A friend who was invited to serve as a visiting professor at a German university recently contacted me and asked whether staying in Germany would be safe for him and his family. His concern was prompted by the September 2017 election of the federal German parliament in which the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, translated as “Alternative for Germany”) party received approximately 13% of the popular vote. AfD had campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform, and has been referred to by various media outlets as a nationalist, racist, far-right populist, right wing extremist or even Neo-Nazi party. For the first time in history since World War 2, a far-right or nationalist party would be sitting in the federal German parliament by crossing the 5% minimum threshold designed to keep out fringe political movements. Even though all other political parties had categorically ruled out forming a government coalition with the AfD, thus relegating it to an opposition role in parliament with only a limited role in policy-making, my friend was concerned that its success could be indicative of rising neo-Nazism and hatred towards immigrants or Muslims. As a Muslim and visibly South Asian, he and his family could be prime targets for right-wing hatred.
I was flabbergasted by his concern. What surprised me most was that someone living in the US would be worried about safety and racial prejudice in Germany. Violent crime rates in major German cities are much lower than those of their US counterparts. While it is true that AfD garnered 13% of the popular vote in Germany, the US president who also ran on a similar populist, nationalist and anti-immigrant platform (with promises of building walls and enacting Muslim bans) received 46% of the popular vote! Many of the views of the AfD – for example the claims that traditional Islam is not compatible with Western European culture and the constitution, that immigrants and refugees represent a major threat to the economy and safety or that multiculturalism and progressive-liberal views have betrayed the ideals of the country’s heritage – are increasingly becoming mainstream views of the ruling Republican party in the US. White supremacists, supporters of confederate ideology and neo-Nazis now feel emboldened to hold rallies in the US, knowing that they might only receive lukewarm or relativistic criticism from the US government whereas such acts would be unequivocally condemned by the German government. Racial or religious prejudices held by members of the government and the ruling party can lead to severe institutional reprisals against individuals. When these views are held by a minority party, there is much less danger of immediate institutionalized discrimination and persecution by the government or law enforcement.
So why is it that the 13% vote for AfD is causing such concern, both in Germany and outside of Germany?
One of the obvious reasons is Germany’s history. If the AfD emergence were to foreshadow a re-awakening of Nazi ideology, then it could indeed have devastating consequences for Germany and the world in general. But there is no real evidence to suggest that Nazi ideology is espoused by the AfD leadership or by its base. Terms such as neo-Nazism and fascism are readily used by opponents of the AfD to describe the party but the AfD tries to clearly distance itself from Nazism. The AfD does not accept membership applications from former members of the NPD – a right wing extremist fringe party in Germany with an ideology that was far closer to that of the Nazis. The AfD not only disavows anti-Semitism, it has successfully recruited many Jewish members and offered them leadership roles in the party by portraying itself as a bulwark that will protect German Jews from Muslim anti-Semitism. These approaches effectively counter accusations of Nazism but they have not convinced all. The president of the German Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, recognizes that there is a growing problem with anti-Semitism perpetrated by Muslims in Germany but is not ready to accept the AfD as an ally. It may be advantageous to scape-goat Muslims in the current political climate but who is to say that the AfD won’t switch its scape-goat to Jews in the future if the latter were politically more expedient?
Part of the confusion about what the AfD really stands for is that it has rapidly evolved over the course of just a few years. It started out in 2013 as a party founded by economics professors, who were opposed to Angela Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis and the loss of Germany’s fiscal sovereignty in the European Union. But once it became apparent that feared massive economic crash and recession had been averted (at least transiently), it morphed into an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant party. This modified AfD ousted its co-founder, the economics professor Bernd Lucke, from his leadership role in 2015. The party gained far more traction with its anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views after Merkel’s government allowed more than 1 million refugees (predominantly from Syria but also from other countries in the Middle East) to enter Germany.
