‘The prospective growth of a large population of young Muslims who may be religiously or politically inclined toward hatred of Jews and Israel poses a particular problem for Germany in light of the Holocaust.’ A rally led by the far-right Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) in Dresden, Germany.

Espen Rasmussen/VII/Redux

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An Inconvenient Truth

A former director of German intelligence argues that neo-Nazis are not the primary source of antisemitism in Germany today. It is the intersection of left-wing activists and Muslim migrants.

August Hanning
March 19, 2024
‘The prospective growth of a large population of young Muslims who may be religiously or politically inclined toward hatred of Jews and Israel poses a particular problem for Germany in light of the Holocaust.’ A rally led by the far-right Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) in Dresden, Germany.

Espen Rasmussen/VII/Redux

Germany is currently in a difficult situation that is beginning to recall some of the darker moments of the country’s past. Unprepared for the external crises of the war in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East, the nation now suffers internally from an unrestrained and uncontrolled influx of migrants. The economy is stagnating. Excessive social spending prevents necessary investments for the country’s future. Faced with an overwhelming bureaucracy, German companies primarily invest abroad, especially in the United States. The state budget is in disarray.

In the face of these crises, which stem from the Merkel era, a large segment of the German population yearns for strong political leadership. Yet Germany’s ruling coalition of three very different parties—the Greens, the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Free Democrats (FDP)—appears divided and ineffective. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is perceived as weak and lacks popular support.

Under Mrs. Merkel, the Christian Democrats (CDU) largely abandoned conservative values, essentially pursuing Social Democratic policies throughout the latter half of her 16-year-long tenure. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to an unlimited influx of migrants remains exceptionally controversial. Socially and economically unprepared for the consequences of this decision, Germany continues to bear the burdens of physical accommodation, escalating social spending, and the difficulties of integrating new immigrants from difficult cultures, including in the education sector. The abandonment of conservative values in the CDU’s politics has led in turn to the rise of right-wing parties that can position themselves outside the country’s comforting, if sometimes stifling, postwar political consensus.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the strongest of the country’s growing opposition parties, especially in eastern Germany. While political opponents derogatorily label the AfD as a “Nazi party,” neither its program nor the vast majority of its members remotely justify this label. Much of the AfD’s political program resembles that of mainstream Trump supporters within the Republican Party. The AfD criticizes the consensus parties, including the CDU, for a loss of control over the migrant influx, bureaucracy in the European Union, and development aid payments from the German state budget to countries in Latin America, India, and China. The AfD demands that the principle of “Germany first” be applied to all political decisions.

While large portions of the AfD’s members and its supporters are familiar conservative nationalists, fringe groups within the party also espouse ethno-nationalist views, using phrases like “Germany for Germans” or “Foreigners out” that are indeed reminiscent of the era of National Socialism. Yet these elements do not define the overall character of the party. When assessing the political situation in Germany, it must also be considered that political positions and demands categorized as “conservative” in the United States are often deemed “far right” in Germany.

Understanding Germany’s problem dealing with migration, on one hand, and charges of antisemitism, on the other hand, requires a retrospective look into German history. Located in the center of Europe, Germany is a land of both emigration and immigration. In the 19th century and after both world wars in the 20th century, many Germans left their country. The primary destinations were the United States and Latin America, particularly Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Simultaneously, in the 19th century, there was also a large influx of migrants into Germany from Eastern Europe, especially from what are now Polish territories, which included many Eastern European Jews.

At the time of mass Jewish migration to Germany, Jewish communities to the east suffered from horrific pogroms; it is estimated that two-thirds of Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe fled to the United States under the pressure of these pogroms, and one-third to Germany. In Germany, many of these emigrants found a safe haven. Visiting the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe in Weissensee, Berlin, one finds many Jewish names closely associated with Germany’s economic rise before World War I. Even prior to the large-scale Jewish migrations from the east, Jews had made enormous contributions to German culture as poets, writers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, merchants, academics, and in other occupations. After the migrations of the late 19th century, their numbers radically expanded, as did the perception of Jewish cultural difference.

