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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Antisemitism and the Idea of Europe

This year's Holocaust Memorial Day coincided with the arrival of the big guns for the BBC's commemoration of World War One, with Jeremy Paxman doing his best Chris Morris impersonation for the opening salvo of the ambiguously titled documentary series, Britain's Great War (the French barely got a mention). All histories are inescapably moulded by the anxieties of the present, thus in the year of the Scottish independence referendum the unionist angle was covered by the story of the Hearts football team joining the Army en masse in Edinburgh in 1914 (Belfast and Dublin were conspicuous by their absence).


The question of the UK's relationship with Europe hovered overhead as Paxman explored the British fear of invasion and the shelling of Hartlepool, which got as much time as the first battle of Mons. The prospect of a German empire was described with mounting horror, while the reality of the British Empire was reduced to Indian soldiers recuperating in Brighton's Royal Pavilion (a thematic continuation of Paxman's search for positive imperial synergies that started in his 2012 series, Empire).

The war and the EU were also knitted together in a Guardian comment piece by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current German foreign minister, who drew direct parallels between 1914 and today: "Europe in the early 20th century was experiencing an early economic globalisation, but foreign policy lacked both the will and tools to foster a peaceful balance of interests". The references to the Holocaust were implicit and couched in the language of classic Ordoliberalism: "Instead of the law of the strong, Europe is governed by the strength of the law". Steinmeier cites George Kennan, the US diplomat and historian, who was a proponent of the balance of power (recast post-WW2 as the Truman Doctrine) and of greater international cooperation in Western Europe to contain Soviet ambitions. The suggestion is that the EU now serves to channel the energies of Germany for the common good: a European Germany rather than a German Europe, in Thomas Mann's famous formulation.

The great debate in twentieth century historiography has been the extent to which WW2 was a direct consequence of WW1 (the "seminal catastrophe", according to Kennan), and thus whether the 1914-45 period can be seen as another Thirty Years War (interrupted by "an armistice for twenty years", in the words of Marshal Foch). In one sense this is uncontroversial - clearly resentment over the Treaty of Versailles helped the growth of Nazism - but the real debate is less about the triggers of conflict and more about the deep-rooted causes. The chief argument in favour of the Thirty Years War thesis is that Hitler was the continuation of a consistent German policy of aggrandisement (there are clear echoes of this in the simplistic views of Michael Gove). The argument against is that German foreign policy was anything but consistent, being characterised more by the flexibility of Bismarck and the opportunism of Hitler, not to mention the serial blundering of Wilhelm II.

This lack of a coherent political explanation has led to a focus on both socio-economic and cultural forces to explain the evolution of German policy. The former sees the promotion of nationalism between 1871 and 1914 as a defence against socialism and a justification for the acquisition of captive markets for German industry. The latter sees German nationalism as essentially congruent with the German language, and thus inherently destabilising because of the language's extensive geographical spread (the Grossdeutschland of the nineteenth century "German question", which led to the Volksdeutsche of Nazi ideology). In this reading, the virulence of German anti-semitism was due to  the predominance of the language among Europe's Jews (Yiddish derives from High German), and the important cultural contribution of assimilated Jews such as Heinrich Heine, rather than just the usual conspiratorial mania common in France and elsewhere. The Holocaust was thus an attempt to eradicate "illegitimate" German-speakers that paralleled the Heim ins Reich policy of seeking to absorb the "legitimate" ones into a monoglot empire.


It has become popular on the political right in recent years to glibly suggest that the ideological roots of the EU lay in the Nazi-imposed New Order of occupied Europe (this trope is also found on the paranoid left), and that the Germans' cunning plan has been to succeed through a mixture of manufacturing and red tape where they previously failed with tanks. This ignores the reality of a radically different system (equipment looting and forced labour migration), as well as the earlier roots of European cooperation in the interwar years (such as the steel cartel which prefigured the postwar European Steel and Coal Community, the forerunner of the EEC), not to mention the Continental System of Napoleon or various customs unions. The British tradition of splendid isolation means that we tend to largely ignore the centripetal forces of the continent.

The chief reason for this mischievous equivalence is the assumed dominance of Germany in the modern EU, which is less a reflection of that nation's post-unification economic strength (not as great as generally assumed) than of France's relative weakness (itself an invented tradition) and the UK's perennial semi-detachment. Britain's support for EU enlargement, cynically intended to slow integration, served to shift the mental centre of the EU from Stasbourg to somewhere between Frankfurt and Berlin. The more profound issue is not that the EU has Nazi DNA, but that as a pan-European project it must necessarily accommodate all of European history, a lot of which has centred on Germany. As the neoliberal Rainer Hank puts it, "the idea of Europe is politically all-encompassing and it is ideologically robust".

In other words, it can mean all things to all people (the confusion of the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests being a current example). The very fact that it appeals across the political spectrum, and is sufficiently vague and aspirational to transcend local difficulties, means that it inevitably overlaps with more unsavoury ideologies. This gives rise to the perception of an institutionalised obliviousness, a willed blindness to its own history, despite all the formal commitments to remembrance and reparation. Hank quotes Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst and writer, on Europe's failure to truly confront its own past. "I am not just thinking of the Holocaust here. I am thinking of the Inquisition, of the pogroms, of colonialism, of machismo or of the wars which devastated the continent and spread out across the whole world".

The post-2008 German accent of the EU gives the traditional vapid teleology of integration ("ever closer union" etc) a slightly more sinister edge, given the burden of history, which is perhaps why we have become more sensitive to signs of anti-semitism, even though it has been part of the background noise throughout the postwar era, right across the continent. Since 1945 it has evolved from old-style pogroms and the ravings of the Catholic right to the indulgence of anyone hitching a ride on the Palestinian cause and the self-proclaimed antagonists of "the system" (Dieudonn√© et al). That anti-semitism can pop up on both the left and right is a sign of its practitioners' political immaturity, not its universal appeal. That said, anti-semitism, like the idea of Europe, is highly flexible.

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