Children of a new fatherland

Children of a New Fatherland

Book Review: Children of a New Fatherland: Germany's Post-War Right-Wing Politics Jan Herman Brinks London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, pp. v, 200 Canadian Journal of Political Science, June 2001

Attempts to account for the causes of xenophobic violence in post-unification Germany have sparked countless debates among scholars, journalists, and politicians. Children of a New Fatherland summarizes and evaluates these debates in light of German history. This historical treatment exposes the ideological and political roots of contemporary right-wing politics, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

Jan Herman Brinks uses the term 'right-wing politics' to refer to the interaction between center-right political parties, radical right parties, and violent extremists. The author's main argument is that attacks on foreigners (and later, Jews) after unification was an "extremist expression of a 'swing to the right' among the population that was reflected in German politics" (vii). Brinks historically situates this 'swing to the right' by comparing the different ways the former Federal Republic (FRG) and former German Democratic Republic (GDR) selectively tapped pre-war, authoritarian legacies to legitimize their regimes. This historical excursion illuminates post-unification forms of rightist rhetoric, policies, symbols, and violence.

The most intriguing chapters, however, explore the reasons for the predominance of xenophobic violence and Nazi symbols in eastern Germany, where, paradoxically, anti-fascist (and anti-Nazi) ideology infused historiography, politics, and many aspects of daily life. Brinks argues that these contradictions are explained by the GDR's preservation of "right-wing norms and institutions under a left-wing banner". To support this assertion, he recounts in some detail how GDR leaders selectively rehabilitated once reviled symbols of reaction (Luther, Frederick II, Bismarck, and elements of Nazism) to concoct a convenient mix of legitimating formulas. The end result was an amalgam of socialist, communist, nationalist, and authoritarian ingredients glazed over with an enforced anti-fascism.

The author draws on theories which attempt to explain how the anti-fascist veneer obscured citizens' sense of responsibility for the Nazi past. Distorted historical memory may have facilitated a shameless embrace of Nazi symbols by groups of right-wing extremists ("anti-anti-fascists") which formed in the eighties in reaction to a repressive and hypocritical anti-fascism. The groups, elaborating on the GDR's already well-prepared mix of radical leftist and rightist authoritarian ideologies, survived the fall of the wall, and in the wake of a rapid and dislocating unification, marked foreigners as new targets for resentment.

Whereas GDR citizens were blinded to the past, those in the former FRG were inundated with it in the eighties and nineties by means of national debates concerning issues of collective responsibility, guilt, and national identity. Nevertheless, as Brinks observes, the debates had two aspects: on the one hand, they compelled a confrontation with the past; on the other hand, they provoked a conservative reaction which aimed to reject collective guilt as part of what it means to be German. The more radical versions of this attempt to reinvent German identity promoted an ethnic definition of German citizenship, questioned the legitimacy of post-war borders, and denied the Holocaust altogether.

Brinks' point is that both East and West German interpretations of their respective relationships to the past resulted in their own particular brand of right-wing reaction. The West German confrontation with the past resulted in a resurgent nationalism, revisionism and revanchism, while the East German masking of the past engendered reaction in the form of neo-Nazi youth groups. Thus, by the time of unification, the right-wing ground had already been thoroughly cultivated, albeit to varying degrees in East and West.

The final chapters examine how politically cultivated right-wing elements in both East and West influenced post-unification party political competition, which in turn, affected policies regarding foreigners, particularly asylum seekers. Brinks considers the ways center-right policies (in some cases, with the cooperation of the social democratic opposition and the media) contributed to the temporary success of radical right-wing parties and to the escalation of xenophobic violence. The overall point (which is not new, but bears repeating) is that the post-unification Rechtsruck drew on the language and symbols of past ideologies, emanated from the political center, and spiraled outward to the fringes, where violence was the ultimate, distorted expression.

Overall, Brinks successfully delineates the contours of right-wing politics in post-unification Germany by skillfully weaving together a complex constellation of historical and contemporary events. Nevertheless, he uncovers only tantalizing links, not causal connections, between the political swing to the right and extremist violence. Although direct causal statements are assiduously avoided, the central aim was "to explain post-unification attacks on foreigners"(vii). This cannot be wholly accomplished by mapping out "a few of the political and ideological roots of the Rechtsruck" in the nineties (Ibid.). The specific relationship between politics and violence requires further elaboration and analysis.

Caveats aside, readers seeking a well-rounded, concise introduction to major issues and themes surrounding right-wing politics in contemporary Germany will not be disappointed by Brinks' historically grounded chronicle.

