PRINT January 1993


Springtime for Hitler

A TELEVISION IMAGE from the reunified Germany of 1992–93: a long-haired, bearded man, beer can in hand, wearing a cowboy hat and a black leather jacket with fringes, repeats “They have to go, they have to go, they don’t have our German culture, they have to go.” In the background, a building burns; it is a dormitory for immigrants seeking asylum in Germany.

This image—the neo-Nazi cowboy, obviously impressed with “American” culture—was perhaps the most monstrous in the series of images that have been broadcast, with increasing frequency, from eastern Germany since the attack on the Rostock dormitory last August. Monstrous because easily readable; yet at the same time incomprehensible. On the one hand a disoriented, even idiot figure, who knows nothing but his nationality. On the other, the idea, disorienting for Germans on the left, that not even long hair and a leather jacket—the left-wing “uniform”—necessarily stand for an antiracist, multicultural politics.

Heiner Müller was the only distinguished writer of the old East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, who was critical of his government while still claiming a Marxist position—if one enriched by post-Modernist theory. He knew Michel Foucault, worked with Robert Wilson, and shared the sentiments of a Russian friend of ours who recently returned to the former Soviet Union after 15 years of exile: “There’s only one thing worse than socialism: capitalism.” Last year, Müller published his autobiography, Krieg ohne Schlacht: leben in Zwei Diktaturen (War without battle: life under two dictatorships), which explained eastern Germany to us in a new way—indeed, as if for the first time. Müller argues that the East German secret police, the Stasi, had mastered an intolerable discourse of blame. From athletes to avant-gardists, no one escaped the collective matrix of guilt. In the end, only one thing came out clean: the West. And when the Wall fell, the only thing left to the former citizens of the GDR was their German nationality.

One can’t really call the end of the GDR a revolution, but if 1989 in Germany and 1789 in France have anything in common, it is that, in both cases, three years after the fact, the “real” character of the “revolution” became visible: in the case at hand, it took the form of an emergence of a powerful right-wing radicalism, treated by those in power as the justifiable excess of a rightfully enraged people. Today, Germany’s mainstream parties are carrying on a so-called “debate” about asylum, prejudging the question by the way they frame it: are German immigration laws too liberal? (The ruling Christian Democrats think so, and want to fix them by changing the constitution.) In general, politicians pay lip service to right-wing radicalism and xenophobic violence. The biggest joke: on November 9 (the anniversary of the opening of the East/West border, but also of Kristallnacht), the president and other government officials demonstrated against discrimination—as though they weren’t in a position to do anything about it; as though they weren’t in power.

The asylum debate lends credence to the right-wing neo-Nazis, because it takes them seriously. It says that the problem is not the radicals but the foreigners, about whom the only question to be asked is whether they should be deported. Meanwhile the German police—so efficient, and so heavily armed, when they took on the leftist groups of the ’70s and ’80s—do nothing. Indeed, it is said that 15 percent of the force sympathizes with the radicals. The police beat up the leftist and independent demonstrators who try to protect the dormitories in the east, and charge them with the same offenses with which they charge the right-wing instigators of the violence.

It is against this background that the German left and the liberal cultural establishment, divided first by reunification and then by the Gulf War, are trying to reestablish themselves. Many of their old figureheads have waned in strength, like Günter Grass; some of the most important have died, such as Heinrich Böll, Joseph Beuys, and recently Willy Brandt and Petra Kelly. Thus weakened, they face a new consensus: that Germany has to learn how to act like a nation. It has to find itself—has to send troops on United Nations missions and to cooperate in actions like the Gulf War. Both right-wingers and former left-wingers camouflage this attitude under the mask of liberation: the idea that we must be allowed to say this again, do that again. It was in this mood that Austrian politician Jörg Haider recently praised the work programs of the Third Reich; that an East German Christian Democrat told Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of Germany’s Zentralratsvorsitzende der Juden in Deutschland, the central council of German Jews, that his country was Israel, not Germany; that a writer recently spoke on a talk show about a succession of German social politicians—Bismarck, Hitler, Adenauer. In the same mood, left-leaning liberal philosophers settle their scores with post-Structuralism in weeklies like Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, and recommend the pragmatic Jürgen Habermas over the “neomarxist Derrida.” And there is a coalition in the liberal mainstream that fights against intellectualism, Modernism, and post-Modernism, and they are for nation, plain language, and Stammtisch—community.

Multiculturalism has a completely different meaning here than in the USA, or even in England or France. The strategic casting of individual population segments in the role of “minority,” in order to heighten their cultural and political importance, is relatively unknown in Germany. The concept was brought into the national debate about ten years ago, by Heiner Geissler, then the general secretary of the Christian Democrats; but only a few cultural administrators, and mayors who wanted to give their cities some cosmopolitan flair, took it up. Now, an opposition to multiculturalism is being built by a bizarre coalition of left-wing humanists and right-wing German nationalists, who give the idea any meaning that suits them. Recently, skinheads warned a reporter on an east-German newspaper to give up her “multicultural” reporting, under threat of violence.

On television, the very popular African-American talk-show host Ron Williams—who currently wears a cap with an X logo—has admitted to being afraid, especially for his son, who has grown up in Germany. To American friends, Williams had always maintained that Germans were less racist than Americans. But the color blindness he enjoyed in Germany may have been based less on an absence of racist attitude than on a lack of opportunity to vent it. In fact, aggression against foreigners is strongly linked to skin color: preferred victims are exchange students from Mozambique or Angola (invited to East Germany by the old GDR regime), African-American soldiers, Gypsies, southern Europeans, and Vietnamese. Whites from northern Europe and North America are generally still safe.

The German love of African-American music has proven adaptable to the new racism. In the room of a young girl who had cheered on an attack on an asylum dormitory in Hoyerswerda, a television crew found posters of Michael Jackson and Prince. “The Germans always love their victims,” journalist Wolfgang Pohrt has written. Among the vigilantes in Rostock, some imitated New York b-boy outfits; many wore X caps. When ska singer Desmond Dekker plays in Germany, black Jamaicans perform on stage and right-wing skinheads dance in the audience. When neo-Nazis meet in bars, they sing blues songs with anti-Semitic lyrics.

That is German culture today.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a writer and an editor of SPEX, a German journal of music and culture. Jutta Koether is an artist and writer who lives in Cologne.