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My German Question’

The following address was given in Munich on November 22, 1999, by Mr. Gay, after he received the Geschwister-Scholl Prize for the German translation of his book My German Question. The prize, which has been given annually for twenty years, is named in honor of Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother and sister. Students at the University of Munich, they formed a small group of principled anti-Nazi resisters in 1942, known as the White Rose. Facing almost certain death, the White Rose distributed leaflets in and around their university. The Scholls were caught and guillotined in 1943.

I begin with a question. The Scholls did not pose it explicitly, but it is contained implicitly in their program. It is this: Is it thinkable that the relationship between Germans and Jews will once again take the normal form that it had for some brief years in the twentieth century? Are the words “German” and “Jew” compatible? Is it our fate that it can be one or the other but not the two together? My very way of asking this question is a symptom of the problem to be solved.

I find it an agreeable obligation to observe precisely in this city that I am not the first to have raised this question. In the course of the summer, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran a series of articles on the topic “What separates Germans and Jews from each other?” The key to an answer is, in my opinion, above all the language in which we talk about and have long talked about this delicate subject.

Postwar Germans who have tried, and continue to try, to come to terms with the Nazi treatment of the Jews have acquired a certain right to sympathy. Whatever they do is wrong. If they build an impressive monument to remind the world—and themselves—of the Jews that they murdered, with the eager help of Austrians, Poles, and others, this is, in the eyes of many critics, only an attempt to be found innocent: “Just look how sad the whole business has made me!” But if they refuse to build a monument, in the eyes of other critics that is only a sign that they want to repress their terrible past. If they spend billions in Israel, then this is only an attempt at bribery; if they stop, this is only proof that German remorse is too half-hearted. Is it not the summit of bad taste to expiate murder with money, as though a Jewish life is worth only a certain sum of deutschmarks? Realists might reply that bad taste in this respect is better than indifference.

It is hard to find the right words when we speak of Germany and the Germans. I do not have the slightest intention of making things easy for you. I would be the last person who would take the trouble to provide an alibi for German criminals and German failures. But in the efforts to bring Germans and Jews closer together, all of them unsuccessful so far, it has become a virtual law of nature that the two misunderstand each other. When I attended the book fair in Frankfurt recently, I was pleased to come across an intelligent, favorable, carefully nuanced review by Volker Ullrich of the book that is being honored tonight. The headline, though (and I know that an author is not responsible for his headlines), ran, “Almost a Declaration of Love.” But Meine deutsche Frage, a point that had of course not escaped Volker Ullrich, underscored my ambivalence about Germany. Not a trace of a declaration of love.

I have no intention of criticizing the Scholls and their tiny anti-Nazi cell. They were heroes, in the full sense of that much-abused word, who in their divine-naive innocence undertook actions whose failure was guaranteed and who, although an early, cruel death was predictable, continued to struggle against the German mass murderers with weapons alas only too harmless. The leaflets they distributed were at once touching and exciting in their clarity, their classic simplicity. Their aim was clear: to free their country from the tyrant.

The destruction of European Jewry, of which they had an inkling, appears in their leaflets only once. In the second leaflet by the White Rose, distributed in late June of 1942, we read:

We do not want to write about the Jewish question in these pages, or compose a speech for the defense—no, only as an example we want to mention the fact, briefly, that since the conquest of Poland, three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in that country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most horrible crime against human dignity, a crime with which no similar crime in all of history can compare. The Jews, too, after all, are human—one may think of the Jewish question as one likes—and these crimes were committed against human beings. Perhaps someone may say, the Jews had deserved such a fate; this claim would be immensely arrogant.1

These lines do not permit the slightest doubt that the White Rose condemned the mass murder of Jews most vehemently. But “the Jewish question”? Nowadays, the term must sound rather odd. I interpret it here as an attempt to persuade even anti-Semites that inhumanity is simply inhumanity, no matter who is the victim. But from our perspective more than half a century later, the term “Jewish question” is not a happy choice. As early as the nineteenth century, the philologist and social psychologist Heyman Steinthal, himself a Jew, rightly insisted that the so-called Jewish question was really a German question. What was the attitude of non-Jewish Germans toward the activities of a minority that had been freed of demeaning laws only a few decades before? What was their attitude toward Jews “pushing” themselves into German industry and commerce, into free professions like the law and medicine, into literature, music, sculpture, painting, to say nothing of their participation in events like celebrations of Goethe or Schiller, or of their role as donors to museums? Were Jews too active? Did their “invasion” of domains hitherto “free of Jews” corrupt or ruin them, or perhaps keep them alive and make them more interesting?

