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Antisemitism in East Germany: Notes on an Exhibition

Perhaps we just were lucky and simply picked the right moment. Perhaps it was the logical consequence of many years of work, gaining experience, and reflecting on many conflicts, including personal ones. Some things need their time and then, perhaps, if we are lucky, we catch hold of the one end of the thread just at the right moment and that leads to the untangling of the web that hides things. At least partially we were successful in this respect with the exhibition “‘We just didn’t have that’: Anti-Semitism in the GDR.” Working with 76 youths from 8 cities in Eastern Germany, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation began to research local history in 2006. The Foundation had the results of this research vetted by historians and presented the findings to the public in an exhibition in May of 2007. Most of the participants in the process come from the former GDR. Some of them are also Jewish. Since re-unification we had been trying to encourage a public discussion about anti-Semitism in the GDR: while there had been some interesting scholarly research on the topic, there had been no public engagement with it. The exhibition has unleashed wide ranging discussion on the issue at different events, conferences, and in the media. And the discussion is not only about the former East Germany. It is a debate about a heritage that affects all of Germany, a debate about ideologies, repression and new anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism as a “Secondary Contradiction”

One would think that the topic of “anti-Semitism in East Germany” were an obvious one—after all, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, a.k.a. East Germany) was created on the land and with people who until 1945 had been actively or passively involved in the murder of the Jews of Europe. But while the Federal Republic (West Germany) somehow dealt with the topic of the Nazi past and even at times with the topic of anti-Semitism, the beginnings of East Germany and of the creation of a new social identity for its citizens were based on the claim to have put the past behind once and for all. A unique symbiotic relation ensued between the ideological construct of state power and the needs of the people. The political leadership of the East German state-party, the SED, treated anti-Semitism as a rather unimportant “secondary contradiction,” since in its view, the “principal contradiction,” class struggle, had been resolved in the GDR. This corresponded to the need to repress and forget that was strongly present in the East German population. The focus was on the struggle between the good working class, which might occasionally be seduced due to economic circumstances, and bad capital, which was responsible for everything. The focus was clearly not on specific, individual Nazi perpetrators and their victims. However the perpetrators, bystanders, and profiteers of Nazi anti-Semitism were as present in the GDR as they were in the West.

But when, in accordance with Marxist-Leninist ideology and its definition of fascism, not societies and individuals, that is, not “the people” were responsible for fascism and war but solely the most aggressive representatives of finance capitalism, then a new boundary was created between victims (the working class) and perpetrators (the bourgeoisie), a line that was reinforced politically and ideologically in the antagonism between socialism and capitalism. “Anti-fascism” then had a double function: it provided the ideological basis necessary and useful in the context of the Cold War in the conflict against the West, and it provided the “common people” in the “Workers’ and Farmers’ State,” as the GDR referred to itself, with a morally acceptable exoneration from guilt or complicity in the crimes of the Nazis.

The Price for the End of the Terror

This ideological connection and its high moral implications made it possible for many left German intellectuals after the war to feel attracted to the young GDR, which claimed in its first constitution that it had destroyed fascism “root and branch.” Thus, with its anti-fascism as reason of state, for many of those formerly persecuted it offered a credible antithesis to the terrors of National Socialism, which had only just been overcome. Those who returned from exile, from the camps or from hiding, were Jews who in some sense tacitly agreed to a contract with the GDR. As much as possible they “left behind” their personal experiences of betrayal, humiliation, persecution, and murder through their German neighbors or, rather, they reduced the memories they told to a conflict between fascists and anti-fascists. Outside that framework no accusations or even reproaches were made. In exchange they received through the state and its ideology a guarantee of protection against any contestation and the promise of a modest career. For its part, the post-Nazi society, which had until then en masse tolerated anti-Semitism as central element in its worldview, now accepted its former victims as their new political or artistic elite. In this explanatory framework, both had been victims of fascism and war. This was a symbiotic relation, in other words, that factored out the question of guilt and forgave those who had been the victims their victimization. Even more: through the anti-fascists, the Jews and the resistance fighters, all members of society became anti-fascists. The common foundation that formed the basis of post-War society in the GDR was the taboo that lay over this conflict. The biggest taboo concerned the most insignificant of “secondary contradictions”: anti-Semitism.

