One year ago, the two Germanies became one. The hated Berlin Wall was literally pulled down by the will of the people. The Stalinist gerontocracy which had ruled East Germany for more than four decades collapsed like a pack of cards. Their eyes and ears, the members of the Stasi secret police, were run to ground and imprisoned. The thugs and the opportunists who spoke of socialism and democracy yet practised dictatorship and repression finally came face to face with the truth. They were unloved, unrepresentative and the focal point of a just retribution by a vengeful generation who felt robbed and cheated. Many middle-aged citizens of the former German Democratic Republic came to the bitter conclusion that their lifetime’s endeavours had been for nothing, a complete waste, a cruel joke. What was their endurance for? That terrible realization was in no small way the catalyst for the reunification of Germany. From an initial desire for a democratic reformist East Germany, a numbed and often desolate populace settled for an absorption into a Greater West Germany as a solution.
The reunification of Germany also marked the reversal of the post-war history of Europe. The ossification and subsequent dissolution of the Communist order has given a certain symmetry to a century which began with the ascendency of the social-revolutionary tradition in Russia and the elimination of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg dynasties: a utopia which degenerated with the advent of Hitler and Stalin. Today this cataclysmic century is drawing to a close with a failed putsch by the ancien regime in the USSR and a resurgence of German interests, albeit economic rather than territorial. German support for Slovenia and Croatia and Chancellor Kohl’s visit to the Ukraine could ironically just as well reflect the politics of the late nineteenth century as those of the New World Order envisaged by the international statesmen of 1991.
Whilst the post-war generation and the media rejoiced, most Jews had mixed feelings about these momentous events. The liberation and freedom of others are indeed deeply important, but for so many Jewish people, the remembrance of history is the eleventh commandment. To remember and not to forget.
As the American Jewish writer, Cynthia Ozick recently wrote in a letter to a German friend: “I lost no direct kin to the fires but I remain unreconstructedly bitter. For Germans and Germany, I have a heart of stone.” Although Ozick’s political views are well known as being to the right of centre, that sentiment in all its harshness lurks in the hearts of many Jews. Indeed, despite the well-meaning attempts of some Germans to atone for the past, could it be otherwise? German-Jewish relations are not normal nor will they be for generations to come.
That slow process of reconciliation will not be helped by the results of a recent survey for the American Jewish Committee by David A. Jodice, entitled “United Germany and Jewish Concerns: Attitudes towards Jews, Israel and the Holocaust”. Between 1 and 15 October 1990—the actual period of formal reunification—a total of 1,821 adults, 995 West Germans and 826 East Germans were interviewed in person. This was the first study to examine German attitudes towards Jewish concerns after reunification and the first to compare East and West German views.
The results were, to say the least, disturbing. Fifty-eight per cent of the respondents believed that “it is time for Germans to put the Holocaust behind them”. Fifty-two per cent believed that “Israel has no special claims on Germany and should be treated like any other state”. Thirty-nine per cent believed that “Jews exploit the National-Socialist Holocaust for their own purposes”. Thirty-eight per cent believed that “now as in the past, Jews exert too much influence on world events”. Thirty-two per cent agreed that “Zionism is Racism”. Against these highly negative attitudes, 79 per cent wanted a ban on anti-Semitic groups and 73 per cent supported teaching about the Nazi period in schools. Is this then the result of nearly five decades of German attempts to understand the Jews? Although national leaders have repeatedly given it a high profile, has Vergangenheitsbewailtigung, the overcoming of the past, become a tiresome irrelevance for the ordinary man in the German street?
Questions relating to German nationalism such as “putting the Holocaust behind us” or that “Jews exercise too much influence”, appealed to the older generation, those without higher education and those who favoured Chancellor Kohl’s CDU/CSU Conservatives. Not surprisingly, those who regarded Israel as a state like any other were the under-thirties and supporters of the SPD Social Democrats. This trend was reversed when respondents were asked if they thought that “Zionism is Racism” where once again the over-thirties and the political conservatives warmed to the idea. Perhaps these answers fall into the classic pattern of today’s left and right, but the often high non-response rate suggests a “take or leave it attitude” amongst many. Twenty per cent did not know whether or not the Jews were exploiting the Holocaust. Taken together with the 39 per cent who thought they were, there was no absolute rejection of the notion.
The survey indicated that East Germans held a much more liberal attitude towards Jewish concerns than did their more affluent brothers and sisters in the West. Sixty-five per cent of West German respondents wanted to put the Holocaust behind them compared to 44 per cent from the East. Twice as many West Germans as East Germans believed that Jews exerted too much influence. Forty-eight per cent of West Germans desired the prosecution of war criminals. In the East, that figure rose to 74 per cent. Whilst one explanation could be the miniscule Jewish presence in East Germany and hence no “Jewish problem”, it could also be interpreted as an expression of the rejection of Communism.
Even though some former Nazis achieved high status in the new regime, a public de-nazification programme was carried out in East Germany after the war. Whilst the Communists undoubtedly trumpeted their anti-fascism as a propaganda tool, war criminals were hunted down, tried and executed and Nazis were seemingly purged from public life and the universities. Current revelations about the Ulbricht and Honoecker regimes suggest that the enactment of this policy was in fact partial and selective.
Moreover, according to some historians, the West was also less than fulsome in its commitment to a denazification programme.
In the British and American zones of Germany, many former Nazis were employed by the military government and German generals who had been responsible for mass slaughter were honoured. Prelates of the Christian churches were highly protective of former Nazi Party members and in some cases forbade church members from testifying in de-nazification trials. Anti-Nazis were not encouraged to participate: indeed, they were frequently barred from partaking in the proceedings. . . Throughout higher education, academics who had a long Nazi record continued to be employed. The police force and the law profession were drenched with former Nazis. German judges who had enforced Nazi law by and large retained their positions. (Meyer Weinberg, Because They Were Jews)
Clearly, the logic of the Cold War demanded the restoration of Nazi apparatchiks to status and position if the new Federal Germany was to become a fully functioning member of the Western Alliance. As Tom Bower has commented: “The Allies had settled for a Germany in which power, influence and wealth remained in the hands of those who had held them under the Third Reich.” (The Pledge Betrayed)
By 1951, Adenauer reinstated all officials into their former positions. De-nazification of education and the judiciary all but ceased. By 1967, a former Nazi became German Chancellor. In 1978, the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach asked West Germans whether they thought that “the Third Reich was not all that bad”. Thirty-seven per cent agreed, 23 per cent were undecided and only a minority of 40 per cent rejected the suggestion out of hand.
The American Jewish Committee 1990 survey also examined the attitude of religious and non-religious people. In view of the on-going dialogue between the German churches and the Jewish people and the dedicated effort which the German clergy has made, it would have been expected that the findings would indicate that Protestants and Catholics have considerably more understanding than their secular counterparts. The actual results show that there is no great difference in outlook between the religious and the non-religious.
Even more striking is the comparison of the leaders and-the led; 101 parliamentarians and national leaders were also interviewed, 50 from the Bundestag and 51 from the Volkskammer. Their responses were extremely favourable towards Jews and Israel and far outstripped the responses of the masses in positive attitudes. But what did this mean? Were they better informed? Or simply better programmed to give the expected answers? Were ordinary people in fact more honest in their negative responses than their leaders?
In 1933; the German people welcomed Hitler because they believed that great things could be achieved for their country under the Nazis. That kind of thinking allowed Hitler to rule and eventually pushed the German people into becoming mitgangers (fellow-travellers) in the extermination of European Jewry. Today, for many Germans, the past is a contaminated area where no one should venture. To do so invites shame and guilt, the legacy of a past generation.
Such a mindset provides a clue in distinguishing the anguished reactions of the Soviet peoples under glasnost to the Stalinist purges from the studied indifference and denial of the Germans. Whereas millions were imprisoned in the Gulag,
the number of inmates of the German concentration camps did not exceed 100,000 until the outbreak of the war. Furthermore, no one in Nazi Germany had reason to fear arrest unless he was an active anti-Fascist, a Jew or belonged to some other undesirable group. The situation in the Soviet Union was different because even the most enthusiastic Stalinists could not feel secure. (Walter Laqueur, Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations)
Should Jews be frightened by these disturbing statistics? Are we on the verge of a new wave of anti-Jewish manifestations? Probably not. A rational approach dictates more a sense of profound disappointment. It may suggest that the Germans have simply switched off from their horrific past due to an overkill syndrome. Saturating the Germans with their guilt may have actually proved counter-productive. Instead of being philosemitic, they now wish to treat the Jews like any other national group. Official lip-service to Jewish concerns may eventually come to be seen as a comfortable self-delusion rather than a heartfelt cure. Yet if the world can eventually be repaired after the terror of the Shoah, then a unified Germany must come to terms with the complacency and indifference of ordinary people in dark times. In this sense, a national normalization may prove to be an asset which will allow Germans to reach back into their history and quietly confront the psychological burden bequeathed to them.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1991