FOCUS ON ISSUES Germans grapple with rule of law as tools of oppression, democracy
Menu JTA Search

FOCUS ON ISSUES Germans grapple with rule of law as tools of oppression, democracy

BERLIN, June 10 (JTA) — In 1933, David Arad’s father-in-law, Eduard Meyerstein, then 65, “received a friendly letter that in order to prevent a public outrage he should pass up on his rights as a public notary,” said Arad. “Before 1933, he and his family were seen as human beings.” Peter Galiner’s parents ended their lives rather than face deportation. “They had both helped others to leave, and hoped to leave themselves,” said Galiner, who survived in England along with his sister. These stories represent just a few of the lives of Jewish members of the German legal profession that were disrupted by the Nazis’ 1933 “Law of Admittance to the Legal Profession” — a perverse misnomer because it was really a law of exclusion. Nazi officials used the law to disbar Jewish judges and lawyers — practically half the legal community in Berlin at the time. It was one of the earliest Nazi acts that removed Jews from positions of influence in German society. After receiving polite official letters that brought the cruel news in 1933, some Jewish jurists emigrated and survived. A few managed to keep their jobs for a while. Many later perished in concentration camps. Today Germany is a firmly entrenched democracy, one of the few that makes Holocaust denial and other neo-Nazi expressions a crime. But because from 1933 to 1945 German law was perverted to first oppress and then nearly destroy its Jewish population, it is a nation grappling with its moral — and legal — responsibility to survivors of concentration camps, ghettos and slave labor. Last week, the role of law in Germany came under scrutiny at an unusual gathering in this city. For the first time in its 30-year existence, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists chose Germany for its annual meeting. Drawing participants from 16 countries — including South Africa, Scotland, the United States and Norway — the four-day event recalled the fate of Berlin’s 2,000 Jewish jurists during the Nazi years and evaluated Germany’s progress as a democratic nation today. Observers came up with a mixed verdict. “There are some very disturbing signs” of rising anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe, said the organization’s deputy president, Itzhak Nener, 79, in remarks closing the four-day event. But, he added, “Germany is one of the few countries in Europe which has adopted legislation” to fight these trends. Berlin Jewish attorney Olaf Ossmann, who represents clients in World War II-era restitution cases, was less optimistic, saying such laws are necessary but cosmetic. “The whole government agrees we have to fight against these things, but just go to [a working-class neighborhood] and speak with people in a restaurant,” he said. “The picture of a Jew is the same as it was before: a rich person who takes money from other people.” The discussion is far from abstract. On the home front, extremism is on the rise, according to Germany’s recently released annual report on crime. The number of far-right supporters increased 11 percent in 1998 to 53,600, including 8,200 people described as violent, the report said. Germany, which defends its curbs on free speech as necessary in light of its wartime past, recently announced efforts to improve its policing of the Internet, where many groups spread their messages of hate. Many such Internet sites originate in other countries where these messages, including Holocaust denial, are not illegal. As a result, German judges find themselves applying German law to foreign nationals — as in the case of American neo-Nazi Gary Lauck, who recently finished a four-year jail term in a Hamburg prison for charges related to his dissemination of neo-Nazi propaganda from his base in Nebraska. More recently, Australian Fredrick Toben was arrested in the southwestern city of Mannheim and has been held there since April, awaiting prosecution on charges of posting Holocaust-denial material on his Web site. And the laws recently led to the conviction in Munich of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen for inciting racial hatred by trivializing the Holocaust during a 1997 press conference there. “We follow closely [such] trials,” Judge Hadassah Ben-Itto, the 73-year-old president of the Jewish lawyers association, said at the conference. “We hope this process will continue as long as there still exist those who deny the existence of the gas chambers and preach that they were an invention of the Jews,” said Ben-Itto, whose family emigrated from Poland to pre-state Palestine before the war. In 1933, Susanne Thaler and her parents were deported to Auschwitz, where she managed to survive. She lives in Berlin today. “I want to make sure,” she said, “that Germany remains a state of law and order today.” Her comment reflects a common theme here as the western part of Germany marks its 50th anniversary as a postwar democracy, and as Berlin becomes the country’s capital for the first time since the end of World War II. Recently, Berlin’s Humboldt University hosted a conference, “Divided Past — Shared History,” which focused on how the former East and West Germanys viewed their Nazi past and how the now-united Germany sees its role as keeper of the democratic flame. It is a role that is hotly debated. The NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia that were prompted by the crisis in Kosovo has pitted Germany’s two modern rallying cries against each other: “No more Auschwitz” versus “No more war.” The future is in fact promising, said Michel Friedman, a Frankfurt attorney and member of the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “The fact that criminal law today considers the denial of Auschwitz as a criminal act is a signal of changing attitudes to the past. The fact that we now have the 27th of January as a memorial day for murdered European Jewry is a symbol of high importance. These things are coming very late, but it is better late than not at all.”