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Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, no political question has so deeply divided Europe, and especially Germany, as that of mass migration from Africa and the Near East. Do European states have the right to protect themselves from an unprecedented influx of migrants? Are they permitted to defend—with force, if necessary—their borders? Circumstances press these questions upon us, but we evade them. This dynamic is most pronounced in Germany. Recent immigrants are assumed to be justified in their expectations of German society—and Germans apparently do not have the right to challenge those expectations. Borders are regarded as embarrassing. Or so claims predominant opinion.

Germany’s turn to self-abnegation in the face of the “other” must be understood in light of the paradigm shift that followed World War II. In the decades after 1945, the imperative of forgetting was succeeded by the imperative of remembering. Victims replaced heroes, and remorse and self-accusation superseded pride. A man is no longer allowed to stand up for himself. When I define my homeland in terms of Christianity, it is taken for granted that I insult agnostics and Muslims. It is as if when I say I have a beautiful house, I insult all the other homeowners in my street. The tragedy of twentieth-century Germany arises from this dynamic. It has become axiomatic that if I do not wish to harm anyone, I must harm myself. Everything is inverted as a result—not only the architecture of memorials, which have become scrupulously anti-memorial, but culture and politics. Germans, it is thought, can be humane only insofar as they repudiate their heritage, as opposed to its distortion, and deny their cultural achievements along with their failings. In the most radical expression of this impulse, Germans assign to themselves the world-historical duty of self-denial, even to the point of extinction. This dynamic is pathological, viewed sociologically. But worse, it reflects a vanity of guilt that is dangerous and destructive in its theological arrogance. To a striking degree, the German political and cultural establishment has taken possession of the Holocaust. This terrible crime has become a precious asset to be deployed against anyone who dares to criticize the status quo.

In most societies, collective memory centers on affirmations that sustain communal belonging and self-worth. Germany’s postwar paradigm shift reversed this approach. The reversal was motivated by feelings of guilt. At that time, though, hardly anyone asked what the new principle of negative commemoration would mean in the long term, nor what ideological snares could be lurking within it. The paradigm shift was broadly associated with triumphant humanism and the promise of peace. It was as if the Holocaust could prevent future crimes against humanity, if only we devoted proper attention to Holocaust research, memorials, and remembrance days. By calling our evil constantly to mind, we would negate its power. Instead, our constant self-laceration has encouraged a hubristic self-righteousness. Germany is once again conceived as the exceptional nation, called to a singular destiny not of destructive self-assertion, but of self-abnegation. Angela Merkel’s declaration to her fellow Germans that “we can do this”—as if Germany had to risk its very identity—shows that the wrong lessons have been learned from the horrors of the twentieth century.

The conflict over immigration policy cuts through Germany. To some extent, the fault line runs along the old border between the Federal Republic and the GDR, for many opponents of an open-border policy live in the formerly communist East. Seeking to invent a new society, East Germany did not ­cultivate self-accusing guilt. The conflict divides Europe as well. Most of Germany’s neighbors—­especially Central and Eastern European countries, as well as Denmark—do not cooperate with German policies and have begun to protect their borders. Since there are calls to join the “Compact for Migration” in international politics, this division has become visible.

The conflict over immigration runs through families, companies, political parties, and institutions. It runs through the media and politics, even if critical voices are seldom heard in those forums. The two rising parties are defined largely by their positions on immigration and borders. The Greens and the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) represent clear positions for and against mass migration, respectively. They make electoral gains because strong positions attract voters, who recognize that mass migration and demographic change are the decisive issues of our time. Finally, the conflict runs through individual citizens who feel overwhelmed by the complicated moral, legal, economic, and political questions of mass immigration, but are constantly urged by opponents as well as proponents to take a stand.

The urgency is not misplaced. Today, there are nearly 1.3 billion people in Africa, and it is projected that by 2050 there will be 2.5 or 2.7 billion. A recent poll in Ghana and Nigeria suggests that three-fourths of the population wants to move to Europe or the U.S. This means that, theoretically, 165 million people could soon be knocking on Europe’s doors from these two countries alone. Hospitality and integration are not sufficient approaches to immigration on this scale. It is a political emergency, one that Western Europe has not seen before. The supporters of mass immigration agree that the emergency concerns the redistribution of Europe’s wealth, if not the wealth of the entire world. Some supporters of immigration welcome and others reject this prospect, but either way it is a revolutionary claim. Both sides of the debate see mass immigration as a question of life and death for Western civilization.

