Friday, May 20, 2005

Looking Behind the Scenes of German Holocaust "Remembrance"

Megalomaniacal prestige projects like Peter Eisenman’s newly inaugurated Holocaust Memorial in Berlin are essentially designed for the benefit of foreign, not German, audiences. Eisenman’s “field of pillars” responds to the same – essentially political – imperative as that which I have described in connection with Daniel Libeskind’s “Jewish Museum” project: “Germany has not only to commemorate [the Holocaust]. Germany has to be seen to commemorate by the rest of the world” (source). 2711 concrete pillars spread over 5.5 acres of prime real estate at the heart of Berlin are hard to overlook. The impact of such reputedly artistic efforts at “memorialization” upon the actual historical “memory” of the German public – or, more exactly, its historical knowledge, since we are mostly here dealing with generations that did not themselves live through the events in question – can be gauged by some other figures: such as the 50% of young Germans between 18 and 24 who (according to a poll taken recently by the German public television network ZDF ) did not know that the term “Holocaust” refers to the mass murder of European Jews. Or the 51% of Germans who (according to a poll conducted by the University of Bielefeld last year) considered that “what Israel is doing to the Palestinians” is “no different” from “what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich”. Or the 68% who (according to the same University of Bielefeld poll) agreed that Israel is waging a “war of extermination” – an expression most commonly associated with Nazi Germany’s military campaigns – against the Palestinians.

The banal day-to-day treatment of “the Jewish question” in German society – its treatment not in monuments constructed by the state, but in the everyday conversation of private individuals – is, of course, less known to the world outside Germany. In a recent issue of the Berlin weekly Jungle World, the Hamburg-based political scientist Matthias Küntzel provides a disturbing look, so to say, “behind the scenes” of Germany’s official culture of state-sponsored Holocaust “remembrance”. What he finds there is not the seemingly profound regret and humbled assumption of “responsibility” expressed in the official ceremonies, but rather, as he puts it in the psychological terms of his title, “Unschuld und Abwehr” – roughly “Innocence and Defensiveness”.

The object of Matthias Küntzel’s study is a discussion on a German mailing list provoked by the message of one “M.” who – the date was February 2003 – held, in effect, that American build-up for a military intervention in Iraq was the product of Zionist influence in the White House and indeed over American society more generally. “Are there any other books like They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby…?” M. asked, referring to one of his sources.

Of course, such “theories” were not rare at the time, and they have become even more common since. But what caught the attention of Matthias Küntzel was the reaction provoked on the list when some of the other contributors suggested that by invoking some vast Zionist conspiracy in order to explain US foreign policy M. might perhaps be falling prey to a classical anti-Semitic phantasm. What makes the reaction even more revealing is the identity of the participants. These were not self-styled neo-Nazis or skinheads. They did not come from the margins of German society. These were doctoral students enjoying the financial support of the prestigious Hans Böckler Foundation (part of whose funding, incidentally, is provided by the German state).

Matthias Küntzel writes:

To my mind the defining feature of the Böckler debate…was not the defense of M. [by, on Küntzel’s account, the majority of the other participants]…but rather the brute resentment expressed toward those who raised the reproach of anti-Semitism. Numerous statements mobilize exactly those topoi that Martin Walser popularised in his infamous speech at the St. Paul Church in 1998 [when the German novelist Walser complained that Auschwitz was used as a “moral cudgel” against Germans - JR]. It was precisely Walser who thereby revealed the close proximity of anti-Semitic consciousness and defensive reactions against the charge of anti-Semitism.

Symptomatically, it was not the Saddam friend M. who one demanded should be expelled from the mailing list, but rather his most incisive critics.... Thus we find in the contribution of one of the Böckler fellows an “urgent” appeal no longer “to react reflexively and with the bad conscience of Nazi descendants” to the charge of anti-Semitism. One doctoral student describes “anti-Semitism” – the central motive force of the Shoah – as “just a stupid buzzword, with which one tries to get one’s opponent to shut up in case he is not ‘politically correct’ and pro-Israel.” A third statement complains that “the anti-Semitism cudgel” has “just been hauled out.”

Matthias Küntzel’s article enters into very murky territory: namely, the psychology of contemporary German anti-Semitism and the “defensiveness” or defense mechanism to which his title alludes. Those who would like better to understand the rage of a large part of contemporary German public opinion toward Israel - whose very existence, after all, was a direct consequence of the Holocaust - would be well served by following him there. I’ll try to come back to this point, with some further excerpts, at a later date.

(Note: For a related earlier post, see "The Neue Wache: Germany and Historical Revisionism".)