Tackling the Taboo

The great interest generated by the exhibition “‘We just didn’t have that’: Anti-Semitism in the GDR” is related to this taboo. Thirty-six display boards present exemplary cases of anti-Semitic actions that span the range of East German history. The exhibition deals as much with the official state attitude to Jewish remembrance, including Jewish cemeteries, which is marked by a brutal indifference about or a complete silence over Jewish life and death, as it does with the representation of the Middle East conflict in the East German media, which didn’t shy away from anti-Semitic comparisons in order to demonize Israel. In this context the research clearly shows that the GDR also actively supported the anti-Semitic terrorism of the Abu-Nidal group, which carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks outside of Israel, aiming to kill as many Jews as possible. Some display boards show the strengthening of neo-Nazis in the GDR in the 1980s. The documentation from the Ministry of State Security (the Stasi) concerning this issue blames the West for this phenomenon in general and in the particular cases. The final display boards deal with the instrumentalization of the remaining Jewish communities toward the end of the GDR. All examples illustrate the coldness based on ideological moralism and the repression of the Nazi murder of the Jews. At present the Foundation is in the process of revising and adding to the exhibition. Display boards are being added about the persecution of Jews in the 1950s both within and outside of the SED, that is, of both religious and Communist Jews, about the reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem by the East German media, which included hardly any information about the victims of the Nazis but contained most detailed information about the Nazi past of West German politicians. We are also working on the representation of the highly ideological image of fascist persecution and the anti-fascist resistance struggle in film and literature in the GDR.

The Debate Begins

Since its inauguration in May 2007, the exhibition has travelled from city to city without a break. Over 70 articles have appeared in daily and weekly papers as well as in the electronic media; a number of essays as well as a book have been published on it. There were many and well-attended discussions, many letters to the editor, entries in the guest book, and a series of events that were not part of the exhibition’s program but completely independent. The debates within the Left party (die Linke), the successor party to the former East German governing party, the SED, about its attitude to Israel and to anti-Semitism were in part incited by the exhibition. The numerous, at times very personal debates indicate how great both denial of and interest in the topic are. Of course, every taboo exerts a great fascination. But in order either to deal with the taboo or to undo it, it first needs to be acknowledged as such.

The Taboo Lives On

It is surprising how strong the taboo remains, nearly 20 years after re-unification. While West Germany managed to keep its anti-Semitism relatively under control for years through a wide-ranging consensus about its social and especially political repudiation, East Germany could only protect itself through a thorough taboo because it was not an open, democratic society without the rule of law. But there is a significant difference between repudiation and taboo. While repudiation recognizes that there is such a thing as anti-Semitism and such people as Jews, who are its victims, the basic structure of the taboo is to deny the existence of both. It is all the more remarkable that such a taboo has been adopted in the political discourses of Germany after unification. It has always been difficult to speak about anti-Semitism in the West, but the possibility that there might have been anti-Semitism in the East doesn’t even come up as a question in the reunified Germany. The German Bundestag has published over 20 volumes by the different parliamentary committees dealing with German unification. The term anti-Semitism is not to be found in any of the volumes. How is this possible when precisely the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, that “dark chapter” of German history, is constantly cited as the frame of reference par excellence for understanding the present? Just about everything has been compared for East and West Germany since unification: the behavior of citizens in the new states, every habit, every difference, and every particularity. Just one thing has been omitted: their relation to the memory of the Holocaust. The taboo was simply accepted in unified Germany. This becomes evident when one considers the absence of any sort of public discussion about this issue involving all of Germany. This general acceptance of the taboo after unification may be one of the reasons for the strong reactions that the exhibition has generated.

