Lessons not learned: In Germany, a performance of memory culture and a tradition of genocide

Lessons not learned: In Germany, a performance of memory culture and a tradition of genocide
Germany's support for Israel's war on Gaza proves its culture of guilt and repentance is performative and selective, write Rachael Shapiro & Rachel Levine.
7 min read
Germany's carefully and strategically cultivated reputation of repentance and humility for its crimes against humanity has crumbled in the face of its support for Israel's genocide. [Getty]

Last month, a group of German lawyers filed a criminal complaint against Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and other senior parliamentarians for aiding and abetting Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

This was followed by Nicaragua’s submission of an emergency case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this month, in which it accused Germany of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention with its unequivocal financial and political support for Israel’s bombardment in Gaza and its defunding of UNRWA, the humanitarian body that provides aid to over 5.5 million Palestinians refugees.

Five months into the war on Gaza - which has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians - Germany’s determined and continued involvement forces us to ask: Why is Germany so intent on partaking in genocide?

In the 79 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and the 116 years since the end of its Namibian genocide, Germany has carefully and strategically cultivated a global reputation of admirable repentance and humility for its crimes against humanity.

Memorials and museums devoted to Holocaust remembrance are peppered throughout the country. “Memory culture” (“Erinnerungskultur”) is a core tenet of educational curricula for students from a young age, as is the promise of ‘never again’.

Public officials often appear at Jewish institutions to perform rituals of support and enthusiastically declare that Jewish life must be encouraged to thrive.

"To the state, Germany's greatest failure as a society was never that it committed genocide or descended into fascism. Its greatest failure was having been caught"

At first glance, the country’s public discourse seems to ground in the necessary recognition of the blood on its hands, in service of creating and upholding fundamental societal infrastructure to prevent such events from ever repeating themselves.

However, as Israel’s genocide, bombardment and massacres in Gaza continue in full force and on full display, Germany’s reaction tells another story of the lessons gleaned from its past.

Top German officials have scrambled to repeat that the country’s historical responsibility must translate into support for Israel, with the subtext being that such support comes with no strings attached, no matter the cost.

Anyone who dares question the German “reason of state,” which dictates this unconditional defence of Israel predicated on the false equation of Judaism and Zionism, does so at risk of being ostracised, cancelled, deplatformed, fired, defunded, or deported.

Germany’s atonement for its gory history of Holocausts and state repression has taken place in an ironclad, self-determined, self-regulated and self-reinforcing bubble. The intention was never the actual work of redefining and reshaping its relationship to its crimes; it was being seen and applauded for doing so.

To the state, Germany’s greatest failure as a society was never that it committed genocide or descended into fascism. Its greatest failure was having been caught.

As the Martinican scholar of colonialism Aimé Cesaire noted in Discourse on Colonialism, white Europeans largely came to hate Hitler only because he directed his crimes against white people — Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively” for nonwhite peoples who Europeans denigrated as inferior or nonhuman.

This inconvenient reality has become all the more evident in recent months.

Shamed by the international community for its history, Germany’s performance of guilt and repentance has led to a present in which it loudly proclaims that the lesson it draws from the Holocaust — to support Israel unquestioningly and with all state powers at its disposal — is correct, complete, and a better interpretation of history than anyone else’s, even if it means supporting genocide abroad.

When confronted with criticisms from many domestic and international voices, often Jewish, that suggest this interpretation may be limited or flawed, Germany doubles down, bringing back the totalitarian measures of its past, hysterically attempting to silence democratic debate and shutting down dissenting voices through increasingly absurd and cognitively dissonant means.

A theatre of racism and selective repentance

By the same token, Germany now ascribes significance not to the actual “fight against anti-Semitism,” but rather to being recognised for performing it.

And it is the country’s dedicated performance of “memory culture,” a privilege which it bestows primarily, if not exclusively, to its Jewish victims, that is precisely what has enabled the seamless continuity of its racist, annihilatory rampages against those it regards as lesser beings (“Untermensch”).

