The New Face of Racism in Germany

Germany is not lacking in right-wing sentiment these days, but most people are careful about how they deploy their anti-immigrant rhetoric. And then there’s Björn Höcke.

Last month Mr. Höcke, a leading figure of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland, gave an openly racist speech on the “differing reproductive strategies” of Africans and Europeans. It was not the first time he had drawn on National Socialist themes, but this time he caused uproar, even in his own party, which has asked him to resign his membership.

Whatever happens to Mr. Höcke, though, his willingness to use overtly racist language has revived an age-old fear in Germany. He is, by all accounts, a typical German, an upright middle-class citizen — what we call a “Biedermann.” They are the core of our national self-perception. If they turn to the dark side, what does that say about Germany?

For years, racism and hate in Germany mostly came with clear social markers. In the minds of most, racists wore their heads shaved, feet heavily booted and arms rune-tattooed. They lived on the fringes of society, often in public housing, and made their living illicitly.

Not so Mr. Höcke. As a young man, he was a member of “Junge Union,” the youth organization of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats. He’s a high school history teacher on leave and a married father of four. He lives in the countryside and is invariably well dressed, though never in a showy way.

Is this the new face of hate in Germany?

The word “Biedermann” is hard to translate; it has a long and arborescent cultural history. The word goes back to the literary figure Gottlieb Biedermaier, invented in the late 1840s by intellectuals as a parody of the docility and fatuity of that conservative era’s middle class.

The fictional Gottlieb Biedermaier, just like Björn Höcke, was a countryside teacher. There’s one critical difference, though: Biedermaier was no misanthrope. His inventors portrayed him as utterly apolitical; his self-expression was limited to publishing bad poetry passionately praising the growth of potatoes.

Still, from the beginning, Biedermaier — and the type he embodied, the “Biedermann” — was suspected of bigotry. In his tidiness and his conformity, there seemed to be the seed of compulsion, the sort of addiction to stability and continuity that transforms into aggression when threatened.

In postwar Germany, Biedermänner were (and still are) seen as an enabling factor of Hitler’s coming to power. At the same time, the postwar generations of middle-class Germans proved reliably centrist, slightly conservative but also committed to the social-market state and its pacifist constitution. They accepted the millions of Turks who arrived in the 1950s and ’60s, and even the Balkan refugees of the ’90s.

Now that may be changing, once again. Everyone is asking, Is Björn Höcke unique? Does he stand for something? Will he light us on fire? Or is he just a lone nut?

Online, there appear to be many like him, and worse. Among pictures of cats dozing on window sills looking onto neat gardens, German “Biedermänner” (and “Bieder-frauen”) are indulging in violent fantasies of “rebuilding” concentration camps, of killing immigrants with hand grenades, axes, flames.

Who the haters really are, however, we don’t know; there are no representative studies, just random hints. Since the summer, several Germans were fined or fired after hateful comments they posted online were reported by the news media or exposed by activists. Some of them certainly seem like “Biedermänner”: a nurse for the elderly from Thuringia, a trainee at Porsche in Austria. But on closer inspection, many already had clear extremist affinities: They had “liked” bands and shared videos associated with the far right long before the current mass migration movement started.

Accordingly, many sociologists tend to see the recent anti-immigrant demonstrations and the rise in hateful comments as merely an increase in the visibility of pre-existing racist thought, rather than as a sign of changing mentalities.

The same somewhat ambiguous impression is reflected in the polls. New surveys show support for the Alternative für Deutschland stagnating at around 8 to 10 percent. And many of its supporters are not racist per se, but merely fed up with the major parties.

None of this allays Germany’s fears. It is the lack of a clear diagnosis that is particularly disconcerting. It’s like an unlocatable ache, a pain without a name that makes you edgy.

In fact, there’s a hidden risk. If we allow people like Mr. Höcke to give “Biedermänner” a bad name, Germany could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing them to the far right and destabilizing German politics. As laughable as Biedermann might have been to his inventors, as dangerous as he might have appeared to postwar reformers, Germany can’t do without him.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

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