For many proponents of mass immigration, there are never enough ships crossing the Mediterranean. They finance rescue operations that encourage still more migrants to cross. They believe the multitudes of migrants are more worthy than the “bigots” who object to their arrival (often unpolished members of the working class). When in 2018 an eighty-five-year-old man was killed in his own house in Pomerania by a young man from Afghanistan, the secretary of the interior’s main concern was that this crime not be misused politically by the wrong side. (The daughter of the victim was then active in refugee aid and had given the Afghan a job as a nurse for her father.) In these cases and others like them (they occur again and again), the line between “victim” and “sacrifice” becomes fuzzy—as if the old man had died for the good cause of providing an occasion to fight racism.

Analysts of mass immigration frequently cite ­Milton Friedman, who said that open borders are incompatible with the welfare state. (The German historian Rolf Peter Sieferle said much the same thing.) Last summer, the journalist Jakob Augstein wrote on Der Spiegel online, “If the price of our welfare state is the deaths in the Mediterranean, then it’s not worth it.” He praised the “German dream” of a new “melting pot in which people from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa can create a new nation together.”

What underlies this particular German radicalism? A discussion paper for the German federal government’s migration summit in 2016 referred to “those who were always already there and those who have recently joined them.” The formulation is telling. The paper does not speak of German citizens. Instead, it relies on a circumlocution: “those who were always already there.” After the most recent summit on migration in 2018, the journalist Ferda Ataman, who participated in the press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel, dismissed the common understanding of national belonging: “Germany as the home of the people who were here first; and so have certain privileges; and would only be German if descended from Germans—we have already overcome [those assumptions].”

Ataman and others speak as if Germans and Europeans are sitting on resources to which non-­Germans have an equal right—which means nothing less than the opening of a global war over anything and everything. They make citizenship sound like a game of musical chairs: Whoever is too slow loses. They imagine that global equality would be realized through a Darwinian competition for seats. But whoever turns this children’s game into a political principle of distribution attacks the moral and even legal claims of his own people.

In 2013, a well-known judge and professor in Frankfurt wrote in the journal Merkur that the German state could no longer create positive family policies and that demographic decline should not be stopped. Because of the crimes of National Socialism, she went on to say, it would only be fair if the territory “on which Germany is located currently” were to be “colonized by other ethnic groups or given back to nature.” This is no isolated opinion. For many years, the German Federal presidents have been referring to “people in Germany” rather than “the German people.”

How did we come to this point? We must look to recent history. With few natural borders, and having achieved unification only in the late nineteenth century, Germany suffered two great war defeats in the twentieth century alone. These wars spared hardly a single family from death, famine, rape, or displacement. According to the consensus narrative, Germany’s culpability in both wars and the crimes of National Socialism lend Germany’s sufferings during and after the wars the status of merited punishment—regardless of whether individual Germans were personally guilty. The leading voices in Germany have long disputed the existence of a German people, since the concept of Volk is implicated in Nazi crimes. Yet the same voices say that no German can escape his shared responsibility for the historical offenses of the very same Volk whose existence is denied.

Please understand my point. I am not asking whether things were fairly judged in Yalta, Potsdam, or Nuremberg. I’m concerned about Germany’s new “negative nationalism,” as Wolfgang Schäuble called it. German leaders assume that negative nationalism should be obligatory for all of Europe and the world of tomorrow. This negative nationalism is the result of a long process. After World War II, the young Federal Republic of Germany was initially satisfied with relinquishing certain sovereign rights, paying reparations, and reestablishing itself as a member of the international community. The major public debates of the young republic involved Communists, Catholics, Protestants, German Nationalists, Social Democrats, Monarchists, or Liberals. Naturally, they had a different conception of questions of collective guilt.

The climate of opinion changed with the radical left-wing student movements in the 1960s and 1970s, though strong conservative forces continued to exist. Many war veterans did not want to be told by their children what to think about the Second World War and the Third Reich. This only changed in the 1980s. In previous decades, a classically Marxist historio­graphy arose that emphasized the capitalist causes of World War II. But as Marxism lost its credibility in the 1980s, the genocide of European Jews became the interpretive key. Criticism of capitalism was replaced by criticism of anti-Semitism. The so-called “singularity of the Holocaust” was emphasized. The other factors that once had played a role in Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) were deemed unsatisfactory, and the other periods of German history sank into meaninglessness. The suspicion of anti-Semitism and xenophobia became the new silver bullet to combat all injustices—with the curious result that today some deem Islamophobia to be a new variant of anti-Semitism.

