The new German chauvinism (Part 2): How ‘Israel-solidarity’ undermines of the fight against racism and antisemitism

antizionism Germany

First published at LeftEast.

The first part of this essay explored the historical background for Germany’s fiercely enforced solidarity with Israel. In the decades after the war, support for Israel was cultivated by West German elites as a geopolitical investment and project of Westernization. Meanwhile the left struggled to force the country to take historical responsibility for its crimes – while often also being fiercely critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Over the last decades, the elites of reunified Germany realized that Holocaust memorialization could become a powerful tool to justify not only solidarity with Israel, but also Germany’s role on the world stage. The peculiarity of the German situation is that many leftists and most liberals either support or find it hard to criticize this project of nation-state building, even when it entails giving profound military and moral support to a country keeping millions of civilians under conditions of occupation and displacement, starvation and bombardment. The reason for this is the particular role of collective guilt in Germany.

In this second part, we will ask whether the German state’s adoption of Holocaust memorialization as national ideology and of solidarity with Israel as “reason of state” does what many hoped it would do: block the re-emergence of the far-right, strengthen democratic forces, prevent racism, enable the flourishing of Jewish life in Germany, and undermine antisemitism. As we will see, the opposite is the case. German memory culture undermines all of these aims, while enabling and emboldening a new German chauvinism. As a way out of this dead end, the essay argues for another approach to the historical crimes of Nazism: to think about Nazism as a political rather than ethnic crime. Once we see it as such, we can break with the simplistic notions of collective perpetrators and faceless victims, and remember those killed by the Nazis as more than just victims, but also as role models; Vorbilder of the creation of antifascist lives and transformative politics.

Boosting the far-right

At first glance, German memory culture has been historically effective in suppressing antisemitic discourse and sentiment. The fact that neo-fascist parties have gained most support in the parts of the old Nazi Reich where Holocaust memory politics has been the weakest – in Austria and East Germany – might illustrate this point. But while the absence of proper Holocaust memorialization is an important critique to be lodged against the former GDR, the situation in the east of Germany today would be better if reunification had not entailed the liquidation of the anti-fascist memory culture of the former GDR. Its immediate cessation caused a rupture in historical memory, and its replacement – liberal, West German Holocaust memorialization – came in as a western imposition, which made it harder to accept and easier to reject. Moreover, the fact that support for the far right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) is strongest among those born after reunification also suggests the success of that party in the Eastern Bundesländer may have more to do with contemporary Germany than with the GDR. Here we may keep in mind the never-reversed de-development of East Germany after reunification, decades of austerity, German anti-Muslim racism, and the failure of the left party Die Linke in organizing discontent along non-racist lines.

Whatever these explanations may be, it is clear that hegemonic memory culture in Germany and Austria is not capable of blocking the emergence of the new fascism of the AfD and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ). Everywhere, the generational distance from trauma and defeat and the new problems and possibilities of the age are making the affirmation of national guilt less and less powerful and resonant. Part of the attraction of the AfD and FPÖ is that they offer an affective and political jubilee from historical debts, and a refusal of what is experienced as the dour and moralising politics of the hated “urban” left and the broader political establishment. Enthusiastic support for Israel is an important part of this deal, a proof that the past “has been left behind”. Moreover, support for Israel’s masculinist, militarist, fiercely anti-Arab and proudly ethno-nationalist government resonates deeply with similar sentiments within parts of the German population. 

The question, then, becomes whether the left and liberal version of German memory culture can maintain a strong enough cultural hegemony to fight off the fascist goal of overthrowing the “yoke” of German guilt. If it cannot, then we must also ask if and how the left/liberal version of German memory culture might actually be helping to strengthen the position of the far right. To answer these questions, we must analyse the psycho-social mechanisms through which German guilt is reproduced, and ask whether it is capable of organising solidarity and anti-fascist culture, instead of simply relying on brute moral pressure. 

Weakening democratic forces 

After Nazism, the question of founding a new basis for national morality became a pressing task for German philosophers and theologians. Many Germans, thought Karl Jaspers, had genuinely believed that the Nazis were on the side of the good, leaving them with a deep disillusionment and disappointment, leading them to question “even our best faith”.1  Despite the dubiousness of these claims – the Nazis’ aims were clear for all to see even before the war – Jaspers’ suggestion says something significant about the workings of German post-war morality. This morality is based on the certainty of evil rather than faith in the good, producing a civic morality more prohibitive than constructive, more dutiful than joyful. In short, it is a morality that retains many of the core civic values of the old Prussian state, and a negation of all the transformative impulses of communism, feminism, anarchism, and the workers movement. 

