The Cable

A Right-wing Politician Says Germany Should Stop Atoning For Nazi History, And Outrage Ensues

But cries of fury from politicians may only boost the AfD’s anti-establishment image

<> on January 24, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
<> on January 24, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.

It seems like only yesterday that the world at large could at least agree on one thing: Nazis were not good.

But increasingly, that designation seems like mere bendable words, up for reinterpretation. These days, the U.S. President-elect casually compares the CIA to Nazi Germany on Twitter and a white nationalist salutes “Hail Trump” but calls it “ironic exuberance.”

Another example: On Tuesday night, a leading right-wing politician called for less emphasis on the country’s Nazi past. This, despite Germany’s strong tradition of memorializing and atoning for the horror of the Holocaust, which killed 6 million people.

Björn Höcke, a leader for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the eastern state of Thuringia, said Germany needed “a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.”  

“These stupid politics of coming to grips with the past cripple us,” he said in a speech to a youth group at a beer hall in Dresden Tuesday night. “We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”

He was referring to Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, one of many monuments that encourage Germans to reflect on the past in the hopes that their awful history will never be repeated.

A history teacher on leave, Höcke did not take his speaking opportunity to praise Germany for its admittedly unique commitment to coming to terms with its past (there is even a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung). Instead, he railed against the school system, arguing that the curriculum makes German history look “appalling and laughable.” He also compared Allied forces’ bombing of Dresden to dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. His speech was greeted by a standing ovation from the small crowd and chants of “Germany, Germany.”

Freedom of speech and opinion is guaranteed under the German constitution, but the country also has robust laws against hate speech, including racist agitation and anti-Semitism, and bans Holocaust denial.

Höcke’s words didn’t cross that line (though a member of the radical Left party reported Höcke for incitement) but they still disturbed many German’s who hold the concept of “never again” as a moral imperative for German human rights policy. His speech was followed by an avalanche of statements disavowing Höcke’s stance.

Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called Höcke’s words “completely unacceptable.”

“With these anti-Semitic and extremely misanthropic remarks, the AfD is showing its true face. I would not have believed that it was possible for a politician in Germany to say such things 70 years after the Shoah,” he said in a statement.

Many politicians quickly heaped their own outrage to the chorus. “Never, never ever must we allow the demagogy of a Björn Höcke to go unchallenged,” Sigmar Gabriel, the German vice chancellor said in a statement that accepted political as well as personal responsibility for his country’s past crimes. “Höcke’s speech particularly horrified me personally because my father was an unapologetic Nazi until the day he died.”

Simone Peter, the chairwoman for the Green Party, called for the AfD to “unambiguously distance” itself from Höcke.  

And indeed, Frauke Petry, the leader of openly anti-immigrant AfD, backed away from Höcke’s statements in an interview with Jung Freiheit, a far right newspaper. “With his unauthorized solo actions and constant crossfire, Björn Höcke has become a burden for the party,” Petry said. “We will either become political realists or become politically irrelevant.” But she also didn’t explicitly endorse Germany’s culture of remembrance.

For his part, Höcke said the media had deliberately misinterpreted his words and his speech was aimed at the weight of shame Germans carry for their history, not at condoning Nazis.

But some might think that the swift reactions of outrage from established politicians prove Höcke’s point — that Germans are made to be ashamed of their own history — and so played into the AfD’s hands. Careful tiptoeing around the edges of free speech may be a strategy to break consensus on social norms and frame the party as victims of overzealous censorship in the run-up to German elections in September.

The approach is outlined in an AfD strategy paper published in December. It recommends “carefully planned provocations” before the election, to incite aggressive reactions from other parties.

The paper suggested that overblown attacks on AfD could help give it an underdog status — the more the AfD seemed targeted, the more it could be a “collection reservoir for protest.” Recent surveys show AfD is polling 12-15 percent, and likely to win seats in the federal parliament.

“The AfD is doing well from its reputation as a breaker of taboos and as a protest party,” the paper said, as if in echo of another surprisingly successful political upstart across the Atlantic, and urged careful planning to “focus on being politically incorrect.”

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

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