Populisms Past, Populisms Present: Nazism as a Problem of Contemporary Pedagogy

Recently I have been working with colleagues from the City of Nuremberg’s Culture Office and the University of Teacher Education at Lucerne to develop plans for new internal and external installations at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. The immediate cause of this is the major conservation project now getting underway at the Zeppelin Tribune and the Zeppelin Field. This ensemble constitutes one of the iconic archaeological relics of the site, but it has become structurally unsound and is crumbling visibly. Following a lengthy, heated debate, the City decided to preserve the site in its current form to secure it as a site of memory and education for future generations. The costs of the project, estimated in the region of 80 to 90 million euros, are being shared by the City, the state government of Bavaria, and the Federal government in Berlin, and the initial planning is now underway.

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[Visiting the inside of the Zeppelin Tribune, currently closed to the public, with Florian Dierl, the Director of the Documentation Centre, February 2018.  Credit: Kulturreferat der Stadt Nuernberg]

Yet if one discussion has reached its resolution, another has just started. After all, if one is going to spent such an eye-wateringly large sum of money on such a project – however iconic the site – one has to have a sense of why. What does one wish to use this site to say, to whom, and why? In search of answers to these questions we have been work-shopping the issues periodically, raising more fundamental problems about the purpose of civic educational projects in the early twenty-first century as we do. Our thoughts are at an early stage, and the city’s project will run for some time yet. For now, I should like to foreground some questions of principle that go beyond the immediate problem of the rally grounds and get towards the heart of the tensions that animate so much recent discussion on museum and educational work more generally. In the light of the recent furore over the United States Holocaust Museum’s misjudged statement concerning the historical comparability of the institution of the concentration camp it seems obvious enough that these are questions of wider import.

The first question resides in the tension between what one might call history as history, and history as contemporary civic pedagogy. On the one hand, the era of National Socialism is obviously fading into the past. There are now very few people alive who remember it other than as the period of their childhood. For the senior politicians who are making the funding decisions, or for the most senior academics who have shaped how we write about this period for the last generation or so, it was the era of their parents. For me, it is the era of my grandparents. For the people whom I teach it is the era of their great-grandparents, and by the time the new installations in Nuremberg are ready the youngest visitors will be being invited to think about the era of their great-great-grandparents. Unsurprisingly, and perfectly legitimately, many of them have started to ask: ‘what has this got to do with me?’

And yet, at the same time, one feels that this history has become palpably more current again. Germany has witnessed the emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland, a far right party that blends nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, hostility to immigration and multiculturalism with euro-scepticism. It holds a revisionist attitude to history that seeks to break with the fundamental anti-Nazi consensus so central to the political culture of the post-war Republic. It has become the largest party in many parts of eastern Germany, but its popularity across the country makes it far more than a regional party of protest.  Rather, it has constantly tested the boundaries of the permissible in its efforts to re-naturalise far right habits of speech in the discourse of contemporary Germany politics.

In France, meanwhile, the Front National has also successfully positioned itself under Marine le Pen as a broad-based nationalist, socially protectionist and anti-EU party. Its claim to act ‘in the name of the people’ – the central mantra of populist movements then and now – chimes sufficiently with sections of the public for it to be a credible challenger in French presidential elections, and thus, ultimately, the single biggest threat to the future of the EU. In Italy, the government of Giuseppi Conte and Matteo Salvini represents a government of the populist right in a country that experienced the rule of fascism before 1945 and thus might be expected to know better. In Britain, the rise of Faragism – first in the form of UKIP, now in the shape of the Brexit Party – underlines the susceptibility of the UK to the charismatic politics of the far right. If one looks to eastern Europe, the conservative nationalism of Viktor Orbán is pioneering the new authoritarianism through unprecedented attacks on free speech, particularly in universities. In Poland, meanwhile, the governing Law and Justice Party of Jarosław Kaczyński is spearheading its assault on the foundations of the post-1989 democratic constitution via constant attacks on the judiciary, another familiar move in the authoritarian playbook of the twentieth century.

