Forgetting Hitler

In a noisy stretch of Maybachufer Strasse, along a canal in the working-class neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin’s open-air Turkish market unfolds every Tuesday and Friday. Here in ‘Little Istanbul,’ spices, coffee, and grilled kebabs scent the streets. Blocks of white salted cheese, pyramids of cumin, and mounds of olives are sold under tented stalls. All along the canal, the sounds of Turkish and some Arabic drown out whatever German can be heard. Men and women casually dressed in jeans, as well as women modestly covered in hijab, jostle and shop among the selection of toys, cutlery, fabric, and head scarves.

Progressive Germans like to point to districts such as Kreuzberg and the quaint scene of Turkish coffeehouses, halal butchers, and Anatolian travel agencies as examples of their modern, multicultural society. But another sort of reality can be found along these streets and on the graffiti-scarred buildings. The writing on some of these walls, and on fliers distributed in the area, broadcasts hostility toward Israel and the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that was once considered unthinkable in postwar Germany-at least in public. In addition to politically charged messages such as ‘Zionists out of Palestine,’ there are stark proclamations-‘Death to Jews,’ ‘Death to Israel’-and an occasional swastika.

But perhaps nowhere is anti-Semitism more evident than in the mandatory Holocaust studies classes in high schools. The classes, taught all across Germany as part of the history curriculum, are part of a national project, launched after World War II, and specifically since the 1960s, to institutionalize the memory of the Holocaust. Government and academic institutions dedicate entire archives to the Nazi regime, and there is an abundance of films, television documentary programs, newspaper articles, and books on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Former concentration camps are now memorials, museums, and education sites that scores of German students visit on field trips.

But now a growing number of Germany’s young Muslims are questioning, resisting, and even rejecting Holocaust studies. They bitterly denounce Jews and Israel and lionize Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some disrupt efforts to teach them about the Holocaust and refuse to partake in official Holocaust commemorations. And teachers, increasingly, are throwing up their hands in despair.

It’s a phenomenon that is as troubling as it is knotty. The surge in anti-Semitic behavior is taking place among third- and fourth-generation immigrant children, mostly of Arab or Palestinian backgrounds, but also of Turkish descent. Among these youth, the word Jew, once decorously silenced in this country, is regularly used as an insult. Many of them talk about the Holocaust as a falsehood, an exaggeration, or a justification for Israel. Many simply do not identify with this chapter of German history, especially amid their own galaxy of national conflicts and internecine struggles.

‘I was doing a workshop once,’ says Elif Kayi, who works with Berlin’s Arab, Turkish, and Muslim youth at the grassroots organization Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, ‘and I heard a student say that Jews should be gassed. ‘ Kayi watched as the teacher stood by in silence. When she asked the instructor later why he didn’t respond, ‘he said that he’d heard such things before, but that he didn’t react in order to avoid a conflict,’ she recalls. That’s a shocking observation in a country that has made the Holocaust and confrontation of its Nazi past something of a national assignment. It’s a shift that reveals a tangle of social issues.

Born in Berlin to Turkish parents, Tulay Bilgen works as a program coordinator at the nonprofit Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. When I described to her anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes attributed to young Muslims, she was astonished. ‘That was not my experience,’ she told me.

When Bilgen went to high school some 10 years ago in Kreuzberg, students of German descent still made up the majority, and talking negatively about Jews in public was relatively taboo. Bilgen’s class watched films and learned about the Nazi era. ‘The pictures were unbelievable,’ she told me. ‘It didn’t matter if you were Turkish or German. My opinion hasn’t changed today,’ she added, ‘and it won’t. It is impossible to find the right expression for this brutality, this genocide.’

But Bilgen later acknowledged that she sees a certain schadenfreude in the Muslim community about the Holocaust. ‘The topic of Israel and Palestine is sensitive,’ she told me. ‘The reality is that there is an anger that grows against the Jews because of the politics in Israel.’ Now the anger is transmogrifying, with frequently asserted comparisons of the Gaza Strip to the Warsaw Ghetto, of Israeli army checkpoints to Nazi roundup points, of Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler.

But the shift is about more than solidarity with Palestine. If you pull a thread from the sleeve of the situation, a complicated reality unravels. Caught in the middle of two cultures, neither of which they feel they belong to, young Muslim immigrants are increasingly taking on the umbrella identity of radicalized Arab or Muslim, conflating Israel, Jews, and the Holocaust with their own sense of isolation.