For the generations who took it upon themselves to never forget and never repeat, the concept of Schuld (guilt/debt/responsibility/liability) became central to any moral orientation. Accordingly, feelings of guilt became secular signs of morality, as they had been under Protestantism and Catholicism. But as with those religions, the actual subjective feeling of guilt was secondary to the need to socially perform the rituals of signalling that one feels guilty and seeks redemption. Guilt thus, became a means and sign of religious or national communion. In practice, people’s actual feelings of guilt are irrelevant; what matters is whether they participate in the ritual expression of remorse, responsibility, and redemptive support for Israel. To do so is to demonstrate that you are a good German, one that has learned from history, and puts pressure on others to do the same. This gives rise to a kind of ersatz democratic and anti-racist culture, where what matters is the performance of the right national attitude. 

Now, after the death of the wartime generation of Nazis, moral activism and the policing of language have become an important form of anti-fascist activity. Whereas 68’ers were breaking silences by outing Nazi criminals, contemporary antifascists spend more time enforcing silence and policing speech. Within this paradigm, what people police is not just their fellow Germans, but any possible sign of the return of the repressed, wherever it comes from. As Jaspers already warned, “the greater this sensitivity to blame, the greater, as a rule, is the inconsiderate readiness to blame others”. Anyone is under suspicion, and this creates a culture of moral posturing and vigilance, whereby one’s goodness can be proven not so much by living rightly, but by righteous gestures and by accusing others. In the best case, this produces a keen and justified vigilance and spurs people to anti-fascist action. At its worst, it invites a paranoid obsession with semantics and symbols, tragi-comically exemplified by the popularity of accusations that Greta Thunberg’s autism-therapy octopus was an antisemitic symbol. In anti-German circles (see part 1), any signifier that could be used as an antisemitic dog whistle is interpreted as being one: All critiques of Israel thus become antisemitic and all octopi in political contexts become references to a Jewish world conspiracy. Some anti-German leftists go as far as suggesting that all critiques of financial capital and US imperialism are structurally antisemitic.2  On this part of the left, the uniting factors are conviction and moral pressure, rather than solidarity and friendship. 

The weaponization of accusations of antisemitism has severe consequences for the broader left, progressive movements, and civic life. Such accusations, whether or not they ultimately stick, can break political groups, split social movements, and destroy the friendships, careers, and social standings of the accused – and the enemies of the left know this. False accusations are cheap and the accusers generally forgiven, as the accusation itself proves the accuser’s vigilance, and hence their goodness. All this creates an inflation and frequent instrumentalization of false accusations of antisemitism against political enemies, sowing mistrust and confusion within democratic movements. And to what end? Accusations based on ungenerous or bad faith interpretations of statements undermine the weight and seriousness of all accusations of antisemitism, eroding the fight against real antisemitism. 

Fuelling anti-Muslim racism

A key denominator of this politics of guilt is the idea of the uniform responsibility of all members of the German nation. While understandable as a notion of political guilt in Jaspers’ terms, this notion has a hard time dealing with the fact that many non-white Germans find it difficult to participate in national memory culture and its rituals. As a result, many German Muslims and Arabs are put under blanket suspicion of antisemitism and targeted for training aimed at getting them to relate to the Holocaust in the same way as those identified as ethnic Germans. Migrants in Holocaust education programmes are expected to identify with the perpetrators and to renounce any empathetic comparisons between the situation of the Jews before the Holocaust and their own contemporary experiences of racism, as explained by Esra Özyürek in her powerful ethnography, Subcontractors of Guilt: Holocaust Memory and Muslim Belonging in Post-War Germany. Put differently, a Holocaust memorialization whose integrative function is so clear when it comes to white Germans becomes a means of exclusion and othering of non-white Germans. German chauvinism has returned as a civilizing mission, dressed in the garb of repentance.

But guilt is hardly the only possible ground for moral agency. Unlike national guilt, which projects the national past into the present and future, morality can also be built on care and solidarity. Care and solidarity are not just ways of dealing with “one’s own” past, but of seeing the other in the present, and finding common paths towards a better future. The problem with guilt is that it instrumentalizes care and solidarity as a means in the guilty subject’s search for redemption. In doing so, it erodes the conditions for class politics. Even on the left, many prioritise policing and shaming the imagined and real bigotries of non-white Germans over building solidarities within the broad working class, effectively placing themselves outside this multiracial class rather than inside of it. Instead of working through the blockages to solidarity from within the working class, they enforce national feelings and attitudes. They work within or alongside the public institutions that produce loyalty to or dependence on the state, rather than building their own organisations and institutions. 

