Letters / On “Bad Memory”
Too bad. With only a little research the authors would have known that much of contemporary German memory culture was painfully fought for by Jews who stayed in Germany after the war, and who kept disturbing the peace of a country all too eager to forget the crimes of its past. Figures like Ignatz Bubis or Paul Spiegel, higher-ups in the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, an organization cited disapprovingly in this article, insisted that public memorialization of the Shoah be treated differently precisely because of the once all-too-common refrain that “all Germans” were themselves victims of Nazi rule. That contemporary Holocaust memory was molded in response to Germans equating their own suffering during the war to what happened to the Jews is glaringly absent in a piece on the subject.
I’m glad to have left my native Germany and its obsession with Jewish kitsch, its perverse fixation on the imagined German-Jewish symbiosis of yesteryear, and its staggering indifference to contemporary antisemitism. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth when American leftists criticize us—the children of those who fought for any form of memory culture—because our parents’ struggle no longer conforms to their newest ideological obsession. Even episodes that do conform are completely elided, betraying a lack of true engagement with their subject matter. When neo-Nazis attacked Vietnamese asylum seekers and Roma in the East German city of Rostock in 1992, Bubis and company were the first to recognize the pogrom as a violent aftershock of National Socialism—even though it was anything but the trendy thing to do. It’s unsurprising that those who did not grow up surrounded by this post-fascist mess fail to understand the importance of Israel to those who did. Either way, I’m tired of explaining it to Americans.
The Spring issue responsa and reported feature on Germany are valuable contributions to the growing body of work on the country’s repression of Palestine solidarity activism in the name of “curbing” antisemitism. That said, Germany’s clear interest in using Holocaust penance to prevent a reckoning with its colonial history remains a neglected aspect of this dynamic, one that the responsa in particular would have benefited from examining.
In general, Germany benefits from being considered less often as the same kind of colonial power as France or England despite the fact that, prior to its loss in World War I, the country controlled most of modern-day Namibia, Togo, Cameroon, and Tanzania. Germany’s latter-day efforts to abdicate responsibility for its colonial crimes have been so successful that the German government only apologized for its first genocide—committed between 1904 and 1908 against the Herero and Nama—two years ago, paying a paltry billion dollars in restitution to the Namibian government.
It strikes me, then, as not at all coincidental that Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe was accused of “relativizing the Holocaust” when he raised the specter of Germany’s colonial crimes. (It is worth noting that Cameroon was itself a German territory before the French and British divided it between themselves as restitution after WWI. It is also well documented that Hitler aimed to recapture Cameroon and other lost colonial holdings as part of a peace treaty with England.) Contemporary German attacks on postcolonial thought as “Holocaust relativization” are not motivated by a sincere—if poorly conceived—understanding of the Shoah as a historically exceptional, aberrant event, but by strategic interest. In accepting responsibility for the full range of its colonial crimes, the German government would have to pay restitution to a much larger swath of the world than just Israel. Germany’s resistance to these efforts puts the lie to its reputation as a transformed, progressive beacon post-World War II.
Furthermore, in denying that the Shoah was an inevitable result of the German obsession with the territorial-expansionist concept of lebensraum, or “room for living,” and European settler colonialism writ large, Germany finds a perfect alignment of its national interest with that of Israel. If, however, we see settler colonialism at the root of the Nazis’ crimes, those of virtually every European power, and Israel’s apartheid regime (as Noura Erakat wrote in the pages of Jewish Currents last year), then we will be much more clear-eyed about the measures necessary to achieve a more just world.
Los Angeles, CA
The Spring issue of Jewish Currents devotes 37 pages across three separate pieces to the discussion of how Germany’s displaced Holocaust guilt deleteriously affects the country’s Muslim and Arab minority populations. But not one word in the editorial staff’s responsa, Peter Kuras’s feature on the country’s antisemitism bureaucracy, or Sanders Isaac Bernstein’s assessment of Max Czollek’s book acknowledges that most of Germany’s Arab and Muslim residents (who number about a million and a half or more) are in the country today because Germany opened its doors to them during the 2015–16 migrant crisis, while the rest of Europe stayed comparatively closed. According to the Center for Global Development, this was sold to the German people as an ethical imperative, rather than a political boon; Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We can do this, despite the challenges!”
For all the legitimate criticism leveled by the magazine’s editorial staff and the many sources cited by Kuras and Bernstein, Germany has done a fair job of integrating these migrants and asylum seekers: About half of them have jobs, and there remains a high level of public support for their resettlement in the country. Germany’s treatment of its Muslim and Arab minority in the public sphere is fair game for criticism, but critics would do well also to acknowledge the country’s good act in admitting migrants in the first place.
New York, NY
The letter writer is co-chair of the Jewish Currents board.