Germany’s moral blindness

Germany’s moral blindness
14 min read

Victoria Schneider

17 November, 2023
By constantly keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, Israel has strategically used the past as a tactic to keep Germany locked into a state of eternal debt, which it cannot pay off, explains Victoria Schneider.
In Germany, the public often perceives Israel as the victim and Arabs as the aggressors due to the way language is used to describe the conflict, writes Victoria Schneider. [GETTY]

An advertisement is up in Germany's public spaces. It hangs at bus stops and on illuminated billboards all over the country. Signed by the German Bundestag, it reads: “The German Bundestag stands in solidarity and firmly by the side of Israel and its people.”

In a motion for a resolution passed a few days after October 7, the German Bundestag unanimously agreed that "Israel's security is considered German ‘Staatsraison,’” meaning "reason of state." It is not negotiable. 

The document passed by the elite set a narrative which clearly distinguishes between good and evil: "The terror organization Hamas has brought death and destruction onto Israel (...), which is why Germany must provide whatever Israel deems necessary or wishes for its defense."

Over the last 38 days, as Israel has killed more than ten thousand people in Gaza, displaced hundreds of thousands and destroyed hospitals, schools, and ambulances; as it has cut off fuel, water and other basics services, the majority of the non-western international community, multiple U.N. bodies, and human rights organisations have spoken out against this ongoing brutal military intervention against Palestinians. 

Germany, on the other hand, has not. In Germany, no politician (apart from Marjam Samadzade who was fired soon after), no media house questions the disproportionality of the Israeli aggression. Instead, top officials have visited Netanyahu to reassure him of their solidarity; last week, the commander in chief of the German air force even travelled to Israel to symbolically donate blood to the Israeli Occupation Army. 

"Those who don't share this [official view] have chosen the wrong country," said German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock in a TV interview, making it clear that anyone who disagrees might face consequences.

Actions confirmed this notion: The German government has prohibited demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine. The word “genocide” in relation to Israel’s genocide was forbidden at a protest in Berlin, and so was the slogan: “From the river to the sea, we demand equality.” Arab and Muslim citizens have been increasingly marginalised over the past weeks as politicians started calling for faster and more rigorous deportations; they are placed at the centre of the debate about increasing antisemitism, and contextually portrayed as a collective threat to Jews, and Israel. 

The Municipality of Berlin issued a statement that allows schools to ban the keffieh or any other sign of solidarity with the Palestinians. People have lost their jobs for criticising Israel or voicing solidarity with Palestinians.

The media’s collective complicity

The media seems to have abandoned the democratic imperative of its watchdog role that holds power accountable, as it largely parrots the we-stand-by-Israel narrative of the political elite. Across all platforms, left to right, public and private, journalists are using selective reporting and euphemistic language in order to leave no doubt that Israel is the victim who fights for its existence against the "terrorists" used synonymously with Hamas, which is portrayed as a diffuse group that potentially all Palestinians subscribe to. 

German correspondents based in Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem mostly report on the victims of the Hamas attack or the atmosphere of fear in Israeli society. Palestinian voices are rare, and if featured, systematically undermined.

Early into this escalation mainstream media established that Palestinian sources cannot be trusted. The narrative of good and evil suggests that information from Gaza is spread by “terrorists” whose interest is to conflate images and numbers of death and destruction.

Numbers of people killed, if mentioned at all, are accompanied by an immediate warning that the information "cannot be independently verified."

The translation reads: “According to the terror organisation Hamas, at least 27 were killed after an Israeli attack in the Jabalia refugee camp north off Gaza City. On top, there is a ‘large number’ ” of injured, said the ministry of health which is led by the terror organisation Hamas. The numbers were not independently verifiable. Footage of the news agency AFP, however, showed several injured and aid workers coming to help. The Israeli army did not comment on the incident. Israel accuses Hamas to abuse UN schools and hospitals as hiding spaces and arms deposits. Hamas rejects this. Israel had already attacked Jabalia before explaining the action with the underlying tunnel system of Hamas."

The dozens of Palestinian journalists in Gaza who are reporting from the ground are ignored. When streaming Aljazeera on YouTube, a pop-up notice comes up informing the viewer that the channel is financed by the government of Qatar.

How can it be that an entire nation is blinded to see crimes against humanity?

The blind consensus dictating the German narrative these days has many layers, one of which is the distorted perception of the past and the self. 

Germans’ history with the state of Israel has been defined by the historic guilt Germans feel towards he Jewish people for the crimes committed during the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis in the years leading up and during World War II. 

The Germans were the perpetrators of horror, and everyone agreed on this. But the guilt was not processed thoroughly. It did not transition from the negative feeling into some form of collective consciousness. Instead, it led to the collective submission to a code of behaviour dictated by Israel, motivated by the unachievable wish to become their friend, or out of fear to be demonised.

