As the far right seeks to co-opt the Jewish vote, uncomfortable questions about Germany’s culture of memory arise

On October 7, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party welcomed the creation of its newest inner-party pressure group: up to 20 Jewish AfD members gathered in the Hessian city of Offenbach to form a circle aiming to represent Jewish interests within and through the AfD.

The move has been trumpeted by a number of leading AfD politicians as a confirmation of one of their more controversial long-standing claims, first made by former party chief Frauke Petry: that the AfD is, in fact, the sole “guarantor of Jewish life” in Germany against the supposedly inexorably rising tide of Muslim anti-Semitism.1

A large number of Jewish associations as well as individuals have nevertheless condemned the creation of the “Jews in the AfD” group. The party, they point out, has long peddled anti-Jewish clichés and conspiracy theories, rehabilitated anti-Semitic language from the Third Reich, and shared a platform with neo-Nazis. Jewish party members merely serve as a fig leaf to this agenda, or so critics argue.

Anti-Semitism in the AfD

At first sight, the AfD indeed seems an unlikely candidate to represent the interests of Jewish voters, whatever these interests might be. Top AfD politicians have routinely delegitimised attempts to remember the Holocaust, lauded the Wehrmacht while downplaying the crimes committed under National Socialism, and demanded a full rehabilitation of German nationalism. On a more everyday level, the party has sought to ban Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughtering practices.2

Below the national-level leadership, local party members and officials have consistently propagated crude anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Such theories and stereotypes are also more widespread among AfD voters than among the supporters of any other party. To cap this off, during ethnonationalist mob violence on the streets of Chemnitz in August and September – where the AfD paraded the streets side by side with neo-Nazis -, an enraged crowd also shouted anti-Semitic slogans and ransacked a Jewish restaurant.

The spectre of the “Muslim danger”

The party leadership has nevertheless stressed that the AfD constitutes a “natural political home” for Germany’s Jews, given their concern with Muslim anti-Semitism.3 Here, the AfD is building upon a widespread assertion – routinely made across the conservative political spectrum – that it is above all Muslims who are responsible for the attacks against Jews taking place in the country.

That 95 per cent of anti-Jewish hate crimes are carried out by the white German far-right has not prevented this trope of ‘Muslim anti-Semitism’ from gaining wide currency. Right-wing German-Jewish pundits such as Michael Wolffsohn have blithely continued to assert that “it is a fact that most attacks against Jews in Germany are being committed by Muslims.”4

Jewish resistance to co-optation

17 of Germany’s Jewish associations – spearheaded by the Central Council of Jews, which tends to represent older and more conservative constituencies – have issued a statement condemning the initiative: as a “racist and anti-Semitic party”, the AfD could not offer a home to Jews, they asserted.

Activists from all corners have echoed this observation. Tom Uhlig, chairman of the ‘Anne Frank’ educational centre in Frankfurt, asserts that “the historical revisionism of the AfD serves each and every element of the what is called secondary anti-Semitism or an anti-Semitism designed to defend against guilt (Schuldabwehrantisemitismus)”. The AfD, in other words, relies on the depiction of Germany and the Germans as victims of a concerted Jewish attempt to blow out of proportion the Holocaust in order to use it to their advantage.5

Armin Langer, an interfaith activist from Berlin, flippantly quipped that the participation of Jewish men and women in the AfD’s racist agenda was “the best way to disprove the prejudice of the savvy Jew”.6

The AfD’s electoral calculus

What explains the AfD’s ‘charm offensive’ towards the Germany’s Jewish population? Analysts have highlighted the salience of the electoral calculus: Positioning itself as a right-wing pro-Jewish player might enable the party to further unlock the electoral potential of the so-called ‘Jewish quota refugees’ – more than 200,000 Jews who were allowed to move to Germany after the collapse of the USSR during the 1990s.7

The political outlook of this group has often been compared to the political orientations of the more than 2.4 million ethnic Germans who left the (former) Soviet Union around the same time: with generous backing from the Russian state-controlled media, these ‘Russian Germans’ (Russlanddeutsche) have come to rank among the AfD’s most important supporters.8

More important than the limited number of Jewish votes to be gained is, arguably, the fact that the AfD seeks to sharpen its anti-Muslim profile by depicting itself as the safeguard against a rampant Islamisation of the West. This, after all, constitutes the party’s main selling point for its diverse audiences. In a divide-and-rule strategy, embattled religious minorities are to be played off against each other.

