Wer Sind das Volk?

Pro-Palestinian poster. Germany, late 1980s.

This poster couldn’t be more timely. In the wake of President Obama’s trip last week, in which he went through the motions of declaring the United States’ unwavering support for Israel, despite suggesting parallels between Palestinians and African-Americans, frustration at the intransigence of Israeli leaders is at an all-time high and calls for a boycott are spreading.

But guess what? The poster’s timeliness is an illusion. Like the photograph in which it is documented here, the poster dates from the late 1980s, during the first Intifada. If it seems au courant, that’s only because so little of substance has changed in the interim. And much of what had, in the wake of Oslo, has reverted back to its previous state.

Interestingly, the same could be said for the people responsible for the poster. As anyone who has spent time studying the posters, stickers and graffiti decorating German cities can tell you, the sentiments expressed here are still in heavy rotation. Palestine is clearly a topic with staying power:

No voice will drown out the voice of resistance!






There are still many walls in this city. . .

Few political relationships are more fraught than the one between Palestine and the German Left. From the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, when the anti-establishment movement first organized significant protests against Israel; through the faddish radicalism of the 1970s epitomized by the Red Army Faction and its kinder, gentler offspring; past the tribulations of the Cold War’s conclusion; into Germany’s reemergence as Europe’s de facto master, the plight of the Palestinian people has remained a consistent preoccupation.

Although the growth of the country’s Muslim population has helped to keep the issue visible, particularly in cities like Berlin, the Left’s investment in Palestine does not simply reflect a desire to show solidarity with Germany’s most discriminated-against inhabitants. While calls for anti-racist action on behalf of Muslims have increased in recent years, there remains a significant disjunction between that topic and Israel/Palestine. It can plausibly be argued that, just as the German Left protested against the Vietnam War, despite the conflict’s distance from their own lives, it has fixated on Palestine precisely because of its relative remoteness and concomitant exoticism.

Indeed, one can imagine a worthy companion to Edward Said’s landmark book Orientalism that would concentrate on the ways in which leftists have misconstrued the Middle East in order to shore up the foundations of their own political identity. This is not to imply that supporters of the Palestinian cause in Germany — or elsewhere in the developed world — are insincere. But it certainly does seem to be the case that the Palestinians, as the past century’s most prominent dispossessed people, often stand in for something closer to home that the Left struggles to articulate directly.

Looking more closely at the message painted on the wall this poster depicts, what stands out is the word das Volk. A centerpiece of the Nazis’ reactionary populism, used as a prefix in countless bureaucratic euphemisms, it was ported over after the war, with barely a hitch, to become the linchpin of East Germany’s self-understanding. Despite the fact that the German Democratic Republic was explicitly constituted as a repudiation of the Third Reich, with socialists and communists who had gone into exile taking the reins of power, the discourse of “the People” remained in full effect, with similarly totalitarian results.

Opposed to the legacy of fascism and its Eastern Bloc mirror image, leftists in West Germany were understandably wary of deploying das Volk rhetorically when referring to the inhabitant of their homeland. But when the developing world was invoked, this reluctance diminished. So long as the people referred to were neither German nor citizens of the so-called First World, populism did not seem so tainted.

One encounters this line of thinking over and over when examining German leftist discourse in the West. Sometimes, though, syntax complicates matters. Although the slogan painted on the wall here was almost certainly intended to conjure visions of the Palestinian people rising up to liberate their homeland, failure to specify an exact definition for the variable das Volk, together with the language in which the slogan is written, conspires to create an ambiguous message with potentially troubling implications. Because if das Volk that’s supposedly going to liberate Palestine is read as German, then the exhortation to boycott Israel takes on a different aspect altogether.

This is one case where use of the possessive pronoun could have made a huge difference. Because writing “Palestine—your people will free you” resonates with none of the latent menace of “Palestine—the People will free you.


Commentary and translation from the German by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph courtesy of the author.

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