Germany: pulling out the stops for Israel

The German state once again finds itself complicit in war crimes and genocide. This time in the smoking ruins of the Gaza Strip.

Published : Apr 24, 2024 17:54 IST - 7 MINS READ

A woman holds a placard as people protest outside the International Court of Justice. Germany faces charges from Nicaragua at the top UN court for “facilitating the commission of genocide” against Palestinians with its military and political support for Israel.

A woman holds a placard as people protest outside the International Court of Justice. Germany faces charges from Nicaragua at the top UN court for “facilitating the commission of genocide” against Palestinians with its military and political support for Israel. | Photo Credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN

Three recent snapshots from Germany, where state actions in the context of the ongoing genocide in Gaza are taking an increasingly surreal and sinister turn:

• April 5: Germany is one of a handful of member nations of the UN Human Rights Council to vote against a resolution demanding a halt in all arms sales to Israel. (The resolution, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, is passed by a large majority).

• April 8: Germany finds itself up before the International Court of Justice at The Hague (the UN’s top judicial body), facing charges presented by Nicaragua that it is “facilitating the commission of genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza.

• April 12/13: The opening session of a two-day Palestine Congress in Berlin, organised by Germany’s Jewish Voices for a Just Peace and the European Realistic Disobedience Front (MeRA25) led by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, is stormed by more than 2,000 city police, who grab microphones and tear out the wires of the live-streaming equipment. A keynote speaker, Ghassan Abu-Sittah, the British-Palestinian rector of the University of Glasgow and a plastic surgeon heralded for his life-saving work in Gaza during the genocide, is detained at Berlin airport and deported to the UK after hours of interrogation. Amid accusations by Berlin’s mayor, Kai Wegner, of stoking “antisemitism, hatred, and incitement against Jews”, three keynote speakers—Varoufakis, Ghassan Abu-Sittah and fellow Palestinian Salman Abu Sitta—are then served with a Betätigungsverbot: a ban on all political activity hitherto invoked only a few times against Islamic State operatives. Under its terms, all three are prohibited not only from entering Germany but also from participating in conferences via video link or recorded messages.

Also Read | Will the Gaza conflict mark a shift towards a multipolar order?

Israel’s drum-beaters

These events are illustrative of the degree to which Germany—Europe’s largest economy and most powerful political player—has, over the past six months, outed itself as one of Israel’s most reliable and energetic drum-beaters. Last year, the country’s centre-left government approved arms exports to Israel valued at $353.70 million, a 10-fold increase from 2022. Intensive official efforts at home have sought to bolster support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow genocidaires while bearing down on all forms of pro-Palestine protest, scapegoating immigrants and seeking to silence every voice critical of the Zionist state. Nowhere in Europe has governmental endorsement of Israel’s crimes against humanity found more fulsome expression than in the state that, just nine years ago, opened its borders to millions of desperate West-Asian refugees. What is going on?

Among the many factors contributing to this turn, three stand out as particularly pertinent.

The first relates to Germany’s status as a historic perpetrator of genocide on an industrial scale, and the means by which the state has sought to come to terms with its Holocaust-haunted past. Despite the (belated) emergence in the 1980s of an officially endorsed ‘memory culture’ (erinnerungskultur), involving a collective commitment to remember and face up to the nation’s crimes under Hitler and to accept sole and permanent responsibility for the murder of six million Jews, Germany’s reckoning process has exhibited a number of deformed and dangerous features.

An abiding element has been uncritical support for Israel; as early as 1960, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, still busily drawing a veil over Nazi atrocities, was hailing Israel as “a fortress of the West” and reassuring its leader, David Ben-Gurion, that “we will help you. We will not leave you alone.” There took root what the writer Daniel Marwecki has described as the “exchange structure specific to German-Israeli relations”: the supply of German cash and weapons in return for moral absolution. Such an outcome fitted with Washington’s long-term goal of reintegrating a barely deNazified West Germany into a US-led Western military alliance.

Subsequent state efforts to build a fresh national identity in the context of German reunification also contributed to the shape that ‘memory culture’ came to assume: what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra has described as “a strategic philosemitism, parasitic on old anti-Semitic stereotypes but now combined with sentimental images of Jews”. Support for Israel, together with the categorisation of all forms of anti-Zionist sentiment or activism as intrinsically anti-Semitic, became a sine qua non of German national identity. In 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel provided a formal endorsement of this position when declaring before the Israeli Knesset that “this historical German responsibility is part of the ‘Staatsräson’ of my country… for me, as German Federal Chancellor, Israel’s security is never negotiable.” This mission statement was reinvoked by the current Chancellor, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, as Israel set to work annihilating Gaza in October 2023, underlining its foundational status and immutability in the eyes of the state.

Silencing critics

One corollary of this has been the off-loading of guilt onto Germany’s large Muslim minority, now perversely portrayed as ‘anti-Semitic’. In addition, the slur of ‘Israel-centred antisemitism’ or ‘left-wing antisemitism’ has, in the words of the German academic Leandros Fischer, “become the German establishment’s weapon of choice for silencing critics of Israeli was crimes and the German government’s well-documented complicity in them.”

The second factor relevant to recent events is the specific form of democracy that has taken root in Germany and the ways in which this differs from other Western variants, the liberal Anglo-Saxon ‘gold standard’ in particular. By token of the ‘militant democracy’ (wehrhafte Demokratie) that has been nurtured by successive governments, including those led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the German state’s statutory powers to meddle and repress are such as to be the envy of its European neighbours. That the state, if it so chooses, can suspend certain civil liberties or place specified organisations under surveillance simply on its own interpretation of ‘safeguarding democracy’ or ‘upholding the liberal democratic basic order’ helps explain the ease with which demonstrations can be banned, conferences closed down and broad-based, non-violent campaigns such as that for BDS (the isolation of Israel through boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions) rendered illegal at a stroke.

Also Read | Israel’s diversionary attack on Iran has set off a new security crisis in West Asia

The third element at work in Germany’s current situation is the looming presence of its ascendant far right. In line with the drift to the right that now characterises politics across Europe, the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany or AfD) is on course to make major gains in upcoming elections to the European Parliament. In Germany, as in France, the political mainstream’s response to a long-simmering threat now on the verge of eruption has been one of appeasement and concession-giving, with migrants, Muslims and other minority groups constituting particularly convenient sacrificial victims. Analysing the ways in which the Germany state’s extreme form of anti-antisemitism works to the advantage of the far right, Leandros notes how the AfD “can now proudly proclaim membership in the mainstream by, among other things, accusing the Left of ‘extremism’ as well as ‘antisemitism’ due to its perceived support for Palestinians.”

The ironies of Germany’s current stance could hardly be sharper or more disturbing, at least in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of dissenting citizens together with those of an incredulous world. For all its formal pledges and institutionalised efforts to atone for the abominations of its recent past, the German state once again finds itself deeply complicit in war crimes and genocide—not this time in the ghettos and death camps of the Third Reich, but in the smoking ruins of the Gaza Strip, where the struggle for survival by a battered, traumatised and starving population resonates so emphatically with Germany’s own past.

Susan Ram has spent much of her life viewing the world from different geographical locations. Born in London, she studied politics and international relations before setting off for South Asia: first to Nepal, and then to India, where fieldwork in Tamil Nadu developed into 20 years of residence.

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