Friday, January 27, 2023 -
Print Edition

Holocaust aftershocks binds German, Jews

Rolf SchütteRolf Schütte, the German Consul General based in San Francisco, is an impressively knowledgeable and erudite fellow — not at all reluctant to use the occasional touch of dry humor and irony in driving home his points.

When he employs the latter — as he did frequently last week in addressing an attentive audience at an evening presentation of the American Jewish Committee — he raises one eyebrow over his spectacles and waits for his listeners’ reaction, which inevitably arrives.

One notable example, as part of his multi-faceted talk on the aftershocks of the Holocaust, a primary focus of his expertise: “For Germans, the lesson is never again war. For Jews, the lesson is never again victims.”

He raises that erudite eyebrow, inspecting his audience. “Very different lessons,” he says in his excellent, accented English. “But it’s the same history.”

Schütte evinced no hesitation in describing the troubled and complex relationship between Germans and Jews as one of his favorite subjects.

Although “I did not know any living Jew” during his youth in Germany, he made up for that lack in later years, spending a diplomatic stint as the German Foreign Ministry’s deputy director for Middle Eastern affairs, based in Tel Aviv.

Later, he spent several months working in an AJC office in the US while on a sabbatical. His purpose was “to write and think about” the many aspects of the German-Jewish relationship.

Schütte has maintained a close relationship with AJC since then, telling his Denver listeners that although his consular district does not include Colorado, he was only too glad to speak at an AJC-sponsored event.

Demonstrating the Germanic penchant for order and organization, Schütte’s talk was sliced into neatly delineated portions, each containing unexpected frankness and well expressed insights.

No discussion of the German-Jewish relationship, Schütte said, can leave out the Holocaust, which is a central pillar to both peoples’ identities, despite the fact that it has been 75 years since Hitler seized power and 63 years since the Third Reich was vanquished.

“It is the most harrowing experience both for Jews and for Germans,” Schütte said. “It binds them. It creates a very special relationship, even for those who want to deny it and for those who want to forget it. Whenever a German and a Jew meet, it’s always in their head, but it’s very seldom spoken of. Still, it is the most important element in this relationship.”

Most Germans, in Schütte’s view, are very knowledgeable about the Holocaust, WW II and other aspects of the Nazi period. “It is a topic that is very widely discussed in Germany today,” he said.

He points out that the Holocaust Museum in Berlin had 3.5 million visitors in its first year, and that the Jewish Museum in Berlin had four million visitors in six years, making it Berlin’s second most popular museum.

The salient point is how Germans deal with this knowledge. He outlined three basic groups.

The first constitutes a relatively small percentage of the German population — in his opinion, about 4-5% of the total — which can be called “a radical right-wing fringe.” Schütte also used the term “neo-nazis” to describe this group.

This group supports a political party that is unlikely to garner 2% of the national vote, but in some eastern districts could earn as high as 10% in some elections. They are xenophobic, anti-Semitic and tend to deny the Holocaust.

They know their Holocaust denial is a sham, Schütte believes, but continue to express it for political reasons.

A “large majority” of Germans — Schütte estimates it as two-thirds to three-quarters of the population — feel a sense of “collective shame for all the crimes that were committed by Germans during this period.”

It is not a sense of personal responsibility, but collective, he emphasized, noting the obvious age factor, but it seems to be increasing among the German people as time goes on.

This does not mean that Germans want to be lectured on how wrong Germany was during the war, Schütte qualified, nor does it mean that they derive their national identity from the past.

“But they believe in drawing lessons from the past.”

Many modern German political decisions are made in the context of learning from the past. One is an aversion to militarism, war and expressions of nationalism, such as flags and anthems.

It interests Schütte that Germans and Jews have derived dramatically different lessons from essentially the same experience — note the quote at the beginning.

“Germans tend to oppose the use of force,” as evidenced by their reluctance to send military forces to Iraq. Jews, on the other hand, generally support Israel, a nation that employs the use of force.

A final group of Germans — perhaps as many as 20% — experience “a feeling of personal guilt,” even if they had no personal participation in the Holocaust, he said. This may be partially due to political correctness, but Schütte feels it also stems from deep personal convictions.

