‘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…

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