"My mother would have been very surprised to see me here," said Moshe Zimmerman, a tall, thin, handsome man, professor of history and the head of the department for German Studies of the Hebrew University, who enjoys a reputation of a fascinating lecturer and an original researcher. Original thinking in the academic ivory tower is almost a certificate for a situation in which a person is controversial and exposed to criticism. Even more so when the field of his expertise is complex and sensitive like that of prof. Zimmerman's: Germany, German Jews, the Third Reich, the Holocaust. His historic analyses, the conclusions that he reaches, as well as the sharp, sometimes the blunt manner he phrases them have placed him in recent years in the center of many public controversies. But Zimmerman shocks his listeners not only when he speaks about the past. The parallel lines he draws between the past and the present are no less difficult to digest. This applies to his comparing the Jewish soldiers who volunteer to serve in the Territories to Germans who volunteered to serve in the SS and to his statement that children of Jewish settlers in Hebron "are like the Hitler Youth." People do not always understand his exact meaning or maybe his statements are too often removed from their context, but just as he fascinates his audience and stimulates the minds of the readers of his articles and books, so he also angers many people in the Jewish public, in whose eyes Prof. Zimmerman's original historic research is comparable to kicking the still open and bleeding wound in the history of the Jewish people.
His mother would have been surprised to see him walking in the alleys of the ultra-orthodox Me'a She'arim neighborhood on Friday afternoon, but apparently his words will supply his critics and opponents with more ammunition: "Since I was three or four years old I have been put off by those people," he said as we slowly walked in the narrow streets of Me'a She'arim, "already as a child I did not like to come here." On one wall swastikas are painted across a Star of David. The swastikas are erased. "That is a tendency of the Jewish orthodox community," he explains. "They no longer compare the Zionist state to the Nazis. Now they have a special identification with this state, because of their extreme right-wing views. If the Israeli left had a symbol they would have placed it near the swastikas. They are perpetually loyal to their right-wing extremism. They even still speak Yiddish, which is a dialect of German."
"I explain my way of speaking in two ways," Prof. Zimmerman says when asked about the enraged reactions that frequently follow his statements. "There is an element of provocation. If you think that the statements you want to make are of value, you must see to it that they are heard. The best way is through expressions that catch the ear. The moment you catch the public's attention, the stage is yours. I admit that this method also contains an element of a game. I do enjoy provoking my audience."
And, as stated, he is also very successful at doing that. He not only provokes his audience but amazes them with his sharpened phrases, arouses them with the meaning and significance that they attribute to some of his statements. In the eyes of a part of the Jewish public Prof. Zimmerman's phrases are a genuine blow to the memory of Holocaust victims. "Anyone who did not understand me is not worth the effort," he declares. That is also the way he reacted when a commotion arose surrounding statements he made about the use that Israel makes of the Holocaust. "I gave a lecture and discussed the use that Israel so often makes of the Holocaust. For years I have been arguing that this use is a distortion. The common and well-worn motto is that the greatest part of the justification for the establishment of Israel lies in the Holocaust. If that is so, then we owe thanks to Hitler. He had constructed Auschwitz and thereby contributed mightily to the Zionism. That approach is based on a misconception. I do not want and I am not prepared to say 'thank you' to Hitler." The enraged reaction to that lecture was not late in appearing. One listener sent a letter to the editor of Haaretz. "He wrote that I had said that we should thank Hitler when in fact I said the opposite," Zimmerman explained. Then he came to me and I explained my views to him several times. Something in his mental outlook prevented him from understanding my meaning."
The annual events on the Holocaust Day, the ceremonies around the world commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII and a conference of historians which Prof. Zimmerman initiated were the reason behind this meeting. Zimmerman invited ten German historians to the conference to be held in Jerusalem next month, who together with their Jewish colleagues will attempt to conduct "the balance sheet of the Third Reich 50 years after its fall." The conference will address the degree of the German army's involvement in the Nazi crimes and in foreign policy and will discuss the nature of the German occupation and other issues, attempting to understand what is the nature of the modern evil. The participants in the conference and certainly the issues which will be discussed are loaded with explosives. Anyone who is familiar with the nature of Prof. Zimmerman's research and his style can foresee that the importance of the planned gathering of the historians will be in breaking some taboos and in consolidating conclusions from the studies that were carried out in recent years, so that the picture of that period will be different than it has been portrayed up to now.
- A conference on the Third Reich with participation of historians from Israel and Germany. A deliberate provocation?
Certainly not. The funding for the conference largely comes from German sources. Moreover, from the academic viewpoint historians from both countries completely cover the field. The explanation that I gave shows that this is not a provocation.
- From the angle of historic conclusions, what will be at the center of the debates in the conference?