Adrienne Wallace
New York University

Book Review in: International Affairs, Vol. 77, No. 3, 7/01 pp737-8. Children of a new fatherland: Germany's post-war right-wing politics. By Jan Herman Brinks. London: I.B. Tauris. 2000, 200pp. Index . £ 25.00. ISBN 1 86064 458 9.

Readers interested in German domestic politics could hardly think of a more important topic, and writers of a more difficult one: the resurgence of right-wing radicalism, xenophobia and the explosion of attacks on foreigners and asylum seekers in united Germany. They have caught worldwide media attention for some years now. This calls for in-depth analysis and comprehensive explanation. Brinks's book is a much needed attempt that aims to set the current phenomenon into its historical context, offering a fresh approach as well as a light style of writing. The 18 well-written essay-style chapters draw on historical, philosophical, literary and newspaper sources. They make very good reading indeed.

The book begins by giving a historical overview of the role of the German right and the country's partition after the Second World War. Brink then looks at traditional roots and log existing trends that provided fertile ground for the recent growth of xenophobia. He analyses previous right-wing tendencies in the GDR as well as in the Federal Republic to untangle continuities. They all help to explain the post-unification re-emergence of xenophobia and anti-semitism. Brink provides essential data about phenomenon, links it to more general ideas and trends in German history and provides colourful anecdotes and examples to underline his points.

The quality of the chapters varies. The historical sections, although by definition too short to render a comprehensive analysis, offer engaging insights. However, some sweeping generalizations and occasionally superficial, if not overtly biased viewpoints, sometimes undermine Brink's overall analysis. For example, the remarks on Adenauer's policies and reactions to the Stalin Notes of March 1952 display a rather unusual lack of consideration for the existing literature. There are more examples throughout the book, whether on the right-wing party, Die Republikaner, or on the so-called Historikerstreit of the 1980s.

Generally speaking, the analysis of right-wing and authoritarian dispositions in the GDR and the linkages to foregoing trends in German history are the most fruitful contributions of the book. The concluding chapter, with the grand title 'Weimar revisited?', summarizes its central message as follows: 'Certainly, right-wing violence in Germany issues from the fringes of German society, but the epicentre of this aggression seems to be located at the heart of that society' (p.161).

Brink's work is a pleasurable mosaic that features many faces of an essentially baffling phenomenon. It is written in a very entertaining style and its analysis contains key knowledge and insight. Nevertheless, the standard equation 'easy read=good introduction' does not apply here. The book's occasional shortcomings are significant enough not to recommend it to beginners; in fact, one has to know a lot to enjoy this book while forgiving it for its sporadic superficialities. Any book is as good as its intended audience. Brink's study, written for a large and popular readership, makes for light reading. Specialist and ambitious academic readers will ask for more and, possibly, for different books on the subject.

Hartmut Mayer
St Peter's College, University of Oxford, UK

Fascism once, fascism again? The Jerusalem Post, Friday, March 22, 2002 By Ralph Amelan

Book reviews of: Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements by Stephen D. Shenfield, Sharpe Publications 336 pages. Children of a New Fatherland: Germany's Post-War Right-Wing Politics by Jan Herman Brinks. Paul Vincent, translator I.B. Tauris, 200 pages.

The first and most important lesson of history is that nobody learns from the lessons of history. This is the depressing conclusion upon reading these two studies describing the resurgence of extreme right-wing movements in Russia and Germany.

Human perversity is, however, not the only factor involved. The chaos and economic catastrophe that roiled Russia after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union prepared the way for many movements promising to restore order to people's lives.

One of them, of course, was the former communists, suddenly cast as a reactionary movement because of their promise to bring back the good old days. But there were others whose outlook borrowed more than somewhat from Nazi Germany, whose crushing defeat in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5 was the Soviet Union's greatest achievement.

Still there is a definite Slavic tinge to these people. The world Shenfield, a researcher at Brown University, describes in Russian Fascism is more Dostoevskian than Aryan. One leader studied under a guru who taught a mixture of Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, and astrology. He himself wears an antenna on his head "to facilitate his communication with the cosmos." Another, a bisexual writer and mystic, openly advocates violence towards women.

But there is no shortage of skinheads, swastikas, and anti-Semitism in this shadowy realm. Jews are a constant target, even if the abuse takes eccentric forms. One party claimed that Jesus was not Jewish but "a pure-blooded Slav from Novgorod, who went to Palestine with the aim of impeding Jewish expansion in the Roman Empire. It was precisely for that that he was crucified." Naturally such theorists have little difficulty reconciling their pro-Hitler views with Nazism's less than favorable opinion of Slavs, pure-blooded or otherwise.