During this evolution, the AfD also become increasingly populist. Jan-Werner Müller, a German political scientist and professor at Princeton University, defined the key characteristics of populism in his recent book Was ist Populismus? (“What is Populism?”). Populist movements portray themselves as anti-establishment or anti-elite, but a second key element of a populist movement is their attitude towards pluralism. Müller uses the phrase “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people“) that was chanted by the East German demonstrators during the final months of the DDR in 1989 to illustrate anti-pluralism. The “We” can be an inclusive “We” in the sense of “We are the people, too. Let us have a say!” This may be an apt description of the DDR demonstrators where several political factions demonstrated side-by-side in opposition against the socialist dictatorship. However, in populist movements, the “We” is exclusive: “Only we represent the people!” Those who do not agree are seen as traitors. In the past 2 years, the AfD leaders and base increasingly began to claim this exclusivity. Merkel was accused of betraying Germany and colluding with leftists, environmentalists and Muslim to betray the true values of the German people. Such anti-pluralism is antithetical to democracy and is thus a major cause of concern for democratic parties and institutions in Germany. The sense of exclusivity allows populists to develop a unique zeal and promote conspiracy theories about the political establishment and media, brandishing rational criticisms as pro-establishment collusions.
AfD is not just an anti-immigrant populist party, it also embodies a broader “Neue Rechte” (“New Right”) movement. This is supported by the fact that some of the AfD positions have garnered the “philosophical blessing” of German intellectuals, an expression used by Müller in his excellent 2016 essay about the AfD. Müller cites the intellectuals Marc Jongen, Peter Sloterdijk and Botho Strauβ but this list now needs to be extended to include the prominent history professor Rolf Peter Sieferle who committed suicide in September of 2016 (one year before the election). His posthumously published and scandal-provoking book Finis Germania (alluding to the Latin phrase Finis Germaniae which means “The End of Germany”), became a best-seller in the months leading up to the 2017 election.
Sieferle was a respected professor of history and sociology, and thought of as a pioneer in studying environmental history. Finis Germania appears to have been written in the mid-1990s because it refers to the atrocities of the Nazis as having occurred 50 years prior. It is a short collection of mini-essays and aphorisms, grouped together in a handful of chapters. The tone is pessimistic and cynical, pointing towards a decline and likely collapse of German heritage and Germany. The most controversial passages revolve around Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German word for processing and overcoming history. In Germany, Vergangenheitsbewältigung primarily refers to how Germany deals with its Nazi past. The Holocaust, the guilt of the Germans who participated in committing the atrocities and the historical responsibility (historische Verantwortung) that resulted from it for modern Germany are among the most extensively discussed topics in German school curricula and public intellectual discourse.
There is no denial of the Holocaust in the book. Sieferle uses the expressions “Verbrechen” (crime) and “Greueltaten” (atrocities) to describe the genocide committed by the Nazis, as was recently emphasized by Christopher Caldwell. However, Sieferle openly criticizes the style of contemporary Vergangenheitsbewältigung in which Germans are cast as perennial villains who need to demonstrate never-ending penance to atone for their collective guilt. Sieferle uses religious metaphors in which the Holocaust is compared to a new form of Erbsünde (literally translated as “inherited sin”, but it is a German expression for the biblical original sin of Adam and Eve). Vergangenheitsbewältigung is likened to a new state religion which is meant to keep Germans docile.
There is no doubt that Sieferle’s book touched a raw nerve with many Germans living today who feel that they are still held responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis. Any expression of German pride or patriotism is often self-scrutinized carefully to ensure that it in no way challenges Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Especially when interacting with non-Germans, Germans may consciously or subconsciously perceive themselves being pigeon-holed as descendants of Nazi perpetrators. They go out of their way to prove that they are different from their parents or grand-parents who may have lived during their Nazi era. Sieferle specifically contrasts Germans with Anglo-Americans who do not engage in self-flagellating Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A recent poll showed that 43% of British citizens are proud of their colonial past and do not feel shame for the atrocities of the British Empire. One example of British atrocities is the diversion of food from India in 1943 to feed British soldiers that was authorized by Winston Churchill and resulted in a famine which killed 4 million Indians.
A member of a book jury initially recommended this book because it would initiate a discussion about German history and the book quickly became a non-fiction best-seller. While there is no explicit Holocaust denial in the book, the subtext of the book was seen as dallying with anti-Semitism. Modern day anti-Semites cannot deny the Holocaust because the evidence for the atrocities is so overwhelming but they instead try to cast Jews as post-war perpetrators who use the memory Holocaust as a means of suppressing dissent. Some passages of Finis Germania are ambiguous enough to provide fodder for anti-Semites. The massive popularity of a book that could potentially promote anti-Semitic ideas came as a shock to the German literary and intellectual establishments. But the rash reaction of the leading German magazine Der Spiegel to delete the book from its best-seller listturned a marginally intelligible book with fragmented ideas into a heroic anti-establishment tract. Book-shops refused to sell the book but it remained an Amazon best-seller, suggesting that the ban had not diminished its popularity. While some German writers and intellectuals supported the decision of Der Spiegel, others saw it as a form of censorship to suppress undesirable ideas.
