The good news from Germany is that there is no news. Unemployment soars but the extreme right remains feeble. Josef Joffe says the Weimar syndrome can now be buriedby Josef Joffe / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Punks have been protesting about some pictures at an exhibition? Elsewhere, this might stimulate optimistic commentary about the state of western culture. If the leather-jacketed kids are attending to highbrow exhibits, even in anger, then all is not lost.
But this is Germany, more precisely Munich, which has to live down its reputation as Hauptstadt der Bewegung (capital of the Nazi movement) in the 1920s. Also, the target of their ire was an exhibition entitled The Crimes of the Wehrmacht, and the punks, actually neo-Nazi skinheads, were not out to battle ideas. They had descended on Munich to intimidate all those who had come to look at a collection of photographs and texts trying to demolish the comfortable myth that the Wehrmacht had emerged from the second world war with clean hands.
German and above all foreign observers were quick to spot an ominous trend. After all, there were several thousand of these bald-headed boys and their paleo-Nazi elders, and they had been clearly emboldened by the rightwing rhetoric of Peter Gauweiler, a leading figure in the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian ruling party.
But neo-Nazi power plays in Germany always require a second look. The black-leather brigade were not locals; they had come to Munich from all over Germany. They are the counterpart of the self-styled “Autonome,” a free-floating reserve army of leftist storm troopers who travel all over Germany to wreak havoc-most recently, against the nuclear transports carrying spent fuel to its resting place. And also to beat up the skins trying to salvage the reputation of the Wehrmacht.
But both groups were outnumbered by the thousands of peaceful pro-exhibition marchers who also forced Gauweiler to retreat, complaining that the press had grievously misrepresented his criticisms of the exhibition.
Nor is this the end of the good news from Germany. While the Munich battles were raging, two extraordinary events unfolded in Frankfurt, 250 miles to the north in the Land of Hesse. In the local elections there, a certain Ignatz Bubis led the slate of the Free Democrats (FDP), and managed, against the odds, to carry his party back into the Rathaus. Even better, he polled two percentage points more than the party did statewide, where it scored only a paltry 4 per cent.
This two point difference in a Land election would not be very noteworthy if it were not for Bubis himself. He happens to be a survivor of the concentration camps, and his main job is to represent the German Jewish community as head of the central council of Jews. Some Jews in postwar Germany have amassed fortunes, some have trickled back into the universities which they had dominated in Germany’s “golden age,” circa 1880-1930. But none has proved as consummate a vote-getter as Bubis. An east European Jew as saviour of a German party? This is more significant than neo-Nazis strutting the streets of Munich.
But the Hesse elections produced yet another reassuring message. The vote for the Republikaner, Germany’s answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France and J?rg Haider’s Freedom party in Austria, fell from 8.3 per cent in 1993 to 6.6 per cent in this traditional stronghold.
Why is this so interesting? Because it is counter-intuitive. Germany now suffers a level of unemployment last seen in the Weimar Republic just before Hitler came to power. Almost 5m are out of work.
Consciously or not, we all believe in the “Weimar syndrome,” to wit: economic disaster breeds rightwing extremism. This iron law no longer seems to work. Over the past 25 years, Germany has gone from zero unemployment to over 12 per cent. And yet, the centre keeps holding. There is no rightwing party of consequence-in stark contrast to Austria and France where the extreme right has now gone past 20 per cent.
Why? The modern welfare state certainly helps. When you get two thirds of your last after-tax income in unemployment benefits, you do not feel the same urge as young German men did in the 1920s, who would join the SA for the sake of a shiny pair of jackboots and a set of freshly starched brown shirts.
When you can pop a video into your recorder at any time, you do not have to relieve your boredom by joining a crowd flocking to a Nazi rally. People, even unemployed people, can satisfy their wants individually. They do not need to look to F?hrers and collectives to help them escape from the emptiness of the soul and the pocketbook.
Germans of the Weimar Republic had to deal with everything at once: a lost war, national humiliation, hyper-inflation. Today’s Germans have only one problem-joblessness. Also, they can look back at 50 years of an exemplary democracy. And everybody, young or old, partakes of a collective memory where fascism looms as the greatest failure of German history.
The French do not have that memory, and that is why so many of them seem willing to sup with the devils of the National Front. The Austrians have not yet confronted their past in the rigorous manner of the Germans. And the extremism of J?rg Haider simply does not have to contend with the powerful cultural taboo which persists in Germany. All this has created a culture that is proving reassuringly deaf to the tunes of the pied pipers.