Anti-anti-Semitism in post-1945 Germany

Yet perhaps most fundamentally, the ostentatious inclusion of men and women of the Jewish faith also offers the prospect of enhanced societal legitimacy: Germany’s post-1945 public and political culture is governed by a repudiation of the rabid anti-Semitism of the Third Reich; and anti-anti-Semitism remains one of the bedrocks of respectable political behaviour.

Whether this often highly moralistic engagement with the Nazi’s racial state is genuine and meaningful has occasionally been questioned by clear-sighted observers – not least by Jewish intellectuals themselves. Recently, author, poet and stage performer Max Czollek published Desintegriert Euch! (Desintegrate Yourselves!), a book delivering a polemical broadside against what the author sees as Germany’s bigoted appropriation of the Nazi past for its contemporary nationalist narrative as an enlightened and reformed country.9

Instrumentalising Jews for a German national imaginary

Czollek points out that, after decades of silence during which the Holocaust and questions of guilt were hardly discussed at all, white (post-)Christian elites have been focused obsessively on Germany’s Jewish community since the 1980s. Yet this newfound interest has remained confined to clichéd performances construed as quintessentially Jewish: Klezmer music, Holocaust documentaries, and a morbid fascination with individual Jewish lives and biographies (referred to by Czollek as ‘Jewporn’).

Czollek provocatively yet convincingly demonstrates how this culture of memory has led to the moulding a very particular figure, which has come to be central to Germany’s national imaginary. He terms this figure the ‘JfD’ the ‘Jew for Germans’ (Jude für Deutsche): a stereotypically Jewish subject serving as reassurance of Germany’s chastised and modernised identity.

In this context, the scope of Jewish subject positions that are viable in German public discourse are extremely limited. Jews are supposed to play a docile role in what Czollek terms the “theatre of remembrance” (Gedächtnistheater): Together with ethnic Germans, they are supposed to look back on the country’s anti-Semitic past; this joint act of remembrance ultimately emphasises that both Jews and non-Jewish Germans were the victims of a nefarious National-Socialist takeover that can now be jointly remembered.

A Germany cured

This docility, coincidentally and conveniently, also limits the kinds of claims that Jewish voices can press against the majoritarian German public as they remain confined to the predetermined role of JfD. And, almost paradoxically so, the ceaseless re-enactment of the theatre of remembrance also appears to demonstrate time and again that Germany has really accomplished its transition from the authoritarian and anti-Semitic ways of its past to a model instantiation of Western, liberal, democratic values.

This narrative of spiritual and moral conversion accomplished after 1945 grounds a distinct sense of superiority that has, for decades, been directed against (Muslim) immigrants. In the words of Peter O’Brien, the German intelligentsia has continuously sought to reform these migrants just as Germans themselves have (supposedly) been reformed after 1945: “With the new-found zeal and self-confidence of a recovering alcoholic who, once cured, pledges to save other drunks”, policy-makers have sought “to resocialize migrants to the enlightened values of the modern liberal democratic society in which they now lived.”10

Beyond serving as the basis of this educational and deeply paternalistic attitude towards the immigrant Other, however, the theatre of remembrance has been crucial in demonstrating to Germans that they have been fully cured of the National Socialist virus themselves. The theatre of remembrance has thus helped to draw the much-referenced Schlussstrich – the ‘line of closure’ often demanded by nationalist voices –, bringing to an end the need for a genuine engagement with questions of the Holocaust and the racist modes of thought that enabled it.

Re-evaluating the theatre of remembrance

This self-serving appropriation of the figure of a docile Jew is manifestly what the AfD is engaged in. Just as the presence of Jews in Germany is supposed to demonstrate that the country has accomplished its transition from the evil ways of its past, the presence of Jews within the AfD is supposed to serve as a sign of the party’s enlightened credentials.

For Czollek and others, the trouble is therefore not so much the AfD’s – ultimately patently transparent – attempt to co-opt the Jewish figure for its own, racist agendas. The issue is, rather, that in doing so the party is buidling upon something more fundamental about Germany’s present-day political culture; something that extends far beyond the AfD party itself.

Dealing with the rise of the far right in Germany will thus necessitate a much more thorough (re-)evaluation of Germany’s post-1945 national narrative than any political force seems capable of delivering at the moment.

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  9. Max Czollek (2018). Desintegriert euch!. München: Carl Hanser.  

  10. Peter O’Brien (1996). Beyond the Swastika. London: Routledge, p. 44.