They are deliberate provocations from Germany’s right-wing and Neo-Nazi extremists: attacks by rightwing gangs and Neo-Nazi visitors to concentration camp memorials, sporting antisemitic T-shirts, denying Nazi crimes, taking selfies with far-right symbols. The list goes on and on.
Such incidents have been occurring in Bergen-Belsen and Moringen in Lower Saxony in recent months. In fact, throughout Germany, Holocaust memorials have increasingly reported such incidents as well as the painting of swastikas onto barrack walls and entrance gates. These are frightening developments. Seventy-five years after the official end of Nazism, not only has the incidence of antisemitism* increased, but Germany’s right-wing openly mocks Holocaust victims.
Recently, at the site in Moringen, one of the first concentration camps built in Hitler’s Nazi Reich, Neo-Nazis desecrated the memorial. In a photo they posted on Facebook, they posed in T-shirts that read Fuck you, Israel! “German Neo-Nazis presented documents as forged,” says the head of the Moringen Memorial. He continued: ”Neo-Nazis claim you can’t ever believe eyewitnesses.” One of the Neo-Nazi protestors recalled his own prison experience and said that detention in a concentration camp was no worse than his own imprisonment.” This is a classic trope of Holocaust denial as trivialization.
In Moringen and elsewhere, far-right historical revisionists and Holocaust deniers repeatedly attack evidence of the Nazi dictatorship’s crimes. In 2014, barbed-wire fences and entrance gates of the Langenstein concentration camp in Saxony-Anhalt were destroyed. Three years later, in 2017, in Bremen Neo-Nazis defaced a plaque commemorating the slave labourers who died there with the inscription, Stop the cult of guilt. Germany’s Neo-Nazis believe there is no collective guilt because there were no crimes against humanity.
They also slander the memory of Holocaust victims remembrances by claiming these ceremonies are engineered by Jews. In 2018, for example, a group of visitors from Germany’s most powerful right-wing extremist party – the AfD – attacked tourists and pilgrims at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. At least one of the demonstrators denied the existence of gas chambers.
These are only a few examples of what is going on. Fifty further recent cases, outlined below, paint a vivid picture of such attacks.
There is clearly a shift to the right in what neo-fascist ideologists now consider permissible shout in public about the Holocaust. There is also an increase in the on-going historical revisionist provocations from the ranks of the AfD. The current leader of the Alternative for Germany and member of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, calls the Nazi era “just a little bird shit” on Germany’s history. Each of these utterances pushes the limits of what can be said—and makes antisemitism increasingly mainstream and normal. The process shifts public debate further and further to the extreme right.
Essentially, then, right-wing extremists like the AfD try to make historical revisionism acceptable in Europe. At the Bergen-Belsen Memorial commemorating the Nazi concentration camp where 52,000 prisoners were killed – men, women, and children – German Neo-Nazis compared Bergen-Belsen to the Rhine Meadow Camps. These US Army camps were set up in the spring of 1945. Several thousand German soldiers died in such camps. But the death rates there were completely different from those in Hitler’s death camps. In Bergen-Belsen, 50 times as many people were killed as perished in the Rhine meadow camps. Undeterred by such facts, German Neo-Nazis continue spinning their toxic ideology.
Despite all this, the importance of Holocaust memorials is growing. Many of the remaining direct eye witnesses who can still tell of the horrors of the Holocaust will soon be gone. This is why places like Bergen-Belsen, Moringen and others remind us physically of how the Nazi dictatorships worked. They are what French historians term lieux de memoires, that is, geographical embodiments of national and world historical events. They show where civilization and humanism can end when a whole people are stigmatised, marginalised, and, ultimately, killed. That is also why such places are a thorn in the eye of Germany’s radical right.
The Moringen Memorial aims not only to commemorate the Holocaust, but also to pursue active political education. This is why Neo-Nazis and their collaborating ideologists choose sites like this to attack the reality, legitimacy and vividness of the Holocaust. Resurrecting old Nazi terms that distort normal and everyday language of German history and culture, terms that have gradually found their way into everyday use, are projected – literally and figuratively – onto the wall. Moringen’s educational project therefore warns: “First the language changes. Then the deeds follow.”
No wonder Germany’s right-wing detests such educational programmes. For the AfD’s so-called honorary chairman, Alexander Gauland, the capitulation of the Nazi regime on the 8th of May 1945 is to be remembered as “a day of absolute defeat, a day of loss of large parts of Germany and the loss of opportunity”. Gauland spoke these words only last month. His propagandist aim is to spray a veneer of false memories over the official places of remembrance. In his twisted imagination, he seeks a return to the days when murdering Jews, communists, social democrats, gays, Roma, handicapped people, and forced labourers was a daily occurrence.
Only in 2017, Gauland’s off-sider and secret Führer of an even more extremist wing inside the AfD, the internally much admired Björn Höcke called for a “turnaround of 180 degrees in Germany’s Holocaust remembrance.” Such a proposed U-turn means that Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich would be good men, while Anne Frank and Czeslzawa Kwoka (one of the faces of Auschwitz) were transformed into mass killers. For secondary-school history teacher Björn Höcke the Einsatzgruppen are suddenly the good guys.
Over many years, Germany’s right-wing has been making clear what they want to achieve by attacks on Nazi memorials: the mockery of those murdered in the camps. Only in the rarest of cases up to now haver these perpetrators been caught. According to memorial officials, however, these attacks are assuming an increased significance. This increase came with the rise of the AfD.
Recently, a bomb was dropped at the entrance of a concentration camp, and memorial plaques were damaged and defaced with swastikas. Meanwhile a right-wing radical mocked Anne Frank who was murdered there. Guided tours of memorials were repeatedly disrupted. Right-wing visitors interrupted guided tours by doubting the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, in that same year, AfD politicians elected to German state parliaments complained about a so-called guilt complex. These pretended innocents question the function of Nazi memorials by threating legal action and injunctions against Holocaust sites.
A plan to end all funding for Holocaust sites is part of the AfD’s programme.
Here is an incomplete chronicle of fifty right-wing and Neo-Nazi attacks on Holocaust memorials since spring 2016, the year when the AfD made its first significant gains in German politics by achieving 11.7% in Rhineland–Palatinate, 14.9% in Baden-Württemberg, and 24% in Lower-Saxony’s elections:
Braunschweig, May 2016: Walls and information boards of the Schillstrasse Concentration Camp memorial were denigrated. A few days earlier, right-wing radicals disrupted a memorial event. Wreaths laid after the event were trampled on.
Weimar, May 2016: A British right-wing group published a photo with two Neo-Nazis giving the Hitler salute in the basement of the crematorium of the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial.
Lieberose (Brandenburg), May 2016: Two information panels were destroyed at the documentation centre of the Lieberose concentration camp. It was the third such damage in two years.
Nordhausen, August 2016: Participants of the summer camp of the Concentration Camp Memorial Mittelbau-Dora were insulted by racist slurs.
Hamburg, November 2016: The monument to the anti-fascist writer Wolfgang Borchert was smeared with the red lettering Identity – a code word signifying Germany’s right-wing extremists.
Eisenach, January 2017: In one night, unknown people scrawled a blue swastika on the plaque of the synagogue memorial.
Gelsenkirchen, April 2017: Unknown offenders damaged a plaque commemorating a Catholic priest and his Nazi opponent Heinrich König. Heinrich König was murdered in 1942 in Dachau concentration camp during medical experiments.
The same panel was damaged again in May 2018 and April 2019.
Braunschweig, May 2017: An unknown person spray-painted dozens of commemorative plaques at the Schillstrasse concentration camp memorial with silver paint writing the word Lie over the plaques.
Boppard (Rhineland-Palatinate), May 2017: Two Stolpersteine [stumble stones, with names of Jews arrested or killed on the very spot, in front of their former homes] were forcibly ripped from the sidewalk and stolen, adding insult to injury. These particular stones are dedicated to the memory of Sally Siegler, who emigrated to the United States in 1941 to escape the Nazi genocide and to Lina Mayer, who was murdered in 1942 after her deportation.
Wolfsburg, June 2017: During a debate on a planned slave labour camp memorial, xenophobic ideologue Thomas Schlick and chairman of the AfD’s Wolfsburg city council sought to cut funding for Holocaust sites and educational projects. During a debate on financial support for Holocaust education, Schlick said, “That’s the reason the AfD won’t go along with!”. Schlick also expostulated about what German Neo-Nazis call the guilt complex. Neo-Nazis insinuate that Germany is forced to support Holocaust education because he and others of his ilk have been made to feel guilty by the Jews.
Remembrance and Memorial Wewelsburg (NRW), since 2017: The rules for visitors to the place of national memory forbids the wearing of right-wing symbols and paraphernalia when attending the site. Right-wing visitors have been complaining about this arrangement, and have left their calling cards in the form of nasty comments and painted swastikas or inscribed SS flash-signs into the site’s visitor book.
The museum management has received intimidating and distressing right-wing e-mails with statements that play down the crimes committed in concentration camps.
Braunschweig, July 2017: An AfD group in the city of Braunschweig collected signatures for a petition against the planned construction of a Garden of Remembrance to commemorate war crimes committed by soldiers of Braunschweig’s 92nd Infantry Regiment. These atrocities were committed in Roselies (Belgium) during the First World War.
The AfD group deplores the site as a “nonsensical monument”, rejecting the historical message proposed by the city council. The AfD believes, “There is no clearly proven connection between the events in Roselies and the Brunswick residents…and [hence the] monument is out of place.”
Dortmund, October 2017: In front of the German Football Museum, the depictions of Jewish athletes were damaged.
Berlin, November 2017: In Berlin-Neukölln, sixteen Stolpersteine remembering Nazi victims were extracted from sidewalks and stolen. Gunter Demnig, the artist who created Stopersteine as acts of remembrance and atonement, explains that more than 630 stones have been ripped from the ground and stolen nationwide.
Nordhausen (Thuringia), December 2017: Unknown people put the word Re-Open over a notice at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial.
Fürth, December 2017: A swastika was scratched into a plaque honouring two Fürth citizens of the Jewish faith murdered in the Holocaust. The inscription had only recently been re-attached after the first plaque had been stolen the previous summer.
Bremen, December 2017: Unknown people write the slogan Stop the Cult of Guilt on a wall near the memorial site Bunker Valentin. In the past, swastikas have been carved on benches at the memorial site.
Bremen’s Young Alternative – the AfD’s even more right-wing youth organisation – argued on its Facebook site against the mythical cult of guilt imposed on all Germans by International Jewry.During the construction of the Nazi submarine shipyard and the Valentin bunker in the early 1940s, more than 1,600 forced labourers died of malnutrition, disease and indiscriminate beatings.
Walldorf (Hessen), February 2018: Unknown people destroyed glass panes of the Margit-Horvath-Zentrum memorial at the ruins of the Walldorf concentration camp.
Kleve, April 2018: The Jewish memorial was smeared with antisemitic slogans.
Weimar, May 2018: In the Buchenwald Memorial, the right-wing extremist Nikolai Nerling (known as People’s Teacher) infiltrated a group of tourists. During the visit, Nerling repeatedly uttered antisemitic slogans. Among other things, he denied the Holocaust, according to a spokesman for the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.
Gelsenkirchen, May 2018: Report of a theft of the plaque in the city garden commemorating murdered slave labourers. The newly installed panel was destroyed again in June 2019. A memorial sign at a residential building commemorating the Jewish lawyer Emil Kochmann, who was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, was also destroyed.
Oranienburg (Brandenburg), July 2018: A group invited by court-certified “Nazi Slut” and federal AfD MP Alice Weidel questioned the mass murder in Sachsenhausen and the existence of gas chambers at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial.
One of Weidel’s visitors was later sentenced in court (in 2019) for hate crimes.
Hanover, September 2018: The lighting of the Holocaust memorial on the Opera Square was destroyed by unknown people. The destruction was repeated in November.
Dachau, September 2018: A currently-serving German army soldier distributed photos of himself in which he can be seen giving the Hitler salute in front of the concentration camp memorial.
Berlin, September 2018: The memorial stone for the theologian Werner Sylten, murdered by the Nazis, was smeared with a viscous blue liquid.
Boizenburg (Mecklenburg), September 2018: Unknown people spray a swastika on the main staircase of the memorial in the Jewish cemetery.
Oranienburg, September 2018: The Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial reported that there had been 15 incidents committed by right-wing extremists in recent months, including four involving groups of visitors.
Gütersloh, November 2018: Candles, placed by citizens at a ceremony in front of a memorial stone for the victims of the Reichspogromnacht, were trampled down by unknown people.
Boldshof (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), November 2018: A monument to 22 deserter Wehrmacht soldiers who were shot dead in Boldshof in the spring of 1945 is vandalised using red paint.