In this intellectual environment, which now dominates, the philosophical significance and concrete political consequences of the Holocaust are viewed as impossible to overstate. Conclusions are frequently derived from specific characteristics of the Holocaust that are considered unique: Hitler’s will to catch all European Jews, the industrial character of the genocide, the division of labor involved in the crime, and finally, its auto-aggressive side (many Jews were long-assimilated Germans, and some were baptized Christians). In Germany, we used to speak of Zivilisationsbruch, a collapse of civilization.

When it comes to claims about uniqueness, it is important to recognize that there are practical and metaphysical judgments of singularity. An assertion of practical singularity means that, in keeping with Heraclitus, each event is unique and has specific characteristics. Just as one cannot step into the same river twice, one cannot commit the same crime twice. Metaphysical singularity makes a hierarchical claim that something has an unsurpassable quality. In this regard, the Holocaust is deemed the greatest crime in human history, and will remain so in the future. It is evil in a way that can never be surpassed.

As a German and a Christian, I do not judge whether the divine election of the Jewish people is sufficient to establish the metaphysical singularity of the Holocaust. But I can observe that in the decisive debates it is usually non-Jewish Germans who vigorously press the thesis of the metaphysical singularity of the Holocaust. There is something suspicious about this. Germans claim singularity not as victims, but as perpetrators. The perpetrator people” now exalt their own crime as the greatest in human ­history—a monstrous kind of negative pride. The accused steps up to become the supreme judge. The point is not what verdict he renders, whether it is acquittal or conviction. The point is his hubris, a hubris he conceals behind the verdict of maximum guilt.

What does our defendant-turned-judge, the German people, hope to accomplish through this self-­condemnation? For this declaration of unsurpassable guilt has severe consequences: A metaphysically singular crime can never be forgiven or forgotten. All efforts of Wiedergutmachung (redress, repair, restitution) must be ongoing and unlimited, with no prospect of achieving reconciliation. One can certainly affirm the ongoing duty of Holocaust remembrance while recognizing that the perpetrator people do not have the right to exclude themselves categorically from the possibility of reconciliation. Kierkegaard offers a useful insight: It is a sin—a sin of pride—to despair of God’s forgiveness. The strange result of German hubris—the pride of self-accusation—is that the Germans do not ask for forgiveness at all! For to ask for forgiveness requires acknowledging a higher judge than oneself.

The Holocaust was a singular crime. But to assert its metaphysical singularity, as the German consensus now does, contradicts the God of the Bible. This leads to the most severe human antagonisms and with it the most severe political tensions. As early as 1946, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: “This guilt [of the Nazis] in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems. . . . We are simply not equipped to deal on a human political level, with a guilt that is beyond crime and an innocence that is beyond goodness and virtue.” Today, Germany seems as if it wants to cultivate the human-political impotence Arendt warned against. Is it an accident that those in Germany who are most ardent in maintaining the spirit of self-condemnation are also very hostile toward the State of Israel?

The same spirit of relentless antagonism toward healthy national self-affirmation prevents German politics from achieving normalcy. If Auschwitz is unique, then it cannot be repeated, in which case it should not loom over us as a danger. Yet the threat of its return is supposed to be constant. The honest fear of repetition continues to motivate campaigns by self-appointed guardians of virtue to combat real or imagined “Holocaust deniers,” “revisionists,” or simply “fascists.” Whoever dares to question the myth of German guilt (not the doubtless historic facts, but their civil-­religious interpretation) risks severe personal and professional retribution.

The best defense against the accusation of downplaying the Holocaust is to accuse someone else of downplaying the Holocaust. The same could be said about fighting racism or fascism in general: You must malign others in order not to be maligned yourself. This creates a civil war–like situation in which Germans paint one another with the most abysmal accusations. So far, no German president has had the courage to check this fatal dynamic—which could be a German president’s most distinguished task. On November 9, 2018, the day marking the end of hostilities on the Western Front and the occasion to remember the many who died in the trenches of World War I, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a speech at the Bundestag that those with “nationalistic hate” who “hold human rights and democracy in contempt” have no right to fly the black, red, and gold flag of Germany. He had in his sights the nationalist group “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA). Think what you want about this political movement. But this is certain: We need to put an end to poking around in the convictions of others, a compulsive policing misleadingly called “civil courage.” The accusers do not, in fact, need any courage at all; they are always guaranteed to be on the right side.

