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December 20, 2023
14 mins read

Students are Taking on Germany’s Genocide “Guiltwashing”

It’s a typically bleak December day in Berlin, and pro-Palestinian students from across the city have gathered outside the neoclassical facade of Humboldt University (HU). Berlin’s oldest university, the HU has borne witness to countless debates that have shaped Germany’s cultural and philosophical landscape and been home to the minds of the brilliant, like Karl Marx and Albert Einstein but also the grotesque, notably Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in whose name the university continues to hold periodic events.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the university faced a process of “Gleichschaltung,” or coordination, where it conformed to Nazi principles. Many Jewish and anti-fascist faculty members were dismissed, and efforts were made to eliminate academic freedom and enforce ideological conformity. The university became a hub for propagating Nazi doctrines and discriminating against individuals who did not adhere to the regime’s beliefs. Today, Germany’s students find themselves in an eerily similar atmosphere and their struggle that started with demanding their universities end their complicity with yet another genocide now encompasses a struggle to “decolonize” their universities, and prevent a new era of academic state capture, censorship and repression.

From Ad-Hoc to Unified Organizing

Outside the HU, a student from the arts university, UdK which has been staging a weekly pro-Palestine strike, tells red. media about the level of repression they are facing: “A lot of students who are involved in the Palestine solidarity movement have a migration background or fragile visa status that don’t allow for global mobility and it is a very real threat to them to speak out publicly about Palestine seeing how solidarity with Palestine is being criminalized at the moment.” This threat also translates to the streets, where the demonization of Palestine solidarity has emboldened racists to desecrate Muslim graves, vandalize Palestinian businesses and terrorize high school students who in Munich turned up to class to find their school covered in “Kill All Palestinians” graffiti. None of this has been addressed by any mainstream political, media, or academic figure, all these quarters are preoccupied with waging a ferocious smear campaign against pro-Palestine activists, including Berlin’s students.

In this campaign, the authoritarian approach which has characterized Germany’s handling of mass Palestine solidarity since October 7 is rapidly seeping into academia. What began with the early banning of pro-Palestine protests and the criminalization of Palestinian prisoner solidarity organization Samidoun, culminated in real threats to deny citizenship to pro-Palestinian migrants, a measure that has not been seen since the Nazi Third Reich. It is in this atmosphere that what began as ad-hoc and scattered student organizing, is increasingly coalescing into a broad and unified movement of students across a growing number of academic institutions in the German capital. This movement goes by the name “Student Coalition Berlin” and its character couldn’t be more of a challenge to the stereotypes the German ruling class insists upon, of a liberal, democratic, Israeli society, and an Islamic-fascist Palestinian one.  

Outside the HU, an Israeli, Jewish anti-Zionist trans woman who has been addressing the crowd, stands her ground when a member of the university administration grabs the mic and unironically demands: “Will you condemn Hamas?” At the same time, a young hijab-wearing student proudly holds her Palestine flag to obscure an Israeli flag that’s being waved by three pro-Israel activists who have arrived to sabotage the protest. They are singing ultra-nationalist Israeli songs and demanding the eradication of Palestine with the chant “From the river to the sea, this is the only flag you’re gonna see.” For this, the police will file criminal proceedings against them, according to an officer who later contacted red. after we published this video. One of the trio, Jacob Goldhaber boasts on his Instagram account that he has recently enlisted to the IDF, and in other posts calls for Israel to “flatten Gaza”. The scene of a trans Israeli Jewish anti-Zionist woman standing shoulder to shoulder with a young hijab wearing woman alone should be enough to begin questioning what we are told about Israel, Palestine and the war, but a reporter from the broadcaster ARD who has been standing on the sidelines for sometime has no questions for the protesters she is observing. When Goldhaber and his peers appear, she shakes their hands and asks to arrange an interview.

The week before, Jewish, Palestinian, German and international students at the UdK gathered for their weekly strike and to reflect on the media storm smearing them as anti-Semites who celebrate suicide attacks against Israel. The press speaks of the students as authoritarians for refusing to allow the reporters to attend their strike. One of the UdK activists told red. media: “We would say the exclusion of our own voices from the university’s official statements and also that of the majority of the faculty is the actual authoritarian action. It was only a temporary decision because the press has been very racist and aggressive and undermined the students’ feeling of safety. This was also communicated with the administration of UdK, who shared this view. Members of the press are free to reach out to us directly and even encouraged to. This has been communicated in our statement as well as our email, which is easily found on all social media.”

