The dangerous discourse of German victimhood

When you recall where it has led the world, and especially the Jewish people, in the recent past, vigilance today only seems like common sense.

Alexander Gauland, who leads the parliamentary group of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Alexander Gauland, who leads the parliamentary group of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

All of Europe’s nationalist movements share a common element: a sense of historic victimhood that provides the moral grounding for these various national causes. But very few of these nationalist movements have exploited that sense of aggrievement to inflict suffering upon others as the Germans have done.

I take little pleasure in offering that observation, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory over the Nazis in Europe, and I wish it wasn’t necessary. But the discourse of German victimhood—so ruthlessly cultivated by Hitler and the nascent Nazi Party during the 1920s and ’30s—is making its presence felt once again. And when you recall where it has led the world, and especially the Jewish people, in the recent past, vigilance today only seems like common sense.

Last week, Alexander Gauland, who leads the parliamentary group of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, angrily rejected an 80,000 signature petition launched by a Holocaust survivor that called for VE Day to be made a national holiday in Germany. The logic behind the petition was entirely reasonable: Like France, like Greece, like the Netherlands, Germany was also liberated from Nazism by the Allies, so why shouldn’t that fact be celebrated?

But for Gauland and his co-thinkers, what we call Victory in Europe Day is a day of shame and grief. “You can’t make May 8 a happy day for Germany,” the 79-year-old Gauland told German broadcaster RND. “For the concentration camp inmates, it was a day of liberation. But it was also a day of absolute defeat, a day of the loss of large parts of Germany and the loss of national autonomy.”

To further accent the sense of German victimhood, Gauland then made a pointed reference to the rape of thousands of German women by Soviet troops in the closing stages of the war, observing that “the women raped in Berlin will see it (VE Day) differently from concentration camp inmates.”

In my view, these are dangerous and sinister arguments, but I would also acknowledge that it’s not immediately obvious as to why. The contention that Germany as a nation suffered during the Allied victory over the Nazis is not as outlandish as the claim that Hitler “didn’t know” about the network of Nazi concentration camps, nor as defamatory as the outright denial of the Holocaust. But to see the Allied victory exclusively in that way requires a moral elasticity that only a Nazi-era nostalgist like Gauland could possess.

To begin with—and in complete contrast to the Holocaust-deniers—no one has seriously disputed the enormous damage inflicted on Germany in the course of the Allied victory. German cities like Dresden, Cologne and Hamburg were carpet-bombed by the Royal Air Force, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. The rape of thousands of German women by advancing Soviet troops invoked by Gauland did indeed take place. It was one of the many dark and shameful chapters of the war; as the Soviet war correspondent Natalya Gesse later put it, “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to 80. It was an army of rapists.”

But the question here is whether we are required to feel anything more than human sympathy and regret for the individual victims. Gauland and the rising nationalist right in Germany want us to go several steps further by conceding that Germans have a legitimate claim to wartime victimhood on a national level, just like the Poles or the Czechs or even the Jews. This is a deeply dishonest misuse of the plight of the thousands of German rape victims by incorporating their suffering as women into a dubious revisionist account of Hitler’s defeat.

Gauland has made comments like these in the past—in 2018, he described the 12-year Nazi reign of terror as akin to a “speck of bird poop on our glorious history”—and he does not speak in a vacuum. His AfD party, founded in 2013, has moved steadily rightward over the last five years, only gaining in electoral popularity during that time. In the 2017 parliamentary elections, the AfD took 94 of the 598 seats in the Bundestag, while in local elections in 2019, the party garnered nearly 30 percent of the vote. Much of its support has stemmed from populist anger over the influx of 600,000 mainly Muslim refugees from Syria, as well as a growing hostility towards the European Union. In the German context, however, these two staples of nationalist politics in Europe rest upon a larger assertion about Germany’s place in the world. If Germans are to hold their heads high, they cannot be encumbered with war guilt, particularly when their own suffering has (allegedly) been ignored. For the AfD, Germany was not liberated, therefore, when Hitler’s regime was brought to an end; it was defeated.

This difference in historical interpretation is no mere academic dispute. The AfD has enjoyed more political gains than any other far-right party in Germany since the end of the war. Now one of its top leaders is telling the world that his fellow Germans should mourn the Allied victory of 1945. Let there be no mistake this time around—those are the words of a foe.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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