Up to now the Third Reich was described as a pyramid. At the top stood Hitler, giving orders which systematically flowed from the top of the pyramid to the base. Beyond the fundamental mistake in that concept, it also served various governments as a pretext for their collaboration with Germany after 1945. In that area the Cold War played a crucial role. The USSR and the USA divided the control of Germany among themselves. Both wanted the support of the population which they ruled and therefore placed the blame only on Hitler and about a dozen senior figures. You can understand how glad the Germans were when this approach was taken. Israel is also to blame since it was a full partner in this deception. The supposition that there was "another Germany" was accepted for political reasons, and in order to pay their moral debt they said a few things once in a while. However, there were some Germans who took upon themselves the task of opposing the Nazis, not a bad idea at all, yet not too much is said about them.
- What you are saying is that Hitler does not bear all of the blame? That there was no orderly governmental pyramid? What then was there?
During the Nazi regime its main characteristic was improvisation. Many different people made weird decisions, constantly glancing at Hitler. For example: people think that Hitler knew in advance that he wanted to kill all of the Jews, and that his order was carried out. In fact there were many people and organizations who wanted to get rid of the Jews. Each one tried in his turn style to propose a solution for the implementation. Every such development was extremely non-systematic.
- Yet the Jews were described in Mein Kampf as a germ that should be destroyed. That book has always been considered to be as Hitler's operative plan, as the expression of his intention to destroy the Jews.
So why did he wait 2.5 years before passing the Nurenberg laws? And if he had a premeditated intention to destroy them, why did he need any laws? In 1935 there was a party congress. The subject was to have been German foreign policy. For various reasons that subject was cancelled, so Hitler improvised and raised the question of the Jews.
- Hitler improvised?
Not only he. Take Krystal Nacht. The background was the expulsion of Jews of Polish origin from Germany. A Jewish youth named Hershl Greenspan expressed his protest by killing a junior German diplomat at the German embassy in Paris. One day later a rally of the Nazi Party was held to commemorate the putsch of 1923. In his speech Hitler did not mention the assassination at all. Goebbels, who wanted to promote himself, seized the opportunity and organized the riots.
- But the two examples are still within the framework of the tradition.
The point is that the decisions at one level or another were being made by almost everyone who lived in Germany in those years. Let us say that you are living in Germany during the Nazi regime. Your Jewish neighbors are disappearing. Suddenly their shop is out up for sale at a low price. What would you do, buy it, or review that step also in a moral light? There were countless incidents in which anyone was required to decide according to his conscience. Fathers whose sons were killed in the war protested by distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in a limited area. One morning you receive such a leaflet in your mailbox. What do you do?
- Do I have to do anything?
Most of the Germans who received such mail thought that it was a test, an examination by the Gestapo, and therefore they demonstrated their loyalty by going to the local police station. Decisions of various scopes were taken by every person. The absence of the governmental pyramid left many personal decisions in the hands of the average citizen. Dr. Mengele, who is rightly conceived as a monster by the Jews, was classified by the German bureaucracy as a research physician. In Israel his researches are rightly considered to be horrors. The mistake is that this view is not being broadened and the question is not asked: how was Mengele's sadistic research made possible? They knew that he was carrying out experiments on living people, and yet they did not ask too many questions. As far as they were concerned his research contributed to the health of the master race and that was the most important thing. So is Mengele alone to blame, or also those who could have refused to approve of his research?
- So the map of guilt changes and what you are saying is that all of the Germans are guilty? Why is that different from the common concept, as accepted by so many in Israel?
In Israel there was duplicity on this subject. On one hand many said that "all of the Germans are guilty, all of the Germans are Nazis," and on the other hand they shouted "Hitler, Hitler," considering him the successor of Pharaon and the other enemies of the Jews, adding that the Germans following him blindly as sheep. Both approaches were believed at the same time and both are mistaken. Hitler could not have done it on his own and not all Germans are guilty. The research of the past 20 years leads to the conclusion that the direct responsibility for the rise of Nazism and for its crimes falls on a broad public. People whose ties with Nazism consisted of only voting for Hitler in 1933 still bear their share in the guilt. Such people said afterwards: "there was such a confusion in the country, we wanted someone to make order. We didn't imagine that it would reach such horrors." That excuse is no longer regarded as valid. They had a responsibility to understand that anyone declaring that he would make order by means of violence was automatically disqualified for rule. The conclusion is that the fish stinks from all its parts, not only from its head. Each small injustice leads to a greater injustice and the rule 'be cautious at the beginning' applies to everyone.
One might say that this is a contradiction. Yet with the same degree of certainty with which Prof. Zimmerman places overall blame on the German public of the 1930s and 1940s he is careful about placing collective blame or responsibility on individuals. So much so, that in the eyes of many people - even among some of his students - he is considered to be a Germanophile, a provocateur who will always take a position that is outside the broad Jewish consensus about the German issue. Such was his position regarding the study of Mein Kampf in Israel. Zimmerman taught the book in the framework of the history department at the Hebrew University. "Many journalists asked me whether I considered studying the book to be dangerous," Zimmerman smilingly said, "as though the book might incite Jews to the extreme right. This is obviously absurd. I told them that if they are afraid of Jewish extreme right they should ban the Bible. For some reason, no one printed that."
- But you do not really propose to prohibit the study of the Bible?
