LONDON -- "I'm Hitler-ed out," my 6-year-old daughter declared.
We were standing in the German Historical Museum
in Berlin during a recent family holiday, strolling through an exhibit titled "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime." It's a fascinating exhibit that tries to answer a question that has bewildered us all over the past 75 years: How was Hitler's rise possible?
I knew what my daughter meant. Berlin is a city where you literally can't walk for five minutes without bumping into some reference -- physical, historical or cultural -- to World War II, the Holocaust or Adolf Hitler. They're everywhere. They're on the sidewalks. They're in the museums. They're in the book stores. It's as if the country -- and this city, in particular -- is wearing a giant sign that reads: "We will not forget." And that's a good thing, in my opinion. We can't remember enough
Which is why it's been so troubling to see German's painstakingly deliberate, excruciatingly raw attempt to come to terms with that past undermined by several alarming political developments that have gradually gathered steam over the past couple of years and come to a head in recent months.
It all started, or rather bubbled to the surface, this summer when a prominent official on the board of the German central bank, Thilo Sarrazin, was forced to resign
after he published a provocative new book about Muslim immigrants in Germany titled "Germany Is Digging Its Own Grave." (The country now has more than 4 million Muslims -- a little over 5 percent of the population.)
The basic thesis of Sarrazin's book is that Germany is being "dumbed down" by "over-breeding" foreigners whose religion, Islam, doesn't fit comfortably with Western values. The book has sold more than a million copies
and led to 20 percent of Germans saying that they would consider voting for a "Sarrazin party."
Then Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped into the act. In a speech to young members of her party in October, Merkel declared that "multi-culturalism in Germany had utterly failed
." Although Merkel affirmed that immigrants are welcome in Germany and acknowledged that Islam is "part of German culture," she made an impassioned plea for immigrants to do more to "become German."
While many pundits interpreted those remarks as intended to shore up support for her Center-Right Christian Democrat Union Party
, which is slumping in the polls, they marked a startling shift with her previous, much more moderate position on these issues. Her remarks came on the heels of a poll showing that 30 percent of Germans believe that the country is "over-run by foreigners"
and that a startling 12 percent would "welcome a 'führer' to run the country with an 'iron hand.' "
And Merkel is not alone. Conservatives such as those in the Christian Social Union -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU -- are talking openly about defending Germany's Christian heritage
. Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier -- has stated
that a "large number of the Arabs and Turks living in this city [Berlin] has no productive function other than selling fruit and vegetables."
These are not fringe-y, extremist elements of German society. They are the mouthpieces of mainstream political parties.
But more extreme political movements are also taking hold in Germany. Precisely because of its complicated past and heightened sensitivity to these issues, Germany has long remained immune to the anti-immigration and explicitly anti-Muslim parties that have swept across Europe
in recent years.
But two years ago, Germany's first explicitly anti-Islam party, Pro NRW (Pro North-Rhine Westphalia)
, came into being in the otherwise liberal-minded and open city of Cologne. The party grew out of a right-wing movement called Pro Cologne that had gathered considerable popular support in its bid to protest an enormous mosque slated for construction there.
Just last week, the party -- which holds five seats on the city council -- officially formed an alliance with Austria's far-right Freedom Party
. The latter has campaigned on slogans urging Austrian Muslims to "go home," and has handed out computer games where players score points for shooting at mosques and minarets. The idea is for the two parties to form a right-wing faction on the European political stage ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary elections.
The rise of the anti-Mosque political movement in Cologne has not gone unnoticed by the German government, whose Office for the Protection of the Constitution monitors it closely. (As well it should.) As one online publication pointed out, the Holocaust began with rhetoric and the simple boycotting of Jewish shops.
After being in Berlin for just four days, my daughter -- whose father is Jewish -- told me that she didn't want to be Jewish any more.
"Why not?" I asked her.
"Because I'm scared," she answered. "Can the Nazis find me in London?"
Which brings us the admittedly provocative title of this blog post. In answer to that question -- Has Germany forgotten the Holocaust?-- my answer is an unqualified no.
But God help us all if it ever does.
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