A Jew Among the Germans
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"about public speeches and private silence" by Birgit Rommelspacher
Dr. Birgit Rommelspacher, a psychologist and a professor at Alice Salomon University in Berlin, is a second generation German, born after World War II. She has extensively researched anti-Semitism among younger Germans and published the results of this research project in a book, Schuldlos - Schuldig? Wie Sich Junge Frauen Mit Dem Antisemitismus Auseinandersetzen (Guilty - Not Guilty? How Young German Women Concern Themselves With Anti-Semitism), Konkret Literatur Verlag, Hamburg, 1997. This article was published in Die Tageszeitung on December 19, 1998, and addresses Martin Walser's speech two months earlier at the Frankfurt Book Fair in which Walser, a prominent German novelist, decried the "Holocaust industry" of memorials and commemoration. Rommelspacher brings a psychological analysis to Germans' struggle with guilt and responsibility, and at the end of her article she writes about "the most troubling aspect" of Walser's speech -- the criticism of it from Ignatz Bubis, the leader of Germany's Jewish community.

The most troubling aspect of this debate between Bubis and Walser is the re-establishment of the scenario which has nourished anti-Semitism for hundreds of years: the revengeful Jew, who doesn't want to make peace and the poor Christian victim who seeks salvation through his quiet lonely suffering

Walser states that thousands of people felt liberated by his speech. He probably expressed the feelings of many in regards to remembering National Socialism, especially the feelings of many young people who often complain that they are "constantly bombarded" with the topic of National Socialism at school, that they are fed up with hearing about this topic and don't want to hear about it anymore.

What does Walser suggest in regards to this obviously failed public remembering? He recommends that Germans withdraw to their own conscience and to a place of "profound inward solitude" and engage in "the withdrawal into themselves."

How do we imagine this innermost process, or what do German Gentiles discover when they withdraw and look into themselves? In general, they will find inner emptiness, covered up by a confused feeling of guilt, as uncovered by psychological and psycho-analytical research on this topic. The emptiness is a result of the silence in families, since a conscience does not get developed when people are "totally alone in the deepest solitude."

The development of a conscience is dependant on connection with people who are important and close to us. What most Germans instead learn from those who are closest to them is that there is nothing to say in regards to National Socialism. German families continue to keep silent in regards to the persecution and murder of Jews. When children and grandchildren ask about the past, they are told about the expulsion, the flight and need -- about the needs of Germans and not about the needs of others. The same children and grandchildren are being confronted at schools and by the media with public remembering. The chasm between public speaking and private silence leads to suspicion: From a personal perspective, the public speeches appear to be artificial and exaggerated, since most were led to believe that National Socialism was none of their concern. On the other hand, the knowledge about the Nazi crimes creates a general suspicion about their personal lives: Are the lovable parents and grandparents criminals? Even the most insignificant question causes monstrous moments of suspicion and takes away any harmlessness [in the questioning] which consequently causes any conversation to be blocked right at the beginning.

When Walser propagates the solution to return to the individual conscience in order to avoid the public remembering, he forces us to choose between Scylla and Charybdis. Or does he mean that the private silence should be used as a role model for the public discussion in order to be a "normal country" as is his most ardent wish. But such normalcy would require normalizing the crimes. Germans are well versed in this.

For example, when a grandmother who is asked about the night of the pogrom on November 9,1938 (Kristallnacht) by her granddaughter and replies without any expression of sympathy "…that she heard the sound of broken glass somewhere," she tries to turn this event into an everyday occurrence by denying the extraordinariness of this event and by denying her own inner participation. She does not tell her granddaughter who smashed whose windows, whether she was scared herself or whether she was elated, what her own position was at the time and what she thinks about it today. What she does instead tell her granddaughter is that those events did not affect her emotionally and are none of your business. The event itself is removed, is made to sound alien and is bereft of any personal connection. This is the exact opposite to acknowledging one's own history.

Remembering may mean acknowledgement or, conversely, estrangement. One can assume that much of the public remembering leads to estrangement, because the generation which does the revealing does not acknowledge their own guilt and the guilt of their forbears. In this process of revelation, it denies the personal connection but simultaneously insists on being morally superior and demands submission by the younger generation. [It is] explosive, because it continues to live in the distrust of the children toward their parents and grandparents. This distrust often turns into distrust of the self, because of the missing resonance of the elders. What's missing is a moral authority which could give guidance as to how to deal with this history, because the parents and grandparents have long been dismissed as authority figures. They infantilize themselves by saying that they didn't hear anything, didn't know anything, and couldn't do anything. Consequently, the distrust and moral confusion becomes the psychological legacy of the descendants and creates a confusing guilt feeling which seems to weigh one down, solely for being German.

Many, especially the young generation, consider this unjust and are consequently outraged: "We are much too young to have anything to do with this." They also know that one cannot be guilty of things not done. The feeling of guilt is not the result of the deeds of their forbears but is a result of the relationship of the offspring to their parents and grandparents who never confronted their own guilt and instead passed it on to their offspring. "I feel guilty, because my father did not acknowledge his own guilt," said one woman who was one of the people who participated in our research project.

The new generation takes on this guilt more or less voluntarily, because otherwise they would have to hand it back to their parents and would have to accuse them and distance themselves from them. Instead, most of them prefer not to ask and not to know specifics. The children prefer to protect their parents or grandparents and instead accuse the victims accusing them and the descendants of the victims of not leaving them alone. This is where many agree with Martin Walser, who drastically expresses this in his militaristic language such as "soldiers of opinions" who daily shoot about with their "pistol of morals" -- a revealing mixture of exaggerated self pity and moral paranoia. This is what is so scandalous in Walser's speech: He does not call for analysis in order to find out why this public remembering fails so often, but instead stirs up vague suspicions. He prefers to see "cruel requirements of remembering" everywhere at work with the goal to "instrumentalize our disgrace for the purpose of present goals." Who is it who continuously swings this moral club? Klaus von Dohnanyi, the former mayor of Hamburg, understood him quite well when he asked the Jews whether they would have helped if "only" physically disabled, homosexuals or gypsies had been persecuted.

The most troubling aspect of this debate between [Ignatz] Bubis [the leader of Germany's Jewish community] and Walser is the re-establishment of the scenario which has nourished anti-Semitism for hundreds of years: the revengeful Jew, who doesn't want to make peace and the poor Christian victim who seeks salvation through his quiet lonely suffering. This is a picture which serves as inspiration for the "Saturday evening mystery" [on tv] in which the restless Jew drives two old pensioners to their death, has another sixteen on his list and is asked by Rosa Roth, the likable and well-informed German superintendent: "Do you have to use your knowledge for the purpose of revenge?"


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posted may 31, 2005

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