A long time ago, the rule of law was invented to interrupt the cycle of revenge. And modern European nations signed peace treaties to interrupt the cycle of war, transposing strife to the war of memories. To this day, the Catholic Dictionary of Civic Principles (Katholisches Staatslexikon) points out “the ethical meaning of forgiveness and forgetting.” You cannot decide not to remember, but you can make an effort to forget. Humans cannot live together without forgetting and forgiving. The institution of non-remembrance, of amnesia, is called “amnesty.” An amnesty prevented a civil war after the murder of Julius Caesar. Other instances of amnesty include the Edict of Nantes, the Peace of Westphalia, and the law of Louis the XVIII, which prohibited the commemoration of the Revolution’s terror and even ordered his brother’s murder forgotten, to “repair the chain of time.” In Germany, even in the West more widely, it seems that we are entering an era in which the aim is to remove all statutes of limitation and adjudicate all injustices anew.

Europe’s art of peace was succeeded by the terrible wars of the twentieth century, neither of which ended in peace. World War I concluded formally with the Treaty of Versailles, which was hardly a peace treaty. World War II ended without even that pretense. It ended with Germany smashed to exhaustion. I fear that this development, which is said to constitute progress, in fact represents a return to archaic justice. If a singular crime cannot be atoned for or punished; if it cannot be rectified as a matter of principle; if there is no forgetting and forgiving, also as a matter of principle; then the only answer is to obliterate. Could it be that in our pledge never to forget, in our insistence that we cannot be forgiven, we have given too much honor to barbarity? Supposedly enlightened, are we in truth going back to the beginnings of our civilization?

Why don’t we let Hitler die? Why don’t we bury him? Can’t we do it? Do we not want to? Are we not allowed? Who would the Germans be if they dared to remove Auschwitz from the center of contemporary German self-definition? This would not entail denying it. But try to imagine a Germany without the mortal stain of Auschwitz. It is difficult—which is the problem in a nutshell.

The German love for our own evil does not do justice to the reality of life, which has its foundation in affirmations. Criminals are more than their crimes: They eat and drink, hope and wait, sleep and love. As Hegel says, identity is always dialectical, made up of identity and non-identity. There is no “negative identity,” pure and simple.

Despite claiming a “negative identity,” Germans today live in the normal tension between past and future. We, too, eat and drink, hope and wait, sleep and love. Our problem is that we refuse to acknowledge our normality. We are morally tainted only in the usual ways, but we speak of our “total,” “unique,” or “radical” guilt. The German example has set a precedent for the West, another feature of our vanity of guilt. The thesis of white guilt for colonialism, for example, ignores progress and good deeds: education, mission, infrastructure, state institutions, health care, and much more. Schuld, the German word for guilt, is related to the word for debt, Schulden, and debt has to be accounted for precisely. Good is mixed with the bad, and if we are morally serious we must think about it with an accountant’s precision—even when it comes to the German people between 1933 and 1945. Such tension is hard to handle; it is easier to make blanket accusations and pass along responsibility for outstanding accounts.

What is accomplished by raising the terrible crimes of the National Socialists into the realm of the sublime? In 1945, Hermann Broch wrote something illuminating in his correspondence with his fellow émigré, Volkmar von Zühlsdorff. Broch described the German people as exceptional: “the most extreme in good as in evil in the Western World.” Because of their exceptional nature, they would lead the world in overcoming evil. “Germany will play a leading role in the regeneration of the world.” All of a sudden, Germany becomes the nation through which all other nations are blessed—precisely by dwelling on its singular crime. ­Zühlsdorff rejected Broch’s thesis. He worried that a great injustice would arise from insisting on Germany’s crime. He warned, “Another wave will wash over us, that will repeat the crimes of National Socialism in the name of antifascism.”

Broch and Zühlsdorff mapped out lines of conflict that are still with us today. On the one hand, we find the hope for a special, world-changing power arising from a special German guilt. One could say a Holocaust religion is proposed as the new summit of humanity. This will, I fear, turn into an archaic philosophy of destruction—adopted not by the Jewish victims, but by a self-lacerating German people. On the other hand, Zühlsdorff directs attention to the perennial questions of human evil and atonement, the ancient sinfulness of humanity and the struggle toward reconciliation. The German people are not exceptional. We cannot put an end to history by committing unsurpassable crimes.

In Hermann Broch’s conception, the German crimes are above and beyond history. In this typology, the metaphysical singularity is connected with the hope that, after the Holocaust, evil itself could be attributed to a certain people, and thus overcome. The German left wing, which wants to replace nations with a version of borderless humanity, does not conceive of the Holocaust as an expression of the general sinfulness of man, but as a strictly national event. Indeed, it is the singular consequence of the sin of “nationalism,” which is why they consider the Holocaust essentially “right-wing.” They also invest the concept of negative German identity—self-abnegation in response to infinite guilt—with hope for a new moral and political regime. Europeanization and globalization require us to negate our own origins or histories. It is part of the larger negation of all traditional concepts of identity—such as peoplehood, family, even biological sex. These negations are said to be essential for the redemption of the world. The metaphysical singularity of the Holocaust assigns the German people a special role in world history. We are to be the new avant-garde movement: throwing off the chains of the past, overcoming divisions, and transcending all borders in the achievement of a universal humanity. By the Cunning of Reason, the unsurpassable crime becomes the indispensible spur toward the unsurpassable achievement of global justice and perpetual peace.

