State of Denial

Germany and Colonial Genocide

Following the 7 October attacks and subsequent bombing of Gaza, there were alarming developments in Germany.

The truth hurts. Rathaus Neukölln, May 2021.

Palestine activists have long been familiar with restrictions to freedom of speech, especially since the government’s 2019 anti-BDS resolution and since 2022, freedom of assembly.

That year was the first to see pre-emptive bans on Palestine-related demonstrations, specifically ones marking the Nakba. The mass expulsions and massacres of Palestinians in the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing campaign that led up to Israel’s foundation.

The bans became so numerous that they even drew the attention of Amnesty International, which included them in their news list about human rights issues in May 2022 and published a report on the subject in September 2023 – ironically, before the massive intensification of such measures in October.

The first two weeks of the Sukkot War saw a series of bans in Berlin and other cities, and even a demonstration organised by Jewish Voice, with a title explicitly referring to Jewish Berliners as the initiators, was prohibited with the usual justification that it would endanger public order and security because of emotional Palestinians and Arabs.

It didn’t take long for politicians and media to start whipping up Islamophobic and anti-migrant sentiment. The president of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, referred to pro-Palestinian demonstrators as “barbarians”, and protests were often categorised indiscriminately as “pro-Hamas”.

A phrase that has become popular in the last few years, imported Antisemitism, seemed to appear daily, used by figures across the political spectrum.

Aside from the absurd notion that Germany lacks home-grown Antisemitism and has no need to import it, the message is that what has been imported can be exported again – that is, deported.

One case is especially grotesque.

Rightwing politician Hubert Aiwanger, leader of the Free Voters party and deputy state premier of Bavaria, lamented that uncontrolled immigration had brought large numbers of Jew-haters into the country.

Tellingly, Aiwanger had been at the centre of a racist scandal in August when a copy of a satirical pamphlet he distributed in high school was sent to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which broke the story.

The typed pamphlet, a mock advertisement for a competition to find the greatest traitor to the nation, offered various Holocaust torments as prizes for the winners.

One particularly memorable formulation is a “free flight through the chimney of Auschwitz”.

The pamphlet was a grotesque compilation of Holocaust jokes for which Aiwanger apologised, though it was his brother who finally came forward as its supposed author.

Several reports from schoolmates emerged describing Aiwanger’s admiration for Hitler and general Nazi outlook during his school days.

The scandal was brief, and Aiwanger retained his position and the support of his boss, the state premier Markus Söder.

In subsequent beer tent speeches, Aiwanger proudly celebrated his victory over witch hunters and cancel culture.

Meanwhile, the radio and TV presenter Malcolm Ohanwe, from a Nigerian-Palestinian background, became the latest media worker of colour to be fired for comments about Palestine.

Ohanwe had dared to point out that the Hamas attack had occurred in response to a sustained, inhumane blockade and occupation and was dropped by several broadcasters in quick succession.

With Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enjoying over 20% approval ratings for several months, making it the second most popular party in Germany after the conservative CDU, Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated in Der Spiegel that it would be necessary to deport asylum seekers on a grand scale. The quote accompanied Scholz’s face on the cover.

The front page of the following issue showed four worried faces with the headline: “Jew-Hatred in Germany: We’re Scared.”

Taken together, the two covers sent an alarming message: we must deport migrants to protect Jews.

The second cover story mainly focused on the heightened threat of Antisemitism following 7 October in the Israel-Palestine context, with only a brief mention of the danger from the AfD.

In one paragraph that is especially revealing of the distorted German perspective on Palestine, the authors referred to the recent protest slogan “Free Palestine from German guilt.”

The point it makes is that Palestinians are bearing the brunt of Germany’s Holocaust guilt since this is invoked to justify unconditional support for Israel and, thus the oppression and destruction of Palestinians.

Indeed, one might add that since the Nakba was caused in part by the Holocaust, without which Jewish immigration to Palestine would not have occurred on such a massive scale, Germany also bears substantial responsibility for all that happened to Palestinians from that point onwards.

In the article and elsewhere, however, “Free Palestine from German guilt” has been misread in a typically Germanocentric way.

The slogan is treated as downplaying the historical burden of the Holocaust, as using the same argumentation invoked by figures on the far-right who say that it is time to move on from a focus on Holocaust remembrance in favour of a return to shame-free nationalism.

As much as Germany has been admired elsewhere for vigorously acknowledging and supposedly coming to terms with its genocidal past (the philosopher Susan Neiman even published a book entitled Learning from the Germans), its intense preoccupation with the Holocaust has partially blinded it to the broader issue of genocide and colonial violence in different parts of the world.

Although the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in present-day Namibia has long been known, it is only through the work of historians like Jürgen Zimmerer that the issue has been kept alive as part of Germany’s colonial legacy, which has been almost entirely obscured by the Holocaust.

This tunnel vision has led to outrage over the efforts by such scholars as Michael Rothberg or Dirk Moses to develop what Rothberg, in his book of the same name, calls “multidirectional memory”, a historical and cultural understanding that brings together different experiences and histories instead of promoting competing narratives about who committed the worst atrocities and which events are most worthy of commemoration.