To express the same point a little more baldly: Is there an easily recognizable characteristic that one may designate as typically Jewish? When one hears the word “Jew,” what pictures arise in the mind of the speaker and the listeners? Do they see with their inner eye a bearded, dignified man concentrating on a sacred text? Or Fassbinder’s greedy, vengeful speculator? The all-too-clever businessman or the learned art historian? The jacket of the German translation of My German Question testifies that I am an “assimilated, antireligious Jew.” Is that correct? I only became a Jew in consequence of a decree by the Nazi regime. Before then I was a German. A similar expression, “German-Jewish,” propagates the same mistake, at least as far as I am concerned. Up to January 30, 1933, I was not “German-Jewish” but simply “German.” And after that, I was not German-Jewish either, but simply Jewish or at least un-German.

What kinds of Germans were my parents and myself before Franz von Papen smuggled Hitler into the chancellorship? The ideal cherished by “assimilated Jews” in Germany was that they would be integrated into a highly differentiated society in which many streams coalesced. They were among many groups of people who insisted on a certain identity and who, though they often became unfaithful to their past, did not deny it. In this view, a Bavarian peasant who could look back on generations of settled forebears was no more German than a Jew who did not know in which country his grandparents had lived. Granted, such a tolerant pluralism had perhaps more opponents than advocates, and there were Germans even before Hitler who would not grant any Jew, no matter of what sort, the honorable predicate “German.”

There remains the problem posed in my original question. Why Germans and Jews? The two now appear to be mutually exclusive categories. One is either German or Jew. It is true enough that in recent years Jews who live in Germany define themselves in that way. I think back with a certain nostalgia to the years of the empire, in which the most influential Jewish defense organization gave itself the title German Citizens of the Jewish Faith. As you see, even in the last years of the nineteenth century, Jews in Germany needed defensive strategies against libels. But what remains most interesting is that the organization stressed the German citizenship of its members.

Today the situation is very different. Naturally one cannot simply decree that from now on formulas like “Germans and Jews” may not be used anymore. They mirror a reality. On the other hand, formulas such as these help to keep that reality alive and even strengthen it. After all, one finds evidence for it nearly everywhere. As an old academic, I have spent some time thinking about German universities, and I note that one finds, first of all, that there are hardly any Jewish professors today and, secondly, that the handful of professors of Jewish origins mainly teach and write in “their own” domain—Jewish history, Jewish literature. This is a sign of resistance of established institutions against newcomers, whom they admit to full citizenship only reluctantly. I should note in passing that at home, in the United States, I never inquire which professors are Jewish—I only do that in Germany.

What might be done? I see at least three possibilities. None of them can be dictated, all of them must make themselves at home quite naturally in the mental economy of Germans. Still, it cannot hurt to mention them and thus speed their success at least a little.

First, it is appropriate, for reasons I have already given, carefully to examine and carefully to employ concepts and expressions that have to do with Judaism. Although the word well describes a certain category, a certain group of human beings, it is not appropriate to use the name “Jew” as a generalization without nuances and qualifications. When I assert that before 1933 my parents and I were not Jewish, I want to emphasize not only that we were irreligious or even antireligious, but that we had officially left the Jewish community and described ourselves (as I would do in school) as “without religious affiliation.” And even the German citizens who openly professed that they were Jews cannot be forced under a single rubric. Most of them were Germans as much as, sometimes more than, Jews; there were many patriots among them who volunteered for the army in 1914 and who witnessed the defeat of the empire with deep sadness. Human beings live with many identities: they are members of a family, stamp collectors, bowlers, Roman Catholics, neurotics, fans of Bayern München, and these identities rarely contradict one another. In just the same way one could be a German and a Jew. To deal carefully and delicately with these words is desirable not for some sort of political correctness but because precision can help to clear up misunderstandings.

Secondly, it is necessary to study German history, particularly as it touches on the share of Jews in it, with greater care than has usually been done. I speak not of the Holocaust, of perpetrators, bystanders, and victims, about whom there has been diligent research for years, enough to refute with impressive material the Goldhagen thesis of an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism virulent among just about all Germans. What we need more of, though, are dependable studies that describe the life of Jews in the Nazi years whether at home or abroad. That the Germans have had a significant, often fatal part in the history of the Jews is well enough known. That Jews had a significant, often constructive part in German history is far less known.

Victor Klemperer’s diaries have shown themselves to be an indispensable source, and I find it heartening to see how many Germans, more than 160,000, have bought this masterpiece and probably have even read it.2 In greater and more precise detail than any other set of German diaries I know, Klemperer’s notations describe what it was like to live as a Jew under the Nazis, the acts of cruelty and kindness he experienced as the noose tightened. (Of course, since Klemperer’s gentile wife refused to divorce him, he enjoyed a “privileged” vantage point, and took full advantage of it, as he compiled his record of external events and internal stresses.) What we need is more studies like Marion Kaplan’s Between Dignity and Despair, a study at once scholarly and anecdotal, that describes and analyzes the experience of Jewish women in Germany during increasingly disheartening years.3 These women participated in anguished discussions over emigration; they were often ready to leave before their husbands did, and prepared themselves to follow a useful trade in exile; they were often the first to learn from their children what a young Jew’s life was in school. In such a book we see, to cite the great Ranke, how it had actually been in the 1930s.

