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Rewriting Germany’s Nazi Past – A Society in Moral Decline

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 530   May 2005

  • The German postwar governments have made great efforts to reeducate the population. In recent years, however, there are increasing signs of shifts in German attitudes toward rewriting its past. Some of these involve the sanitizing of history, while others are reflected in an increasing lack of sensitivity among society’s elites as well as the mainstream toward the use of concepts and semantics from the Hitler period.

  • Franz Muentefering, chairman of the German Socialist party, compared certain foreign investors to damaging insects. The weekly Stern listed seven “locust firms”; several were recognizably Jewish by their names. When historian Michael Wolffsohn pointed out the similarity to Nazi language, he was severely attacked by several prominent Socialists.

  • The program of the German Open tennis championships for women in 2005, sponsored by the Qatar Tennis Association, included an article about the organizers, LTTC Rot Weiss, which explained that the club had blossomed when it had expelled its Jewish members in 1936 and included a photo of Nazi leader Hermann Goering during a visit to the club.

  • Polls indicate that the majority of Germans consider Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians as similar to that of the Nazis toward the Jews. A profound process is underway involving anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israelism.

Germany’s democratic postwar governments have made great efforts to make the country again acceptable in the civilized world. There are increasingly signs, however, of shifts in German attitudes toward rewriting its past under the Hitler regime. These express themselves both directly and indirectly. Some concern the sanitizing of history by stating that many others behaved or are behaving as the Germans did.

Others manifest themselves in an increasing lack of sensitivity among society’s elites as well as the mainstream toward the use of concepts and semantics from the Hitler period. Sometimes those who use such language do so intentionally, while on other occasions it is probably subconscious. The more frequent such relapses become, the more they need to be exposed.

The Locusts Affair

Comparing people, particularly Jews, to noxious animals was a popular motif in Hitler-ruled Germany in the 1930s. It was often accompanied by statements indicating that such pests had to be exterminated. In later years the Germans moved from verbal demonization to physical action using pesticides to gas mainly Jews.

Against this background, one recent case of language abuse merits particular attention because it was repeated so often and involved many prominent figures. In April 2005, Franz Muentefering, chairman of the German Socialist party (SPD), undertook a major assault on investors and managers. The initial impression was that he was targeting both Germans and foreigners.

His remarks may be explained against the background of about 5 million unemployed in the country as well as the low current popularity of the SPD. The anti-capitalist campaign was somewhat absurd, however, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is trying to attract foreign investors. In any case, the politics do not justify the semantics Muentefering used.

In mid-April 2005, he stated: “certain financial investors do not care about the people whose jobs they destroy. They remain anonymous, have no face, and fall like locusts over companies. These they graze bare and then move on.”1 Oskar Lafontaine, a former chairman of the party and now in opposition to Chancellor Schroeder’s line, agreed, adding that Schroeder and Muentefering were also “locusts” since they had demolished the German welfare state.2

In early May, the weekly Stern obtained a background paper prepared by the planning group of the SPD parliamentary faction, titled, “Market radicalism instead of a social market society – how private equity firms maximalize the value of companies.”

The magazine published the names of what it called the “locust firms,” i.e., those targeted in the document. Its authors aimed at some American investors, highlighting the anti-American character of Muentefering’s attacks, which initially seemed to have wider targets. Several of the seven firms listed were recognizably Jewish by their names, i.e., the Goldman Sachs investment bank and Haim Saban Capital, a pioneer of the entertainment industry.3

Quotes Identical to Those of Nazis

The comparison of people to insects and the Jewish names of some of the American investors targeted led to a reaction by the often controversial German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn, who teaches at the University of the German Army (Universitaet der Bundeswehr) in Munich.

