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Does the Holocaust belong to Jews?: Get Religion, January 19, 2012 January 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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““The canonization of the SS” is the front page headline for the 11 January issue of  the Tageszeitung, the left-liberal Berlin daily.

Illustrated by a photo of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler inspecting members of the Estonian division of the Waffen-SS, the TAZ story reports that a bill before the Estonian parliament seeks to grant Estonian members of the SS the status of “freedom fighters.”

While similar bills failed in 2006 and 2010, “majority support appears to guaranteed” during this legislative session, the TAZ reports. A second article appears on page 4 and reports the Russian embassy in Tallinn has described the bill as “blasphemous,” while the German Green Party has criticized a “retrospective justification of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen in the Soviet Union.”

Die Welt has the story also. On 12 Jan in “Estland denkt über Ehrung der Waffen-SS nach” it reported on the details — and provided a very good history of the Estonian division of the SS.  Worldcrunch offers a summary in English of the article here.

As an aside, Worldcrunch paraphrases stories, it does not translate them in a strict sense. This can lead to differences of meaning and shading. For example the Die Welt title in Worldcrunch is “Push To Honor Estonian SS Nazi Unit Sparks Outrage.” The Die Welt title in German I would translate as “Estonia is thinking about honoring the Waffen-SS after [70 years].” No “outrage” in the German title, nor does “push to honor” have the same meaning as “thinking of honoring” while the German title has “after” tagged on at the end, to which I would add “70 years” or “further tries in parliament.” Do bookmark Worldcrunch as it is a great source for overseas reporting.

Die Welt offers this additional history (my translation):

The Holocaust began in the Baltic states at the same time as Estonia was occupied by German troops. Jews had to flee the country, but as Estonia is the northernmost and easternmost of the three small states, they had the best chance to escape. Approximately three-quarters of the small Jewish population either left with the retreating Red Army or fled to Finland.

The remaining thousand who were classified as Jews according to Nazi racial criteria were killed — mainly by Einsatzkommando 1a under the command of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in late March 2010 was the last living top SS leader. At the Wannsee Conference [held on 20 Jan 1942] Estonia was declared judenfrei [free of Jews] by the Nazis after the murder of 963 people. …

In addition to the approximately one thousand Estonian Jews, at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Christian Estonians were killed during the German occupation. Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of wars as well as Jews from other states were also killed during the occupation in internment caps built on Estonian soil during the war.

Die Welt examines the Estonian SS involvement in the Holocaust and in anti-partisan campaigns, but notes:

Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Waffen-SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the SS and was published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher. Its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.

However, the campaign to honor SS men as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, comes from their role in trying to hold back the tide of the Red Army in the first six months of 1944. The daft legislation is expected to come before parliament in Tallinn in March.

Both newspapers do a good job in bringing this story to light. While Die Welt gives a great overview to this corner of history, the TAZ is more forthright in its condemnation. It warns against “beatifying the SS,” and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi “structure of blood and death.”

There are enough religion and ethical ghosts in this story to keep me occupied for weeks. However, I want to raise a few surface items as well as a deeper issue that is being played out in Europe — who owns the Holocaust?

“Provide both sides of the story” is a mantra each journalist learns early in his career. One of the most frequent criticisms offered by GetReligion is the lack of balance in a story — of providing only one set of facts. However, is this criticism valid when dealing with Nazis? Neither paper offers space to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers or right-wing nationalists to defend the pro-SS legislation. Die Welt offers the history, as does the TAZ to a lesser extent, that would explain motivation, but Mr. A. Hitler is not given a platform. And I believe the papers were correct in this decision.

The TAZ use of the language of religion is significant. Religion is almost always absent from the left-wing TAZ’s pages, but its use here is more than that of an arch or facile description. To my mind it symbolizes the moral and psychological uneasiness Germans (and Estonians) feel with this issue. The SS is being beautified, being canonized as modern saints by Estonian nationalists in their crusade against the Russians and the Communist past. While the vocabulary is used, there remains strong tie here between nationalism and religion that is left unaddressed in the stories.

To my ears, the story also raises the vexed question of who owns the Holocaust? Die Welt reports that almost ten times as many Christian Estonians as Jewish Estonians were murdered by the Nazis. Yet all of the Jews were killed. Is there an equivalence of suffering here? Because more Christians died than Jews — and because the Soviets killed more Estonians than the Germans, does that give moral ownership of this issue to Estonian nationalists?  Where can the line be drawn between wholesale murder of innocents and the unique evil that was the Nazi’s Final Solution?

