Tim­o­thy Garton Ash

Angst for Ger­many: The Truth about the AfD: Where It Comes from, Who Leads It, Where It Is Headed by Me­lanie Amann The End of Ger­many by Rolf Peter Sieferle

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -

Angst für Deutsch­land:

Die Wahrheit über die AfD: wo sie herkommt, wer sie führt, wohin sie steuert

[Angst for Ger­many:

The Truth about the AfD:

Where It Comes from, Who Leads It, Where It Is Headed] by Me­lanie Amann.

Mu­nich: Droe­mer, 317 pp.,

€16.99 (pa­per)

Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia

[The End of Ger­many] by Rolf Peter Sieferle.

Steigra: An­taios, 104 pp., €8.50

Tim­o­thy Garton Ash

“The rea­son we are in­un­dated by cul­tur­ally alien [kul­turfrem­den] peo­ples such as Arabs, Sinti and Roma etc. is the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of civil so­ci­ety as a pos­si­ble coun­ter­weight to the en­e­mies-of-the-con­sti­tu­tion by whom we are ruled. These pigs are noth­ing other than pup­pets of the vic­tor pow­ers of the Sec­ond World War . . . . ” Thus be­gins a 2013 per­sonal e-mail from Alice Wei­del, who in this au­tumn’s piv­otal Ger­man elec­tion was one of two des­ig­nated “lead­ing can­di­dates” of the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (here­after AfD or the Al­ter­na­tive). The chief “pig” and “pup­pet” was, of course, An­gela Merkel. De­spite the pub­li­ca­tion of this leaked e-mail two weeks be­fore elec­tion day, adding to other widely pub­li­cized ev­i­dence of AfD lead­ers’ xeno­pho­bic, right-wing na­tion­al­ist views, one in eight Ger­man vot­ers gave the Al­ter­na­tive their sup­port. It is now the sec­ond-largest op­po­si­tion party in the Bun­destag, with ninety-two MPs. Xeno­pho­bic right-wing na­tion­al­ism—in Ger­many of all places? The very fact that ob­servers ex­press sur­prise in­di­cates how much Ger­many has changed since 1945. These days, we ex­pect more of Ger­many than of our­selves. For, seen from one point of view, this is just Ger­many par­tak­ing in the pop­ulist nor­mal­ity of our time, as man­i­fested in the Brexit vote in Bri­tain, Marine le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s blond beast­li­ness in the Nether­lands, the right-wing na­tion­al­ist-pop­ulist gov­ern­ment in Poland, and Trumpery in the US.

Like all con­tem­po­rary pop­ulisms, the Ger­man ver­sion ex­hibits both generic and spe­cific fea­tures. In com­mon with other pop­ulisms, it de­nounces the cur­rent elites (Al­teliten in AfD-speak) and es­tab­lished par­ties (Alt­parteien) while speak­ing in the name of the Volk,a word that, with its dou­ble mean­ing of peo­ple and ethno-cul­tur­ally de­fined na­tion, ac­tu­ally best cap­tures what Trump and Le Pen mean when they say “the peo­ple.” In Angst für Deutsch­land, her vividly re­ported book about the party, Me­lanie Amann, a jour­nal­ist at the weekly news mag­a­zine Der Spiegel, notes how some of its ac­tivists have ap­pro­pri­ated the slo­gan of the East Ger­man protests against Com­mu­nist rule in 1989: Wir sind das Volk—We are the peo­ple. Like other pop­ulists, Ger­many’s at­tack the main­stream me­dia (Lü­gen­presse, the “ly­ing press”) while mak­ing ef­fec­tive use of so­cial me­dia. On the eve of the elec­tion, the Al­ter­na­tive had some 362,000 Face­book fol­low­ers, com­pared with the So­cial Democrats’ 169,000 and just 154,000 for Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU).

Its crit­i­cism of glob­al­iza­tion is fa­mil­iar, as is its an­gry and self­con­grat­u­la­tory de­nun­ci­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Typ­i­cal of all Euro­pean pop­ulisms is a neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­ward the EU in gen­eral and the euro in par­tic­u­lar. The Al­ter­na­tive started life in 2013 as an anti-euro party. Although over­all Ger­man sup­port for the EU is still very strong, a poll con­ducted for the Ber­tels­mann foun­da­tion in the sum­mer of 2017 found that 50 per­cent of those re­spon­dents who iden­ti­fied them­selves as on the “right” (care­fully dis­tin­guished from the “cen­ter-right”) would vote for Ger­many to leave the EU, if Ger­mans were of­fered a Brex­it­style in-or-out ref­er­en­dum. This is a re­mark­able find­ing. Un­like Brexit, Ger­mexit would be the end of the Euro­pean Union.

