The confrontation of Germany’s racist past was a beautiful ideal, but one that was never realised writes Jacinta Nandi
Skyping with my white mother and my white auntie.
“Are you okay?” My aunt says. “We heard about the neo-nazis marching again in Germany. Are you safe where you are?”
“Ach,” I say. “Whatever.”
“I thought Germany wasn’t that nazi anymore?” My mum says. “I’m really surprised about this, to be honest.”
“When was Germany ever not nazi?” I say back. “Remember that black British guy who got beaten up in Potsdam, paralysed from the neck down, wasn’t he?”
“I just thought they’d been denazified,” my mum says. “There were all those gold bricks everywhere, weren’t there? I was ever so impressed. It was one of the things that impressed me, about Germany. The recycling and the denazifaction!”
“Germany was never denazified, Mum,” I say. “There were always old Nazis in high places, there was never any acceptance of German Turks and German Arabs, the East has always been a no-go area for non-white people. And now the interior minister himself says he’d go on demos where people are doing the Heil Hitler sign and the head of domestic intelligence has been secretly giving insider info to the extreme right and is saying that people complaining about neo-nazi demos are spreading ‘fake news’! And they haven’t even fired him!”
“Oh dear!” My mum says.
“And the AfD are the second most popular party in the country now,” I add.
“We were going to come out and live with you if Brexit Britain went a bit too fascho for our liking,” says my auntie. “But now it looks like you’ll have to come back home anyway. If everywhere turns fascist, you might as well come home. We have nice tea here.”
There’s a lovely German word – well, there are a lot of lovely German words, actually, but one of the loveliest is “Lebenslüge.”. This means a life-lie, the lie your life is based on. And when you talk about an entire country’s Lebenslüge, what you really mean is their founding myth. So I suppose you could say that the American Lebenslüge is that silly fantasy they have about freedom, the British one is the idea that colonialism was a force for good, and the British Empire cute and quaint and something to get nostalgic about. And the German Lebenslüge, is, without a doubt, the idea that racism in Germany began and ended with the Holocaust.
When we speak about modern-day Germany there are kind of three separate countries we’re talking about. It’s a bit complicated. The old West Germany – the Federal Republic of Germany – and the old East Germany – the German Democratic Republic. And, then: the new, modern, reunited Germany – which was the old Federal Republic but with six new federal states attached.
Your average German is 100% convinced that modern-day Germany is no longer a racist country. Certainly not Nazi in anyway whatsoever. Denazification in the East and West was carried out differently. Denazification in the West was the job of Western Allied forces after World War Two. They tried to remove old Nazi party members from positions of power – but the truth is a lot of old Nazis ended up staying in their jobs. In comparison, in East Germany the Soviet denazification programme was implemented more thoroughly – yet a lot of emphasis was placed on Communists who’d been killed by the Nazis. And some commentators feel that by focusing on these Communist heroes, East German propaganda allowed ordinary East Germans to feel that they were, collectively, off the hook. There are many people living in Germany who’ll tell you that it’s East Germany, and not Germany as a whole, which has a problem with nazis. And some people point to the differences in history as a possible explanation for this.
But I can’t help thinking about a day out I had in a town in Brandenburg, a few years ago. It wasn’t that long ago – maybe six years now, but it seems like an age ago, a memory from the olden days: before Western society lurched to the right, back when people still, generally, considered Nazism and fascism bad. Before Pegida, those patriotic Europeans demonstrating against the islamification of Western society, every single Monday, every Monday night, without fail, in Dresden. Before Trump and his birth certificate crap. Before Brexit. My German friend Martin and I were spending the day in a small east German town, about an hour or so away from Berlin, and we had a few hours to kill, and, after a while, we started talking about history lessons in German schools.
“We learn too much about the Holocaust in school,” Martin said to me and I looked away from him and down at the ground. It was a one of those cold, sunny days and looking at the pavement was making my eyes hurt but I didn’t want to have too much eye contact during this conversation. German towns are clean in a way you can’t imagine, especially if you come from London. I think they might actually use detergent on the pavement. It was really shiny.
“Yeah?” I said, politely. “Really? I mean, can you really ever learn too much about the Holocaust, though? It’s a pretty big topic, isn’t it? There must be a lot to learn.”
“People go on about the Nazi stuff too much,” he said. “It’s irrelevant now. We should let history be history. Germany isn’t racist anymore.”
It suddenly hit me that this was the Lebenslüge of modern-day Germany, of West, East, and reunited Germany.
“Okay, the Holocaust was terrible, yes, but modern Germans have more than paid the price (plus all those reparations to Israel!). Modern Germany is a tolerant, multicultural society. There’s no racism here. There isn’t actually any antisemitism either – well, except for Arab antisemitism, that is. Germany is denazified. In fact, if anything, we probably do too much about the Holocaust in school….”
