The Banality of History

As Germany faces a racist backlash to the influx of migrants and refugees, is the country forgetting its past?

BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 24:  Supporters of the Pegida movement carry a banner that reads: "Stop the Islamization of Europe" as they march past the Chancellery (behind) on August 24, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Pegida is critical of Islam and many of its supporters see Muslim immigration as a threat to Germany. Germany is expected to take in 800,000 refugees and migrants this year, many of them from Muslim countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Germany has seen a spate of protests and violence in recent weeks by right-wing supporters opposing the influx of aslyum-seekers.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 24: Supporters of the Pegida movement carry a banner that reads: "Stop the Islamization of Europe" as they march past the Chancellery (behind) on August 24, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Pegida is critical of Islam and many of its supporters see Muslim immigration as a threat to Germany. Germany is expected to take in 800,000 refugees and migrants this year, many of them from Muslim countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Germany has seen a spate of protests and violence in recent weeks by right-wing supporters opposing the influx of aslyum-seekers. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In June, a map surfaced on the Internet, displaying the address of every refugee center and asylum shelter in Germany under the title “No Refugee Center in My Backyard.” Google took down the map, but only after a spate of violence, including the torching of an empty shelter in the Bavarian town of Reichertshofen. On a Berlin commuter train 10 days ago, neo-Nazis shouted “Heil Hitler” while urinating on two children traveling with their mother. The previous weekend in Heidenau, a town of 16,000 in the hills south of Dresden, German police battled hundreds of men hurtling stones and bottles outside an asylum shelter. In the medieval city of Meissen, famous for its porcelain, neo-Nazi arsonists struck an apartment building, newly renovated by the city to house refugees. Last week, on the western outskirts of Berlin, in Nauen in Brandenburg, arsonists burned a refugee center to the ground. On Friday, in Heppenheim near Frankfurt, a refugee shelter caught fire, leaving five people injured. In Witten, a university town in North Rhine-Westphalia, a mosque was set ablaze, the latest in a series of arson attacks on mosques. On Aug. 10, Heinrich Schmitz, a columnist for the online magazine The European and a member of the initiative #HeimeOhneHass, or “Homes Without Hate,” which supports refugees and asylum-seekers, published a “Declaration of Surrender,” announcing his retirement from political writing, facing a barrage of threats against him and his family.

All of Europe is facing a refugee crisis, but only in Germany, which has one of the continent’s most hospitable policies for refugees and asylum-seekers, does right-wing violence feel like an existential threat. The spate of attacks and bubbling up of hatred have prompted national soul-searching, raising questions about the nation and national belonging that haven’t come up since the 1990s, in reunification’s wake. Some Germans are stepping up to help tens of thousands of refugees entering the country, invoking a moral obligation to act. But xenophobic violence continues, and some see in asylum-seekers a socioeconomic threat. A national debate has emerged: Are we fremdenfeindlich (xenophobic) or fremdenfreundlich (foreigner-friendly)?

German leadership on the refugee crisis was overdue, coming after a long hot summer of neo-Nazi attacks and debates on German responses to extremist violence. On Aug. 5, Anja Reschke, an anchorwoman for the public news broadcaster ARD, ignited a media firestorm when she invoked history, declaring that anyone referring to refugees as “filth” was using Nazi jargon. In an impassioned on-air plea, viewed by 5 million people on Facebook, she called for “a rebellion of the decent” to bring an end to racist hate speech proliferating on the Internet. Rather than singling out neo-Nazi groups, or supporters of Pegida, the anti-Islam organization with a mass following in the former East Germany, Reschke indicted ordinary Germans for failing to speak out against “hate tirades” posted online and government officials for their “wholly inadequate” response. “If you don’t think that all refugees are parasites that should be chased away, burned, or gassed,” she said, citing the language of the virtual mob, “then you must clearly make it known.” Public responses to her remarks ranged from the laudatory, supportive, and deeply appreciative to angry denunciations of “German self-hatred” by Pegida-sympathizers, right-wingers, and peddlers of Twitter hashtags like #dresden45, the firebombed city, still a symbol of German victimhood and allied duplicity.

I was in Berlin in August, watching the storm of controversy surrounding Reschke’s cri de coeur and wondering why she had struck a deeper nerve in German society than the actual attacks she described. Moral responsibility for creating a culture of decency, she implied, lay not with right-wing extremists — but with regular Germans. Neo-Nazis are indeed a small minority; an official estimate in 2012 counted 22,150 right-wing extremists in a population of some 80 million.

Overt racism is unusual in contemporary German society, but anxieties over “foreigners” overwhelming the culture are not. Last week, a group of linguists from the University of Duisburg-Essen in the country’s industrial heartland took the unusual step of issuing a press release to censure German media for deploying language and imagery that has in effect turned refugees and asylum-seekers into a dangerous, dehumanized mass: “Ansturm” (an onslaught); “Flüchtlingsströmen” (refugee flows); “Überschreitung der Belastungsgrenze” (exceeding maximum load). The authors pointed out that the terms used in public discourse — “Asylgegner” (asylum-opponent) and “Asylkritiker” (asylum-critic) to describe neo-Nazis, and the practice of calling violent gatherings “protests” and “demonstrations” — has only legitimated right-wing extremists, making them out to be a regular interest group, participating in the democratic process like everyone else. Recently, Tagesspiegel, the Berlin-based daily, identified a turn of phrase that keeps coming up in discussions of refugees and asylum-seekers: “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

Real-world developments have stoked public fears. Germany is expecting 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, 40 percent of the total figures for the European Union. Some Germans, alarmed by the rising tide of violence this summer, began pointing fingers at the government for mishandling the crisis. Only in the last two weeks did Chancellor Angela Merkel finally spring into action and begin publicly denouncing Germany’s paroxysm of violence. Her months-long reticence infuriated critics who took to op-ed pages and social media — employing the hashtags #Merkelschweigt (Merkel stays silent) and #Merkelsagwas (Merkel, say something) — to demand more from the nation’s highest office. NPR reported on a German neologism: “To Merkel” means to sheepishly wait and say nothing before long-delayed public comment. Did the chancellor, and other politicians who remained silent much too long, wait to see where public opinion would settle?

