Who Has The Right to Germany's Past? Explaining Modern Anti-Semitism

BERLIN — Walk down the Unter den Linden past the American Embassy. Acknowledge the Brandenburg Gate with a momentary gaze. Look right for a glimpse of the Reichstag, but head left to the square of austere concrete slabs. Spaced out evenly of assorted heights, the blocks lack the adorning touch of the aesthete. They simply exist — row upon row separated by narrow lanes. Edge deeper into the uncertainty until reaching the place where the monoliths consume you. This is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It stands at the center of Germany’s capital, a constant marker of national remorse.

About 100 meters away from the memorial is a car park, or more significantly the place where Adolf Hitler, in the last days of the Third Reich, committed suicide. This place sees nary a visitor, save for the young German boys (of Turkish descent, significantly) playing soccer nearby, oblivious to the encroaching spot where evil’s führer died. The Germany of 2012 is far different from that of 1945, though the stain of anti-Semitism remains.

A recent survey conducted by the German government reveals that about one in five Germans have “latent” anti-Semitic views. Germans are not alone and certainly not the worst offenders, as studies conducted across the continent reveal that hostility toward Jews has not gone away. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the accompanying indulgences of the extreme right stand as barriers to the grand European narrative of progressivism. While the continent’s economic woes certainly exacerbate prejudice, the argument that economic depression constitutes the main catalyst of anti-Semitism, particularly in Germany and Poland, amounts to nothing more than a false proposition of convenience. Both Germany and Poland have been relatively prosperous throughout the economic crisis, posting some of the strongest growth and lowest unemployment figures on the continent. The explanation for the continued existence and possible resurgence of anti-Semitism finds its modern roots in the post-war context of memorialization. “Turning shame into monument” has summoned all that would rather be forgotten.

Who has the right to the telling of German history? The real issue at hand is the ownership of the past.

I spent some time in Berlin over the summer and overheard a conversation between a Berliner and visiting tourists in a local supermarket. The Berliner told the visitors quite bluntly that many Germans feel as though the story of Berlin and the story of the Holocaust are now solely told through the Jewish perspective. His argument went that because of their victimization, Jews became the rightful heirs to German history; sole authors of the past. German voices had been crowded out. From The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the immense Jewish Museum Berlin (both in the heart of the Mitte) to the brass plaques before the former houses of Holocaust victims, Berlin’s past has, according to some, become the story of the Jewish Holocaust.

This is quite a telling anecdote as it provides more than just a possible explanation for contemporary Germans’ “latent” anti-Semitism. The very language used betrays a dark reality, namely that German and Jewish identities exist in opposition to each other, that one cannot be a German Jew. So long as this tension remains, this controversy over the ownership of Germany’s recent past will continue to rouse anti-Semitism in Germany. Confronting, not escaping, history will prove the most beneficial path for an inclusive German identity.