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Before Elie Wiesel Was a Hero to Germans, He Was Regarded as a Nuisance – or Worse

On July 2, the world lost – in the words of Angela Merkel – one of the most notable individuals of the 20th century. The German chancellor referred to the passing of the writer, scholar, and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel, who died at age 87 over the summer in New York City. She called him a “noble reconciler” and an “insistent admonisher,” conveying her gratitude for Wiesel’s efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. His lifetime achievements, a long and productive career as a writer and scholar, and a significant role in the establishment of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (USHMM), made him a moral authority and arguably the world’s most prominent Holocaust survivor. The reactions to Wiesel’s passing in the Germany of 2016, however, stand in remarkable contrast to the attitudes of West Germany’s political leadership towards Wiesel when he was in the process of establishing himself as the world’s eminent champion for Holocaust memorialization.

In the 1970s and 1980s, West German officials were distinctly less fond of Wiesel and greeted his advocacy for Holocaust memory with irritation and concern. The creation of an institutional infrastructure of Holocaust memorialization—exemplified by museums and memorials, memorial days, the establishment of educational and academic programs, and the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust—permanently anchored Holocaust memory into American life. Transplanting the perspective of Holocaust victims into the popular, academic, and intellectual culture of West Germany’s superpower ally was disturbing and distressing for representatives of West Germany, who were convinced that their country had successfully come to terms with the Nazi Past and should not be continuously confronted with its criminal history.

When Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1978, the latter officially became a protagonist of the “Americanization” of the Holocaust and, in the eyes of West Germans, the embodiment of a political and diplomatic problem. In a worst case scenario, German officials feared that learning about the history of the Holocaust, as told from the perspective of a survivor like Wiesel, may even cause Americans to question the Cold War alliance with the Federal Republic.

Consequently, German diplomats and politicians carefully monitored Wiesel's public statements, speeches, writings, and work for the President's Commission and later the US Holocaust Memorial Council. For example, they were highly critical of Wiesel’s “emotional” language and his efforts, based on personal experience, to emphasize the responsibility of ordinary Germans for the Holocaust.

Tensions between Wiesel and the Federal Republic reached their apex in the 1980s, during which time he chaired the US Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1984, for instance, Wiesel vehemently rejected West German considerations to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, an enemy of Israel, calling the Federal Republic a “merchant of death” and the Germans “people without memories.” And, in 1985, Wiesel emerged as the most vocal opponent of Ronald Reagan’s controversial visit to Germany, which included a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial as well as to a German military cemetery near Bitburg.

Since the early 1980s, the Federal Republic’s conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl had worked towards consigning the Nazi past to the history books, and Bitburg was supposed to send a powerful sign of German-American friendship and reconciliation around the globe. The ceremony, however, at the very least implied a blurring of the lines between Nazi victims and perpetrators, which many, not only Wiesel, deemed unacceptable. In a live television interview on the day of Reagan’s visit, he told Tom Brokaw: “The road from Bergen-Belsen to Bitburg is a very long one, and I thought it would take centuries for humankind to cross it. And the president of the United States has just crossed it in less than one hour.”

Although mostly directed at Reagan, the German Chancellery met Wiesel’s vocal opposition with anger and disregard. Kohl and his advisors, however, believed they had been correct in their assumption that many American Jews, especially prominent Holocaust survivors, their organizations, and Jewish journalists, were determined to undermine Germany’s rehabilitation in the United States. With reference to Wiesel, Kohl stated disparagingly behind closed doors: “Mister Wiesel, who came from Auschwitz … is operating in this matter with a particular severity against us, to a degree that I cannot completely understand, as I wish politely to put it.”

