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Alexander Arndt on Demokratie und Judenbild: Antisemitismus in der politischen Kultur der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)


The Truth Hurts: Anti-Semitism Debates in Reunified Germany

Demokratie und Judenbild: Antisemitismus in der politischen Kultur der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Democracy and the Image of the Jew: Anti-Semitism in the Political Culture of Germany), by Lars Rensmann, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2005, 540 pp. [German]

Reviewed by Alexander Arndt


This book provides a thorough analysis of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism in Germany including its roots, direct and indirect manifestations, and tendencies, from the political Right to the Center to the Left. The truth hurts, and some have felt the need to deny the charges aggressively. The focus of this review is mainly on the book, with some concluding words about the debate that it sparked.

Dr. Lars Rensmann is a major figure of a new generation of researchers of anti-Semitism in Germany. Demokratie und Judenbild is based on Rensmann’s dissertation at the Free University of Berlin. He is currently visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan, permanent fellow of the prestigious Moses-Mendelsohn-Zentrum of Potsdam University in Germany, and affiliate professor at the University of Haifa.

Rensmann has published well-received studies on anti-Semitism, the German right wing, and the relevance of critical theory to political science. In this book he focuses on anti-Semitism in Germany from the close of the Cold War to the Second Intifada (ca. 2000). Over the past few years, the complex German discourse on the Jews has changed for the worse-in Rensmann’s view.

The book’s first part is dense and theory-laden but provides a helpful evaluation of all the competing approaches to the field of anti-Semitism. From these Rensmann chooses the theorems best suited to his multifaceted approach, which is strongly oriented to the post-Holocaust critical theory of the Frankfurt School.

The second, powerful part of the book focuses first on the history of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism in both Germanys, both left- and right-wing. Second, it offers an in-depth discourse analysis of the five major cases where anti-Semitic imagery was employed in public debates in Germany since 1990. Because three of those cases occurred while Rensmann was writing his thesis, the book not only conveys a sense of immediacy but also makes strikingly clear how rapidly changes in a contested discourse can occur.


Political and Discursive Opportunities

For decades the study of the humanities has been influenced by “postmodern” theories that sometimes debunk an external reality as “myth” in favor of “linguistic” and “culturalist” explanations of how reality is socially constructed by the power of language and discourse. Rensmann is able to make some of these theories operational without subverting his strong ethical stance. In his view, the Shoah remains a priori “the greatest crime in human history” (385)-a judgment that cannot be considered “mere” interpretation.

Rensmann derives his theoretical framework mainly from the Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. He also employs elements of political, cultural, and communication theory, social psychology, and microhistory “to investigate qualitatively the causes, enabling conditions, motives, and both political and discursive opportunity structures of anti-Semitic mobilization attempts within a democracy” (19).

In other words, it is not just the political setting that imparts agency to anti-Semites but also the discursive sphere of symbols and language. This is not a new insight. However, given the context of six decades of postwar Germany where open, classical anti-Semitism was taboo and Jewish presence minimal, it is precisely in the second sphere that one can locate anti-Semitic structures possessing a remarkable longevity and the capacity to resurface when the opportunity occurs.

Rensmann’s main points may be outlined as follows:

1. The relevant political opportunity structures are sets of institutions, power relations, party politics, and political ambitions. The relevant discursive opportunity structures are cultural sets of ideologies, mentalities, and patterns of what can and cannot be said.

2. In post-Holocaust Germany, classical anti-Semitism found no opportunity structures in the wider public. But anti-Semitic worldviews, such as conspiracy theories about economic and global power structures that employed anti-Semitic imagery, persevered and merged with new post-Holocaust resentments such as “secondary anti-Semitism.” That is, faced with the burden of their guilt, some Germans redirected their anger against present-day Jews who remind them of that guilt. The end of the postwar era in 1990 strengthened the German longing for a Schlussstrich (final stroke), that is, the “normalization” of German-Jewish relations.

3. Anti-Semitic thinking is related to an authoritarian personality structure. People who need a strong identity in times of globalization and modernization become paranoid toward what they perceive as the manifestations of inimical forces. Classical anti-Semitism provides convenient paranoiac imagery, for example, that of money-addicted capitalists who conspire to exploit the world.

4. Analyzing postmodern anti-Semitism, which takes the form of “a contested, contradictory, and not one-dimensional political process” (40), requires focusing on “projections, psychosocial dispositions, emotional (authoritarian) attachments and collective identifications.” Therefore, five dimensions need to be analyzed: political opportunities to resort to anti-Semitic expressions; reactions of the political system; public communication processes; the available cultural reservoir of images concerning “the Jews”; and sociocultural and socioeconomic changes.

With his complex approach, Rensmann seems to aim for nothing less than an overall theory of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism in Germany. He then turns to the five major public debates since reunification in which anti-Semitism resurfaced.

Not Getting Past the Past

To put the discursive transformation in context, Rensmann provides a helpful, concise introduction to anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist discourses of the extreme Right and Left. Especially the far Right’s resurgence since reunification poses the “danger that only open Nazi-expressions against Jews are categorized as anti-Semitism and combated, that anti-Semitism itself will only be isolated as antidemocratic in its concurrence with organized right-wing extremism, while ‘accepted forms’ of Jew-hatred spread” (287). This requires discussing the anti-Zionism of the German radical Left, which generally denies all allegations of anti-Semitism on the grounds of its antifascist traditions.

The problem, however, is not so much on the political fringes of German society as in the mainstream. The deep-rooted guilt about the Shoah and longings for “normalcy” provide fertile ground for “secondary anti-Semitism.”

Rensmann’s first example is the Goldhagen debate of 1996. In the preceding year, which marked half a century since World War II ended, expectations abounded that finally the country could get past the past. Nineteen ninety-six, however, saw the publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and Germans entered a bitter debate about a claim that Goldhagen never made-that all Germans bear “collective guilt” for the Shoah. Imaginary as this accusation was, it triggered a discourse deeply permeated by paranoid fantasies about Jews.

Some of Rensmann’s critics wrongly claim that he fails to take into account methodological shortcomings of Goldhagen’s actual thesis, namely, that until 1945 an “eliminatory anti-Semitism” had been not only a “German national project” but also a basic tenet of ordinary Germans.[1] His focus, rather, is on the striking misperceptions of the German intellectual elite and wider public, which indeed revealed obsession with guilt, rejection of guilt, and aggressive redirection of anger at imaginary accusers. Rensmann does not claim that all these phenomena were anti-Semitic, but notes the political-psychological goal “of relativizing German guilt and liberating Germany from the shadow of its past” (355).

The Goldhagen debate put to rest the illusion that, fifty years after the war, Germany could dismiss the past. But it also contributed to softening taboos against anti-Semitism in the general discourse, especially since resentments were expressed by many liberal and left-leaning intellectuals.

Several subsequent debates were marked by expressions of frustration in the form of anti-Semitism. In 1998, the renowned author Martin Walser, upon receiving the Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels (Peace Prize of the German Book Industry), seized the chance to denounce the “moral club-Auschwitz,” the “permanent representation [and] instrumentalization of our shame,” and instead proposed “forgetfulness.”[2] He was met with standing ovations. Protests by the Central Council of German Jews sparked another public debate that channeled even more secondary anti-Semitic rhetoric into the mainstream.

Further debates that Rensmann discusses are those concerning the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the reception of Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry in Germany in the context of negotiations on further restitutions for Holocaust victims, and the anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic populism of Jürgen Möllemann. A leading politician of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Möllemann sought to exploit secondary anti-Semitic resentments against Israel by justifying anti-Israeli terrorism and reviling a “Jewish lobby” that supposedly forbade criticism of Israel and thereby “nourished” anti-Semitism in Germany.

Rensmann concludes that, while German democracy has ensured that coherent anti-Semitic ideology remains taboo, there are increased political opportunities to express latent anti-Semitic prejudices. Although the borders of the discourse are contested and constantly being redrawn, the enhanced use of anti-Semitic codes in public debates is empirically evident. Rensmann recommends further comparative international research on the political and discursive opportunity structures for anti-Semitism. He also suggests rigorously critical, open communication in the public sphere about anti-Semitic stereotypes and national-identity narratives. Such communication would aim at delegitimizing anti-Semitism.

Notably absent from Rensmann’s analyses is the academic debate on “collective memory.” Recent works on memory culture in Germany suggest that generational shifts must be taken into account and that guilt-denial is gradually replaced by integrating the dire past as an accepted part of the national narrative-a development that in itself deserves critical attention.[3] The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, fiercely debated ten years ago, is now a prime attraction for German and international tourists alike.

In sum, Demokratie und Judenbild has become the most profound and important book on contemporary German anti-Semitism. The theoretical part could have been made more accessible to the general public without diminishing its content. The lack of an index is also regrettable. The effective use of analytical tools, however, contributes to the second part’s excellence.


Notes on a Scandal

The debate this book engendered among researchers of anti-Semitism was small but notable. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, and even more so since 9/11, there has been a rift in the German Left between those who support Western values and Israel and those who uphold traditional narratives about imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. The dispute was triggered by Rensmann’s comments in his book on an essay that appeared in the left-wing German weekly Jungle World  in late 2002, one of whose coauthors was a prominent researcher of anti-Semitism.

The essay focused on the intra-Left debate and accused the pro-Israeli German Left of transferring their guilt to the Palestinians through “blind solidarity with Israel.”[4] Rensmann cites this as an example of the “anti-imperialist-anti-Zionist worldview” (319) of part of the Left. A lengthy rebuttal that appeared in Humboldt University’s academic online journal H-Soz-u-Kult, accused Rensmann of being the “Goldhagen of anti-Semitism research.”[5] A number of academics seized the opportunity to lambaste his work.

In line with Rensmann’s own discourse analysis, the time and place of this debate seem revealing. The harsh critique seemed more like a deliberate misreading of aspects of Rensmann aimed at distracting attention from the abovementioned essay, which included charges against Israel such as “apartheid” and “state terrorism.” Even those who consider themselves experts in anti-Semitism research and opponents of “traditional anti-Semitism” should engage in self-criticism before they start criticizing Israel. In this context, Rensmann’s insights are most enlightening.

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[1] Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).

[2] The homepage of the German Historical Museum features the whole speech for documentary reasons, “Dankesrede von Martin Walser zur Verleihung des Friedenspreises des Deutschen Buchhandels in der Frankfurter Paulskirche am 11.Oktober 1998,” [German] Rensmann offers an in-depth discussion, 359-371.

[3] Aleida Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit: Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (München: Beck, 2006). [German]

[4] For the essay “Schuld und Erinnerung” by Klaus Holz, Elfriede Müller, und Enzo Traverso, see


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ALEXANDER ARNDT is a research associate for Knowing Israel, a study-tour program for journalists.