Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Germany learned how to deal with the far right. Time the rest of us did.

The xenophobic European Right, in attacking the European Union, often criticises the dominant role of Germany. Which is interesting, because one of Germany’s most striking characteristics is its political maturity. It’s often said that if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re condemned to repeating them; Germany made the most catastrophic of political errors when it let its extreme right into power, but it has learned the lesson, and is now perhaps the nation least likely to fall into that trap.

No wonder organisations like UKIP in Britain distrust Germany so profoundly.

Some years ago, I read a study based on an American academic’s doctoral thesis, The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria. The author, David Art, contrasted German attitudes towards its past with the behaviour of Austria, which likes to present itself as the Nazis’ first victims. Austrians were incorporated into the Third Reich by force when German troops came across the border, but no one’s fooled: the majority of the population greeted the invaders with cries of joy.

The Germans by contrast have gone through an intense period of introspection and examination of a repellent period of their history. There is a widespread consensus to regard it as shameful. The result? Where in Austria the rise of the extreme right “Freedom Party” seemed irresistible, culminating in its leader becoming deputy Chancellor, in Germany the corresponding party, the Republicans (REP), had only a flash in the pan: it enjoyed a brief rise, even winning a few seats in parliament, and then faded into obscurity again.

Why did it vanish so quickly? Because no one would give them the time of day. Specifically, the Conservative CDU decided have nothing to do with them. They adopted a policy of “marginalisation” (Ausgrenzung). David Art explains that it:

…prohibited personal contact with REP politicians, reliance on REP votes to pass legislation, and support for any REP candidate or proposal. This occurred at every political level. Party members in communal parliaments were instructed to vote against even the most mundane proposals of the REPs, such as installation of traffic lights, on principle. Members of the CDU and FDP [their Liberal allies] who violated the policy of Ausgrenzung were immediately kicked out of their parties.

The CDU in several parts of Germany also officially classified the REPs as threats to the Constitution, which brought them under observation by the Verfassungschutz, the “Constitution Protection” police.

What this meant is that supporters of the REPs were liable to police surveillance, while voters began to understand that no elected REP member, at local or national level, would ever be able to realise any concrete measure: no one would allow him into a coalition, even if that was the only way of securing power for themselves, or pass any proposal he put forward, even if they agreed with it. Quickly voters learned that lesson too, and stopped backing REP candidates. The party vanished into the obscurity it so richly deserved.

Which makes what happened at the weekend in Britain particularly instructive. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was twice asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, whether he would ever consider a coalition with UKIP. Twice he refused to rule it out.

Two Conservative politicians
But Cameron doesn't know how to resist the far right – while Merkel does
So it looks as though our Conservative party, unlike its sister party in Germany, has opted for the Austrian approach rather than the German one. Austria gave the extreme right the oxygen it needed to flourish, and that opened the road to nearly the highest office in the land. In Germany by contrast, they cold shouldered the corresponding toxic movement – and drove it back to where it belonged.

All this has become topical again because a new far right movement, similar to UKIP, has recently emerged in Germany. PEGIDA has much in common with UKIP, in its xenophobia and Islamophobia. But Angela Merkel has denounced them publicly, and today the Bild tabloid paper, usually similar to Britain’s Sun with its xeonophobic inclinations, publishes a call from fifty leading figures, including a former Social Democrat Chancellors and a former national football team captain, calling for opposition to PEGIDA and appealing for tolerance.

No wonder UKIP supporters dislike Germany so much. It has shown it won’t again fall prey to the far right, and is mobilising to make sure it doesn’t happen. In the UK, with an ambivalent Conservative Party, and a general environment that guiltily collaborates with xenophobia and Islamophobia, it sees an opportunity.

My own feeling? If the Germans can marginalise the far right and uphold tolerance, so can other nations. And we should. With no further delay.

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