[This is a shortened version of a speech given by Wolf Biermann in Israel this October. It originally appeared in Die Zeit on October 26, 2006. The piece was translated by Lucy Powell and first appeared in English at signandsight.com. Author and songwriter Wolf Biermann was born in Hamburg in 1936 into a Jewish communist working class family in Hamburg. His father was a member of the organised resistance and was murdered in the concentration camp Auschwitz. In 1953 he chose to move to the GDR, where as a staunch communist he became one of the regime's fierce critics. In 1976 he was denaturalised and has since lived in Hamburg. Biermann is known for his strong views on current political topics.]
This fragment of a picture of German life might be of interest to you, dear friends here in the Middle East. For the last ten years – mainly in the western part of reunited Germany – the artist Gunter Demnig has pursued a project. The many nuances of the German word "stolperstein" or stumbling block inspired him to set palm-sized brass plates into the pavement cobbles in front of houses. Engraved in these is the name, date of birth and date of deportation of the individuals who who lived at these sites. These "stumbling blocks" are mostly there to remember murdered Jews but there are a few for Sinti and Roma, communists, social-democrats and homosexuals. In my hometown of Hamburg, there are over a thousand stumbling blocks, which, one could say, form in their entirety a huge decentralised monument.
I myself would need to order twenty of these blocks for my murdered family, but my wife Pamela and I are hesitating because we are pained by the thought of later generations treading the names of my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins underfoot. The following street scene recently took place in the very bourgeois Isestraße. Two young women were kneeling before five such blocks, polishing the brass. My friend, an Israeli, who lives here in Hamburg, couldn't tear himself away from these two unusual cleaning ladies. He was trying to make out the engraved names when a man in his fifties approached. He also stopped, uttered, in this former Jewish quarter of Hamburg, the killer sentence, "Well, at least these five Jews won't be able to murder any Arabs in Lebanon any more..." and sauntered off.
Dear friends here in Erez Israel! Perhaps the most German of German poets, Friedrich Hölderlin, once wrote an ode to the Germans: "Scorn not the child, when silly thing / Brave and bold he feels on his wooden horse / My good people! We too are scant in deed and full of thought!" Scant in deed was something the Germans certainly ceased to be under their holy führer Adolf Hitler. Full of thought was not a charge that could be levelled against them during the Second World War nor during the genocide. But the world has changed. By now the verse is half true again. Amazingly full of thought is not something we Germans are these days, but scant in deed – that we are again. Postwar shame of their own inaction has coaxed Germans into peevish anxiety. They don't want to grow up as a people. Faced with global conflict, like the war between Israel and its deadly enemies, Germans sit scant in deed on the rocking horse of world history.
In purely economic terms, reunited Germany is a successful adult man; in military terms, it's namby-pamby pubescent content to be sent off to crisis regions as a paramedic or reconstruction helper. But in terms of world politics, the children of the Nazi generation are outright refusing to get down from the rocking horse of self-inflicted immaturity. This not-getting-involved, this sly shyness, this clueless inactivity in world conflicts is, in its practical ramifications, a deed in itself, better said, a non-deed with serious consequences.
As I see it, it was a mistake for Germany not to line up with the Americans and the British in the war against Iraq in 2003. I would go as far as to say that the French president Chirac and his little German pal, the false pacifist Bundeskanzler Schröder, bear much of the blame for the Iraq war of the Americans and the British against Saddam Hussein's terror regime. The war three years ago might possibly have been avoided, because the dictator might have stepped down had the West spoken with one tongue and threatened with one fist. Yes I think that the Germans and the French are to blame for the fate of this monumental racketeer. Because their appeasement policies suggested to Saddam Hussein that he might be able to save his bacon with his totalitarian tricks, live on as bloody-minded dictator. Saddam was not expecting that Bush and Blair would be so naive as to launch into war without their most vital allies Chirac and Schröder. He lacked the imagination to picture himself leaving his perfumed kitsch palace for a stinking hole in the ground, followed by an iron cage in court and finally the gallows.
Here in Israel, I argue about all these issues every now and then with my friends. I also live a very pleasant life, with a group of critically-minded friends in my hometown of Hamburg. But in recent years, this distant yet familiar Israel has become more and more my fatherland. Particularly the western-European oriented, Ashkenazic Israelis are becoming more disappointed by the day at the aggressive ignorance of the Western world, which watches the tragedy in the Middle East like a soap opera. But fear is growing in me, because the Middle Eastern Israel is the most threatened part of Far Western civilisation.
