BERLIN — The crowd of bundled-up Berliners gathered outside an old-style, traditional Altbau apartment house in Berlin’s quiet Friedenau neighborhood, taking shelter under umbrellas or hoods from occasional raindrops that fell from the slate-grey sky. At the center of the group of a few dozen, barely visible, an artist named Gunter Demnig knelt with a toolbox, hammering six brass plaques into two rows in a newly cleared space on the sidewalk. He arrived, worked and left silently, driving off in a red van filled with similar plaques.
The Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” commemorated the Fernbach family—Leo, Amalie, Ernst, Ruth, Anna and Hans—who lived here, and were murdered in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt during the Holocaust. More than 75,000 such plaques have been laid across Germany and elsewhere in Europe to commemorate victims of the Nazis’ systematic extermination of Jews during World War II.
An event in the neighborhood later that evening traced the fates of each of the six family members, with some descendants arriving from the United States to speak about the closure the Stolpersteine had given them. “I come away with a new sense of belonging,” Korie Fernbach told the crowd. “You have righted a wrong … and offered healing to them and their descendants.”
That same day, a Friday in early December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first official visit to the Auschwitz Memorial, site of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp in what is now southern Poland. Saying she was “deeply ashamed” of the crimes Germans committed there, Merkel steadfastly defended Germany’s Erinnerungskultur, or memory culture.
“We Germans owe it to the victims and we owe it to ourselves to keep alive the memory of the crimes committed, to identify the perpetrators and to commemorate the victims in a dignified manner,” she said. “This is not open to negotiation. It is an integral part and will forever be an integral part of our identity.”
But with mounting criticism of such conventional wisdom from the far right, Germans are increasingly debating how to balance their country’s collective responsibility for the past with a sense of national pride in the country’s achievements and culture.
That day felt like a perfect encapsulation of German Erinnerungskultur, both the big-picture rhetoric and small-scale actions that fuel it. Merkel’s comments at Auschwitz, the best-known symbol of the Holocaust, serve as a remarkably succinct description of memory culture here: Shame and responsibility, as well as a commitment to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for future generations, lie at the heart of modern German memory culture. And the Stolpersteine are another common manifestation: Germany is a country full of memorials and monuments, big and small, commemorating the victims of Nazi crimes.
Merkel’s words that day also sent an unsubtle message to those seeking to challenge the commonly accepted, institutionalized idea of Erinnerungskultur—chief among them politicians in the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s populist far-right party. If some party members were to have their way, no more Stolpersteine would be installed. Still others, rather than express a sense of shame over the horrors of the Nazi era, say Germans have punished themselves enough and should be proud of their army’s achievements in World War II.
Such historical revisionism is hardly isolated. Populist far-right parties across Europe, not just here in Germany, have consistently sought to shift or in some cases even rewrite national narratives to suit their political needs. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán uses the lingering trauma of the 1920 Trianon Treaty, in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, to fuel fears about outside influence on the country. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which emphasizes Poles’ suffering in WWII, passed a law to prevent even the merest suggestion of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes.
Those actions make rhetorical sense: Parties with inherently nationalist messages need to provide voters with positive, pride-inducing narratives that justify the kind of nativist policies they’re proposing. In other words, to advance “Germany First,” you need to have a voter base that believes in a concrete Germany and German identity that are worth protecting from external threats.
“The AfD wants to monopolize patriotism and link it or synchronize it with its exclusionary, ethnic nationalist, far-right agenda,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin, told me recently.
Given Germany’s dark past and its resulting memory culture, that is an especially complicated undertaking here. From its basic form of government to foreign policy, the country’s past affects much of its political system. (It is also a reason the country was long seen to be immune to the far right.)
When you ask many Germans if they’re proud of their country, they almost viscerally recoil from the question; waving the national flag or singing the anthem still give many people discomfort. Such sensibilities are vastly different than in America, where open patriotism is assumed and national symbols—our flag, the bald eagle, “The Star-Spangled Banner”—are freely promoted.
Perhaps that longstanding German unease with the concept of national pride explains why so few young Germans born in 1989 I recently met felt any strong association with “German” identity, even though most considered themselves proud Europeans.
“I have a European identity rather than a particularly German identity,” Natalie Uhlenbusch, a 30-year-old researcher in psychology who lives in Hamburg, told me. “I’m not nationally proud. That’s something I just don’t get at all.”