In the Arab and Muslim part of the working class in Germany, Palestine-solidarity is an expression of empathy with the victims of overwhelming state violence, but also one of self-interest. You don’t have to belong to these groups to understand that the public dehumanization of Palestinians and the German state’s support for their slaughter send a clear message that “Arab and Muslim Lives Don’t Matter. This is part and parcel of the experience of dehumanisation already provided by the far right and the tabloids, “concerned” centrists and intellectuals, the European border regime, and the War on Terror. But the same pundits who understand why German Jews feel threatened, and that their lives are devalued, when people celebrate Hamas, show no concern when people are threatened by their own German and European institutions. While the real threats to Jewish people rightfully deserve attention, it is worth noting a serious and racist discrepancy here: White, privileged people care more about the feelings of insecurity among people with whom they identify than they do about the actual safety of people they don’t identify with. This lack of empathy and institutional critique is a necessary part of the dehumanisation and othering of Arab lives and silencing of Arab voices. Moreover, the production of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments is key to understanding the success of the far rights both in Europe and in Israel, and the deepening alliances between them.

There is little doubt that this national culture of memory fuels the growth of anti-Muslim racism, and not only among the far-right. At the same time, there is serious reason to doubt that this culture serves to protect Jewish life in Germany and to combat antisemitism.

Policing Jewish culture and dissent

In Germany as elsewhere in Europe and North America, there is a broad consensus that Jews must be protected, and that protective measures must be increased. This is indeed called for: attacks on synagogues and Jewish cultural centres have risen since October 7. But the means of protection are partial and selective, remaining unable to grasp the diversity of Jewish life in Germany, as argued by Deborah Feldman in a powerful tv-segment and the Jewish Bund’s video “You do not protect us”. One of the grave dangers of the German equation of Jews with the state of Israel and vice-versa, is that it can have the effect of  encouraging people to believe the antisemitic notion that Jews in general can be held responsible for the acts of the state of Israel, or that there is no difference between protesting outside a Berlin synagogue and in front of the Israeli Embassy. Regurgitations of Israeli propaganda that Israel is needed to ensure the safety of Jews in general also sends a rather sinister message to the Jewish diaspora. 

Meanwhile the state, the media, and anti-Germans alike try to silence Jewish people who reject the equation of all Jews with Israel, and the many non-Jews who say “Palestinian lives matter” and “fuck antisemitism” in the same breath. This silencing affects anyone from Palestine-solidarity groups to the demonstration “Jewish Berliners against violence in the Middle East”, which was cancelled by the authorities on grounds of “potentially antisemitic messaging”. 

Meanwhile, we are witnessing something akin to a total German boycott of Jewish diasporic dissent, from Bernie Sanders, whose even-handed critique of Hamas and Israel led German Social Democrats to cancel a meeting with him, to attacks on Judith Butler (“leftist, progressive – and antisemitic”) and Naomi Klein (“Antisemitism from the left”), and cancellations of Nancy Fraser’s visiting professorship (she had signed a letter in support of Palestine). Most prominently, the City of Bremen and the Green-party affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation cancelled the Hannah Arendt Prize award ceremony for the Jewish Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. This happened after pressure from the Germany-Israel Society (DIG), which argued Gessen’s transgressive comparison between Gaza and a ghetto under Nazi occupation was inadmissible. It added that Gessen’s displays “a deep-seated and fundamental negative prejudice against the Jewish state” which “has nothing to do with political judgment in the sense of Hannah Arendt”, rewriting  Arendt’s role as one of the first Jews to criticize Zionist racism and militarism after the creation of the state of Israel. 

It is a tragic irony indicative of continuities, that some of the voices that the German memory culture finds most radically uncomfortable belong to the kinds of Jews most hated by the Nazis: radically leftist, diasporic, cosmopolitan, internationalist, and in total opposition to all ethno-states, including a Jewish one. Such groups are also among the most vocal contemporary carriers of the tradition of radical and transformative practices and visions of justice, equality, and universal solidarity, so strong in Germany before the Nazi take-over. A true fight against fascism’s past and present entails the construction of such visions for our times, and a move beyond the mere hyper-criticality and negativity so common on parts of the German left today. 