Some parties have strong connections with elements in the army and the criminal underworld. For the most part, however, they have not thrived in elections, and display the usual behavior of extremist groups of splitting and disintegrating under pressure. Most important, they lack any charismatic Führer: the eccentric but formidable Vladimir Zhirinovsky espouses too many unorthodox views to be credibly labeled a fascist.

Labeling is the problem with this book. Shenfield spends too much time trying to decide who or what is fascist, rather than simply describing the crazies and letting the reader connect the dots. When he wants to, he writes intelligibly and intelligently, and has a journalist's eye for telling detail. These gifts may not earn him kudos in academe, but should win him appreciation in the outside world.

As it is, Russian Fascism is a necessary survey. We may hear more about some of its subjects soon.

The re-emergence of German fascism after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall surprised many. The Dutch historian Jan Herman Brinks has written, in Children of a New Fatherland, a brief but interesting study suggesting that we should not have been so surprised.

The author puts its survival, in East Germany at any rate, down to various factors, including the officially fostered communist myth that the West Germans were the heirs of the Third Reich, while the adoption of socialism had effectively purged the East Germans of responsibility.

However, because the Nazi past was never faced, a Nazi atmosphere pervaded East Germany. The spying of the Stasi replaced that of the Gestapo, and the East German army wore the Wehrmacht's field-gray and inherited the Prussian military spirit. Anti-Semitism rumbled on below the surface.

The post-1989 atmosphere did not help, especially the West German inspired equation of Communism and Nazism. A bad example of this was a brochure produced by the Sachsenhausen concentration camp museum, which baldly stated, "The creed of National Socialism and of Communism was the same: the opponent must be destroyed." Sachsenhausen had been used after 1945 as a camp for German PoWs, and tens of thousands had been killed or died there, but such bizarre comparisons had the effect of trivializing the Third Reich.

Brinks's thoughtful and interesting analysis provokes a few questions: I was surprised to learn not that one in six former East Germans would consider voting for a far-right party but that as many as one in 10 former West Germans would consider doing likewise. After all, Bonn invested much effort in burying its Nazi ghosts.

But then the first and most important lesson of history is that nobody learns from the lessons of history.

Review Children of a New Fatherland by Jacob Heilbrun - The Washington Times (July 11, 2000)

When Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider's Freedom Party entered a coalition government this fall, European governments went into panic mode. The European Union downgraded contacts with Austria and continues to treat it as a kind of rogue nation. For Germany in particular Mr. Haider's triumph was a disagreeable surprise. Was another would-be Hitler waiting in the wings to infect Germany proper?

Jan Herman Brinks' "Children of A New Fatherland" thus arrives at an opportune moment. His scholarly but accessible book examines the depth of support for the far right in Germany. The problem with many books on the German right is that they ignore the fundamental stability of Germany. Mr. Brinks offers a careful diagnosis of German affairs, neither exaggerating the extent of right-wing sentiment nor seeking to dismiss it. The result is an illuminating work.

Ever since the end of World War II, Germany has not had a mass right-wing party. What Germany has had is a nominally conservative party: the Christian Democratic Union. But this party broke with the bad traditions of the prewar past; it postured itself as pro-American and anti-German nationalism. In addition, it shunned free market doctrine, preferring to emphasize the need for a welfare state and unemployment benefits that would help to avoid a replay of the Weimar-era conditions that provided fertile recruiting grounds for the Nazis.

For all the predictions of a resurgence of the right after 1945, it never happened. Instead, the German left, led by figures such as Nobel laureate Günter Grass, controlled the cultural milieu and set the political tone even when left-wing parties were not in power. Since reunification, however, the political landscape has been shaken up. A number of intellectuals, some formerly on the left, have started to chafe at the adjurations of their colleagues about the dangers of German pride and the Christian Democratic Union has run into a bit of trouble with the revelations that Helmut Kohl conducted a number of shady campaign-finance deals during his tenure as chancellor.

But perhaps the most important development, as far as the right is concerned,has been the accession of the former East Germany to West Germany. As Mr. Brinks demonstrates, the former East Germany is a hotbed of right-wing activity. He traces the persistence of far-right beliefs to the Communist Party's deliberate refusal to confront the Nazi past. Moreover, despite denials, it continued many Nazi practices and was not averse to espousing nationalism.

