Culture War Over German Identity Religious Symbols Take Center Stage

The Bavarians want crosses in public buildings, German Jews want to be able to wear kippas in public without being attacked and Muslims would like more understanding for the headscarf. Germany's search for identity has turned religious. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Omri Gadol / DER SPIEGEL

Neighborhood. It's a word that evokes homey comforts and familiarity. A confined area of bonhomie or, at least, a place free of open conflict.

Helmholtzplatz, a micro-neighborhood in Berlin, is one of the capital city's best-known blocks. Locals like to call Helmholtzplatz, the square from which the area gets its name, Helmi and it is a hub of tolerance and the international lifestyle, evidenced by the fact that English competes with German as the most-spoken language in the area. Ever since the rat problem was eliminated a few years back, the neighborhood has become a place where citizens of the world live in total comfort and can only shake their heads at the conflicts that beset the rest of humanity.

At least until the warm, spring evening of Tuesday, April 17. On that evening, Adam Armoush, a 21-year-old Israeli from a family with Arabic, Jewish and Christian roots, dared to conduct an experiment. Originally from Haifa, he has been living in Germany for three years and moved to Berlin three months ago, where he studies veterinary medicine. He has Jewish friends and is actually not particularly immersed in the hostilities present in the Middle East. An acquaintance gave him a kippah as a gift, but also warned him that it is dangerous to wear it on the streets of Berlin. Adam didn't want to believe him.

And so he set off toward Helmholtzplatz together with a friend, the kippah on his head. He had almost arrived when he encountered three Arab men who began insulting him. Armoush turned on the camera on his smartphone and the video that he took has now become a historical document of contemporary German history.

One of the men, a 19-year-old Syrian, began whipping Adam with his belt and shouting "jehudi, jehudi, Jew, Jew," over and over again. The video, which shows him lunging repeatedly at Adam, is shaky and Adam can be heard saying, "I'm filming you. I'm filming you." At some point another man comes and drives the attacker away. Adam then calls at him, "Jew or not Jewish, you have to deal with it." The video is only 47 seconds long, but it went viral the same night after it was posted online. Forty-seven seconds that place a question mark over many things in Germany, if not everything.

Crumbling Insulation

Germans have long sought to insulate themselves from the problems facing the rest of the world. Since 2005, voters have repeatedly elected a chancellor who has taken pains to fulfill that longing - to ensure that Germany is something like Helmi on a vast scale. An oversized neighborhood so cosmopolitan and liberal that it was even prepared in the summer of 2015 to take in close to a million refugees.

But now, that insulation appears to be crumbling. And religion, something that had long since seemed to have lost its importance in Germany, is at the forefront. Once again, religions are playing a powerful role in the world - and it is a development that is making itself felt in even the most bucolic of German neighborhoods.

The result is that any discussion about the Germany of today must necessarily consider the kippah, the cross and the headscarf. They are all symbols of religion at first glance, but upon deeper reflection, they are also symbols of this country's identity. Or at least its search for identity.

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Many Germans have a hard time saying just what this identity might be. The values set down in the German constitution are clearly part of it, that much is obvious. But beyond that? Our obsession with separating our trash, as was recently explained to refugees in guidelines provided by the group Pro Asyl? German punctuality? Our proverbial efficiency?

The vast majority would likely agree that the memory of the Nazi crimes is a part of German identity. The Holocaust is a black stain on German history, and the fact that the country chooses not to be silent about it and has made it central to Germany's culture of remembrance is an achievement that liberal-minded Germany likes to claim for itself.

The murder of Europe's Jews was the ultimate taboo. Those who question this taboo fall outside the scope of what is acceptable to society. This also applies to the country's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. When Björn Höcke, the head of the AfD state chapter in Thuringia, said in January 2017 that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was a "monument of shame" and encouraged Germans to focus less on their war guilt, it caused lasting damage to his stature within the party.

But can we demand that immigrants from foreign countries also adopt this significant element of Germany's cultural identity? What connection, after all, does the father of a Muslim immigrant family in Germany have to the Holocaust? Why should he send his children on a trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp? To most of the 5 million Muslims living in Germany, the Holocaust is a crime that was committed by others.

