The specter of fascism haunts Germany.
Seventy five years after the ignominious defeat of Adolf Hitler’s racist regime in World War II, far-right extremism remains a gnawing problem in contemporary Germany.
Thomas Haldenwang, the director of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency — the Office for the Protection of the Constitution — said recently that right-wing extremism and terrorism are the biggest threats facing German democracy today.
This was no idle warning. Throughout the postwar period, Germany was jolted by fascist eruptions, which were invariably accompanied by antisemitic outbursts.
Shortly after its reunification in 1990, Germany was buffeted by a wave of xenophobic violence during which foreigners were attacked and the homes of asylum seekers were firebombed. Many of these incidents took place in the eastern states, which became part of communist East Germany.
In the past five years, Germans have witnessed the rise of the Alternative for Germany, a far-right political party which has gained considerable ground since the influx of more than one million Muslim migrants into the country. The party has challenged Germany’s Holocaust remembrance culture, and some of its leading figures have openly demanded a stop to German atonement for Nazi crimes.
More recently, right-wing terrorists have assassinated a regional politician, fatally shot nine immigrants and attempted to storm a synagogue in eastern Germany.
Nearly two months ago, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer released a disturbing 98-page report documenting the degree to which rightist extremists have infiltrated the security services. “We are dealing with a small number of cases,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the employees at our security services — over 99 percent — are firmly rooted in our constitution.”
Nonetheless, the statistics in his report are sobering, to say the least. In a three- year period ending last March, an unprecedented number of extremists, about 1,400, were found in the armed forces, intelligence agencies and police.
The authorities have begun rooting out these malcontents. Three months ago, the state of North Rhine Westphalia suspended 29 police officers suspected of sharing images of Hitler and violent neo-Nazi propaganda in online chat groups. Last June, the defence minister disbanded a company in the special forces after SS memorabilia, explosives and a machine-gun were discovered on the property of a sergeant major.
This past September, a high-ranking army officer, Christof Gramm, was dismissed because the counter-intelligence agency he heads repeatedly fell short short of its mission to monitor and detect extremism in the armed forces.
At a recent commemoration service to mark the first anniversary of a deadly incident, during which a heavily-armed neo-Nazi murdered two German civilians after failing to break into a synagogue in Halle and kill Jewish worshippers inside, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed outrage that such visceral hatred exists.”I feel deep sadness,” he said. “But even a year later, I feel shame and anger.”
“Everyone must stand up when the human dignity of others is violated,” he added.
Yesterday, Felix Klein, a German government official in charge of combating antisemitism, reported that antisemitism has emerged as a theme among some Germans protesting coronavirus pandemic lockdown measures.
In addition to disseminating baseless conspiracy theories that sinister elites have exploited the contagion for nefarious ends, a common anti-Jewish trope, these protesters have compared themselves to Jews in Nazi Germany and have even worn Nazi-style yellow Stars of David.
“Portraying oneself as the persecuted victim is and was a central element of antisemitic attitudes,” said Klein.
Germanys’ foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has criticized anti-mask activists who liken themselves to Nazi victims. He has accused them of trivializing the Holocaust and “making a mockery” of the courage shown by resistance fighters.
Mass made these comments after a 22-year-old woman protesting coronavirus restrictions in Hanover said she felt “just like Sophie Scholl,” an anti-Nazi German student whom the Nazis executed in 1943 for her role in the White Rose resistance group.
Successive German governments since the Nazi era have made tangible amends for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, yet antisemitism plagues Germany. But Germany is hardly unique. Antisemitism is deeply embedded in the culture and religion of scores of Western societies, which explains why fascists can so easily tap into it for their own malevolent ends.
Considering its history, Germany has a special moral obligation to work tirelessly to contain this virulent virus.