The day after the demonstration at HU, students occupy the largest lecture hall in the Free University (FU) in Berlin’s Dahlem neighborhood. The FU was established after WWII with a commitment to nurturing independent thought. The occupiers cover the walls with pictures of Israeli war crimes in Gaza, and quotes of Israeli politicians calling for genocide. In the auditorium, a panel of students and scholars from the FU and other institutions hold seminars to bridge the void in their education, which as one student told red. media is lacking “objective and critical information and education about what is happening in Palestine”.

“Whatever sacrifice, whatever we might have to endure is nothing in comparison to the risks that people in the past have taken, paying with their own lives, and really pales in comparison to what Palestinians right now are facing.”

In the halls and upper levels of the auditorium, pro-Israel intruders have stormed in. They tear down posters, assault members of the occupiers’ security team including a Jewish student, and shout “Nazis” at the occupiers. The university management gives the occupiers an ultimatum: let the intruders stay or the occupation must end. As the students wrangle with management, warning that their demand will endanger student safety, they also struggle with the fear that the slightest challenge to the intruders will be wildly misrepresented as an anti-Semitic offense.

Meanwhile, one of the panelists, an Israeli scholar from the UK’s Palestine Action, Dr. Stavit Sinai, who was imprisoned last year for occupying the UK headquarters of Israeli arms firm Elbit Systems, seeks to contextualize their fear. “Whatever sacrifice, whatever we might have to endure is nothing in comparison to the risks that people in the past have taken, paying with their own lives, and really pales in comparison to what Palestinians right now are facing.” Sinai is addressing “privileged” students and not those who are being threatened with deportation to “the most horrible fate”. Her German co-panelist then addresses the FU management, warning them that if they do not speak out against the government’s moves to reintroduce fascist era attacks on citizenship rights “the university doesn’t really deserve to carry the name of Free University.”In the days after the event, the students will reflect on how it developed, saying “against our better judgment, we accepted the university’s instruction” to let the intruders stay. In the heat of the moment, they trust the management to keep its side of the bargain and allow the occupation to continue, only to later be ruthlessly betrayed.

Media Witch-Hunt

Within no time the pro-Israel intruders have summoned major German media organizations who dutifully show up with no pretenses that the subjects of their coverage can expect any objectivity. Curiously, the journalists are accompanied by Jörg Reichel, the trade union (Verdi) representative for Berlin’s journalists, as though the reporters anticipated a need for back-up, or perhaps he personally wanted to participate in the witch hunt, again. Reichel has a track-record of aligning with the German state’s media mouthpieces that consistently demonize the working class who pay his salary, and whom he is meant to represent in exchange. His unwavering support for Israel is also well known, including in its current genocide, and he himself smears pro-Palestinian protesters as “anti-Semitic“. For the entirety of the occupation, this media entourage hang out with the intruders and interview them extensively. They only approach pro-Palestinian students when the police move towards them – this is the only scenario which fits the story they have already prepared. Embedded journalism has been transposed to peaceful protest and within hours the headline of the notorious tabloid Bild screams “Jew Haters Occupy Berlin Lecture Hall” offering no evidence of anti-Semitism, nor any mention that Jewish students and Israelis have been at the forefront of organizing the occupation.German media in Goebbelsian style will repeat the false claim that the occupiers attacked and pushed out the pro-Israel intruders. This will later be refuted in a statement about the occupation by the university management, which itself leads with a commitment to “oppose anti-Semitism in all its forms”, an implication that will in turn be refuted by the police who the following day say no incidents of anti-Semitism had been reported to them.

Guiltwashing

In Germany, the second biggest supplier of arms to Israel after the US, the media whitewashes Israel at times even more aggressively than the Israeli media itself. Bild, the country’s most widely selling paper, leads its counterparts in jettisoning the book of journalistic standards out the window, confident that there will be no consequence for its violations. For decades, close to half of the annual reprimands by the toothless German Press Council have been dedicated to Bild, but the council’s slaps on the wrist are not matched with sanctions.

The media’s propagandizing for Israel is often inaccurately described as part of Germany’s process of reckoning with its guilt in perpetrating the industrial murder of six million Jews. The students have coined a far more appropriate description: “guiltwashing”. Guiltwashing encapsulates how Germany does not in fact seek to take responsibility for its historic guilt for the Holocaust, but instead works to transfer that guilt to other oppressed – and innocent – groups, primarily Palestinians, but also Muslims at large and all who criticize Israel, including masses of Jews.

