“When does a Jew have the opportunity to appear in a room full of Nazis, neo-Nazis, crypto-Nazis and para-Nazis?” said the German-Jewish writer Henryk Broder, speaking in Germany’s Bundestag to the parliamentary caucus of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on Jan. 19. “Many of you may never have seen a living Jew in the flesh, and are waiting for the room to fill up with the stink of garlic and sulphur” Broder told his audience, confronting the AfD’s members of parliament in the best tradition of Jewish irony and setting in relief Germany’s great political dilemma: Is it possible to speak of a German national revival without apologizing for the unspeakable crimes of German nationalism in the past?
“It would be good if there weren’t a shitstorm” Broder said of his speech to the AfD, “and if there is one, even better.” At the eye of the storm, such as it was in the American press, was Clemens Heni’s recent denunciation in this publication, lambasting Broder for not only speaking to, but embracing, “the closest thing contemporary Germany has to a Nazi Party.” Heni wrote, “Broder has now openly embraced the AfD and just days after the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution began an investigation into whether the party poses a serious threat to the German constitution and society.”
I do not know whether Heni read Broder’s text (which can be found here and followed with Google translate), but he surely misrepresented it by omission. Broder gave the AfD the harshest critique it had ever received in the Bundestag. Heni found it “strange and alarming, then, when a photo appeared last week showing Broder being hugged by a smiling Alice Weidel, co-chair of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.” But he did not report that Broder did not pose for the photo—Weidel came in back of him and put her arms over his shoulders—and that Broder apologized for the photo in Die Welt.
Broder writes a column for Die Welt, a right-of-center broadsheet that is most sympathetic to Israel among Germany’s major press, and appears regularly on German news shows. As Heni allows, he is one of the country’s most vocal defenders of the Jewish state. I do not know him personally, but I would like to shake his hand and congratulate him for a brilliant defense of Judaism “in the den of the brown-tufted lion, in the viper’s pit of reaction, in the dark room of history,” as he put it.
Broder excoriated the sort of political correctness that equates “climate change denial” with Holocaust denial,” but added that he favored some politically correct restrictions: “You don’t put your feet on the table, you don’t burp during dinner, and you don’t call the 12 worst years of Germany history ‘a speck of bird dung.’” This referred to a remark by AfD Vice Chairman Alexander Gauland that the Hitler period was only a speck of bird dung in the great sweep of German history, and he said it to Gauland’s face.
It was in the interest of fair play that he accepted the invitation, Broder explained. The AfD began as a Euroskeptic party critical of Europe’s common currency, but shifted to an anti-immigration platform after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept 2 million Muslim migrants into Germany in 2015 and 2016. That was not an uncontroversial decision and the AfD’s pivot to opposing immigration gained the party a substantial following. Merkel’s mentor Helmut Kohl, the great Cold War chancellor who guided the country to reunification, bitterly opposed her migration policy. The AfD became important only because Germany’s center-right party excluded opposition to a social policy that threatened to change the character of German society.
Merkel has put German Jews in a dilemma. After street attacks by young Muslims, the Central Council of Jews in Germany warned Jews not to walk in public with a kippah. Chancellor Merkel deplored the attacks, but her migration policy made them inevitable. Consequently, a small group of German Jews joined the AfD, arguing that the greatest threat of anti-Semitism comes overwhelmingly from Muslim migrants and their supporters on the left.
This in my view is too simple. I have talked extensively with a number of prominent AfD leaders and while they are not anti-Semites, they continue to tolerate louts like Alexander Gauland, who minimize the singular evil of the Nazi extermination campaign.
That is why I have supported Angela Merkel against the AfD, to the consternation of many of my conservative friends. The AfD continues to tolerate leaders like Björn Höcke, who called the national Holocaust Memorial in Berlin “a disgrace.” But Germany needs a party such as the AfD should have been, and might yet become, a party more like the old Christian Democratic Union of Helmut Kohl, able to assert Germany’s national interests today without temporizing about its terrible past. There are decent men and women in the AfD struggling with these issues. They have not yet succeeded.
The failure of the AfD to purge itself of the stink of the German past has cost it dearly. At the national level, it crested at 18 percent support last year, falling back to about 14 percent today. To a great extent it is a regional party, with strong support in the economically depressed provinces of the former East Germany and much lower support in the prosperous West.
Heni’s attempt to portray the AfD as an unreconstructed Nazi remnant relies on falsehoods. He claims for example that AfD Bundestag member Marc Jongen in a Jan. 31 speech “took the opportunity to aggressively reject commemoration of the Holocaust as a German crime, instead framing Nazi Germany as just another form of ‘Socialism’ like Stalinism or Communism.” What Jongen actually said (my translation) is this: “Naturally there is a fundamental difference between the racist madness of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks’ hatred of the class enemy. And there are indeed good reasons to recognize in the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews an abysmal character that sets this crime above all the other mass extermination programs of the 20th Century.” Jongen reproached the German Left for ignoring the crimes of Communism and for its belief that “the Germans are evil, Germany is a criminal nation, and it would be best if Germany were to disappear.” That is a view often expressed by leaders of Germany’s Green Party, and Dr. Jongen’s objections to it hardly make him a Nazi. As it happens, I know Jongen, and he is no anti-Semite.
Neither Clemens Heni nor anyone else has the right to scold Henryk Broder for speaking to the AfD, however. Muslim anti-Semitism is a far greater danger to the Jews today than residual rumblings in the German right. The AfD may yet transform into a responsible conservative party that advances Jewish interests, like Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy or Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party. However, that has not happened yet and Broder’s brilliant, bitter encomium to its parliamentary caucus was far from being the obsequious open embrace of crypto-Nazis that was presented by his ideological opponents. Broder offered the most devastating possible reproach to the AfD, in the person of a living voice of Jewish conscience, before political leaders who cannot bear to dwell on their country’s terrible past.
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