German elections: The long-term impact of the past

When the stream of refugees rapidly accelerated, Germany’s leaders should have realized that such a massive influx would have severe consequences.

‘GERMANY’S LEADERS must think ahead on certain societal issues far more than those of other countries.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘GERMANY’S LEADERS must think ahead on certain societal issues far more than those of other countries.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent parliamentary elections have shown once again that Germany cannot wash the impact of its criminal Second World War past out of its system. The electoral success of the far right AfD party, which received 12.6% of the votes, is generally seen as an example of voters rejecting the open-door policy that allowed more than a million mainly Muslim refugees into Germany from Syria and Iraq since September 2015.
A key element of the Government’s mistaken opendoor policy was to show the world that contemporary Germany is the opposite of Nazi Germany. The latter lethally persecuted an ethnic minority. Today’s Germany attempted to welcome huge numbers belonging to another minority. As a result of this wrong concept, the leading Christian Democratic Union Party lost heavily and received a lower percentage of the vote than in all previous elections since 1949.
There are many other proofs of the contention that the impact of the Second World War is still significant.
To mention but a few: A number of polls over the years show that at least 40% of Germans demonize Israel by accusing it of behaving toward the Palestinians as the Nazis did toward the Jews. This is a mutated contemporary perception from the Nazi era _ from viewing Jews as absolute evil to viewing Israel as absolute evil. It says far more about the psyche of these Germans than about Israel. The late German-born Israeli psychologist Nathan Durst who analyzed such phenomena noted, “As everything becomes terrible, there is no absolute evil anymore. This is a great relief for the heirs of guilt.”
This same ‘compensating’ need for the past exists in much of the German media. Benjamin Weinthal in The Jerusalem Post has exposed the left-wing daily TAZ’s frequent major distortions relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
One iconic event illustrates the extreme need of some leading Germans to demonize Israel. The “liberal” German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published a hate poem in 2012 by the Nobel Prize winner in literature, Günter Grass. He claimed that Israel was aiming to commit genocide against the Iranian people with nuclear bombs. This was one of the vilest accusations among the large spectrum of demonization tricks. Without any basis in reality, a target is accused of preparing to commit somewhere in the future an act of extreme evil.
Grass, who supported the Social Democrats, did not have an immaculate past. At the age of 17, he became a Waffen SS volunteer. He hid this fact for more than 60 years. The same “quality” daily has also published antisemitic cartoons about Israel.
Grass’s inciting poem reminded me of a very different accusation of future evildoing. In 1990, while researching abroad for a book on the economic and political potential of Italy, I interviewed a member of the management board of one of Germany’s largest banks. His father was a prominent Social Democratic Party politician.
His interest in our conversation greatly increased when he realized that I was an Israeli.
We discussed various German, Jewish and Israeli issues. He remarked that contemporary Germans were capable of doing the same as the Nazis had done to the Jews. I did not believe this then, nor do I do today. Yet if such an accusation had been systematically promoted by the international media and others until 40% of the Europeans believed it, Germany’s leading position in Europe would have become untenable.
In addition to the above, many more examples confirm the major message: it is impossible in less than 75 years to wash gigantic crimes like those committed by Germany under Nazi rule out of the mindset of a country.
All of this has important ramifications for German politics. Germany’s leaders – more than leaders of other countries – must think ahead on key societal issues. The refugee issue is the most recent prominent example. It should have been addressed several years ago. When millions of civilians started to flee Syria and Iraq, one could foresee that some of them would want to emigrate to affluent Western European countries – and Germany in particular. It would have been logical for the German government, as leaders of the EU, to think ahead about finding locations in the Middle East for these refugees and suggesting what funding should be made available for this purpose by Western countries.
In 2015, when the stream of refugees rapidly accelerated, Germany’s leaders should have realized that such a massive influx would have severe consequences for the coherence of German society. Already, previous immigrations, mainly of Muslims, had led to important integration problems with parts of them.
The election result and the expected difficulties to form a coherent government are an additional reminder that in a Germany still influenced by the past, there is a significant price to be paid for big mistakes. This should also lead to second thoughts about the radical plans bandied around for further integration of the Germany-dominated European Union.
The writer is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.