Origins and Consequences

But let us analyze this taboo of the anti-fascist GDR in some more detail. It finds its basis in the hatred of Jews to be found in the tradition of German idealism. Karl Marx, whose texts form the foundation of leftist ideology and whose theories were sacrosanct in the GDR, had made unmistakable pronouncements on the Jewish question in the spirit of idealism. Certainly, historians, philosophers, and Marx specialists have debated for 150 years now about how this needs to be understood. There have been many different interpretations about Marx’s anti-Semitic language and stereotypes about “the Jews.” The debates about his language and symbols were often highly ideological. But one cannot deny the consistency with which anti-Semitism was expressed in Marx’s personal milieu, his letters and writings, as Micha Brumlik convincingly argues in his book on German Idealism and Jew-Hatred. For Marx, the emancipation of the people was only possible through the emancipation from the Jews. Emancipation could only include Jews if they gave up their Jewishness. Their “particularity,” as he called it, was a collection of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Marx demanded of no other ethnic, national, religious, or cultural group that it renounce itself in order to participate in emancipation. In other words, Jews, if they insisted in remaining such, were excluded from emancipation, in contrast to all others. Not long after the Nazis had turned the idea of emancipation completely on its head and murdered Jews irrespective of their self-definition, their degree of assimilation or self-denial, the anti-fascist ideology of the GDR continued to follow the Marxian notion about Jews after the genocide with icy rigidity. In the GDR, the only Jews that were considered Jews were religious ones—this led almost automatically to the attitude that considered Judaism a religion and consequently as well an example of “opium for the masses.” A Jewish particularity, a history, an identity, a cultural heritage: all that was disavowed, denied. Moreover, religious expression, including Jewish religious expression, was politically unwanted and consequently dangerous.

Even today in their disputes with the exhibition, the so-called “fascism” researchers from the now-defunct GDR continue to defend the practice in East Germany of not taking into account the Jewish victims of the Nazis. They argue that, after all, European Jews were citizens of their country, seldomly religious and for the most part assimilated. They claim that these Jews would not have wanted to be remembered as Jews. Apart from the hubris evidenced by non-Jewish Germans who took it upon themselves again to decide who is Jewish and who isn’t, such a claim was and is simply wrong. Nevertheless, the Jews as a specific group of victims disappeared step by step from the East German culture of memory. For example, whereas the first monument set up in Buchenwald by the former inmates themselves explicitly mentions Jews among the victims, neither the word “Jewish” nor any reference to Jewish inmates is to be found in the East German monument. Our exhibition shows a number of instances of this practice. East German history provides many examples of the fact that the denial of a specific Jewish history and particularity went hand in hand with an insistence on such particularity when Jews were needed as chief witnesses. This happened when in the fifties and later, Jewish communists were accused of “cosmopolitanism,” liberalism, and Zionism, three terms whose connotations in the GDR were both destructive and anti-Semitic. This also happened when Jews were called upon as Jews to make public pronouncements on these issues and thus to prove that the GDR was not anti-Semitic. That is, Jews were called upon to support anti-Semitic waves and to defend them as justified: after the Six Day War, a particularly aggressive declaration against Israel was published, signed by “Jewish citizens of the GDR.” Repeatedly, Jews sang the praises of socialism in the East German media. In the various discussions about the exhibition, especially when aggression was directed toward the makers of the exhibition, the “many Jews” who were party members and state servants in the GDR were brought up.

Anti-fascism and its resolute disavowal of anti-Semitism in the GDR is not a saga or a myth, not a made-up story or a legend, as people often claim in the West. It belongs to the core of an ideology that gave primacy to economic relations over the autonomy of people. Reactions to the exhibition show how well and alive that ideology continues to be. As has already been argued, this ideological figure was used in East Germany to legitimate denial, cold-heartedness and disavowal. What is surprising, however, is that also a large number of commentators from West Germany take East German anti-fascism for an actual and effective form of working through the past. This became particularly clear when the discussion turned to the current neo-Nazi scene in the regions that were formerly East Germany. Commentators look for the roots of current neo-Nazi developments above all in unemployment and a poor economic infrastructure, but not in the possible transgenerational transmission of anti-Semitic stereotypes that were never dealt with or discussed. The complete lack of basic democratic rights in the GDR, a democratic foundation that would have enabled a discussion about the behavior of individuals during the Nazi time, seems to make no difference for many commentators from Western Germany.

