The growing threat to Jewish life in Germany

  • Themes: Germany, History

Hamas' attack on Israel has triggered a huge increase in attacks on Jews in Germany. The question is: how long will society keep its eyes shut to the growing threat to Jewish life in Germany and at what cost?

People take part in a commemoration of the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht in the Beth Zion synagogue.
People take part in a commemoration of the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht in the Beth Zion synagogue. Credit: John Macdougall/AFP POOL/dpa/Alamy Live News

Berlin, 9 November 2023. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had come to the Beth Zion Synagogue to speak about the 85th anniversary of ‘Kristallnacht’. On that day in 1938, Nazi thugs were joined by ordinary Germans in a nationwide pogrom against the Jewish population and their property. The Beth Zion Synagogue, too, was attacked, its interior gutted and destroyed. It was consecrated again only in 2005.

Scholz thus spoke at a spot symbolic both of the eradication and the slow re-establishment of Jewish life in Germany. Yet his were not words of cautious optimism. ‘I am deeply outraged and ashamed,’ he told the assembled dignitaries in light of a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany since Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel on 7 October, murdering 1,400 people and abducting at least 200 hostages.

Among the many threats to Jewish people and property in Germany that followed was an arson attack on Ben Zion Synagogue. Two molotov cocktails were hurled at it on the morning of 18 October, despite the fact that the synagogue is part of a community centre which also contains a school and a nursery. Once again, 85 years after ‘Kristallnacht’, Jewish places of worship and education aren’t safe for those attending them. Jews in Germany live in fear once more.

It may well be that 7 October 2023 will be a dark turning point in the postwar history of Jewish life in Germany. While it is true that the number of antisemitic incidents in the country has risen almost every year since 2015, what’s happened since the massacre in Israel is on a different scale. In the two months that followed, 2,800 chargeable offences were registered in connection with the conflict. That’s higher than the number recorded for the entire year of 2022, which had seen 2,641 antisemitic incidents.

Public outrage about this, on the other hand, has not seen a similar spike. Many Jews in Germany feel let down by their non-Jewish neighbours. ‘I don’t recognise this country anymore,’ Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the German chancellor, the president and the other dignitaries attending the ‘Kristallnacht’ commemorations. A few days earlier he had written in an opinion piece for the German daily Die Welt that ‘antisemitism is not a feature of the fringes of our society… broad groups are receptive to it, and that is what worries me’.

Schuster, who comes from a German-Jewish family that can trace its roots in Franconia back to the 16th century and whose maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, attests in Germany a kind of ‘hibernation’ when it comes to its alertness to antisemitism. The question is: how long will society keep its eyes shut to the growing threat to Jewish life in Germany and at what cost?

This is an especially pertinent question in Germany, given how long it has taken the country to make Jewish communities feel safe again. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, both East and West Germany had vowed ‘Never again!’ Yet the Jewish population had been all but wiped out and with it all assurances for a safe and happy existence in the immediate future.

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, roughly half a million Jews called Germany home – a community that was widely seen as one of the most assimilated in Europe. Around 100,000 Jewish men had served in the German army during the First World War. By May 1943, fewer than 20,000 Jews remained and the authorities declared the country ‘judenrein’ – ‘clean of Jews’. After the war, many of the survivors left to move to the newly established state of Israel or to join relatives elsewhere in the world.

Within the context of emerging Cold War tensions, both Germanies set about re-establishing trust with former enemies, such as the US and the Soviet Union, who were in turn keen to build up their part of Germany as a bulwark against the other side. It took much longer to convince Jews that Germans had changed. And they were right to be sceptical.

The deep, pathological antisemitism that Nazi indoctrination had exacerbated in a receptive population did not evaporate overnight. A survey conducted in West Germany in 1950, found that nearly two thirds of respondents showed antisemitic behaviour; 37 per cent were deemed ‘extremely antisemitic’. A combination of residual prejudices that linked Jews to communism combined powerfully with resentment about the idea that the very existence of Jews in Germany would forever bind the country to its notions of guilt, leading the Austrian-Israeli physician and psychoanalyst Zvi Rix to remark: ‘The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.’

In East Germany, the tropes that linked Jews to capitalism and Zionism to imperialism remained strong. The regime was keen to exploit the tensions West Germany’s support for Israel was causing between it and the Arab world. It also supported the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which advocated the eradication of Israel and was responsible, among other atrocities, for the murder of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. East Germany didn’t acknowledge any legal continuity between it and the Nazi state and therefore also refused to pay restitution to Jewish families.

Despite Germany’s continued assurances that it ‘is profoundly aware of the historic responsibility it bears towards the Jewish community and towards the State of Israel as a result of the crimes of the Nazi regime,’ resettlement was slow. By 1990, only 30,000 Jews lived in Germany.

Since then, however, the Jewish population has seen a revival, mainly fuelled by immigration from the former Soviet Union, which increased the community to around 100,000 members. More recently a thriving community of Israelis has settled in Berlin, estimated to be at least 10,000 strong. Many say they come for what they perceive to be a more liberal, freer atmosphere than is the case in Israel.

Among Ukrainian refugees to Germany are also many Jews. One of them, Olena, who fled to Berlin with her two daughters, nine-year-old Laura and four-year-old Masha, told me last year that ‘If my grandfather knew that I’m trying to settle in Germany, he’d be rolling in his grave! After all, he fought the Nazis who had come to destroy us all. Now I live in Berlin, grateful for all the support I’m getting.’

Despite these positive changes, residual antisemitism has never gone away – graffiti on Jewish graves, far-right intimidation, far-left attacks on Jews in Germany made responsible for Israel’s actions and ‘imported antisemitism’ from immigrants combine into a permanent threat. This didn’t outweigh the support extended by a state that continues to see the security of Jews its raison d’etre.

The big question now is whether 7 October will prove a sinister turning point. True, Germany’s politicians continue to make the right noises. Chancellor Scholz threatened those supporting terrorist organisations with deportation. The Economy Minister Robert Habeck of the Green Party delivered a stern and much-applauded speech, which reinforced the point, but was also aimed at his own centre-left camp, warning them that ‘anti-colonialism’ is no excuse for condoning Hamas or antisemitism.

Will it be enough? Many Jews feel let down by society rather than politics. The state alone simply cannot provide the level of protection needed against daily intimidation and threats. Ella Berger, a 42-year-old mother who moved her family to Berlin from Israel eight years ago, says she feels she has lived in a different city since 7 October. ‘For the first time,’ she says, ‘I understand what it means to be a Jew: to never feel really safe anywhere.’

Will Jews in Germany be able to return to a point where they feel that, despite a sizable minority with antisemitic views, the state and the majority of the German public stand behind them? After all, that was supposed to be the big difference between 1938 and 2023. Or will ordinary Germans stand by as hatred spills into violence?

It’s upon all Germans to ensure that 7 October issued a lamentable moment of ‘hibernation’ rather than the beginning of indifference to antisemitism in the country that nearly succeeded in eradicating Judaism from Europe. It’s upon all of them to prove that ‘Never again!’ is more than an empty phrase.


Katja Hoyer