In the many cases where left-wing Jews have been cancelled or attacked, the Germans who claim to support Jews in general by supporting Israel in fact take sides within an intra-Jewish conflict. They side with those whose ideas of nationhood are most proximate to German and European ideas of the nation-state, against those who hold more universalist, cosmopolitan, and emancipatory ideas about what it means to be Jewish and human. Nowhere does the inherent bigotry of this taking of sides come out clearer than in the approach taken towards antisemitism among people of Arab and Muslim background.

Undermining the fight against antisemitism

In Germany it is notoriously easy to “find” antisemitism among migrants with Muslim background.  The use of definitions that associate critiques of Israel with antisemitism greatly inflates the numbers. While police statistics are somewhat unreliable, an estimated 90% of antisemitic crimes are committed by white Germans, as Özyürek points out, while the number of acts committed by people with West Asian and North African background is expected to rise due to the deepening criminalization of Palestine solidarity and the expanded definitions of antisemitism. Simultaneously, the German media and academics tend to misrepresent the character of expressions of dislike or hatred of Jews among people with migration background. Instead of seeing this as a product of people accepting the premises of an ethnic conflict/occupation in Israel/Palestine (promoted by many actors on both sides), it is conflated with the historically and materially different genocidal antisemitism of the powerful Nazi Reich and its majority population. This is a common pattern in the current obsession with finding Muslim and Arab antisemitism in Germany: the transfer of German guilt to migrants, and the banalization of German and European antisemitism.

However exaggerated and conflated with German antisemitism it is, hatred of Jews in parts of the pro-Palestine movement  is a real problem. In this context, it is tragic that much of the left is aligned with the establishment in silencing and shaming the people who serve as an embedded bulwark both against this so-called “new antisemitism” and against the German and Islamist far right. The blanket accusation of antisemitism towards Arabs, Muslims and Palestine solidarity is both a vector of anti-Muslim racism, and a boon to the German and Islamist far rights who gain more from boosting overt Islamophobia than from covert antisemitism.

The German right cares neither for Jews nor Muslims. For them, fuelling antisemitism among Muslims by supporting Israel is a feature rather than a bug. The left, of course, could be expected to avoid such risks like the plague. Yet many ostensible leftists, especially on the antifa-scene, are stuck inside the repressive practices of the German memory complex and contribute to the generalized suspicion of Muslims and Arabs who express themselves politically. By doing so, they preach at migrants from their position within the majority culture, instead of engaging in the development and self-critique of a multi-ethnic working-class movement from within.  

While the very real antisemitism on the German right receives little public attention, Muslim institutions are criticised for failing to distance themselves from Hamas and antisemitism – implying, as noted by Dave Braneck in Jacobin, that “unless otherwise noted, Muslims hate Jews and support terror”. In Berlin’s migrant neighbourhood of Neukölln, youths are subject to racial profiling and are told that their horror at the deaths of Gaza is illegitimate, dangerous, and antisemitic. If non-white German youth are told they have to choose between rejecting antisemitism or standing with people in whose othering and abandonment they see themselves, it will be no surprise if some do come to, tragically and unnecessarily, embrace antisemitism. Fortunately, this danger is greatly mitigated by the vast majority of Palestine solidarity groups who strongly reject antisemitism, even while their work is hampered by media vilification, bans on protests (especially in Berlin), and police raids.

Tragically, the German politics of memory, understandable as they might be, are both losing resonance and contain the seeds of their own undoing, reaping a process which fuels new racism and far right politics. This dynamic, and the demographic and generational tendencies that underly it, explains the particular vehemence with which this culture is currently imposed. Against its own laudable aims, it encourages acceptance of cruelty abroad, undermines anti-racist solidarities and the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. As pointed out by a recent report by the scientific advisors of the German federal parliament, the use of reason of state arguments elevate vague and politically defined “interests of state” above basic constitutional rights.3  This sets a chilling precedent in a context where a far right aligned with Israel’s right wing leadership may enter government on both state and federal levels. A core part of this process is the silencing of left wing Jews and the instrumentalization of accusations of antisemitism. The tragedy of this situation is that these politics are often pursued with sincerity and the best intentions. The good are aligned with the grifters, the concerned with the concern trolls. This raises the question of why history is remembered in ways that stimulate rather than prevent dehumanisation and anti-democratic politics, and how the profound wish to take responsibility for history can take a different form.

