German- Jewish Relations, Today and Tomorrow: A German Perspective

I. Introduction

The only part of German history that seems to arouse much interest
abroad is the Nazi period. The half-century or so which has followed
Germany’s awakening from that sick dream is thought to be a time of
peaceful but dull respectability, with the Federal Republic character-
ized by nothing much except material prosperity.

To me, I have to say, that material prosperity, that peacefulness, even
that supposed dullness, represent an achievement at which I never
cease to marvel or to be moved. Federal Germany began life after the
Second World War as a graveyard in which almost every city had
been reduced to rubble, and almost every institution and political
resource contaminated by complicity in the crimes of National
Socialism; yet from this utter desolation its citizens constructed one
of the most stable and decent states in Europe, the cornerstone of a
peace which has endured now, at least in Western Europe, for nearly
sixty years.

This assessment of postwar Germany and how it is seen (or not seen)
abroad was made by British playwright Michael Frayn, who wrote
Democracy, performed with great success in both London and New
York.

Michael Frayn points to Germany’s general image abroad, but
also to an issue at the heart of German-Jewish relations. Since World
War II, Germany has tried—to use Frayn’s words—to construct “one
of the most stable and decent states in Europe.” To be sure, the Ger-
man government and many Germans have hoped for a recognition of
these efforts from the outside world.

However, Germans often get the impression that it is not Ger-
many’s “decent” present that the world notices, but only its “inde-
cent” past, and that it is this past that shapes the general image of the
country abroad. Of course, Germans understand that the magnitude
and unique character of the crimes committed by Germans during
the twelve years of Nazi rule would not and could not be forgotten
by the outside world—least of all by the Jewish people. But many
Germans also wonder why there often is such a discrepancy between
how they see themselves and how the outside world sees their coun-
try.

All postwar German governments as well as many concerned
German citizens have made deliberate attempts—by word and
deed—to close this gap, to “correct” the image, to gain acceptance
and respect from the outside world. Of equal, if not greater impor-
tance, has been the desire to regain self-respect. Concrete action was
thus taken to prove that Germany had understood the lessons of its
indecent past. These actions can be easily seen in Germany’s Basic
Law, its legal, political and social system, in many domestic and for-
eign policy decisions, and in everyday life. What is less easy to locate
is clear evidence that the world has been convinced about the “les-
sons learned.” For such efforts to reach a degree of real success, infor-
mation and ongoing dialogue are prerequisites. For obvious reasons,
the Jewish people has been both the most important and the most
difficult partner in this dialogue.

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