israeli politics has long failed to do, notably to get all Jews in the world to back Israel, regardless of what policies it pursues or whether it increasingly turns into a theocracy, has become a personal crusade for German politics. Anyone who thought that the struggles to address the Nazi past had been won will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the Pyrrhic victory secured by critical West German remembrance politics. The culture of commemoration, which was increasingly only concerned with remembering Jewish suffering, has now lost any critical component after being co-opted by those in power. It seemed to have opened the door to a cosmopolitan, anti-racist Germany. However, now there is a consensus in Germany, all the way into the far-right, that antisemitism can be found primarily amongst migrants. Thinking without a banister, to use an Arendt metaphor, is something that only few people still master. What happened?

Germany’s "Sonderweg" (special path)

All of this is the preliminary result of a long and contradictory struggle to deal with National Socialist crimes in a legal, political, cultural and reparative sense. The legal reckoning with the past, perhaps the most important part, has taken place largely without the involvement of German courts and prosecuting authorities, or when it has, partly resulting in lenient verdicts. The idea of founding a new Germany through an ongoing, open, radically honest dialogue between fathers and sons, parents and children of the war and post-war generation has, save for a few exceptions, not taken place. But as Karl Jaspers already put it in 1946 in his book “The Question of German Guilt”, this would have constituted the “inner turning point”. Instead, there was the German Wirtschaftswunder, the so called Miracle on the Rhine, and anti-communist incorporation into the West.

It was only the movement of 1968 that put the topic back on the agenda, and a little later the Red Army Faction appointed itself the judge of former Nazi grands who had never been convicted. But the ‘68ers also gave little thought to the questions of the total extermination of Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as other human beings whom the National Socialists had forced into groups of “life unworthy of life” – crimes that, according to Simon Wiesenthal, should have borne the name Holocaust. They founded their anti-fascism on anti-capitalism. Until then, the struggle in West Germany to face up to the Nazi past had always clashed with a majority of citizens and parties who wanted to forget everything.

Then Hollywood took charge. The series “Holocaust”, which everyone watched at the time, triggered widespread and ambivalent reflection on the extermination of the Jews, initiating the mass remembrance culture in Germany. Against the backdrop of a memory that reduced everything down to the concentration camp as an exception to normal life, it was possible to reconcile oneself with the parents’ generation without having had that brutally honest conversation. The Nazi generation took a large unspoken part of their history and their crimes with them to their graves.

In 1985, Federal President von Weizsäcker gave his famous speech in which he called 8 May 1945 “a day of liberation” for Germany. Historian Ulrich Herbert has highlighted that there is a problematic aspect to this speech, notably that von Weizsäcker failed to comment on his own involvement (as his father’s lawyer at the penultimate war crimes trial in Nuremberg) and that of his family in the Nazi’s crimes. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President of the the German Bundestag Philipp Jenninger had gone further with their controversial and poorly worded speeches.

The Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) from 1986 onwards would then assume a special position in the battle over the adjudication of Nazi crimes. At the time, historian Ernst Nolte, the only actual historian among those involved incidentally, posited that the National Socialists had essentially performed a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union in the face of Stalin’s gulags. The response to this was the doctrine of the “singularity of Auschwitz”, also in order to avoid the constant comparison with Stalinism. This shut up Nolte, and the German right along with him. Those involved could not have known: With the end of the Eastern Bloc, this doctrine was then important enough to justify Western liberal hegemony as a battle against absolute evil, namely with and through the universalisation of Auschwitz as a unique crime against humanity. Since then, anything that can be positioned in the vicinity of Hitler must legitimately be fought with all means.

With Western hegemony since 1990, whose twilight is now approaching, the western Germany which absorbed the German Democratic Republic and replaced the latter’s “prescribed anti-fascism” with the tenet of the singularity of Auschwitz has finally managed to re-enter world politics. If Germany, or rather contemporary German politics, still has a relationship to the history of the perpetrators, it is predominantly self-cleansing by commemorating the Jewish victims. This over-identification goes so far that the history of the perpetrators disappears in the stories of the victims. Edgar Hilsenrath already foretold this in his novel “The Nazi and the Barber” in the early 1970s. In it, he describes how a Nazi criminal assumes a Jewish identity and lives happily ever after in Israel. A scathing criticism of German philosemitism.

