Culture War Over German Identity-Religious Symbols Take Center Stage

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The Bavarians want crosses in public buildings, German Jews want to be able to wear kippas in public without being attacked and Muslims would like more understanding for the headscarf. Germany’s search for identity has turned religious. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Neighborhood. It’s a word that evokes homey comforts and familiarity. A confined area of bonhomie or, at least, a place free of open conflict.

Helmholtzplatz, a micro-neighborhood in Berlin, is one of the capital city’s best-known blocks. Locals like to call Helmholtzplatz, the square from which the area gets its name, Helmi and it is a hub of tolerance and the international lifestyle, evidenced by the fact that English competes with German as the most-spoken language in the area. Ever since the rat problem was eliminated a few years back, the neighborhood has become a place where citizens of the world live in total comfort and can only shake their heads at the conflicts that beset the rest of humanity.

At least until the warm, spring evening of Tuesday, April 17. On that evening, Adam Armoush, a 21-year-old Israeli from a family with Arabic, Jewish and Christian roots, dared to conduct an experiment. Originally from Haifa, he has been living in Germany for three years and moved to Berlin three months ago, where he studies veterinary medicine. He has Jewish friends and is actually not particularly immersed in the hostilities present in the Middle East. An acquaintance gave him a kippah as a gift, but also warned him that it is dangerous to wear it on the streets of Berlin. Adam didn’t want to believe him.

And so he set off toward Helmholtzplatz together with a friend, the kippah on his head. He had almost arrived when he encountered three Arab men who began insulting him. Armoush turned on the camera on his smartphone and the video that he took has now become a historical document of contemporary German history.

One of the men, a 19-year-old Syrian, began whipping Adam with his belt and shouting “jehudi, jehudi, Jew, Jew,” over and over again. The video, which shows him lunging repeatedly at Adam, is shaky and Adam can be heard saying, “I’m filming you. I’m filming you.” At some point another man comes and drives the attacker away. Adam then calls at him, “Jew or not Jewish, you have to deal with it.” The video is only 47 seconds long, but it went viral the same night after it was posted online. Forty-seven seconds that place a question mark over many things in Germany, if not everything.

Crumbling Insulation

Germans have long sought to insulate themselves from the problems facing the rest of the world. Since 2005, voters have repeatedly elected a chancellor who has taken pains to fulfill that longing – to ensure that Germany is something like Helmi on a vast scale. An oversized neighborhood so cosmopolitan and liberal that it was even prepared in the summer of 2015 to take in close to a million refugees.

But now, that insulation appears to be crumbling. And religion, something that had long since seemed to have lost its importance in Germany, is at the forefront. Once again, religions are playing a powerful role in the world – and it is a development that is making itself felt in even the most bucolic of German neighborhoods.

The result is that any discussion about the Germany of today must necessarily consider the kippah, the cross and the headscarf. They are all symbols of religion at first glance, but upon deeper reflection, they are also symbols of this country’s identity. Or at least its search for identity.

Many Germans have a hard time saying just what this identity might be. The values set down in the German constitution are clearly part of it, that much is obvious. But beyond that? Our obsession with separating our trash, as was recently explained to refugees in guidelines provided by the group Pro Asyl? German punctuality? Our proverbial efficiency?

The vast majority would likely agree that the memory of the Nazi crimes is a part of German identity. The Holocaust is a black stain on German history, and the fact that the country chooses not to be silent about it and has made it central to Germany’s culture of remembrance is an achievement that liberal-minded Germany likes to claim for itself.

The murder of Europe’s Jews was the ultimate taboo. Those who question this taboo fall outside the scope of what is acceptable to society. This also applies to the country’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. When Björn Höcke, the head of the AfD state chapter in Thuringia, said in January 2017 that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was a “monument of shame” and encouraged Germans to focus less on their war guilt, it caused lasting damage to his stature within the party.

But can we demand that immigrants from foreign countries also adopt this significant element of Germany’s cultural identity? What connection, after all, does the father of a Muslim immigrant family in Germany have to the Holocaust? Why should he send his children on a trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp? To most of the 5 million Muslims living in Germany, the Holocaust is a crime that was committed by others.

Perhaps Adam Armoush’s idea of taking to the street with a kippah was naïve. Perhaps it was just a silly coincidence that somewhere in Berlin, an Arab mistook another Arab for a Jew, just because he was wearing a kippah. Perhaps one could just dismiss the video as an unfortunate isolated case. But Adam’s 47 seconds developed into an altogether different suggestive power – that Jews are being beaten up on the streets of Berlin by anti-Semites.

A Major Blow to Modern Germany

These 47 seconds are a major blow to the enlightened, modern and liberal nation that postwar Germany has become. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has since warned people against wearing a kippah when walking down the street. And that, too, is a major blow to an enlightened country.

