HipHop and Holocaust
Political Scientist Jakob Baier about antisemitism in Germany's cultural landscape.

Illustration: Jens Bonnke

As part of our themed week for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, we take a look at the culture of commemoration in Germany from different perspectives and talk to voices from our network.

Jakob Baier is a political scientist at the University of Bielefeld.
In his research, he focusses on the topic of antisemitism and conspiracy ideologies in culture and modern media.
As part of his dissertation project, he is working on antisemitism in German-language gangsta rap.

Alfred Landecker Foundation: You are working on the research topic of antisemitism, including: antisemitic continuities in our society, conspiracy ideologies and antisemitism in rap and hip-hop. What is the key question that concerns you the most? Why are these topics particularly important to you? How do conspiracy ideologies and antisemitism in rap/hip-hop affect social discourse?

Jakob Baier: With regard to antisemitism in cultural production and the debates surrounding it, an increasing shift in the boundaries of what can be said can be observed. This is becoming particularly clear in German-language gangsta rap: Antisemitism - mostly in the form of conspiracy myths to the point of open rejection of Jews - did not suddenly appear in this area of popular culture, but rather developed over a period of about 15 years into a central motif in the self-portrayal of individual genre protagonists. One of our research projects at Bielefeld University has now shown that a significant proportion of gangsta rap listeners are receptive to these antisemitic narratives. This in turn raises the question whether and to what extent the potential for antisemitic violence is fed by this. During an anti-Israeli demonstration in Gelsenkirchen in May 2021, youths and young adults gathered in front of a synagogue and chanted anti-Jewish slogans. This shows a dangerous development: Through the spreading and normalizing of antisemitic positions via music and social media, the inhibition threshold to openly express antisemitic resentments is lowered. However, this applies not only to popular culture, but also to what is commonly referred to as “high culture”. documenta fifteen demonstrated this: Various art magazines and parts of the feature section debated how much hatred of Jews could be granted to the artists and their works. This also signals people with antisemitic tendencies: Corresponding statements or actions are not sanctioned in cases of doubt, but rather are sometimes met with approval across very different parts of society and the public.

AL: International Holocaust Memorial Day: As a person who deals a lot with antisemitism, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? What do you associate with this day?

JB: First and foremost, I associate this with my own family history. The Jewish part of my family comes from Poland, my grandfather was the only one of his family to survive the Warsaw Ghetto. In addition to the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, Yom HaShoah also holds significance for me, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 whilst also raising awareness of the existence and importance of Jewish defence. My research questions thus result from a personal need to understand: How did antisemitism arise, under which social as well as individual psychological conditions could, and can it unfold its potential for elimination, and how can this be combated?

AL: What other topics are you currently dealing with? What current discourses do you observe?

In recent years, it has been observed that forms of Holocaust relativization have been met with increasing acceptance in different social milieus. Right-wing "guilt cult" theories, Björn Höcke's "Monument of Shame" speech of 2017 or Gauland's "bird shit" statement of 2018 show: On the political level, the AfD (editorial note: the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is Germany's far-right party) has been trying for some years to spread historical revisionist ideas and - connected to this - to make a need for debt relief politically useful in a significant part of the German population. Over the course of the Corona pandemic, it became apparent which social resonance space this historical revisionist agitation meets: For the purpose of self-victimization, supporters of the Querdenker movement put on a so-called “Jewish star” during demonstrations, compared well-known virologists with Nazi criminals and did not shy away from taking to the streets together with representatives of the extreme right.

But even on the left-wing, there is a normalization of historic relativization and positions charged with antisemitism among supposedly progressive milieus: At documenta fifteen, works of art were shown in which the Jewish state of Israel is equated with the Nazi state. Similar statements are made in the play “Vögel” (“Birds of a Kind”), which was discussed in the feature section in an extremely uncritical and often highly praiseworthy manner. Moreover, such historically relativizing forms of perpetrator-victim reversal have been found for years in the agitation of supporters of the anti-Israeli boycott movement BDS. Not only well-known musicians, but also some of the documenta artists – some of them from the curator team – are committed to it.

AL: Which elements of this concern you most and why?

We are currently experiencing the end of contemporary witnessing. No doubt, there are a multitude of initiatives that preserve and make public eyewitness accounts from the victims of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, it goes to show: At a time when the last survivors are dying, positions that relativise history are being articulated ever more confidently and loudly. The multi-directional attacks on the culture of remembrance (RIAS) come from differing political milieus. The historical relativization of right-wing actors is the expected evil of a new wave of populism and nationalism worldwide. However, the current public debates on the significance of the Shoah in historical politics show that questionable impulses are also emanating from more left-liberal milieus – and also from important parts of academia. During the so-called “Historikerstreit 2.0” (Historian dispute 2.0), individual representatives of post-colonial studies argued against both a critical examination of the Shoah and against social forms of remembrance. In the course of this, a culture of remembrance that was supposedly imposed “from above” was criticised, ignoring the fact that a large part of the initiatives to deal with the Shoah in recent decades have emerged from so-called civil society and were sometimes enforced against sometimes massive political resistance.

What sort of reaction would you hope for from politics and society towards such developments?

The debates on the politics of remembrance make it clear that a profound examination of the Shoah requires an understanding of the history and present of antisemitism. There is no doubt that political and historical knowledge of the facts about the Shoah is indispensable. However, the question remains as to why antisemitism survives the Shoah. In order to understand this, a basic knowledge of the psychological functions of antisemitic resentment as well as the social conditions that lead to the emergence of antisemitic movements is required.

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