My argument is simple. The combination of literature and politics is more threatening for a Jewish public in the Bible than in Mein Kampf. Like anything else, the Bible is also subject to interpretations. There are some who emphasize the verse "neither shall they learn war any more,"1 and there are those who think that one should kill as many Philistines as possible and collect their foreskins.2 This why I said what I did, not out of a wish to ban the study of the Bible.
- The use of the Bible as basis for political views is common in Israel. Does that say anything about its political character?
Generally speaking, I could say that in many areas we are on our way towards a modern dictatorship. The question how much is that related to the Bible is irrelevant.
- Please specify.
Nazism illustrated a situation in which a majority of a people chose in certain circumstances to ignore, to collaborate or to initiate horrors of various scopes. I have studied this phenomenon, and that is the ruler I use to measure the state of things in Israel. That is the true value of history - the comparison with the present. I no longer hear here a public outcry against the immorality of the occupation. Voting for a party that ideologically supports the occupation is not seen as a great moral evil. Soldiers who volunteer especially to serve in the Occupied Territories are considered to be heroes, when in fact that spirit of volunteerism might be compared to Germans who volunteered to serve in the SS. The deterioration of civil rights is an additional aspect. Just weeks ago the issue of private names was brought up. The Jewish police asked principals of high schools in Jerusalem to give them the names of students who were involved in smoking soft drugs. That was an attempt to turn the principal of a school, an educational figure, into a partner of the police. Very few people understood what the argument was about. The refusal of the principal of the University's high school was an admirable step. She was the only one who said, no, I will not collaborate.
Prof. Zimmerman is considered to be a leading historian among the research community in Israel, a fact which compounds the anger of his many opponents. His unique positions are anchored in well-founded proof. His five books - The Patriarch of Antisemitism - Wilhelm Maar, German Nationalism and Hamburg Patriotism, The Crises of German Nationalism, Germany's Unique Path in History, German Jewry 1914-1945 - all deal with "the German riddle" and are greatly respected in Israel and in Germany. In additional to his being the chair of the German Studies department at the Hebrew University, Zimmerman holds additional posts. In Germany he serves as a guest professor at Hamburg and Heidelberg Universities. He is a consultant of a German institute working for strengthening democracy and he frequently appears on German TV as a commentator. In the course of the conversation Prof. Zimmerman returned several times to the reality in Israel. In his view, the comparison between historic research and present events is part of the essence of being a historian. "The historian is not neutral," Zimmerman stated. "Every history is the study of the past for the purposes of the present. Therefore the comparisons and the critical view are obvious. If the historicism (an approach which avoids criticism in the name of the neutrality of the historian) permitted support for Nazism, it is obvious that we must take another way, a critical one. The historian constantly criticizes and since it is only possible to remedy the present and the future, his criticism is geared there. Anyone who has dealt with Nazi Germany cannot turn a blind eye to similar phenomena (or their beginnings) in the present Germany, in Israel or anywhere else."
- You freely skip between Nazi Germany and Israel. I do not doubt the enlightening power of the comparison. Yet how far can one go with such a problematic parallel between our occupation and rule over Palestinians and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazism?
It is obvious that we, from every aspect, have a better "pretext" for many of our actions. Yet there is also a monster in each of us, and if we continue to assume that we are always justified, that monster can grow. Therefore, we Jews are obliged to always hold the German example before our eyes. Already today I am addressing a phenomenon which is growing: there is an entire sector in the Jewish public which I unhesitatingly define as a copy of the German Nazis. Look at the children of the Jewish Hebron settlers: they are exactly like the Hitler Youth. From infancy they are pumped with ideas that all Arabs are bad, of how every Gentile is against us. They are turned into paranoids, they think themselves as a master race, they are exactly like the Hitler Youth. There is a very dangerous tendency of lenience towards that sector. MK Rehavam Ze'evi was brought into the government coalition,3 and people still think that the Kahane movement can be dealt with by the usual means. I am reminded of those conservatives in Germany who collaborated with Hitler out of exactly the same reasons and who made the same mistakes as we now do.
- Those are very harsh statements. The Jew who does not live in Hebron, who does not vote for Kahane, and who does not volunteer for undercover missions in the West Bank, where does he stand on the Zimmerman scale?
It is very difficult to justify the Israeli army as an occupation force, yet regarding individuals it is necessary to see the complexity of the issue, exactly as in Germany. A youth who does not want to serve in the army must go to prison. It is difficult to blame an 18 year-old person who does not want to go to jail. But there are differences between various types of military service and I draw the line between volunteers to special units and the regular soldiers. At this point we should look at the German army in WWII. It is often seen as a combat force while the crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the SS. In fact, most of the responsibility for executions and many other crimes falls on the German army. What is specially interesting for us is that many German soldiers who were required to take part in those crimes refused to do so. Those soldiers were often not brought to trial.4 There was often another soldier glad to pull the trigger instead of them. Nevertheless, we Jews should recall that in the course of the WWII no less than 100,000 German soldiers were executed for refusing to carry out orders. Sometimes the orders which they refused to carry out were to shoot Jews.