The other strategy, suggested by Zühlsdorff, interprets the Holocaust as part of the conditio humana. Here, the evil is considered all-too-human. The ­Hitlers come and go, and if the devil really existed, he would surely deceive us by pretending to be solely incarnated in Adolf Hitler. This resembles what ­Denis de Rougemont wrote in 1942 in his book The Devil’s Share (La Part du Diable). From this perspective, National Socialism may represent a dark climax of the history of human violence, but it would not be the absolute exception. De Rougemont’s designation of the Holocaust as the highest point of violence (but not an absolute) accords with his sense of evil as a universal and eternal problem. The German right tends to share this view, making it more “internationalist” when it comes to a tragic sense of the horrible things human beings do to one another.

I regard Zühlsdorff’s perspective as more plausible. Nevertheless, I find each distorted in certain respects. The left-wing perspective charges the nation with guilt in order to discredit nationalism. The right insists that evil is universal in an attempt to deny the particular responsibility of the German nation. Each, in a way, avoids the German nation’s particular political responsibility, whether by assigning the crime to a diffuse “nationalism” or by rendering it unremarkable in light of general human sinfulness.

Broch, who wanted to renew the world morally through a fallen Germany, predicted the future more clearly than did Zühlsdorff. But what Broch did not foresee is that in 2015, in the name of a humanitarian mission derived from its guilt over the destruction of European Jewry, Germany would allow the direst enemy of the Jewish people into the country by means of an overwhelmingly Muslim mass migration. Is what Adorján Kovács recently wrote in the journal Tumult true? That the Germans recognized something in the young Muslim men, “something of themselves as they largely are, but cannot openly be”? Is the willingness to tolerate mass immigration a “subconscious form of resistance of a completely defeated people”? The causes are surely too complex to permit the reduction of Merkel’s opening of Germany’s borders to a simple psychological formula. But that formula has the advantage of persuading us of the possibility of an abysmal tragedy. For it is surely in German and European interests, properly conceived, to halt Muslim mass migration to Europe. It is even more obviously in the interests of Jewish citizens of our countries to put a stop to the migration, given the frequency with which they are targeted by Muslim violence.

Today, we are faced with the question of how to respond to the turning point we are experiencing. The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle has asked: Is the last mission of Germany and Europe to give the world the lesson of their own disappearing? It seems as if some people want this. Too many of them are functionary types and militant agitators. The propagandists of the new world order see themselves as serving History and its mandates, and, like all ideologues, they believe that they must and may suspend traditional moral norms in the pursuit of their goals.

The danger of a violent hubris arises from the idea of a unique guilt. If the worst possible crime is behind us, then nothing that lies before us can ever compare. Everything that comes after Auschwitz (or colonialism, or whatever other “unique” debt may be found) has the character of a mere post-history, a posthistoire. This is the secret maximal permission hidden in the maxima culpa of a history without God. Nothing that we can do will ever be as terrible as the Holocaust. This relaxes our moral vigilance and introduces the idea that everything is allowed—as if there were no God.

In the face of the misuse of the Holocaust, Christian leaders could have reminded us of the ancient sinfulness of man, a truth we need if we are to resist the limitless empowerment of confessing a singular guilt. They might have said that humans are within their rights to carry out trials and condemn perpetrators, but not to pronounce a collective and eternal crime, even if the judgment is directed at their own people. This could have been done without diminishing or denying a specific German, or indeed Christian, guilt for the Holocaust.

The time has come for the wisdom of the biblical tradition to be reasserted. We have real agency and must be accountable for our crimes. As the Bible teaches, that accountability rests with nations, not just individuals. But our agency is limited. God directs the affairs of men in accord with his purposes. And in his loving-kindness, he offers us the means to repair that which we so willfully destroy, if we will but turn to him. May the knowledge of the limits of our political and historical influence remain alive through adherence to Europe’s biblical tradition. 

Andreas Lombard is editor in chief of CATO, the leading conservative magazine in Germany.

Photo by Chaosdna via Creative Commons. Image cropped.