"German political culture is powerfully constrained by the dominant and therefore unquestionable interpretation of the Holocaust as a special burden for Germany," wrote Jeffrey K. Olick, a sociologist from Columbia University, in a 1997 journal article about collective memory and cultural restraint in Germany.

By constantly keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, Israel has strategically used the past as a tactic to keep Germany locked into a state of eternal debt, which it cannot pay off. 

"Meeting in the memory space through the victim's perspective gives Israel the authority to claim ownership of the memory. It (re)connects Germany to its historical role as the perpetrator and (re)constitutes Germany's guilt and, hence, moral debt vis-à-vis Israel, and with it raising behavioural expectations of atonement. Even if this role is not assigned to contemporary German governments, it requires them to be acute to the perpetrator's continuing presence," wrote researchers Felix Berenskötter and Mor Mitrani in an analysis about the relationship between the two countries published in International Studies Quarterly last year. They concluded that the friendship between the two cannot be genuine as long as it is founded on the flawed memory of the past.

Strategic guilt-tripping over the course of history

The victim/perpetrator relationship started in the early 1950s with the debate about Germany paying reparations to Israel. Israeli opponents argued that receiving payments would mean that the Jews forgive Germany for the past atrocities. 

Nevertheless, the agreement was signed despite the opposition, laying out payments of 3 billion Deutsche Mark (the equivalent of $7 billon today) over a period of 12 years. Since 1953, Germany has paid more than 80 billion U.S. dollars in reparations to Israel, while supplying the country with military equipment. Using their “special” responsibility to justify the violation of their own laws which prohibit providing weapons to conflict zones, Germany continues to deliver and purchase weapons for Israel until today. In September this year, they finalized an agreement to fund the Israeli-made Arrow 3 hypersonic missile system, worth 3.8 billion U.S. dollars. 

However, all of this seems to not end the Germans' debt towards Israel. In order for Israel to consider Germany as a "good state," wrote Berenskötter and Mitrani, Germany is expected to give whatever Israel asks from them.

"Effectively, the shared memory keeps alive the historical role identities of perpetrator/victim and mandates a secure Israel as a utopia in which Germany must invest, yet the content of which it cannot shape," wrote Berenskötter and Mitrani.

This locative relationship has enabled Israel to do what might ultimately be the most dangerous aspect of the current situation: the deliberate convolution of politics and religion.

Anyone who criticises Israel's politics or says anything positive about Palestinians can be labelled an antisemite, a terrorist, or outright crazy and will most definitely face negative consequences. 

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In this warped and highly sensitive reality, the mere recognition of the Palestinian people as human beings is regarded as criticism of Israel, i.e., antisemitism.  

Incidences in the past have illustrated how strong this tactic is, even though it has not always worked. 

In the 1970s, then Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Schmidt expressed that the Palestinians have a right to statehood and warned that Israel under Menachim Begin is a "threat to world peace." Schmidt was slammed by Begin, who said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post: "Specifically, the Germans should keep their advice to themselves (...) Europe is soaked with Jewish blood from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga."

In 1981, Schmidt sold Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia in a historic military deal. Again, he voiced West Germany’s moral commitment to the Palestinian people. Again, Begin freaked out: "The German debt to the Jewish people can never end, not in this generation or in any other. The entire nation cheered on the murderers as long as they were victorious. But what do we hear? We hear of a commitment to those who strove to complete what the Germans had started in Europe."

While Schmidt did not backtrack—in fact, he was quoted as having said that Germany should not be "held hostage to Ausschwitz"—Germany's  financial and military payments to Israel continued throughout these years of tension. 

Schmidt was possibly the most provocative leader in Germany's post-war history with Israel at a time when the political culture was tired of feeling guilty. 

Thirty years after World War II, Franz-Josef Strauß called for an end to the guilt trips. “We don’t want to be reminded of our past by anyone, including Tel Aviv, and by that be prevented from taking global political responsibility,” he said. 

Consecutive governments mostly subscribed to what Israel wanted and, with few exceptions, mostly fulfilled their demands at the United Nations and the European Union. The Holocaust became a symbolic knife that Israel has been holding to the Germans' throat.

Germany’s longing to be “good”

In 2018, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met with the human rights organisations Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem during his visit to Israel. Netanyahu, who had objected to Gabriel meeting the anti-occupation organisations, cancelled his meeting with the German politician. 

But things were different than in the 1980s. This time, instead of freaking out, Netanyahu used a different strategy to brush off criticism. He framed Gabriel's move as a once-off faux-pas, which ultimately would not threaten the what he called “iron bond” between Israel and Germany. Downplaying Gabriel's symbolic act was a tactic to reinforce the narrative. Anyone who does not follow it cannot be taken seriously. 

Even though then Chancellor Angela Merkel stood behind Gabriel, the German government quickly reverted to its role of the eternal ally, which at that stage had somehow normalised. It was Merkel after all, who had framed the term Staatraison when she met Netanyahu in 2008. In 2019, Germany was the first government in the world to criminalise the BDS movement. 

