In one of the most brilliant scenes in Timur Vermes’ dark satire, "Look Who’s Back," Adolf Hitler, who has somehow reappeared in 21st century Germany, makes a visit to the headquarters of a far-right nationalist party. Horrified by the weak political hacks he meets there, Hitler screams at them to stop their “dreadful whining.” He ends his visit by calling them “a bunch of sissies” and delivering the verdict that “this is no place for an upstanding German.”
Vermes perfectly captures the internal contradiction of the contemporary far-right in Germany. On the one hand they present themselves as a respectable political party playing by the constitutional rules. But on the other, when confronted with a living, breathing Fuhrer, they cannot bring themselves to reject him, both out of hidden admiration and the knowledge that many of their potential voters feel the same.
Since it emerged on Sunday night that the far-right Alternative for Germany party had succeeded in becoming the third largest in the Bundestag with over five million voters, the horror many feel is largely because we all have a sneaking suspicion that AfD’s leadership and voters harbor deep nostalgia for the Third Reich – despite their protestations to the contrary. Even with 12.6 percent, a relatively low level of support for the far-right compared to most European countries, the fact that this happened in Germany, with all of the country's history, somehow makes it much worse.
But just writing off AfD and its supporters as a throwback to Germany’s Nazi past is too easy. It's not because there isn’t some truth in it. The party has more than its fair share of old-fashioned Nazis, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and those all too happy to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened, and that it was a good thing, but that isn’t what we should be worried about.
Never has an ideology failed so disastrously and unquestionably as Nazism. If nearly 13 percent of German voters are indeed so racist or stupid or stupidly racist that they are incapable of learning from history, then it’s bad news for Germany and its education system, but it’s not such a threat beyond that. The real issue here is how those shreds of out-of-date Nazi nostalgia play in to a much more contemporary atmosphere of nationalism and populism that is far from being unique to Germany.
At the core of Nazi ideology was the belief that due to their superior racial characteristics and destiny, the German people deserved wide living-space – Lebensraum – and a disproportionate share of global resources. For that purpose Germany had to build a mighty military machine and expand its territory at the expense of inferior races. But the outlook of today’s populist far-right in Germany (and most other Western countries) is not one of expansion. Quite the opposite: Nowadays nationalists believe in closing their borders and concentrating inward, on a long-lost notion of the nation’s soul, cleansed from the corruption of foreign outsiders. A similar xenophobic base is shared with old-school racist fascism, but it leads to opposite conclusions.
AfD has more in common with similar isolationist parties in the West than it has with the old National Socialist Party. Just like the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party in Britain and the amorphous movement which swept Donald Trump to power in the United States, AfD is against the European Union, dismisses NATO and has been endorsed by the propaganda channels of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is a rejection of globalism and the transnational order that underpinned seven decades of peace and prosperity in the post-war West. All these groups share a deep disdain for “fake news” mainstream media, want to clamp down on immigration and regard most politicians as criminals. Alexander Gauland, one AfD’s leaders, even copies Trump’s anti-Hillary rhetoric, threatening Chancellor Angela Merkel that he will “lock her up” and promising to “take our country and our people back.”
Even identifying AfD as a far-right party is not entirely accurate. Analyses of Sunday's vote show that nearly as many voters defected to AfD from the Social Democrats and the far-left Linke party as did from Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. It is a party of those who feel pushed to the margins, from right and left. This is further proof, if any more is needed, that the real divide in Western politics today is no longer between left and right, but between those who believe in open borders and a more global society and those who want to go back to an old lost world of racially homogenous, closed-off nations.
The real danger in the AfD and their ilk is not how similar they are to 1930s-style Nazism, but just how comfortably a political party whose leader calls on Germans to be proud of their soldiers in both world wars fits in to today’s political scene.
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