Rewriting History by Susanne Urban
For more than fifteen years, German intellectuals, writers, politicians, and ordinary people have gradually worn down moral and political barriers that for decades kept the overwhelming majority away from open and extensive anti-Semitism. It started with the Historikerstreit, a series of articles written in 1986, and did not end with the anti-Semitic election campaign in spring 2002. The Historikerstreit was mainly propelled by an article by the historian Ernst Nolte in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which portrayed the National Socialist state and its terror as only a reaction to the Bolshevik threat, and the persecution of Jews and the Shoah as not really singular in human history.
(Jürgen Habermas, a representative of the Critical Theory school and intellectual descendant of Theodor Adorno, sharply protested Nolte’s claims.) Germany is a country with far more memorials and museums to the concentration camps, as well as Jewish museums, than other European countries. The volume of Holocaust education in schools and other educational institutions, the number of conferences and workshops devoted to the subject, seems close to unique in Europe. As Yehuda Bauer, chief historian of Yad Vashem, said in an interview:
Germany is most active in promoting Holocaust education for which there is a very good reason. Given their history, they understand the importance of education as a means of preventing future disasters. The Holocaust today serves as a symbol for what we ought to oppose: racism, genocide, mass murder, ethnic hatred, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism and group hatred.
Nevertheless, the opposition to inhumanity in general is no obstacle to German anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Holocaust education in Germany may be intensive, but most of the textbooks use cliche’s and stereotypes. Moreover, many of the teachers convey compassion for the murdered Jews along with strong reservations toward the Jews of today and, of course, the anti-Israeli attitude. Although Germany is proud of its well-developed culture of Holocaust remembrance and education, which for many years was seen as a force against anti-Semitism, the latter force has gone weak. It was a fallacy to think that knowledge about the Shoah would lead people to love their neighbors or even their Jewish neighbors. Holocaust education in Germany is being slowly but steadily undermined by the new trend of seeing Germans themselves as victims, with many people feeling that they are fed up with the Shoah. Well-intended rituals and remembrances have not proved an effective shield against anti-Semitism and the rewriting of history. This widespread “victim” trend in Germany needs to be monitored carefully, since in the long run it may lead to a rewriting of the history of WW II and, in the worst case, to a minimization of the Shoah.
The leading figure among the German “new historians” is Jörg Friedrich, who has published two books on the Allied bombings of Germany. The first book deals with the strategy of the Allied bombings and condemns them as inhuman and pointless. Friedrich’s popularized style helped this book become a bestseller. He uses terms that for decades were associated with Nazi persecution and the Shoah; thus, cellars and air-raid shelters in which Germans died are “crematoria,” an RAF bomber group is an Einsatzgruppe, and the destruction of libraries during the bombings constitutes Bücherverbrennungen. In this way the Shoah is minimized through language.
Friedrich’s second book was also a bestseller and also depicts Germans as victims. There are no SA men, no SS, no soldiers involved in persecution, murder, and “aryanization.” The book contains horrifying photos of the effects of the Allied bombings of Germany. Ruins, burnt bodies, and ashes everywhere evoke associations with the Warsaw Ghetto after its liquidation in 1943 and well-known images from Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Friedrich even declared openly, in several television interviews in winter 2002: “Churchill was the greatest child-slaughterer of all time. He slaughtered 76,000 children.” Yet Friedrich, formerly known as a serious historian, never devotes a single word to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children.
German historiography increasingly portrays Germans as victims in WW II and not as perpetrators, bystanders, or people deriving benefit from persecution. The revised perspective on German history – from the Allied bombings to the Germans’ expulsion from Poland and East European countries – undoubtedly reflects a historical consciousness that is newly embraced by the majority, though not new in itself. There was never any taboo on speaking about the Allied bombings or the postwar expulsions; documentaries, books, journals, and films have dealt with these subjects since the early 1950s, and WW II was commonly discussed in families and by certain organizations. What is new, however, is the public reinterpretation of history, encompassing intellectuals and politicians of both the Left and the Right.
DR. SUSANNE URBAN is a historian whose current research, along with the subject of contemporary German anti-Semitism, deals with the topic of Youth Aliyah (an organization for Jewish children’s immigration to Israel) during the Holocaust. She is affiliated with the Hebrew University and was a research fellow at Yad Vashem in 2004. She is also preparing a book on Jews at the Volkswagen factory in 1944-1945.