A century ago, it was the Herero-Nama genocide — a historical colonial atrocity wholly neglected in the discussion of memory culture, and one still largely ignored by German leaders despite ongoing demands for acknowledgement, return of many victims’ remains, and reparations by Namibian lawyers and activists.

Eighty years ago, it was the Jews — but it was also the Roma-Sinti, LGBTQ+, disabled people and other groups, most of whom are not mentioned in the same breath, let alone awarded the same philosemitic reverence with which Germany regards its flattened, monolithic idea of the Jews.

Today it is the Arabs. Palestinians suffering an eight-decade-long crusade of occupation and ethnic cleansing culminating in the current genocide in Gaza, are now publicly scapegoated and vilified along with other Arabs as the alleged source of anti-Semitism by the German ruling class — history’s most prolific perpetrators of anti-Semitism.

"The smoke and mirrors that Germany has hidden behind for decades - weaponising and manipulating the narrative of 'guilt' and instrumentalising the role of the Jewish victim to suit its own interests - has made it a reliable ally to Israel in its campaign of genocidal bloodlust"

Germany’s new mantra: Protecting minorities by oppressing minorities

In Germany today, pro-Palestinian demonstrators are brutally detained, harassed, surveilled and their homes are searched at random.

Public schools in Berlin were recently directed to distribute an extreme right-wing propaganda pamphlet to all students entitled “Myths 1948,” wherein the Nakba — the systematic displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians from Palestine in 1948 to create the state of Israel — as well as the very existence of Israel’s ongoing occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine are vehemently denied.

The phrase “from the river to the sea” is criminalised as incitement to hatred in most of Germany, with occasional and arbitrary bans of words such as “genocide,” “terror,” and even “children” at protests.

A few weeks ago, the police attacked a peaceful sit-in in Berlin outside of the offices of media conglomerate Axel Springer, which repeatedly publishes smear campaigns defaming pro-Palestine activists for “anti-Semitism” (often directed at anti-Zionist Jewish people as well as our Palestinian siblings).

In this particular instance, cops choked and beat protesters sitting on the ground before violently arresting and searching a number of us, holding us in solitary confinement for hours and repeatedly denying us the right to speak to legal counsel or tell us where we had been taken.

This laundry list of disturbing policies and behaviour, representing only a small fraction of what Palestinians and the Palestine movement experience in Germany daily, rings hauntingly familiar.

It is a stark reminder to those of us who raise our voices in resistance to state-sanctioned violence and intimidation that not only were the German police state, its Gestapo secret service and the fascism that proliferated in the 1930s and 1940s never repented for, they were never dismantled to begin with.

In the wake of this glaringly absurd and violent paradigm, however, increased awareness and mobilisation in solidarity with Palestine have begun to force change.


For months, millions have taken to the streets to disrupt and expose the machine of German and Western complicity that continues to fund, arm, and politically sanitise this latest genocide.

The smoke and mirrors that Germany has hidden behind for decades - weaponising and manipulating the narrative of “guilt” and instrumentalising the role of the Jewish victim to suit its own interests - has made it a reliable ally to Israel in its campaign of genocidal bloodlust.

But as each passing day brings a shift in global conscience around the crimes against humanity in Gaza and all of historical Palestine, Germany’s unyielding support for Israel only succeeds in revealing its own cartoonish hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy.

More and more, the people are rejecting the destructive narratives they have been socialised to perpetuate and overwhelmingly choosing the fight for humanity.

Rachael Shapiro is an anti-Zionist Jewish activist originally from the US and based in Berlin. A descendant of Holocaust survivors, she is active in the movement for Palestinian liberation and with the group Sozialismus von unten (“Socialism from below”) in Germany. Follow her on Instagram: @solarbagel

Rachel Levine is a human rights advocate and a diaspora Jew active with various initiatives working towards more pluralistic, just and inclusive societies around the globe.

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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.