Berlin Police Commissioner Dieter Glietsch
German politicians, activists, and Jewish community representatives have expressed outrage over comments allegedly made by "an entire class of police cadets" to a Holocaust survivor who was delivering a lecture on the Nazi period, antisemitism, and xenophobia at the Berlin Police Academy.
The incident took place nearly a month ago, on February 27, when the 83-year-old Isaak Behar visited the class, as part of a session about the Nazi regime mandated by the curriculum. Police cadets apparently told Behar that they resented "constantly being reminded about the Holocaust." Others made remarks to the effect that "Jews are rich" (Tagesspiegel).
The story, first reported by the Berliner Zeitung, has received widespread coverage in German newspapers since it broke on March 19. A report of what transpired during the discussion only reached Berlin's Police Commissioner, Dieter Glietsch, last week, "almost by accident" and through sources outside of the department. It is possible that Behar himself brought it to Glietsch's attention. The commissioner expressed his consternation about the report and about the fact that it had only reached him now (Berliner Zeitung). An inquiry has already begun, and condemnation has been virtually unanimous.
Reports about a resurgence of antisemitism in Germany invariably make big headlines - in Germany and abroad. There are certainly reasons to be concerned, but I hope that the blame does not fall on the German police or state, for the problem clearly lies elsewhere. This has not always been the case. Just twenty years ago, German politicians and civil servants were far slower in responding to reports of antisemitism. But the current German elite is sui generis in its awareness of the dark sides of the German past and its dedication to combating antisemitism and Holocaust denial - with a few exceptions. I would even go so far as to say that no country's political elite in the world today can claim to be as sincere as Germany's in confronting its past.
While the current German elite, which came to political maturity in the 1960s, shares a fundamental consensus about the importance of Holocaust education, a younger generation of Germans is slowly undermining the values and institutions for which some of its parents (the ones born in West Germany) struggled for several decades. This younger generation, composed of men and women who while born in pre-1989 West or East Germany have spent most of their lives in the unified Federal Republic, today declares that it is "sick of the Holocaust." In the words of one German headline "Deutsche Polizisten: Kein Bock auf Holocaust Vortrag" (if anyone knows how to translate this into equally compelling idiomatic English, please let me know).
Of course, German fatigue about the Holocaust, which once prompted Henryk Broder to quip that "the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz," is not an entirely new phenomenon. Perhaps there has always been a profound disconnect between the discourse of the elite described earlier and that of German society at large. Things have only become more complicated since Germany's unification, especially as neo-Nazi or "national" groups in East Germany emerged as protest movements against the communist regime before 1989, and against immigrants and leftists today. I think the reaction of the police cadets reflects the views of large segments of the German people from similar class backgrounds. They have increasingly come to the conclusion that the Holocaust is being rammed down their throats.
Contrary to the claims of right-wing demagogues, I don't believe that there is a surfeit of Holocaust education in the country. But an effective strategy to counter these dangerous tendencies cannot consist in hysteria about the return of Nazism to Germany. Perhaps, it might be a better idea to dwell on the positive. Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee have long realized this. The point is that Germans have a great deal to be proud of when it comes to dealing with their history - just consider, for the sake of comparison, the situation in Japan or Turkey. The German elite should be confident of this record and its role in in these achievements; it should speak of German accomplishments in this sphere as much as it speaks of duties and responsibilities today. At the same time, of course Germans must continue to monitor and engage critically, in clear terms and without glossing over the issues involved, the kind of self-serving (and often antisemitic) ressentiment that came to the surface in the affair of the Berlin police cadets.
ON A DIFFERENT NOTE:
I encountered some bizarre transcriptions of German words in a Ha'aretz article about the incident described above. The article referred to chants of "Zig [sic] Heil" (i.e. Sieg Heil), and to the police academy's tours of the "Ziekenhuizen [sic] concentration camp" (probably the Sachsenhausen KZ just outside Berlin). I'm not sure how to explain these transcriptions - both of these spellings look vaguely Dutch to me, so maybe they hired some translators from the Netherlands or Belgium.