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Vortrag Jeffrey Herf – Jews, Germans, Shoah and Israel

Jeffrey Herf am 14.01.2020 in Berlin auf dem Workshop im Centrum Judaicum der Amadeu Antonio Stiftung (Quelle: Amadeu Antonio Stiftung)

1) The Holocaust itself had a profound, perhaps taken for granted impact on historical scholarship in Germany about the Nazi era, World War II, the Holocaust, and the aftermath in both West Germany, East Germany and unified Germany. The destruction of German and European Jewry meant that the Jewish presence in postwar West and East Germany was very small, far too small to constitute a significant presence in the historical profession, in journalism and intellectual life.

2) The contrast to the United States is instructive. The long era of persecution of African-Americans, from enslavement, to Jim Crow to racial discrimination in general was followed in the last sixty years by the growth of an Afro-American middle class. African-American scholars are a presence in the American historical profession and in American intellectual life. Questions of race and racism towards people of color are raised both by these scholars and by white scholars influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

3) In Germany, as a result of the Holocaust, on the whole, the discussion of the Holocaust and antisemitism has been one conducted in the absence of a sizable Jewish community and a presence in the universities comparable to that in the United States. Communication among historians has been essential but it is communication with Jewish historians in the United States, Israel and Britain. There have been historians within Germany, such as Karl Bracher of the first postwar decades, who showed a particular interest in the subject of the Jewish questions and the Holocaust. But it is fair to say that the key works on antisemitism have come from historians writing outside Germany, first the Jewish emigres George Mosse, Fritz Stern, Hannah Arendt, Walter Laqueur and Gerhard Weinberg, and other Jewish scholars such as Yehuda Bauer, Lucy Dawidowicz, Saul Friedlander, Shlomo Aronson, David Cesarani, Richard Breitman, Norman Goda, Raul Hilberg, Anson Rabinbach, Robert Wistrich, Susannah Heschel and my work as well.

4) We scholars believe that the identify of a scholar is not the most important fact about him or her. Rather, we want to focus on the fact that he or she is a historian rather than whether the author is or is not Jewish. We do so because we do not believe that the truth content of a work depends on the identity of the author. The work itself must be judged with the same standards of truth and evidence no matter who the author is. Yet, the fact remains that the most important works on the Jewish question in modern German history have been written by scholars who identify themselves, in religious or secular terms, as Jews. Historians, after all, are human beings, with parents and relatives who were affected by the events of the Holocaust and who know what it means to be a Jew in what remains an overwhelmingly Christian civilization, however secularized much of it has become.

5) In view of the fact that Nazism and fascism were movements of the extreme right, of the association of Jews in Europe and the United States with a liberal tradition of the rule of law and democratic institutions, and then of the liberal and left-leaning mentalities of the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II, it is not surprising that Jewish intellectuals and scholars generally inclined to liberalism, and sometimes to the left after 1945.

6) The Six Day War of 1967 was a turning point in this historic connection between Jews and the left. It was then, and in the years thereafter that the antagonism of the Soviet Union and the Soviet block to Israel assumed the dimensions of what I have called an “undeclared war.” In the BRD, the Palestinian cause became a defining aspect of West German leftist radicalism. In the United States, the Black Panther Party offered an early version of what Angela Davis, member of the Communist Party and student of Herbert Marcuse later called “intersectionality.” Those who opposed racism I the United States should also support the PLO in its “resistance” to the “racist” Zionists. Jews and non-Jews who rejected this description of the state of Israel found themselves described as racists and supporters of imperialism. The split between Jews and the left deepened even further during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 as it was evident that the Soviet bloc  was now actually at war with Israel, that the BRD and the West European states adopted a stance of neutrality and that it was only the United States which offered Israel the weapons it needed to defend itself against the Arab attacks that began that war. The historic links between Jews and “the left” were now replaced by fear and antagonism of a global left which denounced Israel and supported armed attacks on the Jewish state.

