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Living with the Holocaust

Germany is at a crossroads now, faced with significant challenges to its post-Holocaust consensus and stability. The re-publication of Mein Kampf, now that the book is out of copyright, and the events in Cologne on New Year's Eve, in which some 1,500 male immigrants took part in sexual assault on hundreds of women, have highlighted this fact. The difficulties should not be underestimated.


Germany lives in the shadow of its Nazi past and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. It can never forget, for one thing because, despite the Holocaust, there are still Jews in Germany, perhaps as many as 200,000 now, including over 100,000 registered with the official Jewish communities, and the German state supports their activities. Many are Russian Jews who have arrived since the late 1980s, many of them neither culturally nor religiously particularly Jewish. Added to that are thousands of Israelis, many of them in Berlin, most of them Jewish. They have newspapers and radio stations in German, Hebrew and Russian, they are Orthodox, liberal, atheist and even Hasidic.


For decades non-Jewish Germans have engaged with Jewish culture, too, learning Hebrew, Yiddish and even Ladino (the language spoken by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) in night classes, attending klezmer music concerts, and there is a long tradition of Germans spending time in kibbutzim, though that has waned somewhat in the incessantly conflictual environment that pertains in Israel/Palestine. Some have criticised this engagement as essentially a form of philo-Semitism, a phenomenon just as problematic as anti-Semitism because, as the saying goes, “a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews”.


Young Germans are taught about the Holocaust in school, too, and are left in no doubt about German guilt and the need to make reparation. West Germany made a commitment to Israel as far back as the early 1950s, and it has held to that commitment, even after unification with East Germany, which was fundamentally anti-Israeli in its policies. Official Germany is determined to atone for the Holocaust, and most Germans have traditionally taken this position. That has meant support for Jewish communities and support for Israel. But Germany is changing, too. Is the old consensus breaking apart?

Most significantly, united Germany is not the homogeneous social and political entity that the old West Germany was. The population expanded in 1990 through the addition of 16 million east Germans and millions of refugees and other migrants, from Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, from the new EU states in the 2000s and from conflict zones like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and now the Middle East. Even before the influx of over one million refugees in 2015, 20% of Germany’s population had a migrant background, compared to just 7% in the late 1980s.


Those changes have led to fear and resentment of others, and economic recession and the cost of unification darkened the national mood, too. Yet the far right has remained a small minority in Germany since 1945. Parties akin to the Front National in France or the ultra-nationalist Vlaams Blok in Belgium have had some regional successes but have made little impact nationally. German responsibility for the Holocaust has led most Germans to see their country as one that owed a debt of moderation to Jews, in particular, and to the world in general. Giving refuge has been a cornerstone of that approach, which explains why in the 1990s Germany took in more Yugoslav refugees than any other country in the world. Last year, it must be said, this humanitarianism was mixed with self-interest in view of an ageing population.


In thinking about these questions we can distinguish between ‘Official Germany’ and a more fragmented political reality. Official Germany retains a core commitment to the values it has espoused since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949, and through all of this it has maintained its commitment to Israel, to commemoration of the Holocaust and to providing refuge. But this position now confronts new geopolitical conditions. Middle Eastern politics are not what they were in the 1980s, either. Young Germans understand the lessons they learn from history about German guilt, but they also see news reports from an increasingly violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, inevitably, question many of the actions of both sides. In particular, recent opinion polls have suggested that support for Israel is waning: 59% of Germans see it as an aggressive country while just 36% of Germans regard it sympathetically. Only 21% regard Israel as a country that respects human rights, though even fewer, 13%, would deny its right to exist.


Germany’s political system has become more diverse, too. Where in the 1970s 90% of the entire adult population voted for the Federal Republic’s three founding parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Free Democrats), in recent elections that figure has been closer to 50%. The dominant political discourse continues to emphasise the lessons learnt in reaction to the Nazi period and the Holocaust as key definers of an open and tolerant society, but it is being challenged.


What direction will the new Germany take? The response to events in Cologne was partly in the name of women’s rights and gender equality, but Germany’s past always colours our view of how it responds to minorities. The Holocaust still provides the most powerful of warnings.

Published: 28 Jan 2016  Categories: History, German

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Pól Ó Dochartaigh is Registrar and Deputy President of NUI Galway and author of Germans and Jews since the Holocaust (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).