The Germans have been "good" enough in the eyes of the Israelis, as the mechanisms that silence criticism in the public domain are highly functional. 

The past weeks have shown that. It does not even need Israel or their local policing body, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to call anyone out on being antisemitic. The policing works by itself as Germany has found comfort in its self-image as the eternal owner of the role of the perpetrator who recognises their “special responsibility.” It serves as a proof that the contemporary state contrasts their Nazi past. 

In the political culture of present day Germany, the obsession with their own guilt has made a different approach to Israel’s politics almost impossible. Even Jewish voices who criticise Israel's political agenda are being dismissed or ridiculed. Arab voices speaking up are labelled as terrorists or a threat to the public order.   

German soccer club Mainz 05 terminated the contract with its player Anwar AlGhazi after having sanctioned him for a social media post in which he expressed his solidarity with the people in Gaza. When Mainz 05 publicly announced that AlGhazi had apologized for the post, the player released a statement saying that he did not apologise, and that he sticks to what he had said before. AlGhazi was fired. He is being investigated by the public prosecutor's office for "incitement of violence."

In his last statement, AlGhazi wrote: "I am against war and violence. I am against the killing of all innocent civilians. I am against all forms of discrimination. I am against Islamophobia. I am against anti-Semitism. I am against genocide. I am against apartheid. I am against occupation. I am against oppression."

The reaction of Mainz 05 is an example of the distorted construct of reality that dictates the public code of conduct in Germany. Built on what they perceive is their moral obligation towards Israel (dictated by Israel), the role of the "victim" is predefined and not questionable. It is this reality that allows the collective denial of a genocide, as much as it allowed to deny 75 years of violent occupation. 

Moral disengagement

In Germany, the public often perceives Israel as the victim and Arabs as the aggressors due to the way language is used to describe the conflict. This perspective leads to a selective disengagement from the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Consequently, the same standards of empathy and understanding applied to the Germans themselves, Europeans or to Israelis are not extended to the Palestinians.

Psychologist Albert Bandura called this “moral disengagement” in his studies to understand the mechanisms by which people selectively engage and disengage their morality. 

According to Bandura, it is mostly the strategic use of "moral and worthy language to legitimise one's own destructive behaviour," which can make people morally justify actions they would normally consider atrocious. Language can also make people perceive their own inhumanities as minor when compared to the more egregious inhumanities of the proclaimed enemy. 

"If you can lead people to believe absurdities you can get them to commit atrocities," French philosopher Voltaire once said. 

This can lead to the situation where the subscription to the protection of a nation state can be in conflict with international law when the nation state commits crimes against humanity.

Despite all of this, there are some voices that call the German politicians and media out for warping the “shared history” to the point where war crimes against a non-Jewish people are justified. In Germany and in Israel.

A few weeks ago, journalist Amira Hass wrote an op-ed for the Israeli paper Ha'aretz titled "You Germans have long betrayed your responsibility."

Hass, whose parents' families were killed in the Holocaust, directed her words as an answer to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz', saying that he is "issuing a blank check for a wounded, hurting Israel to pulverize, destroy, and kill without restraint."

She dismissed Scholz' statement, that "the history and responsibility arising from the Holocaust make  it an everlasting task for us to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel," as not genuine.

"You betrayed it (the responsibility) by your unreserved support for an Israel that occupies, colonizes, deprives people of water, steals land, imprisons two million Gazans in a crowded cage, demolishes homes, expels entire communities from their homes, and encourages settler violence," wrote Hass.  

When looking at the comments under government officials' social media posts or mainstream media articles, the consensus is different from the official narrative. People do not agree with the blind “We-stand-by-Israel”  agenda. There is a difference between public opinion and public culture, between what the individual feels, and what the collective agrees on. 

Does standing with Israel make a difference?

When Germans had to deal with the immediate question of guilt in the years after the war, Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher and university professor, came up with the term "collective guilt." It meant that those who were actively involved in the war crimes of the Nazi regimes were morally guilty and those who passively tolerated them without resisting or speaking up were politically guilty. 

The term is controversial, and makes people uncomfortable until today. The readers’ and viewers’ comments in the past weeks show that German political elites have lost their connection with the people. And the media, the body whose democratic obligation is to not allow the state to dictate the narrative, is reinforcing the state imposed political culture which erases the people’s voices, and isolates and demonises those who disagree, with dangerous consequences for humanity. 

Victoria Schneider is a freelance investigative journalist, researcher and founder of Timbuktu in the Valley, a learning center for youth in Johannesburg. She has been based in South Africa since 2013, and set out on multiple months-long investigations on the continent as well as the Middle East. In the center of her work are land issues and human rights violations in the context of foreign investments, as well as forced displacement and migration.

This article was first published by our friends at Misbar.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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