Slouching Toward Berlin

Watching Germany grapple with its rough beast is sort of like cultural voyeurism — outsiders are weirdly fascinated even as Germans seem unsure of how to proceed.  Two recent articles in Spiegel offer powerful reminders that gawking, a paradoxical product of attraction and revulsion, can be unsettling.

The first, by Frank Hornig and Michael Sontheimer, discusses the first ever Hitler exhibition at the German History Museum in Berlin.  As one might imagine, the curators had to approach the subject delicately and spent six years working on the presentation.  Why such concern?  Hitler was more than a politician — he deftly combined cultural eschatology with salvation, deliberately employing religious techniques:

Typifying the entire exhibition is an essay by Ian Kershaw, the British biographer of Hitler, who describes Hitler supporters’ quasi-religious relationship to their messiah. “It’s a miracle of our times that you have found me,” the dictator declared to 140,000 excited supporters in Nuremberg in 1936, “that you have found me among so many millions! And that I have found you, that is Germany’s good fortune!”

Kershaw takes a sentence uttered by a Nazi state secretary — that every German should “work toward the Führer to fulfill his goals” — as a good explanation of the inner logic of the Nazi dictatorship and of the crimes committed by a population that sometimes acted on its own initiative.

The German History Museum exhibition includes evidence supporting this thesis. There is a tapestry, for example, embroidered by members of two women’s groups in the town of Rotenburg an der Fulda. It shows Hitler Youth, SA and League of German Girls formations arranged in the shape of a cross, marching toward a church. The embroiderers further embellished the work with the text of the Lord’s Prayer in half cross-stitch.

Here we have a splendid example of the ways in which nationalism amounts to what we might call civil religion.  In the case of National Socialism and much modern nationalism, it might be better to call it uncivil religion.

My German friends would be the first to say, and have often said, that is all in the past and the new generation has moved on.  Apparently not.  In the second article, by Ole Reissmann, a survey of 2,500 Germans reveals that far right attitudes are widespread and on the rise.  Jews, while still suspect, have taken second seat to Muslims:

For the first time, the pollsters asked whether the practice of Islam should be significantly restricted in Germany. A total of 58.4 percent of respondents said that it should be, even though such a restriction would violate Germany’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

What is particularly pertinent is that 55.5 percent of respondents who tended to otherwise reject right-wing extremist statements agreed with the statement on the practice of Islam. The study’s authors characterized this as a “modern racism,” which is based on cultural differences rather than on supposed genetic differences.

Some 17.2 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “Even today, Jews have too much influence.”

The survey covered a number of other topics which are indicative of what the researchers call a “unified right-wing world view” (Weltanschauung), and the results are disturbing.  Before Americans and others begin clucking with schadenfreude, it might be best to look in the mirror deeply.

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