German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks in front of the main railway entrance to Birkenau, as she visits the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, December 6 2019. Picture: AFP/JOHN MACDOUGALL.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks in front of the main railway entrance to Birkenau, as she visits the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, December 6 2019. Picture: AFP/JOHN MACDOUGALL.

Berlin — When Angela Merkel heard about the deadly anti-Semitic attack in eastern Germany in October, she rushed to Oranienburger Strasse synagogue to be with Berlin’s Jewish community.

Local Jews had gathered there for the Yom Kippur holiday and feared they might be targeted next. Merkel met a small group in the upper chambers and talked about the complex feelings of revulsion and shame the attack had prompted.

A Germany where such attacks happen is not a place where she wants to live, she said, according to two people who were there.

During a visit to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz on Friday, Merkel called on Germans to reflect on their country’s troubled past.

“Auschwitz, in particular, compels and commits each and every one of us to be vigilant on a daily basis, to preserve humanity and to protect the dignity of our neighbours,” she said. “This isn’t just rhetoric.”

“In these days, it is necessary to say this clearly,” Merkel said, referring to rising anti-Semitism in Germany. “Because we are experiencing a worrying racism, an increasing intolerance and a wave of hate crimes. We are witnessing an attack on the basic values of liberal democracy and a dangerous revisionism of history.”

Merkel as chancellor has carried the weight of history like few other contemporary leaders — growing up under communism, she steered the European project through financial storms and Russian aggression.

“It has happened, that’s why it can happen again,” Merkel said, her voice breaking with emotion as she cited Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. “Therefore, we should not close our eyes and ears when people are being molested, humiliated or marginalised. We must oppose those who shy away from prejudice or hatred against people of other faiths or backgrounds. We all have responsibility.”

She’s approaching the end of her political career with a sense of foreboding as the institutions that underpinned 75 years of peace in Europe start to fray.

It’s not just Donald Trump, whose divisive policies have angered Merkel and rattled European unity. There’s a line running from the rhetoric of hatred encouraged by nationalists such as Germany’s AfD, the League in Italy or pro-Brexit extremists and individual acts of violence like the one that claimed the lives of two bystanders in Halle last October, the first armed attack on a synagogue in Germany since the end of the Nazi regime in 1945.

In private conversations, the chancellor worries about how far that trend has to go and is concerned that the next generation of leaders won’t be able to reverse the slide towards confrontation.

In a recent closed-door meeting, Merkel spoke of the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Europe 400 years ago as an example of how quickly a peaceful order can collapse. It’s a historical parallel she returns to again and again as she tries to find ways to patch up traditional bonds, whether that means bridge-building between global leaders or easing frictions between different social groups at home.

Before Nato’s fractious leaders gathered in London this week, she took French President Emmanuel Macron for dinner in the Savoy Hotel in a bid to patch up a relationship that had soured over his attacks on the western alliance. In the end, the leaders managed to get through Nato’s 70th anniversary without a major blow up.

As the UK election campaign recently showcased, anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head elsewhere. But everyday life in Germany has been punctuated by moments of ideologically motivated violence that have shocked the political class. Earlier 2019, a local politician from Merkel’s Christian Democratic party was killed in the city of Kassel by a man with a right-wing extremist background.

The number of hate crimes against Jews, including vandalism of tombstones or synagogues, has been on the rise, and Germany’s commissioner for anti-Semitism said in May he couldn’t recommend that Jews would always be safe wearing a kippah head covering in public.

Beyond rhetoric

Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, has consistently spoken out against anti-Semitism. Even before she became chancellor, she kicked a legislator out of the CDU caucus for anti-Semitic remarks and she later criticised German Pope Benedict for controversial remarks over the Holocaust, earning herself flak from her own rank and file. She’s previously visited concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald and has been to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem four times.

“Angela Merkel has a very clear and ethically reflected view of Jewish life in Germany,” said Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue. “This has always been a central affair of the heart for her. Her way of dealing with this topic clearly goes beyond the normal political rhetoric of German politicians.”

There may also be a particular sense of responsibility for Merkel, who critics even in her own party argue, contributed to the resurgence of right-wing extremism by allowing more than one-million refugees into the country. That, they say, created deep divisions within German society and helped fuel the rise of the right-wing populist AfD, some of whose leaders have belittled Nazi atrocities. Until recently some Christian Democratic politicians had sympathised with parts of the AfD.

Frustration

They distanced themselves more clearly after a resurgence of ultranationalist violence in 2019, and the government has stepped up surveillance of would-be perpetrators and the protection of potential victims.

But frustration is growing, as Merkel herself experienced at the tail end of her visit to the Berlin synagogue when a bystander heckled her, saying it was time she stopped treating such incidents as isolated crimes committed by individuals.

There was also much debate in the local media about the timing of Merkel’s first visit to Auschwitz, as it coincides with a party convention of the Social Democrats, her junior coalition partner, which was threatening to abandon her coalition and potentially end her 14-year reign prematurely. A visit on January 27, the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops, would have been the obvious occasion for a visit but by that time her coalition could already have been in deep crisis mode, the argument went.

Organisers and the Chancellery denied any political motives behind the visit, which began with an invitation from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation founded 10 years ago by the now late, former Polish foreign minister, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who himself had survived the camp.

“Auschwitz is an important symbol, but it matters more what is done in terms of concrete political decisions,” Ederberg, the rabbi, said. “And Merkel has done a lot.”

Bloomberg

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