Memory culture as national ideology

14 years after the Shoah, Adorno wrote that “there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence”.4  To break this circle, we need to reinterpret Nazi crimes differently than it’s done in German-national memory culture. This means recovering the often-forgotten memory of all those who did or would have resisted Nazism if they had not been rounded up in the early days of the dictatorship. What is needed in this moment isn’t forgetting or moving on, but remembering differently, in a way adequate to the present. Key to doing this is questioning the interests that have shaped how Nazi crimes are remembered, and especially the ethno-national form this memorialization takes. This is a task of all people intent on justice and peace, whatever their nationality. 

In my native Denmark, a myth of national goodness is prevalent, rooted in the escape of the Danish Jews from deportation and murder, and the resistance to German occupation. While built on real events, this was a post-war ideology designed to paper over the collaboration of the Danish government until 1943 – and of the Danish state administration until 1945 – with the Nazi occupiers. It was also a way to paint Danes as ”good”, when in fact the resistance was led by people with quite specific politics: communists made up the strongest force of those that resisted. Painting the nation as resistant to Nazism helped position Denmark in the allied camp, but, at the dawn of the Cold War, the latter also required downplaying the communist contribution to the resistance. Similarly, in West Germany, the institutions and practices of remembrance, like the intellectuals and politicians who formed them, were deeply shaped by Cold War anti-Communism. Starting with Jaspers, as we have seen in part 1 of this essay, the narrative of Germans as a collective perpetrator left no place in the memory culture for all the Germans who resisted or were exterminated by Nazism. It repressed their history as well as our ability to identify with it. 

All this entails a significant historical irony. In the 1980s, the left-liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas had argued against using history as a means of national “consensus formation and social integration by means of the provision of meaning”. Now, his brand of memory politics has come to serve this very nation-forming function, undermining his ideal of a “pluralism of interpretations” that can expose German “identity-forming traditions in all their ambivalence”.5

Voiding the resistance

In the postwar years, German leftists fought to make their compatriots take responsibility for the crimes of Nazism. In the process, they continually affirmed the German identity shared by themselves and those they tried to influence. In the process, the Holocaust memorialization came to center on identifying as part of a perpetrator people, leaving the contemporary left without positive ancestry. Within this frame, the fact that many, even if far too few, non-Jewish Germans did resist Nazism, or were imprisoned or exiled before they had the chance loses significance. Retrospectively, the assignment of blanket national guilt to Germans is rationalized with reference to the well-known fact that the majority of each of Germany’s classes accommodated or embraced national socialism in the 1930s. Even leftist intellectuals came to accept this narrative, out of disappointment with the German working class’ non-resistance or outright embrace of Nazism, and out of their need to fight against ideas of German victimhood. 

But this analysis, both idealist and retrospective, ignores the ways in which the leaderships of the workers’ movement and left failed the class, from the horrific infighting of the KPD (German Communist Party) and SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) leaderships, to the disastrous Comintern policies and the Mollotov-Ribbentrop Stalin entered with Hitler. It also paves over the material and infrastructural moves that enabled Nazi hegemony: the swift suppression of any opposition and civic courage.  These “tactics of the void”, ruthlessly implemented after the Reichstag fire, created the conditions for a fascist domination of society, including its bodies and minds.6  Within days, the Nazis had arrested 4,000 Communists. A month later, 20,000 Communists had been thrown into prisons and concentration camps. By the end of the summer of 1933, more than 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, union officials, and other leftists were imprisoned.

Nazism did organise the enthusiasm of the broad German population. But the reason was not that it spoke to their antisemitic and authoritarian “nature”, but because it spoke to one set of ideas and affects within a heterogeneous population. Those antisemitic and authoritarian notions and sentiments were not uniformly accepted within this population. Rather, they were actively cultivated by elite and populist figures in the construction of a cross-class German national ideology and as a means to divide the labour movement, which had a high proportion of Jewish members and leaders. The Nazis further eliminated all those individuals, groups, organisations, and institutions that could give voice to the solidaric, humanist, and anti-authoritarian aspects of those same hearts and minds. Remembering all of this offers a crucial lesson for antifascist struggle. This lesson is more profound than invocations of national-civic, moral, and sacrificial-metaphysical guilt and responsibility that place us in a land of morality outside the terrain of politics and class conflict: Antifascism isn’t about the heroic action of a few, but about the weaving of a social fabric, organizations, and infrastructures inclusive of different groups to provide people the strength and courage to fight and practice solidarity. 

