The Caravan

On The Intersection Of German And Syrian History And The Enduring Importance Of "Coming To Terms With The Nazi Past."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Image credit: 

A successful European wide response to Islamism calls for the following policies.  

First, the European members of NATO and the United States should publicly acknowledge that the policy of the past five years of military non-intervention in the Syrian civil war has been a strategic blunder and moral disaster. The wealthy and powerful countries of Europe have stood by and done nothing as an estimated 400,000 civilians have been killed and several million have become refugees. Even at this late date, some kind of military intervention both to destroy ISIS but also to force a settlement that will lead to the departure of the Assad regime is essential. Without a settlement of the Syrian Civil war the refugee crisis in Europe will continue.

Second, following the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hypercacher kosher market in Paris in January 2015, France’s Socialist Prime Minister Manual Valls stated the obvious: “we,” that is, both the world’s liberal democracies but also all civilized people around the globe are “at war with radical Islam.” All political leaders should say in public what scholars know is true, namely that Islam, like other religions, can be and has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Islamism (not Islam) of the 20th century is a totalitarian ideology that is inherently illiberal, anti-Semitic and has served as a justification for terrorism for many decades.             

Third, the intersection of German and Syrian history also raises the issue of the legacies of the secular radicalism of the Baathist regime in Damascus and how they will affect that success or failure of efforts to integrate Syrian refugees into German society. The million or so Syrians now in Germany presumably despise the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad and are open to learning about the rules and norms of a liberal democracy. Yet however much they reject the Assad regime, they and their parents and grandparents lived under a regime that has been hostile to Israel since its founding in 1948, went to war against it then and again in 1967 and 1973 and supported terrorist organizations attacking it. During the Cold War it spread mendacious propaganda in government controlled media about Israel, West Germany, the Western Alliance and the United States.

Hence the chances are good that some sizable proportion of the recent Syrian refugees to Germany despise the state of Israel. Exposed to the propaganda of the Baath regime that regularly compared Israel to Nazi Germany, some undetermined proportion of the refugees will add to the antagonism to Israel that already dominates far leftist and not so far leftist sentiment in Germany. So the path to integration into German society may be via leftist parties that regularly denounce Israel.

The refugees who were adults during the Cold War may remember that Baathist Syria was the lynchpin of the Soviet bloc alliances in the Middle East. They may remember East Germany’s passionate support for Syria and the PLO. Moreover, the establishment of diplomatic relations with East Germany in 1969 was based on shared opposition to Zionism and imperialism; East Germany provided arms and military training in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967, and there were regular visits to Damascus and to East Berlin by military leaders of both states. East Germany even participated in the Soviet bloc military deliveries to Tartus and Aleppo during the Yom Kippur War. A thick web of contacts existed between Syrian military officers, university professors, journalists and people active in economic matters and their East German counterparts. It is certainly possible that the last five years of the Assad regime’s attack on its own citizens has also undermined the ideas with which it was identified. Yet it also seems likely that some sizable number of a million Syrian refugees will be bringing these ideas with them.

Should that be the case, the Syrian refugees will find themselves in conflict with one of Germany’s most important traditions, namely that of “coming to terms with the Nazi past.” Every West German and then German Chancellor has adopted a kind of implicit eleventh commandment of German history after Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust. It is to do no more harm to the Jews and to the state of Israel. The tradition of coming to terms with the Nazi past in Germany has entailed frank discussion of the crimes of the Nazi regime and the facts of the Holocaust. It commits the German government to fight anti-Semitism whatever its source and led to a special relationship with the state of Israel. To be sure, there is criticism of Israel in Germany but to this day there remains a consensus in the German establishment that an honest history of the Holocaust, firm rejection of anti-Semitism and support for the survival of the state of Israel are, as Chancellor Merkel put it in the Knesset in 2008, part of Germany’s reason of state. The concern of this historian is that the Syrian migration to Germany since 2015 will add numbers to those in Germany who want to break with this, one of Germany’s and Europe’s finest traditions.

Fourth, therefore, it is essential that Syrian refugees in Germany come to understand  that integration into German society entails rejection of all forms of anti-Semitism, no matter their source, as well as acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. It demands, in other words, not only rejection of the Jew-hatred embedded in the Islamist ideology of Hamas but also rejection of the core ideas of the Baathist regime of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashir, and of current efforts in Europe to isolate and boycott Israel. The United States played a decisive role in making it possible for the tradition of honest memory of the Holocaust to emerge in post-Hitler Germany. It did so first by contributing to the defeat of Nazism in World War II and then through its role in revealing its crimes in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Hence it is appropriate for American leaders to applaud the German traditions of honest reckoning with Nazism

Fifth, it is important for both European and American leaders to put new emphasis on the connections between fascism, Nazism and Islamism. The personal as well as intellectual links between Islamism and the ideas of fascism and Nazism in the middle of the twentieth century were important. Nazi Germany played a crucial role in supporting Islamism during World War II and the Holocaust. The Islamists collaborated with the Nazis while the secular radical left in the PLO worked with the East German Communists. The work of scholars on the connections between Nazism with Islamism, and East German Communism with the Baath regime in Syria has a valuable role to play in the future in lending support to the German and European confrontation with both Islamism as well as the secular anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli views that were regularly voiced by the Syrian regime whose war has driven the refugees to seek refuge in Germany and Europe.

About the Author

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security