Tire­somely fa­mil­iar to any ob­server of Trump, Brexit, or Wilders is the dem­a­gogic ap­peal to emo­tions while play­ing fast and loose with facts. In Amann’s ac­count, the pre­dom­i­nant emo­tion here is Angst. Her book cover picks out the AfD’s ini­tials in her ti­tle, Angst für Deutsch­land. She quotes the Angstin­dex of an in­sur­ance com­pany re­port­ing in mid-2016 that “never be­fore have ‘fears grown so dras­ti­cally within one year’”—the lead­ing fears now be­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks, po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism, and “ten­sions re­sult­ing from the ar­rival of for­eign­ers.”

The dra­matic in­flux of nearly 1.2 mil­lion refugees in 2015–2016 is the sin­gle most di­rect cause of the Al­ter­na­tive’s elec­toral suc­cess. Its lead­ers de­nounce Merkel for open­ing Ger­many’s fron­tiers in Septem­ber 2015 to the massed refugees then be­ing made thor­oughly un­wel­come in Vik­tor Or­bán’s xeno­pho­bic pop­ulist Hun­gary. Fol­low­ing last year’s Is­lamist ter­ror at­tack on a Christ­mas mar­ket in Ber­lin, in which twelve were killed, one AfD leader tweeted: “these are Merkel’s dead.” Be­sides the refugee in­flux, there are other fea­tures pe­cu­liar to Ger­man pop­ulism. For eight of the last twelve years, Ger­many has been gov­erned by a so-called Grand Coali­tion of Chris­tian Democrats—Merkel’s CDU in a love­less par­lia­men­tary mar­riage with the more con­ser­va­tive Bavar­ian Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU)—and So­cial Democrats. This has im­pelled dis­grun­tled vot­ers to­ward the smaller par­ties and the ex­tremes. The ef­fect has been re­in­forced by Merkel’s woolly cen­trist ver­sion of Mar­garet Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Al­ter­na­tive), per­fectly cap­tured in the Ger­man word al­ter­na­tiv­los (with­out al­ter­na­tives). It’s no ac­ci­dent that this protest party is called the Al­ter­na­tive.

The Al­ter­na­tive scores best in what we still loosely call East Ger­many, that is, the ter­ri­tory of the for­mer Ger­man Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic. There is a strik­ing in­verse cor­re­la­tion be­tween the num­ber of im­mi­grants (or peo­ple of mi­grant ori­gin) in an area and the pop­ulist vote: East Ger­many has the fewest im­mi­grants and the most AfD vot­ers. As one par­tic­i­pant in a demon­stra­tion or­ga­nized by the far right, xeno­pho­bic move­ment Pegida (the ini­tials stand for Pa­tri­otic Euro­peans Against the Is­lamiza­tion of the West) told a re­porter: “In Sax­ony to­day there are hardly any im­mi­grants, but there is a dan­ger of the Is­lamiza­tion of Ger­many in fifty or a hun­dred years.” An ur­gent mat­ter, then.

It would re­quire a longer es­say to ex­plore the col­lec­tive psy­chol­ogy of this East Ger­man vote, but its in­gre­di­ents cer­tainly in­clude the poi­sonous legacy of a so­ci­ety be­hind the Ber­lin Wall that was any­thing but open and mul­ti­cul­tural. There is also a re­sent­ful feel­ing among East Ger­mans that they have been treated as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens in united Ger­many: not given enough at­ten­tion, not paid due re­spect. When a street protest in a small town in Sax­ony was to­tally ig­nored by the vis­it­ing Chan­cel­lor Merkel, a pro­tester com­plained, “She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!” One can imag­ine a Trump voter say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar about Hil­lary Clin­ton. In ex­plain­ing the pop­ulist vote in many coun­tries, the in­equal­ity of at­ten­tion is at least as im­por­tant as eco­nomic in­equal­ity.