The thing is I don’t want to sound flippant. The thing I genuinely love about the country I’ve chosen to call home is that it really is one of the only countries in the world which has TRIED to confront its past. Germany’s TRIED. Denazification may have been a bit half-hearted and yet, I feel, that deep inside the German soul, there’s been an attempt to confront the past.
Now, I’m not saying this attempt has been successful – but the Germans have tried. THEY TRIED. Imagine if Britain actually tried! David Starkey’s head would implode. The Queen would have to kill herself. Or at least give a few stolen jewels back. One of the most beautiful things about Germany is that the country tried, collectively, to confront their racist past.
Confronting the racism in their country’s past was a beautiful ideal. But it was just that – an ideal that was never realised.
But the truth is: Germany has never not been racist.
Germany has always been a totally racist country. East, and West, both.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not trying to say anything like: “Germany focused too much on the Holocaust and didn’t think about other kinds of racism!” I think that’s a simplistic, antisemitic thing to say.
However, for a country so applauded on the international stage for having confronted the past, the ignorance shown towards the horrors of German colonialism is fairly appalling. Little is taught in schools about the Herero and Nama genocide, the first genocide of the 20th Century, in German South West Africa (now Namibia). And many street names in Germany still have racist connotations – like for example the Mohrenstraße, where my son used to go to nursery school. Many black Germans would like to see the name of this street (Mohr meaning moor) changed to something less offensive. A substantial majority of white Germans shrug off any suggestion of doing so as political correctness gone mad.
In the third Reich, the Nazis were obsessed with justifying their racism through scientific analysis and evidence. They believed Slavic people, non-white people, Roma and Sinti people, and of course, Jewish people, genetically inferior to Northern European whites. Modern liberal Germans obviously want to reject that kind of scientific racism which focuses on the biological differences between races. The German word for race, “Rasse” isn’t even used anymore in polite conversation – unless you’re talking about dogs. This is a good thing – yet it has made it hard to talk about race and racism in Germany. People often talk about “Ausländerfeindlichkeit” or xenophobia when talking about the racism that Jerome Boateng, a black German, has experienced in his footballing career. I feel like the focus on the scientific nature of Nazi racism made ordinary Germans indifferent to casual racism. Because the majority of migrants in Germany, especially working-class migrants, have been Muslim, casual racism (and islamophobia) has been tolerated and actually even approved of. Studies have proven over and over again that having a Muslim name makes you less likely to be chosen to go to grammar school, less likely to get a university degree, less likely to get a good job, and that it’s much harder to find a flat or a house. But because (until recently) nobody was claiming that Muslim migrants and their children were genetically inferior, the casual racism endemic in German society was generally ignored – even by those who should’ve known better.
The indifference towards everyday racism experienced by German-Turks and German-Arabs is shocking enough. The silence from the general public about the the NSU murders was deafening. The thing is, unless you’ve lived in this country, you’ll have no idea how much (white) Germans like to complain. They complain a lot. When a train is 2 minutes late, the entire platform unites in one long scornful sigh of disgust. But this series of racist murders perpetrated from 2000 to 2007, throughout Germany, killing ten innocent people and wounding one, were not met with any kind of public outrage. And more disturbingly, the fact that the police investigating these racist murders, assumed that because the victims were members of ethnic minority groups, the killings were the result of gang violence, and didn’t bother investigating properly, didn’t seem to disturb most white Germans either. Germany is a country which prides itself on not being corrupt in any way. Yet this example of corruption didn’t raise an eyelid! There have been no consequences for the police who failed – and no soul-searching on the part of the German public.
Germany is a country which has always been indifferent to racism at best and approving of it at worst. On a political level, but also on a personal level. White Germans do not care about racism on an individual level. And German politicians and intelligence staff have spent far, far more time and money investigating the extreme left than the extreme right. On the one hand, until recently, average Germans were ashamed about the Holocaust and every thing Nazi Germany stood for. And yet, on the other hand, German indifference to racism is so entrenched in German society and values, you could almost say it was part of its DNA.
We’re living in different times now, I guess. The world has changed since that cold sunny day in Brandenburg. There have been Pegida marches, Milo videos, white supremacists in the White House. Lynchings in America. Recently the German interior minister said he would’ve gone on a demonstration where many, many protestors were making the “Heil Hitler!” sign and calling “Ausländer raus!” Germans are flirting with fascism, but they aren’t the only ones. The whole world is flirting – the whole world is making out with fascism. Germany’s nothing special. But I think it’s important to remember, when you look at the racist demonstrations in Köthen and Chemnitz and wonder how this supposedly denazified country could’ve veered so dramatically to the right, that the truth is, the myth of German denazification was only ever that – a bit of a myth. Think about Rostock, 22nd – 26th of August, 1992, the refugee shelters burning to the ground. Think about the denazification which didn’t happen.
Jacinta Nandi is a writer and journalist who lives in Neukölln with her children. She’s written three books in German and has had articles and stories published in Jungle World, Neues Deutschland, Missy and taz. She blogs in English for the taz as Riotmama.
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