But not all Germans struggle with the concepts of patriotism and national pride: Many believe it’s time to shift Erinnerungskultur—or even do away with it entirely. Outright national pride has always been the purview of the right, and particularly of the extreme and far right, which is why the AfD picked it up so easily since its founding in 2013. Back in the early 2000s, the neo-Nazi NPD quite literally ran on the slogan Ich bin stolz, ein Deutscher zu sein (“I’m proud to be German”). In my two and a half years living in Germany, I’ve never seen more German flags than at AfD rallies or demonstrations of the grassroots, anti-Islam Pegida movement based in Dresden.
The embrace of national pride, and rejection of the shame associated with Erinnerungskultur, are central to some AfD politicians’ arguments about German history. Although the most famous of such comments—by the AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland and far-right “wing” leader Björn Höcke—have been quoted in the German and international press many times over, they bear repeating here.
Shortly before the 2017 federal elections, Gauland said Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” The country has already dealt with its past, he added: “People no longer need to reproach us with these 12 years,” he said, referring to the Nazis’ rule from 1933 to 1945. “They don’t relate to our identity nowadays.” The following year, he took that idea further, referring to those dozen years as a “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s thousand-year history.
Höcke, for his part, has called for a “180-degree turn” in the way the country deals with its past. He has defended Holocaust deniers (denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany) and criticized the presence of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, saying: “We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of our capital.”
Such comments have proved effective for galvanizing supporters eager for something to believe in. “Such a positive, new nativist German identity works, I believe, as a unifying frame,” Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna who focuses on far-right rhetoric, told me. “It certainly has a very distinctive persuasive function.”
As with many aspects of populist rhetoric, the AfD leaders who question German memory culture and promote patriotism are tapping into something many people feel, at least to a certain extent. How long Germany should atone for its Nazi past and in which ways has long been subject to debate among historians, philosophers and scholars of Erinnerungskultur. Most of those who witnessed the Holocaust and war have died; young people today are several generations removed from those events. And as Germany becomes increasingly diverse, more and more of its residents came here long after World War II. Should they be taught about history with the same emphasis on shame and responsibility?
Some 60 percent of Germans say they want to see an end to the institutionalized memory culture, a 2019 study by the international organization More in Common found; among the types of voters most likely to choose the AfD, that figure was significantly higher. Another survey released by the polling firm Forsa late last year found that just 42 percent of non-AfD voters wanted to end institutionalized memory culture, while 81 percent of AfD voters did.
Over my months speaking with AfD supporters and local-level politicians, that has been a recurring theme. “As soon as you say ‘I’m proud,’ that automatically means you’re a Nazi,” Rüdiger Büdde, a middle-aged AfD supporter, told me one August evening in the eastern border city of Görlitz after a party event. He was in town from Braunschweig, in Lower Saxony, to help volunteer for the party ahead of the Saxon elections.
“The way things are going, we’re on track to give up our own culture,” he continued. “We used to have this feeling of guilt out of certain periods of history, so we always made sure anyone who came here could develop freely. But now we can’t even do that ourselves in our own country.”
And Sebastian Wippel, the head of the AfD in Görlitz, segued into a defense of Höcke—and a subtle repetition of the same claims in Gauland’s “bird poop” comment—when I asked whether Höcke turned off some potential voters.
“We’ve reached the point where we need to connect with the positive sides of our history and not just reduce a nearly 1,000-year German history to the twelve years of the Third Reich,” he told me. “We obviously should never forget it, of course we should remember it sometimes—but I also don’t want it in my capital city in such a big form in such a central place.”
Not all AfD politicians agree with such rhetoric, to be sure: Georg Pazderski, leader of the AfD in Berlin, is the son of a Polish concentration camp survivor. As a result, he told me and a group of about 20 international journalists in Berlin last summer, the Holocaust and war were an “almost daily” part of his upbringing.
Of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, he said: “It’s absolutely correct that we have this here… It has to be because I think we have to remember what happened in the past so that things shouldn’t happen again in the future, very clearly.”
He told us he “cannot understand” why party colleagues like Höcke have criticized the monument and memory culture. “I’ve told them too, and they tried to explain why—but I didn’t accept it.” (Nevertheless, he remains in the same party that gives people like Gauland and Höcke positions of power.)
National pride and patriotism have been debated again and again in politics and society since the end of World War II. In the latter half of the 20th century, at least in West Germany, the closest thing to socially acceptable patriotism was Verfassungspatriotismus, or “constitutional patriotism”: The idea that one can be proud of the country’s foundational laws and the basic values on which the new postwar republic was founded. One could also be proud of Germany’s economic achievements. That sounds noble and nice in theory, but it’s a rather staid form of patriotism—not necessarily something that reaches people emotionally. (East Germany had a different history on this front, a topic I’ll explore in the coming months.)
When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, it felt like a turning point in the concept of patriotism: For the first time, countless German flags waved, and many felt they were finally allowed to be patriotic, at least when it comes to sports. (As a friend of mine in Berlin put it walking by an apartment with a German flag displayed on its balcony: “It used to be that if you saw a German flag, you knew a Nazi lived there. Now, it could be a Nazi or a soccer fan.”)
Perhaps that’s why other political parties have also felt it increasingly acceptable to exhibit more markers of patriotism, albeit subtle ones. During the 2017 election campaign, Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats began using a backdrop of red, gold and black, the colors of the flag. That color scheme continues to show up during CDU events and campaigns.
But perhaps more than anything recently, the AfD’s rise and explicit use of patriotism has advanced the issue by forcing other parties to respond: Much of the current debate about patriotism deals with rejecting the AfD’s description of it, contrasting a positively connotated “patriotism” with the AfD’s negatively connotated “nationalism.”
Merkel, for example, used a speech to the German parliament in late 2018 to implicitly reject the AfD’s claim on the word. Denouncing the party as “those who believe they can solve everything alone and need only think of themselves,” she said: “That is nationalism in its purest form. That’s not patriotism, because patriotism is when you combine German interests with others and accept win-win situations.”
Cem Özdemir, a co-leader of the Greens until 2018, has also been outspoken on those issues. In an impassioned response to the AfD on the parliament floor that year, he rejected hate and xenophobia, seeking to tie pride and patriotism to Germany’s memory culture, its diversity and immigrants.
“You despise everything for which this country is respected around the world. This includes, for example, our memory culture, which I as a citizen of this country am proud of,” he said. “This includes the diversity in this country, which I am just as proud of. This includes Bavaria, Schwabia, that also includes people whose ancestors came from Russia and people whose ancestors came from Anatolia, and they are today just as proud to be citizens of this country.”
The day before the ceremony for the Fernbach family in Friedenau, I attended another Stolperstein ceremony across town in the edgy Friedrichshain neighborhood. This one had been initiated by students at the Andreas Gymnasium, a local high school, for a young Jewish man who had attended the school in the 1930s. It was sunny and bitterly cold that morning; a few dozen students played outdoor games and huddled in hats and jackets to keep warm while awaiting Demnig’s silent arrival.
The students had read a book in class called Der Passfälscher, or “The Pass Forger,” the story of a young Berliner who falsified documents to help save countless Jews from terrible fates. It included a line about a young man named Siegbert Kasriel, who had attended the Andreas Gymnasium; he survived the early deportations in hiding, but was eventually murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. When the students realized a young Jewish Holocaust victim had attended their school—a young man who, in a different time, could have been their classmate—they decided to do the research and work toward getting a Stolperstein placed for him.
Kolja, 17, one of the students who helped get the Stolpersteine installed, told me it didn’t matter that Kasriel had lived so far in the past: The little brass plaques, he said, are a way of declaring their commitment to fight such injustices in the future. “When we install these Stolpersteine here near our school,” he said, “we can send a signal that this won’t happen at our school in the future, and that we condemn the past as it happened.”
I didn’t ask him if he’s proud to be German or proud of his country. In retrospect, I wish I had. But maybe, in the end, the students’ actions in themselves represent their own kind of national pride: The idea that Germany has confronted its past head-on and is committed to preventing such horrors from ever happening again; that its younger generation, far removed from the Nazi era, speaks out to categorically reject prejudice and hatred.
And a number of my friends who recoiled when asked about pride or patriotism—as I’ve mentioned—also paused to add that they are proud of specific things about their country: Its rich literary history, its decision to take in more than a million refugees, its memory culture. Those things may not be as simple and visceral in their appeal to patriotism as a sea of national flags, but they hint at the kind of country Germany may be becoming—and wants to be at a time of social, economic and political transformation.
“The response to [the AfD’s use of patriotism] cannot be just more constitutional patriotism,” Benner said. “We need to appropriate the symbols of the nation and we need to appropriate patriotism also for the center—for an open, inclusive patriotism, a patriotism that doesn’t mean looking down on others.”