And then, to add in­sult to in­jury, these bloody for­eign­ers—Mus­lims to boot!—are wel­comed in Ger­many with open arms and “get ev­ery­thing for noth­ing.” As in other Euro­pean wel­fare states, the knowl­edge that “ev­ery­thing” in­cludes gen­er­ous wel­fare pro­vi­sions only sharp­ens the re­sent­ment.

Un­like in Bri­tain and Amer­ica, eco­nomic fac­tors play only a small part here. It’s not just that Ger­many as a whole is do­ing well eco­nom­i­cally. In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD vot­ers de­scribed their per­sonal eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the eco­nom­i­cally “left be­hind.” It gath­ers the dis­con­tented from ev­ery walk of life, but those who pre­dom­i­nate in its ranks are ed­u­cated, mid­dle-class men. A lead­ing CDU politi­cian told me that the an­gry protest let­ters he gets from de­fec­tors to the Al­ter­na­tive will typ­i­cally be from a doc­tor, busi­ness­man, lawyer, or pro­fes­sor. This strong pres­ence of the ed­u­cated up­per mid­dle class dis­tin­guishes Ger­man pop­ulism from many other pop­ulisms.

Among the lead­ers of the party, they are vis­i­bly rep­re­sented by its other des­ig­nated “lead­ing can­di­date,” Alexan­der Gauland, a sev­enty-six-year-old for­mer CDU func­tionary who al­most in­vari­ably wears a check-pat­terned tweedy jacket and dark green tie. He is one of those el­derly con­ser­va­tive gents who look so English that you know they must be Ger­man. Then there is Beatrix von Storch, a shrill and tire­some mi­nor aris­to­crat with ne­olib­eral, Hayekian in­tel­lec­tual pre­ten­sions. (Her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was Hitler’s fi­nance min­is­ter—but we are not re­spon­si­ble for our grand­fa­thers.) As for Alice Wei­del: this for­mer Gold­man Sachs and Al­lianz as­set man­ager, white, blonde, al­ways neatly turned out in busi­ness at­tire, lives just across the bor­der in Switzer­land, in a same-sex re­la­tion­ship with a Swiss film­maker of Sin­halese her­itage and two adopted sons. These are not the Ger­man equiv­a­lent of the Amer­i­can rust belt man­ual worker, or of what is known in Eng­land, with lib­eral con­de­scen­sion, as “white van man.” (The van is white as well as the man.)

“It’s the econ­omy, stupid” sim­ply does not ap­ply to Ger­many’s pop­ulist vot­ers. Rather, it’s the Kul­tur. (I say Kul­tur, rather than sim­ply cul­ture, be­cause the Ger­man word im­plies both cul­ture and ethno-cul­tural iden­tity, and has tra­di­tion­ally been coun­ter­posed to lib­eral, cos­mopoli­tan Zivil­i­sa­tion.) In a poll shown on Ger­man tele­vi­sion on elec­tion night, 95 per­cent of AfD vot­ers said they were very wor­ried that “we are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a loss of Ger­man cul­ture and lan­guage,” 94 per­cent that “our life in Ger­many will change too much,” and 92 per­cent that “the in­flu­ence of Is­lam in Ger­many will be­come too strong.” Feed­ing this pol­i­tics of cul­tural de­spair—to re­call a fa­mous phrase of the his­to­rian Fritz Stern—is a mi­lieu of writ­ers, me­dia, and books whose ar­gu­ments and vo­cab­u­lary

con­nect back to themes of an ear­lier Ger­man right-wing cul­ture in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. This is a new Ger­man right with dis­tinct echoes of the old.

Amann shows how a pub­lisher and ide­o­log­i­cal ac­tivist of the new right, Götz Ku­bitschek, played a sig­nif­i­cant be­hind-the-scenes part in the devel­op­ment of the party. She quotes a blog post from the very first weeks of the then pri­mar­ily anti-euro party’s ex­is­tence, in which Ku­bitschek de­scribes hos­til­ity to the euro as “the door-opener theme” after which “our themes (iden­tity, re­sis­tance, gen­der-, party- and ide­ol­o­gy­crit­i­cism) will come rum­bling through, so long as we quickly and con­sis­tently put our foot in the door.” And so it came to pass—thanks to the refugee cri­sis. Ku­bitschek was in­stru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing the party ca­reer of an East Ger­man history teacher called Björn Höcke, whose plan­gent rhetoric of cul­tural pes­simism and völkisch na­tion­al­ism would have been en­tirely at home in the 1920s—ex­cept that now the scape­goats are Mus­lims rather than Jews. Höcke told a gath­er­ing of the Al­ter­na­tive’s youth wing that, be­cause of Ger­many’s low birthrate and mass im­mi­gra­tion, “for the first time in a thou­sand years the question is posed of Fi­nis Ger­ma­niae [the end of Ger­many] .”

