It was more than 20 years after the end of the Second World War, during the 1960s, when Germans realized that the Nazis had murdered a large number of Jews as part of their proposed "final solution of the Jewish question." The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which continued for two years (1963-1965) and involved 183 court sessions, resulted in an extensive documentation of what had occurred in the concentration camp near the Polish city of Oswiecim. The German public was shocked, horrified -- and most of all, surprised.
Apparently no one had ever read Hitler's "Mein Kampf," heard Hitler's speeches, subscribed to the Nazi newspaper Stürmer or even noticed that their Jewish neighbors had "moved out" without taking the furniture.
More than a decade later, in 1978, German television aired the four-part TV series "Holocaust." Once again the Germans reacted with horror, shock, and endless surprise. The fate of the Jewish family portrayed in the film brought tears to German eyes. They asked questions for which there were no answers. "How was that possible?" And: "Why did the Jews allows themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter? Why hadn't they defended themselves?"
This question dominated debates on the Holocaust for almost 20 years, until Daniel Goldhagen published his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" in 1996. The book caused another wave of shock and horror. But this time the upheaval was not over what the book described, but about its author, who spoke of "eliminatory anti-Semitism" and claimed that the "final solution" was the logical endpoint of a development implicit in German identity.
Ever since Goldhagen's book, the debate is no longer about what the Jews experienced and didn't survive, but about what the Germans knew or didn't know -- about how many of them were more or less willing accomplices in the Holocaust. The focus of the discussions has shifted from the victims to the perpetrators, and the perpetrators are trying to present historical proof that they too were victims, at least in the end, when Dresden was bombed -- an event the political chief of the neo-Nazi NPD party has likened to the Holocaust -- and when the Gustloff, a converted cruise ship filled with German refugees, was sunk by a Soviet submarine.
Shifting the blame
By this point in the public conversation, Berlin-based political scientist named Ekkehard Krippendorf had already contributed an original thought. He claimed that if the Jews hadn't allowed themselves to be deported -- if they had practiced passive resistance and organized sit-down strikes -- the Germans would have rallied to their cause, the Third Reich would have been shaken to the core and the worst catastrophes would have been avoided.
So historical blame was re-distributed. In Krippendorf's analysis, the Jews were not only to blame for anti-Semitism -- there wouldn't be any anti-Semitism if there weren't any Jews -- but for the Third Reich as well. They had the power to destabilize the system and missed out on that unique opportunity.
Today the debate has advanced by a few rounds. Every day you read and hear people saying the Israelis have done to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews. Meanwhile the Germans -- or rather the "non-Jewish Germans," as the new expression goes -- take it to be their historical duty to ensure that the Jews learn from their own history and behave decently. Sociologist Wolfgang Pohrt's remark on the perpetrators who turn into probation assistants and make sure their victims don't relapse was never more topical and accurate than today.
The old question "Why didn't the Jews defend themselves?" is no longer fashionable. Today the Jews are accused of defending themselves. They're blamed for concluding from the last-attempted "final solution" that it's better to defend yourself early than to let yourself be pitied afterwards. As nice as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin may be -- it's a place "one likes to visit," according to former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- a day on the beach in Tel Aviv or in Nahariya beats it hands down.
Now Germany -- where even a convicted cannibal can successfully sue for violation of his constitutional rights -- is witnessing a lively debate over the means by which Israelis should be allowed to defend their basic right to lie on the beaches of Nahariya or Tel Aviv. Politicians such as Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul from the Social Democrat party SPD, researchers such as Udo Steinbach from the Orient Institute and journalists such as Heribert Prantl from the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung are among those who argue that Israel's reaction to the rocket attacks from Lebanon is exaggerated and "disproportionate." "No one is denying Israel the right to defend its borders. But rockets fired across the border don't threaten the existence of a state," writes Claudia Kühner in the Swiss daily Zürcher Tages-Anzeiger, for example.
Stop shooting and start shopping?
But if rockets designed to fly across borders don't threaten a state's existence, then who or what does? Excessive payroll fringe costs? Excessively low taxes? Too many unemployed people? Too few children? And how would the Swiss react if one of their border regions were attacked with rockets? Would they retaliate by firing "Luxemburgerli" pastries from their famous confectioner? Or would they airdrop coupons issued by the Migros grocery chain and urge their attackers to "Stop shooting and start shopping"?
Of course the question of a "proportionate response" is entirely justified -- and it's justified when asked about Israel or any other state. And: Those who ask the question have to be ready for an unexpected answer. It's a sign of reasonableness and moral maturity that Germans like to solve problems by sitting down at a round table to talk. The approach has worked for workplace conflicts and squabbles within clubs and associations, but it turned out to be ineffective in Northern Ireland and Kosovo. And it amounts to committing suicide for fear of dying when you're dealing with an enemy that loves death more than life.
The late King of Jordan had no qualms about using his might to put down a Palestinian uprising during "Black September" in 1970. He ordered refugee camps to be bombed. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people died. The PLO then moved its headquarters to Lebanon. Arafat moved to Cairo and later to Tunis.
Former Syrian President Hafis al-Assad, the father of Syria's present ruler, pulled no punches in fighting insurgent members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He devastated the city of Hama in February 1982, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians. No one accused him of "genocide" -- and if someone had, al-Assad would have asked his critics not to meddle in the domestic affairs of his country.