Munich, January 2019: At a memorial ceremony for victims of National Socialism in the Bavarian parliament, a large part of the AfD marched out the hall when Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community, accused the party of trivialising Nazi crimes. Over the following several days, Knobloch repeatedly insulted and threatened in anonymous emails and phone calls.
Celle district (Lower Saxony), Bergen-Belsen Memorial, January 2019: The head of theBergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial reported that during a visit to the memorial, right-wing extremist Nikolai Nerling interrupted the guide by questioning the number of victims in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, insulted a group of students, and ranted on about a cult of guilt. Nerling used the occasion to make fun of Anne Frank, asserting: “Her diary is a childlike fantasy”. He denied that Anne Frank was murdered in Bergen-Belsen. In addition, Nerling videoed his appearance and published it on Youtube. The management forced him to take down the video from the web.
Gelsenkirchen, January and April 2019: Representatives of the right-wing mini-party Die Rechte use the square in front of the documentation site Gelsenkirchen during National Socialism for campaign appearances during the European elections. Election posters showed the inscription Israel is our misfortune – an old Nazi slogan. The same posters are also placed in front of the New Synagogue in Gelsenkirchen.
Dachau, February 2019: The aforementioned right-wing extremist Nikolai Nerling shoots a video in front of the Dachau concentration camp memorial. In the video he says, “I don’t feel guilty. Go to memorials, go to camps and say you that you don’t feel guilty. For a free Germany and against the cult of guilt.”
Nerling urges a group of visiting students not to believe what they were being told at the memorial. When a staff member at the memorial asks him to leave, he films her name badge and insults her. She says her own grandfather was imprisoned in Dachau and survived.
Nerling’s smirking response is, “Your grandpa wasn’t treated so badly, if he survived.” In December, Nerling was fined for this. The court stated that Nerling “aimed at trivialising the genocide and denying it.” Holocaust denier Nerling appealed against the verdict.
Türkheim (Bavaria), April 2019: Unknown people throw a metal disc at the Kaufering VI Concentration Camp memorial. Already in 2014 and 2017, unknown people had stolen a cross and a Star of David from the memorial.
Augsburg, May 2019: In the Jewish Museum, unknown people vandalise an installation with the sardonic slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free, i.e., Dead) and a swastika.
Weimar, June 2019: Unknown people destroy five memorial trees of a project to commemorate the death marches.
Heide (Schleswig-Holstein), July 2019: Unknown people destroy a plaque on the Westermoorweg war grave site commemorating the Russian slave labourers who died.
Berlin, June-September 2019: The monument to the homosexuals persecuted under National Socialism in the Tiergarten is repeatedly spray-painted in black.
Bad Segeberg, July 2019: Unknown people damage the memorial plaque for Josef Tichy, who was shot by an SS man during a death march.
Fürth, August 2019: Three birch trees, reminiscent of the communists Rudolf Benario and Ernst Goldmann who were murdered in Dachau concentration camp, were damaged and had to be cut down. In previous years, the place of remembrance was repeatedly desecrated. In 2013, Neo-Nazis stole a plaque and left a smear, Hans Steinbrenner was here. The concentration camp guard Steinbrenner tortured prisoners such as Benario and Goldmann in Dachau.
Gelsenkirchen, August 2019: Unknown perpetrators in the city garden sprayed the memorial for the victims of National Socialism on the entire area with Nazi symbols.
Weimar, September 2019: Three memorial stones were defaced with swastikas at the Buchenwald Memorial.
Bohmte (Netherlands), September 2019: Unknown people wrote the word Adolf on a cemetery information board. The cemetery is home to Nazi victims, prisoners of war and forced labourers.
Berlin, October 2019: Unknown people smeared the memorial and information about victims of the Nazi euthanasia murders with pink paint.
Einbeck (Lower Saxony), November 2019: On a Facebook page, the Neo-Nazi group named National Awakening Einbeck published a photo showing three Neo-Nazis with their thumbs up in front of the Moringen concentration camp memorial. They are wearing T-shirts with a crossed-out Star of David, the words, Fuck you Israel and a swastika. In November, Neo-Nazis disrupted a memorial tour of the camp.
Lieberose (Brandenburg), December 2019: A plaque for Jewish Holocaust victims of the Lieberose concentration camp, a secondary camp of Sachsenhausen, was demolished.