The First World War ended catastrophically for traditional German elites, the nobility, and the affluent bourgeoisie. In the Weimar Republic, traditional parties faltered under the burden of the Versailles Treaty and the reparations demands of the victors of World War I. Large portions of the electorate—originally not the majority—then voted for the “Hitler Party,” the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), at the beginning of the 1930s.

The German people longed for a “strong leader” who could solve the country’s pressing problems. An important motivating factor for many NSDAP voters was fear of communism, which had tried to take control of the country after the end of World War I and then revealed the extent of its own murderous ugliness under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Certainly, most German voters did not want another war, or favor the extermination of entire ethnic groups. At the same time, they were increasingly suspicious of and hostile to foreigners from the east.

Shortly after his election in 1933, Hitler suspended parts of the constitution and had political opponents murdered while increasingly portraying Jews in both the east (communists) and west (capitalists) as the main cause of Germany’s economic problems. Jews were discriminated against and persecuted, leading many to flee the country.

Hitler’s policy culminated in the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942, where Jews were declared Germany’s main war enemy and a barbarous policy of total genocide was decided upon. In his wildly delusional mind, Hitler considered the annihilation of the Jews more important than supporting the German Wehrmacht in World War II. Hitler, the SS, and the Nazi Party succeeded in constructing and running a campaign of mass murder that badly stained Germany’s national honor and led to external and internal consequences in nearly every aspect of German life, including political life, to this day—and which helped turn the questions of migration and antisemitism into political dynamite.

After World War II, it took decades to overcome the trauma of the Holocaust in bilateral relations with Israel, and to resume the historical pattern of Jewish immigration to Germany. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established a positive development of political and military relations between Germany and Israel with their legendary meeting on March 14, 1960, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, a policy that has been continued by all German governments to this day.

In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided that Germany would accept Jews from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet territories, offering them the opportunity to acquire German citizenship under facilitated conditions. Subsequently, burgeoning Jewish communities emerged in many German cities, with many formerly destroyed or unused synagogues being rebuilt. Jewish life, supported by all German governments, has since become part of the definition of normalcy in Germany; there are Jewish schools, hospitals, and museums.

However, despite this attempt at ”Jewish normalcy” in Germany’s internal and external politics, there is still a residue of antisemitism on both the German right and left that can quickly become explosive—threatening as it does the foundations on which the country’s political order is built. The reasons for the persistence of antisemitism on both ends of the German political spectrum are multifaceted. Historically, antisemitism since the Middle Ages stemmed from the Christian notion that “the Jews” killed Jesus Christ. This religious antisemitism overlooked the fact that the historical Jesus Christ was also a Jew. More significant for right-wing extremism during the Nazi era was racist antisemitism, which saw in Jewish people a “race” characterized by unchangeable physical and character traits. This enemy group of Jews was collectively ascribed negative qualities. Among other things, it was alleged that they lived as parasites within foreign nations and pursued a secret plan to establish Jewish world domination to the detriment of other nations.

Today, the denial of the Holocaust and the trivialization of the Nazi dictatorship play a significant role in right-wing political antisemitism. In addition, there is an envy factor; Jews have resisted assimilation pressures for centuries and have formed their own communities, insulated from the surrounding society. Education often holds a high value for Jews, leading to disproportionately high numbers of Jews attaining leading positions in the fields of justice, medicine, and the economy. A typical statement for right-wing antisemites is: Jews have a disproportionate influence on world events.

These ugly tropes on the German right have been strengthened by the possibilities for hateful forms of communication on the internet. Social networks in particular offer new possibilities for the wide distribution of hateful messages that had no previous means of mass dissemination. The internet also appears to inherently encourage the dissemination of conspiracy theories, which in many cases are associated with antisemitic notions of a Jewish or Zionist world conspiracy, including control of global finance.