Most of the immigrants live in big cities such as Hamburg and Cologne. The largest number are settled around Berlin, in communities that are made up mostly of Turks who came to Germany as cheap manual labor beginning in the 1950s and their children and grandchildren. In recent years, ethnic Kurds, Muslims from Iran and Bosnia, and Arabs from North Africa, Palestine, and Syria have joined them, mostly as political and economic refugees, some illegally. They exist for the most part in cultural and social isolation in what is described as a Parallelgesellschaft, a parallel society. Unemployment in these neighborhoods is as high as 50 percent, and high school dropout rates run at about 30 percent-consequences of Germany’s longtime reluctance to integrate its immigrant population.

Disenfranchised, angry, and frustrated at their treatment as second-class citizens, youngsters in these communities are resorting to a diet of jingoistic antagonisms. With little education or understanding of German history or Middle Eastern affairs, they are exposed via cable and satellite television to a barrage of brutal images of Israeli troops, as well as to the kind of vehemently anti-Semitic propaganda regularly shown in Arab and Muslim countries by stations such as Hezbollah’s Beirut-based Al-Manar, which is banned in the United States, France, Spain, and other countries. Popular entertainment includes the TV series Zahra’s Blue Eyes, about a Palestinian girl who is kidnapped by an Israeli army captain so he can steal her eyes for his own blind child, and Valley of the Wolves, a Turkish blockbuster that featured the atrocities of U.S. troops in Iraq, Jews infiltrating Turkey, and a Jewish doctor who exports the organs of Muslim prisoners to America and Israel.

To deduce that what is happening within Germany’s Muslim community is merely a cultural export, however, is to see only part of the story. These developments actually reflect a maelstrom of critical social issues unfolding in broader German society. While many in the Muslim community have come to see Jews as a privileged minority whose history takes up a considerable amount of the country’s consciousness, so do a number of Germans. ‘You can’t just blame the images on Al-Manar,’ says Andreas Zick, a social psychologist at the University of Bielefeld’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence. When it comes to Israel, he says, these views ‘are reinforced in German media. They are just not as vulgar.’

One of the most conspicuous aspects of contemporary German identity is a preoccupation with remembering and confronting the past. There is even a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. Several Germans have remarked to me that their nation is nothing like Austria, which still views itself as a victim of the Nazis rather than as an accomplice. And in part they are right. No other country has done as much as Germany has to look squarely into the face of its darkest impulses. In 1996 the government sanctioned Holocaust Memorial Day. Two years ago, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, composed of 2,711 sunken granite slabs, was unveiled over five acres in central Berlin.

Even as the Nazi era recedes deeper into history, an ongoing excavation of the past continues, churning up new and disturbing facts and arguments. Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which indicted all Germans in the atrocities of the 1940s, was a best seller here, though it was highly criticized. And the myth that only the SS carried out atrocities was shattered when the controversial exhibition Crimes of the Wehrmacht (the German army) traveled across the country beginning in 1995. The country was captivated by the film Schindler’s List, and the government awarded director Steven Spielberg the Great Cross of Merit with Star in 1998 for his ‘very noticeable contribution to the issue of the Holocaust’ through his work on the film and for the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

And yet for all the lamentation, commemoration, and education, consider that in a 2005 poll, one out of every two young Germans under the age of 24 could not define what the Holocaust was. Living in the 21st century, many young Germans no longer want to apologize for the events of the 20th, or to remain shamefaced and burdened with the crimes of their grandparents and great-grandparents-particularly in light of what they view as other nations’ more recent atrocities.

This was underscored when the prominent German novelist Martin Walser accepted the Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize in 1998. In his speech, Walser called Auschwitz a ‘moral cudgel’ against Germans, rebuked the ‘Holocaust industry,’ and condemned the ‘exploitation of our disgrace.’ It was a watershed moment, for many said that Walser had the courage to finally admit publicly what so many had been thinking privately. The situation takes another complicated turn when you factor in the former East Germany, where Holocaust denial is pervasive, neo-Nazism is on the rise, and anti-Semitism runs high. Last year, the state of Saxony Anhalt was the scene of two particularly ugly incidents. In the small town of Parey, three teenagers forced another to wear a sign with the Nazi-era message ‘In this town I’m the biggest swine because of the Jewish friends of mine.’ In the village of Pretzien, more than 100 neo-Nazis joined a village bonfire, shouting ‘Sieg Heil!’ as they threw copies of The Diary of Anne Frank into the flames.

One might think that’s exactly the kind of thing that would pop up in classroom discussions about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. That is not the case. ‘[We] learn not about anti-Semitism as racism but only about anti-Semitism during World War II,’ explains Julianne Wetzel, a research associate at the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin. The Holocaust is most often talked about dispassionately in the abstract, as if it were something mounted on a wall or installed behind glass. There is very little discussion about its connection to what the country faces today. And while most Germans would probably describe recent events as the raving xenophobia of right-wing extremists, most still define anti-Semitism in Nazi-era terminology. ‘Jews are always seen as victims, never as people,’ says Wetzel.

