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The Politic Blog

“Our Country, Our Home:” Alternative for Germany and The Politics of National Guilt

A poster for Alternative for Germany (AfD) held by a marcher in the street reads Unsere Land, Unsere Heimat.” “Our Country, Our Home.”

Significant throughout German history, heimat describes a person’s relationship to his or her homeland and local community. Before World War II, heimat carried different meanings in different provinces and towns. Cities had heimat museums that displayed the notion of home for that specific place.

During the rise of National Socialism, heimat shifted from having a local emphasis

to defining citizens’ national identity. The Nazis used heimat as a symbol of their ideal German to create the concept of the “other.”

Germany’s populist party, Alternative für Deutschland, has used heimat in their appeals to voters. This year, the party received 12.6 percent of the votes in the September 24 election. Now that it has passed the five percent threshold needed to secure a place in government, the AfD is the third-largest party in the German parliament. The AfD’s use of heimat carries a strong resemblance to the nationalist tone of pre-WWII politics in Germany.

Since the election, the German people have grappled with how to confront the results, which have left the other 87 percent of voters alarmed.

But who comprises AfD’s 13 percent vote share?

The AfD runs on a platform that is strongly nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-Islamic. Initially, the party gained momentum through opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the Eurozone crisis. Since then, much of its xenophobic rhetoric has revolved around the global refugee crisis.

“I think it’s really a response to a sort of disillusionment with German political options,” Yale history professor Jennifer Allen said of the AfD in an interview with The Politic.

AfD supporters are not a homogenous group. While many have long supported the party’s far-right politics, 1.2 million previous non-voters also backed the AfD this election. What’s more, the party won the support of some leftist voters.

Many of the AfD’s supporters were protest voters, who expressed their dissatisfaction with the current government and a lack of political options. Polls from German television reveal that approximately 60 percent of AfD voters “voted ‘against all other parties.’”

“This has been a common phenomenon over the course of the postwar period,” Allen said. “The other part of the constellation is a frustration with Merkel’s handling with both the Euro crisis and the refugee crisis.”

Although exit polls and interviews show that protest votes and hesitant support contributed to AfD’s strong showing, far-right ideology also motivated some voters.

“There have always been hard right movements and far-left movements that are highly ideological,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, a political scientist and expert in German and European policy, explained in an interview with The Politic.“Other voters had defected from other parties, mainly the CDU [Christian Democratic Union].”

“It has nothing to do with economics,” Stelzenmüller said. “What people are more worried about specifically is the refugee crisis [and] a loss of control.”

The refugee crisis has had a significant impact in Germany. According to the BBC, Germany received 476,000 applications for asylum in 2015, and according to Politico, the crisis cost Germany 20 billion euros in 2016.

While the strong anti-immigration sentiment and nationalism coincide with a general rise in populism in the Western world, the AfD has used a narrative of national pride to directly question Germany’s relationship with its history. German identity is heavily intertwined with the memory of the Holocaust, and the AfD argues that this historical guilt is harmful.

“The AfD has spoke[n] pretty openly about their opposition to making shame a sort of literal and metaphorical core of Germanness,” Allen said.

The party’s desire to reclaim nationalism after decades of post-war guilt has left other Germans uncomfortable about national pride. As a German citizen told Deutsche Welle, I’m afraid that as the discourse in society moves further to the right, that racist and xenophobic positions could become more socially acceptable and more popular.”

Most party members acknowledge the existence of the Holocaust but advocate for a reduction in the German emphasis on shame. Some party leaders go farther, however, and minimize the harms done during the Holocaust.

In addition to ongoing dialogue about national consciousness, the monuments and memorials dotting the landscape have ensured a constant reflection and remembrance of victims and their suffering.

For example, artist Gunter Demnig began his notable monument Stolperstein, or Stumbling Stones, in 1992. The small concrete stones he made bear the name, birthday, and date of death of individual Nazi victims. Each stone is laid in front of the last home the victim lived in before they were killed. Approximately 60,000 stones spread across 1,200 cities were laid by the end of last year.

With Holocaust education, emotional remembrance, and physical reminders, German guilt plays a central part in how citizens view themselves and their history.

“The consciousness of national disgrace is inescapable for every German,” argued political philosopher Karl Jaspers in his book The Question of German Guilt. While Jasper’s claim was made shortly following the war, this collective phenomenon has transcended the passage of time.

“[The AfD] already [has] a strong impact on the debate of what it means to be German,”  Julian Göppfarth, a PhD candidate at the European Institute, told The Politic. “It’s a very ethnic understanding of German nationhood.”

The AfD’s rhetoric about Germany’s self image sparks the question of how to reconcile nationalism with a history of shame. AfD’s answer is to embrace aggressive nationalism and return to a “Germany first” ideology.

Göppfarth describes this movement as an effort to give a new meaning to the name of Heimat.”

The party advocates for a strong German identity, and employs divisive tactics to achieve its goals. AfD, like many far-right populist parties, uses national pride as a means of “othering” various different groups. This surge in xenophobia is in response to an influx of refugees and immigrants.

The AfD’s reclaiming of heimat, then, hinges on prioritizing Germanness and German pride through the simultaneous creation and suppression of the “other.” This interpretation is noteworthy in its departure from the original meaning of Heimat, which described an individual’s attachment to their local culture and identity.

In today’s integrated Europe, a closed-off and bordered “Germanness” is increasingly harder to locate and grasp.

 “There’s a sense that Germany is getting lost either to Europe or to something global, that an investment in the national is sort of withering away,” Allen said.

The question remains whether AfD’s ascension to power is symbolic of an increase in radical right-wing thought in Germany. Now that the parliament is in session, coalition building will determine the extent of AfD’s impact.

“They say what has to happen in Germany is that we have to move away from this focus on this negative aspect of German history,” Göppfarth said of AfD’s arguments regarding Holocaust memory.

Today, as World War II becomes increasingly distant, Germans must grapple with their national identity. With new influence in the Bundestag, the AfD has the opportunity to make its case.