Mr. Brinks shows that the East German army relied on former Nazis like Gen. Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus to help organize its fledgling troops. "When in 1943 Gen. von Paulus was taken prisoner after the defeat at Stalingrad," the author writes, "he could probably not have dreamed that he would be able to spend his old age peacefully and with a good pension in the 'first-workers' -and- 'peasants' state on German soil, as East Germany liked to call itself."

It was also the case that the East German regime, like other communist countries, largely ignored the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews and focused on their persecution of communists. In this version of history, the war was an anti-fascist crusade in which the United States played a minor role and the communists helped bring about a new golden age by defeating the Nazis. Anti-fascism became the founding myth of the Soviet Union's satellite regimes. The idea was this: Were communism to collapse, the plutocrats and would-be Nazis in West Germany would launch a revanchist war and create a replay of 1939-45.

Of course, this was nonsense. The East European regimes ended up collapsing of their own weight, and the last thing any West European country wanted to do was take over these countries. But as Mr. Brinks shows, East Germany also left a toxic legacy in the form of right-wing radicals whose activity in a united Germany shows few signs of abating.

Despite the periodic flare-ups of violence in Germany, a mass right-wing party on the lines of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party simply does not exist. There is no charismatic, mainstream leader who could put a palatable face on the young skinheads who periodically run riot, attacking foreigners and asylum homes. But if it seems unlikely that a significant right-wing political movement will develop, a debate has certainly begun over German attitudes toward the Nazi past.

The current government, led by socialist Gerhard Schroeder, has taken a tougher line on issues such as reparations. In his negotiations with the German government and industry, the State Department's Stuart Eizenstat has met with formidable resistance to paying reparations to slave laborers. And inside Germany, a younger generation has begun to wonder about the extent to which Germany should make the Holocaust the basis of its national identity. Mr. Brinks' book is hardly the last word on this topic, but it does offer a stimulating overview.

Jacob Heilbrun is a writer living in Washington.

Mediterranean Quarterly 11.4 (Fall 2000) 165-167 Book Review : Children of a New Fatherland: Germany's Post-War Right-Wing Politics

In John le Carré's 1968 novel, A Small Town in Germany, the protagonist takes note of some posters in Bonn on a "pious Friday evening in May" during the early post-World War II period: "Send the foreign workers home! Rid us of the whore Bonn! Unite Germany first, Europe second! Open the road east, the road west has failed!" Children of a New Fatherland, written with startling brevity by Jan Herman Brinks, reminds us that the old adage "the more things change the more they remain the same" holds depressingly true for German politics. The small town of Bonn was, in le Carré's words, a "Balkan city," all the more so because with East Berlin, another such small town in those days, it ruled a divided, Balkanized Germany. Today Berlin has been restored to pretensions of greatness and leads a reunified Germany, but the spirit of those old posters remains as a reminder of the continuity of this country's history with its present and future. It is about the power of this tradition in a "new Fatherland" that Brinks writes.

Of course, the many American visitors to Bonn during the Cold War and the few Americans who entered East Berlin in the same period were lectured by German hosts on how their respective peoples--West and East Germans--had turned their backs on the Fuehrerprinzip seemingly imbedded in their history and had embraced, respectively, parliamentary democracy in Beethoven's birthplace on the Rhine and proletarian democracy in the precincts of the university on the Unter den Linden where Marx had absorbed Hegelian scientific history. Now there were the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the first having cleansed itself in denazification and the second in an antifascist pedagogy. However, when the Berlin Wall came down and Germans were united again, they discovered that the forty-five years of their separation had not diminished their apparently genetic allegiance to a commanding national separateness astride middle Europe, which has remained ambiguously closeted from a latter-day allegiance to the commonality of peoples in a new European Union.

Brinks moves relentlessly in his narrative, each part and chapter leading to the next almost like a screenplay: the forced march from partition to the political culture of the GDR to the right wing of the united Germany of today. His main focus is on the GDR, largely, I suspect, because the inner cultural and political workings of its efforts to escape the German past are less well known to most readers than the FRG's sometimes contradictory policies. The GDR had based its very existence--its national raison d'être --on antifascism, with dismal results. To some outsiders East Germany seemed to be a Soviet model that even Moscow could not match in terms of good, solid, German discipline, but some of its youth may already have been in latent resistance to the GDR's ersatz political system by silently embracing the very fascism that mythology claimed had been vanquished by victorious socialism.

