Germany Struggles to Regain a National Identity, with Mixed Results

Neo-Nazis walk to a march to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess at the Spandau train station in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 19, 2017. (Maurizio Gambarini/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

At the Jewish webzine Tablet today, I published a defense of the German-Jewish journalist Henryk Broder, who started what he called a “shitstorm” by addressing the parliamentary caucus of the right-wing Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD). According to Germany’s Socialists and Green Party, the AfD are unreconstructed Nazis; that was the view of a certain Clemens Heni, the self-styled proprietor of an institute dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, who had denounced Broder for talking to “the closest thing Germany has to a Nazi Party.” Heni denounced Henryk Broder in Tablet, and Tablet graciously gave me the opportunity to spit-roast Heni. (Read the whole Tablet essay here.)


It is absolute nonsense to characterize the AfD as Nazi; in foreign policy matters it is the only pro-Israel party in Germany, supporting among other things the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, something that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lobbied against throughout Europe. It is first of all an anti-immigration party, worried (with good reason) that a mass influx of Muslims will transform Germany’s character. But it harbors any number of prominent members who want to minimize the horrors of the Nazi period. These include its Vice Chairman Alexander Gauland, who recently covered himself in something other than glory by declaring that the Nazi years were “a speck of bird poop” in the grand sweep of German history. That is an outrageous and wicked thing to say. Gauland is far from the worst. There are regional party leaders who really are anti-Semites, and really do sound like neo-Nazis. For that reason I won’t support the AfD, not until it cleans house with bleach and brimstone.

I wrote in Tablet:

Broder excoriated the sort of political correctness that equates “climate change denial” with Holocaust denial,” but added that he favored some politically correct restrictions: “You don’t put your feet on the table, you don’t burp during dinner, and you don’t call the 12 worst years of Germany history ‘a speck of bird dung.’” This referred to a remark by AfD Vice Chairman Alexander Gauland that the Hitler period was only a speck of bird dung in the great sweep of German history, and he said it to Gauland’s face.


Of course the AfD also has leaders like Dr. Marc Jongen, who strove to expel AfD members who minimize the Holocaust or use anti-Semitic memes. I was particularly incesnsed that said Clemens Heni alleged that

Jongen in a Jan. 31 speech “took the opportunity to aggressively reject commemoration of the Holocaust as a German crime, instead framing Nazi Germany as just another form of ‘Socialism’ like Stalinism or Communism.” What Jongen actually said (my translation) is this: “Naturally there is a fundamental difference between the racist madness of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks’ hatred of the class enemy. And there are indeed good reasons to recognize in the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews an abysmal character that sets this crime above all the other mass extermination programs of the 20th Century.” Jongen reproached the German Left for ignoring the crimes of Communism and for  its belief that “the Germans are evil, Germany is a criminal nation, and it would be best if Germany were to disappear.” That is a view often expressed by leaders of Germany’s Green Party, and Dr. Jongen’s objections to it hardly make him a Nazi. As it happens, I know Jongen, and he is no anti-Semite.

I wish I also had an opportunity to beard Gauland in his lair. I would say something like this: “You don’t mean that the Hitler period was a speck of bird poop in the sweep of German history. You mean just the opposite: You believe that German national identity chokes on the Hitler period, and that the German capacity for national pride is poisoned by guilt over Nazi crimes. You speak of bird poop because you know that the matter of the Holocaust weighs so heavily on German sensibilities that Germany suffers from a self-hatred that might be fatal. So you propose to whistle in the dark and say, ‘It wasn’t so important,’ precisely because you are obsessed with the problem.’ In good Yiddish, soll ihr gornisht helfen (it won’t do you any good).”


My advice to Germans: stop obsessing about the past.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the intellectual leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism during the 20th century, taught that the past is determined by the future. He wrote: “It is impossible to regret a past that is already dead, lost to the abyss of oblivion….There can be a certain sequence of events that starts out with sin and iniquity but ends up with mitzvot and good deeds, and vice versa. The future transforms the thrust of the past.” What if Germany were to become Israel’s best ally in Europe, rather than a temporizing, opportunistic, materialistic, cowardly, hypocritical entity, that cozies up to the mad mullahs of Iran at the same time that it provides second-strike weapons to Israel in the form of submarines? What if Germany were to take inspiration from Israel’s love of children, its sense of risk and adventure, its rootedness in the past and passion for the future? The way out of the trap of the past is to create a future that repurposes the past.


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