In­ter­est­ingly, Amann be­gins the party’s story not with the euro or the refugee cri­sis, but with a mag­a­zine in­ter­view given in 2009 by Thilo Sar­razin, then a di­rec­tor of the Bun­des­bank, and his sub­se­quent book, Ger­many Abol­ishes It­self. As I noted in these pages at the time, bien pen­sant Ger­man opin­ion lead­ers first ig­nored and then de­plored his sub-Spen­g­le­rian tract about the forth­com­ing Is­lamic swamp­ing of Ger­many—but it sold 1.2 mil­lion copies in less than nine months.1 In his cel­lar, Sar­razin keeps fold­ers stuffed with thou­sands of let­ters of sup­port: “I would like to ex­press my un­con­di­tional re­spect for your un­var­nished re­marks about the Turks.” “When shall we at last kick out those who nei­ther speak Ger­man nor want to, but only hold out their hands?” And “it’s ter­ri­ble that one can no longer tell the truth in Ger­many!”

Seven years later, in the run-up to this fall’s elec­tion, con­tro­versy erupted around an­other an­gry and angst-rid­den book. Like the Sar­razin af­fair, this lat­est storm is in­ter­est­ing not just for the ideas ex­pressed by the au­thor, but also for how demo­cratic Ger­many re­sponds to hate­ful echoes of its pre-1945 past.

A strange thing hap­pened on the af­ter­noon of July 20, 2017, the sev­enty-third an­niver­sary of the Ger­man re­sis­tance’s at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate Adolf Hitler. If you looked up the Spiegel non­fic­tion best-seller list on Ama­zon there was a hole in sixth place, be­tween Alexan­der von Hum­boldt and the In­ven­tion of Na­ture in fifth place and Pen­guin Bloom: The Lit­tle Bird That Saved Our Fam­ily at num­ber seven. Sub­se­quently, Pen­guin Bloom was silently lifted up to sixth place, num­ber eight be­came num­ber seven, and so on. The pre­vi­ous

1See my “Ger­mans, More or Less,” The New York Re­view, Fe­bru­ary 24, 2011. num­ber-six best seller, a book called Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia by Rolf Peter Sieferle, had sim­ply dis­ap­peared.

What was go­ing on? Had there been an em­bar­rass­ing mis­take in tab­u­lat­ing the book­shop sales that form the ba­sis of the Spiegel best-seller list? Not at all. Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia (a weirdly un­gram­mat­i­cal ver­sion of Fi­nis Ger­ma­niae) was sell­ing away. But the top ed­i­tors of Der Spiegel had de­cided that such a nasty piece of work should not ap­pear on their list. They were em­bar­rassed that it had shot to promi­nence be­cause one of their own jour­nal­ists, Jo­hannes Saltzwedel, had ear­lier placed it on a widely no­ticed list of rec­om­mended books car­ried by North Ger­man Ra­dio and the Süd­deutsche Zeitung, Ger­many’s lead­ing lib­eral daily. The con­tro­versy around that list seemed to have led peo­ple to buy Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia in larger num­bers.

