In May 2012, Germany and Israel together celebrated the 100th birthday of the media mogul Axel Springer. Springer, who died in 1985, was Germany’s William Randolph Hearst: He built a huge media empire that exerted enormous sway over German public opinion. And nothing was more important to Springer than the defense of Israel. At the ceremony honoring Springer, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that Springer “made it possible to build Israeli confidence in Germany”; and Avigdor Lieberman praised Springer as a voice of “freedom, truth, and justice.”
But not everyone in Germany loved Axel Springer. He was an ardent anti-communist who hounded the leftists of the 1960s in the pages of his many newspapers and magazines. When Rudi Dutschke, a leading student radical, was shot in 1968 by a right-wing extremist, leftists blamed the deed on Springer, whose newspapers had attacked Dutschke relentlessly. (In a towering irony, the Springer company’s skyscraper now stands at the corner of Axel Springer Street and Rudi Dutschke Street in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.)
Enter Henryk Broder. The 66-year-old German Jew and author, most recently, of Forget Auschwitz! Before It’s Too Late (subtitled, with bitter wit, “The German Memory Craziness and the Final Solution of the Israel Question”), is one of Germany’s most celebrated journalists; he writes an influential column for a Springer newspaper, Die Welt.
Broder’s perspective was forged in the no-holds-barred battle between Springer and his radical New Left enemies. He grew up in Köln, the child of survivors from Poland; Broder later joked, in his typically barbed and double-edged manner, “There’s a hierarchy of Jewish suffering, and I’m lucky to be at the very top: My mother was in Auschwitz.” As a teenage leftist, Broder demonstrated against the Vietnam War—and Axel Springer. At 20, he lost his virginity to a woman named Christiane, “a Trotskyist from a good home.” But Broder came to realize that the German left harbored an unmistakable anti-Semitic prejudice. In the ’60s, German leftists adopted a radical anti-Israel stance that rarely stopped short of anti-Semitism. The Israelis, the left hotly proclaimed, were the new Nazis, and Springer’s newspapers proved it, since they defended both Israel and German society (which was still pervaded by old Nazis). During the Six Day War, most Germans, whether from guilt or other motives, took the side of Israel rather than the Arabs—with the exception of the leftists, who cheered on Nasser’s promise to push the Jews into the sea.
The Entebbe raid of 1976, Broder wrote, was his “private awakening.” At Entebbe, the Palestinian terrorists and their European comrades made a selection: They spared non-Jewish passengers while they continued to hold the Jewish ones as hostages. The Palestinians couldn’t tell on the basis of last names whether passengers were Jewish or not, so one of their German collaborators, Wilfried Böse, helped them out. When a Jewish passenger showed Böse his death camp tattoo, Böse is supposed to have responded that he was no Nazi, but rather an “idealist.” U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past later came under scrutiny, condemned the Israeli action as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty, and the German “anti-imperialist” left agreed with Waldheim. In the aftermath of the Israeli raid, German Maoists expressed their solidarity with “his excellency Idi Amin.”
Broder, in disgust, turned away from the radical left. In the German leftist imagination, he later argued, Gaza became the Warsaw Ghetto, and Palestinians became Jews. “Never again” came to mean “don’t let our victims do what we did”; Germans, Broder said, loved to reiterate “the eternal German worry about whether the Israelis have learned the lesson of history.” “The Israelis are responsible for anti-Semitism” is now, Broder declared, the most prevalent form of anti-Semitism, in Germany as elsewhere.
The Jüdische Allgemeine, the newspaper of the German Jewish community, called Broder the Christopher Hitchens of Germany. It’s not a bad analogy: Like the late Hitchens, Broder is a heckler, a tummler. The Jüdische Allgemeine went on to describe Broder as a “raging clown” who carries a heavy burden: being the funny, rebarbative Jew who tells Germans the truth about themselves. Broder particularly relishes attacking Germans for what he sees as their sanctimonious, proprietary commemorations of the Shoah. “Auschwitz [is] a symbol of how you can commit crimes without limit and then reap the rewards of repentance, also without limit,” Broder charged in Forget Auschwitz! For his popular TV program Entweder Broder, he appeared clad as a stele, like the ones that make up what he calls the “ridiculous” Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin: “I’m so happy that my parents were able to contribute to this,” Broder crowed as he posed with his head poking through a black monolith. “Is there a proper way of relating to the Shoah?” he once noted. “No, it’s something so insane, there can’t be a proper relation to it.” In an interview, he praised the survivor who danced with his grandchildren to “I Will Survive!” in front of the gates of Auschwitz in 2010. “That’s the Jewish middle finger!” Broder exulted. “I’m alive, and you’re dead. I have grandchildren, and I’m having fun. That’s the right relationship to have [to the Shoah]—if there is one. But in Germany something like that would come in for a discussion: … Is it allowed?”