Politics of remembrance and reasons of state

And then came Angela Merkel’s dictum about the “reason of state”, first pronounced in 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. It was followed by a long debate culminating in the Bundestag’s Anti-BDS resolution in 2019, which declared the Palestinian boycott movement – established as peaceful protest of Palestinian civil society in contrast to the suicide bombings – antisemitic. The posts of Antisemitism Commissioners were created who declared one of the leading political thinkers of the global South and former darling of the German Academy, Achille Mbembe, persona non grata because of his critical stances on Israel.

Many more cancellations of speeches and events later, in the wake of the horrific Hamas attack and Israel’s relentless bombing of the Gaza Strip, the ruling parties, the factions of the most left-leaning government possible in Germany for the foreseeable future, presented a 50-point catalogue of criteria on 9 November, which is currently being negotiated. It essentially deems any critical engagement with Israeli politics antisemitic. The catalogue is also a general attack on the independence of German cultural institutions, whose financial existence could be made contingent on their acceptance the controversial IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, which very broadly infers that criticism of Israeli policies constitutes antisemitism. Combating antisemitism in relation to Israel is now a matter for the authoritarian state and no longer has any notion of enlightenment, education and social debate. And that in times of war.

Today, the reason of state means far more than Israel’s security. Combined with the associated accusation of antisemitism, it has become the central means of delegitimising dissent in society. It has been clear for a long time that without a commitment to Israel, there can be no return to the world arena for German politics. Post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had already coolly calculated this and established official relations with Israel through considerable financial payments. In an interview with journalist Günter Gaus, he later referred to “the power of the Jews”, which had to be taken into account. Merkel’s reason of state, though, has not only been an interest-driven policy, but is also morally highly charged. It is also a statement of identity politics, which is what makes it so difficult, nigh on impossible, to again abandon the path embarked upon.

Remembrance busi-ness

The Germans now proudly see themselves as the world champions of remembrance. That is why it genuine German sentiment and not a misstep when Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach agreed with the statement by a well-known figure of the British right on X (formerly Twitter), who said that, in contrast to Hamas, SS perpetrators were at least ashamed of their crimes. We no longer need a debate about the final stroke under our past, we have long since managed to reinterpret it to our advantage. A new sense of superiority is spreading after successfully processing the past. Only a few left-wing Jews, Israelis and the relatives of those killed throw a spanner into the works when they are not prepared to simply offer up their victims to the German culture of remembrance. And, of course, all those who have other stories and traumas that they do not want to dismiss with the declared singularity of Auschwitz.

All of this has also become possible because the people involved in the culture of remembrance have kept the busi-ness going, even though something fundamentally changed when it was put under the control of the state. Because it is no longer anti-authoritarian. So called “stumbling stones”, cobble stones made from brass inscribed with the names of individual victims of the Nazis, continue to be laid, Jewish museums continue to be opened, every village searched for its synagogue and retired history teachers got engaged about the fate of the Jewish inhabitants who were exterminated. Behind all this are gestures acknowledging Jewish suffering, but also a caveat. To the extent that the culture of remembrance has lost its anti-authoritarian character, those who remember are at risk of personally identifying themselves more and more with the victims of German crimes instead of reflecting their forefathers’ agency as perpetrators.

This warped culture of remembrance, which Michal Bodemann dubbed “memory theatre”, is the backdrop against which antisemitism commissioners become censors and are not even aware of their responsibility for infringing a fundamental principle of freedom. Nowadays, the culture of remembrance has become so central to defining identity that anyone who does not belong to it biographically is already excluded. This applies to immigrant communities and people of all kinds who have ascribed to a multiple and cosmopolitan identity. They are supposed to shut up and toe the line.

Reopening the battlefield

So, the battle over memory and remembrance is not over. It must be the starting point for a cosmopolitan, peace-building proposal. Because is not the first time that Germany’s official remembrance policy has become war rhetoric. Just recall Joschka Fischer’s Auschwitz comparison during the bombing of Serbia. This serves as an excellent template for legitimisation in the current and future disorder of world. Dealing with the past must happen in the form of a critical debate and not as a consensus and taboo machine. In this very respect, though, all doors are currently closed.

Today, critical politics of remembrance should reflect on its own history and become a place for radical thinking and questioning instead of confidently proclaiming truths. At the same time, it must make itself global and absorb the impetus from decolonisation processes and their theorisation without declaring them sacrosanct. Critical remembrance policy must constantly revisit the question of antisemitism, including with regard to Israel. It faces the challenge of not having an emancipatory option in the political field. In times of the end of politics as we know it, though, it would be a start.

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