Germans thought they were immune to nationalism after confronting their Nazi past. They were wrong

Germans Reckon with Resurgence of Nationalism Despite Confronting Nazi History

In Berlin, Sabine Thonke felt a spark of hope for the first time in years as she participated in a demonstration against the far-right party in Germany. This marked her first active stand in years against the extremists gaining influence in her nation. Thonke, at 59, had been closely monitoring the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party with growing concern. The party’s plan to deport millions triggered her to take action. She couldn’t believe such harsh ideas were gaining traction in Germany again, considering the country’s dark history.

Many in Germany thought their nation had become resistant to nationalism and racial superiority claims, thanks to education and laws against persecution. This belief stemmed from the country’s efforts to confront its Nazi past. However, this was a mistaken belief. Current polls suggest that if elections were held today, the AfD would emerge as the second-largest party. This support is notably strong in the less prosperous, formerly communist eastern states of Germany.

After the fall of communism in 1989 and the subsequent unification of East and West Germany, many in the eastern states felt lost in the new capitalist system, losing not only their jobs but their sense of identity. The AfD has capitalized on this discontent, fueled by anger over inflation and, notably, rising immigration. With Germany receiving a significant number of asylum requests, the issue of immigration has become a focal point for the AfD’s campaign.

Across Europe, a trend is emerging where voters are empowering far-right nationalist parties that promise to curb immigration and, in some cases, limit democratic freedoms. This rise of nationalism is not confined to Germany but is seen in countries like France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria.

The lessons from World War II, where West Germans were educated on the horrors of the Nazi regime, contrast with the East’s portrayal of themselves as victims of Nazism. Thonke, who grew up in Bavaria, West Germany, recalls learning about Adolf Hitler’s regime and the Holocaust in school, a stark contrast to the education in the East.

Today, the far right is employing tactics that exploit people’s fears to gain their trust and votes. Thonke notes the widespread crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the migration crisis, have left many feeling vulnerable. She emphasizes that the solutions proposed by the AfD will not address these issues.

The AfD’s popularity is particularly strong among men and younger voters, with the party leveraging social media to reach out to the youth. Meanwhile, the party often shuns mainstream media, perceiving it as overly critical. The frustration with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, perceived as dysfunctional, has also played into the AfD’s hands.

The AfD’s Thuringia branch, known for its radical views, has been under surveillance as a right-wing extremist group. Its leader, Bjoern Hoecke, has made controversial statements about Germany’s Nazi past, further stirring alarm.

Amidst this backdrop, a wave of protests against the far right has swept across Germany, triggered by a report of right-wing extremists meeting to discuss the deportation of immigrants. These protests have drawn millions, signaling a strong public stand against the far right.

As the AfD sets its sights on the European Parliament elections, the challenge for Thonke and fellow protesters is not just to demonstrate but to ensure a high voter turnout to counter the far-right’s influence.