Opinion

The Real Story of How the Nazis Have Returned to Germany's Parliament

Why denazification failed in communist East Germany – and how that fuels today's Holocaust-denying, anti-immigrant German far right, the Alternative for Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, bottom left, watches the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction demanding a procedural change during the first post-election session meeting of the German parliament. Berlin, Oct. 24, 2017
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, bottom left, watches the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction during the first post-election session meeting of the German parliament. Berlin, Oct. 24, 2017 Ferdinand Ostrop/AP

In Saturday's leadership election for Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, Alexander Gauland was elected co-chairman. That was a further victory for the party’s völkisch-nationalist wing, which had blocked the bid by relative moderate Georg Pazderski. Gauland, who already co-chairs the party’s parliamentarians and had once urged Germans to be “proud of German soldiers’ achievements in the two world wars, gained 67.8 percent of the party congress votes.

In  September's general elections almost 13 percent of the German electorate voted for the far right anti-immigrant AfD, some of whose senior politicians have called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a "monument of shame" and demanded a "180-degree turnaround" in the way Germany deals with its past.

While the party performed strongly across Germany, the AfD achieved the second-best result of all parties in the former communist-ruled German Democratic Republic and, with 27 percent of the vote share, was the most popular party among East German men.

Reelected chairman of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Joerg Meuthen and newly-elected co-chairman Alexander Gauland (L) at the party congress in Hanover. December 3, 2017
JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/AFP

When trying to explain the AfD’s success, analysts have often pointed to eastern Germany’s continuing relative economic weakness. However, most AfD supporters are not economically "left behind" voters. Studies have found that while the AfD’s electorate is not homogenous, most AfD voters are male, have an average level of education and belong to the medium-income bracket. Moreover, the AfD performed gained more votes than any other party in Saxony, East Germany’s wealthiest state.

The particular appeal of the AfD’s anti-immigrant stance and its demands for a revisionist interpretation of German history in the eastern Länder can be explained as a symptom of the former East Germany’s communist legacy – and the failure of its denazification.

After World War II, the East German regime tried to shun its historical responsibility by declaring widespread racism had been overcome, by an incomplete program of denazification, by introducing a new socioeconomic system and by portraying West Germany as the sole inheritor of the Nazi legacy.

Those state policies had the effect of making the Nazi past a taboo, while putting all blame and responsibility on the "class enemy" in the West. That led to what historian Mary Fulbrook has called 'collective amnesia' and perpetuated the concept of an ethnically homogenous state, as well as the subliminal yet persistent existence of National Socialist and reactionary thinking in eastern Germany.

The pared-down version of Berlin's Holocaust memorial built by German political art activists next to the home of Bjoern Hoecke, a senior AfD member who has criticized the Belin memorial. Bornhagen, Germany, November 22, 2017
KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

Although the initial denazification efforts in the Soviet Zone of Occupation were more far-reaching than in the Western zones - purging an alleged 520,000 former Nazi party members from the army, state bureaucracy and economy - the Communist authorities decided, abruptly, in 1948, that further systematic denazification was an obstacle to economic and political reconstruction.

Walter Ulbricht, the ruling party's first general secretary, remarked that "we cannot allow ourselves to be set back by ancient history" and ended the policy by declaring its "success."

The regime thus turned a blind eye to the persistence of xenophobic and reactionary ideas. That informal "pragmatic pact of silence" between the regime and the German people constituted a truce between the Socialist Unity Party and former Nazis, who were to be rehabilitated in return for their acquiescence to the establishment of a new dictatorship.

Suppressing responsibility for Nazi atrocities was helped by the Marxist-Leninist conception of fascism. Communist doctrine considered fascism to be the most extreme form of capitalism. By changing the socioeconomic structures of the state, communists would, it was argued, be able to rid society of fascist and anti-Semitic elements. In contrast, the West still harbored the virus of fascism as it did not break with capitalism - the wellspring of the horrors of the Nazi regime.

The communist GDR drew its legitimacy from the myth that it was an anti-fascist state and that its whole population participated in the progressive forces leading the resistance against Nazism. Socialism was a justification for the exoneration of the working class and the early abdication of any "collective guilt."

A protester flips the bird as German police uses water cannons to disperse demonstrators trying to block access to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party congress in Hanover, northern Germany. December 2, 2017
PETER STEFFEN/AFP

The country’s past was effectively whitewashed, and there was a veil of silence around the persisting Nazi legacy and continuities with the Third Reich. In 1953, Bertolt Brecht criticised the GDR’s lack of engagement with the Nazi past when he argued that, "We have turned our backs much too soon on the immediate past in our eagerness to face the future. The future will depend, however, on our settlement with the past."

