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Past Lives
January/February 2011


How much does the past determine our present? This sounds like one of those heady questions put forward by academics or politicians during lofty commemorative speeches. Any answer seems to have little impact on our daily lives. And yet, in shaping the Europe we want to live in, how we pose or answer the question matters a great deal.

Recent reports suggest that anti-Semitism is on the rise in seemingly liberal European countries. In Germany in particular, neo-Nazi websites have mushroomed over the past year. The far-Right fringe is framed by hostility towards Israel from substantial sections of the German mainstream. This is more akin to a gut feeling than to a rational political argument, and there is a fundamental difference between being an anti-Semite and being critical of Israel. Still, the question we now face is this: can we really afford to take our liberalism for granted and to dismiss such reports with the attitude that waves of such irrational sentiments come and go?

I wondered about this just before leaving New York for Berlin, after a year in America. As a German, even someone in their early thirties like myself, you can't quite escape your country's sinister past. (Just how attuned to it you are varies from generation to generation and from person to person.) That past is especially hard to forget in New York, where you are surrounded by Jewish life: your shoe-repair shop is closed on Saturdays, your best friend can't eat food prepared in your kitchen and you find yourself involved with a man who happens to be Jewish.

In short, you encounter the Jewish people, religion and culture in the most natural, lively, joyous way — and yet you can't avoid the sudden flash of recollection that your own grandparents (or at least their friends, neighbours and acquaintances) set out deliberately to eradicate the forebears of these people you love. It's a fact of life that nobody and nothing can help you to deal with — certainly not Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through or overcoming the past) so beloved of postwar Germany, for how can you work through a past that you haven't lived through? 

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