This is a crucial difference—indeed, it is the essential difference between the two German societies. Many who visited the exhibition, especially left liberals from West Germany, would agree with the notion that the opposite of fascism is not anti-fascism, but rather a democratic culture, though they rarely realize that this applies to their own history as well. Since they came of age politically into left-wing, often dogmatic groups, most of them were convinced that the fascism of the fathers could only be countered through a rigorous, political anti-fascism, as it was practiced, they thought, in the GDR. For them, the exhibition brought up the idea for the first time that East Germany had not managed to eradicate its anti-Semitism per decree. On this count it was difficult to shake their image of the GDR, as critical as it was on many other counts. They themselves had contributed to the myth of anti-fascism in the GDR, because without that affirmation, particularly from West Germany, the ideological and moral legitimation for the GDR would not have worked.

Farewell to Anti-Fascism

The long farewell to this illusion has only just begun. Possibly, as many conversations suggest, it was a longing projected onto the GDR. The GDR seemed to have gotten it right: no burdensome discussions about anti-Semitism, no debates about Israel (in the GDR, aggressive and frequently anti-Semitic criticism of Israel was state doctrine, and that without any feelings of guilt), no struggle for an open society with all its capacity to handle conflict, but rather quick trials of Nazis and war criminals. Of course, this projection also reflected the heaviness, the denial, and the endless search for the appropriate moment to finally put the past behind, once and for all. This projection was nourished by all the efforts that had been required in the old Federal Republic of Germany to confront the heritage of the Nazis, particularly in the form of those who continued to be active persons in politics, and not only there. And the projection included as well its measure of uncertainty as to whether or not the process of coming to terms with the past in the West might be considered successful or complete, as the GDR claimed was the case for itself.

But also the political opponents of the left-leaning liberals, the conservatives and even the rightist conservatives had their problems with the exhibition. Because next to the myth of the Germans as the constant victims of (pick your choice) war, Nazism, the Allies, the occupation forces, the Communists, etc., also their inner antithetical bond with East Germany contributed to legitimizing the GDR. To deal with this particular GDR-symbiosis would mean for those historians to pose the question as to the character of the dictatorship and not simply to bemoan the absence of democratic institutions and the principle of law, but rather to recognize as well how great the agreement was, at least on this count, between the population of East Germany and the SED leadership. In that respect, the perspective of West German conservatives only seizes onto yet another myth of German victimhood when they consider the population of the GDR simply as victims of the “Communist dictatorship.” In this conservative version of things, the dictatorship consisted of a cadre of camp survivors who somehow held the East German population morally at ransom. This version does not acknowledge this Blood-and-Soil symbiosis that was based on the taboo. Because this might very well imply that even the Nazis had not erected a traditional dictatorship that violently suppressed the will of the people, but rather that Nazism, too, depended on a popular symbiosis that was based precisely upon the very content of the antifascist taboo of the GDR: anti-Semitism.

A Topic for all of Germany?

One question kept surfacing across the political spectrum of respondents to the exhibition: is this discussion of concern only for the former GDR, or does it reflect a problem for the whole of Germany, East and West? And how can a West German react to it? With condescension? With sympathy? With a refusal to sympathize? With feelings of having to compete, as in “we had it much worse/better/easier/more difficult”? Both left-wing liberal and right-wing conservatives from West Germany shared the desire to overlook their common, significant wound: the infernal anti-Semitism without which it would not have been possible to slaughter millions. And this wish bound both political sides to the population of the GDR.