Wolffsohn wrote in the Rheinische Post that as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors he was eternally grateful to the Americans who had liberated Germany in May 1945,4adding that he was ashamed of the increasing German anti-Americanism. He concluded that Germans should be ashamed of their behavior and that old patterns of thought had returned to Germany.5

He pointed to the similarities between the language of the current attacks on capitalism and those on the Jews under Hitler. He mentioned that the Jews had been compared to rats and pigs, while locusts was now the metaphor for the targets. Unlike in the Nazi era, the Jewishness of those targeted was not openly stressed, but for those who wanted to see this, it was evident. The Rheinische Post’s editors had inserted Muentefering’s name in the article’s title. Wolffsohn, however, had not mentioned him specifically.

Trying to Turn the Accuser into the Accused

Initially, SPD leaders indicated they intended to remain silent about Wolffsohn’s remarks.6 However, several prominent Socialists felt they should come to the aid of their leader. They attacked Wolffsohn forcefully and tried to turn the accuser into the accused, saying it was scandalous that he had suggested there was anti-Semitism in Muentefering’s expressions. They did so without relating at all to the semantics so popular with the Nazis. Rather than disassociating themselves from the locusts metaphor – which would have enabled them to continue their attack on capitalists – they became indirect associates of it, at least in their quotes as reported in the media.

One example was the SPD parliamentary expert on right-wing extremism, Sebastian Edathy, who insisted on an apology of Wolffsohn. So did Harold Schartau, head of the SPD party in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. The chairperson of the parliamentary interior committee, Cornelle Sonntag-Wolgast (SPD), said that if Wolffsohn wanted to save his reputation as a historian, he had to take back “his impossible statements.” The chairman of the parliamentary economic committee, Rainer Wend (SPD), commented about Wolffsohn: “the man is not fully normal.”7

The parliamentary defense spokesman of the SPD, Rainer Arnold, said, “I am speechless about so much stupidity. This is not dignified for a professor.” Also Steffi Lemke – one of the national leaders of the SPD’s coalition partners, the Green party – was critical of Wolffsohn.8

Not all coalition politicians fell into the trap, however. Thus, the dubious behavior of Muentefering’s unconditional backers became even clearer. The deputy prime minister of North Rhine Westphalia, Michel Vesper of the Green party, said that he supported the debate on capitalism’s role and was critical of Wolffsohn, yet the language used in the discussion was totally unacceptable. He criticized Muentefering, saying, “I consider comparing people to animals fundamentally incorrect.”9

In a subsequent interview, Wolffsohn said that a spokesman of the Ministry of Defense had told him, “there are always difficulties with you.” Wolffsohn added that he considered it “surprising” if the ministry did not reject equivalence between humans and animals. He added that both as a descendant of Holocaust survivors and as a historian he was worried “that there are in Germany again examples of such thoughts and language.” He mentioned that he had returned voluntarily to Germany in 1970, not expecting that comparisons between humans and animals would again become acceptable.10

Locusts in Der Stuermer and “Jud Suess

Wolffsohn’s website at the German Army University now includes a number of quotes from extreme anti-Semites very similar to the words Muentefering had used. One came from the rabid 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda movie “Jud Suess,” directed by Veit Harlan. Another originated in Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer, the prime Nazi journal. Yet another was from nineteenth century German sources during the major anti-Jewish riots of 1819.11

Further proof for Wolffsohn’s observations came when the German metalworkers trade union (IG Metall) published a cartoon on the cover of its monthly Metall comparing American investors to [bloodsucking] mosquitoes.12 This and the attitudes of the leading Socialists show how normal it is for those of the German mainstream left to accept dehumanizing metaphors.

The small German Jewish community – representing about one thousandth of the country’s population – would have preferred to stay out of a major debate which concerned economic policies. Yet the chairman of the Central Organization of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, said it was absurd to assume that Muentefering had anti-Semitic intentions. On the other hand, “comparisons with animals are unfortunate.” His deputy, Charlotte Knobloch, said that with his words, Muentefering indicated he was willing to use anti-Semitic expressions. She added that in a democratic country, Wolffsohn was free to express his opinion and draw historical parallels.

