What Angela Merkel couldn't say out loud

Between the lines of her Knesset speech were her implicit messages to her own nation, and to the world.

merkel knesset 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
merkel knesset 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's successful visit to Israel came in conjunction with worrisome developments back in her own country. Few in Israel realize that a majority of Germans probably disagree with several key statements she made here about her country's past - including the mention of shame and guilt - in the Knesset. In contemporary Germany there are significant expressions of anti-Semitism and racism. This includes attacks on Jews, their cemeteries and Holocaust monuments, together with ongoing anti-Semitic prejudice toward Jews among significant parts of the population. In eastern Germany particularly, there are no-go areas for non-white people in several cities, major racist incidents and sometimes even murders. At the same time, there are efforts in Germany to rewrite the past. Books by historian Jörg Friedrich, who compares the Allied actions to his nation's atrocities during the war, are best-sellers. They promote "Holocaust equivalence" by using Nazi semantics to describe the Allied bombings of Germany during WWII. Another aspect of the same attitude is expressed by the many Germans who think that Israel is showing Nazi-like behavior toward the Palestinians. What they mean to say is, "If everybody is guilty, then nobody is." In a just-published article in the Jewish Political Studies Review, German Holocaust educator Susanne Urban writes that nowadays one can hear cursing "in schools throughout Germany, not only in the lower-class suburbs, [such as]: 'You Jew!' or 'You victim!' It is bad, contemptible to be a Jew or a victim. The Jew symbolizes what is deviant and ugly, the antithesis of one's own group. The Jew is also the evil Israeli. And if the victim is a detestable figure, perhaps it is desirable to be a perpetrator?" German democrats should also be concerned about the fact that, even today, high-school students in the eastern parts of the country know little about the differences between democratic West Germany and the former communist German Democratic Republic. A recent study by the Berlin Free University found that 42% of those interviewed thought that heavily polluted East Germany was environmentally cleaner than West Germany. This was the most innocuous of the answers. One third thought that Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt were East German politicians. IT IS AGAINST this domestic background that one should consider some implications of Merkel's visit that have garnered little attention. The fact that Merkel came here for the third time since becoming chancellor in autumn 2005 is itself a symbolic act - the more so as this time she was accompanied by seven of her ministers, and a combined session with the Israeli cabinet took place. Her socialist predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, did not visit Israel even once, leaving the Israel tour to his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer of the Green Party. Israel, in turn, paid Merkel an extraordinary tribute by inviting her to speak in the Knesset, a prerogative usually reserved for heads of state. But the symbolic meaning of the absence of several Knesset members - because she spoke in German - was also clear: Not all is normal, especially as survivors of the German atrocities, many of whom were children at the time, are still alive. One should look to the future. But the past must be remembered, and for this symbolic acts are important. GIVEN the character of her visit, and in view of today's German reality, Merkel sent, besides her explicitly stated messages to Israelis, a number of implicit ones to her own nation. I'd summarize them as follows: You may think what you want about Israel and the Jews. Many media and others in Germany defame Israel. Yet I wish, publicly, to show on behalf of the German people our responsibility for the acts of our Nazi forebears, whom we elected. I want to do that in many ways, and my visit to Yad Vashem and my speech in the Knesset - which you may strongly dislike - best symbolize this. Simultaneously, there was Merkel's implicit message to the world: Since the war, Germany has been welcomed back into the family of nations and has again become a major political force. However, many abroad wonder how much of the criminal past is still latent within us, and when and to what extent it will reemerge. My frequent visits to Israel - and the nature of our relations with it - also show that I am well aware of that. MERKEL'S attitude probably also expresses a world view different from that of most other Western European leaders. It can, in part, be explained by her personal experience, having grown up and lived in communist East Germany. She knows what totalitarianism means, and not only from teachers of the history of Nazi Germany. Being trained as a physicist rather than in the humanities may also be helpful in confronting threats realistically. Without saying it explicitly, Merkel seems to understand that various threats from the world of Islam, besides the Iranian one she mentioned, share the totalitarian characteristics of Nazism and communism. That is probably included when she says that threats to Israel are also threats to Germany. However it is not yet politically correct to explicitly name the major hate - Islamist incitement and violence - as the greatest danger to the world. For that we may have to wait a few more years. The writer is the author of 12 books, including several which deal with European-Israeli relations.