When one considers what Israel is doing one has to admit that it is behaving quite moderately -- notwithstanding the bloodbath in Qana, in which dozens were killed including children. What happened in Qana just shows that the precision of high-tech wars can lead to catastrophic results. The war isn't between two regular armies, but one between an army and a guerrilla group that doesn't hesitate to use civilians as a human shield. At least the Israeli army warns the civilian population of imminent bombings by dropping leaflets, whereas Hezbollah fires Katyusha rockets without warning, in order to terrorize a civilian population.
"It'll work out somehow."
The most powerful army in the Middle East is fighting with one hand tied behind its back -- and paying for the mistakes of politicians. Everyone in Israel who had something to do with defense knew Hezbollah wasn't building holiday camps for Palestinian orphans in southern Lebanon -- it was preparing for military action. Instead of sounding the alarm because UN Resolution 1559, which calls for Hezbollah to disarm, wasn't being implemented, the choice was made to ignore the danger. The Israelis were glad to have turned their backs on the Lebanese quagmire. You could once again go shopping in Kiryat Shmona and swim in Lake Genezareth without having to hear the sounds of combat.
Of course it would have been better to disarm Hezbollah when it was still possible to do so relatively easily. But such a decision would have been difficult to justify within Israel -- and it would have caused the world to brand Israel as an aggressor. And so UN Resolution 1559 vanished into the mists of history, and the Israelis -- who can only think and plan in the short term -- said to themselves: "Ichije tov" -- "It'll work out somehow."
And since they didn't commit the necessary atrocities straight away, they're now paying twice the cost. They're fighting an enemy they underestimated and they're being pilloried as aggressors. It's not just on the nationalist and radical-left fringes of German civil society where people agree that Israel is the "new center of genocide" -- similar noises can be heard from the political center. Israel should negotiate with Hezbollah instead of shooting innocents, some commentators say.
You'd think Hezbollah was a group of children who had been playing with matches in the barn -- and that the Israelis insanely stoked the fire until the whole farm burned down. That kind of view is widespread in Germany. This is a nation where people will seriously debate whether a civilian airplane hijacked by terrorists should be pre-emptively shot down. But Israel is supposed to wait for Hezbollah to fire its rockets and then go complain to Kofi Annan.
So the Germans' "becoming-good-again" -- predicted by essayist Elke Geisel 20 years ago -- enters its final stage. The "Holocaust" has been outsourced; now it's taking place in the Middle East. What started with the question "Why didn't you defend yourselves?" ends with the cool observation that the Jews have learned nothing from history, and that they are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them. And it's apparently the task of Germans to admonish and educate them. Ahmadinejad's willing executioners only want the best for Israel.
Theologian and itinerant preacher Jürgen Fliege reminds Israel of the "common cultural and religious roots" that "our ancestors laid down in the Torah." The principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is "no call for abandoning restraint in an emergency situation and swearing revenge, come hell or high water," writes Fliege. According to him, what the principle really means is: "Only one soldier for one kidnapped soldier" -- everything else would be going too far. In a ludicrous reversal of cause and effect, action and reaction, perpetrator and victim, Fliege calls on the Israelis to act moderately. But why doesn't he direct his appeal at Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah? Perhaps because in Hezbollah's case the "common cultural and religious roots" are still so fresh they should be given time to develop.
Even though Germany's former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has now relaized that the conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas is not about "occupied territories" but about Israel's existence, Middle East expert Michael Lüders finds it lamentable that "the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories" west of the border "are not perceived as a problem," unlike the "terror" that threatens Israel's existence. And he really does place "terror" in quotation marks -- suggesting it doesn't exist outside the subjective perception of Israelis. Western policy "in the region," he writes, creates "its own counterpowers, especially in the form of Islamic fundamentalism." With those words, Lüders justifies everything that Islamic fundamentalists do.
But what logical conclusion would have to be drawn from this insight that Lüders is still hesitant to utter? In order to eliminate the fuel of Islamic fundamentalism, the West would have to abandon Israel. The message is clearly there between the lines, and it's only a question of time before it's raised explicitly. For now, Lüders contents himself with Schadenfreude. "Even if Israel were to succeed in defeating Hezbollah and Hamas tomorrow -- the day after tomorrow there would be new groups with different names, ready to continue the struggle against the omnipotence of the Washington-Jerusalem axis."
Unlike the word "terror," Lüders doesn't place "the omnipotence of the Washington-Jerusalem axis" in quotation marks -- to him, that phenomenon is perfectly real. It used to be referred to as the "Jewish-American claim to world dominance." Today, it's not just Iranian President Ahmadinejad who is wishing for "a world without Zionism" in order to preserve world peace.
The situation is getting uncomfortable for the Israelis. They're beginning to suspect that they can't win this war, because they're dealing with an international public that demands a "proportionate" reaction even in an "asymmetrical conflict." And the appeals to respect international law and the rules of the game are always directed at Israel, never at those who believe that all means are justified in the struggle against Israel.
If the Israelis don't succeed in defeating Hamas and Hezbollah, they will have to come up with other forms of resistance. How about sit-down strikes along the Israeli-Lebanese border?