The Legacy

of Anti-Semitism

By ANNA LEA JAKOBS | November 1, 2019

November 9, 1938 – a night to be remembered. Cities throughout Germany burned: the flames started slowly, but grew rapidly as they consumed the legacy of Jewish culture. On this traumatic night, the “Synagogue am Großen Berlin” in Halle was destroyed. Time jumps 81 years into the future, in the very same city, on October 9, 2019. A heavily armed man tries to enter the synagogue of Halle intending to kill the Jewish believers in the building. After failing to do so, Stephan B., the perpetrator, goes wild and kills two people; hate crimes on the very heart of Judaism. 

What distinguishes both events is time – 81 years to be precise. One would imagine 81 years is long enough to change certain mentalities. However, after scrolling through the long list of Anti-Semitic terror attacks in Germany over the past decades, one cannot be certain. Of course, synagogue desecration during national socialism was caused by a brutal state whilst the recent attack was committed by an individual terrorist; a post-modern form of threat. Despite the differences though, this attack questions how far we’ve come in discarding Anti Semitism, which is never merely an incident, but a system. 

Growing up in Germany, anti-semitism was presented in schools as a successfully defeated enemy. “Never again” are among the first words we learn. On the couch at 8 PM, we see humble politicians on screens, repeating those two words over and over again. Being anti anti-Semitic has become an inherent part of the German public identity. This is the world I grew up in. Far later, I realized that anti-semitism has a cultural and economic legacy. This system of hate is embedded in German society; in the classical music we are so proud of and in the cars we drive. 

Richard Wagner, now believed to be ascended to the opera heaven by the German public, was openly anti-semitic. His diaries are full of what we now identify as hate speech. It tells us dark stories of belief in the Jewish conspiracy, of hatred and exclusion. Stories of Jews perceived as not being capable of creativity, copying and stealing ideas of “the real Germans”. What is most paradoxical is that every year, this angry white man is being worshipped in the “Bayreuther Festspiele”, a classical music festival singularly dedicated to Wagner – a one-man show, so to say. It resembles more to a pilgrimage of hundreds of Wagner-worshippers, a quasi-religious experience that is praising the vision of a genius. The festival’s website describes him as follows: “Richard Wagner: visionary, utopian – his heritage remains alive here”. Having his ideological background in mind though, this seems quite cynical. Keeping his heritage alive means to separate his work and himself. His music is seen as the innocent child of an impulsive but genius father. How his works are inherently loaded with anti-semitism is neglected for the sake of the beauty of music. Can we praise someone as the hero of the German opera while at the same time being aware of his hatred for Jews, to the extent that he publicly displayed Anti-Semitic traits in his work? 

What do we associate with BMW? Fast cars, prestige and money? A story of the economic success of Germany? We might not first think of slave labor, an oppressive past and the production of warfare in the second World war. This, however, is the history of BMW. The automobile thrived in wartime because it was inherently part of the national socialist machinery of injustice. Prisoners from the Concentration Camp Dachau were exploited as free labor to keep the machines going. After the second world war, the survival of the company is ensured by means acquired in the NS-Regime. This is not an exceptional story, Lufthansa, VW, Siemens and Bosch ́s pasts look quite similar. Their economic success story is inherently intertwined with the profit they made during national socialism. 

What this illustrates is a paradoxical historical continuum. The German economic and cultural success is partially rooted in an anti-semitic worldview. This German success story normally goes as follows: after the war, Germany was demolished. In the post-war period, the Allies took everything from Germany and transported it to their home countries as reparations. German women were building houses out of stones on the street with their bare hands. Despite the Sahara of opportunities, the hard-working Germans managed to turn the tide. Look at Germany, they made it despite any obstacles! But we haven’t made it yet. Not until we accept the graveyards we have built upon and stop digging.

Anna Lea Jakobs is a Bachelor’s student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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