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How the far right is weaponizing Nazi history in Germany

The AfD is pushing to downplay the crimes of the Nazi era, amid fears of a new wave of German nationalism.
How the AfD is weaponizing Nazi history in Germany

A year earlier, the provocation might have stoked lasting outrage.

On Jan. 23, lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) walked out of an official Holocaust commemoration event in Munich, in protest of a speech critical of the party from an 86-year-old survivor.

But this time, the backlash was muted.

“There was no massive outcry,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


The stunt was hardly new for the AfD, which in recent years has sought to downplay the crimes of the Nazi era and challenge the central role of the Holocaust in German cultural memory. Senior figures in the party have demanded an end to the “guilt cult” around Nazi-era crimes, dismissed the Third Reich as “just bird shit” in the scope of German history, derided a Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame”, and insisted that Germans have the right to feel proud of their ancestors who fought in the Second World War.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society.”

Led by two of the party’s most powerful figures — Alexander Gauland, the 77-year-old co-leader and co-founder, and his close ally, the influential far-right agitator Bjoern Hoecke — the AfD has launched a concerted attack on Germany’s relationship with its Nazi past. They say their aim is to restore national pride and liberate Germans from the sense of collective responsibility for the crimes of their ancestors, which they claim has “crippled” the country.

Their strategy of inflammatory statements appears to be having its intended effect. And the feeble reaction to the Munich stunt was proof, experts said.

“That’s a sign to the party that they can get away with these statements, and continue to escalate on this issue,” Janning told VICE News.

The AfD is playing a dangerous game, experts and fellow politicians warned, calculated to erode the established red lines of Germany’s postwar order, in which an active reckoning with the Holocaust is fundamental to the country’s identity as a tolerant, liberal democracy.


Political scientists say the AfD’s strategy could help fuel a new wave of German nationalism, and their concerns are shared by the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which last month placed the hard-line faction behind the revisionist push under surveillance, as a threat to the liberal democratic order.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told VICE News. “The call for a turn in the culture of commemoration is jeopardizing Germany’s coming to terms with history, and the lessons learned from it.”

The AfD’s campaign against the politics of remembrance

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Members of the AfD walk out of a memorial event in Munich in January during a speech by Charlotte Knobloch, former President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Holocaust survivor. ( Photo by: Peter Kneffel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Hoecke, a hardline ideologue who is head of the ultranationalist AfD faction known as “The Wing,” was the first to publicly push revisionist views. In a January 2017 speech to the party’s youth wing, Young Alternative, the 46-year-old sensationally called for “a 180-degree turnaround” in Germany’s “stupid” politics of remembrance.

The comments led to him being accused by political opponents of being a Nazi, or at least sounding like one, and even condemned by his own party leader at the time, Frauke Petry. Her executive filed a motion for him to be expelled from the party for displaying an “affinity to National Socialism.”

But the motion eventually failed. Petry — now viewed as a moderate by the standards of the AfD — announced she was stepping down from the leadership months later. She was succeeded by Hoecke’s ally Gauland and Jörg Meuthen, a 57-year-old economist and professor, who both expressed their support for Hoecke, and the party’s internal arbitration panel ruled last May that Hoecke had done nothing wrong.


Experts say the party’s growing embrace of revisionist positions since Hoecke’s initial provocation underlines the extent to which the hard-liners from Hoecke’s faction, supported by Gauland, have prevailed in the party’s internal power struggles, shaping the AfD in their image, and pushing the group even further to the fringe.

“The power struggle is over, and Hoecke won,” German political scientist Hans-Joachim Funke told VICE News. “With every party convention, each year the party has been more and more radicalized. Without Hoecke and The Wing, there would be no party like the AfD.”

Ugly rhetoric, ugly impact

The revisionist campaign is a dangerous development in a country contending with surging far-right activity since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened its borders to 1 million refugees in 2015, manifesting in rising extremist violence and regular nationalist demonstrations. In the 2017 national elections, the AfD, which had never had a seat in the Bundestag, won nearly 13 percent of the national vote, and has polled higher since.

While the AfD’s revisionism stops short of Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Germany, its rhetoric has been blamed for fueling ugly scenes at former concentration camp sites.

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“Arbeit macht frei" stands above a gate to the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. January 27, 2019. (Photo by: Bernd Thissen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

On Feb. 4, a Berlin-based far-right activist, Nikolai Nerling, got into a confrontation at the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, and was ejected. From outside the grounds, he issued a rallying call on social media for others to visit concentration camp sites and declare that they didn’t feel guilty about what had happened there.


While Nerling is unaffiliated with the AfD, the Association for International Youth Exchange and Memorial Work in Dachau, whose members witnessed the episode, partly blamed the party’s rhetoric for his actions.

“This act shows how secure the extreme right-wing perpetrators feel, and how far the boundaries of what can be said and what can be done have already been shifted,” the group said in a statement. Charlotte Knobloch, the Jewish community leader whose speech provoked the AfD’s walkout in Munich, agreed that the party held some responsibility, labeling the AfD “spiritual arsonists.”

The AfD did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE News.

The party’s own supporters have also been linked to revisionist provocations at a former concentration camp site. In July 2018, an AfD-organized group tour to the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg was reportedly cut short when members made comments questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime.”

The party’s revisionism, besides being dangerous, may also be unconstitutional, crossing the red lines of Germany’s liberal democratic order.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime,” Konstantin von Notz, vice chairman of the Greens parliamentary group, told VICE News. An active reckoning with Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, he said, “must always be a factor in how we build our society.”


Last month, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which has the power to conduct surveillance on groups it deems as extremist threats to the democratic order, announced it was stepping up its surveillance of two elements of the AfD — Hoecke’s “Wing” and the party’s youth affiliate, Young Alternative.

Agency head Thomas Haldenwang said Hoecke’s faction was “a threat to the liberal democratic principles of Germany’s constitution,” citing its repeated downplaying of Nazi crimes, along with its efforts to disparage and disenfranchise minorities.

“If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

His office said it was also designating the AfD as a whole as a “review case” — which means it will be investigated to determine whether it poses a threat to the liberal democratic order that should be placed under surveillance.

The decision drew a predictably dismissive response from Hoecke. “I'm already sorry for the officials who have to kill their time looking for things that do not exist," he said.

With his hard-line faction now dominant within the party, it remains to be seen whether it will take the intelligence agency’s interest as a sign to moderate its rhetoric, or continue toward its vision of remaking German politics.

To Janning, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the party’s hard-liners appear determined to wear down the public’s response to its provocations, until their revisionist rhetoric can fly without any significant pushback.

“In a society like ours, the public’s attention span is short,” he said. “If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

Cover: The leader of Thuringia's AfD, Bjoern Hoecke, speaking through a megaphone at an AfD rally, which took place with the motto "For our country and our children". Photo by: Christian Charisius/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images