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Germany’s Trial Balloon

For months the awakening of anti-Semitism in Europe has been in the news. Anti-Jewish vandalism and violence have risen sharply in France, Italy and Eastern Europe. In Brussels, seat of the European Parliament, the chief rabbi was assaulted by attackers who called him “a dirty Jew.” The liberal Italian daily La Stampa, where Primo Levi‘s column once appeared, actually ran a cartoon showing Jesus on the cross surrounded by Israeli tanks with the caption: “Surely they don’t want to kill me again?” Since March, the reports have piled up: destroyed Jewish graves in Slovakia; a synagogue burned to the ground in Marseilles; “Sieg Heils!” in Holland -- a Springtime for Hitler blooming all over the Continent. The exception was Germany, which, as usual, seemed like an island of moderate quiet next to its noisy neighbors.

Then came the “Mollemann Affair.” Jurgen Mollemann is the second in command of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the classically liberal, center-right party that has participated as a junior partner in Germany‘s government for much of the postwar era. What began as a political critique of Israel turned nasty when Mollemann began suggesting in May that Ariel Sharon and Michel Friedman, an aggressively public German Jewish personality with his own talk show, were to blame for anti-Semitism, because they conjured it out of non-Jews with their behavior.

“This would have been bad enough,” says Richard Chaim-Schneider, a journalist who works in German television and writes for the Suddeutsche Zeitung. “But he did it during an election year, on purpose, looking to get a boost.” This was the affair inside the affair: Not only did an anti-Semite come out of the closet, but he did so for political gain. Chaim-Schneider says it’s a paradigm shift: “Okay, an anti-Semite; nothing new. But now, for the first time in German politics since the war, a leading politician from a democratic party -- this was a liberal, no less, not some fringe nut -- went looking for votes with anti-Semitic stereotypes. This was unthinkable 10 years ago. No one would have dared. He would have been kicked out of the party.”

Indeed, Mollemann‘s party seemed to tacitly approve. Guido Westerwelle, head of the FDP, was silent for weeks. Westerwelle even suggested that the FDP, which is reaching for the stars this election cycle (it would like to double its usual representation), might be looking to pick up dissatisfied voters from the far right. The party was roundly criticized by almost everyone in German politics. The FDP is playing a dangerous game, they said, by “fishing in murky waters.” Old liberals were also dismayed, especially when Jorg Haider, the right-wing populist from Austria who once praised the Nazis’ “labor policy,” phoned in with his endorsement for the FDP.

Every aspect of this scandal got a once-over with a fine-toothed comb, including technicalities like whether Mollemann is an anti-Semite or just made anti-Semitic remarks -- a shade of gray that matters little to German Jews, some of whom maintained that this was the worst political insult since the Second World War. In his own defense, Mollemann actually dusted off the old fallacy that he can‘t possibly be an anti-Semite, because he’s friends with Yasir Arafat, who‘s Semitic -- a comment that, if anything, proves just the opposite. But Mollemann’s real argument was that he did nothing wrong; he was just saying what needed to be said, and he wasn‘t going to let false propriety prevent him from speaking out. Again with an eye toward gleaning support from a supposedly disaffected populace, Westerwelle backed up his second, complaining that the ’68er Generation (a rough equivalent of liberal boomers in America) has a “stranglehold over what is morally acceptable and politically correct in relation to the past.”

“That is outright rubbish,” says Henryk Broder, a writer for Der Spiegel, the country‘s most prestigious magazine. “And hiding behind free speech is even more cynical.” It’s a notion, however, that may be gaining popularity in Germany. The other half of what‘s being called Germany’s “latest anti-Semitism debate” involves Martin Walser, a senior German novelist who has written more than 50 books. Round 1 with Walser started four years ago, when he received a Book Prize in Frankfurt‘s Paulskirche and used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to denounce the use of Auschwitz as a “routine threat, a tool of intimidation . . . or a moral cudgel.” Germans should not allow the “exploitation of our shame,” and Walser wanted to be the one to say so. Left to defend the clearly legitimate ongoing examination of the Holocaust’s legacy was Ignatz Bubis, the late rara avis of German Jewry, who, in his repartee with Walser, referred to him by the choice appellation of “mental arsonist.”