This agenda of universalist empathy has offended those who promote the singularity of the Holocaust and consider any comparisons to other crimes blasphemous. This attitude flies in the face of any serious historical research.

Unsurprisingly, the conference ‘We Still Need to Talk’, which was to take place in December with a large selection of international scholars and writers from the humanities, focusing on this multidirectional approach to history and memory, was cancelled.

Organised by Rothberg and the Berlin-based South African artist Candice Breitz (both Jewish), the conference was to be held by the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

On 24 October, however, the agency postponed the conference indefinitely, writing on its website: “It is a time for mourning and for our solidarity with Israel and the victims.”

It appears that they were not referring to any of the civilians killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza.

The numerous demonstration bans had constituted an unprecedented level of repression, but a further alarming development was the escalation in heavy-handed policing methods. These ranged from outright assault to polite enforcement of illegal rules.

After the Jewish-led demonstration planned in Berlin for 14 October was forbidden, one Jewish Voice member, Iris Hefets, decided to carry out a one-woman protest, an individual expression of opinion unaffected by such a ban.

Hefets walked across Hermannplatz, a square in Berlin’s Neukölln district (which is known for its high Arab population), holding a handwritten sign with the words “As an Israeli and a Jew, stop the genocide in Gaza.”

When some police officers came and ordered her to put it away, she refused, knowing very well that she was within her rights. They insisted she had to desist, flying in the face of the law, and subsequently detained her. The incident was captured on video and soon went viral.

Because there was no legal basis for the arrest, the police had to let her go without any charges. She returned to her previous position and resumed her protest, guarded by the police to ensure that no additional persons would join her since that would have constituted an assembly, which was prohibited.

I arrived on the scene shortly afterwards and witnessed two further arrests on the same grounds.

A young man positioned himself some distance away, holding a Palestinian flag. Several police officers approached him to end his silent protest, and the situation soon escalated.

One officer tried unsuccessfully to pull the flag from his hands, then others pushed the man to the ground, bound his hands and dragged him away. It was a thuggish display of state power with no legal legitimacy.

Before long, another solo protest was underway, with a young woman holding a sign that read “Stop the genocide in Gaza”. When she refused to obey the unjustified police orders, she was picked up and carried away. The protestor was later charged with resisting arrest.

As I stood watching, a police officer came aggressively towards me and threatened to arrest me if I didn’t make a swift exit.

It became clear in those days that there was now an extreme focus on words and symbols related to the Palestine issue.

At some Berlin schools, students were forbidden from wearing the kufiya, the Middle Eastern scarf indelibly associated with the Palestinian cause. The same applied to “Free Palestine” stickers or any representations of Palestine.

By expanding its repression in this way, the German state had officially declared war on Palestinian identity.

In one school, a male teacher struck a student who was displaying the Palestinian flag. The incident was captured on video, but the Berlin police used the fact that the teenager had hit back to spread the false narrative that it was he who had initiated the scuffle.

It was not the first time the police had been responsible for such misinformation. Following a large Nakba Day protest in May 2023 that had been violently disrupted, the police and supportive media had also promoted a twisted version of events.

Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere, such collaboration does not bode well for accountability in Germany.

On 22 October, an open letter was published bearing the signatures of various Jewish intellectuals and artists living in Germany, including some Jewish Voice members.

It decried the repression and insisted on the importance of being able to demonstrate freely in solidarity with Palestinians.

One of the letter’s initiators was the Berlin-based US writer Ben Mauk, who had been pepper-sprayed by police at a demonstration – while filming a violent arrest, appropriately enough.

While there had undoubtedly been an increase in Antisemitic incidents in Germany and internationally since the start of the Sukkot War, the reporting here had focused far more on subjective impressions of threat and fear than on hard facts – or, for that matter, on the heightened threat to Muslims or those perceived as such.

Unlike the majority of Jews in Germany, who experience Antisemitism in the form of insults, threats and sometimes violence, but not as systemic disadvantage, people from Muslim and non-white backgrounds face such discrimination throughout their lives, most obviously in the contexts of housing and employment.

This is obscured by the overpowering history of genocidal Antisemitism in Germany, and attacks on mosques or visible Muslims receive less media attention than those on synagogues and visibly Jewish persons.

Accordingly, the Molotov cocktails thrown at a Berlin synagogue one night in mid-October were major news, while the hate mail and dog faeces sent to mosques were reported but had little impact on the Judeocentric nature of the discourse.

We should not take this discourse as something beneficial to Jews, however. We are the ‘good’ Others who are used against the ‘bad’ Others, with understandable fears cynically being stoked by politicians and media. The fascists who are hostile to Muslims, Jews and any perceived Others are a threat to all minorities.

In addition, this divisive approach greatly harms solidarity between communities. Official Germany is too focused on its own post-Holocaust identity to pay attention to this, and the mainstreaming of far-right talking points makes it increasingly unlikely that this will change.

Another American Jewish expat writer, Ben Miller, who also signed the open letter, tweeted in October: “I refuse to believe that armoured riot cops stomping out vigil candles protects my life in Germany or fights antisemitism.”

Sadly, few people seem to grasp this obvious point.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.