How come 30 percent of the Germans think that "What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is not different in principle from what the Nazis did to the Jews"?

Part of the East Side Gallery in Berlin (photo: Claus Otzberg)

The other side of memory

PUBLISHED IN |  Feb 12, 07

The former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, once found an old German newspaper from 1946. Inside the yellow clipping, he noticed an editorial that called for closing the chapter of the past and ceasing to deal with World War Two. A year has passed since the war, the editorial said, and the Nuremberg trials are behind us. Let’s leave behind discussions of the war and why it happened and start to deal with the future.

Primor, who served in Germany in the years 1993-1999, relates that since the end of the war, German society has been characterized by two opposing trends: on the one hand, an obsessive need to deal with the war and in particular the annihilation of the Jews, and on the other, an almost equally obsessive desire to cease dealing with the past and look toward the future.

“In 1995, Germany marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the war with countless discussions and conferences,” Primor says. “The central subject was the Holocaust. No matter where you went, they were busy dealing with the Holocaust. For an entire year, the whole of Germany dealt with nothing but the Holocaust. And then, at the end of that year, a survey was published that showed that most Germans considered the preoccupation with the Holocaust to be exaggerated and felt that it was time to put the past aside. The point is, however, that no one is forcing them to be preoccupied with it all the time; they keep going back to the Holocaust by their own volition.

The past’s influence

Ben Gurion with Konrad Adenauer, 1960 (photo: LIFE)

Ben Gurion with Konrad Adenauer, 1960 (photo: LIFE)

The Germans’ attempt to “return to normalcy” was underpinned by a survey carried out in the end of January by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a private German fund supporting social change, which is backed by communications giant Bertelsmann; the survey will be the focus of a conference today in Berlin dealing with German-Jewish dialogue.

The survey, which was carried out simultaneously in Israel, Germany and among Jews in the United States, reveals that 58 percent of the Germans would like to “put the past behind us,” while 74 percent of Israelis do not agree with this. The survey likewise shows that 78 percent of the Israelis believe that the persecution of the Jews under Hitler negatively impacts the attitude of Israelis toward Germans today, as opposed to 52 percent of Germans who believe it has an influence on Israelis’ attitude toward them.

On the face of it, these gaps indicate that the Germans tend to play down the influence of the past on present-day attitudes and that they are more interested than the Israelis in ceasing to deal with the subject, but Primor believes this is merely one side of the coin and that, in fact, it is actually the Germans who are continuing to feed the incessant discussion about the Holocaust and its implications.

“The preoccupation with the Holocaust is much more sensitive in Germany than in Israel,” Primor says. “And in this respect, the Germans have more problems with the Israelis than the Israelis do with Germany.”

The cloud of Nazism

Dachau Concentration Camp (photo: El Gweilo Intrepido)

Dachau Concentration Camp (photo: El Gweilo Intrepido)

The survey’s most disturbing finding actually relates to the present. To the statement, “What the State of Israel is doing to the Palestinians is not different in principle from what the Nazis did to the Jews,” 30 percent of the Germans responded “agree strongly” or “agree partially” (59 percent said “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree”).

To a parallel statement, “Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians,” 30 percent of the Germans responded “agree strongly” or “agree partially” (59 percent said “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree”). Thus, 62 years after the end of World War Two, one out of three Germans believes that the forced exile of millions of people, their concentration in camps and their systematic killing “is not different in principle” from Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians.

Representative of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Israel, Stephan Vopel, believes these 30-odd percent should not be considered anti-Semitic.

“In Germany, there are 15-20 percent anti-Semites and this level has been fairly steady throughout the years and is not very unusual in Europe. From the sociological point of view, these are elderly people and people with relatively little education. To these can be added people from another background, with different reasons, mainly psychological, and for the most part aimed at lessening the burden of the Holocaust. That is to say, [they are people who believe] if the Jews are not okay then perhaps we are less ‘not okay.’

“If you ask these people whether Israel sends Palestinians to the gas chambers, they will say no. But when they see Palestinians on TV waiting at the roadblocks, or a Palestinian child opposite an Israeli tank, this reminds them of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.”

“The Germans see the Palestinians as a nation that is suffering from colonialism,” explains Ulrich Gutmaier, a journalist who writes for Net-Zeitung. “That is a traditional left-wing-intellectual approach that can be found more in the left than in the right today. In terms of voting, there is more support for Israel from the right than from the left.