Sieferle’s book was, ex­plained Spiegel deputy edi­tor Su­sanne Beyer, “rightwing ex­trem­ist, anti-Semitic, and his­tor­i­cally re­vi­sion­ist,” and since the news mag­a­zine sees it­self as a “medium of En­light­en­ment,” and the best-seller list­ing might be mis­taken for a rec­om­men­da­tion, they had re­moved it. So Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia was con­signed to an Or­wellian mem­ory hole, made an un­book. It was not a best seller. It had never been a best seller. Weil nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf—for what may not be, can­not be—as the poet Chris­tian Mor­gen­stern once put it. Pre­dictably, the ef­fect was the op­po­site of that in­tended. There was an­other storm of con­tro­versy around this bizarre de­ci­sion, and even more peo­ple bought the book. The pub­lisher was laugh­ing all the way to the bank— and to this au­tumn’s Frank­furt book fair, where he in­vited the AfD pocket Spen­gler Björn Höcke to speak at the An­taios pub­lish­ing house stand, thus gen­er­at­ing an­other round of in­dig­na­tion, protest, and even more pub­lic­ity. The pub­lisher was none other than that new-right string-puller Götz Ku­bitschek, who, from his base in a vil­lage in the East Ger­man state of Sax­ony An­halt, had played a sig­nif­i­cant part in the party’s völkisch turn. To cap it all, the book has a postscript by a friend of Sieferle’s that de­scribes the refugee cri­sis of 2015 as “in­ter­na­tion­ally long since planned, and... trig­gered by the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor in the man­ner of a putsch.”

So the whole new-right pack­ag­ing of Sieferle’s text stinks to high heaven. But why is the postscript writ­ten by a friend rather than the au­thor? Be­cause in the au­tumn of 2016 Sieferle com­mit­ted sui­cide, hang­ing him­self in the at­tic of his Hei­del­berg villa. He never sent Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia to a pub­lisher. That was done by his wife and friends, who found it on his com­puter, along with an­other book-length text, now pub­lished as Das Mi­gra­tionsprob­lem: Über die Un­vere­in­barkeit von Sozial­staat und Massenein­wan­derung (The Mi­gra­tion Prob­lem: On the In­com­pat­i­bil­ity of the Wel­fare State and Mass Im­mi­gra­tion). They in­ter­preted the fact that Sieferle had care­fully ti­died up the elec­tronic files as mean­ing he in­tended these texts for pub­li­ca­tion. But who knows? Per­haps he did not know him­self.

The story of Rolf Peter Sieferle is a sad one. Gen­er­a­tionally a ’68er, and briefly part of the 1968 stu­dent protest move­ment, he was a highly cul­tured loner and aca­demic odd­ball, with a fine, provoca­tive turn of phrase. He made a mod­est rep­u­ta­tion with a book called Der un­terirdis­che Wald (The Un­der­ground For­est), pub­lished in 1982, which de­scribed the modern world’s plundering of mil­len­nia of car­bon de­posits to make coal and oil. Its ti­tle rather bril­liantly blended the then-new West Ger­man Green con­cerns and the age-old Ger­man cul­tural fas­ci­na­tion with the for­est, the Wald. In 1994 he pro­duced Epochen­wech­sel: Die Deutschen an der Sch­welle zum 21. Jahrhun­dert (Turn of the Epochs: The Ger­mans on the Eve of the Twenty-First Cen­tury). This al­ready an­tic­i­pated some of the themes of Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia, in­clud­ing a provoca­tive cri­tique of the way in which Ger­many’s treat­ment of its Nazi past sup­pos­edly puts the sub­ject be­yond ra­tio­nal de­bate.

A year later came Die Kon­ser­va­tive Rev­o­lu­tion (The Con­ser­va­tive Rev­o­lu­tion), an ar­gu­ment built around bi­o­graph­i­cal sketches of five right-wing Ger­man thinkers of the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, in­clud­ing Oswald Spen­gler and Ernst Jünger. While Sieferle’s work at this time was still writ­ten in an aca­demic style (and con­tem­po­rary Ger­man aca­demic style is no laugh­ing mat­ter), one senses his aes­thetic fas­ci­na­tion with his sub­jects’ stormy, sweep­ing, no-holds-barred man­ner of writ­ing—one he would make his own in Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia twenty years later. All these books were pub­lished by re­spectable publishers, to mixed re­views. It is said that Sieferle was deeply hurt be­cause Epochen­wech­sel was not re­ceived as the ma­jor work he be­lieved it to be. Rather late in life he be­came a full pro­fes­sor, but he was rarely seen at con­fer­ences and never part of the aca­demic main­stream. By 2015, his cul­tural pes­simism seems to have deep­ened into a kind of ex­is­ten­tial de­spair, ex­ac­er­bated by se­ri­ous health prob­lems—re­port­edly he was suf­fer­ing from cancer and los­ing his sight.

