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Germany’s ‘Holocaust guilt’ is shaken by Hamas pogrom

It’s painfully clear that the country’s well-meaning politicians are dealing with a genuine resurgence of antisemitism they cannot control.

German left-wing activist Dieter Kunzelmann in West Berlin, 1969. Credit: Stiftung Haus der Geschichte/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
German left-wing activist Dieter Kunzelmann in West Berlin, 1969. Credit: Stiftung Haus der Geschichte/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel, Germany is finding it harder and harder to mask the extremist underbelly of its politics.

A neo-Nazi group plastered a Holocaust memorial last week with stickers urging Germans to “get rid” of their “Holocaust guilt,” as well as declaring—in a sly nod to the argument often articulated about the feeble international response to the Holocaust—that “Israel murders while the world watches.” In the city of Essen, an Islamist group staged a pro-Hamas march that required the segregation of male and female participants, but representatives of both genders brandished signs accusing Israel of perpetrating a “Holocaust” in Gaza. In Berlin, a synagogue has been the target of an arson attack, and Jewish-owned homes have been daubed with Stars of David in another ominous echo of the Nazi period.

Of course, it’s not just Germany. Neighboring France has registered more than 1,000 antisemitic outrages in the five weeks since the pogrom—a national record (and not the kind one boasts about). All over Europe and North America, Jewish communities increasingly feel like they are under siege. When it comes to antisemitism, this is truly a global moment, if only because no foreign-policy issue resonates as discordantly in domestic politics as does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Germany—the land of the Holocaust—is different, or at least, it’s supposed to be. And there are visible differences between Germany and other democratic nations. On the German left, for example, anti-Zionism is comparatively muted, while large swathes are actually pro-Israel. For example, last week Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck released a video in which he slammed German Muslim organizations for their silence in the face of the Hamas atrocities on Oct. 7 and warned non-resident antisemitic offenders that they faced deportation. Habeck is not a conservative but a representative of the left-wing Green Party—and if you can’t imagine a Green Party politician in another country saying something similar, you are not alone.

Yet it’s painfully clear that Germany’s well-meaning politicians are dealing with a genuine resurgence of antisemitism that they cannot control. On Nov. 9-10, Germans marked the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi pogrom of 1938 that saw hundreds of Jews murdered, thousands more deported to concentration camps, and the burning and looting of synagogues and Jewish-owned stores over a period of less than 48 hours. For Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the occasion was an opportunity to issue a reminder that antisemitism has no place in post-Holocaust Germany. But for others, like the thousands of mainly Muslim demonstrators who have taken to the streets in support of the Hamas rapists and murderers, it was an opportunity of a different sort—namely, to challenge the Germans to dispense with their guilt about the Holocaust in the name of a “free Palestine.”

As is normally the case with antisemitism, there’s a historical precedent for this. On the morning of Nov. 10, 1969—a year that marked the 31st anniversary of Kristallnacht—a cleaner was doing her chores at a Jewish community center in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg, one day after services commemorating Kristallnacht had been held there. While sweeping and polishing, she stumbled upon a package wrapped in a trench coat. Discovering an alarm clock inside, she called the police who, on arrival, determined that the package was a bomb. The explosion had been timed for 11:30 a.m. the previous day, during the commemoration service, but the bomb failed to go off because of a corroded wire.

Those responsible for planting it were not neo-Nazis but leftists. Attention quickly fell on a small group in Berlin that named itself after the Tupamaros, a left-wing guerilla army in Uruguay. The group’s leader, Dieter Kunzelmann, denied that they were responsible, and the culprits were never caught. Yet despite the lack of evidence tying him to the attempted bombing, those who knew Kunzelmann, including many of his comrades, deemed him perfectly capable of carrying out such an outrage. The question was why.

As Kunzelmann conceived it, Holocaust guilt was the main impediment to the German left embracing the anti-colonial struggle of the Palestinians. “Palestine is to the Federal Republic [of Germany] and Europe what Vietnam is to the Americans,” he wrote in an article for a Socialist journal in Berlin. “The left hasn’t understood that yet. Why? The Jew’s boy.”

This descent into crude antisemitism, using insulting language to depict the European left as a tool of Zionist interests, was particularly shocking in Germany. But Kunzelmann was not alone. Later that same year, he and a group of comrades traveled to the Middle East for military training with Palestinian terrorist organizations, a path that many German leftists would beat in subsequent years. When, in the summer of 1976, terrorists hijacked an Air France jet in Athens that had originated in Tel Aviv, the group was composed of members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Red Army Fraction (RAF), better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. After diverting the plane to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, the terrorists turned into uncomplicated Nazis, separating Jewish passengers from non-Jewish ones. Only a spectacular rescue operation mounted by the Israelis prevented a massacre of the Jewish hostages.

“Kunzelmann went as far as to suggest that his group could best combat Israeli ‘imperialism’ by attacking Jews in Germany, which, of course, is the culmination of antisemitic thought,” the historian Philipp Lenhard explained in an interview last week with the German publication Geo. As outlandish as it might seem to a sensible mind, five years after Kunzelmann’s death, his belief that German Jews are a legitimate target in the Palestinian war against Israel’s existence is more widespread than at any previous time—and its main adherents are not the long-haired New Leftists of yesteryear, but German Muslims, both those born there and recent immigrants as well.

German politicians are anxious about instituting measures to protect Jews that would erode their country’s much-vaunted status as a post-World War II beacon of ethnic and religious tolerance. But that won’t do. Postwar Germany has, of its own volition, made the protection of Jewish life a raison d’état of the democratic republic, and it is that stance that is caricatured as “Holocaust guilt.”

Right now, it is failing in that task. And if Germany can’t muster the determination to defeat antisemitism in the streets that spawned the Holocaust during the last century, then what chance is there that the rest of Europe will, or can, do so?

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