Not a master race this time, true. Just a master “value” society.
Tarik Cyril Amar (@TarikCyrilAmar) is a historian from Germany, currently at Koç University, Istanbul, expert on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe, and the author of “The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists.”
Cross-posted from Tarik’s Substack Blog
Following on the Hamas attack of 7 October, the ongoing Israeli response, consisting of the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in a genocidal attempt to complete their ethnic cleansing, has become an intellectual and, above all, ethical test for the rest of the world.
Country by country, we see different reactions taking shape and clash; and within countries they differ as well. In general, they range from, at one end of the spectrum, de facto unconditional support for Israel, even while it commits massive war crimes and crimes against humanity in broad global media daylight, to, at the other end, support for the Palestinians and their struggle, including Hamas and all its methods.
We find encouraging responses such as the explicit positions against Israel’s attack taken by the Presidents of Colombia and Turkey as well as reactions which will live in infamy, such as that of the President of the USA or the self-aggrandizing head of the EU’s civil service Ursula von der Leyen, who cannot get enough of backing Israel come-what-may and thus providing cover for its crimes.
In terms of media and public reactions, Western traditional outlets have largely failed to be objective, instead favoring Israeli claims and narratives. They often help promote the Israeli dehumanization of the Palestinians, which is a textbook element of genocide. Social media are subject to pro-Israel manipulation and censorship but still offer a more complex picture, thanks to users who refuse to comply. Publics across the world mobilize much more for the Palestinians than for Israel, which is an encouraging sign that their governments and media are not (yet) able to eradicate moral sanity.
And then there is Germany… There the response from the political elite and the media has been overwhelmingly pro-Israel, in the specific sense that, most of the time, Israeli policies, motivations, and military actions are massively embellished and any criticism of Israeli crimes or even questioning of Israeli narratives is highly unwelcome and can quickly lead to ostracism, often under the freely misapplied charge of antisemitism.
Germany is, of course, a nation with a history of perpetrating genocides: First in Africa (a fact only recently lifted back into memory, with much painful effort) and then, in (mostly) Europe when Germans initiated and carried out (with quite a few non-German helpers) what has become, in global or at least Western memory culture, the paradigmatic genocide, namely the Holocaust, the mass murder of 6 million Jews.
It is tempting to refer to this history in order to explain the neurotically insistent one-sidedness of the general German response to the massacre and expulsion of Palestinian victims at the hand of Israeli perpetrators. After all, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made explicit reference to the Holocaust when defining Germany’s place as “only at Israel’s side,” as if the idea that a German chancellor could or should also take the side of Israel’s victims – no less human, no less vulnerable – were self-evidently absurd: bad old German Nibelungentreue, a loyalty that is declared so absolute that it conveniently cancels out moral responsibility, can take many forms.
And, to an extent, this explanation is correct. Even if many Germans react with telling psychological defensiveness and great aggression to this observation, it is true: There is a deeply perverse manner in which Germans use Palestinians to feel better about the guilt of their own parents, grandparents, and their nation as a whole: a kind of displacing colonialism of memory management.
In an act of awful over-compensation, they seem to feel that real (and deserved) burden lighten – the burden of having committed not just any genocide but the genocide – by siding with the victims’ descendants or, at least the state and army claiming to act for them, even, perhaps especially, when these descendants or that state and its army themselves commit horrendous crimes, including ethnic cleansing and genocide, against yet another group of victims.
In this disturbing, revolting sense, abandoning the Palestinians to their fate and even demanding to make it worse by cutting long-standing purely humanitarian German aid to them – as Germans now often do – is the outcome and symptom of the national project (and, absurdly, pride, let’s be honest) of “Coming to Terms with the Past” having gone horribly, shamefully wrong. Dear fellow-Germans: Our Vergangenheitsbewältigung has failed. Any Palestinian could tell you. If you ever had the courage and decency to ask them.
Yet this is not the whole story behind Germany’s current display of moral obtuseness. There also is striking intellectual laziness. Many statements by German politicians, media professionals, and “experts” betray a deeply embarrassing lack of elementary familiarity with the facts. Again, with the Chancellor in the lead: Scholz’s statement to an EU meeting that “Israel is a democratic state with very humanitarian principles… And, therefore, you can be sure that the Israeli army…will follow the rules that result from international law” is delusional in its complete detachment from the empirical reality and the historical record. Delusional, that is, or utterly cynical.
But intellectual laziness grows where the lazy feel they can afford it. Behind this complacency are two additional factors: The ongoing German (as in, preponderantly, ethnically German) attempt to either come to terms with or reject the presence of a large and growing Muslim minority and, an equally unfinished and often angst-filled search for an impossibly clear sense of who and what belongs to contemporary Germany and who and what does not. Call it identity, if you must.
These two complexes interact: the roughly 5.5 million Muslims living now in Germany are the single most important foil against which not only the German far right but also the (ethnically) German mainstream define a sense of proper, “Euro-white” Germanness now. And, have no illusions, it is an inherently racist sense across the political spectrum, assigning to Muslims, whether believers or much less so, the role of the cultural Other in the worst sense of the term: inferior, backward, and eternally in need of catching up, and, more importantly, of proving that they have caught up.
That is the implicit and yet boomingly loud message conveyed by a recent campaign by Germany’s premier yellow-press paper, Bild. Unfortunately very popular and politically influential, Bild has just published what it calls a “manifesto.” A rambling 50-point stream of petit-bourgeois unconsciousness, the manifesto makes no direct mention of Germany’s Muslims, but they are its target. Under the headline “Germany, we have a problem!” (a calque from a Hollywood movie, of course), Bild lays down the law of how to be welcome – or tolerated – in Germany, i.e., “our country,” characterized, with what must be traditional German modesty, as “wonderful and embracing.” [Deutschland, wir haben ein Problem! Hier lesen Sie das BILD-Manifest. | Politik | BILD.de]
The individual points of the screed range from the trivial (respect the law and constitution) to the comically pedantic or daftly chauvinistic (say “please” and “thank you” or be “civil on social media” or “we eat pork here”) and do not merit close analysis. The gist of the thing is crystal clear. Many of the 50 points are designed to speak to not how German Muslims actually live and behave, but to the stereotypes (ethnic) Germans love to hold about them, including, prominently, the accusation of antisemitism.
The historical irony is so thick, it must be German humor: The single most influential and demagogic newspaper in a Germany that once excluded and then slaughtered Jews with an antisemitism not matched in its relentless ferocity and lethality by any other country (whether Muslim or, say, Orthodox Christian), now turns the reproach of being antisemitic against yet another group to be marginalized, Muslims. Order of the day: Projektion, jawohl!
This is utterly symptomatic: One, perhaps the single most important and hypocritical way that Muslims in Germany are now challenged to prove their viability and secure their precarious place on (ethnically) German terms is that they must profess the precisely “right” position on Israel and, in particular, on what are in effect Israel’s crimes against fellow-Muslims. Perish the thought that a Muslim in Germany dare feel so much compassion or solidarity with the Palestinians that he or she won’t gladly and gratefully accept every Israeli lie. And if they don’t, hey presto: they are antisemites, and thus, do not belong among the all-new, all-tolerant, all-perfectly-come-to-terms-with-the-past, very good, very insecure, and self-satisfied Germans.
If this is not a colonial, racist pattern (with plenty of twists), nothing qualifies. And it is this arrogance, this ham-fisted sense of superiority that once again defines how to be German. Not a master race this time, true. Just a master “value” society. And, as before, exclusionary and merciless.