Anti-Semitism expert Julius Schoeps, who heads the Moses Mendelssohn Center at Potsdam University, said Wolffsohn had written a thorough and acceptable essay which the paper had turned into a sensational one through the headings it had inserted. He added, “to compare humans to animals is simply not done.” In Schoeps’ view, the SPD chairman possibly didn’t take into account that there had been such comparisons in the past and that his rhetoric could foster prejudices.13

The Socialists’ Opponents

Several speakers from the Christian opposition parties had no such constraints. The head of the Christian Socialist Union faction in the Bavarian parliament, Joachim Herrmann, backed Wolfssohn.14 The defense spokesman of the CDU/CSU faction in parliament, Christian Schmidt, supported Wolffsohn, saying: “What you shout into the forest comes back to you as an echo.”15

The former president of the German Industrialists Association, Hans-Olaf Henkel, called the politics of the SPD and the trade unions “disgusting.” He said that Muentefering and the metal trade union had used terminology which also reminded others than himself of the propaganda of the Third Reich.16

By this time, the senior economic minister in Chancellor Schroeder’s government, Wolfgang Clement, a Socialist, suggested putting an end to the debate on capitalism.17 He did not say what had gradually become clear, that it had boomeranged against his party, in part due to the language used.

Razzia in the Kitchen Cupboard

The locust affair would hardly have been worthwhile analyzing had Muentefering not been an important political personality in the governing party, had comparisons of insects and people not been used by various sources, had he not been supported by so many of his political colleagues, and had there been no other indicators of similar and worse phenomena in German society.

During a recent visit to the remembrance ceremonies of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, this author had the occasion to meet several Germans who hold different views. They are well aware that contemporary use of expressions typical for the Nazi Germans should be avoided. They also told me that the work they do to commemorate what has happened at the concentration camp is disapproved of by many in German society. Some often feel themselves isolated.

On a visit to the nearby city of Hanover, there was a very visible example of insensitive association with the Nazi period. In a shop window of the major Rosenthal porcelain firm was a poster showing a lady kneeling to throw out her plates from the cupboard. It said: “Make place for the new. Profit from our discount for new against old.” The poster was titled “Razzia in the Kitchen Cupboard.” The word “razzia” is of Arab origin and referred originally to slave capturing or other raids by African Muslims.18 Since the Second World War it has become an expression referring to the arrest of Jews to transport to their extermination.

Proud of Expelling Jews

It would be a mistake to consider such incidents as atypical for Germany in 2005. In May 2005 the German Open tennis championships for women were held under sponsorship of the Qatar Tennis Association. The tournament program included an article about the organizers, LTTC Rot Weiss, explaining that the club had blossomed when it had expelled its Jewish members in 1936. The article included a photo of Hermann Goering, one of the most prominent Nazi leaders, visiting the club. When this became known, its president apologized profusely and suspended the club’s director, Lars Rehmann, who had signed the article but refused to take responsibility for it.19

While the publication was widely condemned, Mohammad bin Faleh al-Thani, president of the Qatar Tennis Federation, said: “Lars Rehmann is a good man. He has no bad intentions. This is all about politics. However, we are dealing here with sport.”20

Yet there is much worse in today’s German mainstream. One approach to sanitize Germany’s immense past crimes is to accuse Israel of acting similarly. In 2002, Norbert Blum, a former German Christian Democrat minister of labor, wrote to Israeli ambassador Shimon Stein referring to Israel’s “Vernichtungskrieg” against the Palestinians. This is the Nazi expression for a war of extermination. Blum repeated this in an interview with the weekly Stern.21

The Christian Democrat party expelled parliamentarian Martin Hohman many months after he called Israelis, in 2003, a nation of criminals, using the expression “Taetervolk,” commonly reserved for Nazi Germany. He was praised by German General Reinhard Gunzel, who was subsequently retired by the German minister of defense.22

This sanitizing of the country’s Hitler past is a widespread phenomenon and takes place in many ways. This “new” Germany has become numerous and vocal and should not be confused with the radical right-wing remnants of the past. It speaks with multiple voices, many of those from people born after the Second World War. One of its key messages is that of moral equivalence between Germany’s World War II crimes and the behavior of others during that war.

