Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

German Pride and Jewish Sensitivity
By Eliahu Salpeter

There's an historic debate underway in Germany over the concepts of "patriotism" and "national pride." It's impossible, of course, to separate the debate from Germany's Nazi past. And the question, how many generations will the past chase after the present is also connected in large part to the issue of how Germany overcomes the groups of neo-Nazis now operating on its soil.Meanwhile, the Jewish community grows by leaps and bounds, joined by immigrants from the east, making Germany's Jewish community the third largest in Europe, and raising the question of whether normalization is possible between the German state and the Jewish community inside it. And if that's possible, what influence will it have on Germany's special attitude toward Israel?

The subject of "German pride" is taking a lot of space in the German press nowadays. Sometimes it seems as if the argument is all about semantics. President Johannes Rau says that he is "happy and grateful" that he is German, but can not be "proud" of the fact because "it's not an achievement to be German, just a matter of luck." Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declares he's "proud of the achievements of the people and its democratic culture," as if to say pride, yes, but not in the German nation, rather in the new German state; not in all of German history, but in post-war federal Germany.

Josef Joffee, the Jewish editor of the influential Die Zeit, explained a couple of weeks ago in an essay that "when a German wants to be proud of the federal republic, he doesn't have to go fishing in brown mud," a German expression about murky waters that Joffee used to refer as well to the brownshirts of the Nazi movement. Joffee went on that "he can refer to the fact that on German soil, which knew totalitarianism, democracy has struck root." On the other hand, a commentator for the Algemeine Judische Wochenzeitung, the weekly published by the association of Jewish communities in Germany, wrote in a more critical tone that "it's not being said that I'm proud to be German, but rather that you have to be proud to be German because it simply belongs to us, not to say that it's in our blood. And those who object, aren't German at all."

The main reason for the debate is that third generation Germans don't feel responsible, and certainly not guilty, about Hitler's deeds. Presumably, the headlines of recent years about the demands for compensation for Holocaust victims, and the threats that sometimes accompany those law suits, gave many Germans the feeling that the discussion about the Nazi past is now all about money, and not morality. And money, as everyone knows, is not holy, and there can be disagreements about it. But the real roots of the debate seem to be deeper, and easier: Most Germans are tired of hundreds of years of their history being reduced to the 12 years of Nazi rule, and especially the five years of Shoah.

Nonetheless the Germans are still being reminded that it's not just history at stake. In February, the German government brought suit in the constitutional court at Karlsruhe, seeking the banning of the National Democratic Party (NDP). That extreme right wing party was accused of encouraging crimes of a racial background and spreading "anti-Semitic views similar to Nazism." In the last 20 years, the party has not managed to get past the 5 percent parliamentary threshold, but the prosecutor general's office charges it now with cooperating with skinheads and calls for moving the struggle from the ballot box to violence in the streets.

The trial will probably only take place next year but meanwhile, something that surely was in the prosecution's brief has been published: Statistics show a rising trend in anti-Semitic crime. Last year, there were 1,084 incidents reported to the police, nearly twice the 574 of 1999. The question of to what extent does the rise in the number of incidents instigated by extremist groups reflect mainstream opinion will presumably answer the question to what extent has German society rid itself of extreme nationalism. The constitutional court may yet have to provide an answer to that question.

It's not a disaster if the issue of national pride comes up now for public discussion in Germany. But it's unfortunate that all the noise in recent years about law suits for compensating Shoah victims and their heirs has contributed to a change in German - and for that matter, non-German - perceptions of the Holocaust. Instead of discussing the Nazis' 50 million victims in World War II, and the 6 million Jews among them, most of the talk lately is about the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and damages.

No nation wants to live with the stain of Cain forever. The debate over national pride is one of the signs that Germans want to finally be free of the guilt over what their parents and grandparents did. When that ambition becomes the open wish of all Germans, it could change the nearly unquestioning support Germany gives to the rights of Jews worldwide, and to the state of Israel's policies. Therefore, the debate over national pride in Germany affects not only the Jews of Germany but the state of Israel and those Diaspora Jews who care about the state of Israel.

©2001 - Haaretz

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