Michael Wolffsohn,
Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1993),
211 pages. UCSB: DD258.85 175 W6613 1993

Book Review by Arty Hernandez
February 2004
For Prof. Marcuse’s upper division lecture course Germany Since 1945
(course homepage)
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004

About the author:
I am currently a third year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I am a history major and I have a strong interest in twentieth century Europe. My knowledge of German history is largely attributed to other courses. I chose to write about the relations of the Jews and Germans because it is a subject which I found very interesting.

Michael Wolffsohn’s book Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations discusses how the Germans and Jews have made efforts to reestablish relations since the end of World War II. Wolffsohn discusses whether or not the Germans should endure feelings of "eternal guilt," or should they be forgiven. My paper uses Wolffsohn’s text to analyze this, and argues the Germans should not be expected to succumb to feelings of "eternal guilt." The state of Israel was established in order to provide a place for Jewish relocation. However, since the end of the Holocaust, Jewish population has declined throughout the world. Many Jews have chosen to move to various locations throughout the world. The movement of Jews has contributed to the de-Judification of Jews. Although the Jews suffered tremendously during the Holocaust, it is now important for them to reconcile with the Germans. There are new generations of Jews and Germans, and it has been left to these groups to restore favorable relations with one another. The progression of Germany, Israel, and Jews throughout the world has made it possible for improved interaction between the groups.


Time will heal the wounds

In every generation, certain events leave a profound impact upon the people. The Holocaust, which took place under Hitler’s Third Reich, has resonated throughout the world over the past fifty years. The horrific events were meant to do an "ethnic cleansing" of Germany. The predominant victims of the Holocaust were the Jews, with over six million dead. Since then, Israel was formed in order to have a Jewish state, and the Germans have been forced to deal with the acts taken by their ancestors. Michael Wolffsohn, author of Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations, used the events that have transpired since the end of the Holocaust to discuss the situation of the Jewish people, particularly regarding their interaction with the Germans. Wolffsohn described the Holocaust as a typical example of the continuous suffering the Jewish people have endured. It is important to discuss this projected suffering of the people, the establishment of Israel, and how the Germans and Jews have attempted to reestablish relations since the end of World War II. The writings of Madeleine Tress and Wolfgang Benz provide alternative accounts of how the Jewish people have fared following the end of the war. Have the Jewish people been subject to prolonged suffering, or have the Jews been able to establish themselves as a respected part of society? By analyzing the events which have taken place since the end of World War II, it will become apparent the Germans have made considerable attempts to reconcile their relations with the Jews. As a result of these efforts, the Germans have been able to pull themselves away from feelings of "eternal guilt."

The Holocaust was the end result of built up anti-Semitic hatred under the Hitler regime. Wolffsohn argued how the Jewish people have always been subject to persecution. He writes, "The Holocaust summarizes and symbolizes the entirety of the suffering of the long and often sorrowful history of the Jewish people" (Wolffsohn, 75). The Holocaust has become a sort of tool used to describe the problems experienced by the Jewish people. As stated earlier, millions of Jews died as a direct result of the Holocaust. Those who were able to survive the Holocaust had to re-enter daily life. Most Jews knew somebody first-hand who had fallen at the hands of the Holocaust. The survivors experienced a feeling of "survival guilt," knowing they had the opportunity to move on, when so many had died (Wolffsohn, 169). As time progressed, many Jews made efforts to reestablish a normal life. Another horrific act against Jews took place in 1972. The Munich Olympics turned catastrophic when members of the Israeli Olympic team were kidnapped by terrorists. The members of the team were killed by the kidnappers, another tragedy, aimed towards the Jewish people. The story of the Munich Olympics were briefly mentioned by Wolffsohn, as were other concrete details of how the Jewish people made unfair comparisons to the suffering they endured during the Holocaust.

Since the Holocaust, the Jewish population throughout the world has rapidly deteriorated (Wolffsohn, 160). A major reason for the decline of Jews throughout the world has had to do with intermarriages. Many Jewish people have married non-Jews, which has resulted in a loss of Jewish believers. The marriages of Jews to non-Jews can also prevent them from passing the religion on to their offspring. There have been a considerable number of marriages between the Germans and the Jews. Today "about three-fourths of German Jews continue to marry non-Jews" (Wolffsohn, 165) Similarly, the number of mixed-marriages in the United States is fifty-five percent, and fifty percent in Scandinavia. If the Jews themselves have been able to put aside memories of the Holocaust, nobody should expect the Germans to experience feelings of guilt.

Wolffsohn emphasized the sufferings of the Jewish people in constant referrals to the Holocaust. In no effort to deny the seriousness of the Holocaust, Wolffsohn did not provide a solid foundation for the argument that Jews have been subject to constant suffering. Wolffsohn made the argument that the Jews and Germans were equal since the Jews were held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, while the Germans will be held responsible for many generations for the Holocaust. According to Madeleine Tress, this is an absurd argument. Her reasoning is the Jews were not responsible for Jesus’ death, in fact it was the Romans who "persecuted many rebels, including Jesus, to retain power" (Tress, 733). The Jews could not have been directly responsible since they did not have their own state, whereas the Germans had Germany. Wolffsohn also fails to mention the numerous Jewish people who have made great contributions to society. Rather than being members of oppression, they have made advancements for all of civilization. The great minds of the Jewish culture emigrating out of Germany "are seen from this perspective as having diminished the German cultural legacy" (Benz, 103). Such a complimentary comment regarding the Jewish people did not come from a Jewish person, instead it came from a German scholar, Wolfgang Benz. A statement as strong as this illustrates how the Jewish people have been able to emerge from the devastating position they were put in during World War II.

In 1917 the famous Balfour Declaration was made by the British government. The substance of this document called for an establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. Yet, the formation of this Jewish homeland did not take place for another thirty years (1948). The intention of the state of Israel was to provide a safe haven for the Jewish people. Leading up to World War II, thousands of Jewish people had already started to emigrate out of Germany. Their main destinations for relocation were other parts of Western Europe and the United States. Following the war, Jews, mostly from Germany and Poland, continued their migration towards Palestine. Israel might not have been created if it were not for "the political, economic, social and military achievements of its fathers" (Wolffsohn, 10).

Israel was formed to provide the Jews with a home of their own. Was this what the majority of Jews really wanted? According to Wolffsohn, many Jews "did not view anti-Semitism as a lethal threat and did not promote a Jewish state as either a political or geographic alternative" (Wolffsohn, 5). There were a considerable number of Zionist Jews who wanted to take advantage of the creation of a Jewish state. On the other hand, Israel was not the only destination for those who chose to relocate. Wolffsohn argues, "The majority of Jews forced to leave their homeland in the course of the nineteenth century immigrated to the United States, not Palestine" (Wolffsohn, 179). Following World War II, there were still thousands of Jews who remained in Germany. Google marcuse 133c to find where this essay is published on the web. However, Benz describes many of those who remained as being those who were "too old or too sick to emigrate" (Benz, 111). Today, the number of Jews in the Federal Republic of Germany is around 70,000- 80,000. The creation of the state of Israel has been important for Jews who wanted to have a land of their own. Following the Holocaust, Jews from within Israel and throughout the world have had to attempt to reconcile with the Germans.

The term "eternal guilt" was coined by Wolffsohn to make readers contemplate whether or not Germans should always be held responsible for the present situation of the Jewish people. The Germans were forced to evaluate their "Geschichtspolitik," or politics of history following World War II (Wolffsohn, 12). Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of Western Germany, gave a speech in 1951 regarding the Holocaust. In this speech, Adenauer failed to mention anything regarding the collective guilt of the Germans (Wolffsohn, 59). The Germans did, however, make efforts to make up for their past. As a result, the Germans were able to regain some of the prestige they had experienced before the Nazi regime. Over time, the Germans came to realize they could not forget the history of which they were a part. Wolffsohn wrote "the younger generations of Germans were not born with eternal guilt. They bear none for the crimes of the National-Socialists of the earlier generation, but, as Germans, they must assume a certain liability" (Wolffsohn, 59). It would be unjust to consider all Germans guilty for the actions of the Nazi regime, but it is important for the past to be remembered.

Many Jews, especially those who had emigrated to Israel, were initially opposed to constant relations with the Germans. The Jewish people became determined to demonstrate they were respectable people. Over time, the younger generations have differentiated between the present-Germans and the Germans of the Nazi regime. Leading up the Gulf War in 1992, the Israelis had been seen in an unfavorable light by the Germans. When Saddam Hussein attacked the Jewish state of Israel, Israelis were seen in a more favorable light by the Germans. The Israeli people have been able to establish themselves as a "unique" people (Wolffsohn, 80). Wolffsohn used numerous polls to portray Jewish and/or Israeli feelings regarding the German people. Notably, by 1990, forty-nine percent of the people polled did not believe the reunification of Germany was a threat to Jews, while twenty-one percent were opposed to the unification (Wolffsohn, 90). It has become important for the Jewish and German people to attempt to overcome their past problems. The German people have attempted to overcome the actions taken by their ancestors and to be cordial with the people of Israel, and the millions of Jews in the world. The efforts made by the Germans have shifted drastically improved relations between Germans and Jews.

While discussing the relations between Germany and Israel, it seems Wolffsohn again creates a one-sided argument. He discusses how German public support for Israel dwindled in the early 1980s, but failed to mention "how the Israelis were upset that there were mass demonstrations in Germany against the United States’ role in the Gulf during January and February 1991, but muted opposition to Saddam Hussein’s 1987 and 1991 attacks on the Kurds" (Tress, 733). Wolffsohn inadvertently contradicts himself by pointing out the lack of German support, while omitting the fact the Israelis failed to hold a strong stance on their foreign policy. The inability to forgive the Germans would make it nearly impossible for there to be proper relations with each other. The German people are faced with the struggles of overcoming these accusations, and now "Jews are viewed as a tangible reminder of the burden of German history, a reminder that generates the feelings of shame and insecurity" (Benz, 109). Benz to accurately summarizes Wolffsohn when he writes that these feelings of shame and insecurity are the result of the Jewish people’s inability to forgive the Germans for the past. The people of Germany need to know they are not held accountable for actions they did not take, history can not be altered.

Nobody expects the Holocaust to be forgotten. The horrific experiences of the members of the concentration camps should never be felt by anybody again. Michael Wolffsohn wrote Eternal Guilt?: Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations in an effort to discuss the ways Germans and Jewish people, notably Israeli Jews, have interacted since the end of World War II. The book also gives Wolffsohn’s argument of how the Germans should not be forced to endure "eternal guilt." Wolffsohn discusses how the Holocaust played a part in the future relations of the establishment of Israel, and Israeli-German relations. Wolffsohn makes the Holocaust a central part of his book, referring to it as an integral part of the relations between the Germans, Jews, and Israelis. Yet, his argument is severely weakened by his inability to take in the other perspective. In making his claims, his book is "abounds with false analogies, factual errors and omissions" (Tress, 733). Tress disagreed with Wolffsohn’s analogy that the Germans and Jews were equal. Her primary argument for this is that he fails to "address questions of responsibility and power relations." The Romans were the ones responsible for Jesus Christs’ death, while the Jews "would have no state power until 1948." On the other hand, the Germans were directly responsible for their actions, and also held state power. This strongly illustrates one of Wolffsohn’s false analogies in the book. After also reading the works of Madeleine Tress and Wolfgang Benz, it became evident that the Jewish people have been able to improve their position, and have cordial interaction with the Germans. Therefore, the German people should not endure "Eternal Guilt," but instead they should continue to take part in the reintegration of Jews and Israelis into their society.


Madeleine Tress, review of Eternal Guilt? Forty Years of German-Jewish-Israeli Relations, by Michael Wolffsohn, International Journal of the Middle East Vol. 26 No.4 (1994): 733-737

Wolfgang Benz, "Jewish Existence in Germany From the Perspective of the non-Jewish Majority," Unlikely History: The Changing German-Jewish Symbiosis, 1945-2000 (2002): 101-119

Sander L. Gilman and Michael Zipes, eds., Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture (1997). This anthology demonstrates the importance of Jewish writers and the effect they have had on German culture.

Fritz Stern, Einstein’s German World (2001). Stern uses Einstein and other successful Jewish-Germans to show their contributions to German society, and how they were dislodged from the German society.

essay by Arty Hernandez, Feb. 2004; prepared for web by H. Marcuse, 3/11/04
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