When Berlin’s largest opera house, Deutsche Oper, canceled four performances of a modernized version of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” — which included images of the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon and the Prophet Muhammad — because of the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic attack brought on by a perceived denigration of Muhammad, journalist Henryk Broder went on the attack. “I am, even as a secular, non-believing Jew, insulted,” he wrote in the online version of Der Spiegel, Germany’s most influential weekly magazine. “I feel injured, discriminated against and excluded. Why is the head of Moses not there?”
Broder, who recently turned 60, is the raging Bronx bull of –German journalism. He is a ubiquitous media figure within the German-speaking world, and his activity ranges from radio commentary to appearing — with a deliberately provocative American flag button in an anti-American climate — as a guest on political TV news shows. But his most recent book, “Hurray! We’re Capitulating!” (Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag), a fiercely combative indictment of Europe’s soggy response to a growing and radicalized political Islam, has catapulted him into a new stratosphere of media and publicity stardom. The book has now spent six months as a best-seller on the nonfiction list of Der Spiegel.
“I have never written a best-seller. The halls are now always filled during my readings,” he said. “In the past, 90% of the people were against me. Today, 90% of the people are for me.”
Some of Broder’s critics charge him with stoking a “clash of the cultures.” According to a rare critique of his book that Kai Doering wrote in Vorwärts, the newspaper of the Social Democratic Party, “He draws a conflict divide between the ‘culture of diligence’, in which he means the West, and a ‘culture of shame and disgrace’, which he sees in the Islamic states.” Broder, however, seems to defy the left-right cooker-cutter approach to political journalism. Jungle World, a weekly German newspaper considered to be a model for undogmatic leftist journalism, praised Broder’s book, and Helmut Markwort, editor in chief of the German magazine Focus, cited Broder’s anti-authoritarian, free-thinking style as a reason for awarding him this year’s prestigious Ludwig Börne Prize for journalism. In addition, the media magazine V.i.S.d.p just named Broder online journalist of the year.
Broder was born in Katowice, Poland, in 1946. He is the son of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, and in 1958, following persecution in Communist Poland, his family moved to Cologne, Germany. In the ’80s, Broder lived in Jerusalem, where he reported for German print media. Many of his earlier books addressed German antisemitism in the post-World Word II period. When asked to describe his views on the state of German-Jewish relations, Broder invoked the famous remark by Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” There is no shortage of raw material in Germany for Broder to satirize, or to invoke his polemical skills. He has attacked the work of the American Jewish Committee for serving as a kind of junior public relations department for the German government’s image in the United States. In Spiegel online, he confronted French Nazi-hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld for their attempt to introduce an exhibition showing how the Deutsche Bahn, the German National Railway System, deported Jewish children. The Klarsfelds wanted to show photographs of the children in various train stations across Germany, a move that Broder claimed diminishes the memory of the other victims.
Broder has also come out swinging against architects Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, both of whom he considers to represent a form of architectural hucksterism. He describes the Der Holocaust-Turm space in the Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum in Berlin as allowing visitors to be “locked up for a few minutes and feeling, as the door behind them once again opens, like the victims of a concentration camp who were just liberated by the Red Army… thus are normal Germans turned into genuine anti-fascists.” He has also sparred with Alexander Brenner, former chairman of the Jewish community of Berlin, over the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In a public letter to Brenner, published in Der Tagesspiegel, a large daily in Berlin, Broder wrote: “The memorial not only continues the special treatment of the Jews but it reproduces the fixed idea of the Nazis. Thus was the Holocaust centrally planned and now the memory of the Holocaust should be centrally administered.”
Didactic and bureaucratic memorials do not appeal to Broder, who has been endearingly called “a half-anarchist.” “What concerns me at this time is that Jewish self-hatred is rising,” he said. “The Jews seem to sense that a disaster is approaching them. And now they want to send a signal to the others that they are the good Jews. There have never been so many good Jews, from Noam Chomsky, who recently allowed himself to be interviewed in a Hamas television program in Lebanon, to Norman Finkelstein and Tony Judt. They want to make it clear to the opposite side: Spare us. That did not occur 20 years ago, and I consider that to really be a sign of alarm.”
Of the German public, 77%, the highest figure in Europe, have a pejorative view of Israel and feel more comfortable with the views of Chomsky and Finkelstein. Broder’s hard-hitting style of journalism seeks to jolt this German majority into reflection about such serious topics as the interplay between anti-Israelism and antisemitism. A tall order in Central Europe.
Ben Weinthal lives in Berlin and is currently a European journalist fellow at the Free University of Berlin. Sophie Krempl-Klieeisen contributed to the research of this article.