This episode reminds me of the “War of the Crosses” that began at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1979. Following Pope John Paul II’s mass at the Nazi death camp, which he described as being the “Golgotha of the modern world,” local Catholics erected a small cross by Bunker 2 to honor Edith Stein — a converted Jew who had become a Carmelite nun before her death in the gas chambers.

In 1984 the controversy escalated when Carmelite nuns opened a convent in a brick building that had been used by the Nazis to store Zyklon-B gas crystals. The 26-foot cross used in John Paul II’s 1979 service was then moved by the nuns to a spot just outside the Auschwitz I wall where more than one hundred Polish partisans had been shot. Jewish leaders complained of the impropriety of Christianizing the site of the extermination of European Jewry, but the nuns refused to go.

Jewish complaints prompted a response by Polish nationalists who erected a further three hundred crosses.  The Polish parliament then ordered the extra crosses to be removed but allowed the papal cross to remain. John Paul II resolved the issue in 1993 by ordering the nuns to leave Auschwitz.

Can one be human and be impartial when writing a story about the SS? Is it wrong for Christians to dispossess Jews of the Holocaust? Who owns history and how should faith groups handle public expressions of faith in a pluralistic society? (Does the World Trade Center mosque controversy spring to mind to anyone?) How should reporters handle this issue when writing about the Holocaust and the SS? Is it even possible?

What say you GetReligion readers on this point?

First printed in GetReligion.

Die Taz on Jews and Germany: Get Religion November 10, 2011 November 10, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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„der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau”

(Death is a Master from Germany his eye is blue
He shoots you with shot made of lead he shoots you level and true)

From “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”) by Paul Celan

The Berlin alternative daily, Die Tageszeitung marked 9 Nov 2011– the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht — with three items on anti-Semitism in Germany: a front page splash, a news analysis piece on page 5, and an op-ed piece on page 14.

Founded in West Berlin in 1979 Die Taz is Germany’s newspaper for the “serious”  Left — progressive socialists, feminists, ecologists and pacifists.  While its circulation runs to about 60,000 its influence is far greater due to its prominence among the chattering classes (a phrase coined by Matthew Arnold).

The front page story (the one next to the photo of boxer Joe Frazier) entitled “The anti-Semites are among us” reports:

that an unpublished first report by a [government commissioned] Expert Committee on anti-Semitism found that [negative] Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic attitudes were deeply rooted in German culture and society … the mainstream of society had become used to anti-Jewish tirades … and there was an everyday exclusion, defamation, insult and boycott of Jews living in Germany. … up to 20 percent of the population in Germany was at least latently anti-Semitic, the report found.

The experts sobering conclusion was that “a comprehensive strategy to combat anti-Semitism in Germany does not exist.”

An editorial entitled “Far worse than swastika graffiti” argued that while swastikas can be washed away, the prejudices that motivate anti-Semitic hate speech were not as easily purged. When hate speech becomes acceptable it reinforces “stereotypes even further, so that the prejudices of the individual becomes the norm for  a group.”

There is no simple answer to the verbal anti-Semitism [Die Taz argued]. But one thing is certain: There is cause for excitement. And not only on Nov 9. Anti-semitism is back again and is settling down into everyday language.

The inside news-analysis story entitled “Schoolyard epithet – ‘Jude’ (Jew)” developed the front page story reporting that:

today anti-Semitism can be observed even beyond the open Jew-hating right-wing extremist milieu: in schools and football clubs, at the volunteer fire department, in the letters columns of newspapers, in comments posted on social networking sites, but also in churches and among some leftists and globalization critics, and among immigrants.

The schoolyard taunt  “Jew”  had “almost become commonplace in many places” while at German soccer games Jewish team members and their families in the stands were openly taunted.

“Sentences like ‘Jews belong in the gas chamber’, ‘Auschwitz is back” and “Synagogues must burn’ in the regional competitions are at no rarity,” says the report.

School classes that dealt with anti-Semitism focused exclusively on the Nazi period, the article found, giving students the impression that Jew-hatred was “exclusively attributable to the Nazi phenomenon, which appeared from nowhere in 1933 and then disappeared in 1945.” The newspaper reported that in addition to traditional right wing anti-Semitism in Germany, the new current of anti-Semitism arose in part from responses to the Middle East conflict and the left’s critique of capitalism with its polemics against financiers and greedy Wall Street bankers.