At this time, the leadership around Kohl had come to perceive themselves as the victims of American Holocaust memory and were determined to avert damage, as it were, to the country’s reputation abroad. Perhaps even more so than during the Bitburg controversy, they saw Wiesel as an antagonist in the context of the establishment of America’s national Holocaust museum on the Mall in Washington. Kohl and his advisors perceived the plans for this institution a particular slight against Germany, in their eyes the United States’ most loyal Cold War ally. To avert damage to the Federal Republic’s reputation, German intermediaries tried for more than a decade to persuade the museum planners to integrate postwar German history and the history of German anti-Nazi military resistance into the exhibition concept. They aimed to show that not all Germans had been Nazis during the Third Reich and that the Federal Republic was distinctly different from Nazi Germany.

Though Wiesel agreed to set up a German-American Committee on Learning and Remembrance to discuss issues concerning the museum in the aftermath of Bitburg, its content was never up for negotiation. To Wiesel, the committee’s task was to find “a new avenue in German–American relations without forgetting the Holocaust.” He was convinced that such a forum, had it been founded earlier, could have averted the Bitburg scandal. Not only Wiesel, but also many other Holocaust survivors in the United States saw Kohl’s insistence on the ceremony as an indicator that West Germany was struggling to accept historical responsibility for the Holocaust, that the country lacked adequate Holocaust education, and that this created an opportunity for the revival of Neo-Nazism.

Nevertheless, West German intermediaries tried to win over Wiesel, though without much success in the end. Among numerous initiatives and proposals, supporting Wiesel’s campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize evolved as the most promising strategy. An advisor to Kohl noted that, in order to convince the museum planners to accommodate the German government’s suggestions, “we would have to get the leading American Jews on our side, and for this purpose it would be ideal to support the efforts of the most prominent Jew, Prof. Elie Wiesel, to receive the Nobel Prize.” Such thinking was consistent with a specific form of West German secondary anti-Semitism, which suggested that Jews refused to forgive the Germans for the Holocaust, and that they exploited Holocaust memory for political reasons at the expense of postwar Germany.

For these reasons, but also out of fear of the alleged power of “the influential Jews in America,” a campaign by the German Bundestag was orchestrated in support of Wiesel’s bid for the Nobel Prize. Needless to say, the roughly 80 parliamentarians who signed the petition did not recommend Wiesel because he was America’s “most prominent Jew,” but officially because “with great persuasion he has encouraged people around the world to reach a higher grade of moral sensitivity…. It would be a great encouragement for all, among them the German people, who dedicate themselves to reconciliation.”

Even though Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the year he also resigned from the chairmanship of the Holocaust Council, the museum planners — many of them survivors of the Holocaust — did not accommodate German requests for a modification of the museum. And it was only during the 1990s, after the opening of the USHMM, that the German government abandoned its claim to a codetermination in the shaping of Holocaust memory abroad, as well as its critical position to Wiesel.

In the new millennium, the Holocaust has become a paradigm for mass crime and genocide, the embodiment of barbarism and human rights violations, and the fate of the Jews has been transformed into a universally recognized point of reference for other victim groups. As a result, its terminology, iconography, and imagery has traveled, been appropriated, politicized, used and abused outside its original historical context. This universalization of the Holocaust, which we can see in the United States, Germany, and many other countries, also had a significant impact on the reputation of Holocaust survivors.

In this process, Elie Wiesel, who commanded unrivaled attention among Holocaust survivors around the globe, became a moral authority and a celebrity, also in Germany. In 2000, Wiesel gave the official address to the Bundestag on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and in 2009, he returned with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel to Buchenwald, from where he had been liberated in 1945.

Today, Germany acknowledges its criminal history and its leaders have changed their minds about Wiesel. Indeed, the country's political leadership actively accepts historical responsibility and openly identifies with its past. It is thus not at all surprising that Germany’s political elites today admire and revere Wiesel, and that Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, and many others, have embraced his moral message and praised his achievements as an advocate for Holocaust memory emphatically on the occasion of his passing. One should not forget, however, that Germany’s coming to terms with the Nazi past was a difficult, contradictory, and long-winded process, which is also reflected in the country’s ambivalent attitudes towards Elie Wiesel.