7) In the DDR, official Marxism-Leninism precluded discussion of the specificities of antisemitism and the Holocaust. As this audience knows, the antifascism of the DDR focused first on the sins of German capitalism and then on the victimization of the Soviet Union and the peoples of Eastern Europe, and on the redemptive victory of the Red Army. In the BRD echoes of Communist orthodoxy appeared in paler forms in the West German New Left. In the 1960s, leftist activists focused as well on the question of capitalism and fascism. The specific persecution of the Jews was mentioned but it was not central. Indeed, to focus on the Jewish question in those years was not a leftist preoccupation. Indeed, as some suggested at the time, to raise the issue of the Jews was to open oneself up to the dreaded accusation of being a conservative.

8) The reality was that those of us who have written a great deal about Jewish questions in Germany history are, on the whole, not leftists. Rather we have been liberals, sometimes right wing liberals or left-wing liberals but liberals nevertheless. Yet the fact is undeniable that a path-breaking work such as Dawidowicz The War Against the Jews and others constituted a direct challenge to Marxist and Communist orthodoxy. To understand why Hitler and his many associates murdered the Jews of Europe it was essential to grasp the autonomous ideological impact of the long and short term traditions of antisemitism. It required acknowledging that antisemitism was not part of the ideological superstructure of an economic base, and that capitalism, in fact, was not the driving force leading to the Holocaust. It meant delving deep into historical contingencies of German history and moving away from theoretical reflections on modernity and capitalism. It meant delving deeper into intellectual history—Geistesgescichte—and to examine the continuities and breaks between centuries old Christian Jew-hatred and modern secular anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Inevitably the more that we historians of antisemitism and the Holocaust examined why the Holocaust took place, the more we found ourselves departing from leftist orthodoxy. We became or remained liberals.

9) I think the other Jewish historians I mentioned above shared with me a sense of obligation and responsibility. We knew and know, or we believed and believe that in view of the destruction of European Jewry, if we did not do the research and writing of our books about the Jewish catastrophe, those books would not be written. While our German colleagues were writing important works about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, we knew that it would be up to us to write works that specifically addressed Jewish questions and issues of antisemitism. We knew and know that there are non-Jewish German scholars who address these issues but that they were and are exceptions.

10) So, as they say, “it is no accident” that I published the four books I published since 1997. Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, was the first book length study of the suppression of the Jewish question and of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign in the DDR. The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (2006) is the most comprehensive study of how Nazi antisemitism became the interpretive framework of the regime’s propaganda, and also a very public justification of mass murder. Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009) was and remains the most extensive examination of that subject in any language. Undeclared Wars with Israel is now the most extensive examination of that subject as well.

11) If the Nazi regime had been defeated in a short war in 1938 or if there had been a revolution in Germany that brought it down before it launched the Holocaust in 1941, the German Jews who lived through the “era of persecution” would have been able, like my African-American colleagues in the United States, to write about those events. Their children and Jews in Germany in general of the next generation would have done so as well. A German-Jewish Germany would have survived and produced the scholarly works that instead have been written in the United States, Israel, Great Britain and to some extent in France. Yet the Holocaust itself meant that the key works on the subject came from those of us living abroad.

12) Historians of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust understandably focus on what Christopher Browning called “fateful monhts” of decision making in 1941. Sometimes we extend our time perspective the fateful twelve years of 1933 to 1945 or to 1870 to 1866 to 1945. Yet these time perspectives lack one crucial element. They do much too little to place Germany’s and Europe’s twentieth century outburst of Jew-hatred into the essential long term cultural and intellectual context of European history.

Recently, David Nirenberg’s study, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition has reminded us that antisemitism has been part of the Western tradition for centuries. To be sure, as Thomas Nipperdey also reminded us both German and European history is a history of multiple continuities—vielfaltige Kontinuitaten—that include the continuities of liberalism, the rule of law, democracy, individual rights and universal rights of citizenship. Nevertheless, antisemitism is one of those continuities as well and in a civilization that was devoutly Christian for most of the past 2,000 years, it was a central aspecf of the Western tradition.