But these 47 seconds represent a serious blow to openness and tolerance for another reason as well. Because the young man from Syria in the video happened to come to Germany as part of the wave of asylum-seekers in 2015.

The name of the Helmholtzplatz attacker is Knaan S., who turned himself in to the police two days after the incident. He had to appear before a court, where he was charged with grievous bodily harm and of making insults, which is punishable under German law. His family reportedly has Palestinian roots. Knaan lives in a refugee hostel on the outskirts of Berlin and his Facebook profile indicates he is single. He plays football with the team SV Stern Britz 1889 e.V. The cover photo of his Facebook profile shows a pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. One photo on his page shows a young man posing with a rocket-propelled grenade and a machine gun. There’s a short video on YouTube that Knaan made together with Nathmi Abu S., a Palestinian living in Berlin, which says that Knaan wants to explain to the police what happened. “We are not hostile toward Jews,” reads a text at the top of the video. But the video, which is in Arabic, doesn’t explain what happened.

It is likely that the 47-second video is so deeply unsettling because, more than 70 years after the Germans sent the Jews to their deaths in trains, the country in 2015 brought Syrian refugees to freedom in trains. The huge welcome the majority of Germans gave them at the time can be seen as a final attempt at atonement by the ancestors of the Nazi perpetrators – but one that is now producing the very thing that can never be allowed to exist again in Berlin or anywhere in Germany: anti-Semitism.

Making things more concerning is the recent rash of reports about Muslim anti-Semitism in Germany. There have been reports about Jewish students being bullied at several Berlin schools. Then came the massive scandal in mid-April when the Echo Award, Germany’s answer to the Grammy, was awarded to rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, whose songs contain anti-Semitic lyrics. Within two weeks, the outrage had grown so great that the Echo awards have since been eliminated entirely.

The situation in Germany has become complicated. Previous certainties are being lost and old battles are being launched anew. In Bavaria, for example, the cabinet of Governor Markus Söder recently moved to require that the cross be displayed at the entrance of every state government building. The Bavarian governor himself took the first step, installing a cross at the reception of the state capital building following his April 24 cabinet meeting. Cameras were there to film the event. The cross is to hold a similar status in government buildings as the blue and white Bavarian state flag. The cabinet decision declares that it is an expression of Bavaria’s historical and cultural identity, the “fundamental symbol of Christian-Occidental heritage.” Söder says it is not a “religious symbol” and has more to do with the “people’s desire to have their identity assured.”

Culture Wars

Söder’s Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has repeatedly demonstrated that it sees the cross as more of a political and ideological symbol than a religious one. In 1983, in support of newly elected Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s campaign to return to conservative values and morals, Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann of the CSU personally intervened to cut government subsidies to a film deemed blasphemous. In the film, director/actor Herbert Achternbusch plays Jesus and in one scene, he climbs down from the cross in a market square and demands to be given “shit.”

While there is little doubt as to whether the scene was blasphemous, Zimmermann’s action at the time was an expression of an aggressive culture war. It was the subject of intense debate, with intellectuals viewing it as a reactionary step backward. But Zimmermann’s move found support within the Catholic Church, including from Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become pope.

That same year, the state government of Bavaria once again instrumentalized the crucifix for political symbolism, ordering that a cross be hung in every classroom in state-run schools. Ultimately, though, Germany’s highest court ruled that the regulation was unconstitutional after a group of parents filed a challenge.

Cozying Up to the Far Right

The fact that Söder is once again instrumentalizing the Christian cross for political symbolism could, of course, just be chalked up to tradition. Lederhosen, frothing mugs of beer, oom-pah-pah bands, the crucifix: Isn’t it all just part of being Bavarian? What’s the big deal?

Söder’s proposal, though, is also an attempt to cozy up to the far right, which, in its fight for the West, has leaned heavily on the symbols and traditions of Christian culture – or, at least, the symbols it considers to somehow be Western. Particularly active in this battle has been Erika Steinbach, who became famous as the champion of Germany’s expellees, the segment of the population driven out of areas in Eastern Europe once populated by ethnic Germans after World War II. Steinbach was long a member of Merkel’s CDU, but today she is considered close to the AfD, although she is not an official member. Steinbach has taken to Twitter to complain that the chocolate Easter bunnies sold at a major department store chain are referred to on the receipt as “traditional bunnies.” She has lamented that the Christmas market in the town of Elmshorn in Schleswig-Holstein is now called the “Festival of Lights.” Indeed, the outrage on the web over that Christmas market went viral and the mayor of Elmshorn received dozens of hate mails – with some of the angst directed at the fact that the cherub featured on Festival of Lights marketing materials was black.

