by Martin Eiermann
In the wake of the violent White Supremacist protests in Charlottesville, there has been much chatter about how Germany supposedly deals with Nazis, or how one should deal with Nazis. Here are a few thoughts.
First, in Germany we address history in a fairly unequivocal way. We have tried for a break with the past to a degree that has never happened in the US. You cannot go through high school without spending multiple semesters on the 3rd Reich.
There are no false comparisons of the Holocaust to Allied carpet bombing or Soviet purges, the kind that is not uncommon in Far Right circles. And there’s certainly no excuse that, at least, Hitler gave us the Autobahn. We mobilize historical memory to teach the values of liberal democracy to present and future generations. My generation is the last that will still have known grandparents who fought in the war, or will have met with Holocaust survivors. For future generations, reckoning will have to come through education.
Second, we let the Nazis march. We send police to guard their marching routes and to separate them from counter-protesters. Private businesses often refuse to rent conference space to Neonazi groups, but the state protects their right to peaceful assembly. We generally trust that a few dozen fringe demonstrators won’t topple our democracy. They are an eyesore, but one that we can handle. That’s why we try to organize against them, sometimes in creative ways. In one town, businesses and residents collaborated to donate money to anti-hate organizations for every step the Nazis marched. They even handed out bananas to Nazis to help their stamina, and ended up raising tens of thousands of Euros. We mock them, we write punk songs about them, we show up when Antifa issues a call to action. Enough of us do, at least. There are few protests where the Nazis aren’t outnumbered.
Third, we take away their salutes and their swastikas and even their license plates if they allude to Hitler. Those are banned, and you get prosecuted for violating the ban. We also prosecute you if you deny that the Holocaust happened, because it did and because that’s not an innocent little lie. Drawing the lines between hate speech and free speech is very hard, but we don’t treat them as equivalent. In the US, current debate often focus on whether a particular speaker should be allowed to hold a rally. We don’t care who speaks, we care what they say. If you blabber on about the alleged “Islamization of the occident”, we laugh at you. If you call for violence against Muslims or Jews, we fine and arrest you. And we certainly don’t allow Nazis to put up monuments. Since 1945, we’ve renamed every Adolf-Hitler-Street and hammered almost every swastika out of sandstone buildings. The only real-life swastika I recall seeing as a child was on a rusty coin from my grandfather. Instead, we’ve put up “stumbling blocks” in front of countless buildings that used to belong to Jews but were expropriated by the Nazis: little cobblestones that remind passerby of the history that unfolded in the middle of cities and communities. During the same period, the US has erected 194 monuments in memory of the Confederacy.
Fourth, we try hard not to elect politicians that pander to the Far Right. When Nazism comes up, we generally expect public condemnations. Our defense minister is currently in hot water not because she was too lenient on the matter but because she pursued it with great vigor. Someone had discovered Nazi paraphernalia in an army barracks, so she ordered a wholesale investigation into Nazism in the armed forces. Good for her.
Fifth, we try not to lump conservatives or nationalists into one bucket with the Nazis. Disagreeing with me doesn’t make you a Nazi. Being German doesn’t make you a Nazi. You know what makes you a Nazi? Saying Nazi things. This point is often hardest to grasp for parts of the American Left: Voting for Trump doesn’t make you a racist or a White Supremacist, and calling all conservatives racist is a sure strategy for electoral oblivion. Of course there’s a racist fringe among Trump’s core supporters. But the political sin of the Republican mainstream isn’t racism but silence in the face of racism. Democracy is strong when the political center refuses to go gently into apathy, and refuses to be dragged towards the Right. We’re far from perfect. Jokes about Jews were quite common when I was in elementary school. Racism is still a thing, and we don’t know how to talk about it. The growth of the Far Right is unsettling. The rise of Björn Höcke as a mouthpiece of the populist AfD illustrates how far the lines between the Neonazi Right and reactionary populists have become blurred. But we try. We don’t let the Nazis unsettle us too much. When they march, we march as well.
And then we try to strengthen the institutions of what we call “wehrhafte Demokratie”. It is a system that has empowered its branches of government to defend, quite actively at times, the constitutional order. Of course it is often flawed, but its principles are clear: Liberal democracy is crucial to the management of political disagreement and to the flourishing of diverse societies. Neutrality in the face of illiberalism is no neutrality at all. It’s a lesson we learned in the 1930s, and one that we shall never forget.