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German - Anti-German - Syn-German?

Updated: Jul 26

The Afterlife of the Pro-Israeli Left in Germany

by Yossi Bartal

Anti-Germans with an Israel flag at a demonstration, 2013. Photo: Fatelessfear. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While traveling abroad, chatting with fellow activists in a bar or a demonstration, time and again some version of the following perplexed question is put to me after I reveal I come from Berlin: these so-called... Anti-Germans...what on earth is that about? Personal experience or second-hand accounts of relatively young radicals, consciously locating themselves in traditions of Marxism and Critical Theory, organizing antifascist demonstrations, while—this is where the questioner’s perplexed tone sharpens audibly—waving Israeli flags and professing their unconditional support for the right-wing regime firmly planted in the Jewish state? For foreign onlookers it is more than understandable that young Germans might find their own unique ways to politically channel their historical awareness and their inherited guilt, but this uncritical, performative adoration struck almost anyone outside the German-speaking world at best as bizarre . A true German exception, begging for a plausible explanation. Clearly, something more than a simple dynamic of guilt is afoot here.

The beginnings of this all-too-German worldview had, it turns out, little to do with Middle Eastern politics as its intellectual catalyst. Instead, anti-German organizations first sprouted in the interstices of the bleak state of progressive politics in the early 1990s following the Soviet Union’s dissolution and subsequent reunification of Germany. German nationalism reignited as it hadn’t in any of the post-war decades; assiduously, and with great ceremony, among the formal institutions of the newly consolidated state; but also viciously, prompting racist pogroms and igniting Neo-Nazi subcultural momentum, especially in the economically depleted former East. This outbreak of nationalism led much of the left to focus on combating these new dangers. This was the precise context of the emergence of Antifa as first urban and then national phenomena—which until today remains among the most important segments of elaborated activist praxis in the country.

In view of this changing situation and the regrouping of the left, new theoretical challenges arose. How to explain the allure of ethno-nationalism in a globalized, EU-ified, post-socialist context fifty years after the ostensible discrediting of ethno-nationalism with the defeat of German fascism? Did the left fail to recruit the working classes in the struggle for an egalitarian society? And finally, how to countenance the historical sequence, frequently unacknowledged, of the evisceration of German Socialism which was necessary for the Nazis’ ascent and eventual capture of the state?

Some of the answers to these pressing questions were, in an ironic twist, peculiarly ethnocentric – detecting the shortcomings of the local struggle in the supposed uniqueness of German nationalism - primarily in its ability to mobilize anti-capitalist sentiments through antisemitic conspiracy theories and pacify the people with deranged fantasies of racial superiority. A fruitful contribution to this debate was the thematizing of a vulgar critique of capitalism, elements of which could be found in right-wing as well as in left-wing movements. This “abbreviated critique” shies away from a general condemnation of Capitalism and discriminates between economic activities as either “honest”, productive and national-based on the one hand, or “dishonest”, speculative and international on the other, while blaming specific groups or persons for exploiting the system out of greed. Together with crude anti-Americanism and militant anti-Zionism, which were not unpopular at the time, these phenomena have come to be seen by these new critics of German conditions as the gateway drug to fascism and antisemitism. Paraphrasing Brecht's line on the reemergence of nationalism “The womb he crawled from is still going strong”: the left was by no means exempted from a deep self-examination to the extent to which it itself spread such problematic images.

Such disputes in a handful of small publications laid the foundation for what would be known at the end of the millennium as the “anti-German” trend – a wild mixture of ex-Maoist fringe groups, punk-styled attitude, and a cryptic academic debate. Not by chance this coincided with a much wider mainstream turn toward public Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) - in which German officials and intellectuals stressed the need to account for the Nazi past, prompting historical research on the wide collaboration of ordinary Germans with the execution of the holocaust. One could have almost presumed that such deliberation had the positive effect of challenging long-held doctrines within the left, were it not for the outburst of the second Intifada and the global war on terror, which enlisted many of its participants into a dogmatic, and increasingly racist and militaristic support for the neocolonial onslaught on the Middle-East.

How could that happen? Due to lack of space to cover the vast theoretical labyrinth of these groups, I'll put it briefly: through an astonishing degree of German-centrism and a fully pathological process of projection. Conceptualizing antisemitism as an essential element of German modernity, and setting their only Categorical Imperative in the prevention of a second Auschwitz. These provincial militants, most of whom never even spoke to an Israeli or a Palestinian in their life, have come to see the state of Israel as an antifascist bastion in the midst of the Islamic World, in dire need of protection. The Nazis of the past came alive as contemporary Palestinians, and the new cloak of antisemitism appeared as the critique of Israel. In the name of progress, no in the name of communism, the occupation of the West Bank, the Iraq Invasion and the Iran Sanctions must be justified. Until such (end) times as the abolition of capitalism and /or establishment of a free society, there simply is no alternative to a strong Israel.

For non-Germans this might all sound extremely ridiculous, but let us not forget that such forms of “transferred nationalism” are not new, even on the intellectual left. Self-proclaimed progressives who idolize Assad's Syria, the Chinese Communist Party or even Putin are not as rare as one might wish. As George Orwell brilliantly pointed out in his otherwise theoretically vague essay “Notes on Nationalism”, such a transference makes it possible for its adherent “to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge”, More importantly, as Orwell stresses out, having found his new fatherland, “he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself”.

Perhaps it is the need for such clear-cut dislocation of national sentiment which explains the demise of the Anti-Germans in recent years, at least under this banner. Sadly this has little to do with a political failure on their part but actually in their startling success infiltrating the political mainstream. From a radical movement which imagined itself as the enemy of the state, many of its most vociferous proponents have come to occupy leading roles in reformist parties (especially in their youth movements) and publicly funded organizations. And also the German state, under the guise of Merkelism had publicly embraced Israel in ways previously unimaginable – proclaiming its protection as a German raison d'etre and institutionalizing in countless resolutions the fight against antisemitism, or what it perceives as such, meaning mainly critique of Zionism and pro-Palestinian activism. And so, as the circle closes again and not antisemitism, but philosemitism becomes a basic feature of the current German Ideology, the vast majority of Anti-Germans have bid their farewell to a stance of radical dissent and moved toward liberal adaptation or even to an open flirtation with the populist right; dialectically progressing. One could say there is nowadays no better example of a synthesis of the new German Geist.

Yossi Bartal, originally from Jerusalem, is an activist and author living in Berlin. This article was written for theleftberlin.com