Few words strike fear into the Jewish heart more than pogrom. Russian shorthand for the state-sponsored persecution of minorities, it comes second only to Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. It’s not a big jump to the Nazi genocide. One, at least historically, if not logically, precedes the other.
For Germans, the last week has been full of references to the word. So frequently has it been invoked in the press, and in casual conversation, in reference to the riots that have overtaken the eastern city of Chemnitz since Sunday, one would think it was the 1930s, when the best-remembered pogrom of the Nazi period, Kristallnacht, (also dubbed Pogromnacht) took place in 1933.
Transpiring on the eve of this year’s Jewish High Holidays, the violence, in which six thousand neo-Nazis have randomly attacked minorities in the German city, in response to the alleged murder of a German-Cuban man by an Iraqi and Syrian refugee, this country’s racist past could not have been more part of its present.
Throughout European history, Jews were often slaughtered by violent mobs, who suspected them of being responsible for any manner of crime. The fact that in their place, in today’s Germany, stand two Arab men, likely refugees who arrived in 2015, is not much different. In the fascist imaginary, Muslims and Jews are the same. They are both outsiders, whose values stand opposed to those of civilised Europe.
Making things even more old-fashioned was the fact that the extremists who took part in the violence were directly encouraged by a member of Germany’s leading opposition party. Markus Frohnmaier, of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, took to Twitter to demand collective punishment of foreigners, telling his party’s followers to take the law into their own hands:
Wenn der Staat die Bürger nicht mehr schützen kann, gehen die Menschen auf die Straße und schützen sich selber. Ganz einfach! Heute ist es Bürgerpflicht, die todbringendendie “Messermigration” zu stoppen!
Es hätte deinen Vater, Sohn oder Bruder treffen können!
— Markus Frohnmaier (@Frohnmaier_AfD) August 26, 2018
Germany’s BBC World Service-equivalent international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, translated the Tweet as follows:
‘”If the state is no longer able to protect its citizens, people go onto the street and protect themselves. It’s quite simple,” he said. “It’s a citizen’s duty today to stop death-dealing ‘knife migration.’ It could have been your father, son or brother.”‘
An immigrant himself (Frohnmaier was born in Romania), the Alternative für Deutschland MP, associated with the party’s populist Patriotic Platform, is well-known for his Islamophobia, backing the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) movement and calling for a ban on Muslims being allowed into the European Union. Encouraging Germans to lynch minorities is entirely in keeping with his politics.
But, Frohnmaier is also a member of the Bundestag now, having been elected in Baden-Württemberg in 2017. It’s one thing to be a party radical, testing the limits of the law rhetorically. It’s another to be a legislator, encouraging Germans to break it. Never mind the authority he carries as a representative of the state, and as the spokesperson for the party’s co-chair, Alice Weidel. Anything Frohnmaier says or does expresses the will of the AfD and, ultimately, Weidel.
Yet, in the aftermath of the Chemnitz pogrom, party leaders immediately sought to distance themselves from the violence, as though their own incitement had nothing to do with what happened, and that they had no responsibility for encouraging a breakdown of law and order. At the very least, Frohmaier should be charged with anti-constitutional behaviour, for inciting a race riot. Any perceived complicity by any other AfD officials should also be called closely examined, including that of his boss.
More than that, Germans must ask themselves, again and again, what is it about the country that inspires such violence and hatred. Certainly, the standard sociological arguments about racism stemming from inequality and uneven economic development of the eastern half of the state since reunification remain valid. But there is also something else going on here that isn’t just about money and scapegoating. That something, one might conjecture, might have to do with the kind of German society the DDR joined, and how it is organised.
Few would argue that Germany isn’t amongst the most institutionally respectable and healthy of liberal democracies. Everything, in a typically Weberian sense, is rationalised and accounted for. The EU member state is comparable to a well-oiled machine, in which everything has a purpose, and which for the most part, takes better care of its citizens than just about any other European country, with the exception of maybe Sweden, or Norway. Hence its appeal to migrants, from poorer parts of the European Union, and, of course, the Middle East.
But there is something often soulless about Germany, particularly its vast bureaucracy and the government’s deep reach into everyone’s lives. There is nothing wrong with that. But if it is not accompanied by a strong civic culture, a sense of life outside the economy and the state, Germans tend to feel oppressed and long for irrational freedoms which harken back to the country’s past. And yet at the same, they go crazy when that very same order is destablised by global events, like the 2015 refugee influx, or exposure to unfamiliar peoples and cultures.
In either case, the right-wing has a permanent reservoir of resentment to feed off of, which helped parent National Socialism in the first half of the last century. Clearly, de-Nazification is not the only process, at least historically, required to emancipate Germans from their own worst impulses. Chauvinism preceded the rise of Hitler and persists in its liberalism too.
That post-war Germany’s constitutional state is a massive improvement over everything that preceded it and plays host to a society that is increasingly diverse – over 20 per cent of the country is now of foreign origin – is almost beside the point. The other eighty per cent can’t be easily disconnected from the country’s history and responds violently to complexity.
That’s where the retrograde desire for authoritarianism in Chemnitz comes from. As long as Germany’s political echelon, with its unwavering commitment to neoliberal economic policies and European federalism chooses to ignore this, and treat tolerance and liberalism as though they are a given, the more pogroms will define the country’s future.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.