Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.
August witnessed another terror attack in a European city center. Fifteen people were killed when a van was driven down Barcelona’s busiest pedestrian street. Elsewhere, Jewish leaders in Poland beseeched the ruling ultra-nationalist Law and Justice party to do more to protect their community. Spending on security has increased amid growing right-wing anti-Semitic incitement. In Germany, Jewish leaders defended Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, after it emerged that the Simon Wiesenthal Center planned to include him in their annual list of the world’s worst cases of anti-Semitism.
With elections due to take place at the end of September, Germany is the subject of this month’s Thermometer Interview. Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union enjoys a substantial lead over its nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party. Its leader, Martin Schulz, has attacked Merkel over defense spending and a perceived failure to condemn Donald Trump after the racist violence in Charlottesville. The far-right Alternative for Germany, meanwhile, continues to campaign on immigration and Merkel’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the summer of 2015.
A month out from the vote, Moment spoke with Anetta Kahane, founder and chair of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation for civil empowerment and a democratic culture. Kahane grew up in East Berlin and was an ‘informal collaborator’ with the Stasi, age 19, reporting on Western diplomats. After eight years she broke off the arrangement and became an opponent of the regime. Kahane has been on the front line of human rights work in Germany since the 1980s, increasingly focused on hate speech online including anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, a direct threat to German Jews and the country’s civil society.
How would you assess the health of Europe today?
It’s astonishingly well, in the global context, but today you also see the stirring of right-wing nationalist movements, Russian pressure and the weakening of relations between the United States and Europe. The situation in Germany is quite good.
Is this the biggest problem facing Europe right now, the rise of right-wing nationalism?
Yes, though I think anti-Semitism and racism were always a problem. It’s not as if people woke up one day and decided to become anti-Semites and racists. They [right-wing nationalists] just didn’t have power because they were not well organized. Now, because of social media, we have a better view of what is happening.
One of the issues you’ve been engaged with in recent years has been hate speech online, including anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. How does this manifest itself in Germany?
This is an international problem and not only a German one. The haters online are empowering each other to be even more aggressive, and with the support of Russians as well, they can have a big impact on discussion. It comes from a cross-section of places, between left and right and other anti-democratic movements, which some years ago wouldn’t have spoken to one another. Now they come together on certain points: anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Semitism. There is a meshing of beliefs such that you have a big movement making a common sound, even though these different milieus have their own songs.
Moving on to the election, how has the European refugee crisis changed Germany and German politics?
It gave rise to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and other right-wing groups, paradoxically making things clearer. Before , the discussion about racism and anti-Semitism in Germany was not very well developed, but now we can see exactly where the hate is coming from. With people voting for the AfD (and on the left we have the BDS movement), the main parties can see the problem and can no longer ignore it. They have to take a position and consider how to confront [the far-right].
One of the concerns raised by Jewish community leaders in the summer of 2015 was that more refugees from the Middle East would result in a rise in anti-Semitism in Germany. Was that fear justified?
We [the Amadeu Antonio Foundation] found that this [refugees’ views about Jews] depends on their social and cultural origins, status and education, or if they are from oppressed groups, like Yazidis or Kurds. Overall we could not find a significant rise in anti-Semitism in Germany [but] it is interesting that when young people arrived from Syria, they came with a lot of problems, so Jews and Israel were not the first things they wanted to discuss. After a while, however, they went into German schools and youth clubs and met second- and third-generation [immigrants] and were immediately confronted with anti-Semitism, something they thought they left behind in the Middle East.
The paradox is that the more Jewish the times, the more flexible, cosmopolitan and connected, the more anti-Semitic the world becomes.
In the United States, we have seen a resurgence of white nationalism and neo-Nazism. How has this affected Germany?
We thought that they would try and establish Breitbart in Germany, but they didn’t. At the end of the day, there is a strong feeling of anti-Americanism. Donald Trump is the sort of American everybody is against—such an idiot that only in a country like America would it be possible for him to become president. He is proof of people’s prejudice against the United States, and this feeling is much stronger than the empowerment felt by the right. Nobody feels they can openly show solidarity with Trump, such a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the people.
Martin Schulz has attempted to use Trump against Angela Merkel. Will attempting to associate Merkel with Trump work, or does this smack of desperation on the part of someone 15 points behind in the polls?
No, I don’t think this will work because people know that if Schulz were chancellor, he would have to make the same international arrangements. I cannot imagine what the Social Democratic Party (SPD) can do now to change their fortune. It would be nice to have a strong left-liberal movement in Germany but it’s not the time. Let’s see what happens at the next election [in 2022]. These elections will likely result in a coalition [of the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)] or the CDU will continue with the SDP. I don’t think the people want change.
There has been a tendency, since the American presidential election, to look to Germany as the leader of the free world. Are we right to do so?
I don’t think Germany can fulfill this role. Government and industry lead in certain ways and Germany can place pressure at global conferences on climate change and so on, but I think with Merkel, this will not happen.
It’s very important for the Jewish community in Germany that the United States is clear on certain points, to have a cosmopolitan attitude to the big questions on immigration, racism and anti-Semitism. Now the United States is opting out of the conversation about universalistic human rights. We don’t know anymore. We have an [American] administration that is not focused on human rights, but a mix of economic interests and a right-wing agenda of white supremacism. This is not helpful for Europe.