For the first time since 1933, an extreme-right party has been voted into German parliament. Going by the name of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), this newcomer made substantial gains from the last federal election (+7.9%) while centrist parties were dealt (to use a German soccer colloquialism) a massive “Klatsche.” Now Germany must ponder its political future. But what does this mean about the country’s collective memory?
Just this month, AfD party leader Alexander Gauland said that Germany should be proud of its soldiers in both world wars. “I am not denying that the Wehrmacht in the Second World War was involved in crimes,” said Gauland, acknowledging the Nazi murder of six million Jews, but in the form of a structuralist apology: “millions of German soldiers did their duty for a criminal system. But this is the system’s fault, not the fault of the soldiers who were brave.” (He pointed to Erwin Rommel and Claus von Stauffenberg as examples of German military resistance in their assassination plot against Hitler.) In an interesting turn of phrase, he called for the country to “pull the curtain” over its Nazi past.
This is unprecedented in Germany. For the past 70 years, German public figures have hardly ever called German WWII soldiers “brave.” Instead, Germany’s coming to terms with its Nazi history, better known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, has been legislated in forms of integration policy, reparations, education, memorialization of Holocaust victims in public space and media, etc. so that Germany demonstrates a continual reconciliation with its past atrocities.
So, where are Gauland’s comments coming from? A good place to start is with a book: Der Kult mit der Schuld, which roughly translates to the “Cult of Guilt.” The book decries “political correctness” as having evolved from Germany’s collective memory of the Holocaust, lamenting that “no other people like the Germans are so ashamed of themselves.” From the back cover description:
What is often overlooked is that the “cult of guilt” has a highly destructive potential; indeed, the modern interpretation of collective guilt hovers over us like a radioactive cloud on all areas of public life—contaminating slowly but surely not only our politics and culture, but also our democratic and moral values. And in certain leftist and politically correct circles, this amounts to classic psychological symptoms of self-hatred.
Before the election, AfD politician Wilhelm von Gottberg spoke out against this so-called “cult of guilt” to say that the Nazi era had been “worked through” – and that today, the Holocaust has been twisted into an “effective instrument to criminalize the Germans and their history.”
If von Gottberg is trying to absolve today’s Germany of its guilt, then Gauland’s wants to reassert Germany’s innocence—and neither attempt legitimately produces an end result of “working through” the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the party continues its normalizing message. AfD politician Bjorn Höcke called for Germany to adopt “a memory culture which brings us first and foremost into contact with the great achievements of our ancestors.” He has also said that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was “a monument of disgrace.” Earlier this year, AfD insisted that school curricula emphasize “positive, identity-uplifting” events in German history. The AfD wants to contest how Germans remember. We should remember that “pulling the curtain” fails at disturbing depths to extract innocence from guilt.
Christopher Levesque is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His research interests include institutions/patterns of migration, collective memory, and refugee political participation in Germany and the United States.