If you have ever read Edgar Allen Poe‘s gruesome stories you may recall feelings of horror like those which made me, still a youngster, cringe and shudder. I have similar feelings when I hear of bloodthirsty, barely-hidden “concerts” by German Neo-Nazis, which too often lead to violence against subjects of their hatred: hippy-type leftist youngsters whom they deride as “ticks,” but above all people with other accents, clothes, or skin colors. Neo-Nazi groups, present all over the map, seem strongest in southeastern Saxony, northeastern Mecklenburg, and the western Ruhr region, all areas plagued by unemployment, especially among young people.
Semi-secret ties connect them with the almost openly pro-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), legal despite various attempts to outlaw it. It is good that it has failed the requisite 5% hurdle for all but one state parliament; only in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania did 6% of the voters give it five seats (out of 71). Last May, for the European Parliament, with the hurdle at only 1 percent, its 1.03% all-German result let it squeeze into one seat in Strasbourg. Despite low votes, however, it has bases in all too many towns and villages thanks to its activity in voluntary fire departments, PTA groups, soccer clubs, and outdoor festivities. Local fear often plays a role.
The next ring in widening rightist circles has been the PEGIDA movement with its marches, mostly Monday evenings, denouncing a fantasy “Islamization of the West.” In late 2014 it grew alarmingly in the city of Dresden, where on one occasion more than 20,000 took part. Aside from its anti-foreigner bias (in a city with an immigrant population of only 2%, far below the average), it appealed to many who were worried about their livelihoods, resentful of traditional parties, and ready to load blame on scapegoats.
Happily, its shady yet somehow charismatic leader had to step down after his Facebook selfie imitating Hitler and viciously brutal epithets against immigrants went too far. His successors soon split up, and PEGIDA in Dresden has called off further “walks” for now and may even collapse. In other cities it was always countered or blocked by immigrant-friendly opponents in far superior number. But people of color in Dresden still live in fear!
Nine-tenths of those PEGIDA walkers look to a party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded in 2013, it won 7% in the European Parliament vote and then 9% to 12% in three East German state elections. It rejects the euro, opposes immigration and same-sex marriage, but objects to being called the “German Tea Party,” using some fine-sounding economic demands to steal voters from the Linke (Left). At a recent congress in Bremen its ever-grinning leader Berndt Lucke, once a World Bank economist, narrowly forced through a change in its current triumvirate rule, granting himself sole top leadership. The AfD, despite its populist phrases and a stack of professors among its delegates, reminds me of a one-cell organism called the “brain-eating amoeba.” Like it, the AfD may become a dangerous rightist menace. And it has far more than a single cell.
Angela Merkel’s party, not to be outdone, also shows skill at talking out of two sides of its mouth. While she boldly denounces racists and proclaims that “Islam belongs to Germany,” Stanislaw Tillich of the same party, the minister-president of Saxony, contradicts her in a very transparent code: “Muslims are welcome and can practice their religion. But that does not mean that Islam belongs to Saxony.” In that state, whose capital is Dresden, the votes of PEGIDA walkers and other bigots can always be useful politically. Why lose them?
Indeed, Volker Kauder, the head of Merkel’s CDU fraction in the Bundestag, also wants to burn down no xenophobic bridges and lose voters. Referring to the PEGIDA sing-out on December 22nd, he found it “really good that the people in Dresden sang Christmas carols!” Perhaps they thought of the child in the manger, this conspicuously Christian politician surmised.
In other matters Kauder is rather less gently inclined. It was he who welcomed Vitali Klitschko to the Bundestag, conservative Germany’s favorite boxing champion and planned ruler of the Ukraine until stronger US managers re-classified him to be only the mayor of Kiev. Quite undeterred, and despite the frightening dangers boiling up in that terribly troubled region, Klitschko flexed his biceps, waved his big fist, and declaimed: “With no fight there’s no victory!” And Kauder, even more vividly, promised aid so as “to bring into full radiance the flame of victory.”
Kauder’s enthusiasm is understandable if one knows that he is the main parliamentary pillar of Heckler & Koch, one-time maker of Mauser weapons, whose main plant is in his district, which contributes handsomely to his campaigns, and which he supports just as enthusiastically in its export (for strictly peaceful purposes, of course) of handguns, rifles, submachine guns, and grenade launchers to all and sundry, like the USA, Bosnia, Nepal, Indonesia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, and probably pre-NATO Libya.
Contradictions are common in the coalition of Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats, especially on relations with the Ukraine. Sometimes it resembles a “good cop-bad cop” scenario, wherein the roles can change. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) often calls for a diplomatic solution, Merkel for tougher sanctions against Russia. Then she praises diplomacy, while her man Kauder and President Joachim Gauck want to march on and delight at the roar of Phantom fighter jets in Estonia skimming along the Russian border. However, despite transatlantic pressure and that from Kauder & Co. and such gun-lovers, the Berlin government has thus far kept to one position: “No weapons for Kiev.” And a majority of the public also rejects any hostilities.
The mass media, less troubled by complexities or power rivalry when backing Pentagon and State Department positions, has in its ruthless attacks on Vladimir Putin virtually deleted any thoughts on German-Russian history or its consequences. This rule was briefly broken by a few journalists after the death on January 31st, at 94, of Richard von Weizsäcker, West Berlin mayor (1981-1984) and German President (1984-1994), and they recalled some of his courageous words.
Surprising a hushed Parliament in Bonn in May 1985, Weizsäcker broke with West German usage and spoke of May 8, 1945 as “a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the tyranny of the National-Socialist regime.” Referring to seeming forgetfulness about those Hitler years, he continued:
When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed we had not known anything about it or even suspected anything. . . . Anyone who cared to inform himself could not escape the fact that the deportation trains were rolling. . . .
No, young Germans could not be blamed for crimes of their elders, he said, but they had been left “a hard legacy. . . . Those who close their eyes to the past will remain blind regarding the future. . . . Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.”
How relevant this seems today! After the elections in Greece and with ones to come in Spain, Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble fear any progress which threatens their austerity policy — imposing that old hegemony of German power and finance in all Europe at the cost of living standards for working people, pensioners, and young people, including those in Germany (meaning new recruits for PEGIDA or AfD). Indeed, if such “threats” gain real strength, two fearful responses are always possible. The racist, neo-fascist structures could strengthen — the vehicles are present — or the bugles of war could trumpet toward that path. Neither route excludes the other.
Are we again facing the horror of Edgar Allen Poe, destruction by the sharp, bloody pendulum of expanding war or another fatal fall into a dark, abysmal pit? Or can we fight our way clear of both these destinies?
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).