Historian Moshe Zimmermann: 'AfD's success comparable to the rise of the Nazis'
German-Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann discusses with DW the threats posed by the far-right party Alternative for Germany – and criticizes Israel's government for not having taken a clear position against them.
DW: Mr. Zimmermann, how did you react on election night, when you first discovered the numbers provided by exit polls, giving 13 percent of the vote to the AfD?
Moshe Zimmermann: I was relieved, because I was expecting 15 percent. At least that's two percent less.
That means you weren't surprised at all?
I am a historian; I follow contemporary history closely. I had been looking at survey results every day before the election. I knew in which direction it was going. I was recently in Berlin for two weeks, so I saw the AfD campaign ads and the discussions on TV. I was very depressed by the fact that a far-right party would certainly overcome the five percent hurdle for the first time.
Historian Moshe Zimmermann lives in Israel
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel said before the election, "If the AfD makes it into the Bundestag, it will be the first time in 70 years that we will be talking to Nazis in the German parliament." As a historian, how do you view this comparison with the Nazis? Is it legitimate?
Whenever you use the word "Nazis," you obviously exaggerate. Today's Nazis are not the Nazis from back then. This exaggeration leads people to withdraw their comparisons afterwards. Still I will cautiously say: A Nazi potential has entered the German Parliament. In this sense, Gabriel is right.
Read more: A guide to Germany's far-right groups
Can we compare our times with those of the Weimar Republic?
Historians live on comparisons. We simply say that it's always "mutatis mutandis," which means, the conditions change but the phenomena are similar. The way people reacted in 1930 to a period of crisis, uncertainty and prejudice is comparable to what has been happening in Germany from 2015 to 2017. Prejudices are activated, fears are aroused, slogans and simplifications are used to offer a far-right solution.
The surprise that occurred now can also be compared with the suprise that happened in September 1930. In both cases, the percentage points are similar. [Eds. At the Reichstag election in September 1930, the Nazi party obtained 18.3 percent of the votes – an increase of 15.7 percent compared to the 1928 election.] For a democratic society, there is always the threat that antidemocratic voices start gaining ground.
A similar reaction to periods of uncertainty: Instead of Jews, Muslims are the main target of right-wing populists
Now here's the main difference: In 1930, there weren't enough supporters of liberal democracy, which is why resistance to a shift to the right turned out to be too weak. There's hope that today's opposition is more energetic and broader, as demonstrated by the political scene now. In this sense, the comparison leads us to somewhat more optimism.
Germany has been especially proud to have learned from its history. What made it possible for statements such as those declared by AfD party co-leader Alexander Gauland, that one "should have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers during the two World Wars," to suddenly become so popular?
Ever since 1945, Germany has always had voices trying to relativize the country's dark past. That's not new. The question is then, what led 13 percent of voters to follow this tendency? That's a problem faced by the entire Western democratic world. If voices filled patriotism, egoism and ethnocentrism are kosher enough for Trump, then Europeans are also allowed to express them as well – and that goes for Germans too.
Still, we're talking about Germany, the country of the perpetrators: Is this perceived differently in Israel?
That's what one would expect, yet it's absurdly not the case. Israel has learned to see anti-Semitism and racism only whenever Israel feels criticized. Because the AfD hasn't been criticizing Israel – just like other right-wing populist parties in Europe – then Israel has lost its sensitivity and remains a calm witness of events. That's absurd: It couldn't have happened 30, 40 years ago.
But Gaulaud did say that he had problems with Angela Merkel's statement that protecting Israel's security is part of Germany's raison d'être.
And? Did you hear any reaction from Netanyahu about it?
Because there wasn't any. Netanyahu is a realpolitiker. His first consideration is always: Is this directed against Israel's politics or not? As long as the AfD avoids taking a clear position against Israel, then it all remains the same. Mr. Gauland has also said that Germany needs to support Israel. He only has a problem with Mrs. Merkel's statement. Netanyahu's reaction to the vote on September 24 only came two days later, and he said: We are against anti-Semitism from the left and the right. He didn't even mention the word AfD once.
Which reaction would you have hoped for from the Israeli government?
The Israeli government must clearly state how concerned it is about the success of a far-right party, especially in Germany – a party tolerating racist, anti-democratic statements; this can't be accepted as a Jew. That's the least we can expect. It should also be clearly stated that Israeli politicians do not want to establish contact with AfD politicians.
"New Germans? We make them ourselves," said this AfD campaign ad
The AfD's polemics rather attack Muslims and not as much Jews. Did the anti-Semitism of this party perhaps go unnoticed?
That's the thing they have in common with right-wing populists in Europe and outside of Europe as well. The common enemy is Islam, the Arabs. Everything else can be marginalized. That's how it is perceived here, unfortunately.
In your book, "Deutsche gegen Deutsche" (Germans against Germans), you describe what the Nazi period meant for German Jews in particular. They were Germans, and suddenly they were robbed of their identity and their own neighbors fought against them. Is there a risk of this happening again – but this time with Muslim Germans?
The theme "Germans against Germans," at the basis of my historical observation of the developments of the 1930s, has been repeating itself in Germany for a long time already – even though the Jews are not the target this time around.
AfD politicians do say that anyone with a German passport is a German, no matter if they have foreign roots or not. Yet they formally restrict this definition as soon as it comes to double citizenships. A double citizenship is something that needs to be rejected. I for instance have two passports, which is why I'm not automatically German in the AfD's view.
The AfD threatened SPD politician Aydan Özoguz with racist remarks during the campaign
The statement on Özgoguz was even worse. Even though she has German passport, Mr. Gauland feels entitled to define, who is German enough or not.
You're referring to his remarks stating that Aydan Özoguz, the German government's commissioner for integration, should be "disposed of" in Anatolia…
Yes, and I'm not talking about the vulgar language, about what can be disposed or what should be disposed of as a rule, but rather the idea that when a social-democratic politician expresses her opinion about German culture and it's not to the taste of the AfD politician, he can recommend her to be removed from Germany. That brings us back to old themes.
You have a German and an Israeli passport. Did you vote at the German election?
I am living in Israel and I vote here, not in Germany. If I had been living in Germany, however, I would have known exactly whom to vote for.