But Mr. Sieferle is critical of Germany’s postwar culture of Holocaust memory, which he argues has taken on the traits of a religion. The country’s sins are held to be unique and absolute, beyond either redemption or comparison. “The First Commandment,” he writes, “is ‘Thou shalt have no Holocausts before me.’ ” Hitler, in retrospect, turns out to have done a paradoxical thing: He bound Germans and Jews together in a narrative for all time. In an otherwise relativistic and disenchanted world, Mr. Sieferle writes, Germans appear in this narrative as the absolute enemies of our common humanity, as a scapegoat people. The role is hereditary. There are Germans whose grandparents were not born when the war ended, yet they, too, must take on the role.
In this, Mr. Sieferle sees an “affinity” between Germans now and “the Jew as he was understood in the Christian past.” Specifically, Jews were cast as either indifferent to or responsible for the crucifixion. In the eyes of today’s world, German identity symbolizes a similar rejection of some kind of revelation. “In every city Christianity had built cathedrals to its murdered God,” Mr. Sieferle writes. “Today, the Jews, to whom God himself had promised eternity, build memorials throughout the world to their murdered coreligionists. Not only are the victims ascribed a moral superiority, the wrongdoers and their symbols are ascribed an eternal depravity.”
Mr. Sieferle’s is a complex argument. It is linked to his concern, in “Das Migrationsproblem,” with the challenges of mass migration. He believed that Germany’s self-demonization had left it unable to say anything but yes to a million or so migrants seeking entry to Europe in 2015 and that such a welcome was unsustainable. Whether he was right or wrong, this was a concern shared by many Germans, and not necessarily an idle expression of animus.