As for the left-wing political spectrum in Germany, a decisive landmark in the far left’s adoption of antisemitic attitudes and tropes was Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. A far-left West German terrorist organization, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang—which committed numerous attacks in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s—was founded after the Six-Day War in 1967 and maintained close contact with Palestinian terrorist organizations from the moment of its inception.

After the Six-Day War, left-wing extremists in Germany glorified Palestinian terrorism as a “people fighting for their liberation,” while victorious Israel was depicted as a deranged “capitalist” ally of the hated United States. Moreover, double standards were consistently applied: Israeli measures against Palestinian terrorism were labeled by left-wing extremists as human rights violations or war crimes, while violence, terrorism, corruption, and crime among Palestinian actors went unmentioned. These practices became part of the patrimony of the radical German left.

In 1969, the far-left group “Tupamaros West-Berlin” attempted to bomb the Jewish Community Center in Berlin on the anniversary of the Reichspogromnacht, or Kristallnacht. The prominent far-left founder of the RAF, Ulrike Meinhof, characterized the Palestinian attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich as “anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, and internationalist.” She blamed Israel, claiming that the country had “sacrificed its athletes like the Nazis sacrificed the Jews.”

A bust of German Communist Party (KPD) leader Ernst Thälmann graffitied with the words ‘Free Gaza,’ Berlin, Dec. 20, 2023
A bust of German Communist Party (KPD) leader Ernst Thälmann graffitied with the words ‘Free Gaza,’ Berlin, Dec. 20, 2023

John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

With the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000 and the subsequent Israeli military operations in the spring of 2002 in Jenin and Bethlehem, there was a wave of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attacks and demonstrations in several Western European countries, including Germany. Antisemitism thus returned as a significant issue on the public, political, and scientific agenda in both Germany and Europe.

In addition to Israel-related antisemitism since Oct. 7, 2023, there has been an increasing number of statements on the left wing of the German political spectrum that represent forms of secondary, so-called guilt-deflecting antisemitism. The slogan heard on parts of the left, “Free Palestine from German guilt,” suggests that German guilt for the Holocaust blinds the German public and government to Palestinian suffering.

In the perspective of left-wing antisemitism, Israel is not seen as a refuge for Jews who survived the Holocaust. Rather, it is a criminal enterprise inspired by the demons of nationalism and ethnocentrism, which allegedly led German Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust. The descendants of victims of Nazi persecution are therefore reinterpreted as perpetrators allegedly pursuing a “final solution to the Palestinian question.” Actual or perceived mistakes of Israeli policy are attributed to genocidal lusts on the part of “the Jews” worldwide, which can in turn be presented as the tragically misdirected consequences of the Nazi genocide.

Such harsh criticisms of Israeli policy, sometimes shading into overt antisemitism, have become a fixture of leftist movements in Germany. While some of the leftist antisemitism now resurfacing in Germany has its roots in the leftist radicalism of 50 years ago, some of it has a more recent origin in the mainstream left’s electoral courtship of political Islamists and Muslim immigrants—leading to an acceptance of movements and discourse that would have formerly been unacceptable in both the cultural and the political spheres.

While the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which initially called for a boycott of Israeli goods—and of companies (Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar) accused by BDS of “complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights”—failed to achieve any of its political goals, its focus has now shifted to cultural and political boycotts of Israel itself. In the days following the barbaric Oct. 7 attack on Israel’s civilian population, large parts of the German art scene and left-wing organizations and parties, which usually comment loudly and immediately on political events, remained silent for days and even weeks—as if the 1,200 murdered and over 200 abducted people were not worthy of comment.