One could, of course, simply chuckle ruefully at the silliness of it all. But there is a system behind such campaigns. In France, Steinbach-esque crusades helped transform the far-right Front National into a major party, as it sought to promote traditional nativity figures at Christmas and professed outrage that pork wasn’t served in school cafeterias.

At first glance, none of this seems to be directly connected to the actual cross. But there’s more at stake here than just the correct faith. Kippahs, crosses and headscarves are the symbols of a culture war over the identity of a society – an identity that has changed just as much in Germany in recent decades as it has in France and other European countries. Some 22.5 million people in Germany, or one in five, has immigrant roots. We now find ourselves struggling to determine who we are, who we were and what we want to be.

During his time as interior minister, Thomas de Maizière had a pretty clear idea about what we didn’t want to be. “We are not the burqa,” he wrote in a 2017 op-ed for the Bild am Sonntag tabloid, his contribution to the debate over Germany’s Leitkultur, or defining culture. It would be easy enough to dismiss de Maizière’s claim as populist, an attempt to poach voters from the AfD. And perhaps that was indeed his aim.

‘Fascism of Our Time’

But the issue with the burqa is a little more complicated. On the one hand, it is a symbol of Islam. On the other, it provides a view of women that clashes with the one held by enlightened Western feminism. Are burqas and headscarves even religious symbols? Or are they just relicts from some pre-modern, patriarchal parochialism? Whereas younger feminists aren’t automatically opposed to the headscarf if the woman is wearing it of her own free will, some more traditional feminists, like Alice Schwarzer, the most famous feminist voice in Germany, have spoken out against them. After the mass sex crimes committed during new year’s eve in 2015 in Cologne, Schwarzer even went to far as to say that Islamic ideology justifies violence against women. She has also described Islamism as the “fascism of our time.”

In general, of course, Germans should think twice before accusing other cultures, religions or countries of being fascist. But the history of political Islam is also one of subjugation. The ideological renaissance of conservative Islam began with the 1979 Iranian revolution, followed by the 1989 fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie to be murdered because of his book “The Satanic Verses.” Was the book blasphemous? One of the central achievements of modernity is that blasphemy is now something that must be tolerated.

In 1751, the Bavarian legal code still called for beheading in cases of repeated heresy. Bavaria has made progress since then, but not all Muslim countries have come as far.

Is the headscarf an appropriate symbol for this form of Islam? Or is it more of a barometer of xenophobia? A recent survey conducted by the pollsters at Forsa found that more than a quarter of all Germans agree that Islam is “to be feared.” In 2010, fully 73 percent of Germans believed that Islam doesn’t fit in with the Western world. Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU who has just become German interior minister in Merkel’s cabinet, said in March that Islam doesn’t belong to Germany but that the 5 million Muslims who live in the country do. It was one of the first things he said in his new capacity as interior minister and Merkel was quick to contradict him. The Muslims belong to Germany, she said, and so too does Islam.

It has now been for almost exactly 50 years that this modern version of Germany, the one that is now wrestling with its own identity, was founded back in April and May of 1968. On April 11, left-wing student protest leader Rudi Dutschke was shot on the streets of Berlin after the tabloid Bild called on its readers to “Stop the Terror of the Young Leftists Now!” That Easter saw street battles in Berlin and a state of emergency was declared in late May — a move that the prominent student protest group known as the Ausserparliamentarische Opposition (APO), or “Extra-Parliamentary Opposition,” compared to the 1933 Enabling Act that essentially handed Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers.

It was an uprising of children against their parents, a cultural rebellion against the Germany of the Nazis, against the narrow-mindedness and lack of openness in society. The 1968 movement made plenty of its own mistakes, including the detour into terrorism on the extreme fringe and the predilection among many for fundamentalist forms of communism.

The Cornerstone for Today’s Germany

Nevertheless, the cornerstone for today’s Germany was laid in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A democratic, free country dedicated just as much to anti-fascism as to friendship and solidarity with Israel and the Jews. A country striving for equal rights, one which seeks to protect its minorities just as it tries to preserve the environment. A country wanting to be peaceful and do good. A country, in essence, that is really not a bad place at all.

The historic year of 1968 could never have come about without all of the historic years that preceded it: the years 1933 and 1945, the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust. Those who speak of the Judeo-Christian culture today cannot credibly do so without explicitly acknowledging the anti-Semitic pogroms and slaughter of the Jews over the course of centuries. Indeed, those who speak of Europe’s Judeo-Christian tradition do so because excluding Judaism from the history of European civilization, particularly since Auschwitz, is simply unacceptable.

