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Letter from Berlin: German Shame and the Rise of the Far Right

Gordon Glasgow Sep 27

“Contemporary German culture is centered around how to properly handle shame,” Cem Koch, a student of sociology at Humboldt University and one of my closest friends here in Berlin, told me. It was the day after Germany’s general elections and we met for coffee. “From the left to the right you can see how someone handles the spectrum of shame,” Cem said. “One of the Alternative For Deutschland’s goals is to remove shame from the German identity, to forget about what’s happened in the past.”

The results the night before were depressing. Alternative For Deutschland (AfD) won 96 seats in Parliament — the first time since Nazi Germany that a far-right party has held seats in Germany’s Parliament. Protests were held soon after in central Berlin’s Alexanderplatz.

In the lead-up to the elections, everyone knew that Angela Merkel would win. In that regard, there was a sense of security in the air that far surpassed any certainty Americans may have had about Hillary Clinton. It was also common knowledge that Martin Schulz, running to represent the Social Democratic Party (SDP), would come in second, despite the party’s declining performance over the past several years. (The election saw the SPD lose 40 seats in parliament.) The hot topic surrounding the election was who would come in third: the party known as ‘the Left,’ the pro-business Free Democratic Party or the far-right, malignant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD).

Candidates sparred over social and economic inequality, security and terrorism, climate change and energy, Europe and the euro and international trade relations, but migration was the most contested subject.

One AfD propaganda poster featured a woman in a swimsuit. “Burkas?” it read. “We prefer bikinis.” The press vigilantly devoted itself to covering such AfD messaging. All the sensationalist comments from AfD leadership in the runup to the elections made headlines and were featured on the news, advancing the racist party’s exposure to an undecided German population possessed by economic discontent and an irrational fear of migration.

This is the simple genius of far-right political parties. They know very well that news organizations will be quick to latch on to any controversial comments they make. Given the provocative nature of such propaganda, the media often lends more attention to the far right than to parties on the left. It’s an astute kind of manipulation that news organizations in Germany and America have yet to stop falling for.

Another AfD tactic was to employ nostalgia, to call for bringing things back to what they once were. A few weeks before the election, Alexander Gauland, AfD’s co-founder, came out with a chilling statement. “If the French are rightly proud of their emperor and the Britons of Nelson and Churchill, we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars,” the 78-year-old said.

Frauke Petry, the chair of the AfD, wants to bring the word völkisch back into the German vernacular. Völkisch, derives from the German word volk, or folk in English. It is a nationalistic term closely associated with the Third Reich. It represents a unified German identity, a common denominator; German thought and ideas, bloodline, ethnicity and inherited characteristics.

“This is a way of undermining democracy, utilizing language to create a space for people who long for another period of time, who don’t want to adapt to a new world,” Cem said, his gaze rotating between my eyes and the cappuccino in front of him. “A common concept on the right seems to be that words don’t matter. But they do!” he continued, this time looking directly at me.

Germany is run under a coalition government, meaning several parties represent the leadership while one or two parties represent the opposition. For the past four years, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) worked in conjunction with the SDP, while the Left was the primary opposition party. After the election results came in and it was clear AfD had clinched third place, the Social Democrats announced they would no longer work in coalition with the CDU and would become the opposition. In doing so, SPD effectively prevented the AfD from becoming the primary opposition party in Parliament, but the far right’s presence in the building alone remains disconcerting.

Ironically, the largest portion of votes AfD received stemmed from areas of Germany with little to no foreigners. It was not contact with migrants and immigrants that spurred many people to vote for AfD, it was a lack of it. Walking through Berlin this week it struck me how there’s a beautiful flow of multiculturalism here — so many different people, cuisines, languages. It somehow works. This gives me hope.

Gordon Glasgow is a writer from New York, currently residing in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter at @SlavicDenim.

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Photo: A demonstrator with the German satirical party Die Partei holds up a fake AfD poster that reads “Ich Benutze Pariser” “(I use condoms”). Credit: Stephan Dinges. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the demonstrator in the above photograph as an AfD supporter.