Jeffrey Herf: Fresh Air in Central Europe

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey Herf teaches European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust.]

A certain kind of liberalism familiar to readers of The New Republic has been stirring in, of all places, Germany and Austria. To be sure, it operates on the margins. And, yes, the impulse to appease, run for cover and all the rest lingers there as well. So, too, does the mixture of irritation, indifference, and even outright hostility to Israel. But the spirit of this magazine, the spirit of “hard” liberalism, animates a new and unique collection of intellectuals and activists with impeccable credentials on the European left....

This is a significant development in the intellectual and political history of German-speaking Central Europe and perhaps for Europe as a whole. It has parallels to the “Euston Manifesto” from London, and to its American cousin, published in Washington, DC in 2006. Now it’s one thing for British leftists or American liberals to revive the language of anti-fascism of the 1940s. Churchill and Roosevelt, after all, still reign for us as icons. Although anti-fascism was also a Central European tradition, it had been drowned out, even trumped, by anti-imperialism and Third Worldism since the 1960s. But in recent years liberal and social democratic variations of the anti-fascism of the 1940s and 1950s have made common cause with a distinctive brand of left-liberalism that emerged first in Germany and then in Austria.

The current advocates of a revived and wiser liberal anti-fascism argue that if you truly mean to come to terms with the Nazi era, you need to think creatively and comparatively about similarities and differences between past and present. What is conservative or right-wing, they ask, about denouncing anti-Semitism or terrorist attacks on civilians? Indeed, how can anyone who calls himself a liberal permit Lenin’s empty slogans about anti-imperialism or Third Worldism to mute one’s criticism of Jew-hatred? Why is it anything but progressive to call major corporations to account for doing business with Iran as it builds up its nuclear weapons program? Further, and with one eye to history, what is realistic or enlightened about European policymakers who believe Tehran will be deterred absent the option of punitive military action? Is such a belief not the height of naivete and wishful thinking? Why, in Munich itself, have the lessons of Munich become quaint or even taboo?...

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