Walser has been back in the spotlight since early June, when advance copies of his latest work, Death of a Critic, began circulating and readers noted that, in parts, it employed Jewish stereotypes and the plot seemed to be a fantasized roman a clef about killing Germany‘s greatest literary critic, a Jew and Auschwitz survivor. A controversy erupted, with fierce volleys rumbling through the essay and op-ed pages and culminating in a public reading, where Walser, seated in a pleasant green garden, held loose-leaf pages from his manuscript and read them aloud for an hour on prime-time German television (a degree of media access even the most scandalous American author could only dream of).

Like last time around, Walser again said he was addressing freedom of expression; he claimed his book was about the censorial power wielded by the German literary and media establishment. The whole dustup, he said, proved his point.

As with Mollemann, there’s a strong whiff of a setup. Death of a Critic is selling (the last three times I personally went into a Berlin bookstore, there was someone at the register buying it) despite universally bad reviews of its literary merit. Without plucking German culture‘s central nerve, Walser’s latest would have been another of his unnoticed minor editions. And that‘s what German Jews are worried about -- that Mollemann’s and Walser‘s audacious moves were calculations rather than blunders.

But are these ploys finding fertile soil? The readiness to resort to anti-Semitic expression has rebounded somewhat in the past few months. Dr. Irene Runge, the director of the Jewish Cultural Community in Berlin, says her office has recently gotten more nasty and threatening mail than usual. Broder at Der Spiegel says he’s received hundreds. Then there was the “Mollemann Mobile,” a fake FDP entourage created by the German satirical magazine Titanic, which toured small towns in east Germany brandishing placards with pictures of Mollemann and slogans like “Judenfrei -- und spaß dabei,” which a might be best translated as “Getting rid of the Jews is fun!” Some locals greeted them with a big thumbs up, and one small-town FDP party chief was even photographed shaking hands with the impostor liberals, not noticing that their slogans were decidedly illiberal, or that word Judenfrei alone was extremely unusual for a contemporary political poster, since that‘s the term that the Nazis used to describe an area that had been “cleansed” of Jews.

And yet, Germany, one should remember, is by far the most progressive country in Europe when it comes to reconciling with the Jews, the past and the Holocaust. The culture of commemoration here is strong and frank. There are 39 separate Holocaust-related memorials in Berlin alone, and a vast new one is being built right next to the Brandenburg Gate, within view of the chancellor’s private apartment down the road. Hundreds of thousands of Germans marched in Berlin last year to protest against anti-Semitism. The new Jewish museum became the most popular museum in the country, even when it was still empty.

“Actually, I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion,” says Runge, getting a little bit impatient with the topic. “Yes, there have been more cemetery desecrations and even a few violent incidents on the street, but that means several in the past few months rather than in the last year. It‘s still not a lot. Probably 5 percent of Germans are real anti-Semites, maybe less. And then there are maybe 17 percent -- you always hear about this 17 percent -- who have some latent anti-Semitic feeling.”

Dr. Wolfgang Benz agrees that there’s been an overreaction. He‘s the head of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, a large interdisciplinary institute affiliated with the Technical University in Berlin. He doesn’t back down from criticizing Mollemann, but he also points out that poll after poll shows that few Germans harbor anti-Semitic ideas, and what sentiment can be detected is declining further. “We work with long-term trends, observations, data,” he explains in an office filled with shelves and stacks of books, papers and reports. “Yet Jewish community officials or writers or politicians always think they know better.” What‘s more interesting, Benz says, is that Mollemann’s stunt backfired. “He wasn‘t able to get any political traction. The FDP lost ground. Of course,” Benz acknowledges, “it is hard to tell the children of survivors not to worry when a Mollemann comes along. For them, anti-Semitism is not academic; it’s biography. But there is also some paranoia. When people say, ‘The Germans haven’t changed,‘ they’re wrong. That‘s ideology talking.”