Many decades before the German government adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in 2017, which falsely conflates anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the Axel Springer group that owns Bild, Die Welt, Business Insider and more recently Politico enshrined its commitment to Israel in its “constitution”. This is still unique in German media, and was the initiative of the group’s late founder, after which it is named, a year and a half after his first of many trips to Israel in 1967. Until today, all Axel Springer employees have to sign on to this commitment to Israel as part of their employment contract, and adhere to it in their reporting.

Axel Springer the man is perhaps the best analogy for Germany’s approach to its past, and to Israel today. The year is 1933, and it was a pivotal one for the 21-year-old Springer. Not just because Hitler has come to power and he has joined the National Socialist Motor Corps, a paramilitary sub-organization of the Nazi Party. It was the year Springer would marry his first wife, Martha Else Meyer and get his first job in what would become his lifelong profession. Despite Springer often being portrayed today as a self-made entrepreneur, his father, Hinrich Springer, was also a media baron who put his son to work at his paper, Altonaer Nachrichten. Here Axel learnt how to churn out racist and anti-worker propaganda for Germany’s rulers. At that time anti-Semitism for the Nazis, today Islamophobia for Social Democrats. Anti-communism, always.

In 1934 Axel Springer became deputy editor-in-chief of his father’s paper, a position which had become increasingly untenable with the passing of the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws which classified his Christian wife, Martha, as “half Jewish”, due to her mother being of the faith. In 1938 he divorced her. While Springer’s biographer, Hans Peter Schwarz, speculates that Martha’s heritage was the cause of the divorce, there’s no concrete evidence and Springer’s personal archives remain sealed. But when he founded the Axel Springer group two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, he would stuff his inner circle, and some of the group’s most senior positions, with ex-Nazis. During this time his closest confidante was ex-Nazi propagandist Paul Karl Schmidt who in his capacity as head of the Nazis’ foreign press department worked closely with Joseph Goebbels. After the defeat of German fascism, Schmidt remained a die-hard Nazi, never renouncing his views. This did not phase Springer who would kiss the ground every time he landed in Tel Aviv and delivered one sermon after another about the crimes of the Third Reich, all while employing Schmidt as his speechwriter and security advisor. Springer’s post-war path is identical to that of the “new Germany” which was built up by the Western capitalist powers who stuffed the West German state with high-ranking Nazis. Washington was at the helm of this process as it turned West Germany into its military HQ in Europe, a situation which persists across the country today. With the Red Army’s defeat of fascism, the real threat to Western capitalism was rising again, not Jews, but communists; and since the Spartacist led German revolution of 1918, Germany’s “democrats” by then had decades of experience aligning with Nazis to crush them.

Springer, always a patriot, put his company at the service of the German state, and its raison dêtre became fighting communism. Who better than to aid in his war on the reds than the convicted war criminal and fervent Nazi Horst Mahnke. Mahnke had been personally involved in the mass killing of Jews and communists as the head of  the “Marxism” section at the SS Reich Main Security Office and as adjutant to the head of the elite SS unit “Vorkommando Moskau”. By 1961, he was on Axel Springer’s payroll and according to the magazine Stern, he had become the first German that Israel’s then foreign minister, Golda Meir, spoke German with.

Germany’s elite gaslights the facts about Axel’s Springer’s past in the same way it does its own. Conservative magazine Cicero describes Springer as a “man of contradictions” who “loved Israel, but let old Nazis write for him,” end of story.

This framing obscures that support for Israel has no basis as a moral commitment to the persecuted, but it does as an ideological commitment to Israel as an extension of Western capitalist imperialism. Springer is not an anomaly, he like all of the staunchest friends of Israel around the world, from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni to India’s RSS,  have fascist and often overtly anti-Semitic histories.

On Springer’s part, his amoral ideological commitment to Israel is laid bare in his company’s constitution which also enshrines NATO and the “free market” as “values” that all its employees must sign onto. These are values on whose behalf Springer has a long and sordid history of waging war against Germany’s students, with lethal effect.

German Media’s Tradition of Going to War Against Students

Back at the occupied FU, the university management has betrayed its students and called the police on them. Later they say they took this decision to protect students, without acknowledging that they endangered them in the first place with their ultimatum to allow the aggressive pro-Israel intruders to remain in the occupied space, rather than allocating a separate space for them. The students do not resist the evacuation, nor the police who detain 20 of them. Several students are physically assaulted during their detention and police deny some non-European students their right not to be photographed.