For anyone who had been following the strong influence of left-wing anti-Zionism in cultural and academic circles, this silence could not come as a total surprise. At a major 2022 German art exhibition, the Documenta, artworks with antisemitic messages were widely displayed, alongside paintings depicting Israeli soldiers as pigs with the Star of David. Some of the foreign artists invited to the Documenta publicly proclaimed antisemitic theses. The prominent British artist of Bengali origin, Hamja Ahsan, who was prominently featured in the exhibition, publicly referred to Chancellor Olaf Scholz as a fascist pig and called the FDP politician Stefan Naas a lackey of Israel’s apartheid regime.

Similarly, at the last Berlin Film Festival, the Berlinale, in February 2024, a public event called for hatred toward Israel. Again, it was foreign artists who expressed their criticism with Palestinian symbols at Berlinale events. The tolerance of such expressions by German politicians who attended led to widespread public criticism.

Another alarming phenomenon we are witnessing within parts of the German left is the rise of overt antisemitism within the global climate movements. An icon of the climate movement, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, caused a stir at a climate protest in Amsterdam when she chanted multiple times, “No climate justice on occupied land.” Coming a month after the massacres of more than 1,200 Israeli civilians, Thunberg expressed no words of sympathy or protest; instead, she immediately showed solidarity with the Palestinians. She was photographed with fellow activists demanding a “free Palestine” and carrying a plush octopus—a classic antisemitic symbol widely used by the Nazis to signify Jewish world domination. Thunberg then shared posts denouncing the alleged “genocide” in Gaza and demanding the destruction of Israel under the slogan “From the river to the sea.” She received considerable criticism for this behavior in Germany, and representatives of the German climate movement publicly distanced themselves from her. Yet it was impossible to ignore the coincidence of Thunberg’s “green antisemitism” and the “green” politics of political Islamists.

The larger public debate about antisemitism within the Muslim community in Germany and political Islam is primarily concerned with the content of the Quran. Critics say that the Quran contains numerous passages that encourage hatred toward Jews. Proponents of this view point out that there are antisemitic statements in the Quran—for example, against Jews who are described as “monkeys and pigs.” The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, has called on Muslims in Germany to position themselves clearly against antisemitism.

A Germany in which antisemitism is culturally and politically acceptable should be entirely unthinkable. Sadly, it is not.

The prospective growth of a large population of young Muslims who may be religiously or politically inclined toward hatred of Jews and Israel poses a particular problem for Germany in light of the Holocaust. Since the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel wave of 2002 and the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, many young Muslims have been conspicuous in Germany as “antisemitic activists.” These activists have been at the forefront of mobbing attacks on Jewish students, displaying antisemitic symbols on university campuses, and even physical assaults on Jewish students in grade schools. None of these phenomena, which are clearly violent, and are clearly motivated in some part by overtly antisemitic viewpoints—and which in turn are nourished by wider cultural currents, both internal and external—can be safely overlooked.

Intolerance of dissenting views on the Arab-Israeli conflict on the part of students who are often raised in separatist religious and political cultures poses a challenge to Germany’s own liberal political culture. It poses a specific challenge to Germany’s robust program of Holocaust education, on which the nation’s liberal political culture is founded. The growth of a culturally unassimilated minority within the larger postwar German majority culture may also eventually pose a challenge to the Israel-Germany relationship, as well as to the role that relationship plays in Germany’s historical understanding of itself.

A Germany in which antisemitism is culturally and politically acceptable should be entirely unthinkable. Sadly, it is not. Today, both Israel-related antisemitism within the left political spectrum and Islamic antisemitism among Muslim youth represent significant cultural and political challenges. At the same time, it is necessary to maintain a watchful eye on new phenomena such as antisemitism in the climate movement, which may become more pronounced in the future. It is crucial to address these issues openly and honestly in German society, to educate about the history of antisemitism, and to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding—and not to lazily and inaccurately identify the problem of antisemitism as a historical phenomenon solely of the radical right. The fight against antisemitism must be a task that concerns all members of society, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.

Dr. August Hanning was Director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) from 1998-2005 and State Secretary of the Federal Interior Ministry from 2005-2009, with responsibility for police affairs, internal security, migration, and refugee integration.