After the con­tro­versy erupted this year, some of his friends ret­ro­spec­tively told a writer for the Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung (FAZ) that in the last years of his life Sieferle had be­come iso­lated and em­bit­tered. But his widow wrote an an­gry let­ter to the FAZ, re­ject­ing this ten­den­tially apolo­getic (“he was a sick man”) ex­pla­na­tion and in­sist­ing that al­ready in the 1990s, in Epochen­wech­sel, he had taken a “national con­ser­va­tive po­si­tion.” It seems plau­si­ble that both bi­o­graph­i­cal strands, the ide­o­log­i­cal and the per­sonal, com­bined to give Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia its bit­ter and bit­ing tone.

This is the back­ground against which we must read Sieferle’s book, a mere one hun­dred small-for­mat pages of loosely con­nected short es­says. In sound, they echo Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, and in fury, Ernst Jünger, who is the os­ten­si­ble sub­ject of one sec­tion. Sev­eral pas­sages are be­yond par­ody, like a Monty Python ver­sion of an early-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury cul­tural pes­simist walk­ing the streets of twenty-first-cen­tury Ger­many. There are “tragic” na­tions, he in­forms us, such as the Rus­sians, Jews, and Ger­mans, and “un­tragic” ones, above all the An­glo-Sax­ons. I must con­fess to laugh­ing out loud at his lament about “the sen­su­ally per­cep­ti­ble pres­ence of ni­hilis­tic rel­a­tiv­ity in ev­ery pedes­trian

zone.” Ni­et­zsche prowls amid the week­end shop­pers of Hei­del­berg.

Then there are the sec­tions about con­tem­po­rary Ger­many’s at­ti­tude to­ward its Nazi past, which ac­count for most of the con­tro­versy. Here Sieferle takes to an ex­treme his ar­gu­ment in Epochen­wech­sel that Ger­many has frozen its Nazi past, and Auschwitz, into a kind of ab­so­lute neg­a­tive myth, marked by rit­u­al­ized, in­creas­ingly empty ex­pres­sions of Betrof­fen­heit (only weakly trans­lat­able as a sense of in­tense per­sonal dis­may), and thereby sep­a­rated from ev­ery­thing else in con­tem­po­rary Ger­man life. “National So­cial­ism, more pre­cisely Auschwitz, has be­come the last myth of a thor­oughly ra­tio­nal­ized world,” he writes, in one of many de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive for­mu­la­tions. “A myth is a truth that is be­yond dis­cus­sion.” This puts the Jews be­yond crit­i­cism, and turns the Ger­man, or at least the “eter­nal Nazi,” into “the sec­u­lar­ized devil of an en­light­ened present.” (AfD ide­o­logues more crudely call this the Schuld­kult, the guilt cult.) Sieferle writes with a kind of wild determination to say ex­actly what he thinks, how­ever pub­licly un­ac­cept­able (and re­mem­ber, we don’t def­i­nitely know that he in­tended this for pub­li­ca­tion). He ar­gues that Ver­gan­gen­heits­be­wäl­ti­gung—the fa­mil­iar West Ger­man term for “over­com­ing” a dif­fi­cult past— has be­come a kind of state re­li­gion, in which the Ger­mans are for­ever the neg­a­tive cho­sen peo­ple and the Jews the pos­i­tive cho­sen peo­ple. “The first com­mand­ment reads: thou shalt have no other holo­caust be­sides me.” And again: “Adam Hitler is not tran­scended by any Jesus; and such a Jesus”—one in­vol­un­tar­ily won­ders: Does he mean him­self?—“would surely be rapidly cru­ci­fied. The guilt re­mains to­tal, is com­pen­sated by no di­vine mercy.” This is hys­ter­i­cal stuff.

Sieferle reaches far too of­ten for Ni­et­zsche-like pro­fun­dity and usu­ally misses the mark, trip­ping over his own rhetor­i­cal shoelaces into a pud­dle of ab­sur­dity. But oc­ca­sion­ally, when he pulls to­gether his life’s work on moder­nity, ecol­ogy, and Ger­man history, a gen­uinely thought-pro­vok­ing for­mu­la­tion emerges. Re­fer­ring to the “project of the modern,” he writes that “the history of the projects of the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­tury is, then, one of a to­tal fail­ure, which be­came ap­par­ent in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury: morally, from World War to Auschwitz, tech­no­log­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally, in the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis of the end of the cen­tury.” (Not, I think, the re­mark of an Auschwitz de­nier or rou­tine anti-Semite.) And again: “The twen­ti­eth cen­tury can be seen as a pe­riod of vast profli­gacy... prof­li­gate with ev­ery­thing: with nat­u­ral re­sources, but also with peo­ple, with ideas, with cul­tural re­serves.”

Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia raises in help­fully sharp form the question of how one should re­spond to such ideas, in a coun­try where one in eight vot­ers just chose a rightwing pop­ulist party, mo­ti­vated mainly by con­cerns about cul­ture and iden­tity. Der Spiegel’s ex­tra­or­di­nary va­por­iz­ing of Sieferle’s book from its best­seller list is an ex­treme ex­am­ple of an ap­proach char­ac­ter­is­tic of con­tem­po­rary Ger­many. If you go be­yond a cer­tain point in ex­press­ing what may be seen as right-wing ex­trem­ist or an­tiSemitic views, you are ban­ished from all re­spectable so­ci­ety, branded with a scar­let, or rather a brown, let­ter. Nazi in­signia, Holo­caust de­nial, and hate speech are banned by law (as Face­book is find­ing to its cost), but there is also this broader so­cial, cul­tural, and po­lit­i­cal en­force­ment of the taboo.

Now many would ar­gue that this has con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to the civ­i­lized, cen­trist qual­ity of Ger­man pol­i­tics and pub­lic de­bate—and they have a point. I find that many young Ger­mans sup­port this ap­proach whole­heart­edly. And would the rest of the world have been hap­pier if Ger­many did not have this taboo on any hint of a re­vival of the worst that modern hu­man­ity has pro­duced? Yet this whole ap­proach comes with a price, and the elec­toral suc­cess of the AfD shows that the price is go­ing up. Sieferle’s Fi­nis Ger­ma­nia is a late, slight prod­uct of a sad, dis­or­dered, but un­doubt­edly fine mind. Sim­ply to say “right-wing ex­trem­ist, anti-Semitic, his­tor­i­cally re­vi­sion­ist—there­fore get thee be­hind me Satan and off the best­seller list you come” is a woe­fully in­ad­e­quate re­sponse. In­deed, sub­ject­ing Sieferle to the taboo treat­ment ac­tu­ally sup­ports his con­tention that this re­ally is a taboo—that is, some­thing put be­yond the realm of ra­tio­nal de­bate.

For right-wing ide­o­logues, such bans are won­der­ful free pub­lic­ity, en­abling them to pose as mar­tyrs for free speech. Ku­bitschek, the pub­lisher, gloated that the row at the Frank­furt book fair was “hea­then fun.”

For the rank-and-file, it is yet more ev­i­dence that the lib­eral elites have so lit­tle time and re­spect for them that they “won’t look at us even with their asses.” Worse still: they won’t even let or­di­nary peo­ple say what they think. In a poll con­ducted in spring 2016 for the Free­dom In­dex of the John Stu­art Mill In­sti­tute in Hei­del­berg, only 57 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they felt that “one can freely ex­press one’s po­lit­i­cal opin­ion in Ger­many to­day.”2

2This fig­ure comes from an opin­ion poll by the highly re­spected Al­lens­bach In­sti­tute. It should be noted that the al­ter­na­tive of­fered was “Is it bet­ter to be cau­tious?”—to which 28 per­cent agreed, the rest an­swer­ing “with reser­va­tions” or “un­de­cided.” Quoted in Frei­heitsin­dex Deutsch­land 2016 des John Stu­art Mill In­sti­tuts für Frei­heits­forschung, edited by Ul­rike Ack­er­mann (Frank­furt: Hu­man­i­ties On­line, 2016). It’s there­fore en­cour­ag­ing to see a grow­ing num­ber of Ger­man in­tel­lec­tu­als ad­vo­cat­ing John Stu­art Mill’s own re­sponse. Take on these ar­gu­ments in free and open de­bate. Sub­ject them to vig­or­ous and rig­or­ous scru­tiny. Sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff. For as Mill fa­mously ar­gued, even a false ar­gu­ment can con­tain a sliver of truth, and the good sword of truth can only be kept sharp if con­stantly tested in open com­bat with false­hood. Other­wise the re­ceived opin­ion, even if it is cor­rect, will only be held “in the man­ner of a prej­u­dice.”

