X Close

For Germans and Jews, the past is never over As the child of German-Jewish refugees, I inherited a complex relationship with a country my parents still loved.

A man mourns two Jews killed at a synagogue shooting in Halle. Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

A man mourns two Jews killed at a synagogue shooting in Halle. Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

November 8, 2019   5 mins

The book I best remember from my father‚Äôs large collection of ponderous-looking works in German was entitled Ja, Nein und Trotzdem. Once in my mid-teens, having acquired a basic command of the German language, I learnt that it meant “Yes, no and nevertheless”.

This, I think, best summed up my dad’s attitude to his native Germany and, to some extent, my own. Written by a now long-forgotten Right-wing German-Jewish thinker named Hans Joachim Schoeps, whom my father knew and idolised in his youth, it expresses a strange attachment to a certain idea of Germany; one which transcended even the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s.

For Jews with deep roots in that country, people like my father, the possibility of some ongoing connection even after the Holocaust was made easier if your own immediate family had mostly escaped in time, and if your own school days had been marked by protection: by a clutch of loyal friends, by an anti-Nazi Catholic headmaster and the temporary advantages which came of being the child of a frontline solider in the 1914-1918 war.

For me, with two German-born parents and thinking that getting old inevitably meant the acquisition of a German accent (when I was small, I knew nobody over seventy without one), Germany obviously loomed large in my childhood. My grandparents holidayed in Switzerland, where they could bathe in the German-speaking environment without having to confront Germany itself.

In an otherwise essentially English home, I learnt Hoppe, Hoppe Reiter at my mother’s knee, we ate Suppenfleisch and Aufschnitt and everyone got quite excited when Stollen became available in December. But aside from that, in the Britain of the 1960s and 70s, emphasising difference was not something one was encouraged to do.

The formative experiences of my parents were those of wartime ‚ÄĒ serving in the Army in my father‚Äôs case, living in provincial boarding houses wherever my grandfather was stationed and then dodging the Doodlebugs back in London in my mother‚Äôs. Penniless and living hand-to-mouth in rooms in other people‚Äôs homes, my grandparents felt obliged during the war not to speak the enemy tongue, which is why my mother forgot most of her German and I had to learn it from scratch.

My sister and I were thereafter drilled to appreciate Britain’s generosity in letting our family in, and in patriotically celebrating the inherent decency of the British people and the superiority of the country‚Äôs democratic institutions.

On the other hand, as a music fanatic from an early age, I could not fail to notice that all the best music was German. Steeped in Beethoven symphonies, Mozart concertos and Schubert Lieder, taken to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall by German grandmother (always Mutti, never Oma, the latter tag having been taken by the previous generation), I eventually came to Bruckner and more problematically Wagner.

It is hard really to understand Der Lindenbaum or Winterstuermen wichen dem Wonnemond without relating them directly to the attractions of a specifically German landscape and sensibility. Likewise, a growing interest in philosophy led me towards Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, although even in translation I found them more impenetrable than the Locke, Berkeley and Hume with which I had started.

This romanticised view of a Germany of high culture and refined thought was occasionally disturbed by encounters with grim historical reality and those who had experienced it. But yet another level of complexity was added when I encountered the actually existing Germany, that admirable and efficient but seemingly rather shallow land, which I visited first in an attempt to improve my German and later, at times on a weekly basis, when I travelled there for work.

There was so much to admire in the Federal Republic, both before the wall came down and even more so afterward when it generously if occasionally insensitively embraced the east. But in an effort to reinvent itself, it seemed to have cut itself off, perhaps inevitably, from the good as well as the bad in its past.

Early in the current decade, with Ukip rising in the polls, some kind of premonition of Brexit led me to apply for German citizenship, which I acquired with speed and ease in 2012, well ahead of a subsequent surge of applications from people with similar backgrounds to my own.

This has added complexity to my attitude to what followed. Something of a Eurosceptic, the idea of actually leaving the European Union (for which, unlike Europe itself, I felt little enthusiasm) seemed far-fetched. I felt some sympathy nevertheless for the Leavers, but thought it would be highly hypocritical to vote to leave having secured my own rights as an EU citizen.

My children eventually followed me. My wife has followed a far more arduous route of becoming a Spanish citizen through her own Sephardic origins. And now I find myself in the camp of those erstwhile Remainers who believe in the importance of respecting the vote that took place.

Layers of complex and contradictory feelings about Germany were added to when my daughter decided to study German (with Russian) at University. Her interest in the language had, I think, little to do with her origins but much to do with perversity of the case system (although, I understand, it is as nothing compared to other languages such as Czech and Hungarian).

We took advantage of our daughter’s year in Germany to visit her in the small Hessian city of Fulda, where she found a welcome from the tiny local Jewish community, mainly made up of elderly Ukrainians, and then weekends in Hamburg and Munich, visiting the local art galleries as well as the local synagogues. Thus she found herself as a Cambridge undergraduate on a year abroad in Germany, but at the same time as a German citizen.

All of which brings us to today and the General Election. There is no doubt that a dread of a Labour victory is a fairly common sentiment among British Jews. This seems not unreasonable when the Leader of the Opposition has invited to Parliament and described as “friends” people who claim that Jews drink the blood of gentile babies and whose organisation calls for the murder of all Jews anywhere in the world.

This would-be Labour prime minister has written a glowing introduction to an Edwardian-era book which argues that the Jews were responsible for the evils of the British Empire, and lauded a mural whose own creator has explicitly declared that it depicts Jewish bankers (but also some gentile ones) playing monopoly on the backs of the exploited of the world. None of which, as far as I can see, has anything to do with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Looking across the continent we see Jews more comfortable wearing explicit symbols of their faith walking the streets of Warsaw or Budapest than down those of so-called multi-racial Paris or Berlin, while those quickest to defend Corbyn as merely “anti-Zionist” denounce as anti-Semitic people who criticise George Soros (as if his merely being Jewish places him above criticism) or denounce the very use of the term “cultural Marxism” as racist.

As for Germany, it continues to be seen as a model of a modern democracy by most Jews of my generation, a country which has done much to atone for its past. Yet recently a German court ruled that an attempt to burn down a synagogue in Wuppertal was not anti-Semitic but merely “anti-Zionist”; the last time the synagogue was burnt was in 1938. And only last month two people were killed in an attack on a synagogue in Halle.

Both some recent migrants and some of their bitterest opponents in the AfD and on the far-Right blame the Jews for whatever it is they do not like, but alas this is something not limited to Germany alone.

Ja, nein und trotzdem; nothing is simple in the relationship between Germans and Jews and the past, it seems, is never really over.

Dr. Paul Morland is a business consultant and senior member at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His latest book is Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers.

Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

The courage of Jews who choose to return to Germany is, trotzdem, characteristic of a people whose written history ultimately established a moral foundation upon which the Western world was built.
“Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, shalt nor covet thy neighbor’s wife, etc. . .” t’was quite a significant list there. . . principles upon which an entire continent, or two or three, were civilized during the last several thousand years.
Thanks to you, Paul, and to your people, for setting the cornerstone of Western morality and law upon which our civilization prospered well for several millennia.
Thank you, Paul. Keep up the good work. Don’t let the nazis discourage you. We took them out of the way in 1945.