What is new, Benz admits, is that anti-Semitism has become intertwined with criticism of Israel. Mollemann, who is the head of the German-Arab Friendship Committee, got his affair started by defending a Syrian-German politician who likes to talk about international Zionist power alongside Israel’s “Nazi methods.” Anti-Semitic crimes in the streets have moved in tandem with flare-ups in the Middle East. The hate mail coming in at Jewish organizations combines classic anti-Semitism with pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

“And what is also new,” Runge says, “is that we get letters from regular-sounding people who are anti-Sharon and assume that he represents us in some way, which he doesn‘t. Anti-Semitism isn’t just when you knock over gravestones; it‘s also when you start talking about ’the Jews,‘ especially if you confuse them with a specific government in Israel. You can criticize Israel,” says Dr. Runge. “I do. But you have to differentiate. When you get into ’the Jews‘ and the ’Zionist lobby,‘ then you’re in dangerous territory.”

Broder says that Germans have not been shy about criticizing Israel since 1967 anyway. “So Mollemann‘s claim that he was being hounded for breaking a taboo is made up. And besides,” he wonders, “is that really a deep need for the Germans -- to be able to criticize Jews? Is that what aches in the German soul? Is that what would make Germany complete?”

Perhaps. Both Walser and Mollemann suggested, in their clumsy ways, that German society can stop tiptoeing around the Jews. Walser went so far as to say that his generation has paid its due, and it will deal with its remorse on its own terms. For many ordinary Germans, the enthusiasm for the reunification was motivated by a desire to put a symbolic end to what is called the “after-war period,” to close out the books, and move on as one Germany with a repaired national consciousness. That relations with Jews are not fully normalized, however, is a constant reminder that there’s still an open entry in the ledger.

Trying to close it by force, of course, has only worsened those unhealed wounds. Jewish political leaders worry that this latest contretemps will open the door for others to stray dangerously close to anti-Semitism; Walser‘s “moral cudgel” phrase of a few years ago, after all, has migrated to others’ mouths. Even when Germans came out on the streets to support Jews this past spring, their signs said, “We love our Jewish co-citizens!” and many Jews asked, “Why not just plain citizens?” or, as Runge phrased it, “Wir sind doch Deutschen!” And many Jews see Mollemann‘s and Walser’s gestures less as clarifying honesty than as crude self-delusions. Some people wonder if support for the Palestinians, and the ever more frequently heard comparison of Israel with the Nazis, isn‘t a way for Germans to deflect guilt over the Holocaust -- if they’re repeating our mistakes, the thought goes, maybe we weren‘t so terrible. “It reminds me,” says Broder, “of the famous comment by an Israeli psychologist: The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.”

As incisive as this is, it also says that Germany has moved beyond traditional anti-Semitism, like the kind that is now popular in the Middle East and still exists in Eastern Europe. Germany has what Benz calls secondary anti-Semitism: “There’s a certain timidity about Jews, a wariness. ‘Do I need to treat them different? I don’t want to feel guilt, or be seen as a Nazi.‘ It exists not despite the Holocaust, but because of the Holocaust. Hovering in the background is always the question: ’How long do we have to pay?‘”

It may be a little while longer. Germany’s normalization process has proceeded credibly and steadily, but it‘s not quite finished. And should Germany reach an “after-after-war period,” it won’t mean an end to all remorse and reflection. This is the real worry with Mollemann, and it was Bubis‘ precise point when he confronted Walser after his Paulskirche speech. Bubis, who was beloved in Germany as the Jewish leader who wanted to set things right again, the one who urged Jews to move to postwar Germany, was also not prepared to forget he had lost his entire family by 1945. Unlike Mollemann, Walser is not an ideological anti-Semite, and for that reason the very public battle with him left Bubis bitter. In his last, most pessimistic interview, Bubis said he “had achieved nothing.” And when he died six months later, German gentiles and German Jews alike were disappointed to learn that Bubis had asked to be buried in Israel.