It is impossible to discuss German history without the term “National Socialism” coming into focus. Adolf Hitler defines Germany’s past just as much as fish and chips define British culture or as much as Donald Trump defines American politics. The narrative appears to be quite simple: Hitler was an evil fascist and a perpetrator of genocide, never quite able to establish his “Thousand-Year Reich”. He committed suicide in April of 1945 and Nazism was banished from Germany forever.
But nothing in history is ever that simple. This more digestible narrative stands at odds with the truth of Germany’s past – and its present. Nazism was never banished. It didn’t even so much as temporarily disappear. It has long since been a major problem in German politics and continues to shape the country today. No matter how much Germany, and the world, attempts to fix fascism to the past, there is no denying that the politics of the Third Reich have now been reshaped in accordance with the politics of the New Right.
There is one building in Germany that helps us to understand this contention between past and present more than anything else. The Reichstag, the country’s main parliamentary building in Berlin, is widely considered the epitome of German democracy. Germany has changed drastically over the past 150 years, and the Reichstag has changed with it. The building bore witness to the collapse of an imperial empire, the declaration of a new democracy, the division of a defeated nation and its euphoric reunification. Most importantly, the Reichstag symbolises the destruction of democracy under the Nazis.
On 27th February, 1933, a mere four weeks after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the Reichstag caught on fire. Little is still known about how the fire began and by whom. Regardless, the Nazis exploited the fire as a means of suspending parliament and its democratic functions. On 23rd March 1933, German politicians gave up their powers to a deceptive and ruthless Nazi dictatorship. The Reichstag remained practically unused until the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. It wasn’t just the Reichstag that burned in 1933, it was German democracy too.
Images from anti-coronavirus demonstrations in Berlin, held on Saturday, 29th August, suggest that Germany has not moved far beyond this moment in history. Approximately 38,000 people – a rough-and-ready mix of right-wing extremists, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists – marched through Berlin against coronavirus restrictions. The demonstration took a dangerous turn in early evening when hundreds of protestors broke away from the main event and progressed towards the steps of the Reichstag building. Many proudly flaunted nationalist placards and Imperial German flags, the Far Right’s alternative to the banned Nazi swastika. Many of the demonstrators claimed to belong to the Reichsbürger movement – “Citizens of the Reich” who reject the legality of the Federal Republic of Germany and glorify the country’s imperial past. The announcement of one of the group’s spokeswomen, who claimed that Donald Trump was in the building, encouraged far-right supporters to break through a police cordon and climb the steps of the Reichstag.
And here we arrive back in 1933, at the crossroads between past and present. For the second time in the building’s history, far-right forces have attempted to invade the Reichstag and threaten German democracy. The demonstrators were not as successful as the man who managed it in 1933, stopped by police officers at the building’s entrance. But, if Saturday has taught us anything, it’s that history can repeat itself. The building no longer stands as a symbol of German democracy; it now, too, stands as a symbol of the progress made by the Far Right in attempting to overthrow that democracy.
Germany urgently needs to recognise the damage that has been done. What happened on Saturday manifests itself in the delusional and far-fetched dreams of right-wing extremists. If the Reichstag represents the politics of today – the modern Germany that the Far Right has come to loathe – then the destruction of the building also means the overthrow of this political system. So, whilst failing to storm into the building itself, the images that remain, in the words of Berlin’s interior minister Andreas Geisel, “have a powerful effect” and may even inspire more radical action. Images of patriotic Germans flying the imperial flag in front of the Reichstag have already been circulating through far-right chat rooms.
Recent events in Germany have already proven that history can repeat itself, and that radical action has a spiraling effect. Only two years ago, major protests in the German city of Chemnitz proved essential in spurring on the Far Right to assassinate pro-immigration mayor Walter Lübcke. It is clear, then, that radicalism is never represented through isolated events. The foundations of radicalism rely upon proliferated action. The attempted storming of the Reichstag will not be an isolated event. We are in limbo here, living in the aftermath of a major event and preparing for the next one. However, this can be avoided if more is done to stunt the progress of the Far Right.
The role of German authorities should not be understated here. It is already believed that Berlin authorities underplayed the role of the Far-Right prior to the demonstrations; this includes the influence of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Moreover, President of the Berlin police, Barbara Solwik, responded to Saturday’s events by promising that security barriers and police presence in front of the building would be strengthened in the future. But we are not simply dealing with security barriers and increased police presence. We are dealing with ideology, and a few more police officers guarding the building’s entrance are not going to change the deep-seated beliefs that define the Far Right. German politicians need to ensure that their verbal condemnation of the Far Right is followed by appropriate action. German citizens need to recognise the pervasive nature of right-wing ideas and actively resist them. The world needs to understand that history is bound to repeat itself.
There is another part of the Reichstag’s history that few are aware of. In the summer of 1995, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the entire building in silver fabric, following preliminary work for the building’s renovation plans. The event was supposed to symbolise the renewal of Germany’s capital after years of dictatorship, division, and communist control. Germans understood this moment as the shedding of the building’s old skin and the beginning of a new chapter. Perhaps this is exactly what we need to do. We must embrace a new chapter in German history, one where right-wing extremism is nowhere to be found. One where Germans can proudly talk about their success in defeating the Far Right.
We are currently writing this chapter. It is up to us to determine how it ends.
Words by Katie McCarthy
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