Germany’s Extreme Right Challenges Guilt Over Nazi Past - The New York Times
New York Times
19th January 2017
DRESDEN, Germany — At a beer hall on Tuesday evening, the lean blond man’s voice boomed out over a crowd of hundreds — some and but with a contingent of polished young professionals. “The AfD is the last revolutionary, the last peaceful chance for our fatherland,” declared the man, Björn Höcke, referring to the political party Alternative for Germany, and employing a reverential term for Germany, one of several nationalist buzzwords usually shunned in the country’s politics. “Jawohl!” a few shouted.
“Yes!” When Mr. Höcke (pronounced ) lamented that “German history is handled as rotten and made to look ridiculous” — a subtle but clear reference to guilt for the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes — the crowd responded by chanting, “Deutschland, Deutschland. ” His speech at the rally in Dresden on Tuesday touched off a wave of national alarm by challenging Germany’s national atonement for the Holocaust and for its Nazi crimes.
His comments drew broad criticism for their venom and because Mr. Höcke, a rising star in the AfD, has found growing success with his messages of extreme nationalism. Shouting to be heard over cheering supporters, many of whom stood, Mr.
Höcke challenged the collective national guilt over the war that has restrained German politics for three generations. At times he used language that seemed to hint at lamenting Nazi Germany’s defeat. Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital,” he said, referring to a memorial to murdered Jews in Berlin.
He added that Germans had the “mentality of a totally vanquished people. ” Mr. Höcke, who began his speech by triumphantly raising his arms over his head, represents the rightward flank of Alternative for Germany, an already party.
But his speech and the crowd’s energetic reception of his words offer a glimpse of the relatively new party’s threat to German politics. He is on the fringe, but that fringe is growing in numbers and in willingness to defy the usual restraints, to the rising alarm of Germany’s establishment leaders, who on Wednesday denounced his comments. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats and the country’s vice chancellor, shot back in a Facebook post showing a banner splashed across an image of Mr.
Höcke standing at a lectern, reading: “To remember the millions of victims of the Nazis is no weakness. Baiting the helpless to promote yourself is weakness. ” The chairman of the Green Party for the state of Saxony, Jürgen Kasek, on Twitter called for the speech to be checked for possible violations of laws.
He accused Mr. Höcke of saying things that violated the spirit of the Constitution “in the style of national socialism. ” The Central Council of Jews in Germany, in a statement, called the comments “deeply deplorable and fully unacceptable.
” Charlotte Knobloch, a former president of the council, told the newspaper Stimme Heilbronner that Mr. Höcke’s speech was “unbearable agitation,” and she warned that “the AfD is poisoning the political culture and social debate in Germany. ” Mr.
Höcke’s comments even drew a rebuke from the chairwoman of Alternative for Germany, Frauke Petry, who said they were out of line and “straining” the party. Ms. Petry and Mr.
Höcke have been locked in a power struggle for months over how far to the right to position the party, which was originally founded on an platform. The party is polling at nearly 15 percent, ahead of some mainstream parties, for this fall’s national election. Its rapid rise demonstrates that German nationalist politics can find a foothold in unexpected places, for example among educated young people like those at Tuesday’s rally.
Those many in coat and tie, looked and primly trendy. Most of the men wore their hair buzzed close on the sides and long and floppy on top, separated by a severe side parting that seemed unmistakably evocative of Hitler’s. Mainstream parties in Germany have long eschewed politics — in the style of movements — and have avoided shows of overt nationalism.
But that leaves an opening: A populist party like Alternative for Germany can indulge those ideas just enough to excite its supporters without scaring off larger groups of voters. The Alternative for Germany supporters who were gathered in Dresden, the capital of Saxony, seemed animated in a way that is unusual when it comes to modern politics in Germany. Most Germans rarely feel allowed to get excited about their political beliefs or, just as sensitive an issue, about their national identity.
The atmosphere lent the evening a feeling of thrilling transgression, as if the act of cheering ideas was as important, or perhaps more so, than the ideas themselves. Julian M. Wälder, a law student, said he had initially joined the youth league of the Christian Democratic Union, the party to which Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs.
But the party did not feel like “real politics,” he said. Alternative for Germany, Mr. Wälder said, finally felt genuine.
This is a core part of the party’s message: While other parties are all the same, only Alternative for Germany really expresses the popular will. Mr. Wälder and other young attendees seemed tense — the location of the gathering was kept secret until that morning in a failed attempt to avoid the protesters who often gather outside the semiregular rallies — but they were jovial.
The rally on Tuesday felt, if not like a watershed, then a glimpse of a wider, more gradual change. Calls for asserting a strong national identity are not pernicious on their own — all nations have identities, after all — but they remain somewhat taboo in Germany. And that taboo is precisely the point.
Only the fringes would be brazen enough to champion a nationalist identity. But that risks letting those fringes define its contours. Mr.
Höcke, for instance, disavowed a famous 1985 speech by Richard von Weizsacker, then the president of Germany, that called for the Allied victory to be seen as the liberation of the German people, not as their defeat. Mr. Höcke called Mr.
Weizsacker’s address “a speech against his own people, and not for his own people. ” Since 2015, when Germany received nearly a million asylum seekers, Alternative for Germany has sought to portray national identity as under threat from migration and multiculturalism. Establishment parties and other enemies, Mr.
Höcke told the crowd, “are liquidating our beloved German fatherland, like a piece of soap under warm running water. But we, we beloved friends, we patriots, we will close this open tap, and we will win back our Germany, piece by piece. ” Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard and a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund, said Germany had a style of government that could leave an especially wide opening for fringe parties.
Because the German parties tend to govern in a grand, coalition, voters often see little change when parties shift in and out. Politics in Germany usually play out in quiet, polite negotiations among members of the coalition, rather than in dramatic, public clashes between competing parties. The coalition blocks fringe parties like Alternative for Germany, which can then paint mainstream politics as an elite conspiracy to impose unpopular policies and to shut down real debate.
The crowd, at one point, chanted a line Mr. Wälder has also used: “We are the outsiders. ” It was a jarring moment, as many of the “outsiders” were young, white and wore suits and ties — seemingly the definition of an insider in Germany.
Because these young Germans say that the political establishment has denied them sufficient pride in their national identity, they feel as if they are being oppressed, even though they have every right and live in a country that has one of Europe’s economies. But young and old supporters of Alternative for Germany seemed to find something at Tuesday’s rally that is not common among politics: a sense of impending victory. Not in the sense that they would oust Ms.
Merkel’s government this fall — she is likely to retain power — but in the belief that their movement would quickly shape and perhaps one day overcome a system that they see as denying them their German pride. Mr. Mounk said that the rise of extremist voices may have been inevitable, given the failure of mainstream parties to satisfy the desires for national and for charismatic politics.
That left an opening for Mr. Höcke to deliver a message “beyond the usual gripes about being too ashamed of being German,” Mr. Mounk added, “implying, though never quite stating outright, that defeat in 1945 was a bad thing.
” Mr. Höcke concluded his speech on Tuesday with a rallying call. “Beloved friends, we must do little less than make history, so that there will be for us Germans, us Europeans, a future,” he said, as the audience stood, cheered and chanted his name.
He added, “We can make history, and we are doing it. ”.
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