It was surreal. It was also revealing. And then it took a sentimental turn. The prominent Russian-American journalist and writer Masha Gessen was awarded the prestigious Hannah Arendt Award for political thought. But the event, which was supposed to be a grand ceremony hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation at the city hall of Bremen, came close to being canceled after Gessen published an essay in The New Yorker comparing Gaza before October 7 to the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied Europe, a comparison, they wrote, that «would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.»

The ceremony eventually took place not in the city hall but in a small room far away from the city center in the presence of three dozen people and in an atmosphere that recalled the underground meetings of Soviet dissidents in the 1970s. For Masha Gessen, it might have felt like time travel, like returning to a Soviet childhood, for others, it could have seemed to be an unwanted peek into the future.

The awardee’s speech was moving and thoughtful, arguing that every comparison is also a warning. Gessen insisted on the need for politically incorrect and uncomfortable comparisons. When comparing Gaza with a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis (or comparing Trump to Putin), Gessen is aware of the differences. But such parallels serve to remind us how wrong things can potentially go. Gaza could end up like this or Trump could end up like that. Made up predominantly of aging Arendt admirers aware that, in today’s cultural climate, Arendt herself would never get the Hannah Arendt Award, the audience perfectly understood the painful forewarnings.

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The secret of the «Gessen scandal» and its relevance for the much-discussed unraveling of the liberal international order is the extent to which so many commentators mistook what was actually scandalous about it.

It is easy to criticize Germany’s politics of remembrance as nothing more than a political instrument employed during the Cold War to integrate the country into, or ingratiate the country with, the West. For sure it was better for Germans to recount the horrible story of Nazi crimes fully themselves than to have it always told to them by others. It is equally easy to blame Berlin for a lack of sympathy with the fate of Palestinians. (One historical irony is that East Germany was PLO’s Promised Land and that many Palestinian terrorists of an earlier generation were trained in the GDR.) But the tragedy of German identity as it has revealed itself in the Gessen case is in many ways different from what powerful critics of German moralism like Pankaj Mishra suggest.1 It is not about German hypocrisy; it is about German rigidity, a failure to adapt to a convulsively changing world.

Germany’s problem is not that it is prioritizing the fight against anti-Semitism at a time when Israeli fighter jets obliterate the civilian alongside the military infrastructure of Gaza. Robert Habeck was only stating the obvious when, in an emotional speech, he argued that «after the Holocaust, the founding of Israel was the promise of protecting the Jews, and Germany is compelled to help ensure that this promise can be fulfilled. This is a historical foundation of our republic.» Nor is it wrong for Germany to condemn any attempt to justify Hamas’s bloodbath of October 7. The problem is that, when directed against a Jewish person like Masha Gessen, German rigidity is unwittingly accelerating the de-legitimization of the liberal principles under which Germany was reintegrated into the west after WW2 and united after 1989.

When reflecting on the moral foundations of the post-war liberal order, the Bulgarian-French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov contended that it can be preserved only if Germans insist on the singular and exceptional nature of the Holocaust while Jews and Israelis insist on its universal nature. It was a kind of contract. An unspeakable and unforgivable horror was inflicted by one people on another, and yet it was all humanity, universally, that needed to be protected from any repetition of such monstrous savagery. So, when Germans insist that Germany will continue to view Israelis as victims and not as victimizers, they can initially be excused for keeping Germany’s side of the unspoken agreement. But that excuse runs out if the other party fails to perform. And when the Netanyahu government insists that Israel must be viewed only as a victim and never as a perpetrator, they are violating their side of the deal. This is the moment when a point of principle starts to make official German policy look disconnected from reality and obtusely frozen in time.

«Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz», so wrote late Israeli philosopher Yehuda Elkana, «a minority who assert that ‹this must never happen again›, and a frightened and haunted majority who assert that ‹this must never happen again to us›.» It was, in his view, this haunted majority that embraced the intoxicating idea of Israel as the eternal victim and the world as one that is uniformly, always and everywhere, against the Jews. It was this delusion that led Arendt to warn about the possible failure of Israelis to read the world, «the dangerous inability of the Jews to distinguish» among the Gentiles «between friend and foe».

The Cold War ended with «normality» being celebrated as the new utopia. Paradoxically, the elevation of normality into a political ideal planted a potentially fatal tension deep inside Germany’s post-WWII identity. It was only by accepting the exceptional nature of its crimes that Germany earned its new status as a normal European society. German post-war identity was based on guilt, but also on pride, the pride that Germans were the only ones who dared to face the horrors of their history. Even when it re-unified, Germany continued to associate its aspiration to be a normal country with recognition of its exceptional historical guilt. This was a way both to guarantee that Germany’s horrific past would never be repeated and to reassure Germany’s neighbors that the united country would never again rampage homicidally beyond its borders.

The Masha Gessen scandal has exposed the fragility of this combination of the exceptional and the normal in Germany’s post-WWII (and post-Cold War) identity. That is partly because Gessen epitomizes the contradictions and ambivalences of the Cold War in their own biography. Gessen is simultaneously ex-Soviet, Jewish and American. They have succeeded, at one and the same time, in sharply criticizing the US foreign policy without asking the United States to retreat from the world and abandon its international obligations. They have criticized Putin and bravely cheered for Ukraine, but also distanced themselves from the collective cancelling of Russians. They identify with Holocaust survivors and, from this position, have dared to compare Gaza to Jewish ghettoes under the Nazis. Intolerance for ambivalence, in other words, not indignation at moral equivalence, lies at the root of German discomfort with Gessen’s stance.

What has turned the parochially German «Gessen scandal» into an international cause célèbre is the realization that the looming collapse of the liberal international order, which affects all of us, is being played out as a crisis of German identity.

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The debate raging in Germany over what can and cannot be said about Israel, a debate which rages nowhere else to this degree, has reminded the world of Germany’s unique history. But criticizing or ostracizing voices like Masha Gessen’s for suggesting that Israel may be committing war crimes in Gaza, charging them with blaming the victim or indulging in Täter-Opfer-Umkehr, stems from the false premise that victims can never be victimizers. Such unfair accusations are, admittedly, an understandable consequence of the unique histories of both Israel and Germany. But they also represent a willful refusal to see a new and painful reality that cannot be conjured away by reparation and atonement. By violating the most elementary ideas of universality, German reassertions of Israel’s unique political innocence have crystallized for the rest of the world the demise of an international order that allowed the universal and the exceptional, a commitment to our common humanity and an understanding for the tortured uniqueness of every nation’s historical path, to coexist.

The disturbing rise of the stridently illiberal AfD poses a shocking challenge to the political identity of both the Bonn Republic and the Berlin Republic. The Gessen affair is just another symptom of how fragile, in a very short time, this identity has become.

  1. Pankaj Mishra, «Memory Failure: Germany’s Commitment to Israel», London Review of Books, 4. January 2024.
Ivan Krastev ist Politologe, Politikberater und Autor. [Mehr lesen]
Stephen Holmes is an author, political scientist and legal scholar. [Mehr lesen]