Demons of Present and Past

Throughout the past three weeks, Germany has experienced a wave of right-wing riots in several cities. Marie Wachinger and Andrea Römmele explore the historical roots of these and analyse the political crisis that has followed.

Coming to Terms with the Past?

Germany is frequently named as an example of a country that has successfully dealt with its own past. The public reckoning with the Nazi era is visible throughout the country, in memorial sites, museums, concentration camp visitor centres, and the so-called stumbling stones in most major German cities, which commemorate people who were prosecuted during the Shoah.

The German language uses the term Aufarbeitung to describe the process of dealing with the past and coming to terms with it, which literally translates as “working up” the past. “Working” is an apt term for a project whose importance and difficulty cannot be underestimated. Despite the denazification programmes, it was decades after the second world war before former Nazi officials no longer held important offices in the country, and, shockingly, Germany’s violent colonial history, which laid the basis for Nazi ideology, has only recently received more public attention.

Right-wing extremism has also been smouldering under the surface in Germany for many years, especially in less economically prosperous regions such as some of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) states, and has recently become more overt. The large influx of refugees since 2015 has challenged a country in which many people feel like they are not receiving their fair share of the pie, although the economy is thriving. Some also argue that citizens of the former GDR states are particularly prone to xenophobic ideologies because of their socialisation in a virtually closed society. Last year’s elections saw the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party more right-wing than Angela Merkel’s CDU, enter the Bundestag for the first time, and recent polls in some states show the AfD as equal to the Social Democrats in strength.

Germany—like many other countries—is struggling to cope with the new challenges to power that are coming from the right. In this context, the events of the last few weeks are yet another peak in an already emotionally charged situation. However, it looks as if the governing coalition of Merkel and the Social Democrats is experiencing a significant crisis as a result. But what exactly has happened?

New Outbreaks of Extremist Ideologies

At the end of August, racist riots with thousands of demonstrators occurred in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, followed by smaller (but also openly xenophobic) manifestations in the towns of Köthen and Halle. They followed the deaths of two German citizens, allegedly killed by asylum seekers. Shocking videos of violent mobs hunting for “foreign-looking” people in the streets appeared on the internet and protesters were filmed doing the Nazi salute (a criminal offence in Germany). The police appeared understaffed and unable to control the situation and protect counter-protesters. Apart from the violent neo-Nazis, many ordinary citizens were among the protesters. Counter protests and a large anti-racism rock concert followed in the subsequent days, but the images remain.

While Angela Merkel (and politicians from most parties) strongly condemned the violent outbreaks and said that there was no justification for them, politicians from the AfD participated in the manifestations and defended the protesters.

The controversy moved to the centre of the political stage when Hans-Georg Maaßen, then head of Germany’s domestic security agency (BfV), doubted the footage, directly contradicting Merkel’s reaction and a police report that was published after his statement. Maaßen was backed by interior minister Horst Seehofer from Merkel’s sister party Christian Social Union, another direct affront to Merkel.

A Political Crisis

The violence shook the country and finally proved what the AfD polls have suggested for some time: that a significant proportion of the population is willing to accept violent behaviour in reaction to Merkel’s immigration policy. The xenophobic protests are no longer a phenomenon of a few individuals forming gangs. Instead, they have come to include segments of the ordinary German population. The AfD, in joining the protests and no longer distancing itself from right-wing movements like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (widely known as PEGIDA) is showing its real radical face.

But the real political crisis is happening in Berlin. After significant pressure from politicians of the coalition partner SPD (social democrats), Merkel, Seehofer, and SPD leader Andrea Nahles met and decided on 18 September that Maaßen would no longer be in his position as head of the BfV. Previously, politicians from SPD and the opposition parties had argued that the head of the security agency should remain politically neutral in public, which he had not in his controversial statements. His stance had also benefited the AfD and the protesters of Chemnitz who attributed him a martyr-like status.

However, Maaßen was not simply removed. He was promoted deputy head of the Seehofer-led Interior Ministry, a position which not only means a higher salary but also more political influence. The outrage among the opposition parties is considerable, because to some this step seems like a reward. Many accuse Merkel of not having been able to assert her power against Seehofer. The SPD is questioning the coalition with Merkel altogether.

What Is Next?

The next days will tell whether the decision to promote Maaßen can withstand the controversy. But the challenges for Germany in the next months and years are much more profound. The cleavages between the extreme right and the largely silent centre and left majority of the population will need to be bridged so that they do not further deepen. The project “Deutschland spricht” (Germany speaks) is a start: It aims to bring together people with very different political opinions to speak. After all, as long as there is dialogue, there is potential for productive conversation. But the roots of the rifts are profound and historical. This makes it difficult to tackle them.

Clearly, more Aufarbeitung is needed.


Marie Wachinger is a Dahrendorf Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.

Andrea Römmele is the Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group “Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere” and a Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance.

Photo by Groman123 via creative commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.