The central problem for modern Western intellectuals created by the Zionist project and the state of Israel is that for the first time in 2000 years, the Christian and then secular nightmare of the armed and dangerous Jew became a reality. The existence of the state of Israel touches on the deepest cultural traditions of the West which for centuries depicted the Jews as dangerous murderers, first of Jesus, then of Christian children. The defenselessness of actual Jews did little to puncture this falsehood. Yet a Jewish state, with a powerful army and air force, able to retaliate—that is, kill—those who try to kill Israelis, amounted to a profound dislocation and shock to the Western tradition. To express sympathy for the defenseless Jews murdered in the Holocaust, or admiration for Jewish intellectual and cultural accomplishments in Europe and the United States does not require coming to terms with the deepest fears of the Western anti-Jewish tradition. Conversely to accept that Jews, like any other national group, have the right to defend themselves and to participate in the normality of relations among states, requires acknowledgement of the basic irrationality and falsehood of very central elements of Western culture.

Even those who are proud of their atheism, who view all religion with contempt and who think they live outside the cultural traditions of centuries past remain more embedded in its traditions than they care to admit. This is why, in my view, many intellectuals and scholars in our time choose not to read the readily available Hamas Covenant, or read it and dismiss it as stupid propaganda. It is why there is rage when Israel retaliates in the Gaza wars but shrugs of the shoulders about the terrorist attacks that provoked them. This conscious and unconscious embeddedness in the Western tradition of anti-Judaism and antisemitism explains why there is such an obsession with and irritation about Israel in the United States and Europe. The centrality of the terror before the image of the violent Jew in the Western tradition and the conviction that Israel now is that phantasy come to life explains why it is so much more difficult to have a serious discussion about antisemitism than it is about racism towards people of color. The latter is not as central to the self-definition of the West as is the longest and much longer hatred.

Everyone in polite company is convinced that fears of the Christ-killers fell out of fashion after the Holocaust. In the decades following the Holocaust, that is what happened on the whole in the United States and Europe. The resurgence of anti-semtism from right, left and the Islamists at the same time suggests that we may be returning to Western normality of many centuries duration but this time the focus of that hatred are the Jews who have the nerve to defend themselves and in so doing reviving the West’s deep fears about a powerful and dangerous people. When we connect the question of anti-Zionism to that of antisemitism, we touch on these very deep cultural fears in the Western tradition.

A distinctively historical perspective on antisemitism from its three main sources in our time thus needs to put its revival into this much longer temporal perspective.

13) I am proud of what I have published, proud and fortunate as well to be part of a several generations of historians who have contributed to scholarship on Germans, Jews, the Holocaust and the aftermath. Our published works exist and are there for a young generation of historians here in Germany. What we have begun will, I hope, continue. For it to continue, we need to do more to place the infamous twelve years or the fateful months of 1941 or the years of extermination of 1941 to 1945 into a longer term cultural and intellectual perspective. We need to do the same for the radicalization of the religion of Islam and the development of the Islamist tradition. The exact same focus on break and continuity that parts of the Catholic and Protestant Churches displayed after the Holocaust should be part of the discussion of Islam and Islamism, and should be a preoccupation of liberals in particular.

So at a time when attention spans are becoming shorter, websites are more popular than books and the twenty-four hour news cycle makes “breaking news” a constant, we need more, not less understanding of the connection between the long term and the short term, between old traditions and decisions made in the midst of contingencies.

A young, and perhaps not so young generation of German scholars and historians has a responsibility, an obligation and an opportunity to do this kind of historical scholarship. I hope the work I and others have done offers a foundation for further work in the future on the intersection of Jews, Germans, the Holocaust and Israel.


Bericht zum Workshop am 14.01.2020 in Berlin:

Rezension von Herfs Buch:



April 2017 Antisemitismus

+++ Berlin: Mit Flasche beworfen und antisemitisch beleidigt +++ Jüdischer Junge verlässt Schule nach antisemitischen Vorfällen +++ Frau nach Israel-Flug…

Eine Plattform der