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The weight of guilt in Germany

by Gabriele Nissim

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Accepting moral responsibilities in one’s own history should not be a hindrance and a punishment for a country. Indeed it should become a value and a sign of maturity. Anyone who was born today in a country that is responsible for crimes against humanity in its distant past should not live their life with a sort of original sin, but should rather feel committed to defending human rights so that any form of abuse does not repeat itself. Youngsters are not responsible for the past, but only for how they behave in the time when they happen to live.

Today, however, on the international arena, along with the multiplication of Remembrance Days, we are experiencing something peculiar. Many States feel the need to safeguard their innocence at all costs to deny past responsibilities, as if this may become an annoying brand. Thus China, especially aimed at not addressing the issue of democracy, has cancelled the bloody repression on Tiananmen Square; Putin's Russia no longer remembers gulags and has re-evaluated Stalin as a defender of national interests; Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide, when recognizing massacres may improve Erdogan’s international image. In Europe, on the other hand, several countries remembering the Holocaust have found a trick to safeguard their innocence. They throw responsibilities of the Jewish genocide on Germany and try to veil the complicity their States or part of the population had with Nazism. Poland is the most sensational case, as it approved an act deeming those who in various ways highlight Polish responsibilities in the Jewish tragedy to be punishable, but also in Hungary, in the Baltic countries and in Ukraine, people are annoyed by those who blame political leaders who made agreements with Hitler.

The case of today's Germany deserves in-depth analysis because, since Adenauer, German institutions have faced the issue of guilt for the extermination of Jews as no country has ever done in the history of the West. We may say today that the two countries that more than any others keep the memory of the Holocaust alive are Germany and Israel.

A few days ago, in an interview, Angela Merkel reiterated the argument of the speech that President Richard von Weizsäcker gave in 1985 on the forty-first anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Back then he surprised the world when he said that the liberation of his people had started with the military defeat by allies and that therefore Germans were grateful to liberators who had fought against them. Furthermore, von Weizsäcker pointed out that the Nazi past fell on all Germans. “All of us, guilty or not, young or old, must accept the past. We are all impacted by its consequences and we are all responsible for what happened”.

Notwithstanding, such exemplary memory is spoiled by the activity of the new German right, as Gian Enrico Rusconi explained in his excellent book Dove va la Germania? La sfida della nuova destra populista (published by Il Mulino).
However, this is not historical revisionism or a form of denial of responsibilities of the past; nobody, so to speak, maintains that Nazi camps did not exist or that Nazi’s guilt should be cancelled.
The goal is different: no longer use memory of the past as a reference of German Politics in all its decisions.
If the life of Germany and its citizens was to be normalized, the issue of the Jewish Holocaust should no longer be central, because reference to guilt would be a burden making Germans less free. Apparently, this is not an anti-Semitic argument, but if one digs deeper, perhaps Jews risk being identified, sooner or later, as those who, recalling guilt, become the main hindrance to a normal life for Germans.

Various extremely ambiguous statements were made by Alternative für Deutschland leaders, aimed at diminishing German responsibilities. On 2nd June 2018, at the youth organization congress, Alexander Gauland created a stir when stating that “Hitler and the Nazis are just bullshit [ein Vogelschiss] in the very successful German history of over a thousand years”.
To defend him from criticism, Björn Höcke, the most radical representative of the new right, stated that Hitler’s regime was a dictatorship imposed against the citizens’ will.
“Most citizens never supported Hitler, who never won democratic majority through free elections. Press freedom was oppressed and political opposition was repressed using the most excellent methods we know. People were intimidated. It is important to know that despite dictatorship, there were still conservative patriots, including von Stauffenberg, who had the courage to give their lives”. But it was precisely because the German people were not complacent, that on 17th January 2017 he declared in Dresden that it was inappropriate for the Germans to continue living under the stigma of guilt in central Berlin.
“We, the Germans, are the only people in the world who erected a monument of shame [ein Denkmal der Schade] in the heart of their capital city”. It is the well-known Holocaust Memorial near the parliament and Brandenburg Gate. The leader of the new right declared that one should take a 180-degree turn in the politics of memory and therefore that one must also remember evil suffered by Germans, such as the bombing of Dresden in 1945, equivalent to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He then attacked President Richard von Weizsäcker's speech, arguing that linking the idea of Germany's liberation with that of military defeat is “an argument against its people”.

Rusconi highlighted that public success is extremely significant of the book having an apocalyptic title, Finis Germania, written by historian Peter Sieferle, at the top of Amazon's rankings in June and July 2017.
The author committed suicide in September 2016, but the book was published posthumously by his friend Raimund Theodor Kolb, a professional sinologist, thus creating a great myth around this writer and his catastrophic prophecy. Arguments in the book are contradictory and unclear, but it is worth to grasp and interpret the main points and to try and understand what impressed its numerous readers. Sieferle claims that the memory of guilt imposed on victors dealt a deadly blow on German identity itself.

