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Heeding Germany

Still from Time of the Slanderers.

There’s a new documentary coming soon about a political tendency in Germany called the Anti-Germans.  For an American audience, the release of this film could not be more timely.

I looked at my phone this morning upon waking up, never a good idea.  As is the case pretty much every day for me, among the various emails, posts, comments and messages I’m notified about, there are always a couple of disturbing things to read, though most of it is usually friendly.  This morning’s disturbing message reminded me of a film some folks I know are working on which will be out soon, called Time of the Slanderers (trailer here), about a German phenomenon known as the Anti-Deutsche, or Anti-Germans.  Knowing that I have had a lot of personal experience with the Anti-Deutsche, one of the filmmakers made sure to show me the trailer, in case I thought it was relevant to share with people outside of Germany.

I do, as people who have read much of my writing already know.  I’d say that unfortunately the Anti-Deutsche phenomenon continues to be more relevant here in the US than it has ever been in my lifetime.

History doesn’t change — but it gets retold differently, with different aspects emphasized, depending on what’s happening at the time it’s being written, rather than what was going on when it was being made.  Before speaking about the relevance of the contemporary Anti-Deutsche phenomenon in particular, I want to first bring up certain especially notable historical trends that led up to Germany as it is today.

Over a century ago, tens of millions of people were slaughtered in a global bloodbath centered in Europe that became known as World War 1.  It basically ended in a stalemate, with an entire generation of young men from many different countries almost completely wiped out, or significantly reduced in number, and many others dead by other means.  But the allied powers, including Russia — which was the Soviet Union by the war’s end — France, Great Britain, and the US (which entered the war after it was several years in progress), were declared the victors by themselves and by the German kaiser, who was soon replaced by a short-lived new government.

For over two decades following the First World War, poverty and unemployment were rife in most of the formerly warring nations.  The three main political poles by then centered around what we can label as social democracy, communism, and fascism.  A lot of people in the world were impressed by the mobilization of society they saw in the Soviet Union, and FDR’s New Deal fed a whole lot of people, too, and won over a lot of hearts and minds to his middle road.  In Germany, the weak government of the time was unable to rise to the occasion, and the period was characterized by massive, bloody street fights between fascists and communists in cities throughout the country.

Notably, though it came at great human cost, it was the left that was generally dominant in these street battles.  This changed in 1933, when the fascists came to power.  Preferring to call themselves National Socialists rather than Nazis, the rise of Hitler’s fascist dictatorship came with a huge increase in infrastructure projects and a full-tilt program of militarization which saw Germany emerge from their prior economic problems with something approaching full employment.  Many people in the US, France, Britain and other countries were impressed by all of this.

Many capitalists in the western countries saw fascism as a potential alternative to communism that they could live with just fine, if bourgeois democracy didn’t work out.  US oil companies fueled Franco’s army in Spain, and US banks made Hitler’s spending programs possible.

Fascists in Germany held Jews — who were numerous among the ranks of social democrats as well as among communists — responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War 1 and everything else that was wrong with the world.  This kind of anti-Semitic thinking — scapegoating Jews and other racialized groups for anything that wasn’t going well — permeated many societies at the time as well, and could be heard on radio stations throughout the United States, throughout the 1930’s.

Although the left had been dominant on the streets of German cities prior to Hitler taking power, once it was a criminal offense to be a communist and communists were being sent to prison, facing potential execution and so on, this obviously changed the equation.  During the years that the Nazis maintained a very iron grip on power, they exterminated millions of innocent people, especially Jews and communists, but so many others across Europe and beyond.  The vast majority of the German military was always on the eastern front, and when Soviet victory was looking very likely, in 1943, the US entered the war with ground troops, in the famous, and famously disastrous, Naval deployments on the coast of France.  US involvement prior to Normandy mainly consisted of the virtually indiscriminate bombardment of most German cities, which escalated, until the war’s end in 1945.  The German Luftwaffe, for their part, indiscriminately bombed cities as well.

At the end of the war, after a few top Nazis were executed and a whole lot of others were hired by the CIA, with a country and much of a continent and other large chunks of the world in ruins, German society was left to try to make sense of what just happened.  Many different official and unofficial narratives emerged.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is history I learned from historians.  The rest is from a mix of written sources, and lots of oral history from people I know personally, because I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life traveling in a handful of countries, Germany always one of the top five.

In West Germany, in the 1950’s, my now elderly German friends tell me, the dominant narrative was that fascism was terrible, but we were part of the resistance, or if we weren’t, we were one of the concentration camp guards who snuck a few extra pieces of bread to the prisoners.  With the revolutions and uprisings that were sweeping the globe in the 1960’s, much of German society became immersed to one degree or another in a tremendous process of reflection, perhaps like nothing any society had previously undertaken.  Campus rebellions led to radical reform in the educational system.

Within this new societal context, there were again many different narratives around.  While there was lots of solid, academic, sober analysis, along with a huge movement against militarism, out of this societal self-reflection also grew a kind of pendulum effect reacting against the previous decade of denial, and the genocide prior to that.  With this swing of the pendulum, rational discourse and historical reality was often discarded in favor of a hyper-simplified version of everything.

In this fringe alternate dimension coming out of certain more youthful elements of the left scene in the late twentieth century to the present, instead of “we were all part of the resistance,” none of us were, and Germany was just a nation of compliant fascists who enthusiastically supported the Final Solution.  The dominance of the left prior to the rise of Hitler, the thousands of Germans known to have sacrificed their lives in futile acts of resistance — which many would view as far more significant than acts of resistance that actually stood a chance of changing things — all rendered irrelevant in the face of the notion that Germans are basically one-dimensional, irredeemable predators with no relevant history of behaving otherwise.

