Where Are the Anti-Fascists?

by Jeffrey Herf | December 4, 2007

The memory of the crimes of the Nazi era and the determination to oppose anti-Semitism in all its forms have been constitutive and distinctive features of German democracy since 1949, when it was articulated by the founding generation of political leaders of West Germany's Federal Republic. Judging by the memorials, commemorative days, books, and films about Nazism and the Holocaust, this tradition of remembering the murdered Jews of Europe remains firmly embedded in the political culture of contemporary German public life. Yet from its inception in the late 1940s, the postwar German memory of the Nazi past has always been attacked by those who “finally” wanted to draw a line under the past. Now, there is evidence that, under the impact of the war in Iraq, the terror stemming from radical Islamists, and the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, antagonism to the United States and to Israel occupy a disturbingly important place in parts of German public life, perhaps even more important than an ability to recognize and fight against new forms of anti-Semitism and possible threats against Israel with weapons of mass destruction.

Works in Germany by intellectuals such as Matthias Küntzel, who wrote Jihad and Jew Hatred: Nazism, Islamism and the Roots of 9/11, and historians such as Klaus-Michael Malmann and Martin Cüppers, authors of Halbmond und Hakenkreuz Das Dritte Reich, Die Araber und Palästina (Crescent and Swastika: The Third Reich, The Arabs and Palestine) have recently explored the complex lineages and impact of radical anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe  on the emergence of radical Islam in the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s. Their work also builds on and adds to an impressive scholarship by historians from Germany and elsewhere. As a result of my own research on the diffusion of Nazi propaganda to the Middle East during World War II and the Holocaust, I’ve concluded that a process of coming to terms with the Nazi past that is Eurocentric--in other words, that limits itself to a history of events in Germany and the European continent--fails to grasp the connections between two eras of radical anti-Semitism, namely that of Nazism in Europe, and that introduced by radical Islamists in recent decades.

As I argued in a November 16th speech to the public forum Frankfurter Römerberggespräche (Frankfurt Conversations), the postwar German tradition of coming to terms with its Nazi past has never been only about how one should remember that history. It has always carried with it political implications for the present. The inauguration of restitution, trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, West German and German foreign policies toward European countries invaded by Nazi Germany, and the establishment of a special relationship with Israel were all practical political consequences that drew on a clear and firm memory of the crimes of the Nazi era.

In fall 2005, when Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened to wipe Israel off the map while he stressed Iran’s determination to continue with its nuclear programs, the meaning of coming to terms with the Nazi past in Germany raised a very specific foreign policy question: What would the German political establishment do to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons with which Ahmadinejad could possibly implement his horrendous threat of perpetrating, in effect, a second Holocaust of the Jewish people? To be sure, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has denounced his threat with great analytical and moral clarity. She has called for U.N. economic sanctions against Iran. Others note that this is not only an issue for Germany and point to the role of businesses from other advanced economies in Iran. Yet German journalism, which does so much to recall the history of the murdered Jews of Europe, has done less to investigate the role of industry in Germany and elsewhere in the development of Iran’s nuclear projects. As Benjamin Weinthal, a freelance American journalist in Berlin, reports in “The German Connection,” an important article in last week’s Haaretz, the Brandenburg state prosecutor’s office in the city of Potsdam has been conducting an ongoing investigation into the role of German firms in the building of the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr. Yet the investigation and trial have not been a prominent news item in the German--or for that matter European and American--press. Let’s hope that the United States National Intelligence Estimate released this week is correct, and that there is time in which to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In any event, foreign firms with expertise vital to the production of nuclear weapons should not be doing business with Ahmadinejad’s Iran. The issue of the role of foreign business and investment in Iran and its contributions to the Iranian nuclear program does not only concern German firms. The same probing questions should be asked of businesses in other countries of the European Union, and possibly of American firms as well. The Nazi past gives the issue particular resonance in Germany, but it is no less pressing if engineering firms from other countries are facilitating Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Where, one wonders, are the journalistic investigations? Why does one read so little from the traditional homes of German anti-fascism about the possibility that German business, yet again, might be making profit from a government led by a man who has publicly stated that Israel should be wiped off the map? It appears that memory of the Holocaust in Europe has only modest impact on policy toward Iran today.

Occasionally one hears reassuring voices on both sides of the Atlantic. They say that Ahmadinejad is not the real seat of power in Tehran, or that he is simply making such threats to mobilize his supporters at home against domestic opponents, or that if he did possess nuclear weapons, he would certainly not be so crazy at to use them against a state such as Israel with its own nuclear deterrent. While I have heard such arguments from political scientists in the United States, many of whom tend to dismiss the causal significance of ideological fanaticism in international affairs, such reassuring tones sound particularly peculiar when voiced in this country. To put it mildly, German politics and intellectual life is not famous for sunny optimism. Both the weather and modern German history foster a brooding pessimism as a kind of intellectual badge of honor. Sunny optimism is for those who live in warm climates and have never known the horrors of war, or so we have heard for many years.

It is a great German historian, Karl Dietrich Bracher, who repeatedly warned us against the underestimation of the role of ideological fanaticism in politics. After Hitler, but also after Pol Pot and the genocide in Rwanda, we know that those who make genocidal threats sometimes mean exactly what they say. Why do those who live in a country that was destroyed by the actions of a fanatic in power assume that Germany was unique, and that another country outside Europe could not produce a fanatic of a very different sort, and that Ahmadinejad does not really mean what he says? Such optimism, even lack of interest in the issue, reflects a failure of comparative historical imagination. It amounts to an outburst of provincialism at odds with this country’s cosmopolitan traditions as well as a step away from the tradition of critically confronting the Nazi past, one of postwar Germany’s most important contributions to the consolidation of democracy and human rights at home and around the world.

A modified version of this essay was published on December 2nd in Welt am Sonntag (Berlin).

Jeffrey Herf is a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin for Fall 2007 and Professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

By Jeffrey Herf

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