Navigating Guilt? An Intersectional Feminist Lens on the Fragility of the Concept of Germanness

This contribution discusses how German history and identity have shaped the country’s moral orientation toward Israel. There is insufficient space here to discuss the implications for Germany’s foreign policy.

On 8 April 2024, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard Nicaragua’s case against Germany over the latter’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza. The Nicaraguan submission report reads that “[b]y sending military equipment and now defunding UNRWA [UN agency for Palestinian refugees] […] Germany is facilitating the commission of genocide.” These are heavy allegations for any country, let alone a Western power that has since the end of World War II been seen as a beacon of democracy and human rights.

Germany’s Staatsräson

In the wake of Hamas's incursion into Israel on October 7, 2023, many Western nations - including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany - have faced moral scrutiny for their political stances, specifically from the so-called Global South. Germany's relationship with Israel is deeply rooted in its acknowledgment of responsibility for the Holocaust and its subsequent support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Germany's commitment to Israel's security has remained steadfast, but this unwavering support has been criticized for overlooking the ongoing suffering of Palestinians, raising questions about Germany's moral consistency and social unity.

Germany claims and has indeed played a special role in the history of the State of Israel. After the Holocaust, which took the lives of over 6 million Jews, plans were put forward to establish a homeland for the Jewish people. These plans were realized on the 14th of May 1948, as David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel in what was then British-mandated Palestine. The fate of this territory had been under discussion since the late 19th Century, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. From that time until 1948, hundreds of thousands of European Jews migrated to Palestine to escape roaring antisemitism in Europe, the experience of the Holocaust marking the climax of atrocities towards Europe’s Jews.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's declaration in the Knesset in 2008 that “[…] for me as German Federal Chancellor, Israel’s security is never negotiable” has become a cornerstone of German foreign policy. It has even been described as Germany’s Staatsräson (reason of state), especially in light of recent events. This stance has been criticized for turning a blind eye on the plight of the Palestinians. The imbalance in Germany's approach has sparked debate within the country, with some questioning whether the pursuit of Israel's security interests should come at the expense of Palestinian rights and lives. The intensity of this debate has demonstrated the incredible volatility of this issue in contemporary German society.

To be a real German

What does it mean for a nation to reconcile with such a significant aspect of its past when its contemporary population increasingly lacks a common connection with that past? European nationality laws have long defined citizenship according to blood ties. And indeed, for some people, Germanness still connotes an ancestral link to the Nazi era – and a nationalized moral obligation to contend with it.

But definitions of Germanness have changed in complex ways throughout the 21st century, and direct ancestral links are no longer sufficient criteria for defining what it means to be German. Over 28 percent of the German population have a migration background. For someone whose personal background cannot be contained within Germany borders, belonging may be less about ancestral participation in the Nazi project – and the guilt that comes with accepting culpability for the Holocaust. Nor do they demonstrate it through unquestioning allegiance to one side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. For many, it is more about dealing with contemporary social and political realities, and national identity is formed around common visions for Germany’s role in the world.  Insistence on notions of Germanness that no longer reflect the lived and inherited experiences of contemporary Germans is likely to contribute to a process of de-identification and the ensuing erosion of social cohesion.

Reproducing Systems of Oppression

This identity trouble manifests in current German politics, domestically and foreign. Antisemitism is only one form of oppression that is structurally engrained in the organizational set-up of the German state. Even though there is huge awareness in German society on this matter, intersectionality teaches us that systems of oppression intersect. Hyper-focusing on one will never comprehensively address injustice but will rather make everyone, even those not directly affected by any of the systems, more insecure.

The hyper-focus on antisemitism and the Holocaust has been an important factor in German morality and consciousness, and it is not the goal of this article to dismantle that. But exclusionary focus on these issues has ironically resulted in discrimination against the various Jewish people speaking out against Zionism in Germany who have been silenced and even attacked with antisemitic slurs and even been labelled antisemitic themselves. Furthermore, the singling out of antisemitism as an imported issue – often attributed to immigrants of Muslim faith - places the blame on non-White Germans and glosses over the wider persistence of antisemitism among Germans of European descent, alongside the broader problem of racism.

The topic of integration in Germany needs to be analyzed through the lens of who is included and who is excluded from prevailing definitions of national identity. Inclusion involves recognition and participation in power sharing, even in the process of defining the identity that is at stake. This makes the question of who belongs and who does not belong a feminist issue – one that requires critical attention to entrenched hierarchies of power. And while Germans are aware of their historic obligations on the one side, Germany seems to be in denial of its current obligations domestically and in the world, meaning Palestinians as much as other groups. This suggests that Germany has not yet learned from its past, and does not yet understand the universality of human rights. Perhaps the past has not yet been reappraised holistically.

Un-Identification from the West

Aiding genocide is a crime against humanity. Now, even if officially it remains to be determined in the international court that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza (and potentially beyond), the existence of the case is already sufficient to raise concern. And indeed, the tenfold growth of German arms sales to Israel since 7 October is “utterly concerning,” as the UN and officials of Western “democracies” would usually say about any country in the Global South that had been accused of atrocities like we have observed in Gaza. But no one is able to step in at this point, and Germany is paving the way for a new historic guilt to be dealt with in this century. Is this our new Staatsräson, and is the foundation of our new German identity (again) built upon guilt?

The one-sidedness of the discourse since October 7 leads to the un-identification of Germans with migration background, new and old, putting into question the values for which Germany supposedly stands. Parallel discourses, societal falling apart and dangerous narratives domestically emerge and are reflected in discriminatory foreign policy. The German identity praised for acknowledging and recovering from the atrocities exercised by its own nation in WWII faces collapse if it does not comprehend that the lessons must apply to injustices against all peoples.

Dilek Gürsel works as a senior program manager at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s MENA Peace & Security Project, focusing extensively on feminist approaches within her job. Prior to this role, Dilek served in diverse humanitarian positions across the MENA region. She holds a master’s degree in international development from Sciences Po, Paris.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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