Geilenkirchen (NRW), December 2019: At the Jewish cemetery, more than forty gravestones were toppled over and vandalised with paint. The symbols resembled swastikas.
Nordhausen (Thuringia), January 2020: At the entrance of the concentration camp memorial Mittelbau-Dora, “a parcel containing an ignitable explosive device with the potential to cause serious effect” (official police statement) was deposited.
Gelsenkirchen, March 2020: In front of the memorial Gelsenkirchen in National Socialism two men “loudly expressed their displeasure” [a euphemism, no doubt] and insulted a female staff member.
Berlin, April/May 2020: A zoom video conference of the Israeli Embassy with Holocaust survivor Tswi Herschel in memory of those murdered in the extermination camps was disturbed by antisemitic extremists with images of Hitler and similar pornography.
May: A window was smashed at the building of the former Berlin Forced Labour Office for Jews [Berliner Zwangsarbeitsamt für Juden]. In front of the building there is a sign identifying the house as the former office of Jewish slave labour.
May: A monument in the Bavarian Quarter commemorating the local synagogue was vandalised with a swastika and Nazi symbols.
May: The Soviet Memorial in Berlin was defaced with Neo-Nazi slogans and symbols.
These more than fifty antisemitic incidents paint a rather grim picture of present-day Germany. Germany’s latest police statistics confirm this situation: there were 986 right-wing crimes committed in 2019 in Germany. To this one must factor in a 13% increase in general antisemitic crimes, 93% of which were committed by right-wing extremists, as well as three Neo-Nazi murders in 2019.
In addition to conservative politician Walter Lübcke, two people were killed by a Neo-Nazi assassin in the East-German city of Halle. Reports indicate that, when his original plan to kill fifty Jewish worshippers in a local synagogue failed, he did the next best thing.
Overall, RIAS’ most recent report on antisemitism (2019) found the following manifestations of German antisemitism: insults (Jude); anti-judaic antisemitism (death of Jesus); modern antisemitism (racism and conspiracy theories); post-Shoah antisemitism (denying the Holocaust); and anti-Israel antisemitism. Most common is right-wing extremist antisemitism, right-wing populist antisemitism, Islamic antisemitism, antisemitism linked to conspiracy theories and Christian fundamentalism, as well as antisemitism of Germany’s political centre, i.e. antisemitism that does not appear to be based on a particular ideological conviction.
Despite the fact that there is a growth of antisemitism in Germany, including Neo-Nazis vandalising Jewish sites and street-gangs giving the Hitler salute (28 May), the most disturbing news is that a Nazi-like political party –the AfD– has entered Germany’s federal parliament with 12.6% support across Germany.
Nevertheless, there are countless initiatives fighting back against Neo-Nazis and antisemitism. Rallies against Germany’s right-wing are held frequently, German newspapers and TV stations report widely on extreme nationalist and racist activities, and Holocaust victims are honoured. In recent years, education about the Shoah has found a place in the curricula of schools and other institutions.
The number of ordinary German citizens visiting concentration camps and associated memorial places is rising, indicating public interest in what really happened during the dark years of the Third Reich. At a higher level, research on the Holocaust is conducted in German universities and advanced institutions, and both scholarly and popular books are published regularly. Finally, Holocaust survivors are invited to speak in the Federal Parliament to give moral witness to the need “to never forget”. In other words, Germany’s democratic institutions are taking seriously the threat of Neo-Nazism and are acting against it.
* The article follows Deborah E. Lipstad Denying the Holocaust (2012) in spelling Antisemitism with a small “a” because, as Lipstadt says, spelling it with a capital “A” would elevate their anti-Semitic ideology which is what Holocaust deniers want. See also: Susie Linfield’s The Lion’s Den.
Thomas Klikauer (MA, TUD and BU; PhD Warwick, UK) was born between Castle Frankenstein and Johannes Gutenberg’s birthplace. He teaches MBAs at the SGSM, Western Sydney University, Australia. He has published in the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Counterpunch, Truthout, BuzzFlash, etc. His latest book is on the AfD. Thomas Klikauer has published widely on antisemitism (Ethnic and Racial Studies, Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, Tikkun, Counterpunch, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Guardian Weekly.
Professor Norman Simms was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1940, educated at Alfred University and then Washington University in Saint Louis. He has lived and worked in Canada, Israel, France and New Zealand. He is now a retired scholar.