The myth of German history consciousness

By Katharina Schmitz.

On Yom Kippur, a right extremist terrorist shot two people when attempting to storm a synagogue. Luckily, its doors had been locked and its CCTV was recording. Such security measures illustrate the high level of anti-Semitism in Germany. Only a few weeks later, the radical right-wing party ‘AfD’ (Alternative for Germany) gained a quarter of all votes in regional elections in Thuringia. Party representatives are known for variously comparing refugees with natural disasters, insects or a terrorist invasion. On other occasions, they claimed that the Shoah (also known as the Holocaust) was as insignificant in German history as ‘bird shit’ and that the famous Holocaust memorial in Berlin was a monument of disgrace. In the same month, a memorial tree dedicated to the first victim of the Neo-Nazi terrorist group ‘NSU’ (National Socialist Underground) was cut down overnight; supposedly by a Neo-Nazi. All in all, the desecration of memorial sites has increased considerably, and the boundaries of what is socially acceptable to do and say have been pushed beyond imagination recently.

The clarification process of said NSU-murders has been characterised by institutional racism, as the police has denied any racist motives of the attack, blaming them on immigrant communities instead. Furthermore, obvious state complicity through suspicious support of Nazi-informants by the Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution was neither sanctioned nor prosecuted. The cruelty of right-wing violence is shocking, but no more shocking than Germany’s response to it. A nation that carries ‘dealing with the barbaric past to prevent a barbaric future’ at the core of its memory culture should have been in collective shock in each of these events. There were and still are immediate public condemnations, anti-fascist demonstrations and genuine mourning. However, I strongly believe that according to my / our narrated self-conception of German extraordinary history-consciousness, these events should have been major disruptive moments. But incomprehensible and appalling acceptance followed. The Jewish publicist, lyricist and writer Max Czollek’s polemic ‘Disintegrate!’ (2018) dealt with this phenomenon and I will elaborate here on his mind-blowing and unsettling ideas with my own further reflections.

Irritatingly, the hegemonic narrative firstly and obviously clashes with Germany’s colonial amnesia, including Prussia’s genocide in modern day Namibia. Furthermore, one seems to talk and hear about an awakening of nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism in particular. The last month alone should be enough proof that none of this has ever been asleep. Nationalism was never eradicated from German culture (and neither has it been absent from European nation-states, but rather constitutive of them). There has never been a break from racialised violence in Germany, neither East nor West, despite collective ignorance about this.

The Shoah did not eliminate previous conflicts between Jews, other minorities and the ‘Deutsche Mehrheitsgesellschaft’ (German majority society). The Shoah is often narrated as the annihilation of Jews. Even when following this narrative, however, it did not automatically lead to the annihilation of anti-Semitism. This very assumption is anti-Semitic victim-blaming. But ultimately, the Nazis did not win, did they? The Shoah was an attempt at annihilation, but Jews survived and returned. Jewish life, history and culture never left German soil – it indeed triumphs by its very existence over the German majority society of perpetrators. Also, previous differences between majority and minority continued and new conflicts arose.

Dealing with the past is a strategy in post-conflict reconciliation, which in theory requires responsibility and respect. However, what might have been intended well was consumed and instrumentalised by the German desire for normality. This desire directs, what the sociologist Y. M. Bodemann calls, the German theatre of collective memory. It urges (German) Jews to take on the perfidious role of the good, purified and essentialised Jew who gives absolution to and, hence, stabilises the image of the good, reformed and normalised Germans. This is required so that the latter can legitimise their rehabilitated existence among other nation-states. The roles of the theatre are most visible during commemorations or after anti-Semitic attacks which is the only time Jewish life is publicly visible; albeit only in its passive, reductive and functional role, which does not even rudimentarily represent the diversity of Jewish life.

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Photo source.

In contrast to its self-perception, German memory culture relies on a demarcation from its history and denial of its post-national socialist present. The omnipresence of the Shoah has not led to history consciousness, since it is framed within the narrative of a ‘dealt with’ chapter. It indeed reproduces the idea of a historicised German society at core of the nation that Others have to assimilate with. But firstly, Germany is a space of radical diversity of identities, memories and cultures. And secondly, when Holocaust survivors said: “It’s not your fault but your responsibility”, they intended to raise consciousness to enable hopeful action. They certainly did not intend to close historical chapters of events that can neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

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