For all these reasons, and more, the comfortable sense that the past was firmly behind us has shown itself to be a complacent delusion. This gives all our pedagogical deliberations a new context, and a new purpose. But above all it forces us to navigate anew the tension between exploring the otherness of history and the need to generate and communicate some operable lessons from it. This tension between history as history on the one hand, and history as democratic engagement, pedagogy and commitment on the other has become more pressing in the last ten years.

A second field of tension lies in the growing gap between the nature of the public to whom we have traditionally imagined ourselves to be speaking at such sites, and the reality of the public to whom they now need to speak. The unspoken assumption underpinning the public history work of almost all classical pedagogical institutions in the Federal Republic, as far as I can tell, is that the typical visitor is of white German family heritage, und thus someone whose direct forebears were of the generation that was responsible for the horrors of National Socialism. It is thus someone whose identity as a German citizen is directly shaped by that historical, ethical and emotional burden.

Yet the realities of contemporary German society are now somewhat different. German society consists of people with a much more diverse set of family heritages, including different family histories of mass violence, be that as citizens of former Yugoslavia, of Rwanda or Sudan, of Syria or of somewhere else again. Perhaps the most interesting minority to consider, given its size and how long established it is, is the Turkish community in Germany. It is, on the one hand, often on the wrong ends of appalling acts of racial abuse and violence. As the phenomenon of the National Socialist Underground recently demonstrated (not least to citizens of Nuremberg, the location of some of the murders) such violence has sometimes had an overtly neo-Nazi motivation. But if one goes back to the First World War, one finds that the Ottoman State perpetrated a major act of genocide against the Armenians and others, so that for most of these Turkish German citizens the difficult history in the closet is obviously not so much the Holocaust but rather the Armenian genocide.

Similarly, if one thinks of histories of ethnic cleansing in twentieth Europe, a context into which the Holocaust can easily and appropriately be inserted, the relevant experience that refugees from former Yugoslavia have in their family story is most probably that of the wars of the 1990s – though in this case the violence of the 1940s may figure too. Another example would be Cambodia, which witnessed the genocidal campaigns of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 and generated a refugee community in Europe as a direct result. The wider point is that many migrants and refugees now living in Germany have a point of contact to the historical problem of genocide that is very real and immediate, but just a rather different one to that which civic educators still unthinkingly imagine.

Neither is the issue confined to refugees from other late twentieth century genocides. If one thinks of the many ways in which the opportunities created by European freedom of movement have created more diverse and heterogeneous societies than those which museums often seem to think of themselves as addressing, one is reminded that Spanish residents of Germany may remember life under the dictatorship of Franco. Portuguese residents may remember life under the authoritarian regime of Salazar. Greek residents may remember life under the Greek military dictatorship. And of course they will not all be positioned in the same way: some might have been supporters of Franco, for example, while others might have been opponents.

In other words, the more complex our societies become, the more varied our relationships to histories of twentieth century dictatorship do too, and the more varied our points of access to it. It may be that something of the communication gap that we sometimes feel to be there in our educational work can be explained by the fact that histories of National Socialist mass violence are still deeply relevant to most members of our plural society, but often in a different manner to that which we have hitherto silently assumed. The question ‘what does this have to do with me?’ still has a constructive answer, in other words, but  educators need to understand and work with the fact that the answer varies much more than it perhaps did before.

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[Public forum on the future of the Zeppelin Tribune / Field, March 2019.  Credit: Kulturreferat der Stadt Nuernberg]

A third point of tension – this was also central to the dispute surrounding the USHMM statement – lies in the difference between the place National Socialism occupies in the political culture and identity of the Federal Republic and the place it has come to occupy in the views of most professional historians. It has been axiomatic for many years – and for good, honourable reasons – that the crimes of the Third Reich were singular in their nature, that the identity of the post-war Republic is determined by this fact, and that this produces both a unique task for the civic pedagogical institutions and the education system of the country, and a unique obligation for the citizenry to reflect upon it as part of their own sense of German selfhood. The generation of pedagogues in whose hands this problem still lies has, by and large, internalized this position. For German politicians – the AfD aside – and certainly when they address this in public, it is also a shared assumption that the Holocaust was unique. This assumption is broadly shared by museums across the western world. It is imagined as a unique moment in which civilized values, values represented by the western liberal democracies that fought to liberate Europe from German occupation, collapsed. It was a moment that continues to teach us, to put it crudely, that bad things are what other people do.

