Counterfeit Courage, Reflections on Political Correctness in Germany

by NORMAN FINKELSTEIN

This past month I was invited, for the second time in as many years, to present a book in Germany. Last year Piper published The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and this year Hugendubel put out Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. In significant respects, the receptions differed: The Holocaust Industry generated much public interest, Image and Reality relatively little. No doubt the reason is that Germans have a huge stake in the legacy of the Nazi holocaust but rather little in a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It would seem that this order of priorities, although understandable, is to be regretted. The Nazi holocaust, however horrific and even if forever a part of Germany’s present, is–except for the handful of survivors–fundamentally a historical question. The persecution of the Palestinians is, by contrast, an on-going horror, and it is, after all, the crimes of the Third Reich that are used to justify this persecution. In the first instance, moral action by Germans is no longer possible; in the second, it plainly is.

Precisely for this reason I actually looked forward to the recent German trip. I made no secret last year of my conflicted feelings about promoting The Holocaust Industry in Germany. Many close friends and comrades counseled against it and–much more important–I was quite certain that both my late parents would have disapproved. Germans, I was told, could not be trusted to honestly debate Jewish misuses of the Nazi genocide (the subject of The Holocaust Industry). In addition, the huge media interest in my book prompted questions–in my opinion, legitimate–about whether I myself wasn’t becoming a beneficiary of the industry I deplored. Ultimately I decided that, notwithstanding the real moral risks entailed, I should go to Germany, a decision which, in retrospect, I don’t regret.

In the case of the new edition of my book on the Israel-Palestine conflict, such reservations seemed less pertinent. The post-war German generation had just redeemed itself by voting into power a coalition with a resolute anti-war platform. If Germans weren’t now ready to honestly debate the Israel-Palestine conflict, when would they be? And no real danger lurked that this book would provoke a media circus if for no other reason than that it wasn’t an easy read. Nonetheless, I arrived in Germany with high hopes that just as The Holocaust Industry somewhat succeeded, I think, at breaking a harmful taboo, so my new book would perhaps break the taboo on German public discussion of Israel’s brutal occupation. With Palestinians facing an unprecedented catastrophe in the event of a new Middle East war, the stakes loom particularly large.

To judge by a steady stream of email correspondence and many conversations, it seems that The Holocaust Industry did stimulate a sober–and much-needed–debate among ordinary Germans. (A handful of neo-Nazis exploited the occasion but, as the dean of Nazi holocaust scholars, Raul Hilberg, observed, German democracy is not so fragile that it can’t tolerate a few kooks coming out of the woodwork.) It’s still too soon to gauge the popular reaction to the Israel-Palestine book. What can already be discerned, however, is the persistence among politically correct Germans of a pronounced animus to my work.

The nadir in the relentlessly ugly campaign of ad hominem vilification after publication of The Holocaust Industry was probably the article in a major German newsweekly, Der Spiegel, claiming in all seriousness that each morning after jogging I meditated on the Nazi holocaust in the company of two parrots. Either Germans had suddenly become engrossed by the (imagined) private life of an obscure Jew from Brooklyn, New York or–what seems likelier–the personalized attack on the messenger was a deliberate tactic to evade confronting the bad news that the Nazi holocaust had become an instrument of political and financial gain.

During this last trip to Germany, a major state television station, ARD, suggested that I was a publicity hound peddling used goods. This same program wanted, however, to stage a confrontation between me and the Israeli exhibitors at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and to have me denounce on camera a famous Israeli author–both of which I refused to do. It would surely have garnered lots of publicity but I found distasteful the idea of a slugfest between Jews for the amusement of Germans. Even among the politically correct crowd some nasty habits apparently die hard. It is widely known in Germany that both my late parents passed through the Nazi holocaust. This family background has also been shamelessly seized on by politically correct Germans to ridicule and dismiss me as unstable.

Such venomous attacks on a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors are altogether unique in German public life which is otherwise ever so tactful and discreet on all things Holocaust. One can’t but wonder what accounts for them. In fact, the Holocaust has proven to be a valuable commodity for politically correct Germans. By "defending" Holocaust memory and Jewish elites against any and all criticism, they get to play-act at moral courage. What price do they actually pay, what sacrifice do they actually make, for this "defense"? Given Germany’s prevailing cultural ambience and the overarching power of American Jewry, such courage in fact reaps rich rewards. Pillorying a Jewish dissident costs nothing–and provides a "legitimate" outlet for latent prejudice. It happens that I agree with Daniel Goldhagen’s claim in Hitler’s Willing Executioners that philo-Semites are typically anti-Semites in "sheep’s clothing." The philo-Semite both assumes that Jews are somehow "different" and almost always secretly harbors a mixture of envy of and loathing for this alleged difference. Philo-Semitism thus presupposes, but also engenders a frustrated version of, its opposite. A public, preferably defenseless, scapegoat is then needed to let all this pent-up ugliness ooze out.

To account for Germany’s obsession with the Nazi holocaust, a German friend explained that Germans "like to carry a load." To which I would add: especially if it’s light as a feather. No doubt some Germans of the post-war generation genuinely accepted the burden of guilt together with its paralyzing taboos on independent, critical thought. But today German "political correctness" is all a charade of pretending to accept the burden of being German while actually rejecting it. For, what is the point of these interminable public breast-beatings except to keep reminding the world: "We are not like them."

It can also be safely said that politically correct Germans know full well that, more often than not, the criticism leveled against Israeli policy and misuse of the Nazi holocaust is valid. In private conversation (as I’ve discovered) they freely admit to this. They profess to fear that, if Jewish abuses become public knowledge, it will unleash a tidal wave of anti-Semitism. Is there really any likelihood of this happening in Germany today? And isn’t vigorous and candid debate the best means to stem an anti-Semitic tide: exposing the abuses of the Jewish establishment as well as the demagogues who exploit these abuses for nefarious ends? What politically correct Germans really fear, I suspect, is the loss of power and privilege attendant on challenging the uncritical support of all things Jewish. Indeed, their public defense of the indefensible not only breeds cynicism in political life but, far from combating anti-Semitism among Germans, actually engenders it. Isn’t this duplicity typically credited to a dread of, or a desire to curry favor with, a presumed all-powerful Jewry? One also can’t help but wonder what thoughts run through the heads of politically correct Germans about Jews when the ones they typically consort with, prostrate themselves before in unctuous penance, and publicly laud are known to be the worst sort of hucksters.

The challenge in Germany today is to defend the memory of the Nazi holocaust and to condemn its abuse by American Jewish elites; to defend Jews from malice and to condemn their overwhelmingly blind support for Israel’s brutal occupation. But to do this requires real moral courage–not the operatic kind that politically correct Germans so love.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN is the author of The Holocaust Industry and Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

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