Nazism as a political crime

In Germany, alongside an unfathomable number of Jews, the Nazis killed gays, feminists, Roma and Sinti people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally ill, the disabled, communists and other leftists. The repression of these overlapping groups in the narrative of uniform German guilt towards an equally homogenised Jewish people is far from accidental. These were groups that post-War West German elites and the allies did not care to afford space to in a new national narrative. Where the Nazis had excluded them all from the nation, the new Federal Republic minimised their place in national history. 

This ideology also served to erase the Germanness of German Jews and the Communist resistance, and encouraged people to see Nazism as a national-ethnic, rather than political crime. By affirming the collective responsibility of Germans, German Jews and communists were presented as not or not-really German – fully in accordance with the national ontology of the Nazis. Moreover, the mass murder of Russians and Poles, Serbs and Slovenes, was imagined as mere acts of war and occupation, while it’s racist and settler-colonial role in consolidating “Lebensraum” for the Reich was downplayed or erased. This was congruent with the inclusion of many ex-Nazis as functionaries of the Cold War order by the Western allies and new German leaders alike, as well as with the ideological warfare against the newly born GDR (East Germany).

Recognizing this, we can retell the story of the evil of Nazism. Nazism did not express essential Germanness, but drew on aspects of German culture and international fascism, as well as the expansionist ambitions other capitalist-imperialist states had realized overseas earlier and with greater success (or in neighbouring lands, as was the case with Czarist Russia and the Habsburg Empire). Through this set of ideologies and interests, the Nazism emerged as its own eclectic mix of otherings, hatreds and enmities: of cosmopolitanism and border-crossing, of queerness and disability, of communism and leftism, of finance capital and the militant working class, and of any group that does not conform to ideas of nationhood or accept notions of inherited hierarchy. Antisemitism and anti-communism took on a central function in this maelstrom, both because of antisemitism’s accumulated historical power as a mode of Christian hatred, and because Jews and communists were seen as combining so many of the other threatening or loathed traits. This culminated in the notion of a “Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy backed by Jewish finance capital”, which has been replaced in today’s right-wing thought by variants of “cultural Marxism backed by woke capital”. The Nazis did not, unless we believe their ideology, express Germanness as such (which doesn’t exist!), but rather a political current within the German population. This current was backed by German capital yet appealed to the broad masses, starting with the petty bourgeoisie. Although profoundly nationalist, like contemporary fascisms, it always had its allies, accomplices and inspirations in the international reaction towards threats to racial, class, and gender hierarchies, and to property and to authoritarian order. 

Apart from its well-known alliances with Italian and Spanish fascists, and its less-known contacts with segregationists in the US, the Nazi regime relied on the eager collaboration of local fascists and opportunists in Eastern and Western Europe, including among others the Horthy regime in Hungary, the Vichy regime in France, and civilian and public collaborators across occupied Eastern Europe. Riled up by old hatreds of Jewish “privileges”, the perceived Jewishness of Soviet communism, and the desire for material gain, they played a major role in the mass murder. Before the “final solution”, the Nazi drive towards ethnic cleansing of Jews had other “solutions”, among them the transfer of German Jews to Israel, as negotiated with German Zionists in the Haavara agreement

If we accept that Nazi expansionism, extermination, and dictatorship were political crimes enabled through international collaboration, we come to understand that antifascism has to be an internationalist class politics with its own transformative agenda. Just as the acts of Danish sailors who transported Jews to safety in Sweden cannot represent the whole of the Danish people, the Nazis were never the expression of the German nation as such, because no political force or act can ever represent a whole people. It’s our political and ethical responsibility to fight racist and genocidal politics, whatever nationality we are assigned, and whatever our “bloodline” or “ethnic ancestors” did, or what was done to them. This also goes for Israelis and Palestinians as well.

Remaining liabilities

The refusal of inherited and undifferentiated national guilt transforms our responsibility to right wrongs. It allows us to understand that “never again” is not just a German commitment to Jews, or a commitment Jews make to protect themselves, but a universal commitment to fight genocidal politics and its precursors wherever we see them. It also requires a more targeted assignment of blame and debt, like that practised by 68’ers in Germany. While the ideological inheritors of Nazism want to downplay or deny the crimes, the state and the profiteers, under pressure from the allies, developed an interest in making their guilt and debt into a generalised social guilt; one that can be repaid through the ”Widergutmachen” of geopolitical alliances and weapons sales. This way they can share the bill and the blame with generations to come, and profit from restitution. 