Sieferle’s two posthu­mously pub­lished texts, taken in the con­text of his life’s work, are em­i­nently sus­cep­ti­ble to the Mill treat­ment. While dis­miss­ing the hys­ter­i­cal, crypto-Ni­et­zschean hy­per­bole of his last treat­ment of the “state re­li­gion” of Ver­gan­gen­heits­be­wäl­ti­gung, we may yet take from it a use­ful chal­lenge. More than sev­enty years after the end of World War II, how does one pre­vent Ger­man lead­ers’ state­ments about the Nazi past from be­ing re­duced to empty rit­ual? How does one truly bring home those hor­rors to a gen­er­a­tion of Ger­mans who have known noth­ing of the kind? If the first com­mand­ment is not Sieferle’s bit­terly sar­cas­tic “thou shalt have no other holo­caust be­sides me,” then what is it? If the an­swer is, as I be­lieve it should be, “thou shalt do ev­ery­thing thou canst to pre­vent any new crimes against hu­man­ity,” then what fol­lows from that? It was on pre­cisely these grounds that the then for­eign min­is­ter Joschka Fis­cher elo­quently made the case for Ger­man mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 1999 NATO in­ter­ven­tion in Kosovo, when faced with a pos­si­ble Ser­bian geno­cide. And if you can’t pre­vent the crime against hu­man­ity, then don’t you at least have a spe­cial responsibility to take in some of its vic­tims? Refugees from Syria in 2015, for ex­am­ple. En­gag­ing in the bat­tle of ideas is, of course, only one part of the in­dis­pens­able fight against the new right and xeno­pho­bic na­tion­al­ist pop­ulism. A lot will de­pend on the over­all per­for­mance of the ex­pected new “Ja­maica” coali­tion gov­ern­ment—so-called for the col­ors of the four dis­parate par­ties (black for CDU and CSU, yel­low for Free Democrats, and green for Green) that will each make one leg of this im­prob­a­ble pan­tomime horse. Any more ter­ror­ist at­tacks per­pe­trated by vi­o­lent

Is­lamists will stoke the angst about im­mi­gra­tion and Is­lam. Show­ing that im­mi­gra­tion is now ac­tu­ally under control will be cru­cial. As im­por­tant will be the suc­cess or fail­ure of Ger­many’s at­tempts to in­te­grate into schools, civic life, and the work­place the more than one mil­lion im­mi­grants who have ar­rived in the last cou­ple of years. Can they be­come what the schol­ars Her­fried and Ma­rina Mün­kler call “The New Ger­mans”?3 The pol­i­tics are such that the CSU cer­tainly, and the CDU sooner or later, will move to the right on issues of im­mi­gra­tion

3Her­fried and Ma­rina Mün­kler, Die neuen Deutschen: Ein Land vor seiner Zukunft (Ber­lin: Rowohlt, 2016). and iden­tity, to try to win back the pop­ulist vote—as cen­ter-right lead­ers have done in neigh­bor­ing Aus­tria and the Nether­lands. Even the cen­trist Merkel’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Thomas de Maiz­ière, wrote ear­lier this year in the mass cir­cu­la­tion Bild-Zeitung that “we are not Burqa”—a lu­di­crous sen­tence that may be trans­lated as “give us your votes rather than de­fect­ing to the Al­ter­na­tive.” But pre­cisely if you are mov­ing to the right, while at the same time try­ing to in­te­grate all those mainly Mus­lim im­mi­grants, it be­comes all the more im­por­tant to fight the bat­tle of ideas and draw a bright line be­tween pos­i­tive civic pa­tri­o­tism and xeno­pho­bic, new-right na­tion­al­ism. Here is the cul­tural strug­gle for Ger­many’s fu­ture.

Alexan­der Gauland, a leader of the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land; illustration by Wil­fried Kahrs from qpress.de, a Ger­man left-wing satir­i­cal blog run by Kahrs

The open­ing ses­sion of the new Bun­destag, Ber­lin, Oc­to­ber 24 , 2017. Alice Wei­del and Alexan­der Gauland (with hands raised) are seated in the first row of the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land sec­tion.

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