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“We have a glorious history and one, my dear friends that lasted a lot longer than those damn 12 years…yes, we plead guilty to our responsibility for the 12 years. But, dear friends, Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird poop in over one thousand years of successful German history,” Alexander Gauland, leader of the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), said during his party’s youth congress a few weeks ago.
Is this just a misunderstanding and quote taken out of context, as claimed by Gauland himself, or another consciously and carefully coded provocation?
The outcry among German media, politicians and Jewish communities was large, also because Gauland is a repeat offender, in line with many of his party colleagues, and has engaged in such belittling of the Holocaust and German Nazi past multiple times before. Among other things, he has claimed that, “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in the two world wars” and “the right, to not only taking back our homeland, but also our past…which does not relate to our identity nowadays anymore.”
Gauland and his party colleagues are engaging in the latter. It is a form of brinksmanship — a conscious strategy to corrode and alter our perception and position toward the Nazi genocide, and the 60 million people that died during the World War II era through calculated provocations. The aim is to gradually shift society’s off-limit taboo of belittling or even denying our historic responsibility in order to ultimately rewrite history, thereby reshaping German identity and national pride.
The aggressive and provocative rhetoric might be a rather new phenomenon, but the receptiveness among German voters — which amounts to a staggering 16 percent for the AfD according to recent polls — is pointing to a deeply rooted issue within German society: A long existing resentment and frustration towards the unbearable shame over the German crimes against humanity and the preposterous urge to finally be liberated from this overwhelming burden of history.
That is what Gauland is propagating with his provocative remarks. The urge to brush off the darkest time of history like bird poop.
A lack of German identity and a confused sense of nationality and belonging have been exacerbated by fear of the unknown and foreign that the turmoil resulting from the refugee crisis starting 2015 has created, and that, according to AfD’s far-right voices, will undermine the country’s democratic values, prosperity and security.
The AfD rhetoric is a direct reaction to these developments, fueling dangerous stereotypes and contributing to the new aggressive political climate.
Whether we like it or not, the AfD is a democratically elected political party, acting within the limits and by the rules of our constitution, at least until proven otherwise; the platform and space for it is being provided by our society at large and, since the last election, also by the German Bundestag, hosting 92 AfD Members as its third largest group, representing almost 6 million voters.
We must not continue the mistake of discounting all of them as a bunch of protest voters and Nazi ideologists. This would only be adding further fuel to the fire and play into their distorted victim self-perception.
Fighting right-wing tendencies that were deemed obsolete will demand an exhaustive reiterated reprocessing of our past and the identity built on that history.
The refusal until now of the mainstream political parties and a majority of German society to adequately confront our national past through drawing sustainable and inclusive lessons from it, has ultimately led to the vacuum that was filled by the AfD and their climate of hate. Instead of facilitating meaningful reflection, German Holocaust commemoration has solidified into annual rituals that silence the conscience without eliciting substantive change.
Yes, speeches such as Gauland’s are unbearable, especially for the Jewish communities in Germany, but at the same time provide a chance to reestablish basic societal norms and redefine the fundamental values that our democracy and society at large are built on and that we have mistakenly taken for granted.
We must address the fears and issues of AfD voters and provide better and, most importantly, constructive alternatives to the right-wing propaganda, conspiracy myths and Holocaust trivializing that are fueling racist and anti-Semitic hate speech in our society.
Refusing to address the underlying issues and only reacting to these trends with affected indignation does not solve the problem. But at the same time we must draw a clear line. Everyone has the right to one’s own opinion, but nobody has the right to deny or distort facts. Whoever is doing this is discouraging any foundation for discussion and debate, and has rightfully disqualified himself from the debate.
Especially the Jewish communities must not make the mistake of falling for the deceptive propaganda, that the fight against immigration and Islam, as well as the Islamization of our society, is the best protection for Jewish life in Germany. We must publicly denounce the instrumentalization of Jewish communities for anti-Muslim racism, parts of the AfD have tried to do.
Holocaust Remembrance and combating any form of discrimination and xenophobia is a responsibility of both the state institutions and civil society.
Already 10 years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her B’nai B’rith gold medal recipient speech, what holds even truer in today’s political climate:
“Whoever is not standing up against Anti-Semitism and extremism, is losing not only his own freedom but jeopardizes the freedom of others. If education is not being perceived as the promotion of an inner conduct, then education fails its aim. Education doesn’t mean only a collection of historic facts, but the existence of a conscience based on it.”
Such a conduct must be reestablished from generation to generation.
Every generation afresh has the responsibility to defend its values time and again, which are founded on and drawn from a meaningful commemoration of the past. Whenever we believe that these values can be taken for granted and have become common knowledge, we will grow weak; our democracy will become an empty shell that can be subverted by radical tendencies.
Education is the commemoration of our past, but equally as important, the development of our common future.
The quintessence of meaningful Holocaust commemoration lies in an old Jewish proverb, that was also quoted by then German President Richard von Weizsäcker in his groundbreaking speech 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the end of the War World II, and that defines German Holocaust commemoration and responsibility still today: “Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.”

​Benjamin Nägele was named director of E.U. affairs for B’nai B’rith International in 2015. In this capacity he focuses on promoting EU-Israel relations and advocates for Jewish causes at the European institutions in Brussels. He previously worked as an EU affairs officer for B’nai B’rith International and as a policy advisor at the European Parliament. Click here to read more of his work.