How does this book about the German history connect to the success of the AfD and the New Right movement? A second posthumously published Sieferle book also became a best-seller: Das Migrationsproblem (“The migration problem“). This book discusses the basic challenge for a welfare state such as Germany which aims to provide excellent housing, healthcare and food for all to take large numbers of refugees or immigrants who would be eligible for all the welfare services. The stability of the welfare state depends on a balance of workers who pay into the system and the beneficiaries. It performs a semi-quantitative analysis and suggests that Germany cannot handle the influx of political and economic refugees without compromising its welfare state character. The book also touches on the cultural differences between indigenous Germans and “tribal” refugees who hail from aggressive cultures. This second book also became a best-seller but it is the combination of the two themes that may form the intellectual foundation for the success of the AfD. Finis Germania decries the culture of collective guilt which in turn has lead Germans to be so docile that they accept millions of refugees as their inherited burden even if it undermines their economy and culture.
The AfD has tried to avoid public discussions of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in order to escape accusations of anti-Semitism and instead focused on Islam, immigrants or refugees. However, in a widely criticized speech, Björn Höcke – the leader of AfD in Thuringia – referred to the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” in January of 2017. He suggested that German history was crippling contemporary Germans and there was a need to re-think how Germans should handle their past. The federal AfD leadership was taken aback by these overt and public comments about a taboo topic and initiated a process to remove him for the party. However, Höcke remains an AfD member and has received support from many other AfD leaders. The success of the AfD may suggest that his speech may have been an intentional ploy to link German frustration with collective guilt to voting for AfD as a means to escape from the burden of the past.
How should Germany move forward after the success of AfD? As a Muslim German of South Asian descent, I am of course worried about the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and populist rhetoric promoted by the AfD. There is no easy solution for how to deal with the rise of the far right but we can glean insights from this election and the success of far right movements in the United States or other countries. Censoring or banning books that simply express unpleasant view-points is the wrong approach. Denouncing 13% of German voters as Nazis, fascists or “deplorables” would be equally wrong. Burying our heads in the sand and hoping that right-wing populism will just disappear would be a folly. There is a sense of panic about the results of the German election but we can also see it as a wake-up call. Many countries have seen a rise in right-wing populist movements but the social and historical context of each movement is different and needs to be analyzed contextually. What is needed now is a rational analysis and the required actions.
Those of us who believe in the German democratic institutions and the power of rational dialogue need to engage the citizens who voted for AfD. One may agree or disagree with the positions of the AfD and its voters but this should not prevent meaningful dialogue. Concerns about the future of a welfare state with an imbalance between payers and beneficiaries are not unreasonable. The concerns revolving around immigration, refugees, the right to experience national pride and Vergangenheitsbewältigung should be addressed without condescension or throwing around insults and clichés. Another major concern voiced by AfD supporters is that key decisions about the future of Germany are made unilaterally by the government elites without engaging in a meaningful discussion with the electorate. Voters felt disempowered and ignored. This may also explain why the AfD received more than 20% of the vote in some parts of East Germany (the former DDR). Former DDR citizens wrested their freedom to vote and participate in public policy-making from a dictatorship less than 30 years only to find that the post-DDR Germany was also ignoring their opinions. The government and members of parliament have to learn how to routinely meet citizens so that they can listen to their concerns.
Condescension and hatred against the supporters of far right populist movements only strengthens them and their resolve to fight democratic pluralism. By peacefully and rationally engaging fellow citizens, Germany will be able to avoid the fate of the United States where a far right movement now controls the government. The historical responsibility of Germany lies in providing balance and reason in a world that could succumb to populism and chaos.
Jan-Werner Müller. Was ist Populismus?. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2016.
Rolf Peter Sieferle. Finis Germania. Verlag Antaios. 2017
Rolf Peter Sieferle. Das Migrationsproblem. Manuscriptum Verlagsbuchhandlung. 2017
Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.