Observing events in Germany this August, I was struck by another story, too complex and inchoate to appear in the headlines: the emergence of a culture of forgetting. Evidence of a generational shift — a rupture in collective memory — is not hard to find, as young Germans born after the Cold War, no longer on the central stage of history, come of age. I listened to college students discussing the trial of Oskar Gröning, the 94-year-old former SS guard who was jailed in July for his role at Auschwitz as a bookkeeper. “I have no idea why they would convict him,” said an engineering major from Berlin’s Technical University. “He was a bureaucrat, a nobody. He didn’t kill anyone.” Others chimed in: “Yeah, it’s not like he denied anything either. It doesn’t make sense.”

At the German Historical Museum, an institution that has faced its own charges of historical revisionism over the years, I watched a student group expound on a formerly taboo subject: German wartime suffering. At the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, next to the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin, where 2,711 concrete slabs evoke tombstones in a graveyard, I watched teenagers sipping from beer bottles, while a young woman perfected her tan, using the gray concrete like a beach chair. The site, conceived by the American architect Peter Eisenman as a powerful symbol of Germany’s confrontation with its Nazi past, seemed less about the collective memory of a nation and more about cognitive dissonance. “My colleagues call it the Holocaust beach,” griped my friend Martin Jander, a Berliner and historian, shaking his head while listening to my story.

In recent months, Jander and his network of academics and activists have sounded the alarm about a culture of forgetting, especially among younger generations of Germans: the marginalization of the Holocaust in public memory; a tendency to equate the wartime privations of Germans with the plight of Jews and other victims of Nazism; and a triumphalist view of the past that treats the fall of the Berlin Wall as the happy ending of German history.

Last November, as Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall with great fanfare, partying in the streets with officials and enjoying an installation of 8,000 balloons illuminating the path of the former border, Martin joined a coterie of Jewish groups marking another Nov. 9 event that had slipped from the public’s radar: Kristallnacht, the pogrom instigated by the Nazis in 1938 against Germany’s Jews. Writing online, Martin lamented the city’s failure to accommodate both narratives — the good and the bad of German history — in its public memory of Nov. 9. The fall of the Berlin Wall, he argued, has come to mean “liberation from history,” the end of allied occupation, division, and the burdens of the Nazi past. According a 2015 study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, a record 58 percent of German respondents said that “the past should be consigned to history.”

This year on Nov. 9, the Falling Walls Lab, an international disciplinary conference for “young excellent academics, entrepreneurs and professionals from all fields” will meet in the German capital. Sponsored by A.T. Kearney, the global management consulting firm, and Festo, a German industrial control and automation company, Falling Walls Lab turns history on its head, using Nov. 9 as marketing fodder. A flyer for the event explains: “At the conference, 20 top-class scientists from around the world present their current breakthrough research in 15 minutes, answering the question: ‘Which are the next walls to fall?’” I left Berlin this August wondering what would become of Germany’s famous culture of remembrance and whether memory has a statute of limitations.

Few public figures have connected the current refugee crisis to the culture of forgetting. Green Party politicians Cem Özdemir and Sven-Christian Kindler have warned in recent years that waning public memory of the Holocaust threatens present-day politics, especially for minority communities. The case for German pluralism depends heavily on the past, but for young citizens, a population more diverse than the country’s gray-haired generations, history has become more abstract; emotional ties to it are fading. In several German states, education officials are grappling with changing demographics. Diversity challenges how German history is taught and culturally constructed beyond the classroom. A 2010 poll published in Die Zeit highlighted Turkish-German ambivalence toward the Holocaust and limited knowledge about the Nazi past.

A small minority in the media has begun speaking out against the culture of forgetting in light of recent events. On Aug. 31, Alan Posener, the British-German journalist and influential blogger at “Strong Opinions,” issued a call to readers to remember that millions of Germans, not so long ago, were homeless, starving, and bedraggled. In the aftermath of World War II, entire towns of Germans fled Poland, the Czech Sudetenland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the former eastern lands of Germany, East Prussia, Silesia, and parts of Brandenburg, and Pomerania. The first postwar population census, conducted in 1946, counted 9.6 million German refugees in the four occupation zones of the vanquished Reich. In subsequent decades, hundreds of thousands of Germans left the communist East, seeking the freedoms of the Federal Republic. In each case, refugees were absorbed and integrated into German society without conflict.

This July, in the closing arguments of Gröning’s trial, state prosecutors made their case for putting a contrite former Nazi in his twilight years behind bars. Gröning’s conviction mattered, they explained, as a commitment to pluralism in the 21st century. This was the disavowal of a Germany in which only one culture was present. The notion that the German nation must share one culture has deep historical roots, going back to the 19th-century philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. For Fichte, shaped by the experience of French occupation and writing before the creation of a German state, the nation was more of a cultural than political concept, based on a common language and shared forms of public life.

The German past is sometimes understood as a long search for national unity, the Third Reich being the perverse fulfillment of this dream. It is easy, even for Germans, to forget that German history is not just Nazism. It is also the stories of Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Sinti, and Roma, of various immigrants and guest workers and their descendants. To fight the culture of forgetting is to stand up for refugees and asylum-seekers. In Germany, the past isn’t a foreign country. It is the knowledge that history will never repeat itself.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Daniela Blei is a historian and editor of scholarly books in San Francisco.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola