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‘Für das Leben, gegen den Tod’ [For life, against death]

‘Für das Leben, gegen den Tod’ [For life, against death]

Writing from Vienna, Christopher Hütmannsberger grapples with the current state of confusion in the German-speaking Left around the genocide currently unfolding in Gaza and argues that this is a litmus test for understanding how people respond to oppression.

There are those days that seem to cancel out everything else. Days that make all your prior wants or even needs seem small and insignificant. Days that make any and all former plans void. A break so clear that seemingly all our memories from before that day change, and suddenly, we think back to a time when things were carefree.

As if they ever were.

Reverting instantly to when we were happy, before we were confronted with that one day. Ignoring if that were true in any shape or form, considering the constant barrage of horrors from around the world, we focus on such days. And then I find myself spending every free minute of the day trying to figure out every little detail about every little thing that happened on that one day so that I could never be called out for not having a solid grasp on whatever just happened. But then that day passes, and then another day passes, and then a week passes, and soon that one day that changed everything becomes that one day when that one thing happened. Of course, I can only say that from my privileged position within the safety of my home in Western Europe, but that in itself has to be talked about. That one day that changed everything might very well have faded for some, but for others it has not, and cannot ever. So that one day we forgot will still have changed everything for those who we have forgotten too. 

It is vital that those in Austria and Germany never forget or play down our role in one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century. However, when we claim to ‘never forget and never forgive’, we have to realise that this means hard and constant work. It must not ever mean pretending to be the silent, age-old arbitrators of the Israel–Palestine issue because of our past complicity in the Shoah. Not that we should become that person who always bangs on about how terrible things are right now in every conversation; however, we must keep this in our minds at all times so that we can prevent it from being forgotten. Because it is exactly then that those who cannot forget are made invisible. It is the responsibility of every single person who claims to be antifascist that if we truly mean that we will ‘never forget and never forgive’, then we must take that seriously. Every single life lost to an ideology that claims superiority over others is a life that we must never forget and must never forgive the loss of. It is vital to realise that this does not equal being passive. It means standing up against the loss of life to an ideology that wants to kill. Any loss of life. Because the instrumental word in this case is ‘loss’.

It is perfectly clear that overcoming this spectacle of misery is not going to happen by simply separating our trash or voting for the people who seem least likely to commit atrocities. And, acknowledging the fact that overcoming the spectacle may also very well entail violent struggle, a loss of life is a loss of life, is a loss of life. As an anarchist, this has to be clear to me. I refuse to resign myself to picking sides in any conflict in which people commit atrocities, but rather will always choose to stand with human life. Because not doing so would mean that I have failed myself as a human being who considers himself to be committed to the idea that a better world for all is possible.

As absurd as it feels, it currently seems like this is an important thing to say right now: it cannot and must not ever be a question to say that there has to be a safe space for Jewish people to exist. Anything or anyone calling this into question must be opposed on a fundamental level. Of course, there must be a place for Jewish life to be safe, but claiming that this must be achieved on the back of the Palestinian people is ignorant at best and evil at worst. To claim that Israel is the only place in which a Jewish population can be safe is utterly absurd. Not only is that not the case in its current state, but it also entirely misses the point in terms of fighting against anti-semitism within Western Europe. Is the German speaking Left really at a point in which the murder of a people is justified because playing down anti-semitism within German speaking countries is easier than admitting that there is a reason that Jewish life is difficult in Austria and Germany? Can it not be possible to admit that the Israeli state is currently committing genocide in the name of Zionism while still being staunchly against anti-semitism? Jewish life must be possible in Europe without feeling the need to engage in unquestioned solidarity with a state actively involved in the killing of a people.

