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Prof. Jeffrey Herf

Jeffrey Herf (Winnipeg Visit for CISA On May 30, 2016): Germany, the Holocaust, and Syrian Refugees

By Prof. Jeffrey Herf

Reprinted from The Times of Israel

Prof. Jeffrey Herf will be delivering CISA's 2016 Shindleman Lecture on Monday, May 30, 2016 at the Fort Garry Hotel--Buy Your Tickets Here. 

The fact that Syrians are coming to Germany merits some reflection on the specific historical connection between these two countries and their utterly contrasting approaches since World War II to the conflict in the Middle East and the state of Israel. The question in months and years to come will not only be whether or not the refugees become integrated into German society or if terrorists have merged with the refugee stream of 2015.

The more enduring issue is also about the terms on which integration should take place. How is Germany going to respond to people from a country which has been at war with Israel since 1948 and was a loyal ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War? How will the refugees respond to a Germany in which the memory of the crimes of the Nazi regime, including the Holocaust, and support for the state of Israel have become core elements of a broad political consensus? The easy paths of integration would ignore these issues. That is a recipe for failure. The hard path of integration looks at these contrasting histories straight on in order to preserve Germany’s best postwar political traditions and foster successful integration of the refugees.

Following the attacks in Paris on November 13, the discussion in Germany, as elsewhere, has expanded about whether terrorists have used the refugee stream to come to their country. Berthold Kohler, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has criticized German government efforts to insist that the issues of terrorism and migration were not related. Kohler stated the obvious: It is entirely conceivable that there will be Islamist among in the approximately 800,000 migrants that the German government expects to receive in 2015. Christopher Caldwell, in The Weekly Standard, has examined “the bloody crossroads where migration and terrorism meet” in Europe and Germany. Since Merkel relaxed border controls in the summer, Caldwell writes, “migrants started pouring into the country without identity check or proper registration.”

Today, the German government does not know for sure who has arrived. Yet no matter what the outcome of the Syrian civil war is or when stability and elementary law and order return to other countries from which refugees are fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Syrians or people claiming to be Syrians are going to be living in Germany for some time to come. Especially after the Paris attacks, the connection between migration and terrorism is a fact. What’s done is done. Now the challenges facing Germany foster an integration on terms that preserves its values and political identity.

In 2008, in a remarkable speech to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.” In August 2015, Merkel expressed her welcome to refugees from Syria, confident her generosity was compatible with the commitments she had reiterated seven years earlier.

If the two are to be compatible, the history of the unrelenting hostility of Syria’s government towards Israel since 1948 and of the two decades of alliance between the former East Germany and the Baathist regime in Damascus must become matters of public discussion in Germany. From its beginning in 1949, West Germany’s tradition of “coming to terms with the Nazi past” was opposed by those who wanted to forget and avoid discussion of the crimes of the Nazi regime.

Over time, however, a consensus emerged in the German political establishment from center right to center left in West German and then German public life that an honest reckoning was indispensable to the establishment of liberal democracy in West Germany, to its integration into the Western Alliance and to its support for the Zionist aspiration became reality in the state of Israel after World War II. During those same years, the Communist dictatorship in East Germany initially purged those

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