The art of politically-correct Holocaust commemoration in Germany

This past Friday, people in Cologne had the chance to participate in a unique “performance” sponsored by the “Impulse Theater Biennale 2013:” mimicking Israeli practice on Yom HaShoah, people in Cologne were invited to observe “Two Minutes of Standstill” in order to “pause and think about the history and our future. About what it means to be German today, what it means to live in Germany as an immigrant, what the consequences of the Holocaust and its instrumentalisation are today.”

This “performance” was the idea of award-winning Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana, whose work “challenges the national consciousness … propagated by her native country Israel.”

But not everyone is impressed with Bartana’s record as an artist and her awards: writing in “Die Welt,” Alan Posener observed sarcastically that any Israeli artist in search of a business plan that can work irrespective of talent should consider Israel-bashing as a safe choice. What irked Posener in particular was Bartana’s entirely predictable attempt to employ all sorts of worn-out slogans and clichés to endow her project with a supposedly deeper meaning.

Thus, Bartana explains in the official announcement of her project for the Cologne event:

“the Third Reich and the Holocaust are not just historical events – they also have long-term global chain effects that reach into the present day. Not only is the founding of the State of Israel based on a UN-decision such a consequence, but so is the Palestinian “Nakba” in 1948. As are escape and expulsion in Europe and the Middle East […] This history is written, but the future depends on our acting.

 And so, “Two Minutes of Standstill” is not only commemoration and performance but also a challenge to change the present. It is a proposal for a wide-reaching debate in Cologne and beyond, about what active remembering should look like today. A day of protest against violence and injustice today and tomorrow.”

Bartana also repeatedly highlighted the murders and other crimes committed by a small terror group that called itself “National Socialist Underground” (NSU). The group may have had a handful of supporters, but it consisted of only three known members and seems to have been active between 2000 and 2011, when two of the terrorists killed themselves as they were cornered by police after a bank robbery. The group’s only surviving member turned herself in and is awaiting trial.

Bartana apparently considers the NSU a part of “the chain of effects caused by the Second World War.” When asked in an interview if there wasn’t “a danger of relativizing the crimes and horrors committed by Germany during the NS-regime when you connect them this way with other events such as the murders of the NSU,” Bartana replied:

“It seems that for some people in Germany drawing a line between the NS [Nazis] to the NSU is politically incorrect. Just as it seems to be impossible to commemorate Jews, Roma, homosexuals together as victims of National Socialism. Maybe it’s true, and each group needs its own memorial. And of course this will continue to be an important discussion: How to commemorate without relativizing. But also without exclusion. After all, it is not about numbers. The NSU is an active fascist movement in today’s Germany. So we are talking about an ideology that still is alive.”

Of course you have to argue that “it is not about numbers” if you want to claim that a terror group consisting of three people and perhaps a few dozen supporters constitutes “an active fascist movement in today’s Germany” and represents “an ideology that still is alive” – even if two of the terrorists are dead and the third one is in custody awaiting trial. To be sure, the fact that the terror trio could carry on for years and commit a series of murders targeting mostly immigrants reflects a spectacular failure of German law enforcement and security agencies. But the existence of such a small group in a country of some 80 million people does not indicate that Nazism and fascism are “alive” in Germany.

However, there are other reasons for concerns about the legacy of Nazism in Germany – which can of course be conveniently ignored by somebody like Bartana who isn’t interested in numbers. Consider for example the findings of studies showing that at least 20 percent of Germans harbor antisemitic attitudes, and that more than 40 percent of Germans endorse antisemitic “criticism” of Israel such as comparing Israeli treatment of Palestinians with the Nazi treatment of Jews.

But anyone really concerned about Nazi-inspired hatred that “still is alive” today would have to bring up the pervasive Jew-hatred in the Middle East. As the renowned expert Robert Wistrich has argued:

“Islamic antisemitism is by far the most dynamic and threatening form of antisemitism existing at present in the contemporary world. It combines the scourge of Islamist terrorism, the spread of jihad, hatred of the West, Holocaust denial, and the genocidal “anti-Zionism” which is state-sanctioned in Iran. The dramatic triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the alarming growth of militant Salafist movements across the Arab Middle East have greatly increased the level of threat worldwide.”

Commenting on the historic connection between European fascism and Islamism, Wistrich has pointed out:

“The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, had a radical totalitarian vision of societal transformation, a leadership cult, and visceral hatred of Jews not so different from that of fascism and National Socialism. Moreover, the charismatic founder of the Palestinian Arab national movement, Haj Amin el-Husseini, was a fanatical genocidal anti-Semite who actively collaborated with Adolf Hitler during World War II. This “annihilationist” tradition of Jew-hatred has continued in the Palestinian Hamas movement (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) to this very day. Its Sacred Covenant is one of the most nakedly anti-Jewish texts of the entire post-Holocaust era.”

While much has already been written about Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis, a new book on “Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz will be available early next year, offering “new insight on the intertwined development of Nazism and Islamism and its impact on the modern Middle East.”

Nazis and Islamists

Admittedly, it wouldn’t be a good career move for Yael Bartana to incorporate this important subject into any of her future projects in Germany. It’s so much easier to offer a glib “Holocaust for all” which – as a critical article in the taz puts it – transforms the Nazi genocide into a “European feel-good project.”

However, Bartana’s “performance” in Cologne was also attended by a few people who didn’t feel so good about it. As initiated by blogger “Tapfer im Nirgendwo” (Brave in the nowhere), they sang Hatikva and some carried Israeli flags – which led some high-school students who had been sent by their teachers to attend the “performance” to respond with shouts of “Viva Palestine!”

If I could have joined “Tapfer im Nirgendwo”, I would have played the famous recording of survivors of Bergen Belsen concentration camp singing HaTikva shortly after the camp’s liberation in April 1945.

* * *

First published on my JPost blog on June 29, 2013.

 

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