Analysis: The German media see the past, not the future

While pursuing Demjanjuk's probable war crimes, Germany continues to show lack of will to stop Iran.

Demjanjuk court 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Demjanjuk court 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The extradition of suspected Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk to Germany on Tuesday took place against the backdrop of Pope Benedict XVI's visit in Israel and the controversy surrounding the Bavarian-born pontiff's failure, according to many Israeli critics, to confront head-on Nazi Germany's role in organizing the Holocaust. Both events provide fodder for Germany's media. "The Pope and Demjanjuk: History was and is," the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel headlined its front page commentary on Wednesday. The German media's preoccupation with the Nazi period helps to explain why its coverage is filled (and has been dominated for weeks) with front-page stories and commentaries on Demjanjuk. "We must remind this old man of what he did. We owe it to the victims and ourselves. Otherwise we would be a people without a memory," the popular columnist Franz Josef Wagner wrote in the mass daily Bild on Wednesday. The left-liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung editorial page stated, "The legal proceeding against Demjanjuk is not only a trial against an old man, but a case about the truth." While the oft-repeated declaration "Never again Auschwitz" carries great rhetorical currency in Germany, as does the notion that Nazi crimes should have no statute of limitations, the case of Demjanjuk bizarrely highlights what is not capturing the press's attention, namely, German industry's robust support for trade with Iran and governmental credit guarantees insuring that commerce. Writing in The Wall Street Journal Europe in late January, Daniel Schwammenthal editorialized: "Solemn declarations about the evils of the Holocaust have not ended Europe's booming trade with those dreaming of Israel's destruction, the mullahs in Teheran. The ceremonies deploring the West's inaction against the German fascists 60 years ago have become a substitute for action against modern fascists, predominantly Islamists." The 89-year-old Demjanjuk's return to Germany after 57 years to face charges of being an accessory to the murder of 29,000 Jews and others at the Sobibor death camp represent, according to the German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn, a sign of justice. The process against Demjanjuk, Wolffsohn told German radio on Wednesday, serves "to develop a remembrance and legal culture that is independent from surviving witnesses." The writer Johannes Gross captured Germany's relationship to its Nazi history when he wrote, "The resistance to Hitler and his kind is getting stronger the more the Third Reich recedes into the past." In sharp contrast to Germany's willingness to pursue, albeit belatedly, the probable war crimes of Demjanjuk, the federal republic's lack of will to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program continues. As Teheran's genocidal threats toward the Israeli survivors of Sobibor (and their children and grandchildren) and other extermination camps intensifies, Germany's parliament and Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration refuse to enact legislation to curb its roughly €4 billion annual trade relationship with Iran. A number of German critics stress that it is meaningless to scream the revolutionary phrase "Never again Auschwitz" and not take concrete action against the Iranian regime's efforts to obliterate the Jewish state. The emphasis of the Tagesspiegel headline - "History was and is" - represents a Germany largely fixated on the past.