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A Bavarian scandal shines a light on Germany’s ‘Holocaust guilt’

“Anyone who thinks, writes down and spreads such thoughts must not bear any political responsibility in Germany,” declared Saskia Esken, chair of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But not everyone would agree.

Hubert Aiwanger, deputy prime minister of Bavaria, Germany's largest state. Credit: Leonie Rabea Große/Wikipedia.
Hubert Aiwanger, deputy prime minister of Bavaria, Germany's largest state. Credit: Leonie Rabea Große/Wikipedia.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

For the best part of a week, Germany has been gripped by an antisemitism scandal centered on Hubert Aiwanger, the deputy premier of the southern state of Bavaria. Now 52, Aiwanger has been accused of producing, when he was a 17-year-old schoolboy in 1987, a viciously antisemitic leaflet parodying the Holocaust that was distributed at his school and resulted in him being punished by a disciplinary board.

The details of the scandal read like the plot of a dark political comedy. You might also wonder why a politician’s youthful stupidity rises to the level of a national scandal more than three decades later. In which case, it’s important to remember that this is Germany, where guilt about the Holocaust—along with other emotions like rage, confusion or simply wishing that all the talk about the Nazi genocide would end once and for all—still looms large.

The typewritten leaflet in question was discovered in the lavatory, among other locations, of the Burkhart Gymnasium in the Bavarian municipality of Mallersdorf-Pfaffenberg, where the young Aiwanger was a student. Unsurprisingly, given its creation at the hands of a teenage boy (or boys, plural—the matter of authorship still remains unclear), the content of the leaflet managed to be both repellent and puerile at the same time.

Parodying national history competitions for school students, the leaflet posed questions like, “Who is the greatest traitor to the fatherland?” with the “prize,” in this example, “a complimentary flight through the chimney at Auschwitz.” Other “prizes” included a “lifelong stay in a mass grave,” “a free shot in the back of the neck,” “a ticket to the entertainment quarter of Auschwitz” and a “night’s stay in the Gestapo cellar, then a trip to Dachau.”

After seemingly being forgotten for more than 30 years, the leaflet was discovered and then splashed across the pages of last Saturday’s edition of the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung. In most circumstances, a story like this generates overwhelming interest in Germany, and this was especially true for Aiwanger, given that his Free Voters (Freie Wähler) Party—currently the junior coalition partner in the Bavarian state government with the Christian Social Union—will be contesting state parliamentary elections on Oct. 8.

Very quickly after the story appeared, Aiwanger flatly denied that he was behind the leaflet, promising that its true author was going to announce himself. Later the same day, the other “H. Aiwanger,” who attended the Burkhart Gymnasium (Hubert’s brother, Helmut) issued a statement claiming that he had produced the leaflet. “I am ashamed of this act, and above all, I ask my brother’s forgiveness for the difficulties caused at the time, which are still having an effect 35 years later,” he stated.

But that wasn’t enough to get Hubert Aiwanger off the hook. The presence of the leaflet in his school bag, which he admitted to, indicated that he was at least involved with its distribution, enough for opposition parties across the spectrum as well as German Jewish leaders to lean on Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder to dismiss his deputy. Söder, often touted as a future federal German chancellor, has played the controversy cautiously so far, arguing that a report in a newspaper is not sufficient for an outright dismissal, but also instructing Aiwanger to submit written answers to 25 questions probing how the leaflet came to be produced and distributed.

In the intervening period, German media outlets eagerly pursued fresh details, none of which did Aiwanger any favors. One former classmate said that Aiwanger was prone to delivering a Hitler salute when he entered a classroom and that he enjoyed imitating Hitler’s speeches. Another classmate complained that he had made “repulsive” antisemitic jokes after a class visit to a Holocaust memorial, along with a wisecrack about “starving children in Africa.” Still a third claimed that Aiwanger was frequently seen at school brandishing a copy of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s screed written in prison a decade before the Nazi leader came to power.

Last Thursday, Aiwanger attempted to head off his critics at a press conference in Munich. After apologizing to Holocaust victims and their descendants for the leaflet—something it took him nearly a week to do—Aiwanger then portrayed himself and his party as the victims of a smear campaign aimed at destroying his political career.

It would be naive to think that there was no political motive behind the coverage of the scandal, especially as Aiwanger is an outspoken right-wing populist. Even so, the uncomfortable questions still remain. If, as seems likely through the testimony of the witnesses and his own admissions, Aiwanger held these reprehensible views as an older teenager, at what point, if at all, did he abandon them? And should a politician in Germany—the initiator and executioner of the Holocaust—continue to serve in office if he or she keeps these kinds of skeletons in the closet?

“Anyone who thinks, writes down and spreads such thoughts must not bear any political responsibility in Germany,” Saskia Esken, the chair of the center-left Social Democratic Party, declared. And many in the German establishment would agree.

German voters apparently do not, however. A poll conducted by the Augsburger Allgemeine revealed that 53% of voters supported Aiwanger remaining in his post—a figure that rose to 62% among respondents in Bavaria.

The truth is that as much as they present themselves to the outside world as the solemn guardians of Holocaust memory, Germany and the Germans continue to fail in that role. In this decade alone, we have witnessed violent anti-Zionist demonstrations in major German cities calling for Israel’s destruction; at least five antisemitic incidents recorded daily (Felix Klein, the federal government’s chief official combating antisemitism, told me recently that the true number is more like 25); and a prestigious contemporary art show that was riddled with antisemitic paintings and installations.

No wonder, then, that Aiwanger, even as he apologizes to the victims of the Holocaust, remains adamant that whatever he did with the leaflet, it doesn’t warrant banishing him from political life.

Christoph Heubner, the chair of the International Auschwitz Committee, observed that if Aiwanger refused to retire from politics, “wherever he appears in the future, the sentences of that shameful leaflet will always be in the room.” Perhaps. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. What the Aiwanger scandal suggests, above all, is that Germany’s sense of responsibility for the Holocaust—what we refer to in slightly clumsy shorthand as “Holocaust guilt”—is diminishing, no matter what its mainstream politicians tell U.S. and European media outlets.

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