Text size

"The majority of our people shares your thoughts," wrote General Reinhard Gunzel, the commander of an elite German army special forces unit, in a letter of support to Martin Hohmann, a German parliamentarian from the Christian Democratic party, following an October speech he gave marking the anniversary of German unification. In his talk, Hohmann argued that there is no essential difference between the horrors committed by the Jewish Bolsheviks who were members of the Communist Party during the 1917 revolution and the horrors committed by the Germans during World War II. "Whoever refers to the Germans as a `despicable people' can, by the same logic, describe the Jews in the same way," was Hohmann's conclusion. Hohmann's speech and Gunzel's letter of support cost both persons their jobs - the two were publicly denounced as having brought shame on the party and the army to which they belonged.

But a poll commissioned by the newspaper Die Zeit after this development found that only half of the Germans supported punishing Hohmann for his remarks; 40 percent of those questioned in western Germany and 28 percent of those questioned in eastern Germany even supported his statements.

The head of the department of communication psychology at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Prof. Wolfgang Frindte, feels that Gunzel's assessment was not erroneous. On the contrary, "the information we have indicates support for his claim, that it is a majority of Germans," he says. Frindte, who has been researching anti-Semitism in Germany for over a decade, estimates that every other German holds some anti-Semitic opinion. According to his findings, just under 50 percent of Germans do not feel they bear any responsibility to Jews due to the Holocaust, while over 60 percent are very critical of Israel. The effect of anti-Semitic views is also evident among this group, Frindte believes.

A native of East Germany, Frindte started working at the university as a researcher in the 1980s. For the last decade, he has focused on studying different phenomena of xenophobia, including anti-Semitism. Several weeks ago, he presented his latest study on the subject at Haifa University, where he was a guest of the Bucerius Institute for Research of Contemporary German History and Society.

Comparative studies from recent years that looked at "classic" anti-Semitic views in different Western European countries placed Germans in the middle of the scale for the most part. "The statistic that consistently emerges from the various studies is that the number of Germans who hold anti-Semitic views is around 20 percent," he says. "That was also our starting point, but during the course of the research we found that this is a phenomenon with other faces, and we decided to develop a model that would enable us to measure them as well."

Four types of hostility

Frindte sought to conduct a comprehensive study of anti-Semitism, but had trouble obtaining funding; one effort was rejected because "the study has already been studied in depth." After four unsuccessful attempts, Frindte decided on a limited study with his own funding from the University of Jena. The study consisted of a random sample of 411 participants aged 18 to 83. However, due to its limited scale, it cannot be considered representative of all Germans. The study was based on a model developed by Frindte that defined four ways of expressing hostility to Jews: demonstratively, latently, by denying the feeling of responsibility for the Jews, and by voicing harsh criticism of Israel.

The study's major finding is a rough estimate of the number of the German population that voices hostility in each of these four ways. The smallest group is one with stated anti-Semitic views - a figure slightly less than 20 percent. The next group, a few percentage points greater, is one with latent anti-Semitic views - those with negative views of Jews who refrain from voicing them in public and in "regular" surveys. "The way we chose to identify those with latent anti-Semitic views was to use indirect questions such as `Do you relate in public what you think of the Jews'?" Frindte says.

A review of the breakdown of the respondents according to political views indicates that 46 percent of right-wing voters belong to both the first and second group. There was also a direct correlation between the rate of support for both views and the respondent's age.

The two remaining groups turned out to be not only the largest groups, but also the more problematic regarding the methodology. Some 46 percent of the respondents deny German responsibility toward Jews for the Holocaust due to having agreed to statements such as, "As a young man in Germany, I have no responsibility for the Jews" or "Decades after the end of the World War, we don't need the Holocaust. We need to close that chapter of our past."

"There was a big debate in Germany over whether such sentiments represent an expression of anti-Semitism," Frindte says. "We found that there is a strong correlation between those with stated anti-Semitic views and rejection of a sense of responsibility." The percentage of those who deny responsibility among right-wing voters is 84 percent.

However, the group that holds anti-Israeli views is larger and more complex. Frindte did not try to use a rigid criterion to distinguish between "legitimate" criticism of Israel's policy and criticism tarnished by anti-Israeli. Instead, in the first stage he isolated the group with strong criticism and only in the second stage he investigated whether there were any connections between this group and the other three groups. Some 64 percent of those surveyed were found to be anti-Semitic after having agreed to some extent with statements such as, "Israelis are an occupation force and they have no business being in Palestine" (79 percent agreed or totally agreed); "It would be best if the Jews were to leave the Middle East" (38 percent); and "The Israelis treat the Palestinians the way the Nazis treated the Jews" (57 percent).

Solidarity among extremists

A review of the breakdown of political views indicates that anti-Israel sentiment is a trait equally present in all of Germany's political streams: 66 percent of left-wing voters, 61 percent of centrist voters, and 62 percent of right-wing voters hold such views. In all age and gender groups, the level of hostility to Israel was uniform - in no group was it less than 60 percent. The percentage of those with such views peaked among those aged 46-76: 55 percent of them were hostile to Israel.

Using Frindte's method, it is possible to define the nature of the connection between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism: not all anti-Israelis are anti-Semites, but all anti-Semites are anti-Israel. "There are two different groups that stand out in their anti-Israel sentiments, Frindte says. "The first group has leftist views and favors multiculturalism. Its criticism of Israel does not stem from anti-Semitic motives. That is not true of the second group, which is associated with the political right." However, Frindte feels that in recent years, anti-Semitism has seeped from the extreme right into the anti-Israel left and center. Among the extreme right, extreme left, and radical Islam, the view that "the situation in Israel is not marked by the behavior of a `normal' democratic state, but stems from the character of the Jews" has become more widespread.

Frindte distinguishes this seepage against the backdrop of the broader phenomenon of efforts by the extreme right, extreme left and radical Islam to move closer on a range of issues, including anti-Semitism and hostility toward the United States. He relates that when he observed an extreme right demonstration in his hometown of Jena, he was surprised to see demonstrators wearing kaffiyehs as an expression of solidarity with Muslims - a practice that had been common among only left-wing activists. The demonstrators also sang songs of solidarity with the left.

Nevertheless, there is another process that Frindte feels is hastening the transformation of anti-Israel sentiments into real anti-Semitism. "The reference is to German society's increasing interest in the suffering of the Germans themselves during World War II," he says. The occupation with what is referred to, among right-wing extremists, as "the German Holocaust" or "the other Holocaust" in more centrist circles has become popular in the last three years, since the publication of Gunter Grass' book, "Crabwalk." The most blatant explanation for this was already provided in the late 1980s by the Jewish German journalist and writer, Henrik Broder, who said, "the Germans will never forgive us [the Jews] for Auschwitz." According to Frindte, "the primary danger today to German society is that we have no red lines that determine that it is impossible to speak about Germans as victims and at the same time speak about Jews as perpetrators, as Hohmann did."