A Jew Among the Germans
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"the germans have a nazi obsession" An interview with Michal Bodemann, by Stefan Reinecke of Die Tageszeitung
Michal Bodemann is critical of what he calls the "permanent" and "brooding" culture of Holocaust commemoration in Germany. A professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, he studies postwar German-Jewish relations and tells Die Tageszeitung that Germany's focus on the past overlooks the racist tendencies in society today and suggests a hopelessness toward the future. "My impression is that you hide yourself away in history in order to keep the present from cutting too close," he says. [Note: This has been translated from the original German.]

May 8, 2005

Mr. Bodemann, the commemorations of the 60th anniversary of May 8th are now over. Was it too much?

There were an immense number of events. In North America, too. Here in Canada, for instance, they celebrated the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands for days. To be sure, it partly has to do with the rediscovery of history. But Germany is a special case...

No wonder...

No. But in Germany it virtually seems to be the 8th of May continually. It rules an obsession with the past that grows ever stronger.

Is that so striking?

I think so. It's not only the multitude of commemorative events, of films, exhibits, memorials, and so on, it's not just that there's this permanent commemoration. I find the brooding, closed nature of it irritating. This isn't an engagement with history that includes lessons for today. I have the impression that in Germany the age of National Socialism is often conjured up as a distant, deluded, dark past that serves as an angle to escape the present. For that reason, we shy away from parallels to the present.

What, then, would be a more legitimate comparison with the present?

Broadly stated, there seems to be lacking an awareness of the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism. In Germany there actually are current racist tendencies -- perhaps in the talk of the parallel society in which the Turkish minority has supposedly secluded itself. Even if this depiction did hold true, well, the Muslims were pushed into the ghettos, anyway.

Probably both.

Yes, of course. The question is what triggered the ghetto-ization. But it bothers me that at ever more commemorative events, the old anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz is condemned, without it giving rise to a heightened consciousness of the racism that exists today. Racism against Muslims doesn't seem so bad. And the new anti-Semitism is played down, too. At the same time, the Holocaust is regarded in isolation ever more strongly. It's deemed so singular that it seems obscene to relate it to today.

But the Holocaust was singular...

I'm not denying that in the least. I'm not trying to diminish the monstrosities of the Nazi crimes. But how, from that, do we get a culture of commemoration that only circles around itself?

In 1999, Fischer and Struck justified the involvement of the German army in the Kosovo war by saying that one must prevent a repeated Auschwitz. The problem with that, though, is that whoever says "Auschwitz" ends the debate. Is it progress if Auschwitz is no longer an instrument of legitimation in current political questions?

Certainly. It's not about Nazi comparisons for the purposes of political legitimation. I wish that a new approach would follow from the preoccupation with National Socialism -- perhaps the promotion of the worth of human rights. One example is Guantánamo. Of course Guantánamo isn't an extermination camp, but one would have to consider it a concentration camp. A civilized western state uses torture and maintains a concentration camp. But if you timidly vocalize that in Germany in 2005, you reap indignation. My impression is that you hide yourself away in history in order to keep the present from cutting too close.

Many people are surprised that the remembrance keeps growing. Why is that?

Three reasons. Simply that there exists the apparatus and a huge number of institutions that produce the remembrance. The media reports, interest is raised, etc. Secondly, the remembrance has become a part of the national German identity. Remembrance is a purification ritual in order to bypass guilt. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial serves not only the memory. It is also a symbol for a dividing line: That was then, it is over, split off, it has nothing more to do with us today. This process must be repeated again and again. Actually, we know everything about the Nazi period, but in spite of that, new events are always staged.

Is that the dialectic of forgetting and remembering?

Yes. The third motif seems to me to be the disappearance of ideas of the future, of utopias, as one used to say. Because we don't expect anything good from the future, we fixate on the past. The icon for this dispositional condition is Walter Benjamin's "angel of history," who strides into the future while turned toward the past. It isn't chance that this image is used so much in Germany: It reflects the resignation, the melancholy. Wouldn't it be better to look forward more, to create new concepts of society and at least more social justice and human rights?


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posted may 31, 2005

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