German reunification: 25 years haven’t cured anti-Semitism

The 25th anniversary of German reunification falls on Oct. 3. In thinking about it, I am reminded of how in the summer of 2008, fresh out of college and with a newly minted minor in German, I traveled to Berlin on a summer exchange program for American journalism students and found myself living in the former East Berlin.

The dormitory building that housed Managing Editor Alina Dain Sharon during her exchange program in Berlin in 2008 is an example of a typical GDR-period building. Credit: Alina Dain Sharon.

Besides the usual experiences of studying abroad—such as painfully admitting that eight years of studying German grammar did not prepare me for an actual conversation with native speakers, or navigating a foreign subway system—living in a dormitory on the east side of the city was a particularly unique experience. 

I lived in a dormitory apartment with two roommates—one German and the other French—inside a block building that still boasted much of the structure and coloring of the pre-unification period.

Meanwhile, being that I was participating in a journalism-focused program—and aptly appropriate since I am also Jewish—one of our first assignments was to report on anti-Semitism in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Along with two of my fellow participants, I covered the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German foundation opposing right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism, which was holding an exhibit of archive materials documenting the history of anti-Semitism in the GDR.

According to the foundation, "When Germany was divided into two states after the Second World War, East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Re- public or GDR) portrayed itself and its socialist system as the solution to fascism. In East Germany, Communist resistance was at the center of commemorations and histories of the Nazi era while the Holocaust was at best a marginal topic. The East German state consistently played down or ignored anti-Semitism: widespread anti-Semitic attitudes were not talked about. There was no critical engagement with the anti-Semitism that had been at the core of Nazi ideology."

An article in the Washington Post elaborates on this history. 

In eastern Germany today, "When a scholar rings and asks: 'I would like to speak with you about anti-Semitism in the GDR,' then the answer that follows [is] 'we didn't have this'...but when your own children are the ones who are asking, then people start to tell," Jan Riebe, the leader of the project, told us in 2008.

In particular, I am reminded of this today because despite reunification and the passage of 25 years, there is still a great deal of xenophobia and racism in eastern Germany.

This past August, the Rheinland-Palatinate Interior Minister Roger Lewentz said that there is "a greater susceptibility to engaging in xenophobic radicalization" in eastern Germany because this region has not been as exposed to different people and cultures as the western part. He cited 370 incidents involving Germany's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), most of which occurred in the east, according to Deutsche Welle.

Remnants of the Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany in 2008. Credit: Alina Dain Sharon.

Remnants of the Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany in 2008. Credit: Alina Dain Sharon.

"Co-existing with people with backgrounds of migration has to be learned," he said.

And though this issue is perhaps currently most applicable to the ongoing European refugee crisis, in the second half of my exchange program I interned at the Berlin-based Jewish newspaper Juedische Allgemeine and reported on a number of east-German Jewish communities that were receiving threatening anti-Semitic letters at the time.

Today, the American Jewish Committee welcomed the 25th anniversary of German unification with a statement by Executive Director David Harris.

"We remember as if it were yesterday the remarkable events of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and awakened the possibility of unification...For many Germans, this was a dream come true," Harris said.

At the time, said Harris, AJC "became the first—and one of very few—Jewish organizations in the world" to support reunification because "we had come to have confidence in Germany's solid democratic foundation, its reliability as an American ally and NATO member, its dedication to European integration, its commitment to humanitarian values, and its no-holds-barred confrontation with its own past."

"Moreover, we grasped the unprecedented opportunity that unification presented for the 17 million residents of the former East Germany, whose human rights had been systematically suppressed under Communist rule and Soviet occupation. And we knew that the disappearance of East Germany would mean the end of an anti-American, anti-Israel regime that had been a key pillar in the Warsaw Pact alliance," Harris added.
But as Harris acknowledges, “unification was not always an easy, problem-free process for Germany."

A quarter-century later, as this anniversary is marked around the world, let us also remember that in some ways, eastern Germany still has some progress to make.

Posted on October 2, 2015 .