There can be no happy end to this historical tragedy. We know since Sophocles that the personae dramatis have the choice to make one mistake or another. Everything is wrong! Yes, in this tragic constellation all deeds and non-deeds are hopeless. And all roads lead to catastrophe. It's wrong to occupy the Gaza Strip; it's wrong to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. In Germany, opinion-makers love hatefully to refer to the fence with which Israel protects itself, as a wall, in memory of the divided Germany. I lived long enough behind the Berlin Wall and I know how cynical this analogy is. Yet the dilemma remains: it is wrong to build this fence, but probably more wrong not to build it.
In Germany, clear as daylight I say: the impatient onlookers must finally understand that there can be no solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Here in Israel I say the opposite: the despairing Israelis must accept that solutions exist. Why? Because they have to exist.
Israel has had better press in Germany. Three decades after the Holocaust, the Germans had just about forgiven the Jews for what they'd done to them. But now the perpetrators are becoming increasingly ungracious towards this hopeless ongoing conflict of their victims. Again and again I hear the cold-hearted argument: these Jews must have learnt what oppression is at the Nazi school of hard knocks. Precisely! Which is why I cold-heartedly counter, having learnt their Shoah lesson, the survivors have no desire to get slaughtered all over again.
The simpler-minded average German sides with the Arabs. There is much under-the-breath muttering, growling and whining of that old chorus: the Jews are to blame for everything! And when faced with reflex accusations of anti-Semitism, today's Jew-haters reply coolly: "Surely one can criticise one's friends!" The Germans have a steely eye on the Jews in Israel, and a moist eye on the Arabs in Palestine. But the German romantic sympathy for the Islamists in the Middle East conflict has its reasons. In the German mind, the Arabs are maniacs, immature third-class citizens, quite beyond the reaches of humane Enlightenment. This German sympathy is a form of patronising contempt. The gushing respect for foreigners is nothing but self-satisfied arrogance. The multi-culti rhapsodising of my peers is, in my opinion, the flip-side of the sinister racism of yesteryear.
When the money-minders of the EU regularly transfer alms to the Palestinians, they do so with their eyes shut to the fact that the hard-boiled mass murderers of the Fatah are only really arguing with the fanatical mass murderers of the Hamas over details in the final solution to the Jewish question, because they are all agreed on one thing: Israel must be destroyed!
Unfortunately it does not help the matter when the major newspapers actually print the scandalous Hamas Charta: "Israel will rise up until Islam destroys it, like it destroyed its predecessors... Thanks to the spread of Muslims throughout the world, who are pursuing the Hamas goal, the movement has become universal. Anyone who doubts its value, or refuses to support it, or is blind enough to deny its role, is tempting fate. The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said: Judgement Day will not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews (and kill the Jews) and the Jew hides behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say: Oh Muslim! There's a Jew behind me, come and kill him! ..." Peace initiatives go against the grain of everything Hamas stands for.
The slogan "The Jews are to blame for everything" is obviously as ineradicable as the idiotic prejudice that all Jews are highly intelligent. The Jews were and remain, even in the opinion of the elite, to blame for everything. The Jews are to blame for bomb-belted Hamas and Hisbollah suicide killers. The Jewish neo-cons in New York drove the bigoted simpleton George Bush into the war against Saddam Hussein. The Jews and their global power politics are to blame for the Iran's nuclear programme. The moneyed Jews in the stock exchange, with the aid of the the IMF, are to blame for driving the poor countries into the debt trap. This idiotic logic is also applied by educated imbeciles who also shift blame on the Jewish war profiteers for making the German taxpayer fork out to send expensive war ships to Lebanon. The know-it-all version: we have to protect the Jews from the Jews.
Balanced reporting on the Middle East conflict is, for the popular Germany weekly Stern, a fig leaf the size of a finger nail. And the most influential magazine in the West, Der Spiegel, is bending to the anti-Israel mood in Germany, and reinforcing it at the same time with a supposedly balanced tone and a lot of eye winking. Even most of the reporting on the radio and various TV channels are singing with false voices and true feeling, just like the German harp maiden in Heine's Germany: A Winter's Tale.
And meanwhile Israel is burning under a sky of rocket missiles. The Jews are sitting in bunkers again, or fleeing from North to South. But the country is small. The Arab missiles are flying ever further and hitting every more accurately. Lebanon is burning under a sky of bombs from the blindly confused super power Israel. Standard German commentary: "And all that for a few kidnapped soldiers." And where the elders of Zion were the child-eaters of the old days, the Israelis are the child-killers of today, who want to bomb a Christian-Muslim civilisation back to the stone age. When, in actual fact, it's the Arabs who want to wipe out Israel and then go on to destroy Western civilisation. An old friend of mine, the Jewish Resistance historian Arno Lustiger said to me: "When the Arabs finally lay down their arms, the war will be over. But when Israel lays down its weapons, Israel will be over."