Perhaps Adam Armoush's idea of taking to the street with a kippah was naïve. Perhaps it was just a silly coincidence that somewhere in Berlin, an Arab mistook another Arab for a Jew, just because he was wearing a kippah. Perhaps one could just dismiss the video as an unfortunate isolated case. But Adam's 47 seconds developed into an altogether different suggestive power - that Jews are being beaten up on the streets of Berlin by anti-Semites.

A Major Blow to Modern Germany

These 47 seconds are a major blow to the enlightened, modern and liberal nation that postwar Germany has become. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has since warned people against wearing a kippah when walking down the street. And that, too, is a major blow to an enlightened country.

But these 47 seconds represent a serious blow to openness and tolerance for another reason as well. Because the young man from Syria in the video happened to come to Germany as part of the wave of asylum-seekers in 2015.

The name of the Helmholtzplatz attacker is Knaan S., who turned himself in to the police two days after the incident. He had to appear before a court, where he was charged with grievous bodily harm and of making insults, which is punishable under German law. His family reportedly has Palestinian roots. Knaan lives in a refugee hostel on the outskirts of Berlin and his Facebook profile indicates he is single. He plays football with the team SV Stern Britz 1889 e.V. The cover photo of his Facebook profile shows a pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. One photo on his page shows a young man posing with a rocket-propelled grenade and a machine gun. There's a short video on YouTube that Knaan made together with Nathmi Abu S., a Palestinian living in Berlin, which says that Knaan wants to explain to the police what happened. "We are not hostile toward Jews," reads a text at the top of the video. But the video, which is in Arabic, doesn't explain what happened.

It is likely that the 47-second video is so deeply unsettling because, more than 70 years after the Germans sent the Jews to their deaths in trains, the country in 2015 brought Syrian refugees to freedom in trains. The huge welcome the majority of Germans gave them at the time can be seen as a final attempt at atonement by the ancestors of the Nazi perpetrators - but one that is now producing the very thing that can never be allowed to exist again in Berlin or anywhere in Germany: anti-Semitism.

Making things more concerning is the recent rash of reports about Muslim anti-Semitism in Germany. There have been reports about Jewish students being bullied at several Berlin schools. Then came the massive scandal in mid-April when the Echo Award, Germany's answer to the Grammy, was awarded to rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, whose songs contain anti-Semitic lyrics. Within two weeks, the outrage had grown so great that the Echo awards have since been eliminated entirely.

The situation in Germany has become complicated. Previous certainties are being lost and old battles are being launched anew. In Bavaria, for example, the cabinet of Governor Markus Söder recently moved to require that the cross be displayed at the entrance of every state government building. The Bavarian governor himself took the first step, installing a cross at the reception of the state capital building following his April 24 cabinet meeting. Cameras were there to film the event. The cross is to hold a similar status in government buildings as the blue and white Bavarian state flag. The cabinet decision declares that it is an expression of Bavaria's historical and cultural identity, the "fundamental symbol of Christian-Occidental heritage." Söder says it is not a "religious symbol" and has more to do with the "people's desire to have their identity assured."

Culture Wars

Söder's Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees the cross as more of a political and ideological symbol than a religious one. In 1983, in support of newly elected Chancellor Helmut Kohl's campaign to return to conservative values and morals, Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann of the CSU personally intervened to cut government subsidies to a film deemed blasphemous. In the film, director/actor Herbert Achternbusch plays Jesus and in one scene, he climbs down from the cross in a market square and demands to be given "shit."

While there is little doubt as to whether the scene was blasphemous, Zimmermann's action at the time was an expression of an aggressive culture war. It was the subject of intense debate, with intellectuals viewing it as a reactionary step backward. But Zimmermann's move found support within the Catholic Church, including from Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become pope.

That same year, the state government of Bavaria once again instrumentalized the crucifix for political symbolism, ordering that a cross be hung in every classroom in state-run schools. Ultimately, though, Germany's highest court ruled that the regulation was unconstitutional after a group of parents filed a challenge.

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