At the time of writing this, the students are awaiting charges and now grappling with being betrayed by their own university. In a collective statement published in the days following the occupation, they pledge to pursue legal action in response to the abuse of power and due process in the Free University and say: “The university also bears responsibility for the assault on its own students by police.”

Now evicted from the occupied university, one activist tells red. media they will be back: “We stand in a long tradition of student protests and occupation, also FU occupying against Vietnam war, the climate movement occupying back in May…Yallah, yallah occupy! Palestine has been occupied for 75 years.”

The German student movement of the 1960s offers many lessons for the students of today in terms of how intensive the pressure they are under will get as their struggle develops.

Springer’s post-war path is identical to that of the “new Germany” which was built up by the Western capitalist powers who stuffed the West German state with high-ranking Nazis. Washington was at the helm of this process as it turned West Germany into its military HQ in Europe, a situation which persists across the country today.

Back then the student movement was spearheaded by the Socialist German Student Union (SDS) which emerged as a vocal critic of the West German university system. The movement gained momentum with actions such as the 1966 demonstration in West Berlin against the Vietnam War which claimed the lives of at least two million Vietnamese.  “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, NLF (National Liberation Front) is Gonna Win!” was reverberating through the streets and Axel Springer, which as we have seen was then guided by fervent Nazis, prepared for battle.

In 1967, after a sustained smear campaign against the students, Springer’s attacks intensified in the run up to the police shooting of German student Benno Ohnesorg. He was shot from behind during a protest against the visit of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in West Berlin who had been reinstated in a Western orchestrated coup that overthrew the democratically elected and popular social democrat Mohammad Mossadegh. A Springer photographer along with a former Nazi Party member helped the gunman dispose of ammunition and Bild attacked the students: “We are against SA methods,” – SA referring to the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.

This media manipulation around the shooting of Ohnesorg was a major factor in the radicalization of the student movement. The climax came with yet another attempted assassination the next year in 1968, this time of popular student leader Rudi Dutschke, who was enrolled at the FU. Outside the SDS offices in the German capital, a neo-Nazi named Josef Bachmann shouted at Dutschke “You dirty communist pig!” before pulling the trigger. The assassination attempt followed months of media incitement against the students, including a BILD front page with Dutschke’s photo marked with a white cross and headline demanding “Stop the terror of the Young Reds now!”, another headline by the extreme-right National-Zeitung read “Stop the red Rudi now!” The connection between the media coverage and attempted murder of Dutschke sparked widespread protests and clashes mostly targeting Bild whose printing press the students blockaded. It was the first and only time in history that the newspaper would not hit the stands for a whole day.

The state’s response to the growing radicalization of the student movement was to introduce emergency laws that severely curtailed civil liberties. By 1972 the government introduced a “radical decree” whose goal was to prevent “communist infiltration” of the state and included a “professional ban” on  “left-wing” extremists in the public sector. Thousands of the newly graduated ’68 students were classified and lost their jobs. The measure remained in place for 13 years.

Amidst this suffocating repression the SDS disbanded itself in 1970 and the initial phase of the student movement was over. By the close of the 1980s, the once-thriving global communist movement lay in ruins, further underscored by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Stripped of this support, Germany’s student movement would reignite in fits and starts over the subsequent decades, trying to take its place in each of the uprisings that ebb and flow with all of the major issues of the time, from the nuclear arms race of the 1980s through to the ongoing climate crisis.

Through the struggle against the genocide of Palestinians, today’s students are witnessing the unmasking of the enemy they set out to challenge, and through that learning what it is going to take to persist. This development will equip them for the battles ahead as Germany’s next elections threatens to bring the extreme-right AfD into government. In their collective statement, the students make this connection:

“We are no longer going to expend energy trying to convince certain posturing, racist media outlets which try to “guiltwash” Germany’s past of the integrity of our opposition to anti-Semitism. Those that allow far-right parties and unconcealed German anti-Semites to march, organize, and run for elections while libelously accusing consistent human rights advocates — this includes many of our activists who have fought against dictatorships in their home countries — of concealed anti-Semitism, have no moral authority to proclaim to be the judges on anti-Semitism.”

As they grapple with the ongoing full-frontal assault on their opposition to genocide, the words of their predecessor, Rudi Dutschke, echo:

These defeats make new victories possible

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