The recognition of just how systematic the World War II slaughter of European Jews was proved decisive for the developments seen in 1968. The public at large was first confronted with the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust during the Auschwitz trials, which began in Frankfurt in 1963. One consequence of the trials was that a huge number of younger Germans took their first serious look at those crimes – and many of them arrived at the conclusion that the bourgeoisie had allied itself with the National Socialists. They lost all respect for the dignitaries of old – including the curie. The pope, after all, had remained silent about Hitler’s crimes. Postwar West Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, was deeply Catholic and patriarchal. But with the liberalization set in motion in 1968, the influence of churches, most of which were deeply conservative at the time, began to ebb. Today, many of the Protestant regional churches, and even the Catholic bishoprics, have moved just as far to the center as has the CDU under the leadership of Angela Merkel.

The 1968 generation ultimately emerged victorious. Merkel became the first female head of government in Germany and cleared the way for gay marriage. It was also Merkel who brought in trainloads of refugees from Budapest in 2015. The headline on the most recent issue of The Economist reads “Cool Germany,” though it appeared in the same week that Kollegah received his Echo award. Germany, the magazine wrote, has become so open and diverse, so economically successful and politically stable, that it could serve as a model for the entire Western world. It is all-too tempting to believe it.

In his recently published book on the legacy of 1968, Munich-based sociologist Armin Nassehi wrote that, in addition to the constant reflection about German history and widespread cognizance of the moral implications the Holocaust has for present-day Germany, today’s pop culture is the third great legacy of that year. Particularly the aesthetic means it has provided to relieve us of the burden of constant reflection while remaining progressive and countercultural at the same time. To put things a bit more plainly: If you listen to pop music, you’re on the right side of history and don’t have to think too deeply about it.

No Paradise

It would be difficult to come up with a more concise formulation of the dilemma behind the Echo scandal centering on Kollegah and Farid Bang.

When the Echo was first awarded in 1992, the Phono Akademie wanted to promote “German music.” Back then, that included such acts as Herbert Grönemeyer and the Scorpions, but also the less famous singer Pe Werner. The fact that two rappers named Kollegah and Farid Bang received the prize 26 years later has very much to do with the liberalization of German society that began in 1968. Today, the country is multicultural. But contrary to the dreams likely harbored by many of the 1968 generation and of the Green Party that grew out of it, this multicultural country is no paradise. It is a country where conflicts over national identity also extend into the world of pop. It is also a country home to the conflicts between Jews and Muslims – conflicts that have been imported from the Middle East.

Farid Bang’s comparison of his body with those of “Auschwitz prisoners” was a clear indiscretion. Kollegah’s depiction in a music video of a devil’s servant wearing the Star of David, however, falls more clearly into the category of anti-Semitism. In such instances, imported Muslim anti-Semitism isn’t that different from traditional anti-Semitism from Central Europe.

There was a time when the cross was merely a fashion accessory in the secularized world of pop. But the battle over identity has long since reached the culture of pop music.

Fifty years after the birth of this new Germany, the environmentalist, liberal and culturally dominant mainstream in the country finds itself facing a degree of skepticism it has never experienced before. Skepticism from politicians who are demanding a return to Christian values. From the consequences of Muslim immigration, which could ultimately overwhelm the capacity of German society to integrate them. From the populists with the AfD, who would prefer to forget about the 12 years under Nazi rule. From the demons of the past that are crawling out into the open. From the global return of autocrats who reject the West and its universalist impulses. From the shock triggered by recent weeks, a product of the country’s desire to do everything right by both the Jews and the Muslim immigrants, only to be forced to realize that the perfect world of the kind it yearns for doesn’t actually exist.

What Keeps Us Together?

The problem isn’t just that the logic of universalism is reaching its limits, but also that identity politics, an invention of the 1968 generation, is suddenly triggering conflicts that can hardly be tamed. The right to a completely individual lifestyle and the expectation that it be protected cannot just apply to the heart of Berlin but must also be valid for those left behind in a village in Saxony where nobody refers to themselves as gender fluid, where the Saxon dialect is the only language spoken and where most residents cast their ballots for AfD.

What, then, belongs to Germany? What is it that keeps us together? The atheists and Jews, Christians and Muslims, lefties and right-wingers, western and eastern Germans, Bavarians and Saxons, urban dwellers and villagers. Who gets to decide who belongs and based on what criteria? Do German anti-Semites belong to Germany? What about AfD politicians? Or ghetto machos who rap about women only as “bitches” and who date women in headscarves? Or Muslim immigrants who insist on their right to have nothing to do with the Holocaust? Or Catholic fundamentalists who change “Resistance! Resistance!” at anti-Merkel demonstrations? We likely have to put up with all of that. It is acceptable, after all, to have different opinions.

The cross, the headscarf and the kippa: It needs to be okay to display all of them at anytime and anywhere – in the heart of Berlin, at a hip-hop concert or even in the Bavarian state capital building.

They are all symbols of our liberal democracy.

By Laura Backes, Jan Fleischhauer, Jan Friedmann, Lothar Gorris, Sebastian Hammelehle and Jérôme Lombard

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