Many of its public spokesmen are far from marginal individuals. German historian Susanne Urban describes one of two best-selling books by historian Joerg Friedrich, who depicts the wartime 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.”23

A different German approach to achieve the same purpose consists of accusing other nations of extreme current misbehavior. The leading German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in a 2002 interview with the Austrian journal Profil, named America and Israel as the only two countries today that struck him as being “rogue states.”24

What the Majority Thinks

Do these statements express only the extreme opinions of a few members of the elite? A 2004 study on German anti-Semitism by the University of Bielefeld found that they come close to what the country’s majority thinks.

Thirty-five percent of those polled fully agreed, and 33 percent were inclined to agree, with the statement that Israel “is leading a war to destroy the Palestinians.” Twenty-seven percent fully agreed, and 24 percent were inclined to agree, with the statement that “what Israel is doing with the Palestinians is, in principle, no different than what the Nazis in the Third Reich did with the Jews.” Only 19 percent disagreed totally and 30 percent were inclined to disagree. The findings of this poll confirm and strengthen findings of earlier surveys on German anti-Semitism.25

Members of the country’s elite have thus found a formula for cleaning up their country’s history, which has permeated society. The message is that the Germans under the Nazis misbehaved. How important is that, however, if so many others have conducted themselves comparably in the past, or are behaving so now? If so many are guilty, why single out the Germans?

At the official commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 17, there were many speeches about the need to remain alert against extremism, totalitarianism, intolerance, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. But there was not a word about the radically distorted picture of Israel propagated by German elites, the media and many others; not a word about the false image the majority of contemporary Germans have of the Jewish state, not even about the home Israel has provided for such a large part of those Jews who survived German barbarianism.

All of this indicates that there are profound processes underway in Germany that must be watched carefully, involving both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, this time disguised as anti-Israelism. What is most worrisome is that these attitudes seem to have made major inroads among the younger generation.

*     *     *


1. “Die Namen der ‘Heuschrecken,'” Stern, 3 May 2005 [German].
2. “Lafontaine giftet wieder gegen Parteifreunde,” Spiegel Online, 22 April 2005 [German].
3. “Die Namen der ‘Heuschrecken,'” Stern, 3 May 2005 [German].
4. Michael Wolffsohn, “Zum 8. Mai,” Rheinische Post, 3 May 2005 [German].
5. Ibid.
6. “SPD und Grune emport uber Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Die Welt, 4 May 2005 [German].
7. Yassin Musharbash, “Streit um Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Spiegel Online, 3 May 2005 [German].
8. “SPD und Grune emport uber Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Die Welt, 4 May 2005 [German].
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
13. Yassin Musharbash, “Streit um Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Spiegel Online, 3 May 2005 [German].
14. “Historiker vergleicht Munteferings Kritik mit Nazi-Parolen,” Die Welt, 3 May 2005 [German].
15. Yassin Musharbash, “Streit um Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Spiegel Online, 3 May 2005 [German].
16. Ibid.
17. “SPD und Grune emport uber Wolffsohns Nazi-Vergleich,” Die Welt, 4 May 2005 [German].
18. The Concise Oxford Dictionary.
19. “Chaos-Tage beim Tennis in Berlin,” Welt am Sonntag, 8 May 2005 [German].
20. Anja Popovic and Patrick Goldstein, “LTTC Rot Weiss suspendiert Clubdirektor Lars Rehmann,” Die Welt, 7 May 2005 [German].
21. “Der Vorwurf des Antisemitismus wird auch als Knuppel benutzt,” Stern, 18 June 2002 [German].
22. “Hohmann vor Parteigericht der CDU,” Die Welt, 21 April 2004 [German].
23. Susanne Urban, “Being Leftist and Anti-Semitic in Germany,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 32, 1 May 2005.
24. As quoted in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Anti-Americanism and Anti-Semitism: A New Frontier of Bigotry (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2003), p. 21.
25. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, “Texte zu Ergebnissen der Umfrage 2004 des Projektes” (Universitaet Bielefeld, Institut fur interdisziplinare Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung, 2004) [German].