The German Right Believes It’s Time to Discard the Country’s Historical Guilt
As part of the nationalist tide sweeping Europe, the Alternative for Germany is pushing to change how the country views its Nazi past, upending decades of consensus
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI
March 2, 2017 10:19 a.m. ET
KARLSRUHE, Germany—The draft budget for Baden-Württemberg state set aside $69,000 this year for educational trips to “memorials of National Socialist injustice.”
The Alternative for Germany party submitted a motion to strike the reference to the Nazi Party and instead use the money for visits to “significant German historic sites.”
“We strive for a balanced view of history,” the motion said. “A one-sided concentration on 12 years of National Socialist injustice is to be rejected.”
The upstart Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD, began as a party opposed to the euro and moved on to fighting Germany’s refugee influx. Now it is increasingly emphasizing a broader, substantially more provocative goal: changing how Germans see their past.
AfD politicians say an unhealthy obsession with the Nazi crimes of World War II skews Germans’ understanding of their country’s history, leaves no place for national pride and interferes with government policy. Nazi-era guilt, they say, was behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.
“The negation of our own national interests is something that has become a political maxim in Germany since World War II,” said AfD leader Frauke Petry.
Ms. Merkel said Germany was bound by its constitution and international law to take in refugees, and not doing so could have caused a humanitarian crisis that destabilized the Balkans.
In campaigns across Europe, nationalists and populists are on the march, pushing the credo that the policies of mainstream, pro-European Union politicians stifle the people’s interests and their identity.
French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, regarded as a contender in elections this year, says her countrymen have been “dispossessed of their patriotism.” The successful backers of Brexit in the U.K. campaigned to “take back control.” Dutch anti-Islam prime minister hopeful Geert Wilders promises “the preservation of the Netherlands.” Elections are set there later this month.
Nowhere do national identity politics carry more taboo-breaking potential than in Germany, which has spent seven decades reckoning with the aftermath of its genocidal nationalist dictatorship.
A commitment to remembering and accepting responsibility for Nazi crimes is core to Germany’s modern identity. While fringe nationalists have always contested that approach, it has been accepted for decades by all of the parties represented in the national parliament.
Now, as German elections in September loom, basic questions of national identity and historical responsibility are suddenly center-stage. The AfD, with its attack on official memory, is polling at about 11% public support, an impressive showing for a party only four years old.
AfD politicians accept that the Holocaust happened and describe the Nazis as a criminal regime. Most party leaders avoid rhetoric about racial superiority or ethnic purity. They also say the postwar establishment’s focus on atonement has robbed Germans of a positive identity and pushed the country to act against its own interests.
The party wants to reduce the time schools spend teaching children about the Nazis to focus more on German achievements in science and the arts. Some prominent members go further, arguing that the European consensus on World War II history is too anti-German.
“History is a whore of politics,” Björn Höcke, one of the party’s most radical politicians, said in an interview. “A great people like the German people, which lost two world wars in one century, no longer has a historical narrative of its own.”
In an ornate Dresden ballroom in January, local AfD candidate Jens Maier told the crowd that what he called Western Allies’ re-education efforts after World War II led to Germans being convinced “we are bastards, criminals, that we are worth nothing.”
As his voice rose, Mr. Maier hollered into his microphone, to applause: “I hereby declare this cult of guilt to be over! To be over, once and for all!”
To a political establishment for which Holocaust remembrance is an integral part of public life, the AfD’s break with the consensus is a shocking turn.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble works in an imposing office building that is memorialized, in plaques, as the former home of Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s Aviation Ministry. Mr. Schäuble recently presented a postage stamp marking the anniversary of a remembrance center next door, built on the site of the onetime Gestapo headquarters.
“That we were brought to deal with our past is among the great advantages that we have in Germany,” Mr. Schäuble said. “He who resists dealing with the past is ill-prepared for the future.”
