Anti-Semitism in Europe has been growing for some time, most prominently in France, which not coincidentally has the continent’s largest Jewish population by a wide margin. Emigration to Israel is rising. But Germany is a notable exception, having become a destination for Jews in recent years. While there are several reasons for this, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that education has played a key role.
In the two decades following World War II, when former rank-and-file members of the Nazi party still populated the judiciary, universities and government bureaucracy in the Federal Republic, the tendency was to say as little as possible about the Third Reich, focusing instead on the nation’s miraculous economic resurgence. But that began to change with the Student Movement in the mid-1960s.
Although sharing many concerns with their counterparts in other “First World” countries, West Germans of the Baby Boom generation were more likely to look backwards as well as forwards, resisting their parents’ impulse to put the past behind them as quickly as possible.
The pressure these young people exerted during the years of the Great Coalition, when there was no meaningful parliamentary opposition to the government, helped to make the injunction to “never forget” part of mainstream German consciousness, establishing an ideological bridge to the world Jewish community that has become progressively sturdier in the intervening years.
Even the horrific kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics didn’t sever this connection. And, while many Holocaust survivors understandably refused to believe that Germany could ever be truly reformed, their children and, later, grandchildren were more preoccupied with contemporary dangers than historical ones. It could plausibly argued that the efforts at re-education initiated by the Student Movement had as profound an impact on Jewish perceptions of the former Fatherland as they did on Germans themselves.
It is important to point out, however, that the desire young leftists felt to address Germany’s painful recent past did not prevent them from taking a stand against Israeli “imperialism” in the wake of the Six Day War. Indeed, part of the reason that Palestinian terrorists were able to pull off their whole-world-is-watching attack in Munich is that they had a lot of support, both outspoken and tacit, within the increasingly extreme fragments of the Student Movement that also gave rise to the Red Army Faction.
The impulse to redress the depredations of fascism could and did go hand and with a willingness to see its legacy in the present. Interestingly, as the German Left’s positions and praxis have softened in recent decades, this tendency to make facile historical equations has not. Like a plug of volcanic rock left behind by the erosion that washes away less sturdy material, the willingness to declare opponents to be “fascists”, whether domestically or abroad, endures. As the Oslo Accords started to fade into the distance, Israel’s brutishly self-interested behavior towards both the Palestinians and other nearby countries understandably led more progressives in Germany, as elsewhere, to criticize its policies. But their defenses against Anti-Semitism tended to be a lot stronger than was the case in other parts of Europe.
As a result, even as antipathy towards Israel began diffusing more and more from the Left to the Center in Germany, it usually stopped far short of conflating the nation with its chosen people. That helps to explain why Jews who do not take comfort in the prospect of making aliyah and do not wish to leave the Old World are moving to cities like Berlin and Frankfurt. There good reasons, from a public relations perspective, for Germany to make itself attractive as possible to these emigrants. And the economic conditions there compared to the rest of Europe are also a lure.
It remains to be seen whether Germany’s Jewish population will continue to increase, even as it diminishes in the rest of Europe. Even people in the Diaspora who dislike present-day Israel’s growing intolerance are still drawn to its might. Immigration-friendly countries like Canada also hold a powerful appeal. Regardless, the mere idea that the Federal Republic might turn into a twenty-first-century equivalent to Renaissance Poland or Lithuania, a safe haven amid uncertainty, is heartening.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit.