A somewhat uncomfortable tempest is brewing in Germany about the Holocaust. (I wonder how many times you could write that in a year.) The debate is over whether the German national soccer team, which is heading to Poland soon for Euro 2012, should take some time out of its training schedule this summer to visit Auschwitz. After all, the English team is going.
The debate itself is actually sort of complicated. Nobody seems to oppose the idea that it would be good for German team to pay its respects, to acknowledge the Holocaust, etc. etc. But wouldn’t a public visit by a soccer team actually be sort of disingenuous? Obviously the last thing anybody wants to do is exploit the Holocaust for the sake of public relations. (This is the part where Norman Finkelstein’s ears perk up and he jumps on his bicycle and pedals frantically all the way to Berlin, loose leafs of paper covered in conspiratorial scribbles trailing in the wind behind him.)
Henryk Broder, a.k.a. the last remaining German Jewish writer, has spoken out against the visit. Here’s a longish excerpt from his column in Der Spiegel:
What are the footballers supposed to do in Auschwitz? Swear that they're sorry? Explain that this sort of thing can "never happen again?" And has anyone thought about what would happen if the German players visited Auschwitz and became so overcome by emotion that they lost the tournament?
It isn't about the players visiting Auschwitz. It's about the images of the visit that will be broadcast to the rest of the world afterwards -- as if they were touring an SOS Children's Village in Africa to draw the world's attention to the misery of war orphans.
His last point, about the images being broadcast to the rest of the world, is petty, insular, and needlessly insecure about public perception of the Holocaust. First of all, global awareness of the Holocaust isn’t at stake here -- people have basically made up their minds about it and Germans been pretty forthright in their gestures of public remorse. Getting worked up about the possibility that dead Jews will look like victims? Well, it’s kind of late for that. And to not realize that the genocide of millions of people is much, much bigger than a 10-second voiceover segment on the BBC news strikes me as myopic to an absurd degree.
The parties seem to have settled on a compromise: The German team will visit, but not publicly because, as The Guardian puts it, “the visit should be made out of respect to the victims, rather than as a public spectacle.”
In the span of a few articles we’ve managed to turn a soccer tournament into a comedy of manners about the Holocaust...well done, everybody. Even generations removed from Nazism, German public figures and public organizations are trapped: They have to demonstrate not only remorse, but the right amount of remorse, delivered at the appropriate somber, but not overly somber pitch. Don’t be so public about it, but don’t be too shy to say something. The result is statements like this overly obvious and clearly uncomfortable gem from Wolfgang Neirsbach, president of the German Football Association:
"I myself have already been to Auschwitz and I know from my own experience how much the memory of the Holocaust is important."
One can only imagine what Mr. Neirsbach would say if confronted with something truly complex, like the prospect of his best player, Mesut Ozil, whose grandparents immigrated to Germany from Turkey, visiting Auschwitz as part of a mournful German delegation, while meanwhile Ozil’s own ancestral homeland, which continues to have an exceedingly close relationship with Germany, has yet to even blink in the direction of the genocide it committed of over a million Armenians.
“I myself have been to Turkey and I know from my own experience how much the memory of...nevermind.”
For the visual learners, this Turkish shampoo commercial featuring Adolf Hitler sums thing up: