Prof. Monika Schwarz-Friesel (TU Berlin) delivered remarks at the ceremony commemorating the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen on 4 May 2022. The full text of her remarks is available below:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please do not expect me to deliver a Sunday speech with optimistic tones. The situation is too serious to practise cliché culture.
We are – to use the words of Fritz Stern – in a time of cultural despair in the face of conspiracy thinking, distortion of reality, propaganda, doubts about democracy – and in the face of a brutal war in which even the last Ukrainian Shoah survivors are being killed.
Fifty years ago, the Israeli historian Jacob Katz asked whether the Holocaust, as an unprecedented crime against humanity, would have a lasting catharctic effect to end “at last the old paradigm of devaluing Jewish life”.
Today we know that this was neither a sweeping turnaround nor a profound break with the past as had been hoped.
The collective sentiment of Jew-hatred is highly present and active. Some facts from empirical research:
No, antisemitism is by no means primarily a fringe group phenomenon of right-wing radicals and Islamists. Yes, hostility towards Jews is a phenomenon of society as a whole.
No, classical Jew-hatred is by no means on the wane. Yes, over 2/3 of all antisemitic statements and conspiracy myths on the Net 2.0 are based on age-old stereotypes. And they echo the past in unprecedented quantity.
No, antisemitism is not an interchangeable prejudice, nor is it to be equated with racism or xenophobia. Yes, hostility towards Jews is a singular cultural-historical category of thought, deeply anchored in the collective consciousness.
No, education and democratic attitudes by no means always protect against a mindset that is hostile to Jews. Yes, even educated, modern, renowned persons produce antisemitism.
Hostility towards Jews has always come from the educated middle. Most of Western culture bears witness to this. Therefore, the inflationary headline that “Jew-hatred has reached the centre” is misleading. The centre is still the source – and its intellectual substance feeds the margins, not the other way around.
Take universities as a current example. Campus antisemitism is rampant in the USA today: more and more attack against young Jews are taking place there, and only those who express anti-Israeli views find acceptance. It turns out that the activities of BDS on campus do lead to a massive increase in antisemitic incidents.
Let us recall that there were many universities in Europe among the institutions to first harass and expel their Jewish members in the 1930s.
For years now, anti-Jewish resentment has been articulated more openly, more consciously – and more naturally – in the public sphere, without necessarily triggering the much-needed reactions in politics and civil society.
There was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist who was committed against racism but repeatedly stigmatised the Jewish state with defamatory phrases, who relativised mass murder in the gas chambers with apartheid analogies and stereotypically accused “the Jewish lobby” of being powerful and fear-mongering. This did not harm him or his worldwide reputation.
There is the renowned post-colonial scholar who demonises Israel using anti-Jewish terminology and Holocaust trivialisation.
There are the people from the arts and culture scene who demand freedom of expression for, of all things, the antisemitic campaign of BDS. And the renowned artistic and cultural organisation that considers artistic freedom inviolable even in the face of Israel-hatred.
There are also the peace activists and anti-racism groups who have tolerance for everything and everyone, but not on one single point: for the Jewish desire to finally live freely after 2000 years of oppression and without being lectured.
In the 21st century, Jews are expected to accept a lot. Their fears are talked down, their trauma is played down, their collective experience of grief and sorrow are ridiculed by crude comparisons. The Shoa is even usurped post-colonially by some historians and therefore trivialised.
This is always accompanied by the assertion that none of this has anything to do with antisemitism.
Contemporary antisemitism, however, lives and is nourished not only by antisemitic statements, but also when these are tolerated, when they are downplayed, and when a blind eye is turned.
The lessons that over decades have been learned from Auschwitz and Mauthausen often fail to grasp either the cause or the depth of the cultural anchoring of antisemitic thinking and feeling. For over 19 centuries before the concentration camps, anti-Jewish communication existed uninterruptedly as the norm, mind you, as the rule, not the exception.
After decades of research, we now know so much about the toxic roots of Jew-hatred that no one has to postpone a serious diagnosis for therapy by saying that we still know too little about antisemitism.
We know very precisely how hostility towards Jews manifests itself and can provide clear information about when a statement is antisemitic.
We know how to distinguish legitimate criticism from acts of discrimination and defamation.
Yet, against available facts and with an outlook hostile to science, many cling to the claim that freedom of expression is to be restricted and that there is a taboo on criticism.
All too often, this reveals a double standard, one could also call it hypocrisy: Honouring the dead Jews, denigrating the living ones as land-grabbers, child murderers and racists. As a scientist, I agree with Georges Steiner here. One can only combat a language filled with lies by “the most drastic truths”:
Those who today publicly defame the Jewish state as an apartheid regime produce just as much reality-distorting antisemitism as those who claim that Jews slaughter children for ritual purposes.
It would be urgently necessary to hear voices of regret for the misuse of inappropriate rhetoric. But instead, we get self-righteous fantasies of oppression and victimisation. Those who talk about “censorship” and “dictatorship of opinion” in our democracies should be ashamed to look at countries where people are jailed or killed for their freedom of expression.
No matter in what form and by whom it is articulated: Statements that are hostile to Jews must be rejected without regard to the person – without ifs and buts. Even if it is inconvenient for one’s own realpolitik. In this context, the reluctance to unequivocally address the vociferous Islamic hatred of Jews must also be abandoned.
And to denounce anti-Jewish rhetoric only among radicals and extremists, but to grant “critical reflections” to educated citizens in the feuilleton: That counteracts any enlightenment.
The willingness to criticise any kind of antisemitism indicates whether the ritually used slogans “[to combat antisemitism] Resolutely” and “Never again” are meant seriously or are ultimately empty words.
What is needed is a communicative ethic and practice that takes into account the power and potential for violence of language and, with all the freedom of expression that is needed, raises an objection when poisonous words are used.
Freedom without moral limitation loses itself in intolerance and ruthlessness. However, the limitation of precisely such destructive activities ultimately makes for a truly humane society. With regard to the “open society”, Karl Popper therefore wrote more than 70 years ago: “In the name of tolerance, we should reserve the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
The moral substance of a democratic society must be felt, borne and actually lived. And this would be the most effective weapon against Jew-hatred: to always criticise antisemitic statements for what they are, no matter how nicely coloured they appear. For any publicly articulated antisemitism that is not firmly addressed as such reinforces once again – and backwards – the old cultural sense of normalisation.
Consequently, antisemitism would then become habitual again. In certain circles, this is already the case.
The past cannot be blocked out, it permeates the present with force – and it will continue to shape our future if it is not confronted and explicitly called by name.
As long as antisemitism is accepted in the name of “criticism”, “artistic freedom” or “political outrage”, it will remain and spread its intellectual poison unhindered.