With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Does Germany's Holocaust Education Give Cover to Nativism?

SOMETIME IN THE 2000S, a group of mostly Turkish women from an immigrant group called Neighborhood Mothers began meeting in the Neukölln district of Berlin to learn about the Holocaust. Their history lessons were part of a program facilitated by members of the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a Christian organization dedicated to German atonement for the Shoah. The Neighborhood Mothers were terrified by what they learned in these sessions. “How could a society turn so fanatical?” a group member named Nazmiye later recalled thinking. “We began to ask ourselves if they could do such a thing to us as well . . . whether we would find ourselves in the same position as the Jews.” But when they expressed this fear on a church visit organized by the program, their German hosts became apoplectic. “They told us to go back to our countries if this is how we think,” Nazmiye said. The session was abruptly ended and the women were asked to leave.

There are a number of anecdotes like this in anthropologist Esra Özyürek’s Subcontractors of Guilt, a recently published study of the array of German Holocaust education programs dedicated to integrating Arab and Muslim immigrant communities into the country’s ethos of responsibility and atonement for Nazi crimes. As Özyürek shows, those who pass through these programs often draw connections their guides do not intend—to nativist violence in contemporary Germany, or to the bloody circumstances they fled in Syria, Turkey, and Palestine. For many Germans, the anxieties these historical encounters stoke for migrants are, in Özyürek’s words, the “wrong emotions.” One German guide who leads concentration camp tours recalled being “irritated” by members of immigrant tour groups voicing the fear that “they will be sent there next.” “There was a sense that they didn’t belong here, and that they should not be engaging with the German past,” the guide said. To be really German, they were supposed to play the part of repentant perpetrators, not potential victims.

This expectation has become the basis for what scholars Michael Rothberg and Yasemin Yildiz have called the “migrant double bind.” In this paradigm, the core of contemporary “Germanness” is found in a certain sensitivity to antisemitism, conferred through a direct, likely familial relationship to the Third Reich. Migrants and racialized minorities are expected to assume the per­petrators’ legacy; when they fail, this is taken as a sign that they do not really belong in Germany. In other words, in a paradox typical of the upside-down dynamics surrounding Jews, Arabs, and Germans in contemporary Germany, a questionably conceived anti-antisemitism has become the mechanism for keeping Germanness Aryan.

These dynamics are largely absent from the mainstream story about memory culture in Germany, which in recent decades has cemented its reputation as a paragon of national reckoning. For The Atlantic’s December 2022 cover story, poet and scholar Clint Smith traveled to Germany to see for himself what the country’s atonement process might teach the United States about confronting its own history of racist atrocity. In the piece’s final line, he appears to give the Germans an A for effort: “It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.” Smith is far from the only one to come away impressed by Germany’s example; from Canada to Britain to Japan, observers have looked to Germany as a model for how to contend with their own nations’ crimes. As Andrew Silverstein reports in this issue, Spanish memory activists seeking to jump-start their country’s internal reckoning with the violence of Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship have adopted the German practice of installing “Stolpersteine,” or remembrance stones, in the street.

Germany’s commitment to memory is undeniably impressive; no other global power has worked nearly as hard to apprehend its past. Yet while the world praises its culture of contrition, some Germans—in particular, Jews, Arabs, and other minorities—have been sounding the alarm that this approach to memory has largely been a narcissistic enterprise, with strange and disturbing consequences. The leftist German Jewish writer Fabian Wolff argued in a viral 2021 essay that Germany’s attachment to the past had diminished the space for Jewish life in the present: Germans have no place for “Jewish life [that] exists outside their field of vision and their way of knowing,” he wrote, or for “Jewish conversations about Jewish issues [that] have a meaning beyond and apart from what these Germans themselves think or would like to hear.” 

Read entire article at Jewish Currents