This is a great story and I applaud Die Taz for giving it such prominence in yesterday’s issue. November 9 marks a number of prominent events in German history: the 1918 sailor’s mutiny that precipitated the end of World War I, Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, and Kristallnacht.  On the night of 9-10 November 1938 the Nazi regime moved away from its “legal” process of depriving Jews of their rights through restrictive laws towards the open violence of an officially sanctioned pogrom. Over 1500 synagogues were burned, 30,000 Jewish men and boys were arrested and taken to Dachau and other concentration camps, approximately 100 Jews were murdered and thousands of Jewish owned businesses were ransacked by the SA, SS and Nazi party activists.

Leading with an anti-Semitism story on the anniversary was a great editorial decision by Die Taz. However, there is a religion hole in this story. While Die Taz lays out all the pieces that fit together in the reemergence of anti-Semitism — right-wing Jew-haters, left-wing anti-capitalist polemicists, anti-Israel feeling — it tip-toes around the final, and most important component: Islam. To lump the fire brigade and churches with the Muslim immigrant community as undifferentiated sources of the new anti-Semitism is disengenous indeed.

Forward, the Jerusalem Post and a host of publications have examined the part played by Islam in the resurgent European anti-Semitism, and its omission hurts this story.

However, I may need to explain for a non-German audience the significance of Die Taz bringing up the issue of anti-Semitism — and why I am happy with so much of what they have done. In a few broad brush strokes let me give some context.

On 10 November 1988 the two Germanys convened special sessions of their parliaments to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass”.

In East Berlin the Volkskammer was addressed by its president, Horst Sindermann, a Communist Party leader who spent almost a decade in Nazi prison camps. The focus of his speech to the assembly was that the DDR had been a bulwark against fascism, which itself was the highest expression of capitalism’s destructive nature. Historically there had been little public discussion of anti-Semitism in the DDR as it saw the persecution of the Jews was one of the many evils of the Nazi era.

In Bonn, the Bundestag held its first official commemoration of Kristallnacht. The ceremony began with the reading of the “Death Fugue,” a poem about the Holocaust by Paul Celan — a Romanian Jew who survived the camps. The chairman of the Bundestag, CDU leader Phillip Jenninger then rose and read a speech the New York Times subsequently printed on page A5 in its 12 Nov 1988 edition. It began with:

Today we have come together in the Bundestag … because not the victims but we in whose midst the crimes took place have to remember and account for what we did; because we as Germans want to come to an understanding of our past and of its lessons for our present and future politics.

He examined the history and read extracts from official statements of the Nazi era to illustrate the beliefs and actions of the regime. But the speech caused an uproar the New York Times reported, prompting 50 left-wing deputies to walk out. Three days later he resigned and apologized for his “insensitive” words after critics charged that he had said the right things, but at the wrong place and time.

Conservatives deputies, some of whom were photographed holding their heads in their hands during the speech, stayed seated, but were unhappy. After two decades of avoiding the topic — or claiming ignorance of the deeds done in secret by the SS –by the 1980’s the Federal Republic had found that by accepting responsibility for the past, it could rejoin the world community.

The received view of Kristallnacht among Germans had been that the Nazis had committed the crimes, while Germany watched. Their sin was one of indifference. Jenninger’s words forced Germany to remember that Germans were not only indifferent to the fate of the Jews, but they were complicit in segregating and expelling Jews from German society and in carrying out the Holocaust. German memory focused on the victims and found a national identity in response to their sufferings — not to the evils done by the perpetrators.

The reasons offered for the left’s walk out were confused and many deputies stated theirs was an emotional reaction. But the use of the word “we” — admitting that all Germans were complicit in the crimes of the Nazi era and Jenninger’s focusing on the perpetrators of the crimes was too much for the political leaders of the ’68 Generation. Activists who had condemned the continuity between the Nazi past and the West German present, believing their rejection had purified them of the crimes of the Holocaust, refused to accept culpability for their country’s anti-Semitic past.

It may have been fortuitous. It may have been unintentional. Or it may have been an editorial decision by the left wing newspaper to use the anniversary of Kristallnacht — the one event of the Holocaust which no German then living could deny knowing — to chastize the country for its slide back into evil was remarkable. Thank you Die Taz.

Now if only they weren’t shy about confronting the Muslim roots of the new hate the story would have hit a home run.

Addendum: In response to readers’ emails, here are some links to the topic of anti-Semitism in Europe and Islam. I also recommend two recent books: Walter Laquer’s book  The Changing Face of anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day(NY: OUP, 2006) and Raphael Israeli, Muslim anti-Semitism in Christian Europe: Elemental and Residual anti-Semitism (NY: Transaction Publishers, 2009). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but will help start your researches.

First published in GetReligion.