The New Old Germany

A group of American Jewish journalists recently returned from an all-expense paid trip to Germany sponsored by the foreign ministry in its on-going campaign to rehabilitate the country’s image. Typically, the journalists return and say nice things about the country and the sincere efforts being made to erase the Nazi past. Ironically, this year the journalists returned just in time to discover how little has really changed. On May 31, the German Government promised to reorganize its National Tourism Office in New York after the disclosure that a directive had been in effect since 1984 to discourage “blacks, Jews, Hispanics and Asiatics,” from visiting Germany. That was the worst of the scandal, but not all of it. According to the New York Times, the tourist office is also facing $15 million worth of lawsuits filed by employees charging sexual and racial discrimination. The Times also reported an employee had been dismissed for disseminating documents seeking to discount the Holocaust.

It is true that German officials, including Chancellor Kohl, now routinely visit Israel, tour Yad Vashem and make public apologies for the sins of their predecessors. Still, the tourist office illustrates how racism and anti-Semitism still permeates much of German society. It is, of course, most evident in the number of neo-Nazi groups that flourish in the country and the support given to neo-fascist political figures. German officials may say that America has more right-wing nuts and the majority of anti-Semitic literature disseminated in Germany originates here, but those facts do no obviate their responsibility for curbing their own extremists. When violence flared against immigrants a few years ago, instead of cracking down on the attackers, the government imposed greater restrictions on immigration.

Polls also indicate hostility toward Jews remains deep-rooted. A 1992 Der Spiegel poll found that roughly one-third of all Germans believed Jews were partly to blame if they were hated and persecuted and that they had too much influence in the world. A 1994 poll done for the American Jewish Committee reported that 22 percent of Germans prefer not to have Jews living in their neighborhood; 39 percent believed “Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for their own purpose”; more than one-third said the Holocaust is not relevant today and a majority agreed that Germany “should not talk so much about the Holocaust but should rather draw a line under the past.” Generally, people are reluctant to admit to bigotry, so the actual numbers of Germans holding anti-Semitic views is undoubtedly considerably higher than even these percentages reflect.

Germany also continues to evade responsibility for providing reparations for many of the victims of the Holocaust. Some publicity was given recently to the case of Hugo Princz, an American citizen who survived the camps and has been seeking reparations for 40 years. Unfortunately, press reports inaccurately refer to him as the only American survivor of the camps. Many other Americans, including soldiers, also went through the camps and they too deserve to be compensated for the crimes committed against them. The Germans have vigorously opposed paying Princz in part, no doubt, to avoid opening the door to claims from other Americans. Sadly, the State Department has been more helpful to the Germans in this dispute than its own citizen (showing it too has not changed since the ’40s).

Germany still has to redress some wrongs of the past before it can hope to have a new image, at least in the minds of Jews. The attitudes and behavior of Germans, unfortunately, do not reassure many of us that the new Germany has changed enough from the old Germany.

I guess I just blew my chance for a free trip.