‘…The burden of National Socialist crimes accompanies Germany to this day.
Immediately after the war ended in 1945, and in following decades, confronting the crimes committed under National Socialism shocks people...
Many Germans did not want to deal with this recent past and their complicity.
Only in the 1960s does a broad social debate begin, primarily with the younger generation calling for a vigorous reappraisal of the past.
The consequences of National Socialism and the Holocaust continue to shape Germany’s self-perception.’
Our History: Germany Since 1945 is a permanent exhibit that opened a quarter-century ago at the Haus der Geschichte or House of History, a museum in Bonn, western Germany. The very first item on display here is The Ever-Present Past, which is excerpted above.
No visitor passing through Germany Since 1945 can miss seeing this display. The Ever-Present Past is a stark reminder of Germany’s continuing effort to make amends with its troubled past. For the rise of Adolf Hitler and the ethnic cleansing it unleashed, Germany has apologised and spent billions on reparations for the victims of Nazism. On 7 December, 1970, the German Chancellor Willy Brandt made history by dropping to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, seeking atonement for this past.
When refugees poured into Europe in 2015, Germany accommodated around 8,90,000 of them. To this gesture is often ascribed the German people’s continuing urge to make amends for their inglorious past. It is this desire, it is often said, which had prompted Angela Merkel’s government to welcome Syrian refugees who were fleeing from the Islamic State.
It was also not lost on political observers and the public everywhere that no equivalent gesture came from the Muslim-dominated petro-dollar nations. The world had watched ordinary German citizens welcome, with much fanfare, the refugees as they arrived in batches.
To be sure, the third world has witnessed its share of genocide and mass killing. It has also been remiss—whether or not their responses are refracted through the example set by post-war Germany—in displaying collective guilt for past occurrences. Unlike Germany, in many parts of the world perpetrators and chief executioners of such crimes have even received political victories.
Yet, a recent meeting between Walter J. Lindner, Germany's envoy to India, and Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak or supremo of the Nagpur-headquartered Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has still invited great concern and surprise.
The reason for the opprobrium is that the RSS promotes Hindutva, a deeply controversial world view. One of the most prominent leaders of the RSS had, for instance, lauded the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Germany. Could there be a greater irony, at least from the point of view of Germany, that Lindner should visit such an organisation, which has not distanced itself from those views. In fact, the RSS had propounded the theory that similar methods as the Nazis should be deployed in India, in order to settle the ‘minority question’.
Lindner is no ordinary career diplomat. He is a darling of the German media. He has been a spokesman for Joschka Fischer, the former German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister. He has even served as Secretary of State when Heiko Maas became Foreign Minister in 2018. A polyglot who understands German, French, Turkish and English, a trained flautist and a guitarist with two albums under his belt: With all these accomplishments, Lindner is surely no stranger to the RSS and its affinity with National Socialism.
Had Lindner’s visit to the RSS headquarters remained private, it is still conceivable that objections to it would have been muted or absent. But the ambassador chose to tweet about his visit extensively. He has tweeted the details of his visit to Bhagwat along with his other more mundane activities in Nagpur, which included riding a bicycle around Nagpur, supporting a programme to fight leprosy in the region and so on. His tweets were followed by similar remarks on twitter from the RSS, which gives the entire affair an official air.
Those perturbed by Lindner’s visit immediately raised a series of petitions and protests. One of them was initiated by a South Asian analyst on the popular website for such petitions, change.org. In it, Pieter Friedrich, a South Asia analyst, has demanded Lindner’s resignation or recall. By Sunday night, the petition secured almost 1,800 signatures, including by prominent academicians from around the world. The petition refers to the paramilitary, ideological and institutional inspiration that the RSS has drawn from European fascism and emphasises that Germany must “in no way demonstrate any tolerance” for its ideology.
It is no secret that RSS’s second supremo, Madhav Golwalkar, had controversially proposed a vision for India as an ethno-state, in the principal document he wrote, titled We or Our Nationhood Defined.
In Golwalkar’s conception, religions that do not have their holy land in India—that is, Islam and Christianity—would have to “lose their separate existence to merge into the Hindu race”. Else, they would get no rights or privileges as citizens and would be “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation.”
Not just that. Golwalkar, who believed that Judaism was “an intolerant faith”, had praised Germany’s Holocaust. He had referred to it as a manifestation of “race pride at its highest”.
It perhaps need not be said that there is a deep irony in the German Ambassador paying a visit to the group, one of whose tallest leaders had considered it “impossible” for different “races and cultures” to be “assimilated into one united whole”. One who had proclaimed the Nazi policy towards the Jews as “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit from.”
The timing of the publication of this book by Golwalkar is equally relevant: This was done in 1939, just a year after Kristallnacht, the first Nazi pogrom against the Jews. It was published only four years after the Nazis had passed the Nuremberg Laws, in September 1935. The two principal legislations that formed the Nuremberg Laws began stripping the Jews of their citizenship, forbade employment of German women under 45 and prohibited marriages between German Jews and non-Jews.
The timing of Golwalkar’s writings would perhaps have troubled the Ambassador, had he taken note of the series of recent incidents in his own country. These events portend how deeply the ultra-right viewpoint has penetrated a section of German society. Surely these incidents are against the spirit of Kniefall von Warschau, or Genuflection at Warsaw, the popular German phrase that refers to Willy Brandt’s historic penance in Poland.
That legitimacy for neo-Nazi viewpoints is growing in Germany is apparent from the fact that a former German spy chief, Maassen, who is a member of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, recently shared far-right tweets, sparking outrage.
Maassen was forced to step down just last year, for underplaying an incident in Chemnitz, one of eastern Germany’s most prominent cities, where far-right protesters had violently chased down migrants.
Roughly a month before Maassen’s controversial tweet, a prominent politician, Walter Lübcke, also a member of the CDU, was assassinated by the neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst for his pro-refugee stance. In 2015, when Merkel faced criticism for how she was handling the refugee crisis, Lübcke had defended her decision not to close German borders, which had angered far right activists.
There were protest marches in Kassel, where Lübcke was killed, against increasing right wing violence. One demonstration was attended by over 10,000 people; though calls by Haas for more demonstrations were largely ignored.
“Why are the people of my country not flooding to the streets in disgust?” columnist Hatice Akyün asked in the Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. “Now, after the death of Walter Lübcke … After death threats against Cologne mayor Henriette Reker and dozens of other politicians.”
Meanwhile the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has managed to win seats in Parliament and seems to be getting bolder. Thomas Haldenwang, the chief of the German Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) has already warned of growing threats from violent right wing extremists. (It is estimated that there are nearly 13,000 violent Right-wing extremists living in Germany.) Worryingly, Haldenwang has also said, at a press conference, that there are so many Right wing extremists that “…it’s difficult to have an eye on them all.”
One is yet to hear the German Embassy in Delhi explain exactly what purpose Lindner’s visit to the RSS headquarters served. What is certain is that he has made history of quite another kind, with the potential to reverberate not just India but in Germany too.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.