Every dead Arab child is a minor media victory. The Hizbullah leader with the velvety voice preaches in Lebanon that Arab citizens of the state of Israel who are hit every now and then by rockets should be happy because they'll go to paradise as Allah's martyrs. And the lunatic leader of Iran who is bank-rolling the carnage, copies down speeches by Goebbels and Hitler, word for word, like a school boy. The whole world is convinced that Iran will soon have its atom bomb and launch vehicles as flying Persian carpets to boot. Ahmadinejad threatens: We'll do the Jews a favour and turn their Auschwitz lie into truth, then we'll put the final solution to the Jewish problem into action.
All this information is available in the German mass media but it doesn't seem to move the population at large. The head of Iran did some macabre calculations before astonished mankind: if a nuclear bomb were to fall on Israel, then at last all 5 million Jews would be dead in a flash. But if just beforehand, Israel fired off a counter hit, something like 15 million Arabs would die – but what good will that do? 15 million more martyrs will go to heaven but there'll still be a billion more Muslims alive to take over the world. - The Germans are aware of these facts too, but it's not making them take their heads out of the sand, they retreat in instant terror before radical Muslims. They think good conduct will allow them to hold onto their export markets, secure energy sources and keep the terrorists in their own countries off their backs. There's a nasty little saying about the patron saint of fireman "Oh holy Saint Florian! / save my house, let others burn!"
Does any of this get your goat? I say innocently THE Americans, THE Jews; talk about THE Arabs, THE Israelis. I also say THE Germans! I don't need some Smart Alec to remind me that there are lots of different Germans, Jews, Arabs, Israelis out there. What really disgusts me is the loud-mouthed know-it-all attitude about the Middle East conflict of know-nothings in Europe. I have described the more vulgar Germans. The finer ones are more moderate. They shield themselves with tight-lipped equanimity. They say Jews and the Arabs are both to blame! The fighting cocks should finally learn to get on! Political aesthetes launch into the ironic pose of the lovely Donna Blanca from Heine's famous poem "Disputation" (in Romanzero, bk. 3, "Hebrew Melodies") where at the end of a slanging match between rabbi and priest, the young Queen sits in the lodge. The King has had it up to here with all the bickering of the god-sick zealots and asks his wife "Which of them has won then?" Her answer has entered the common idiom. "Who's right I know not / But I know what I think/ That Rabbi and Monk / Both of them stink."
Yep, all wars stink. And the warriors on the side of the good are also evil. And the freedom fighters also commit crimes. And the righteous also yell when blinded by anger they fight to survive. But increasing numbers of commentators explain that the war in the Middle East is not about race, class or religion, but a war of cultures. It would seem that the world of Islam is diametrically opposed to the values of the Occident. But I believe this clash of two supposedly incompatible cultures is a pseudo-problem. As far as I'm concerned, the millions of Muslims are also part of so-called civilisation. They are the descendants of a time-honoured intellectual tradition. Fantastic builders, divine craftsmen, talented poets, wise philosophers. These are the offspring of Abraham's son Ismael, who was calculating the movements of the stars while we were still snoring on bearskins in Germania's forests.
And there's no way I'm an enemy of the suppressed Arab peoples whose minds are rotting under totalitarian military dictatorships, degenerating in godless theocracies. I can't cut them out of my humanity - even the fanaticised Intifada kids and their grief-stricken, cheering hero-mothers and all the illiterate men, dancing with joy in West Jordan for every false martyr. But the Palestinians are being cut out of humanity by their Arab brothers and sent into mortal combat. The huge, rich Arab countries surrounding Israel with their vast resources of fertile land, earthly treasures and ancient high culture should invest their oil billions to bring a peaceful life to these poor wretches.
Because non-violence as well as violence can help against violence. Yes, justice also helps, love and goodness, possibly even education, forgiveness and self-critical humility. But this is the nature of the human drama: without the resolute use of violence against armed-to-the-teeth religious fanatics or other fundamentalist humanity-savers, we humans don't stand a chance of sitting down to argue about the last things left in heaven and earth.
The Zionist founding father David Ben Gurion is said to have said, "If you don't believe in miracles, you're not a realist" I was standing in the Negev desert in the Sede Boker Kibbuz with the Israeli writer Jonath Sened. As a little girl she learnt Hebrew in a cellar in the Warsaw Ghetto with Yitzhak Katzenelson. She showed me the little working room of the state founder. I like his famous sentence. And I too believe in miracles, because a double miracle is already at work: firstly we humans exist in the first place, and secondly, we still exist. I believe in that desperate song from Ghetto Wilna from 1943: "Mir lebn ejbig…"
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