The one-dimensional view of German-ness developed by the Anti-Germans also included a similarly one-dimensional understanding of Jewishness.  Just as Germans are inherently flawed, Jews can do no wrong, and, by some kind of natural extension, neither can the country that calls itself the Jewish state.

Although of course supporting an apartheid state like Israel as it’s carrying out massacres of unarmed civilians every week after Friday prayers may provide ethical challenges for anti-fascists attempting to perform these intellectual convolutions, for those who do manage to jump through all the necessary hoops, by the end of the obstacle course, the typical adherent to the Anti-German tendency unconditionally supports the state of Israel, and calls anyone who opposes Israeli atrocities a fascist and an anti-Semite for doing so.

The Anti-Germans are not the dominant tendency on the German left.  More common is a more nuanced perspective that certainly dwells intensively on understanding what led to the Nazi holocaust taking place, but is also capable of recognizing the heroism of the resistance in its many forms, and appreciating the overall human toll, the horrors of war not only for the victims of the panzer divisions, but to all those who lost their lives in the bombed-out cities of Germany as well.

Even what I’m saying now would be raising some hackles among some Germans who have nothing to do with the Anti-Deutsche, however.  The anti-nationalist sentiment is so widespread, that even the mention of subjects like the suffering of Germans during the bombing raids, or of the ethnic German refugees fleeing eastern Europe for their lives during the fallout from the war, is a move that will have some people questioning whether you have a right-wing agenda for talking about these things.

If people know anything about the suffering of German civilians during the Second World War, they know about the carpet-bombing of the city of Dresden.  The Anti-Deutsche have a slogan praising the Royal Air Force commander who was in charge of the bombing mission.  Do it again, they say.  The German people are evil, irredeemable, even the children, bomb their cities, kill them all, is the unmistakable subtext.

But with the awful history of the Nazi holocaust still in living memory for some, it’s not so surprising that this political tendency has a disproportionate, chilling effect on elements of German society today.

In the upcoming film that I mentioned earlier, we’ll be able to hear many different examples of the actions and words of the Anti-Deutsche.  As a critic of Israel performing in Germany over the years, I have had many gigs canceled because of Anti-Deutsche threats to venue owners or gig organizers.  A couple times, at gigs that did go ahead in some form, there were Anti-Deutsche picketers.

They all looked college-age, and they had written up and printed out physical flyers which they were handing out to those who dared walk through their ranks and go into the venue anyway.  The flyers were a more or less random assortment of my song lyrics taken out of context, which attempted to make their case that I was an anti-Semite.

In the modern context of the Anti-Deutsche, the term “fascist” has become entirely removed from its original context.  One need not be an adherent to any principles of National Socialism, one needn’t be a fan of either the original or the contextualized versions of Mein Kampf.  All you need to do in order to be considered a fascist now is to be critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, among other offenses.

The Anti-Germans don’t just spend their time pursuing critics of Israel, but they’re often involved with opposing gatherings of people who at least in some cases are actual, proud members of the far right.  People with Anti-Deutsche views have been involved with heroic efforts to defend refugees against xenophobic attacks, and lots of other good things.

Knowing this, when I saw the college-age picketers outside of the one gig there in that college town in Germany, wherever that was, I made the mistake of trying to engage with them.  I was trying to be rational, but there was probably an edge to my voice which would have been off-putting to anyone who was there to protest me.  In any case, rather than trying to talk with me about these bizarre flyers they were passing out, one young German woman looked me in the eye and ended the conversation before it began with the line, “I don’t talk to fascists.”

The fact that she was right there, saying this to my face, and that she seemed like such an earnest, well-meaning activist sort — and the fact that I was a lot younger then, and she was very attractive — was altogether devastating emotionally, to be honest.

A lot like how it felt this morning, to see a person with a Facebook page who appeared authentically to be a college student, post something intended for my wall that declared me to be a fascist, and that if I ever tried to do a gig in San Diego, she and her antifascist crew would run me out of town.

Why does this person who appears to be a leftwing college student from California think I’m a fascist?  Ask her, not me.  I’m just hoping that anyone who has lived through the past few years of division in the US, in particular, might glean some insight from a little familiarity with some aspects of the German experience, because these two societies have a lot in common.

Genocide is one of those things.  They have many other things in common, such as the presence of a wide variety of prevalent approaches in society for understanding the present and the past, with different elements of society pushing different narratives for different reasons.  Both societies also currently have a growing divide between the classes, and a rising far right, both on the streets and in parliamentary politics.  In the US this currently expresses itself politically as the Trump faction of the Republican Party.  In Germany the far right has its own party, the AfD.

I would not say by any means that the existence of the Anti-Deutsche is responsible for the rise of the AfD, or that equivalent tendencies in the US are responsible for the growth of the Proud Boys or the rise of Trump.  There are many other far bigger factors at play.  But as we continue down a path of increasing division, increasingly different narratives of history and understandings of the present within the same society — in the cases of the US, Germany, and elsewhere — it doesn’t seem to me that the “I don’t talk to fascists” approach to life is serving any of us very well.

And in fact, before we go further down the road of a society splintered into multiple sectarian factions, each existing in its own echo chamber, trying to communicate with anyone, especially anyone currently thinking about joining the Proud Boys, by whatever means might work, would seem like a very good way to avoid continuing down the road we’re on now.  Just bringing more guns to the protests doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.

 

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.  

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