When I asked young Germans if they had ever discussed the Holocaust or the role their relatives may have played in it, I received mixed reactions. Few were told directly about these things, but many had heard about the manifold suffering of their families: the hunger, the bombings, the loss of material comforts. ‘A lot of people simply don’t deal with it,’ says Gerhard Schick, a documentary filmmaker. ‘There is a big difference between knowing the facts about Auschwitz and admitting this was something horrible and also admitting that this is part of your personal history.’

And so while Germany’s record on national accountability is laudable, it is perhaps somewhat misleading as well. More than half a century after the Holocaust, Jews are still considered an anomaly. Every formal Jewish institution exists behind a fortress of police and state-of-the-art security. Furthermore, despite a population of some 3 million Muslim immigrants, many of whom span multiple generations in the country, a debate continues about who is a German and who is a foreigner.

Just outside southwestern Berlin, near the banks of Wannsee Lake, is an elegant gated villa where Reinhard Heydrich and a group of prominent Nazis gathered to draw up plans for the Final Solution in 1942. Since 1992 Wannsee has been used as a memorial and educational site, offering workshops to youth groups and classes studying National Socialism-Nazism-and the persecution of European Jews.

Wannsee receives lots of immigrant students, and Elke Gryglewski, a political scientist who is one of the center’s educators, says that over the past four years she has noticed what she calls a kind of a competition over historical discourse. The Holocaust, mixed up with the broader conflicts in the Middle East, is the catalyst. ‘Some [immigrant] kids have a high level of empathy for the Jewish population during National Socialism,’ she says. ‘They’ve experienced racism here in Germany and can well imagine better than Germans can what it means to be discriminated against.’ But visiting the site also raises other questions about their own stories. In the case of Palestinian refugees, she says, ‘there is a big debate over history. They want to know who should be guilty for the expulsion of Palestinians.’

Young kids, she says, ‘have their own traumas that are passed through generations. Then there is what they are learning in school. They see what is important in this society, and sometimes they do things to provoke and get attention for their own history. ‘

After September 11, 2001, Gryglewski heard Arab children taking credit for the terror attacks. ‘They said, ‘It was me, I did it,” she recalls. In many cases, she says, ‘their behavior was a cry for attention.’

Wannsee reaches out to Muslim and Arab students by translating its information into Arabic and Turkish and offering material relating to their backgrounds. ‘When they feel accepted,’ she says, ‘they are more willing to deal with the Holocaust.’

Unfortunately, few of the nation’s Holocaust studies programs take that kind of approach. Classes are still largely based on a West German model of re-education meant for a homogeneous student population: the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators and victims. It has yet to adapt to a multicultural society or to cope with rising right-wing extremism. There is no centralized curriculum. The scope and breadth of studies is left up to the 16 German states, which in turn may leave it to the discretion of teachers. There are many dedicated teachers and activists committed to Holocaust studies. Still, a number describe a curriculum badly in need of reform. The average age of instructors is 50; there is an emphasis on horribly graphic images and statistics.

A number of teachers complain that they have little institutional support to deal with racism in the classroom. Frustrated and under pressure, some gloss over the subject, simply excuse some students from participation, or even cancel classes on the topic. This sends a dangerous message, not only reinforcing the students’ prejudice but also telling the kids that they are not full-fledged members of German society.

‘It is wrong to tell Muslims that this doesn’t concern them. It is necessary to be aware of history, of mankind,’ Turkish-born Sanem Kleff told me. Kleff was a middle-school teacher in Berlin for 20 years and is now director of School Without Racism, an alliance of public schools in Berlin. She thinks what is going on is part of a larger failure: ‘Most of these teachers are not prepared to handle the issue of Islamism. They don’t know enough about it. But if teachers don’t do it, there are a lot of Islamist organizations that have their arms open.’

Excerpted from Guilt & Pleasure (Spring 2007), a quarterly magazine that grapples with questions of Jewish identity, community, and meaning. Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 23026, Jackson, MS 39225;

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader‘s September / October package on history:

  • History Lessons
    What we’re taught and what’s ignored
    by Keith Goetzman
  • Can We Handle the Truth?
    America’s selective memory and massacres long since forgotten
    by Howard Zinn, from the book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
  • In the Trenches
    A powerful war poem teaches history–and humility
    by Patrick Hicks, from Florida Review
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