The appeal of populists lies not merely in the economic policies they promise to implement, but rather in their ability to tap into the cultural and social anxieties of voters who feel that globalization threatens their way of life, even their very identity. A key reason for the AfD’s comparatively weak allure can be found in Germany’s unique relationship to national memory.
Unlike virtually any other country, Germany has, over the seven decades since the Holocaust, dedicated itself to inculcating in its citizens a clear-eyed awareness of and responsibility for its crimes. It is this wariness of the radical right and national sense of duty to stand against racism and extremism that render Germans generally less susceptible to right-wing populism today, despite the continuing presence of radical, and sometimes violent, fringe movements.
The process of de-Nazifying Germany began as soon as the Allies occupied the country in 1945. Nazi officials were removed from public posts and millions of Germans were required to fill out de-Nazification questionnaires. The highest Nazi officials were famously tried at Nuremberg, where 10 were executed for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although that process stalled in 1949—when West Germany was founded and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took power, promising a break with the Nazi past—remembering Germany’s Nazi legacy again became a public priority in the 1960s. The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously chronicled by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, along with the sensational Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963, reawakened Germans’ sense of complicity with the crimes of their government.
The student uprisings of 1968 were, in Germany, motivated precisely by this sense of guilt for the Holocaust and frustration that the old generation had opted for silence and forgetting, rather than remembrance and atonement.
In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, German President Richard von Weizsäcker delivered a now-famous address to the German parliament. The speech did more than virtually any other act in the history of postwar Germany to cement citizens’ sense of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. In it, Weizsäcker spoke openly about the millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and mentally handicapped people murdered by the Nazi regime. He exhorted the young generation to “understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories.” In one passage he boldly proclaimed, “If we for our part sought to forget what has occurred, instead of remembering it, this would not only be inhuman. … We must erect a memorial to thoughts and feelings in our own hearts.”
Over the past decades, Germans have taken Weiszäcker’s entreaties seriously, reaffirming their commitment to understanding and atoning for their past. The national government continues to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust, a process that began in 1952, when West Germany signed a treaty with Israel. As recently as 2013, Germany pledged to pay an additional 800 million euros to elderly survivors of the Holocaust.