MUNICH ― To Germans, it is no surprise that right-wing violence is escalating in America and that the president for days appeared unwilling to explicitly condemn the racists responsible for the death of a young woman during a far-right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In Germany, commentators from even the most conservative media organizations now argue the U.S. is moving away from democracy under President Donald Trump; that the president has become, in the words of one well-known sociologist, “the standard-bearer” for white supremacists.
“We are not dealing with a normal politician, but ... with something like a totalitarian ruler,” Harald Welzer, a sociologist, told a well-regarded German radio program on Monday. “We know this kind of politics from the 20th century. We didn’t expect its return in the 21st century.”
There’s little equivocation here, in part because of Germany’s historical relationship to symbols on display in Charlottesville: the swastika, the torches and the slogans.
History here casts a long shadow. As The Economist rightly observed this week, in Germany, “Relativisation, endorsement by hint or omission, far-right symbols as ‘irony’, dog-whistle prevarications and creeping extenuation are rarely tolerated.”
A lesson from the horrors of Nazi rule in Germany is that there is a direct line from totalitarian speech to open violence. Hannah Arendt wrote about it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Victor Klemperer, in his book Language of the Third Reich, has portrayed the brutalization of language during the Nazi regime.
In Germany, this belief has led to laws which at times seem odd to foreigners. But they are justified by history: Never again will totalitarian ideas dominate our political discourse.
While we, too, are in favor of freedom of speech, the denial of the Holocaust is forbidden, as is incitement of hatred, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. Many of the demonstrators in Charlottesville would have fallen afoul of this law in Germany.
The public display of Nazi flags or regalia is forbidden, and even antique dealers must cover any swastikas on display. Nazi salutes are also forbidden, as two Chinese tourists recently learned: They were arrested after making the salute in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin. (A drunken American tourist got even swifter justice when a passerby punched him as he gave several stiff-armed salutes in downtown Dresden on Sunday.)
Right-wing populists, not unknown in Germany, have on occasion criticized some of these laws, referring to them as a “thought-policing.”
But, so far, public opinion hasn’t turned in their favor.
And even to those who advocate stricter controls on immigration, extreme-right symbols are a taboo.
The line between the right and the far right is like a firewall and, in Germany, it’s our democracy that holds it up.