How Germany responds to “blood and soil” politics. What zero tolerance of neo-Nazis looks like.

TO VIEW the footage of crowds in Charlottesville yelling Nazi slogans and flying Swastika banners is troubling anywhere. But do so from Berlin is particularly so. America in 2017 is not Germany in 1933. But the chants about "blood and soil", the flaming torches, the Nazi salutes, the thuggery and violence turned on objectors—the whole furious display of armed ethno-nationalism—are nonetheless chillingly evocative. Similarly so is the strenuous ambivalence about it all from Donald Trump and some of his media cheerleaders. It could hardly contrast more vividly with how things are done here: Germany today is a case study in how not to give an inch to the dark politics of "Blut und Boden".

That begins with the significance placed on remembering where this politics led in the past. Every German school child must visit a concentration camp; as essential a part of the curriculum as learning to write or count. The country's cities are landscapes of remembrance. Streets and squares are named after resisters. Little brass squares in the pavements (Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones) contain the names and details of Holocaust victims who once lived at those addresses. Memorials dot the streets: plaques commemorating specific persecuted groups, boards listing the names of concentration camps ("places of horror which we must never forget"), a giant field of grey pillars in central Berlin attesting to the Holocaust.

The murky interstitial terrain–the Trump Zone you might call it–between the conservative mainstream and categorically far-right movements like PEGIDA, an anti-Islam group, and the extremist NPD party is broadly off-limits. Relativisation, endorsement by hint or omission, far-right symbols as "irony", dog-whistle prevarications and creeping extenuation are rarely tolerated. Take the Alternative for Germany [AfD], an Eurosceptic-turned-nationalist party, some of whose more moderate figures would comfortably fit into America's Republican or Britain's Conservative parties but which is now entirely toxic thanks to revisionist figures on its right like Björn Höcke, its leader in Thuringia who has challenged Germany's remembrance culture.

The line between the acceptable and unacceptable, in other words, is stark. Angela Merkel has said Germany's very future depends on it continually understanding the Holocaust as "the ultimate betrayal of civilised values."When Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had proposed exterminating the Jewish people to Hitler, she politely but firmly corrected him: "Germany abides by its responsibility for the Holocaust." Martin Schulz, her rival in next month's election, often thunders: "The AfD is not an 'alternative for Germany' but a disgrace for Germany!"

Commentators and politicians guard this boundary carefully, for example by eschewing the register and language of the far right. They tend not to brand critics and opponents "traitors", "saboteurs" or the like. Migrants are rarely denominated in "swarms" or "floods". The Bild Zeitung, a right-wing tabloid and Germany's most-read newspaper, has criticised elements of the government's handling of the refugee crisis. But it proudly stands up for the principle of welcoming foreigners in need; in 2015 its then editor-in-chief even pointedly took in refugees to his home. The result is a decidedly sober and unemotional style of public debate less prone than that of other countries to grandstanding or furious invective. The Berlin terrorist attack in December was reported factually and without panic; frothing reactions in the Anglo-Saxon press (and on Mr Trump's Twitter feed) contrasting with the stoical mood here.

Free speech is upheld: marches by PEGIDA and sometimes even leafleting events by nationalist politicians receive police protection. But this right to expression remains firmly distinguished from a right to publicity or acceptance. When Mr Höcke unfurled a German flag on a talk show to mark "1000 years of Germany" (a phrase with Nazi associations), fellow guests from right and left branded him "disgusting."

Far-right movements are treated overwhelmingly as cultural phenomena rather than–as is sometimes the case in France, Britain and America–mere expressions of socio-economic dislocation. Finis Germania, a recently published book claiming that German identity is being dismantled, has been excised from some bestseller lists. One can believe that this hyper-cautious editorial style sometimes goes too far, as I do in that case of the bestseller lists, while admiring the underlying determination to allow no slippage or normalisation.

Germany, of course, carries a unique historical burden. But every country has dark periods in its national past and far-right revisionists in its political present. The Charlottesville protests, marching under Confederate flags against plans to remove Confederate statues, are a distinctively American reminder of that (indeed, the Nazis were inspired by Jim Crow laws and studied segregation as a possible model for German society). Countries without Holocausts on their history books can also learn from Germany's grown-up, vigilant and dutiful culture of remembrance. In America that may mean removing Confederate symbols from public spaces; Jim Grey, the mayor of Lexington, has announced plans to accelerate this in his city. It means unambiguously declaring the Charlottesville protesters beyond the pale (while defending their right to protest peacefully). And it means calling out Mr Trump's equivocal statements for what they are: a moral abomination.

J.C. In The Economist. August 13, 2017.

The photo is of German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in May 2017 when she announced additional rules for zero tolerance of Nazism across NATO.


August 13, 2017

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