Fellow journalist Maxim Biller once remarked that the relationship between Broder and Germany is a sado-masochistic one, the only question being who’s on the top and who’s on the bottom. Broder spent the 1980s in Israel. (His book The Crazies of Zion, a big hit in Germany, took a quietly appalled look at extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) “Israel is really the only country,” he said in an interview, “where it’s not a big deal that you’re a Jew. That is so relaxing … and there, the Shoah isn’t so important.” When he left for Israel, Broder penned a farewell letter to Germany full of furious accusations: “You are still the children of your parents, you’ve inherited their racism and their pathological good conscience,” he wrote, and then, finally, “I’m finished with my raving.” After 10 years in Israel, Broder returned, as if inevitably, to Germany, ready to resume his role as the country’s prickly, merciless antagonist. Broder, who thrives on opposition, avidly publishes his abundant hate mail on henryk-broder.com. (He runs another site as well, Die Achse des Guten, “the Axis of Good,” or, for short, “Ach Gut”—“Oh well”—achgut.com.) Like all Springer journalists, Broder had to sign a contract, designed by Axel Springer himself, committing him to work for “the reconciliation of Germany and Israel.” “There’s no reconciliation,” he commented, “but I signed it anyway. … I can write what I want and I’m well-paid.”
Broder, in Forget Auschwitz! as in his 1986 book The Eternal Anti-Semite, argues that there’s a link between the obsessive thinking about the Holocaust in Germany and what he sees as an increasing German tendency to condemn Israel. “Forget Auschwitz,” he urges; “think about Israel, before it’s too late.” Broder is convinced that what were once fringe opinions in the German New Left have now moved to the mainstream, that Germans are now free to suggest that Israelis are the new Nazis. “The transfer of their own past onto Israel” is how Broder sees it; they can redeem themselves by blaming Jewish aggression. The Iranian threat to commit genocide against Israel, Broder stresses, is the only real existential danger that Israel has experienced since 1967; but too many Germans see Ahmadinejad’s nuclear sabre-rattling as just hot air, and Israel as the real threat to peace in the region.
In 2009, Der Spiegel published online an exchange of emails on Israel between Broder and the journalist Erich Follath. Within a few hours, the Broder-Follath debate received hundreds of thousands of clicks and for several days ranked among the top three topics among German Internet users. The next year, the Broder-Follath letters became a book titled Give the Jews Schleswig-Holstein!: When Germans Criticize Israel. The title comes from Broder, who cited Ahmadinejad’s idea that Israeli Jews ought to be relocated to Europe. The Iranian president “speaks too broadly,” commented Broder, “but he is, in principle, correct. If there were something like historical justice in this world, the Jewish state would be in Schleswig-Holstein or in Bavaria, not Palestine.” In one of his letters to Follath, Broder said that Germans are like alcoholics, and the Jews are their addiction. He proposed a period of abstinence: “For a while no klezmer concerts, no week of solidarity, no calls for the solution of the Palestine question, no symposia about the German-Jewish symbiosis and above all, no declarations that begin with the words ‘We, especially, as Germans … ’ ”
Last year, Broder tangled with Jakob Augstein, author of a weekly online column in Der Spiegel and publisher of Der Freitag, a weekly newspaper. Augstein is publishing royalty, the heir of Spiegel founder Rudolf Augstein (and illegitimate son of the novelist Martin Walser). Augstein defended Günter Grass’ anti-Israel poem “What Must Be Said,” which had been roundly condemned in the German media. He said that Grass’ poem “hit the mark” (though he added that Grass exaggerated when he claimed, bizarrely, that Israel was planning to use nuclear weapons against Iran); and he denounced German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement, in a 2008 visit to Jerusalem, that the German responsibility for Israel’s security cannot remain “empty words.” Augstein announced his alarm at the prospect of German soldiers fighting against Iran and protested that Netanyahu “keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant.” Broder came out swinging: He called Augstein a “little Streicher” and compared Augstein’s statement that he was no anti-Semite to a pedophile’s claim that he likes children. Augstein was born too late, Broder said, but he would have fit in well in the Gestapo. Then Broder publicly dared Augstein to sue him for libel. Augstein refused, remarking in gentlemanly fashion, “I respect Broder even when he makes an error.” (Broder’s response: “He wimped out.”) Augstein’s Der Freitag is indeed stridently anti-Netanyahu, and it harshly criticized Israel’s conduct in the 2009 and 2012 Gaza wars, but in these respects it is not so different from Haaretz. Surprisingly (and, it is rumored, on Broder’s advice), Augstein was named on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual list of the world’s “top 10 Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel slurs,” and he was also condemned by the ADL. Augstein had never attacked Israel’s right to exist, nor had he ever advocated or applauded any violent action against Jews; nor, for that matter, had he ever criticized Jews as such. Germany’s Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the official voice of its Jewish community, defended Augstein, and the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeiting found the charges of anti-Semitism against Augstein ridiculous.
Broder exaggerates when he presents Grass and his defender Augstein as the true representatives of German public opinion; what they represent, instead, is the hard left, which is still just as anti-Israel as it was in the ’60s. British and American left-wing opinion, like German left-wing opinion, is prone to blame Israel alone for the lack of peace with the Palestinians, to accuse Israel of war crimes while omitting any mention of Palestinian terrorists, to imply that Israel ought to abandon its Jewish character and become a non-Jewish state, and to describe Iranian threats against the Jews as mere bluster. But German leftists are not more stridently anti-Zionist than the leftists of other countries. In Britain, condemnation of Israel has entered the mainstream media far more than in Germany, as any BBC listener or Guardian reader can attest. According to polls, anti-Semitism in Germany is far lower than in Spain, Poland, and Hungary. Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky sell well in Germany, but so does Broder, whose Forget Auschwitz! received glowing reviews in the German press.
In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s scandalous play (never performed publicly in Germany) The Garbage, the City, and Death, an anti-Semitic character moans, “And the Jew is guilty, because he makes us guilty—because he is there. … If they had gassed him, I’d sleep better today. They forgot to gas him. That’s no joke, that’s how the thinking goes inside me.” Fassbinder himself was no anti-Semite, Broder insists, but with his character’s phrase “so denkt es in mir,” he revealed the unconscious underpinning of Germany’s attitudes toward the Jews: It would be better if they had all perished. Broder’s most incendiary charge is that, though no German would admit this, they would be relieved if someone else would finish the job and so free Germany from its mark of Cain. “If Ahmadinejad were to attack Israel,” Broder proclaimed, “that would be for the Europeans a very happy event for two reasons: First, the second-to-last Holocaust would vanish in the mist of the last one; and second, they could make up for what they forgot to do between ’33 and ’45: they could express their solidarity with the Jews.” For Germans, Broder went on to say, the very existence of Israel is “a pain in the ass,” and, as Grass complained in his poem, they want submarines delivered!
Broder to the contrary, evidence suggests that what the Germans call Grossvatergeschichtedilemma (“grandfather-history-dilemma”) has faded. Nearly all of the Nazi grandfathers are dead; Germans in their twenties have no memory of the Berlin Wall, much less the Nazi era. The young Germans who throng to klezmer concerts and to celebrations of German Jewish history are of course motivated in part by guilt over the past; but so, one could argue, are white Americans who avidly appreciate African-American culture. Most Germans are relieved that Israel exists, rather than, as Broder argues, secretly wishing for its disappearance. Hundreds of thousands of Germans go to Israel each year; only the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom send more tourists to the Jewish state (and they, unlike Germany, all have large Jewish populations). And young Israelis have flocked to Berlin, mostly because of its current reputation as the hippest city on the continent. As Tablet’s Adam Chandler remarked in a recent report from Berlin, German sympathy for Israel surfaces even on the left—for example, in the iconoclastic, wide-ranging magazine Konkret. During the Gaza war of 2012, the B.Z., the capital’s most popular newspaper (and a Springer publication), ran a cover with a picture of Hamas missiles overlaid on a map of Berlin: “What if Berlin were Israel?” the headline proclaimed, in a loud act of sympathy with the Israelis under Grad rocket fire. And then there is Angela Merkel, whose pro-Israel scorecard is impeccable. Germany and Israel are steadfast military allies and trading partners, and no one expects that to change, no matter the outcome of the next German or recent Israeli elections.
Broder’s epigraph for Forget Auschwitz! is a line from the essayist Eike Geisel: “In Germany, memory is the highest form of forgetting.” But Germans, these days at least, are no more prone to misuse the memory of the Shoah than anyone else is. Like the rest of us, Jews and non-Jews, Germans wrestle with the hardest questions: What are the lessons of the Holocaust, and what, if anything, does this greatest of all Jewish catastrophes have to do with our attitude toward the Israeli state and its policies? Broder, Germany’s vigorous gadfly, is a national treasure; as was the case with Hitchens, even the targets of his wrath often seem gratified by the attention. But whether Broder’s stinging attacks can guide us toward a better understanding of Israeli-German relations, which are always close and always a little uncomfortable—that’s another story.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.