In post-war Germany, the tiny Jewish community felt protected over many decades by the American military presence, a divided country, a stable democratic political system, and a general consensus to not repeat the sins of its recent history. The troops are gone, the country is reunited, and the political stability seemingly belongs to the past.
Then in this week’s elections, for the first time since the 1950s, an extreme right-wing party gained national recognition and enough votes to qualify for inclusion in the German parliament.
Is the triumph of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which received 12.6% of the votes, a call for German Jews to consider a safer future somewhere else? Will they regret the choice to have stayed in Germany just as many did after Hitler rose to power in 1933?
The Germany of 2017 is not 1933, and an exodus of Jews from Germany is neither predicted nor expected. While there are voices within the AfD that call for a more positive attitude towards the German past and for a reconsideration of Nazi crimes, its leaders stressed on the stump that they reject anti-Semitism and embrace Israel.
Indeed, there were even Jewish AfD candidates who ran for seats in the Bundestag. The former party chair Frauke Petry (who defected from the party only one day after the elections) called the AfD one of the few true defenders of Jewish life in Germany and supported the Israeli presence in “Judea and Samaria.” The message was clear: We are enemies of your enemies, the Muslims. Merkel’s opening of the country’s borders to one million refugees in 2015 gave these voices a legitimate platform: to protect Germany from a wave of the “foreign other” and to oppose opening its doors to refugees.
We hear this new pseudo pro-Jewish rhetoric among extreme right-wing parties all over Europe these days, from France’s Front National to Austria’s Freedom Party. They depict themselves as friends of Israel and as the only serious fighters against Islamist terrorism.
Fortunately, the official Jewish organizations did not fall for this political trap. They publicly condemned the AfD as what they are: right-wing populists who have exchanged anti-Semitism for Islamophobic racist stereotypes. They hear the voices of a past, that can never successfully disappear behind the dissembling language of “German values” and “German children.”
It was the German tradition of cleansing itself from its Nazi past that had kept out right-wing extremists from the Bundestag before 2017. In this sense, the new “European normalcy” has now reached Germany. In France and Italy, in Belgium and the Netherlands, in Austria and Switzerland, right-wing parties and politicians entered parliamentary positions earlier and had more impact than in Germany. In Poland and Hungary, they rose to political power and today influence the majority coalitions.
But the Germany of 2017 is a very different country than that of 1933 in yet another respect. Back then, Jews were the only substantial non-Christian minority. Today, there are 4.5 million Muslims in Germany. Even the Jewish population has very little in common with that of the 1930s or with that of the 1980s. Most of the Jews living in Germany today are fairly recent arrivals. In the last 25 years, the Jewish community has grown from 30,000 to around 200,000, primarily due to the influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and to tens of thousands of young Israelis who found a new home in affordable and cosmopolitan Berlin.
But even if Germany’s Jews wanted to leave the country, the question is where they would go. Israel is not the obvious answer, thanks to politics and the cost of living in urban areas. Other European countries do not offer a safe haven, either. The uncertainty of Brexit makes England unattractive. And gone are the days when the United States was praised as a beacon of political freedom and tolerance among German Jews. In fact, a closer look at the political agenda of the AfD reveals that the program of this right-wing fringe party does not deviate very much from that of Donald Trump.
The AfD is united by its anti-immigration policies, and if building a wall did not have such negative connotations in Berlin for historical reasons, the German right-wingers would also like to see a wall around Germany or Europe to exclude more refugees and to keep Germany German and Europe European. As with Trump, the AfD’s base is mainly composed of disaffected older voters and industrial workers in specific areas of the country who have been left out of the country’s prosperity, especially in the former East.
But in contrast to Trump, who received nearly 50% of American votes, the AfD earned less than 13%. And there is of course one more significant difference between the American and the German right, and this is the German Nazi past. As a result, the slogan “Make Germany Great Again” brings a wave of unease to many of us around the globe as it arouses very different associations than the Trumpian promise to “Make America Great Again.”
It will be the greatest challenge of Angela Merkel’s new coalition government to show its own citizens, Europe and the world that the real greatness of Germany remains its ability to learn the lessons from its past, and continue to work to defy anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia while remaining on the path of progress towards an open and tolerant society.
Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies at American University in Washington DC and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Michelle Engert is a Scholar-in Residence at American University in Justice, Law and Criminology and teaches American Cultural History at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.