I can testify from my own experience how necessary such investigations are. I want to borrow here an anecdote that I have already used in the preface to My German Question. I mention there a conversation I had in Berlin several years ago with an influential and intelligent German public servant who had a good knowledge of history, and whom I had come to know fairly well. One evening he asked me, evidently ill at ease, why German Jews had gone like lambs to the slaughter. This made it plain to me that even among well-informed Germans there must be many who had not an inkling how Jews had lived in Nazi Germany, how little such Germans knew about their former fellow citizens, and how the world outside the German dictatorship looked to the German Jews; it was for them a world that was reluctant to accept as immigrants lawyers and businessmen who, for the most part, knew only German. One reason why I wrote My German Question was that I wanted to do my part to reduce this naiveté about the history of the 1930s.

Thirdly, I want to mention something that could contribute greatly to normalization of relations between—I must now speak this way myself—Germans and Jews. I speak of friendship, a relationship in which one can answer the question “Who are you really?” not by saying “German” or “Jew,” but by freely talking about oneself and one’s friends without having to ask oneself every moment whether one has perhaps somehow insulted the other. I have such friends in Germany. I shall mention only two of them briefly. One, Emil Busse, a friend of my father’s, is the German to whom I have dedicated my book. He greatly eased our last year in Germany and our flight, by hiding my father on November 10, 1938, during the great Kristallnacht pogrom, and helping to squirrel away whatever assets we still had at our disposal. The other is Karl Dietrich Bracher, who has, out of friendship, agreed to give the laudatio for me tonight. He, with his wife, Dorothee, was the first to make it possible for me to think of Germans with anything but revulsion.

This may sound excessive, but I mean what I say. We, my wife and I, met the Brachers during the academic year 1963-1964 at the Center for Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto. He was already an eminent German historian who had done research on the first year of Nazi power, and had done so as a matter of conscience: his strongest historical interests lay in earlier centuries, but he had come to believe that Hitler’s twelve-year reign required all the scholarly energies of the German historical profession, and he wrote without the slightest hint of apology for his country and its past. His wife’s family was part of the Bonhoeffer circle, most of whom were executed in 1945 for their share in the plot to kill Hitler the year before. They showed me that there were, to use that awful term, “good Germans.”

They did this by doing nothing. They simply remained themselves. I regard my encounter with them in 1963 as a decisive moment in my life, which enabled me to rethink, fundamentally, my attitude toward Germans, and for which I shall always remain grateful. That is why I find my friend Karl Dieter’s presence on this platform one of the happiest moments of my life.

Emil Busse and the Brachers have helped me to answer my German question at least in part. But I would be unjust to the candor that this theme demands if I would fail to report an incident that shows once again how hard it is to shove the past aside. As I was busy writing this talk early in November, I got a letter from England that reminded me with exemplary brutality of my years under Hitler. Those who have read my memoirs may remember Walter Schreiber, the banker who lived in our apartment building and had been forcibly retired for “racial reasons.” We had become friends because he owned a beautiful German edition of Dickens and would lend me one Dickens novel after another. He was picked up on November 10, 1938, and sent to a concentration camp. I ran into him two months later, not long after he had been released. He had visibly aged, I recalled, looked white and almost senile. The weeks in the concentration camp had been devastating for him. He told me that he, his wife, and their son would emigrate to Shanghai, at the time the only place in the world where you could go without papers of any kind. During the time I was working on my memoirs, I tried to find traces of the Schreibers in Shanghai, but the organization that has been keeping track of refugees there could not trace them. Then I got a letter, inspired by a reading of my memoirs, and the woman who wrote it could report on the fate of the Schreiber family. The son succeeded in reaching England, but his parents, Walter and Annie Schreiber, perished in Auschwitz.

I am not quite sure just why I took the news so badly. After all, it had all happened so long ago, and it would have been impossible for the Schreibers to be still alive. But when I read that letter, it seemed to me that I lost my friend just then, in November 1999—a cruel reminder that Hitler’s passion for destruction could, after all this time, still find new victims. Such moments stand like a shadow between those whom we must still call Germans and Jews, and make the work that we still have to do more difficult. But that does not mean that we dare neglect it, let alone abandon it. For it is work on behalf of civilization that requires extreme patience, and that must repeatedly accept defeat. But in comparison with the work that Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends took upon themselves, it is not difficult work at all.

  1. 1

    I am quoting from Inge Scholl, Die weisse Rose (New edition, Frankfurt am Main, 1986), p. 102.

  2. 2

    I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941 (Random House, 1998). The second volume, covering the years 1942-1945, will be published by Random House in March.

  3. 3

    Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 1998).

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