With this we arrive at the Cold War, which plays a major role in the ways in which the exhibition was received. In the guest books there are numerous entries that declare that the Cold War is not over yet. They accuse the organizers of the exhibition of consciously and maliciously wanting to undo the legitimacy of the GDR in the context of current-day Germany, twenty years after the fall of the Wall. They accuse the exhibition of being a deliberate attempt to take away the last and truly indisputable merit of the GDR: anti-fascism. The critics stooped to the lowest levels and did not shy away from comparing the exhibition to Goebbels’s propaganda, which followed the motto that a lie only has to be big enough and repeated long enough in order to be believed—this kind of comparison is coincidentally a strategy that the GDR regularly used to discredit its detractors. In their depictions of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, several commentators emphasize the fact that the foundation cooperates with sponsors from the business world, and cite gleefully the nobility titles of some of the members of its Board. The criticism has even included personal slights with anti-Semitic connotations. Because all of the examples provided in the exhibition are supported by verifiable evidence, these particularly vociferous and aggressive critics demanded that one should report about anti-Semitism in West Germany, which they claimed had been more obvious and had shown itself more frequently and more violently. They insisted that the exhibition was proof that the Cold War continues. In this context, Jewish witnesses who had been close to the state apparatus in the GDR spoke out. Their opinions were broadcast loudly in the media that continue to be loyal to the GDR in the former regions of East Germany,

Thus, interesting debates ensued about the character of the state and social system of the GDR in general, and as to whether or not the fact that synagogues in East Germany did not need external police surveillance might be connected to the fact that synagogues were under internal surveillance on the part of the Stasi. And in this context, it was not simply the old Stalinists who praised the legitimation of the Stasi. In the discussions democracy hardly figured as a measure of things, not even West Germans seemed willing to introduce the topic. The argument seemed a bit whimsical that under democratic conditions, that is, when we are not talking about a police and surveillance state, the security measures concerning external and internal surveillance are usually reversed and follow a different set of goals. Very few dared to contradict the Jewish witnesses who had either been part of the GDR congregation or were children of Jewish Communists. Thus, a discussion did ensue that brought up many different questions, questions that showed how great the taboo and the symbiotic relation had been, and at the same time, how great the need for discussion had become.

Why this Debate is important now

What is the issue behind this debate? And why is it so important today? Some visitors thought that it might be important in order to understand neo-Nazis today. Neo-Nazi ideology does not manifest itself in its classical national-conservative form but rather in a social-revolutionary variant. And although it should be obvious that neo-Nazism is based on the transgenerational transmission of contents that society has not confronted, there is to this day an economic version of the discourse of German victimization that encourages unemployed Germans, particularly in the East, to become neo-Nazis, as if precarious social conditions, especially in Germany, necessarily led people to act violently toward representatives of marginalized groups or ethnic minorities. And to this day as well this discourse makes the actual victims of Nazi violence disappear from public awareness. One important conclusion from this debate was that it was necessary to become aware that it was deliberate policy on the part of the ruling party in East Germany, the SED, that had led to the repression and taboo that are at the root of much of the racism and anti-Semitism we confront today.

The young people who had participated in the development of the exhibition talked about something else as well. For them, the culture of memory is important for the future of the current Germany. If we don’t find a new, common, and critical perspective, they said, there could not be a unified Germany nor, for that matter, a unified Europe. Because precisely the expansion of the European Union to the East would bring a new wave of post-Communist repression, of anti-Semitism and a new, blatant nationalism that affects their daily life, claimed many of the Jewish immigrant children from the former Soviet Union. This too is a significant observation, since in many of the discussions the term “universalism” was invoked time and again in connection with the (antifascist) “internationalism” of the GDR and its East European allies. But internationalism wasn’t simply a myth of the “friendship among the peoples”; it resembled what today the New Right propagates under the banner of ethno-pluralism and means the parallel existence of peoples with occasional contact at the national level—but most definitely no mixing.

But that is exactly the opposite of what the new Europe needs today: Europe needs more than multinational or multicultural thinking, but rather cosmopolitan thinking in order to stand its ground in a globalized world. But how would that be possible without the bearers of that once great European tradition, without the European Jews? How is it possible without the memory of the European Jews, and without a serious dedication to finally do away with the greatest impediment to cosmopolitanism, i.e., anti-Semitism?

Now, twenty years after unification, the discussion of a common culture of memory in Germany has only just begun. Today, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are not simply issues on their own. The question about their significance in a post-communist German and European society needs to be posed again. And without any taboo.

Translated by Andrés Nader

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