But in the historical profession, the tenor of discussion over the last generation or so has gone in the opposite direction. Because of our increased work on other genocides (including overtly comparative work), and because of our growing understanding of the connections between colonialism and mass violence, we now tend to see Nazism as the most extreme expression of some considerably more general European histories. We see Nazism far less as an aberration (‘a break with civilisation’) than as something incubated within that ‘civilisation’, and as something to be contextualized within deeper, wider European histories. While most historians would probably still acknowledge that the Nazi era had singular aspects, one hardly ever hears the phrase ‘the singularity of the Holocaust’ or ‘the uniqueness of the Holocaust’ any more, and certainly not in the manner that one did when I started my academic career nearly thirty years ago.

The aforementioned Armenian genocide thus provides an obvious example of a precursor; the also aforementioned Cambodian and Rwandan genocides provide examples of successors. Among the former one can also list the Belgian genocide in the Congo, or the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in German South West Africa between 1904 and 1908. Whisper it, but the British colonization of Tasmania in the early 19th century is now regarded by many scholars as having constituted a genocide, perpetrated with the knowledge of national government, too. Similarly, if one considers concentration camps, another symbol of Nazi depravity, the antecedent was there in the Boer War; the institution has been contextualized carefully and judiciously by many a fine historian in recent years. If one examines the ‘resettlement’ schemes by which the Nazi regime sought to redraw the ethnic map of eastern Europe in 1939-1941 one finds antecedents, for example, in the population transfers that occurred after the First World War.

To point to these things is not to claim that the Third Reich or the Holocaust were just another example of them in a manner that reproduces the relativizing rhetorics of conservative voices in the 1980s. Rather, it is to recognize that those German histories now make far more sense when they are seen as part of a wider set of historical patterns and processes. To insist on the incomparability or uniqueness of the Holocaust in the face of these more recently recuperated histories is, usually, no longer a demonstration of reflection and thought: it is, rather, a refusal of the act of critical thought, and an attempt to throw up barriers to it. It is a rhetorical move that serves the work of quarantining the past rather than making it available for politically operable argument in the present.

That leads, finally, to a fourth point of tension, which resides in the challenge of using this site simultaneously to think about specifically German histories and to raise European problems. The reason that the history of National Socialism suddenly feels more topical again, as suggested above, is that the resurgence of far right populism has engendered a renewed sense of the fragility of the democratic order the stability of which we took for granted until quite recently. The fragility of that constitutional democratic order is probably a bigger issue now in most other states in Europe than it is in Germany – the fact that a serious candidate for the leadership of the British Conservative Party can speak openly about suspending parliament in order to solve a national emergency is little short of chilling. Moreover, as soon as we start to ask after the characteristics or ideological components of historical and contemporary right wing populism – nationalism, colonialism, racism in its various iterations, authoritarianism, reactionary gender politics, and so on – we swiftly realize that the lessons that the Zeppelin Tribune and Zeppelin Field have to teach us are hardly just lessons for Germans. These values were incubated (mainly) in nineteenth century European political culture and constitute our shared negative inheritance as citizens of Europe.

As the dispute over the USHMM statement attests, these are issues that have become acute elsewhere too. The context is very different, but the dynamics of the argument, and the underlying ethical stakes, are recognisably similar. What is striking in each case, however, is that a profession which has spent most of the last fifty years cautioning against the drawing of too bold, straight and direct a set of lines between the historical and contemporary problems under discussion, now feels far more obliged to draw attention to those connections. For public educational and museum institutions such as the USSHM to ignore those professional voices feels increasingly like an abdication of the responsibility that underpins their work.

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