The East German lack of a pluralistic political system and of a critical, free and independent media contributed to the development of that collective amnesia around the Nazi past. The absence of other powers within the state which could have scrutinized the regime surely accounts for the fact that 12 former Nazi Party members could become part of the ruling party's Central Committee by 1965.

Although its own denazification efforts were imperfect, at least West Germany’s pluralistic system allowed critical voices to continually question the West’s relationship with its past and thus kept the effort to come to terms with the past, known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung - alive.

The explicit danger of persisting racism and the taboo surrounding the Nazi past became apparent in the early 1950s, when a wave of state-directed anti-Semitism, which had swept across the Soviet Union between 1948 and 1953, also arrived in the GDR.

Cold war hysteria, deteriorating relations with Israel and resultant attempts to entice Arab countries into the Soviet orbit, as well as Stalin’s personal anti-Semitism, blended into a campaign which targeted the allegedly disloyal, "cosmopolitan" Jewish population.

Police officers observe a protest rally against a party convention of the Alternative for Germany, AfD, party in Hanover, Germany. Dec. 2, 2017
Michael Sohn/AP

In 1953, members of East German Jewish communities were accused of being 'Zionist spies: there were interrogations, Jewish organizations were dissolved, and many Jews lost their jobs. This openly anti-Semitic campaign resulted in a mass flight of Jewish citizens to West Germany and also illustrates how the regime endeavored to turn the GDR into an ethnically and ideologically homogenous state.

Moreover, the regime sidelined the "Jewish question." As the communist struggle against Nazism constituted the founding myth of the GDR, acknowledging Jewish suffering was feared to undermine the regime’s legitimacy. The ruling party’s emphasis on communist suffering hence verged on Holocaust denial.

The 1953 East German edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia does not mention Jews at all in its 12-page section on the "Hitler dictatorship." It claims that during World War II, "part of the population in these [Eastern European] countries, first and foremost Slavs, was bestially exterminated."

Senior party members such as Paul Merker, not Jewish himself, who who opposed this approach to dealing with the Nazi past, was sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish state and demanded restitution of Jewish property, were violently silenced.

In a crudely anti-Semitic party resolution after Merker's arrest, Merker was portrayed as the head of a conspiratorial group which sought the “transformation [of the country] into a vassal state of American monopolies” whose role model was Hitler's Germany. Merker was accused of having worked together with Zionist groups – or "Jewish-nationalist" capitalist interests as well as of "U.S. imperialism," who used the accusation of anti-Semitism to discredit "vigilant, progressive comrades."

Delegates at the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) congress in Hanover, Germany December 2, 2017
HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS

The resolution made extensive use of nationalist rhetoric which juxtaposed the German people - under siege by an international, Zionist conspiracy with links to Western "imperialists" - with "bourgeois Jewish nationalists," an alien, capitalist element, weaponizing "cosmopolitanism" and seeking to oppress the "pacific" German people.

Not only did this turn recent history upside down and echo tropes familiar from the Nazi era, it was an attempt to unite both Germans in opposition to an alleged foreign Jewish conspiracy. It posited that a homogenous national community necessitated the dismemberment of Jewish communities as independent entities as well as severing ties to their coreligionists in the West.

The GDR’s attempt to build a nationally, culturally and ideologically homogeneous state, its anxiety about difference and attempts to expel "foreign" elements, is a legacy that today's German far right is enthusiastically exploiting.

The AfD tries to portray itself as a party which seeks to restore the allegedly intact world of the past. It derives its power of attraction in East Germany from its calls to return to, or at least protect, a largely ethnically homogenous society and from its denial of German responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Police block demonstrators protesting against the far-right AfD party after parliamentary election polling stations closed. Berlin, Germany, Sept. 24, 2017,
Michael Probst/AP

That pervasive ethos meant that when many East Germans were first confronted with the West German Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance) after reunification felt very alienated. The AfD has succeeded in tapping into this feeling of alienation and manipulating it to further its own agenda.

Calls by leading East German AfD politicians for a U-turn in the way Germany confronts its Nazi legacy amount to a rejection of the West German model of coming to terms with the past and, in many ways, represent a desire to return to the denialist days of the German Democratic Republic.

The AfD’s historical revisionism, and its forays into Holocaust denial, remains the single biggest issue preventing the party from becoming an acceptable potential coalition partner for German mainstream parties.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel is still desperately trying to form a coalition, the ethno-nationalist wing’s success at the AfD party conference underlined that the party is not willing to give up extremist positions in order to become a viable coalition partner in the future – indeed, that its sympathies with ideas from the Nazi era are a fundamental feature of its political DNA.

Leon Kohl is a freelance journalist and graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a scholar of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. He writes about German, Irish and European current affairs and history.