Friday, 20 June 2008

Or Maybe They're Right to Worry

Normally, I poke fun at the widely held British belief that all Germans are closet Nazis. But two years ago, the SPD's research institution, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, published an eye-opening quantitative study on radical right-wing opinions held by the general public. Entitled Vom Rand zur Mitte (From the Margins to the Centre), the study interviewed 5000 Germans on specific issues, calculating just how racist, chauvinist and downright Nazi they actually are. A shocking 26.7% of Germans in East and West Germany were found to hold xenophobic opinions, with 19% expressing chauvinism (Germany is better than other countries). "Only" 4.1% expressed opinions that relativised National Socialism or made it look harmless.

They've now released a follow-up qualitative study. Ein Blick in die Mitte (A Look at the Centre) consists of evaluated group discussions with people who responded to the quantitative survey with particularly strong approval or rejection of the statements in the interview, and with some who were in the middle. You can download the whole 497-page study for a quiet moment (in German, pdf) or just take a look at the pdf press release. Both are pretty sobering.

The researchers point out that participants found it absolutely normal and acceptable to make racist statements, even those who responded differently to the survey. Apparently, non-Germans are grouped into "good foreigners" (like me) and "bad foreigners" (mainly Muslims). I can vouch for that - the number of times people have spouted crap about foreigners in front of me, only to look over and say "I don't mean you though..." is horrific. The claim is that racism is a gateway drug for Nazism, and that makes sense to me.

The study takes a psychological approach, relating the participants' past lives and how the subject of Nazis/Third Reich was tackled in their families to their statements and opinions in the discussions. I find precisely this aspect very interesting. It would seem that Germans are more likely to become Nazis if they don't talk about their family's history during the Third Reich. One phenomenon I've come across is family legends. Some families stylise good old grandad into a resistance fighter, even if all he ever did was mutter into his beer about the rationing. Of course that's much preferable to admitting that someone in the family played along with the system.

It must be much worse, though, to realise that grandad was an active Nazi. Aufbau Verlag published a collection of short stories by the "grandchild generation" that rather skirts around the issue, stadt land krieg, in 2004. The co-editor Verena Carl never quite manages to admit that her grandfather was a Nazi architect, for example, in one story. But Alexandra Senfft's book Schweigen tut weh seems to take a more offensive approach to her grandfather, who was executed as a Nazi war criminal in 1947. And Wibke Bruhns takes a sober looks at her father, one of the 20th July plotters who waited so long to try and topple Hitler, in My Father's Country. Naturally, the Times review opens with the sentence "The Nazis are coming back."


David said...

You may want to check out Hella Streicher's autobiographical novel "Hoehere Welten"(2003). Hella lives as a free-lance writer in Bremen; her grandfather was the notorious Julius Streicher (also executed in Nuremberg). She writes about growing up under the shadow of such a monster.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

The researchers point out that participants found it absolutely normal and acceptable to make racist statements

Of course, it's entirely different in Britain, isn't it. Honest, guv'nor.

kjd said...

Thanks for the latest tip, David.

And kms, I think Boris Johnson's election is proof that the same applies in Britain. But I would argue that racism is more institutionalised in Germany, from the laws on nationality to representation of minorities in the media.