Today this right-wing German history is alive, well, and ominous, or at least so the narrative of Children of a New Fatherland concludes in its third part, "The Right Wing of the United Germany." Here the chapter topics follow each other closely and horribly: antifascism; the swing to the right; the new right; the Republikaner; anti-Semitism; the debate on asylum seekers and new right influence; the Polish question; and Weimar revisited. Since this book is not a novel, let alone one in the le Carré mold, I think it is not giving too much away to let readers know that Brinks concludes his analysis of the current German right wing this way: "Contemporary problems do not make the reunited Germany into a modern Weimar, but there are signs that must give cause for concern."

In the real Weimar of the 1920s there had been no memory of Nazism to contend with and no strong premonition that Nazism would be Germany's fate in the 1930s. For this reason, there can be no contemporary Weimar any more than there can be a re-creation of the Third Reich. But each nation's history has an inescapability about it, so that contemporaries live with the sins of their fathers, as the prophets of Israel, most often to little or no avail, warned their people. Surely German history in this century has been of biblical proportions through two catastrophic wars, Hitler's horror, and the nuclear terror of the Cold War. In this sense Weimar was a kind of Saturnalia, a feast of exhaustion, where even sober minds believed that the scolding prophets of history could be flamboyantly ignored with impunity. The contribution that Brinks has made in his book is, in this sense, immeasurable: under the umbrella of the German past no one can afford a long holiday.

It must be remembered, however, that of the 130 years of modern Germany's existence, forty-five--or some 30 percent--have been spent as a country divided between East and West. Both Moscow and Washington, with their bipolar architectural policies, adopted head-in-the-sand attitudes toward what was happening on the right wing in their respective spheres of influence. The Soviets saw the GDR as the furthermost extension of their empire in Europe proper. By definition, this meant there could be no such thing as what Brinks calls "anti-anti-fascism." And the Americans viewed the FRG and the "small town in Germany" that served as its capital as the quintessence of the cosmopolitan side of German culture epitomized in the great choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth. Not surprisingly, both Bonn and East Berlin wished to cultivate the mythologies of their superpower patrons because of the special significance these alliances bestowed on both Germanies during the Cold War.

So mythologies served mythologies in the name of grand ideologies pitting East against West, the Germans no longer a great power but surely the most crucial of allies to those who were. International stability still rested on Germany, albeit a divided one. In Germany as in Korea, partition turned out to be good business for satellites as well as their masters. During the era of division, the United States surely bore some responsibility for the winking at the extreme right in West German politics. The game was ignored by Washington as it concentrated solely on building and dominating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Germany's soil.

Similarly, the foundation myth of antifascism in the GDR became a convenient fiction for the Soviet Union, which focused only on the forward deployment of its vast military capabilities. It could even be argued that signs of latent "anti-anti-fascism" among youth in East Germany proved that there was an omnipresent internal threat that required constant communist vigilance (and surveillance) by the Kremlin as well as the regime in East Berlin. Meanwhile, the East German regime had ingeniously employed symbols from Germany's authoritarian past to shore up its own tenuous legitimacy. The prosperous career of Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, began in this cynical marshland.

Brinks does not dwell much on the continuation of German rightist proclivities after 1945 within the context of partition and the superpower dominance and patronage that went along with separation. The context is, essentially, a given. If the great conquerors of the Third Reich had no objection to continuation of fascism under other names, why should the Germans worry about being politically correct? Most of them had defended the Nazi regime with their very lives until the final crushing of their effort and the suicide of their leader. But it is important to remember that the phoenixlike character of the German extreme right wing owes something of its surreal persistence to the powers that had pledged to destroy it once and for all in their joint declarations during the war. The United States and the Soviet Union fell on each other after 1945 and came to depend for their very survival, in one of modern history's great ironies, on well-disciplined, authority-conscious Germans now serving as faithful helots, until history came full circle again in the last decade of Hitler's century.

Having emerged from the abyss of totalitarianism and partition, the Germans now find themselves unified in a democratic political culture that differs from Weimar's but that has not eliminated the legacy of right-wing power "that must give cause for concern." In a breach of etiquette, perhaps, it might be wise for us to let the author of the book's foreword have the last word, confident that David Binder does not mean by "dispassionately" that we should act indifferently when he says, "Now that a centrist-leftist coalition has taken the helm in [German] national politics, it may be possible to view the current role of the right and its extremist fringe a bit more dispassionately."

Reviewed by Robert J. Pranger Robert J. Pranger is a private consultant specializing in the management of international resources. He was formerly associate/managing editor of Mediterranean Quarterly.

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