The AfD is the most successful party to have arisen to the right of Germany’s mainstream conservative bloc, which Ms. Merkel now leads, since World War II. For decades, far-right parties failed to gain a foothold in Germany. Leading conservative politicians made it their stated mission to prevent the rise of nationalist movements.
Interviews with supporters show the party has tapped into something deeper than anti-immigrant sentiment. Many see the embrace of migrants as a symptom of a broader problem: a dearth of German patriotism, a misplaced guilt complex and a misreading of German history.
“I want people to stand up and put their hand on their heart when the German national anthem plays, like they do in the U.S.,” said Bernd Tomsen at a monthly gathering of party supporters in a Croatian restaurant in Berlin. “German history is reduced to 12 years of Nazi rule. People use this to convince others, especially young people, that they are Nazis and must do good in the world.”
At the party event in Dresden, the AfD’s Mr. Höcke gave a speech that was provocative even by the party’s standards. German history “is made ugly and ridiculous,” he said, before concluding: “We need nothing other than a 180-degree change in memory policy!”
The next day, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Social Democratic junior partners in the governing coalition, published a rebuttal. His father had been an unrepentant Nazi to his death and said Auschwitz was fabricated American propaganda, Mr. Gabriel wrote.
“The fact that we faced our history and that we learned from the past was the prerequisite for Germany being respected around the world,” Mr. Gabriel wrote on Facebook. “Björn Höcke scorns the Germany of which I am proud.”
The uproar presented a quandary for the AfD. Expelling the young, popular Mr. Höcke could turn off nationalist voters, but refusing to do so could undermine efforts to gain acceptability among more-centrist voters. After weeks of debate, the executive board last month took a procedural step toward expelling Mr. Höcke, who is fighting to keep his post.
Mr. Höcke said that though the “content and form” of his speech were politically unwise, his points were in keeping with the party platform. “The current restriction of German memory culture to the National Socialist era,” the party program says, should be “broken up to make way for a broader view of history.”
Speaking at a castle near the Rhine in October, party leader Ms. Petry alluded to recent historical studies that shift the blame for World War I beyond Berlin, and suggested more to come.
“Just as today the First World War is written about in a nuanced way and not just from the perspective of the victor,” Ms. Petry said, “the Second World War will probably in some decades also need to be discussed in a somewhat more nuanced way than what we experience today.” Listeners erupted in applause.
Among them was Stefan Scheil, a historian on the fringes of German academia for his argument that the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union were largely to blame for the outbreak of World War II. Not since the 1970s, Mr. Scheil said, has Germany had a significant political party willing to entertain his view.
“It is part of the foundation of the AfD to speak about many things that simply were never questioned for many years,” he said.
Mr. Höcke said World War II began as a local conflict in which Hitler understandably sought to reclaim territory lost after World War I. “The big problem is that one presents Hitler as absolutely evil,” Mr. Höcke said. “But of course we know that there is no black and no white in history.”
Ms. Petry, asked about World War II’s causes, wouldn’t delve into specifics but said wars typically take place only when multiple parties want them to.
She said the history of the Holocaust is covered comprehensively in German schools, but German suffering, including the bombing of Dresden and Russian and American mistreatment of German prisoners of war, is given short shrift.
Asked whether field trips to concentration camps were appropriate, she said it was “important for students to understand what mankind can do to men.” She also added: “One should inform them to the same degree that after World War II the Americans allowed German war prisoners to die of hunger in the camps on the Rhine meadows.”
It is far from clear that policies like these will spell national electoral success. The AfD’s Baden-Württemberg resolution to cut funds for field trips to Nazi sites was rejected by the other parties. Many Germans are proud of facing the darkest era in their past more directly than other countries have, and remain skeptical of the concept of patriotism. In a 2015 poll, only 38% said they were proud to be German.
AfD supporters, by contrast, often say they are tired of atoning for crimes they didn’t commit.
“It’s incredibly difficult, in Germany, to say, ‘I am truly German,’ ” said Michael Seher, a salesman for a home builder. “I personally had nothing to do with World War II, and I don’t want to keep paying for it.”