These Germans tend to be philo-Semitic, active on behalf of German Jewry and Israel, and militant in opposing racist or extreme right points of view.

Getting specific on German-Jewish relations, Schütte said that no better illustration of German-Israeli relations can be drawn than by discussing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Israel as part of the Israel-60 celebrations.

Merkel brought half of her cabinet with her for high level discussions with Israeli counterparts, and addressed the Knesset — in German, an unprecedented event.

In other words, Germany and Israel get along well indeed.

Israeli Jews have traditionally been much more comfortable than American Jews with having a close relationship with Germany.

Citing recent polls, Schütte pointed out that Israelis see Germany as their third best friend, after the US and UK, and that some 90% of Israelis support the idea of Israeli-German reconciliation.

Formal relations between Germany and Israel only date back to the mid-1970s, but contacts predated formal relations considerably. These early contacts, between individuals and institutions, provided a solid framework which later supported formal ties.

In the postwar period, up to the 1960s, the Israeli government desperately needed allies, and also stood in need of German reparations, so there was something of a “deal with the devil” mentality when it came to interacting with Germany, Schütte explains.

That reluctance was further countered by the many personal contacts between the two nations. Many of these contacts were established by Yekkes — Israeli Jews with German roots, most of whom emigrated before the Holocaust.

While Yekkes may have been the first victims of the Holocaust, in that they were forced to flee their homeland, they also had memories of “better days” in pre-Nazi Germany. These Israelis were often very patriotic in German terms, and in fact often considered themselves more German than Jewish. This helped them connect to postwar Germany more easily.

Many of the Eastern European Jews in Israel, however, had a radically different perspective. “They knew Germans only as invaders and oppressors,” Schütte said.

In any case, the personal contacts between Israelis and Germans have been so extensive that half a million Germans and Israelis have been on youth exchange programs and 100 sister city relationships have been established between the two countries.

American Jewry is another story entirely, he pointed out.

Most American Jews in the postwar period did not want to have much to do with Germany. Many refused to travel there, or to purchase any German-made goods.

American Jews were much more critical of Germany, even though Israel had more Holocaust survivors.

“And I think all that was understandable,” Schütte said.

An exception, according to Schütte, was the AJC, which adopted a more pragmatic view, in the conviction that to help Germany reform and redefine itself, “we had to be present, we had to engage in dialogue.”

As late as the German reunification in 1989-90, the German Jewish population numbered only 35,000 to 40,000 — about half of the current Colorado Jewish population.

Since reunification, Schütte said, there has been an influx of 200,000 Jews into Germany, almost all of them from the former Soviet Union — a result of Germany’s easygoing immigration laws, which is itself a product of post-Nazi thinking.

Not all of these immigrants have identified with the Jewish community (much like other FSU immigrants in Israel and the US), and many of them may not really be Jewish.

Still, the “registered” Jewish community today — those who have formally affiliated with a synagogue or other community agency — is 120,000. The vast majority of them are Russian speakers, and most came to Germany with little or no religious background.

These demographics have changed the community dramatically. It has often been difficult for the older and more established German Jewish community to deal with the change. Some older congregations have been so overwhelmed by immigrants that they have been forced to switch their services from German to Russian.

While the tide of new Jewish immigrants has ebbed significantly, the landscape has been irrevocably changed.

“There is a very active Jewish life in Germany today,” Schütte says, “especially in the bigger cities. There are bigger and more congregations. Rabbis are being ordained.”

Responding to an IJN question, Schütte elaborated that this new German Jewish community sees itself — and is probably seen by most Germans — as being more Russian than Jewish. Their language and culture are predominantly Russian; their Jewish identity remains a dynamic and developing phenomenon. There are many cultural assimilation issues that these Jews must contend with, but Schütte is not worried that this will lead to significant tension with the majority of Germans. Eventually, these new German Jews, or at least their descendants, will speak German, and their new form of Jewishness will be established and accepted.

Still, this replenishment of German Jewry comes at a steep cost. The old German Jewish community — the last pillar of an old prewar symbiosis between Jews and Germans — is rapidly disappearing.

“There is a feeling,” Schütte said, “of great cultural loss.”

Avatar photo

IJN Assistant Editor |

Leave a Reply