The reunification of Germany, in 1990, was a moment of exalted pride for the postwar federal republic. After decades of warning that a united country would resurrect the horrors of the 20th century, its neighbors and allies, many of them former battlefield foes, came around to accept and even welcome it. That’s in large part because, during those same decades, West Germany had undertaken a self-administered “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” a mouthful of a German word that translates as something like “the overcoming of the past,” and refers to the country’s collective effort to grapple with the causes and legacies of the Nazi era.
It was a painful, halting process, but it helped transform Germany from pariah state to the moral leader of continental Europe. In recent years, though, the achievements of the postwar era have come under scrutiny. “Our culture of remembrance is crumbling,” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said recently.
The most damning evidence is the hard-right Alternative for Germany party, which surged into the Bundestag in 2017; in parts of eastern Germany it is the most popular party. The AfD is riding a shocking rise of German anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Forty percent of Germans say it’s right to blame Jews for Israel’s policies in the Middle East. In my neighborhood in Berlin, and others across the country, people wearing Jewish headgear are harassed on the street. And in the aftermath of the refugee crisis of 2015-16, many Germans — including mainstream, middle-class citizens — embraced the far right’s premises. In surveys, ever more say they desire an authoritarian leader and distrust liberal democracy.
The AfD gives cover to expanded expressions of intolerance and hate. In the Bundestag, the party’s members speak about foreigners, the Holocaust and Muslims in a way that a decade ago would have triggered a full-blown scandal — but that today is commonplace. They downplay the significance of the Nazi era, and demean efforts to reconcile with the past, like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Popular TV shows and best sellers set in the Nazi era treat Germans as victims, not perpetrators. At the same time, 40 percent of young Germans say they know very little or nothing about the Holocaust.
“We were so sure that we’d learned our lesson, and what is not allowed cannot happen. We thought serious anti-Semitism was the past,” said Andreas Eberhardt, director of Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, a Berlin-based foundation concerned with historical remembrance. “But now we’re rethinking things.”
What went wrong?
There’s no question that Germany’s efforts to overcome its past were sincere and largely effective. But they also came with their own blind spots.
One was the assumption that Germany’s treatment of the past was as thorough as many believed. New research shows that far fewer Nazis were brought to justice in the immediate postwar years than previously thought. Indeed, just as the ’60s-era students charged, former Nazis occupied many positions of authority — as teachers, judges, media professionals and even politicians — for many decades after the war, transmitting their values with them.
And while the Germans laudably focused on the country’s anti-Semitic legacy, they overlooked other aspects of the Nazis’ genocidal racism, like its anti-Slavism, the genocide of Roma and the incarceration of homosexuals in concentration camps. Until recently, Germans paid scant attention to their country’s first genocidal campaign, in colonial-era southwestern Africa, which bolstered the racist foundations for Nazi ideology. Such selective moral reckoning left room for racism to fester.
Nor did Germany ever eradicate deep-seated prejudices toward outsiders. Even as it brought in millions of guestworkers from Turkey in the 1960s, it long resisted integrating them, let alone opening its culture to include non-ethnic Germans. Germany praised itself for facing its Nazi past, but it practiced widespread discrimination against immigrants. “The clash over the Merkel government’s refugee policy,” argued German historian Norbert Frei, referring to the protests and xenophobic outbursts following the summer 2015 influx of refugees, “was simply a welcome occasion to revitalize national-conservative and völkisch thinking that had been socially suppressed over decades but had never disappeared.”
Then there’s the split history of East and West Germany. East German Communists proceeded more rigorously in their postwar purging of Nazis, and its leaders too quickly proclaimed that they had eradicated all vestiges of fascism in its territory. They told East Germans that they were the anti-fascist victors — guilty of nothing — and that West Germany, a caldron of old Nazis, was just a scaled-back version of the Third Reich. And the East, despite its own, smaller influx of foreign workers (mostly from fellow Communist countries like Vietnam), did an even worse job of promoting diversity and ethnic tolerance.
Ironically, the fall of Communism and the terms of reunification made all of this worse. Even as Germany was winning praise as a model cosmopolitan society, it was struggling to incorporate millions of former citizens of a fallen dictatorship. Thirty years later, the former East Germany is a hotbed of xenophobia and the far right.
The passing of time doesn’t help, either. Today, millions of Germans were not even born when East Germany fell; to them, the Nazi era feels like ancient history. They struggle to see why they should identify Hitler’s barbarism with their lives. With the World War II generation mostly gone, the school lessons on the Holocaust and Nazism are taught secondhand, the tone often pedantic and their rituals rote.
Add to this mix the trauma and indignity that many eastern Germans experienced as westerners took over their culture and economy, the disorienting effects of globalization, and the resentment stemming from the ever-wider discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in Germany, and it’s hardly surprising that Germany is facing what was once thought impossible: not a new Nazism per se, but rather a proliferation of hard-right movements and clusters, the latter even found in police and army units, and a new tolerance for racist ideas and violent hooliganism.
None of this is to demean postwar Germany’s achievement: As partial as its processing of the past has been, it shaped generations of enlightened, liberal, self-critical citizens. Among its errors, though, was the assumption that history could ever be “mastered” and the process wound down. Learning from history, it seems, is an exercise in democracy that can never stop.
Paul Hockenos is the author, most recently, of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin.