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Fresh Air in Central Europe

A certain kind of liberalism familiar to readers of The New Republic has been stirring in, of all places, Germany and Austria. To be sure, it operates on the margins. And, yes, the impulse to appease, run for cover and all the rest lingers there as well. So, too, does the mixture of irritation, indifference, and even outright hostility to Israel. But the spirit of this magazine, the spirit of “hard” liberalism, animates a new and unique collection of intellectuals and activists with impeccable credentials on the European left.

They know anti-Semites and reactionaries on the left and right when they see them; they do not hesitate to call a spade a spade. They think that the security of the state of Israel, along with the imperative of preventing Iran from getting the bomb, amount to moral and practical necessities. Some of them are Jewish, some are not. Most are simply liberals and even leftists who believe European traditions of anti-fascism have a special relevance when it comes to thinking and responding to the latest “isms,” particularly Islamism and the terror it so often promotes. When these intellectuals see the word Islamo-fascism, they do not rail about the abuse of language, denounce George Bush, or make furious comments about misplaced historical analogies. On the contrary, they place themselves, and belong, squarely in the progressive European tradition.

This is a significant development in the intellectual and political history of German-speaking Central Europe and perhaps for Europe as a whole. It has parallels to the “Euston Manifesto” from London, and to its American cousin, published in Washington, DC in 2006. Now it’s one thing for British leftists or American liberals to revive the language of anti-fascism of the 1940s. Churchill and Roosevelt, after all, still reign for us as icons. Although anti-fascism was also a Central European tradition, it had been drowned out, even trumped, by anti-imperialism and Third Worldism since the 1960s. But in recent years liberal and social democratic variations of the anti-fascism of the 1940s and 1950s have made common cause with a distinctive brand of left-liberalism that emerged first in Germany and then in Austria.

The current advocates of a revived and wiser liberal anti-fascism argue that if you truly mean to come to terms with the Nazi era, you need to think creatively and comparatively about similarities and differences between past and present. What is conservative or right-wing, they ask, about denouncing anti-Semitism or terrorist attacks on civilians? Indeed, how can anyone who calls himself a liberal permit Lenin’s empty slogans about anti-imperialism or Third Worldism to mute one’s criticism of Jew-hatred? Why is it anything but progressive to call major corporations to account for doing business with Iran as it builds up its nuclear weapons program? Further, and with one eye to history, what is realistic or enlightened about European policymakers who believe Tehran will be deterred absent the option of punitive military action? Is such a belief not the height of naivete and wishful thinking? Why, in Munich itself, have the lessons of Munich become quaint or even taboo?

Questions along these lines have been intrinsic to liberalism and left-liberalism in West Germany. Yet, to an extent never seen in the United States, they yielded with force during the 1960s and 1970s to an overwhelming combination of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism and, of course, anti-Zionism. At its most extreme, this toxic mixture culminated in West German terrorists directly targeting Israelis. As the German left subsequently denounced terror, the question arose: How could this have happened in this first place? From the debates that followed during the 1980s, there emerged liberals and leftists who argued that the contorted anti-fascism of the West German and Austrian New Left failed to grasp the origins and nature of anti-Semitism both in its European but also in its more contemporary Arab and Islamist context. When Al Qaeda issued its fatwa in 1998 attacking “Crusaders and Jews,” and when the Iranian regime directed increasingly dire threats at Israel, denounced democracy, subordinated women, and engaged in outright terrorism, a small group of German-speaking liberals immediately recognized themes from their nation’s own anti-Semitic and totalitarian traditions. When the September 11 conspirators turned out to have been living and organizing in Hamburg, Matthias Kuntzel, who lives not far from that city, began to hold their ideas up to a close scrutiny.

Equally important was an awareness that German and Austrian business interests, both large and small, had become significantly involved in trade with those intent on destroying the Jewish state, particularly the theocrats in Tehran. German companies were selling sophisticated technology to the Iranian government that was being put to use in Iran’s nuclear program. In Austria as well, business types, joined by the foreign policy establishment of both countries, were making the case for deeper economic engagement even as Iran’s threats to Israel became more specific and urgent. In response, a “Stop the Bomb” movement has emerged to cast a bright line on the spectacle of German and Austrian companies furthering Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. What did the now-famous “coming to terms with the Nazi past” mean, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno, if not that such complicity must never happen again?

