A Sense Of Foreboding: German Reactions to Ahmadinejad

Posted by Matthias Küntzel

Last Monday a demonstration was held in front of the Iranian consulate in Hamburg to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to "wipe Israel off the map". Matthias Küntzel attended and took the occasion to reflect on the difficulties of showing solidarity with Israel in contemporary Germany. – JR


It is not easy to get me to a demonstration these days. But now that for the first time since Adolf Hitler, an elected head of state lets the whole world know that he envisages perpetrating a new genocide against the Jewish people in wiping out the state of Israel? I left to go to the protest in front of the Iranian consulate in Hamburg.

On the way, I was overcome by a sense of foreboding. I remembered the big demonstrations against nuclear energy and atomic weapons 25 years ago. Back then, we already unrolled our banners on the way to the protest and we handed out fliers in a last effort to mobilize our neighbors.

And today? 

When a nuclear Holocaust has not only been announced, but is in fact being prepared? At a time when,
as Daniel Goldhagen recently reminded us, even a Rafsanjani justifies the rationale of an atomic strike against Israel with the consideration that a single Iranian bomb will wipe out Israel whereas the effects of a nuclear counterstrike for the Islamic world would be limited?

Nowadays, anyone in Germany who hands out a flier expressing solidarity with Israel must be prepared in return for resentment, outbursts of hate, or even violence. As a paper distributed by the Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation [Gesellschaften für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit] put it, whoever stands up for Israel in public "has to make their face hard as a rock in order to be able to withstand the reactions". This is worthy of note, in light of the fact that, as is well known, 70 years ago in Hamburg it also required considerable courage to show solidarity with Jews.

The anti-Israeli mood is largely a product of the media. This is not only due to the tendency in Germany for the slightest clash between Palestinians and Israelis to be featured as the top story – as if everywhere else in the world, the most perfect harmony obtained. The manner in which the media continually manages to transform Israel into the "real" aggressor is equally notable.

One example among thousands is provided by an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 26 October, the very day of Ahmadinejad’s speech. The first thing that struck me was the headline: "Israeli Air Strikes". The article begins: "The Israeli Air Force on Tuesday attacked the Gaza Strip with rockets." Only thereafter does the context appear: "Militant Islamists had earlier fired off several Kassam rockets into Israeli territory." Let us suppose a city in any other country in the world was struck by rockets fired from foreign territory. Would not such an attack make the headlines? Rocket attacks on Israel, however, are presented as a secondary matter, as if Israel’s existence had already a priori been put in question. But the language chosen is also interesting. Normally, self-defense is something different from aggression. But here the Islamists merely "fire off" their rockets, whereas the Israelis "attack".

Do journalists write in such a twisted manner about Israel because the public wants it so or is it the other way around? I am not sure. I do believe, however, that for many Germans the constant stream of reports about "attacks" and "crimes" of Israel has the effect of a balm for their souls. If Jews also commit terrible crimes, then from a moral standpoint we are even. Perhaps it is this act of projection that explains the fact that when asked what country represents the greatest threat to world peace, 65% of German respondents answered: Israel. Today, this sort of paranoia plays directly into the hands of Ahmadinejad.

A friend of mine recently sent me 74 comments from an AOL-Germany chat room where the Iranian threats were discussed. Even though the forum was moderated and hence the most extreme comments were censured, still only 45% of the forum participants clearly rejected Ahmadinejad’s call. 28% were ambivalent about it and 27% supported him. "What’s all the fuss?" one could read, "I find the Iranian President very courageous" or "Whoever really wants to live in peace in this world has to agree with the Iranian President" or "Iran’s President is 100% right".

Of course, not everyone talks this way. Representatives of German industry put the accent elsewhere. They fear negative consequences will follow from the call for the destruction of Israel – not for Israel, however, but for themselves. "If there is an economic embargo [of Iran], the most important market in the Middle East for German enterprises will break away," warned Jochen Clausnitzer, Middle East expert at the German Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, "Even targeted sanctions…could have negative effects for the German projects." (
Source: Focus, 28 October 2005)

German politicians rallied to this appeal for "business as usual". Joschka Fischer, still Germany’s Foreign Minister, said nothing. Friedbert Pflüger, the foreign affairs spokesperson of the CDU/CSU, "sharply" condemned the remarks of the Iranian President. Nonetheless, he did not call into question the "critical dialogue" between Tehran and Berlin – let alone envisage any material consequences.
Thus Dr. Pflüger [link in German]: "This is precisely the time, in light of its nuclear ambitions, for Iran to create trust and to provide guarantees." The foreign affairs spokesperson of the SPD, Gernot Erler, added [link in German] that at the moment the Europeans found themselves "in a phase during which it is a matter of restarting the negotiations on the nuclear program. Of course, the speech of the Iranian President makes these efforts more difficult."

More difficult. Not: impossible. We are not going to call into question our efforts to create an atmosphere of trust for Iran’s nuclear policy just because the Iranian President puts in danger the lives of a couple of million Jews!

The other countries of the European Union have not threatened Iran with any sanctions either, nor even just temporarily recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. In the case of Germany, this failure is doubly problematic: not only because Germany, in light of its history, bears a special responsibility. But also because of Berlin’s pretentions to be the world champion in correctly dealing with a troublesome past.

My feelings of apprehension were confirmed in front of the Iranian consulate. Only 60 protestors turned out for the demonstration, among them college and university students with faces hard as rock.

Translated from the German by Transatlantic Intelligencer

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