Reunification fuelled the neo-Nazi fire

By Liam Hoare, September 22, 2011
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Anti-fascist demonstrators at a neo-nazi rally in Dresden this year. More than ten thousand people gathered to counter the far-right event.

Anti-fascist demonstrators at a neo-nazi rally in Dresden this year. More than ten thousand people gathered to counter the far-right event.

Jamel represents the failings of German reunification writ large. A hamlet in the German Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, it is a neo-Nazi settlement where people Hitler salute in the street. And it is a town where people gather together around barbecues inscribed with the words "happy holocaust" in medieval blackletter script.

The reunification of Germany resulted in the loss of 2.5 million Eastern jobs in industry alone. Today, parts are still blighted by high unemployment, social isolation and the emergence of skinhead gangs that target foreign workers and asylum seekers as scapegoats for their socio-economic ills.

Nationally, the prominence of the far-right in German politics is often overstated. But in the east, the simmering undercurrent of neo-Nazism and unreconstructed communism amongst the disaffected suggests, amongst other things, a rejection of unified German identity and its historical discourse.

The division of Germany into two states created two distinct Holocaust discourses. In the West, following the initial failure of denazification, the school system and the media fostered a climate of remembrance and repentance, aided by moments such as Willy Brandt's Warschauer Kniefall and the broadcast of the TV series Holocaust.

In the East, official discourse shifted responsibility for the crimes of Nazism to the West. GDR national identity was constructed upon the doctrine of antifascism: the notion that Holocaust victims regardless of creed were "fighters against Hitler's fascism" and part of a wider resistance movement which encompassed all East Germans as good socialist citizens.

Public monuments reinforced this narrative. At Sachsenhausen, a stain-glass mural depicts a partisan in front of a red flag next to a prisoner holding a rifle. The central obelisk displays a Soviet soldier sheltering liberated, unidentifiable prisoners, who are neither passive nor suffering.

Any Jewish aspect to the Shoah was erased from history. The GDR refused either to recognise the state of Israel or pay reparations for the crimes of the Holocaust. East Germany, and by extension its citizenry, were alleviated of responsibility for the Final Solution.

The opening of the German-German border and subsequent voluntary annexation of East Germany into the Federal Republic set in motion a process of historical revisionism. West German Holocaust discourse superseded the now defunct socialistic notion of antifascist resistance.

The reordering of Holocaust memory was to be played out through new national monuments, designed with the explicit purpose of asserting 1945 as, so Habermas interprets it, a "fundamental breaking point in German history that ethically commits all Germans to never again present their history as continuous, uninterrupted and based on cultural heritage".

Whilst the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was successful in this regard, the attempt to create a single national site of remembrance at the Neue Wache in Berlin ended up perpetuating a conservative interpretation of the German past. Chancellor Kohl wished to adapt what had been during the GDR the "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism" into a cenotaph for the victims of war and tyranny. This implied equality of victimhood - between fallen soldier and Holocaust victim - led Jerzy Kanal, the chair of Berlin's main Jewish body, to boycott the memorial's consecration.

Overall, Tony Judt is correct to assert that Germany is "at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country's singular crime". But sustained support for the old left and the rise to prominence of neo-Nazism in the east suggests a failure to "come to terms with the past".

As for Jamel, it is an extreme case of the losers of German reunification responding to processes which challenged the very foundations of their identity. These eastern neo-Nazis are pushing back against a change in Holocaust discourse - a shift in tone from defiance to atonement.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer

Last updated: 12:34pm, September 22 2011