“This used to be related on the whole more to the phenomena of anti-Americanism and anti-globalization, which are very characteristic of the liberal left in Germany. It also comes from images on TV of a strong Israeli opposite a weak Palestinian, of a gigantic war machine opposite a civilian guerrilla force. This identification does not change even with victims of suicide bombings in Israel.

“These 30 percent are apparently classic anti-Semites, or people who are looking for compensation for being considered the worst people in the world because they are Germans and who can now say ‘we are not so bad.’ It is really strange that Israel is the only country that they compare with the Nazis. They don’t make the same comparison about the American forces in Iraq, for example.”

Gutmaier says there is also criticism of this comparison among those in the German left, and people with a more developed historical awareness say that the comparison between the acts of the Nazis and the Israeli actions in the territories is baseless.

“A strange phenomenon in the German discourse is total understanding for the motives of what can be described as ‘Israel’s enemies.’ It is not important what they do – whether to Israel or to the members of their own people – we always understand them. We always have an explanation for it. ‘It’s because they’re poor’ or ‘it’s because they’re wretched.’ On the other hand, toward Israel there are always very high demands from the humanitarian point of view and that is the index whereby it is measured. There is always a double standard in the German discourse.”

In this context, it is particularly disconcerting that this trend is gaining strength in Germany and not in any other European country. If there is a country in Europe that did stock-taking about the Holocaust, in which innumerable study programs in the schools deal with the Third Reich, and in which it is difficult to cross even three roads without running into a monument or a memorial site, it is Germany.

Primor points out that comparisons with the Nazis began already during the time of the first Lebanon war in 1982, but they have increased over the past few years particularly since the outbreak of the second intifada.

He also agrees with the assessment that the increased negative attitude toward Israel over the past few years stems from the left side of the map. “The Belgians and the British compare Israel with the colonialists,” Primor says, “because they are paying penitence for the sin of colonialism. The Germans compare the Israelis to Nazis because that is the cloud that hovers over their head.”

A pacifist tendency

German peacekeeper in Lebanon (photo: Jorge Aramburu, UN)

German peacekeeper in Lebanon (photo: UN)

Vopel believes the survey’s various findings must be taken into account. One must look at the half-empty glass but also not ignore the half-full one. “We discern a decrease in the characteristics of classic anti-Semitism and an increase in understanding for Israel’s position in the Middle East,” he says.

To this end, there is a comparison in the results of the survey with a similar survey carried out in 1991 by the weekly Der Spiegel: Some 46 percent of Germans now believe “the Jews try to use the past for their advantage,” as compared with 57 percent who thought so in 1991.

Some 56 percent of the Germans reject the claim that “the Jews wield too much influence in the world,” as compared with 32 percent in 1991. And 58 percent of the Germans reject the claim that “the Jews also bear responsibility for being hated and persecuted,” as compared with 49 percent in 1991.

To the question: “Which side are you on?” 28 percent of the Germans responded that they support Israel, 14 percent said they support the Arabs, and 37 percent responded that they do not support either side or that they support both sides equally. In 1991, only 8 percent responded that they supported Israel.

However, to the question, “in general, what do you think about Israel?” 35 percent of the Germans responded that their opinion of Israel was “very good,” or “fairly good,” and 44 percent responded that their opinion of Israel was “very bad” or “fairly bad.”

The implications of the past for current policy were clearly illustrated in two questions that deal with military threats toward Israel. Some 62 percent of the Germans believe that the Iranian nuclear program poses a threat to Israel’s existence, but only 32 percent believe that an attack on Iran would be justified. On the other hand, 75 percent of Israelis believe that Israel faces a threat of this kind and 80 percent believe an attack on Iran would be justified.

The explanation for this, Vopel says, is the strong pacifist tendency in Germany since the war. To the question of whether there are situations in which military force must be used, 58 percent of the Germans answered “no” and 39 percent answered “yes.”

Another issue of the day is the stationing of German troops with United Nations forces in Lebanon.

While the Germans are divided in their opinions (49 percent said this was the right move while 47 percent thought it was a mistake) Israelis are strongly in favor: 74 percent support this and 21 percent are opposed.

Primor says, “The dispatch of German troops to the Israeli border caused a huge storm in Germany, whereas in Israel it went by very quietly. The question was, how would Israel accept this, and what would happen if, for example, German soldiers were to fire at Israeli soldiers, or a German ship were to fire at an Israeli aircraft. The parliament in Germany was in an uproar, and in Israel there was hardly any mention of it.”