Meanwhile, most of the true believers of Germany’s memory discourse belong to the educated middle class. The heightened status of this class in German society means its members exercise a cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers. It also explains the smug sanctimoniousness so common among them, and their shocked and offended reactions when anyone of similar stature questions their self-evident truths and educated goodness. Benevolently lecturing the world and the working class about history, they lash out in horror by the lack of morality when foreigners and the poor refuse to be “educated.” 

Against this, a true antifascist class politics fights working class bigotry and hatred from within the class, rather than from outside and above it, and as a means to strengthen its unity. It places the debt where it belongs, with the perpetrators, the profiteers, and collaborators, and with the state that did or does wrong. It recognizes that debt is passed down not through blood or papers, but through implication in the inheritance of wealth, power, ideas, and practices. More radically, such a politics is not just about forcing the perpetrators – capital, state, or people – to accept their guilt but also about abolishing the conditions that give anyone the power to commit such crimes. 

To part with the ideology of the collective national guilt of all Germans does not free the nation of responsibility. Rather, it invites us to more forcefully critique dominant ideas of nationhood as products of the ideological work of the state, capital, and the right. More specifically, it understands the idea of German guilt as a cornerstone of contemporary German statecraft and nation-making, a way to other migrants and integrate ethnic Germans, no matter their class, into a community of national destiny. Yet many German leftists are hesitant to question this ideology. They fear that unless (other) Germans feel specifically national guilt, they will lose commitment to right historical wrongs or avoid their repetition. But the question is whether these Germans really have any such commitments. If you need to feel a special national responsibility in order to fight antisemitism, you are either letting other nations off the hook or elevating your own above them. In either case, your anti-antisemitism is not premised on the absolute and universal noxiousness of antisemitism, but rooted in a desire to launder what is soiled by the past, or boast about your path of redemption. If you think Germans can only be antifascists through ancestral guilt, you repeat the toxic historical notion that Germans must access their humanity through their nationality. 

But these are not the only reasons why some Germans hold on to the notion of collective national guilt. Another is, understandably, that they cherish their sense of guilt, which has been an entry point into critical thinking, civic engagement, or political activism for so many. Yet as long as they hold onto this sense of guilt, they will be subjects of the blackmail of all those who weaponize accusations of antisemitism in the fight against the left and anti-racist solidarities, and who instrumentalize them to launder the German nation state. To break the hold of this blackmail, the only remedy is to realize that ancestry is about more than blood, and to strive to recognize as our ancestors those who resisted. 

We have more ancestors than we are taught

Politically and intellectually, the Nazis wanted to break any inspiration, any intellectual, political, and literal inheritance between future generations and the people they killed. The unrepentant post-war ideology and the politics of remorse that kicked off in the 1980s did nothing to help Germans see or elect these people as their spiritual or political kin. Instead, it reduced them in narrative, like the Nazis did in deed, to mute victimhood. Today, mainstream Holocaust education teaches Germans to identify with the perpetrators and feel remorse and utter sadness and sympathy for the bare lives of the victims. It neglects to inspire us by teaching what those who were othered and those who perished were, did, or thought. It neglects to inspire anger for what was done to them. The one-sided identification with the perpetrators can be undermined if we understand that any nation is a site of struggle, rather than whole or an essence. We all have more ancestors than those who belong to our bloodline or nation, and as leftists, queers, anti-racists, and anti-fascists we must identify with them and give them credit for what they taught us: Theirs is also our heritage, they are also our kin! 

When we truly remember the victims of the Holocaust – Jews, Romani, and Black Germans, Queers and communists, the disabled and the strange, as well as the peoples conquered in a settler-colonial drive – we might see the rich fabric of anti-Nazi life that was voided, and not just the void their murder left behind. The anxious attachment to national guilt and the righteous fight against fascist regressions was never a replacement for this fabric. Such a fabric is woven today especially, but not only, by people in those spaces and groups where anti-racist Germans, queers, migrants, Jewish and Palestine solidarity groups organise together (with many overlaps between the categories). Such spaces, like the radical migrant cultural and living space Casa/Ganze Bäckerei in Leipzig, are common targets of right wing attacks, yet have also suffered vandalism and online abuse from self-declared “antifa” activists. There is much to do on the left, yet there are also spaces like these to build on.  

Building an anti-fascist culture

Today, fascists are succeeding in organising many people’s frustrations and desires for attachment, clarity, and solidarity along ethno-nationalist lines, from the AfD to the Turkish nationalists in the Grey Wolves. Austerity, social media, and the profound failures of the left have created the voids in which fascists can do this. Islamophobia, spurious accusations of antisemitism, and essentialist ideas about what it means to be German are not just pushed by the right. Parts of the left are also reproducing these patterns of thought. The AfD could ask for no better opponent than a subcultural left which believes that “the German people”, is simply expressing its fascist essence by voting for the AfD, or which justifies the suspension of civil liberties in the name of “reasons of state”. Today, the ideology of national guilt, which was developed to repress fascism, is, in the best of cases, unable to stop fascism, and in the worst of cases it actively encourages its return. 

To really fight fascism and work through the past, the left must become a robust force of life, rather than merely a defence against the agents of death. It must build active anti-racist solidarities and organise and amplify the good in people who may otherwise become bad. The only part of the German left that can do this work is that part which refuses to limit itself to the inner and conflicted monologue of the German nation, with its dialectic of repression and returns of the repressed; its mirrored hall of symptoms. This is a left that refuses to condone or stay silent about mass murder, and which confidently rejects the tropes of the new German chauvinism (“only we have learnt the lessons of history”), and the racist and historically bankrupt idea that the fight against antisemitism is a matter of commitment to the values of “Western Civilization” (see part 1 of this essay). It is a left that defends civic liberties and the freedom of speech and opinion, and denounces all racist, inflationary, instrumentalizing, and trivializing accusations of antisemitism.

This left could be much bigger than it currently is, both in Germany and Austria. But most of its possible members are yet to sharpen their confidence and arguments, find their allies, and fully break with the blackmail of national(ist) memory culture. Doing all this requires listening to people who do not belong to this community of guilt: our political and intellectual ancestors, the ordinary people who suffer under Hamas or IDF attacks, non-white Germans, including Palestinians and black Germans, and the many left-wing Jewish people, including Israeli exiles, who refuse their role in the scripts of Germany and Israel alike.
Developing such conversations requires a fierce rejection of those who refuse to take a self-critical distance from their national communities of memory. It requires a fierce critique of not only those bad faith actors who relativize and instrumentalize the lessons of the Holocaust in ethnonationalist and nation-statist terms, but also of the selective empathy of those who believe them.7

Bue Rübner Hansen is an intellectual historian and sociologist who was previously based at the University of Jena, and currently at the University of Copenhagen. Specialized in theories of class and interest formation, he has written critically about nationalisms in Denmark, Spain, and Catalonia for magazines such as Viewpoint, Jacobin, Roar, Popula, Friktion, and OpenDemocracy. The main strand of his work, pursued also through the movement school Common Ecologies, concerns the conditions for socio-ecological solidarity and interest formation in the ecosystem crisis.

  • 1Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt, Fordham University Press, 2000 [1947].
  • 2See Leandros Fischer, “For Israel and Communism? – making sense of Germany’s Anti-Deutsche”, Historical Materialism, 2023
  • 3Deutscher Bundestag, WD 1 – 3000 – 024/23 Wissenschaftliche Dienste „Entstehung, Wandel und Entwicklung des Staatsräson-Begriffs in Deutschland“, November 2023.
  • 4Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past”, in Guilt and Defense – on the Legacies of National Socialism in Postwar Germany, Harvard University Press, 2010 [1959].
  • 5Jürgen Habermas, “A Kind of Settlement of Damages (Apologetic Tendencies),” New German Critique, no. 44 (1988) 25–39.
  • 6Alberto Toscano quotes the Italian fascist Curzio Malaparte on the strategy of Italian fascists, which served as an inspiration for the NSDAP, which “was a matter not just of preventing the general strike, but also the united front of Government, Parliament and the proletariat. Fascism faced the necessity of making a void around itself, of making a tabula rasa of every organized force, whether political or syndicalist, proletarian or bourgeois, trade unions, cooperatives, workers’ circles, Labour Exchanges”. Toscano, Alberto. Late Fascism. Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis. Verso Books, 2023.
  • 7In the first instance, this text was made possible by long and often difficult conversations with German and Austrian friends and acquaintances. In the second instance, by the generous encouragements, suggestions, and critical remarks of Niki Kubaczek, Manuela Zechner, Max Haiven, Sabine Broeck, Jacob Blumenfeld, Ilker Ataç, Bruno Leipold, Ryan Crawford, Marc Hebst, and others, as well as the excellent comments from the reviewers including Matan Kaminer, Ansar Jasim, and Mary Taylor, and my LeftEast editor Tibor Meszmann. All errors of fact or judgement in this text are mine.