The crimes of German fascism are of a magnitude so enormous that they are almost difficult to comprehend. Without question the most heinous in its breadth was the Holocaust, the systematic attempt by the Nazi regime to annihilate the Jewish people that ultimately led to the mass murder of around two-thirds of the European Jewish population. It is only correct that today’s German state would see itself as having a historic responsibility towards Jews, both at home and abroad. This point should be indisputable. However, there are divergent positions on what the nature of this responsibility should entail.
For the modern German state, being responsible means seeing the State of Israel as the primary representative of the Jewish people. It means muting any serious criticism towards Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Germany refuses to retrospectively assess how the country was established through ethnic cleansing, and certainly doesn’t actively challenge today’s status quo in which an system of occupation and apartheid prevails.
That solidarity with the self-professed Jewish state today goes beyond placing Israeli flags outside of official government buildings, where they have flown in the aftermath of October 7. It also explains why it was inevitable that Chancellor Olaf Scholz would end up in Tel Aviv just over a week later to express his condolences and offer an increase in military support, saying Germany’s place in hard times was “by Israel’s side”. The German state’s notion of “Never Again Ever” means ensuring Israel’s stability and security as a Jewish homeland. It sees expressions of anti-Zionism as inherently anti-Semitic.
Contrary to this view espoused by the German government is that Israel does not necessarily represent the Jewish people. This perspective either holds that Zionism as an ideology is inherently racist and rooted in settler-colonialism, or at the very least that the State of Israel today is an entity that engages in dispossession and brutal oppression of the Palestinian people. This view places a distinction between critique of the Israeli state and anti-Semitism.
This position allows Jews themselves a sense of agency in being able to choose to either support Israel’s actions, or to stand firmly against the crimes that are carried out in their name. For those who agree with the latter, it means “Never Again Ever” applies equally to all scenarios that take on genocidal proportions, not merely to those claiming to safeguard the Jewish people.
Tough Times Opposing War Crimes in Berlin
These are difficult times in Berlin if standing up for Palestinian liberation – or even simply international law – are on your agenda.
Just after the bombs began being rained down on Gaza, Bernie Sanders visited Berlin to great fanfare. However, not pleased with his presence was the Social Democratic Party’s co-leader Saskia Esken, who cancelled an appearance alongside him. Why? Because he had the nerve to make a simple, humanitarian statement: “The targeting of civilians is a war crime, no matter who does it.” Apparently, Sanders – perhaps the most famous Jewish political figure in the western world - was displaying anti-Semitism by aligning with the Geneva Convention.
Demonstrations in support of Palestine, or those merely calling for a humanitarian pause or ceasefire, have been banned. In the German mainstream media, these protests have been billed as the work of “Hamas lovers” or “Jew haters.” In some cases, protests are literally banned minutes before they are set to begin, when hundreds have already assembled. When it comes to calling out war crimes, the German state has decided that the right to assembly that is enshrined in the country’s Basic Law can simply be ignored.
A cursory look at these illegal demonstrations over the last two weeks reveals that many Jewish organisations have also endorsed and actively participated in them, among them the Jewish Bund and Juedische Stimme. In fact, police have hauled off Jewish activists and arrested them, because Jews are not granted the agency to espouse their positions.
For those who are Palestinian, the ban on demonstrations by Berlin’s authorities means a complete targeting of their identity. When a German police officer arrests somebody for wearing a kuffiyeh, or schools in the capital ban the Palestinian scarf, they are saying the Palestinian identity is that of a terrorist.
Palestinians are being threatened with deportation if they are proven to be supporters of Hamas, but also Samidoun - the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network associated with the Palestinian left (both organisations have now been banned). This means the possibility of Palestinians being uprooted not once (from their historic homeland), but twice (now from Germany).
The Other Germany and the Palestine Liberation Organisation
Although Germany’s post-war history has been shaped by attempts to deal with the crimes of the Nazi regime, this hasn’t always meant that German state entities have taken the view that the current state does towards Israel. The history of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, offers a very different perspective.
First off, it’s necessary to understand that the GDR was created principally as an anti-fascist state, something that was considered even more important than the construction of socialism. Its top priority was indeed “Never Again Ever,” which is why a much more robust de-Nazification process happened there than it did in the western part of the country.
The new Federal Republic of Germany set up by the U.S., Britain and France became a country where Nazi ideologues were not only allowed to join the government, but were actively sought out for participation in the Cold War. On the other side, much of East Germany’s leadership knew first-hand what is felt like to be hounded and targeted by the Nazis – we should remember that the first concentration camps, after all, were set up for communists, and that they were accused of being part of the global “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy”.
In 1948, the newly created Socialist Unity Party that was operating in the Soviet occupation zone that would become East Germany the next year, backed the creation of Israel, saying "We consider the foundation of a Jewish state an essential contribution enabling thousands of people who suffered greatly under Hitler’s fascism to build a new life".
Once it became clear that the new Israeli state was actually a reactionary entity that refused the right of return for the 700,000 refugees it had created, and enacted martial law against the Palestinians who remained, the SED leadership changed its tune. It reverted to the position long-held by the communist movement in regards to Zionism, which is that it was an expression of a reactionary, bourgeois nationalism that always sought the patronage of colonial and imperialism powers.
In 1973, the GDR set up official relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafar. That same year, it had supplied Syria with weaponry for use in the Yom Kippur War against Israel. In 1975, East Germany voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination.
It is not merely coincidental that the PLO was supported by East Germany at the same time that another crucial liberation movement against minority rule, that of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, was also being given support from East Germany. The battle against apartheid was inextricably linked by the East German leadership to that of opposing settler colonialism in Palestine. This was all happening at the same time that West Germany held deep relations with the racist South African government, branding those who rebelled against this rule as “terrorists” - just as the Palestinians are referred to today. Given the similarities in their struggles, it’s no small wonder why Nelson Mandela once proclaimed upon the end of apartheid that, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
This history of the rival German states that existed for 40 years shows that there was no consensus on the question of whether Zionism could be seen as representing the legitimate aspirations of Jews as a whole.
Germany’s Dual Responsibility
It should be evident that today’s Germany has in fact not learned the lessons of history. It’s selective application of “Never Again Ever” is symbolic, but ultimately meaningless. It is complicit in Israeli war crimes, and those who espouse anti-fascist politics have a responsibility to stand against it. To fight against anti-Semitism should also mean fighting against imperialism, colonialism, and all forms of racial discrimination.
As the creation of Israel was agreed to by world powers against the backdrop of Nazi Germany’s attempt at exterminating the Jewish people, this means that the consequences – including the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arab masses from what became Israel – should also be laid at Germany’s feet. It means that not only does Germany have a responsibility to the Jewish people – it also has a responsibility towards the Palestinian people. Simply put, Palestinians should not have to suffer for the crimes of Hitlerite fascism, whether at home or here in Germany.
Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist, and the author of two books on the Kurdish liberation movement, including 2019’s Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution, which was one of the first full accounts in English of the civil and political structures set up in northern Syria after 2012.