On March 18, the Germans will appoint a new President. It is a ceremonial function, which the German political class will bestow on the 72-year old pastor Joachim Gauck, a former human rights activist from East Germany. Gauck is backed by the major German parties, from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democrats and her Liberal coalition partners, to the Socialist and the Green opposition parties.
The far-left party, Die Linke (The Left), however, has put forward its own candidate for the function, 73-year old Beate Klarsfeld. She is not a party member, but has been chosen by Die Linke as a symbolic figure.
Beate Klarsfeld, née Künzel, was born in a German Christian family. She has lived in France since the 1960s, after marrying the French Romanian-born lawyer Serge Klarsfeld. Serge is a Jew, whose father was murdered in Auschwitz. In the 1970s and 80s, the Klarsfelds were famous human rights activists who brought several Nazi war criminals to justice. Like her husband, Beate has always been a strong supporter of Israel.
When last week Beate Klarsfeld was asked who of the various candidates for the French presidential elections next April she supports, she did not name Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left Front de Gauche (Left Front), the French sister party of Die Linke, nor François Hollande, the Socialist candidate who is leading in the polls; she named Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s incumbent president who hopes to win a second term. Of all the French presidential candidates, Sarkozy is the one most friendly towards Israel.
Klarsfeld’s pro-Israeli positions are not shared by Die Linke. Three Linke members of the Bundestag, the German Parliament, remained seated when Israeli President Shimon Peres visited the Bundestag in 2010. Several Linke deputies have also taken part in demonstrations where “Death to Israel” was chanted. Some took part in the so-called “Gaza flotilla.” Inge Höger, a Bundestag member, who attended a pro-Hamas conference clad in a keffiyeh [checkered headscarf for men] showing a map labeled “Palestine” across the entire territory of the State of Israel, accused opponents of “misusing the Holocaust” in silencing criticism of Israeli “occupation policies.” The German newspaper Die Welt has called Höger a “flawless anti-Semite” because of her “anti-Jewish statements.” Independent academic observers have warned that positions hostile to both Israel and Jews are increasingly dominant within Die Linke.
With this record, it seems puzzling why Die Linke put Beate Klarsfeld forward as its candidate for the presidency. The answer is probably that the party, knowing that Klarsfeld does not stand a chance, just wants to annoy the ruling German Christian-Democrat establishment — many of whose members still bear a personal grudge against Klarsfeld for her campaign in the 1960s against Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a Christian-Democrat who was West German Chancellor from 1966 to 1969. During the war, Kiesinger, a Nazi Party member, had worked at the propaganda department of the Foreign Ministry. In 1968, Beate Klarsfeld slapped Kiesinger in the face, an action for which she was sentenced to one year in prison – a sentence later reduced to four months probation.
In 2009, Die Linke nominated Beate Klarsfeld for the Federal Cross of Merit in honor of her relentless efforts to bring Nazi criminals to court. The request was turned down by the German government. One year later, in stark contrast to Beate’s treatment by the German political establishment, the French government awarded her husband Serge the title of Commander in the Legion of Honor.
The revelation that, almost seven decades after the defeat of Germany’s Nazi regime, Germany still has more problems with the Klarsfelds than with France, should not come as a surprise. History seems to leave deep cultural impressions which are difficult to eradicate.
Last year, two German economists, Nico Voigtländer of the UCLA in Los Angeles and Hans-Joachim Voth of the university of Barcelona, Spain, published a paper in which they showed a remarkable geographical pattern between the anti-Jewish pogroms in 14th century Germany, 1920s pogroms in Germany, and the electoral strength of the Nazi Party in 1928 (before it became a mass movement attracting all sorts of opportunists).
Their study showed that German towns that blamed the Black Death – the pestilence epidemic – in 1348-1350 on the Jews and subsequently murdered them were much more likely to commit anti-Semitic violence in the 1920s and vote for the Nazis.
Of the 19 pogroms recorded in the 1920s, fully 18 took place in towns and cities with a record of medieval violence against Jews. In the places with a 14th century history of Jew-burning, the Nazi Party received 1.5 times as many votes as in places without it. In cities like Aachen, for example, the Jews were left undisturbed in 1349, while they were massacred in Würzburg. In the 1920s and 30s, Würzburg was again the scene of anti-Jewish violence, while Aachen witnessed no such violence. In the 1928 elections, the Nazi Party got 6.3 percent of the Würzburg vote, twice the national average, while in Aachen it got barely 1 percent.