Seventy-fife years since the end of the Second World War, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently partook in a poignant address to the German nation. His speech struck a tone of reflection, relief, prosperity and gratitude to how far Europe has come. But not without an undertone of trepidation.


Steinmeier noted that despite the day being considered ‘Liberation day’ in Germany, ‘It was far from being that in the minds and hearts of most Germans’. He is of course referring to the multi-generation-long battle of denazification — one which to this day is decidedly difficult to win.

In his own words:

‘[we must remain vigilant against] the temptation of a new nationalism. The fascination of the authoritarian. Of distrust, isolation and hostility between nations. Of hatred and agitation, of xenophobia and contempt for democracy — because they are nothing but the old evil spirits in a new guise’.

Steinmeier continued with an allusion to the growing instance of benevolent hate crimes and newfound nationalism sweeping Germany.

A new wave of German nationalism

In 2013, the Alternative for Germany (AFD) Party was born. It was designed to reject the very notion of collective guilt, a pseudo-policy enforced by the allies on to the German population after the Second World War to try and ensure a collective sense of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. The AFD serves to find pride in being German and to encourage the renationalisation of the population. Like most nationalistic parties, it grew from hate and resentment, with a specific focal point of blame for the problems they see in the country. The AFD blame Islam and the fear of Islamification for their brand of nationalistic policies.

Their manifesto is the very embodiment of this hatred, detailing a plethora of overt language which wouldn’t have looked amiss in the more cautious Nazi manifestos of the early 1920s. Such statements as, German as Predominant Culture instead of Multiculturalism’, ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’ and the call to ‘tolerate criticism of Islam’ are three of the manifesto’s ‘policies’ on culture and immigration.

The Nazi’s 25-point programme in 1920 stated:

Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since the 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich’.

The language is virtually interchangeable, and shows that the battle of denazification is far from over.

In the 2017 German federal elections, the AFD won 12.6 per cent of the vote, receiving 94 seats in the German Bundestag, making them the third largest party in Germany. Their hate-inspired manifesto, with a seeming focus on their disdain for the Islamic ‘other’ established a huge chunk of support — one that gave the the party an enormous sway in the democratic process.

Since the ascension of AFD to the Bundestag, hate crimes have risen across the country. In 2019, it was reported that there were 2,000 crimes against Jews and Jewish Institutions. In the same year, the Left Party also reported an attack on a mosque, Muslim institution or a religious representative every other day. The reports highlight a clear, unsettling rise in hate crimes.

The problem with collective guilt

True, Germany is now a thriving democracy at the very epicentre of the European economy and a leading figure in global negotiations and discussions. Its coalition of leaders headed by Angela Merkel, are a far cry from the tyranny of the Nazis and Hitler’s henchmen. Its bureaucracy appears redeemed and rejuvenated. But as the accession of the AFD proves, there is still a lingering fear that Germany hasn’t learned from its past

Clearly then, the issues which plagued Germany in the 1930s, have not completely disappeared. How come? Well, one aspect of the denazification process involved an impetus on the notion of ‘collective guilt’, whereby the allies recognised the importance of holding the German population to account and actively pushed guilt upon the population. In essence, they said that the German people were Nazis, and were responsible for the atrocities of the regime.

The general problem with bestowing collective guilt upon an entire population assumes that every individual, regardless of the nature of the regime, is devoid of free will and free thought. In 1948, Victor Gollancz summarised such a notion as ultimately ludicrous, arguing:

‘[in assuming collective guilt] they must mean that there is an entity, namely “the Germans” which is something other than the mere sum total of the German individuals who compose it’.

Germans, in a spirited way, understandably felt this to be a harsh and inaccurate judgement. Many, arguably, also saw this as foreign-imposed guilt for a crime that was democratically decided rather than individually preferred.

Why has hate-fuelled nationalism slithered back into mainstream political and societal discourse? A growing consideration amongst scholars over the past twenty years has hinted at an innate sense of nationalism within Germany, asserting that Germany took a precariously different path to its Western counterparts.

It’s easy to forget that Germany, as countries go, is still fairly young having officially formed in 1871. Its geographical location at the heart of Europe made it resentful of its often poorer but larger neighbours to the East; its short-lived empire made it insecure; and it’s varying power struggles at the end of its federation created intense loyalties to small localities. Soon, these loyalties transitioned to intense allegiance to the country and as generations went by, it formed a resilient kind of nationalism.

Sabine Behrenbeck accounts for the relative nostalgia towards Nazism in the immediate aftermath of the war. She notes that the resurgence of wartime feelings of nationalism were based on the German collective victimisation narrative and the presence of the allies, who were seen as oppressive. Behrenbeck also credits this resurgence to a revival of the Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). The German people felt a distinct identity difference with their European counterparts, who to them, were imposing ‘harsh’ sanctions against their community.

Post-war Germany wasn’t a picture of a country liberated. Sixty per cent of German POWs still swore their faith to Hitler. And Hitler was, above all, democratically elected. By the time of their demise in 1945, the Nazi Party had 12.4 million members. To contrast, the CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) has 414,905. Such an inspired following would be nearly impossible to fully expunge any time soon.

I must stress, however, that in the same way one cannot assert guilt upon an entire population, one also cannot readily absolve an entire nation. In a country of just over 83 million, political parties can only go so far to represent the diverse range of views held by its people.

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