Since Germans can no longer come out of this terrible responsibility, as if it were an original sin, they are forced to annihilate themselves as consistent people and to become abstract human beings. Introducing themselves as Germans has become a shame because there is no possibility of expiation and forgiveness and they will always have to carry this brand on their head. If one is born German, then he or she will always be guilty and therefore will have no chance of redemption. This is why they must become other persons and generic human beings with no identity. After Auschwitz, Germans must therefore disappear to escape their metaphysical guilt. This is the terrible blackmail on Germans, who are forced to annihilate themselves.

Sieferle compared the existential condition of Jews to that of Germans.
With Christianity, Jews went down in history as the deicidal people. The chosen people have become the symbol of evil and all cathedrals in remembrance of Jesus Christ refer to the betrayal of Jews and to the superiority of Christians over Jews.
Today Germans also live with an unforgivable stigma and it is Jews, on their turn, who feed the German guilt every day through the memory of the Holocaust. What Christians did to Jews, is now done by Jews to Germans.
Sieferle wrote: “Christianity built cathedrals to its God, who was killed, in every city, which are still admired, although the belief at the basis of them has become incomprehensible throughout time. Jews, to whom their God ensured eternity, build monuments to their murdered comrades all over the world, in which victims are assigned the strength of moral superiority and their murderers and symbols the strength of eternal infamy”.

Such observations lead to the fact that Germans, to restore normality, should get rid of the psychological conditioning of Jews who avenged themselves for their sufferings by continually remembering Nazism and the responsibilities of Nazi Germany. Such argument, taken to its extreme consequences, may once again create the idea in the public opinion that Jews are a new threat to the German people, precisely because of the value they give to memory, even though Sieferle and the new German right do not deny the Holocaust and do not diminish Nazi responsibilities.
Thus a latent risk exists of a new type of anti-Semitism, not to be taken for the Nazi one. In fact, as Rusconi also observes, it would be inappropriate to simplistically label the new right as neo-Nazi.

Therefore, how should one deal in Germany with the new debate on the issue of guilt? There is no simple recipe. First of all it is important to reiterate that the guilt of fathers never fall on the children of any nation.
Guilt is always contingent in a specific historical period and does not continue over time. However, it is crucial to always preserve a historical judgment, because the temptation of innocence can cause dangerous short-circuits in historiographical terms, sooner or later. New generations must never be influenced by a guilt of the past, they are only responsible for their behaviours in the time in which they live.
Being responsible in one’s own time always has a twofold meaning: maintain a self-critical view of the past and therefore herald memory to avoid repeating the mistakes of dark moments; respect the value of freedom and dignity of others in public and private life. To be clear, a political class must always be judged by how it behaves in today's contingency, for example in relation to climate change, reception, social issues of its own country and of the whole world. Paradoxically, one can say he or she condemns nazism, fascism, communism and can then become an actor of a new form of injustice and intolerance.

As a Jew, however, I believe that Jewish responsibility must also be considered for the outcomes of the twisted debate started in Germany.
Gratitude should be largely shown to all German intellectuals and politicians who, like Jürgen Habermas, Armin Wegner, Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Richard von Weizsäcker, took on the task to remember the German guilt and never cancelled the responsibilities of Nazism in their political acts.
I imagine that the Gardens of the Righteous should reserve a place for Germans who taught the world the value of responsibility for the past as an example of great moral value.
It is crucial for the German-Jewish dialogue that would strengthen those in Germany today, and fortunately they are still the majority, who still believe that the value of responsibility and memory is one of the essential contributions that the new German political class has given to the international community after the second world war. I personally believe that all Europeans are seriously lagging behind in recognizing this.

The definition of Nazism is more complex as a unique, absolute and almost metaphysical evil around which Sieferle built his essay and which reopens a certain interpretation of the Holocaust.
I would prefer the definition given by the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, who used the term no precedent to describe the peculiar characteristics of the Holocaust and who pointed out that it is dangerous to speak of a single, metaphysical evil because it would no longer concern the responsibility of human beings in a historical context.

In this way Germans would not be relieved of their historical responsibilities as Sieferle wanted them to be, but they would no longer live with the guilt of a metaphysical evil from which they cannot be freed. The concept of absolute uniqueness may indeed become unique and absolute guilt for the people who committed it. A debate must be opened on this issue, also because, as foreseen by Yehuda Bauer, the Holocaust risks not being remembered as a genocide committed by conscious human beings, even though unique in its kind, but as an evil outside history. Sieferle played on such ambiguity, accusing Jews of stamping the original sin on the whole German people.

Translated by Valentina Gianoli 

Gabriele Nissim, President of Gariwo

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, President of Gariwo

13 June 2019

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