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The upsurge of racist attacks in Germany has got commentators and politicians worrying about a possible rerun of the violence that preceded the Nazi seizure of power. Rob Knight finds a hidden agenda behind the renewed debate about the Weimar era

Return to the Weimar Republic?

Suddenly everybody in Germany seems to be talking about the spectre of the Weimar Republic. The current situation has been widely compared to the violent last days of the government, founded in the town of Weimar in Thuringia, which was killed off by Hitler's ascent to power in 1933.

In November 1992, a few hundred egg-throwing anarchists disrupted a march against racist violence led by Germany's president Richard von Weizsäcker in Berlin. Speaking from behind a wall of riot police, von Weizsäcker compared the actions of the anarchists and the spate of racist attacks by right wingers to the street violence which characterised the latter days of the Weimar Republic. Weimar, he said, failed 'not because there were too many Nazis so early on, but because there were so few democrats for too long'.

The president's warnings echoed those of former chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). When an immigrant hostel was attacked last year at Rostock, Mecklenburg, Schmidt said that 'one can only compare what is going on with 1933'. After the racist murder of Turkish immigrants in November, the leader of Germany's Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, warned that 'if the democratic parties do not come to a consensus quickly, then Weimar is not far away'. Responding to the same attacks, chancellor Helmut Kohl felt obliged to insist defensively that 'there could be no comparison with Weimar'.

An obsession with the past has been a central feature of German politics for some time. Now, however, the historical debate has broadened out from the Hitler years themselves, to focus on the unstable Weimar era during which the Nazis rose to power.

The Weimar republic years (1919-33) coincided with a deep crisis in German society. Defeat in the First World War had destroyed the authority of the old order, symbolised in the abdication of the Kaiser. By 1923 there had been three serious attempts at working class revolution in Germany. They failed, and Weimar was left to stagger on as an example of capitalism at its most fragile.

The economic consequences of Germany's defeat were roaring inflation and economic depression, which further destabilised society. The crisis of Weimar prompted the growth of mass parties both on the left and the right; supporters of the pro-Stalin Communist Party and of Hitler's National Socialists clashed openly in the streets. Weimar finally fell after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 and set about stamping out all opposition.

Investigating an obsession with the past often sheds light on the concerns of the present. The current preoccupation of German politicians with Weimar is a case in point. The fearful talk of a possible return to the dark days of the twenties and thirties illustrates three connected aspects of German politics today.

First, the renewed debate about Weimar reflects the insecurity and incoherence of the German ruling elite. Second, it represents an attempt to deal with that problem of legitimacy by reinforcing the postwar consensus against 'extremism' in Germany. And third, the discussion of Weimar is part of a broader trend towards the rewriting of German history. Let's look at these in turn.

German political life is undergoing a major transformation. Reunification and the emergence of Germany as the leading power in Europe have sent a seismic shock through German society. The dramatic changes of the past few years have undermined apparently sacrosanct beliefs about many things: the constitution, asylum policies, the EC, foreign policy and the economy. The sense that things cannot go on in the old way is pervasive, but nobody seems sure what new direction Germany should take.

Today's political debates in Germany have a curiously fraught and negative character, which does not correspond to Germany's enhanced position in the world. Many commentators have blamed this general uncertainty on the weakness of the established politicians and parties, whose stock has fallen considerably. In recent elections, fringe groups, mainly from the right, have increased their support. It is this sense of a loss of authority within the ruling elite which has encouraged comparisons with Weimar.

Yet the problems facing Germany's rulers today are very different from those of the past. The Weimar governments were weakened by the legacy of defeat in the First World War and the impact of the interwar depression. The German authorities are now in an altogether more favourable position. German capitalism is the undisputed economic power in Europe, the linchpin of the EC and the emerging leader of a regional political bloc. It has no serious competitor in Europe and can look ahead with reasonable confidence to a long period of Continental hegemony.

So how can we account for the crisis of confidence in ruling circles, a crisis on such a scale that it has led to speculation about the return of Weimar-style turmoil? The key is to be found in the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the anti-communist ideology which had held (West) German society together since 1945.

After the Holocaust

After defeat in the Second World War, the German ruling classes were forced to dissociate themselves from their traditional beliefs of authoritarian conservatism and nationalism, because of the connection between these ideas and Nazism. After the partition of Germany and the onset of the Cold War, the German elite dressed itself in new colours, as a champion of democracy and enemy of Soviet tyranny. Anti-communism became the defining ideology of the postwar West German regime.

A system built upon anti- communism can work only as long as there is a credible communist threat. The end of the Soviet Union means that there isn't one. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the reunification of Germany have created the conditions for the assertion of German power in Europe. Yet, ironically, by removing the sting from anti-communist politics, these developments have also undermined the identity and authority of the German establishment at home.

The current trial of Erich Honecker and other old Stalinist leaders from the East bears eloquent testimony to the importance of anti-communism to the German authorities. The fact that the government has put sick octogenarians in the dock indicates its desperation to squeeze the last drops from the anti-communist consensus. It also shows that anti-communism is near to the end of the road.

Extremists v moderates

The end of anti-communism has created an ideological vacuum in Germany. In the absence of any clear idea of what to do in the future, the first instinct of politicians is to look to the past. There they have found another period of confusion and change in Germany, which seems to have some superficial similarities with the current crisis. By comparing the present situation to the dark days of Weimar, the German elite reveals its own sense of panic and insecurity.

