The Ugly German Shows His Face

Rau and Friedman
German police guard the synagogue in Berlin, April 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The two piles of letters on the office floor are getting higher and higher; both are more than a meter tall. Stephan Kramer, the office manager of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has counted at least a thousand letters. He is piling them up because the stacks serve as a kind of yardstick, measuring a new social phenomenon that is gaining ground in Germany. Until recently, expressions of anti-Semitism had come from the far right, if at all. The bourgeois center of society never revealed its hostility and maintained an embarrassed silence.

This was good news for society: What is not made public won’t cause any worries. But peace and quiet are a thing of the past. The letters in Kramer’s office contain verbal attacks, smears, and threats.

There have always been letters like that, but most of them were anonymous pamphlets sent by the far right. But every single one of these letters piled two meters high is signed, with the senders’ full names, complete address, and many even provide telephone or fax numbers. They did not come from the rightist fringe—but rather from the center. And something else is new: These piles represent only two weeks’ worth of mail. During the Walser-Bubis debate three-and-a-half years ago [In October 1998, the renowned German writer Martin Walser received the Frankfurt Book Fair’s prestigious Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he introduced the phrase “using Auschwitz as a moral club.” Ignatz Bubis, at the time head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, accused him of anti-Semitism; his remarks caused a heated public debate.—WPR], it took more than six months before the Central Council received a comparable number of letters.

And much has changed, since Jürgen Möllemann, the deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), introduced vulgar anti-Semitic expressions into the political discourse. [At the end of May, Möllemann said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as the deputy of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michel Friedman, had fueled anti-Semitism with their actions and words.—WPR] Now, along with the letters have come hundreds of e-mails and some phone calls, especially to Jews who have appeared as community representatives on television, such as the council’s president, Paul Spiegel, or his deputy, Friedman.

A retiree, Jürgen Peters, 68, from Maintal, near Frankfurt, wrote as well. But he is no anti-Semite, Peters explains. His motto is “Beware of the First Signs.” It was on a recent vacation abroad that he realized it was important for him to act. Even in such an international setting, people agreed that no one dared to criticize the Jews without having to count on reprisals. Those were “the First Signs,” the ones he would like to protect the Jews from, and make continued peaceful coexistence possible.[German writer and Holocaust survivor] Ralph Giordano knows the drill. Giordano has himself received similar letters. Most of them have come from educated people. Giordano’s voice rises in fury as he discussed the contents of these letters. “Accusing the Jews themselves of being responsible for anti-Semitism is exactly how the persecution and killing of Jews was justified throughout Western history.”

Möllemann has helped the anti-Semites crawl out of their holes, especially those with college educations. Claudia Roth, the head of the Green Party, got hundreds of letters after she filed suit against Möllemann, accusing him of stirring ethnic hatred. “Only a few of the letters were anonymous and from people who had trouble spelling.”

Spiegel experienced the same. Even in intellectual circles, he encounters more and more people who praise Möllemann almost euphorically for his supposed efforts on behalf of freedom of expression. “What they say is ‘now-we-can-finally-say-it.’ The time has come at last when we can draw a line under the past—and you, the Jews, you’d better do the same.”

Herbert Stäbler, 59, a white-collar worker from Esslingen on the Neckar River, explained the letter he wrote and titled “There Has to Be a End to It” with the justified wish that the Jews could not hold the past up to the Germans forever. Especially not now, since they had gotten their own hands dirty. Israel would certainly not be reproached for its policies toward the Palestinians 60 years from now, because “the Jews have enormous power in the world, and control everything from America.” Finally, a politician had come forward. “Politicians don’t do anything, as far as the Jews go.” There is a desire to close what was a dark chapter in history. For many, Israel’s war crimes are a welcome opportunity to relativize the absolute guilt of the Germans. During a cultural program in the Munich House of Literature, Gershom von Schwarze, a Jewish artist, joined in a discussion about Israel. Suddenly, someone barked at him: “You dare to do that, because you’re running around with your Jewish cap. Better watch out that nobody’ll knock it off your head.”