As the 75th Holocaust Remembrance Day arrived Jan. 24, the world’s eyes turned to Germany.
The country may be the place where anti-Semitism reached its gruesome historical climax in the murder of 6 million Jews, but it now plays a key role in the global conversation about ensuring that such a genocide never happens again.
The face of that discussion in Atlanta and the Southeast has been Heike Fuller, Germany’s top diplomat in the region, who since her arrival in 2018 has been asked to speak to various Jewish congregations, especially following anti-Semitic attacks in both countries.
“That’s not easy, because at least in our country, we said it should never happen again. But it did already. It happened once and it can happen again,” Dr. Fuller said during a wide-ranging Consular Conversation interview Dec. 9 with Global Atlanta.
As if it wasn’t before, Dr. Fuller underscored how painfully evident it has become in recent months that the world needs to be constantly reminded of the horrific fruits of a hate-filled ideology.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have tracked a consistent rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the last few years. College campuses have seen a rash of harassment cases, including swastikas drawn on two Georgia campuses in November. Partisan debates have raged in Congress over how far lawmakers can go in criticizing Israeli policy before venturing into anti-Semitic territory.
Even more troubling are the occasions when hateful sentiment has bubbled over into violent action. The U.S. saw deadly shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In Halle, Germany, earlier this year, a self-proclaimed Holocaust denier sought to massacre worshippers on Yom Kippur during a rampage he live-streamed online. When he couldn’t get through the synagogue door, he killed two bystanders.
Then, of course, there were the Monsey, N.Y., Hanukkah stabbings on Dec. 29. The next day, Israel’s Consul General covering seven southeastern states, Anat Sultan-Dadon, noted her “grave concern” over rising antisemitism in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion piece that called for non-Jews to look inward and ask how they can help extinguish the embers of prejudice.
Three weeks prior, Dr. Fuller made similar comments about the need to attack the roots of anti-Semitism head-on, lest they metastasize into something more dangerous.
She pointed to a troubling survey conducted by the World Jewish Congress before the Halle attack, for instance, which indicated that a quarter of Germans hold anti-Semitic ideas.
“For me, it’s mind-boggling. That is a topic that we have both in common, and we just cannot let it go,” Dr. Fuller said, noting alt-right extremists and neo-Nazi groups are now collaborating with each other across borders. One group based in the Southeast U.S., the Atomwaffen Division, has a German affiliate that was reportedly responsible for death threats on Green Party politicians earlier this year.
“The consequence is that we have to put these politicians under 24-hour police protection, and law enforcement agencies here in the states as well as Germany don’t have enough people to watch the dark net where these groups are active — and they are very, very active,” Dr. Fuller said.
A lawyer by training, she called for renewed focus on both sides of the Atlantic on monitoring extremist activity and equipping law enforcement with digital tools. Germany is for the first time naming anti-Semitism in its hate crime laws and is empowering prosecutors with more leverage.
“Be vigilant and fight the beginnings,” she said.
Of course, Germany continues to acknowledge its own unique burden for the crimes of the last century. Chancellor Angela Merkel in December became the latest German leader and first in nearly three decades to visit Auschwitz, the infamous death camp in occupied Poland where the Nazis killed 1.1 million people, most of them Jews. She expressed “deep shame” during her first visit to the site.
Dr. Fuller said the visit came with the promise of 60 million euros from federal government and Germany’s 16 states to maintain the macabre memorial so its story can be told to future generations. That showed Germany’s continued sense of responsibility, especially in light of recent political trends.
“[Ms. Merkel] said that these crimes that are committed during the Third Reich are part of our identity and they will always be part of our identity,” the consul general said. “They are crimes that have to be told over and over again. She said, ‘We owe it to the victims and their families.’ I cannot echo that more.”
There is a “new energy” around combating anti-Semitism at the international level as well, she said. Newly appointed European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, a German, installed a new task force to prioritize the issue. And Germany picks up the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a group of 42 countries (34 of them full members) in March.
Negatives Trickling Down
The moves to work together on this issue come at a tense time in the trans-Atlantic relationship, as the U.S. and Germany seek to iron out differences on trade and security that have amplified tensions.
President Trump has consistently criticized Germany for not meeting its spending commitments to NATO, and just this week he revived a threat of tariffs on foreign cars and parts that would hit the German car makers in the South.
“These discussions don’t make any sense, as the close allies and friends we are for more than 70 years, we should really stay away from publicly scolding each other and portraying something that might exist between the political leaders but definitely not on the ground between the people,” Dr. Fuller said. “What we see is if the overall environment is not positive, it trickles down, and that is something that we really don’t need at the moment.”
She noted that German student exchanges are now favoring Asia, and investors and technicians looking to come to the U.S. have complained of visa challenges. She called the American consulate in Frankfurt a “hall of tears” because of the common denials.
Tariffs, meanwhile, would be paid by American consumers, and they will have the effect of deterring German investment that was founded upon the idea of free trade. Car makers like BMW set up shop in places like South Carolina, where its factory and related suppliers sustain 11,000 jobs, because they knew they would be able to trade out of Southern ports.
“The German system was set up thinking that we have free trade, so with every company that is set up, they also export to other countries,” Dr. Fuller said.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump ally, visited Germany last week to open a new economic development office in Munich.
Foundations of the Alliance
Still, 2019 provided an occasion to reflect on the underlying strengths of the alliance, as the consulate worked through the foreign ministry’s “Wunderbar Together” year of German-American friendship. Programs focused on grassroots connections, reaching 1.5 million people nationwide at events with 400 partner organizations. The campaign garnered 10 million social media impressions.
In November, Dr. Fuller and her team visited multiple schools to talk about the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that culminated nearly a half-century of U.S. effort to restore Germany’s economic and political integrity after its defeat in World War II.
“It’s a symbol that we can refer to as a very solid common history. And we cannot stress again and again, how grateful we are to our American partners and friends for the support we got that Germany is finally a reunited country again,” Dr. Fuller said moments after a video of a 2003 Atlanta reunification conference featuring former President George W. Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Chancellor Helmut Kohl was played.
Growing up in West Germany, she never thought that amid the Cold War the two sides would find their way back to each other.
“I grew up honestly thinking that this country will always be separated. It was unthinkable.”
That changed through steadfast American support, from the Berlin Airlift to President Kennedy’s ‘I’m a Berliner’ speech to Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.” It all came to a head during the administration of President H.W. Bush, who pledged as the wall fell on the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1989, that the U.S. would act in support of Germany’s sovereignty and unity.
This history, as well as common goals like workforce development and trade, can continue to drive the relationship into the future, she said.