At the same time, however, the spate of comparisons with Weimar also represents an attempt to manage some of the problems caused for the German authorities by the end of the Cold War. By emphasising the threat of Weimar-scale 'extremism' from both left and right, the authorities urge all 'moderate' Germans to support the government in its time of adversity.

Late last year the German press carried statistics released by the German secret service showing the number of acts of violence committed by left and right-wing activists. After the anarchist intervention in the Berlin demonstration, leading politicians attacked 'extremists' of both left and right for disrupting German society as they did during the Weimar period.

Under siege

The attempt to link together 'Red terror' and Nazism under the banner of extremism was a constant theme of German politics during the Cold War. The recent Weimar scare stories are a renewed bid to depict the authorities as besieged by extremists of left and right, to consolidate support for the parties of the German establishment, and to bolster the authority of the German state.

The race issue demonstrates how this process works. By posing as the moderate face of German politics, the Christian Democratic government of chancellor Kohl can demand support from anti-racists. Meanwhile it continues to pursue the very anti-immigrant policies which have created the racist climate in the first place. At the same time that the German government was deporting thousands of refugees, 350 000 anti-racists joined the government-led demonstration against the far right in Berlin.

In its use of the extremism issue, the Kohl administration has been assisted by the calls from anti-racists for firm government action against the far right. Kohl answered these demands in November by banning the small Nationalist Front (approx 130 members). That act helped to boost his authority as an enemy of extremism. It did nothing to help immigrants in Germany who are threatened by government-sponsored racism. Nor will such an increase in state powers be of any help to the left, who are in danger of being the next targets of the state campaign to rid Germany of 'extremists'.

Appeasing nationalism

The reinforcing of the consensus against extremism is also reflected in the way that the Social Democratic opposition has accommodated to government policies on race. The SPD has accepted the line that immigration has caused the growth of the far right, in which case combating the right means cutting immigration. By changing its policies on asylum in this way, and making important concessions to government policies on other issues, the SPD has joined a de facto grand coalition with Kohl's Christian Democrats.

The final aspect of the debate about the spectre of Weimar is its use in rewriting German history. As part of its project of reforging a strong national identity, the German elite has tried to reduce the stigma of its Nazi past by equating the atrocities of that era with comparatively trivial modern examples; so, for instance, president Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia becomes as bad as Hitler. The comparison between current events in Germany and the last days of Weimar fits into this pattern.

Razor gangs

There is clearly a problem of racist violence in Germany today (as in all European countries). But it cannot be equated to the fascist terror created by the Nazi Party's razor gangs. Weimar encapsulated the economic and social despair, the violence and the brutality of capitalism in its naked state. By comparing that situation with the actions of a few hundred egg-throwing anarchists and small gangs of skinhead thugs today, the German authorities are minimising what Weimar really meant.

Worse, through the trick of association they are shifting the blame for the crimes of the past on to a few extremists, and obscuring the real cause of what happened under Weimar - the crisis of German capitalism. In this way, the German elite continues to wriggle off the hook of history.

A Nazi mess

When an Asian family is firebombed in Britain, the news is unlikely to get far beyond the pages of the local press. When Turkish families are firebombed in Germany, it makes headline news on BBC TV and gets splashed across the British tabloid papers.

The British media and politicians love to talk about the resurgence of 'Nazism' in Germany. It gives them an excuse to remind us about the Second World War yet again, and to emphasise the moral superiority of the United Kingdom over the reunified Germany. The message is that these Germans might wear suits and act civilised now, but underneath they're jackbooted Nazis just the same.

The focus on German Nazism acts as a distraction from the problem of racism in Britain. Hostility to immigrants and refugees is just as much a part of the British way of life as of German society. It is estimated that there are 70 000 racial incidents in Britain a year - about one every five minutes.

Going on about Nazis also obscures the fact that, in both countries, the underlying cause of race hatred today is the same: it stems not from the influence of German history nor of genetic deformity, but from the impact of government policy. In particular, the avowedly anti-Nazi governments of Helmut Kohl and John Major have each created an anti-immigrant climate at home by campaigning for tighter controls on asylum for refugees.

Focusing on the problem of German Nazis can even serve to make racial prejudice worse in Britain. Hostility to all things German is a potent source of narrow-mindedness and bigotry in British politics. 'By endorsing the Daily Mail mentality', as we said in November, 'the British disease of Kraut-bashing helps to create a poisoned political atmosphere in which all manner of racial and chauvinist ideas can readily breed.'

The British obsession with German Nazis is a dangerous fixation for those who want to challenge racism. It misses the point about the real source of race hatred on both sides of the Channel. And it gives ground to the argument that Britain is somehow more cultured, more civilised than German society.

This kind of national conceit is not only nonsense. It also endorses the very same Little Englander values which are turned against black people, refugees and immigrants in Britain at least once every five minutes.

There is no contradiction between being a fierce critic of German Nazism, and a fierce supporter of the British nationalism which underpins domestic racism. That is why top Tory right-wingers will join in the denunciations of fascism over there, while at the same time backing the antiimmigrant Asylum Bill over here. With anti-Nazis like that, who needs jackboots?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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