“Yes, we plead guilty to our responsibility for the 12 years” of Nazi rule. That is what Alexander Gauland, leader of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a populist party on the far right, told a youth congress on Saturday. But he immediately added that “we have a glorious history and one, my dear friends, that lasted a lot longer than those damn 12 years. Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over one thousand years of successful German history.”
Only a little bit of “bird shit”. Nothing that a moist towelette can’t get rid of. Bird shit or not, the German media and politicians went wild. Bird shit was everywhere.
“50 million war dead, Holocaust and total war are just “bird shit” to the AfD and Gauland!” tweeted the general secretary of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Those who “deny, trivialize or relativize” Nazi crimes “want to deliberately reopen old wounds, and foment hatred,” the country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, weighed in. Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Tagesspiegel, devoted its whole front page on Monday to the quote, surrounding it with the black-and-white pictures of war, Holocaust, its perpetrators and victims.
But why was everyone so upset? After all, in terms of numbers Mr. Gauland, who studied history, has a point. The 12 years of Nazi rule make up about 1 percent of German history, depending on when you start counting. Politicians in other countries – including France, Italy and the US – engage in this kind of subtle provocation all the time. It rarely results in the same sort of uproar.
When Mr. Gauland said “bird shit,” many of us heard: “Let’s stop mentioning the war and the Holocaust, it’s time to move on.”
The difference may be that Germans are more sensitive to “the code”. They are steeped in lessons about World War II and the Holocaust and have accepted the responsibilities their past bestows. As a result Germans know a Nazi dog whistle when they hear one. And they call it out.
In the US, when a politician talks about illegal aliens, the war on terror, super-predators or Barack Obama’s birth certificate, you’ll get a rash of articles afterwards explaining what the speaker was “really” talking about. And that’s how the code works: it gives the speaker plausible deniability.
Not so in Germany. Here, many people still react to the sight of a German flag outside somebody’s house with a mix of emotions: fondness, shame, fear, pride. Then the questions: Why do they have that? Is the flag-owner a nationalist? A Nazi even? Or just a rabid supporter of the German soccer team?
Two weekends ago, the AfD held a demonstration in Berlin. Around 5,000 of their supporters – many of them waving German flags – were met by a crowd of 25,000 anti-AfD demonstrators, mostly young, waving rainbow flags, playing dance music and holding placards that said things like “refugees welcome” and “nationalism is no alternative.”
Whenever the two groups met, the latter responded with chants such as: “Nazis out! Nazis out!” and “never again”. That is despite the fact that the AfD emphasizes they are not Nazis (which would, after all, be illegal here) and that they are the biggest opposition party in the German parliament and therefore deserve some respect.
But German ears are keenly attuned to the siren song of fascism. And when Mr. Gauland said “bird shit”, many of us heard: “let’s stop mentioning the war and the Holocaust, it’s time to move on.”
The other day in a Berlin park, there’s a dog-walker holding forth about why he doesn’t like immigration. “We ourselves are to blame,” the middle-aged man with the terrier concludes. “We, the Germans, brought this immigration upon ourselves. Because we’re to blame.” Eyebrows arched, ready to deliver his rhetorical coupe de grace, he emphasizes the word “blame”. “Or are we? Are we really?”
I’d been sitting there a while, minding my own business, thinking about how politics is not the ideal topic for strangers who usually only have the sunny day and canine companions in common. Then there was that code again.
What the argumentative dog-owner was really saying was that the guilt built into contemporary German culture and politics shouldn’t count anymore. By extension, Germany no longer needs to act like a global humanitarian and accept refugees, just because of the nation’s history. It was yet another version of “bird shit”. You know, like, World War II was no big deal, really. As I walked away, I spat out something angry about Holocaust denial and AfD voters.
There is always merit in examining your own culture, in taking an unvarnished look at what motivates your government, your compatriots and your own actions. Why do we take in refugees? How should we behave towards them when they get here? What responsibility does the developed world bear toward the less developed? Can Germany’s ongoing atonement for the Holocaust continue to extend to a neutral attitude towards an increasingly autocratic Israeli state? Should Germany have a functioning army that actually fights, and kills? All of these questions deserve debate.
But there’s a big difference between open and meaningful debate, and coded provocation, with the intention to divide and conquer. AfD supporters would argue that Germany’s learned sensitivity to “the code” and the ensuing uproar is hampering that debate. But I would only echo what my grandfather always told me: We must never forget.