German pundits and politicians have a new favourite phrase: “Resist beginnings.” It comes from Ovid, who cautioned that “the remedy comes too late when the disease has gained strength by long delays.” But whereas Ovid was talking about the danger of love, Germans are warning against hate. More than probably anyone else, they’re anxious about rising far-right extremism, including neo-Nazism.
In the home of the original Nazism, it’s always hard to tell if people are being hysterical about the threat or naive in belittling it. An increase in hate speech, anti-Semitism and racist violence certainly appears to be a trend that spans the whole West, from Britain to New Zealand and the United States. But for obvious reasons, the same phenomenon resonates differently in Germany.
So it did when a killer recently tried to force his way into a German synagogue to wreak carnage (the congregants successfully blocked him from entering, but he murdered two others). Or when a right-wing sniper assassinated a pro-immigrant politician as he was sitting on his front porch.
AfD is anti-migrant and anti-elitist, but arguably no more so than other populist parties in Europe. Besides, the argument goes that many supporters only vote for the AfD to “protest” against Germany’s calcified establishment
That murder reminded Germans of the killing of Walther Rathenau, a Jewish liberal who was then Germany’s foreign minister, by right-wing terrorists in 1922. As today, there was an outpouring of grief and shock. But 11 years later, the Nazis took over. Hence the refrain: Resist beginnings.
Optimists argue that it’s precisely this heightened vigilance that makes Germany safer than other countries from the right-wing virus, like a body that’s had a disease and built up immunity. Pessimists counter that the body can’t be all that immune when a neo-Nazi group was able to methodically execute 10 people of foreign origin in the span of seven years.
The first question is how many people in Germany are in fact right-wing extremists. If official statistics are right, it’s time to panic. In December, the number shot up by a third, to 32,000. But that increase partly reflected new definitions. The government now includes some 8,000 members of two hard-core wings within the Alternative for Germany (or AfD), a political party that’s usually described as merely “populist” and is the largest opposition group in the national parliament.
Is this fair? Many of the AfD’s sympathisers and other observers bristle at the suggestion. Yes, the party is anti-migrant and anti-elitist, but arguably no more so than other populist parties in Europe. Besides, they argue, many of its supporters only vote for the AfD to “protest” against Germany’s calcified establishment.
Manfred Guellner of Forsa, a German polling institute, begs to differ. In a recent survey, he found that AfD supporters do tend to be xenophobic, anti-democratic, and apparently susceptible to anti-Semitism and a Fuhrer cult. In fact, their views seem analogous to those held by people who, in a poll from 1994, supported neo-Nazi parties. (The AfD was founded only in 2013.)
The next question is how many of those with far-right proclivities are ready to become violent. The government estimates a slight increase, to about 13,000. It certainly makes sense to treat this threat seriously.
An even more sensitive question is how many right-wing extremists are themselves part of the police or the security services. Officials assert that the overwhelming majority of law-enforcement personnel are reliable defenders of Germany’s postwar (and anti-Nazi) constitution. But they acknowledge that security careers sometimes attract people with authoritarian tendencies. They now promise to look more closely into their own ranks. To do that, and to pay more attention to right-wing (as opposed to other) extremists, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer will hire an additional 600 experts in different law-enforcement agencies.
The unanswerable question is, to stay with Ovid, whether the disease still is in the beginnings or has already gained strength. As in other countries, public discourse in Germany has certainly coarsened in recent years, and verbal violence is said to cause more of the physical sort. Several German politicians have received death threats, including Sawsan Chebli, a Social Democrat of Palestinian extraction, and Cem Oezdemir, a Green of Turkish descent.
Both have bravely vowed to press on in politics as before. They now need and deserve solidarity from all of us. One lesson from German history is that we must speak out now — or else, when they come for us, there’ll be no one left to speak out for us.
Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.