Unfortunately, the German speaking Left is currently (as is so often the case) engaged in a trench war with itself. One side (self-described as Antideutsche, or ‘anti-Germans’) is so focused on the crimes of our National Socialist past that the existence of the Israeli state becomes close to dogma, and the charge of anti-semitism is broadened to include any and all violence against Jews with utter disregard for context. Meanwhile, the other side is so focused on anything they deem to be anti-imperialist that even marching side by side with the fascist Turkish Grey Wolves is not off the table when it comes to showing their supposed support for the Palestinian people. This goes so far that in the mid-2010s, an MLM (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) group of self-declared anti-imperialists began patrolling a neighbourhood in Berlin, often engaging in attacks against Jewish residents in the name of “anti-imperialism.” These things very much are anti-semitic and must be treated as such. This is one of the most disgusting aspects about how the current genocide in Gaza is being talked about within the German speaking world.

Especially because it is nothing but arrogance in the face of what is happening; those in power do not care what you are saying to each other in a hipster bar in Berlin while a government is actively bombing Gaza. They do not care who you claim to be in alternative pubs in Vienna at your weekly roundtable while people are plotting to shoot up a synagogue. What you should care about is that both of those things are happening and that both of those things are a denial of the right to fully live as a human being without having to fear for your life. It is vital to do as much as possible to ensure a safe life for both Arab and Jewish people wherever they live, to the extent that that it is possible right now, but nobody cares about your hot takes while bombs are falling. Those are simply two different things and must be regarded as such. And yet, not even the judgment of the International Court of Justice was enough for publications such as The Jungle World (a popular Antideutsche magazine) to acknowledge that there is a genocide going on in Gaza. Meanwhile, there are still people within the German speaking anti-imperialist Left that ignore the fact that the massacre that took place on 7 October 2023 constitutes the largest killing of Jewish people within a single day since the Shoah. What happened to the Left that has led to the establishment of a hierarchy of human life? When did it happen that one life is worth more than another?

Let it never be forgotten or dismissed; though we may not be directly involved as individuals, due to the current state of social media and intercontinental communication, we are always involved to some extent. The degree to which politics and war have become a football match for Western observers has never been stronger than now, and that is nothing but disgusting. Because it is not a match. People are dying, and every loss is a loss, is a loss, is a loss. It is not in question that there are complex discussions that have to be had now. It is not in question that those conversations have to take place and that nobody really wants to take part in them. But the way in which this conversation is currently taking place in Europe, and particularly the German speaking world, is tragic. That we have to have a conversation about a conversation about a conversation while people are being killed is nothing but shameful.

It is undoubtedly horrendous that the term Zionism has been equated with Jewishness. Of course, claiming to be ‘anti-Zionist’ is something that the right wing has used as a dog whistle for decades in order to hide their anti-semitism. But by claiming that Zionism is something that can be viewed as a neutral position, and therefore that anti-Zionism is only this dog whistle and only constitutes the denial of the right of a safe space for Jews, dismisses all of the Jewish tradition and diaspora that does not agree. People are made Other for no reason other than not adhering to a German-speaking understanding of what it means to be Jewish. This thinking utterly disregards people who see themselves as anti-Zionist Jews, no matter if this was in the early 20th century (such as the iconic Jewish writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov) or now. And so this comes back to the idea that Israel must exist as a safe space for the Jewish people. But is it so impossible to imagine a world in which Jewish people can exist without having to rely on a nation state? And does this nation state invariably have to be based on the destruction of another group of people?

Since its inception in the late 19th century, Zionism has envisioned a Jewish ethno-state. Given the rampant anti-semitism in Europe, this is not a goal that can be discredited. Quite the contrary, it is entirely understandable that there was a push for the establishment of a nation in which Jewish life could exist far from the pogroms of Europe. But the support of rampant anti-semites like Sir Arthur Balfour or Winston Churchill1 for the establishment of such a nation state makes the entire situation a lot more difficult. When anti-semites fully support a movement that has the expressed goal of moving Jewish people to a place other than where they existed up to that point, the idea that this support was not done out of the goodness of the hearts of those in power is not out of this world. Considering that the British government sent the murderous Black and Tans2 to British Mandated Palestine in order to crush Arab rebellions so as to secure the settlement of people that they did not want to have in their country, that idea becomes even less credible. Of course, the argument can be made that the origins of something should not necessarily impact later support; however, this history must be kept in mind whenever the argument is made that the Israeli state has a ‘right to exist’ in the space where it does. This line of argumentation only justifies the Othering of Palestinians because it insinuates that there exists a right to displace those who stand in the way of a benevolent Israeli state and that Western powers are only protecting Jewish life.

While it is true that the initial support of Western governments was based very much on an act of Othering itself, it is not a coincidence that the location of the establishment of a Jewish ethno-state was also in a place where another form of Western discrimination was so prevalent and could therefore just as easily be ignored by Western powers. However, it is important in this case to remember that while the aim is the same, there is a distinct difference between the mechanisms of anti-semitism and racism as forms of discrimination. While racism looks down on people as being inferior to the established norm and justifies the Othering of groups of people in this way, the ideas described in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion3 show that modern anti-semitism regards Jews as being in control of whatever is deemed wrong with society. It is, therefore, dangerous to conflate the mechanisms of racism and anti-semitism on the grounds that the results are the same. This can very easily lead to a situation in which criticism in either direction can be immediately put off as being one form of discrimination or the other. This means that – something that unfortunately holds true in Austria and Germany when dealing with the conflict in Israel/Palestine – anti-racist work is portrayed as anti-semitic while work against anti-semitism is construed to be racist, resulting not only in the failure of both struggles but the continuation of racist and anti-semitic policies and societies. While it is extremely important to realise that there are differences between anti-semitism and racism as mechanisms of discrimination, it is equally important to emphasise that neither anti-semitism nor racism can ever be – in any shape or form – acceptable within a vision for a future that is a just society for all.

I became involved in the antifascist and specifically the anarchist scene because of slogans such as ‘Für das Leben, gegen den Tod’ [For life, against death] and ‘Für das gute Leben für Alle’ [For the good life for all]. To see comrades currently tear each other to pieces because of different interpretations of those ideals is horrifying. When really it should be clear: any ideology that is bent on the destruction of others must be opposed in order to achieve a good life for all. The important thing to realise is that dehumanising groups of people is not and cannot ever be the answer. It is vital to oppose fascism any time it rears its ugly head, but opposing fascism can never be equal to dehumanisation.

This is why the war against the Palestinian people is a litmus test in terms of looking at how people respond to oppression. As an anarchist and an antifascist, it is crystal clear to me that if the goal is a life without authority, then an oppressive force cannot be overcome by a different oppressive force, regardless of whether they claim that it will change further down the line. It is far too easy in such cases to throw your hands up and fall into nihilism. But that is exactly why we need to take care of each other; this is not something a single person can handle. It is only possible to resist authoritarianism as a collective, and as long as the goal is a life without oppression, violence, or authority, particularly if the goal really is a good life, then that life must be for all. Without hierarchies. Without distinctions. Without exceptions.

~ Christopher Hütmannsberger

This article first appeared in Interregnum.

  1. For a more detailed analysis of the involvement of anti-semitism within the British empire in the establishment of the Israeli state, see Balfour’s Shadow by David Cronin, Pluto Press, 2017. ↩︎
  2. The Black and Tans were the collective name for the troops sent to Ireland in the early 20th century with the expressed goal of terrorising Irish republicans and their suspected supporters. They were mostly made up of WWI veterans and are mainly responsible for the violence enacted on Irish civilians during the Irish War of Independence. After the war in Ireland ended in 1921, many of these troops were sent directly on to British Mandated Palestine. See Chapter 2 in Balfour’s Shadow. ↩︎
  3. A fake document from imperial Russia in the early 20th century that was fundamental for the establishment of the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy, and was highly influential in the way that contemporary anti-semitism manifests itself. ↩︎

Image: Guy Smallman

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