The honor roll of those who have taken Adorno’s admonition to heart—and to the streets—contains some of Germany’s brightest intellectual lights. In Berlin, Richard Herzinger’s columns in Die Welt make the case for free and pluralist society, the liberal values of the West, close ties to the United States, and the defense of Israel as intelligently and passionately as writers for TNR do. Herzinger accomplishes this with arguments that draw as much from American and British liberalism as from German cultural criticism and a sophisticated reading of international power politics.

In Hamburg, Matthias Kuntzel has written several books and many articles about Nazism, Islamism, and anti-Semitism in the Middle East; Iran’s nuclear program; and Germany’s political and economic relations with Tehran. (I am not a disinterested party: I wrote the foreword to the English edition of his book Jihad and Jew-Hatred.) Think of Kuntzel as a kind of German counterpart to our Paul Berman, an intellectual who emerged out of the '60s left to raise the alarm about radical anti-Semitism in Islamist form. As much as anyone, he has made the case that coming to terms with the Nazi past demands confronting anti-Semitism without condition and regardless of its source, whether on the right or left.

In Berlin, Klaus Faber is a founding member of the Coordinating Committee of German Non-Governmental Organizations against Anti-Semitism. He was previously a state secretary in the Education Ministry of the state of Sachsen-Anhalt and has been active in the German Social Democratic Party. Faber writes frequently in the German press and tracks German, European, and international politics, in particular when the issues concerns Islamist terror or anti-Semitism, and has been relentless in bringing these to the attention of the political establishment of which he a part in Berlin.

Also in Berlin, Anette Kahane, who grew up in East Germany, now directs the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that promotes a multi-ethnic Germany. The foundation draws attention to and fights against instances of anti-Semitism as well as of racism against immigrants of all ethnicities and religions, whether the hatred comes from the neo-Nazi scene or Islamists. In the past few years, the foundation organized a much-discussed and even much more needed traveling exhibit about anti-Semitism in formerly anti-fascist East Germany.

The Stop the Bomb campaign has organized demonstrations, published essays, organized panel discussions and petitioned German and Austrian corporations in its efforts to cut European economic ties to Iran. Last month, some of its members published Iran und das Weltsystem (Iran and the World System). The volume, edited by Simone Hartmann and Stephan Grigat, includes essays by eleven other contributors, this writer included. Any think tank in Washington might have published these very well-informed discussions about Iran’s domestic and international politics, its nuclear weapons program, and what ought to be done about it. But this wasn’t any think tank in Washington. It was a vanguard in Germany.

While Berliners and Germans have debated the meaning of coming to terms with the past for decades, the argument arrived somewhat later to post-Waldheim Austria. Yet here as well, a young generation of activists and intellectuals has made common cause with the grandfathers of a pro-Western and avowedly pro-Israeli liberalism, such as the vocal and prolificKarl Pfeifer, a journalist who has been skewering the complacency of the Austrian establishment since the 1980s and championing a reawakened liberalism.

There is not an argument about Zionism and anti-Zionism, or Islamism and Islamophobia, or anti-imperialism or Islamo-fascism that members of this new generation have not heard many times over. Yet accusations of blind enthusiasm for the United States or Israel have very little traction for them. For its members, the slogans of anti-imperialism no longer trump the values of authentic anti-fascism, which they summon to combat rather than apologize for radical anti-Semites and enemies of Western democracy. Herzinger quotes Popper, Berlin, and Tocqueville; some of the Stop the Bomb members cite Marx and Adorno, but all find themselves awakened by a mixture of foreboding and of hope. They are not naïve—as Europeans, they can imagine catastrophe. But nor are they cynics. Yes, this is a minority, but it is an articulate, energetic and deeply sincere one. Only time will tell if these political and intellectual currents will achieve major political and historical significance. But these anti-fascist liberals of Europe’s early twenty-first century are the heirs and custodians of postwar Europe’s finest and most enlightened political traditions, all of them imbued with a clear memory of past catastrophes. Theirs is a small but fresh breath of air in Europe. 

Jeffrey Herf teaches European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust.