De-Integrate Yourselves. Notes on a German debate. By Max Czollek

Asylum alum Max Czollek talks about his latest book, “Desintegriert Euch!”, which was published on August 20th of this year. 

As my first attempt at writing non-fiction, this book was meant to sum up the work I have been doing at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin for the last three years. At its core, the book reflects the way the representation of the Jewish subject and the Jewish artist are complicit in the (re)construction of current German identity as non-anti-Semitic and non-racist. My analysis is indebted to many thinkers that came before me, particularly the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, the German author Maxim Biller and the concept of Gedächtnistheater (Theatre of Memory), introduced by Y. Michal Bodemann.

The main idea of the Theatre of Memory is that the Jews, together with other minorities, play a vital role as symbols in the construction of identity for the dominant group. As with other forms of discrimination, this dominant position usually remains invisible – which is why I decided to employ the term “German” marking the dominance of the German perspective in the Theatre of Memory. This decision has proven controversial to say the least. After all, the German side has become used to thinking about itself as being no different than the Jewish subject. As the debate around my book moves well into the second month (and the third edition), it is safe to say that it has struck a sensitive nerve. This, of course, has as much to do with my critique of the concept of integration, along with the current political developments.

Photo credit: Stefan Loeber
When I finished the book in June 2018, I did not know that the summer would bring two scandals to light that would push the themes of “Desintegriert Euch!” to the forefront of public discussion: After Germany had been eliminated from the World Cup in the first round, representatives of the German soccer association (DFB) started to focus on the players Mesut Özil and and Ilkay Gündogan. Both had been criticized before the World Cup because they had taken a picture with the long-term president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was cited as proof of their lack of identification with the German nation and ultimately, a reason for the weak performance of the German soccer team that did not make it past the group phase. As a result, Özil announced his withdrawal from the national team in late July.
This triggered a nation-wide uproar amongst the migrant and post-migrant population in Germany. Özil, a man who had previously received a Bambi Award for being a prime example of successful integration into the German society, had suddenly fallen from grace. Germanness, it seemed, was awarded and retracted by the German dominant public at will. In response to this, people began posting about their experiences of racism under the hashtag #metwo which, as with the discussion of sexism, brought the horrors of daily racism in Germany to the public eye.
The notion of “integration” is the central term to discuss questions of belonging in Germany. At its core lies the concept of a cultural and societal center that the others (at times called migrants, Turks, asylum seekers, Jews, Africans, Muslims, etc.) must adopt to. In this specific constellation, “Desintegration” (De-Integration) signals a disruption of a notion shared by all major political parties in Germany and reiterated throughout public debates and media platforms. This disruption may have fallen on especially fertile soil because #metwo had just demonstrated impressively how the dominant side of the debate had been unable, and possibly unwilling, to see the everyday racism ingrained in the concept of integration.
This became even more apparent in the second event taking place this summer – a violent outburst of the extreme right in Chemnitz, Saxony. After a German-Cuban man had been killed, right-wing protesters took to the streets and started hunting for people that did not match their idea of ethnic Germanness. Although those attacks were widely criticized (though not by all “democratic” politicians), things took a turn for the worse when major media outlets started describing the manhunts as aimed towards foreigners (“Ausländer”).
It is here the idea of integration once again showed its ugly and arguably, true undertone: the unbroken identification of ethnos and demos, of Germanness and a certain phenotype. As if an attack against someone with black hair or dark skin makes the person a foreigner again – disregarding his/her passport.
It is crucial to note that both events – #metwo and Chemnitz – go against a German self-image as open and welcoming, non-anti-Semitic and non-racist. This self-image apparently has become so vital for a post-WWII German identity, that it is being upheld even at a point, when a new right-wing party, Alternative for German (AfD), is successfully reactivating the darkest traditions of political thinking in Germany. They are currently on par with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and have taken over second place in surveys for many German Federal states. The German self-image is in need of a reality check.
One line of argument for a Jewish De-Integration thus goes as follows: If the Jewish presence serves the function to uphold the image of a morally purified Germany while the right is re-introducing old Nazi-modes of political thinking, Jews must stop playing along. If anything, this refusal may open up a crack in the Theatre of Memory that allows the German dominant position to encounter the ugliness of its own reality. History has not been overcome. Germany as a whole is not a stable open and democratic society, but a post-national socialistic country still very much affected by its modes of political thinking and its racist fantasies of purification and ethnic harmony.
Jews should not make the mistake to think that because Muslims currently are the main focus of attacks from the right that we will be spared. They may burn the mosques now, but they will burn the synagogues later.
Now, this may sound like a very dim outlook and indeed I together with many analysts have been surprised about the swiftness with which the right has been able to take over public discourses on belonging and Islam. I think, however, that this takeover poses a chance to challenge and improve the political thinking we have become used to. I argue that the central concept we must get rid of is the concept of integration. Only then will we be able to honestly appeal to the quarter of the German population who are (post)migrants to help us defeat this resurge of Nazi-thought.
For this, it must be in the highest Jewish interest to question established modes of representation and functionalization in post-1945 Germany. We need to reach out to other marginalized groups because, ultimately, the challenge the right-wing poses is the challenge to our very existence. It also means to appeal to the part of the German population that refuses to align with the normalization of racist, chauvinistic and arrogant modes of thinking. We will have none of it. And we will not give up easily. This is what de-integration means.

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