a contribution to the discussion from Barbara Uchdorf and Sébastien Tremblay
Spring is (finally) in the air! The city already tried to gentrify Berlin’s anger on Mayday by throwing a huge party in the streets of Kreuzberg and, today, in May’s second week, many will gather in Treptow to celebrate the Liberation, dance a bit to some punk music and eventually get drunk around the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin.
Part of the appeal of this celebration lies in its place in the tradition of provocation inherent to a critique of the anti-Semitism and chauvinism of the New Left during the latter half of the 20th century. Flapping the Stars and Stripes ferociously on the side of the Union Jack is, after all, one of the easiest ways to provoke the ire of our enemies, delightfully angering Krauts, so-called patriots, and Nazis in the process. At the same time, it upsets some in the left who parade in anti-capitalist and anti-American garb that amounts to little more than a cloak for anti-Semitism. This flag waving has become a sort of ritual, where both Stalinists and the Anti-Deutsche alike can display national symbols without a second thought, all in the name of getting back at Krauts for relativizing the Shoah by pointing to Dresden, their favorite revisionist fantasy, or to Ernst Nolte’s or Björn Höcke’s wet dreams.
As historians of the Second World War and the long postwar era, we understand the need to celebrate the liberation of the concentration camps, the end of the conflict in Europe and the demise of National Socialist Germany. However, we find that, in 2017, this playful discourse battle, while entertaining, misses the point. As citizens of the Allied nations living in Germany, we recognize that, outside of Germany, getting under the skin of Nazis is inconsequential when it is done solely for that purpose—that is, without analysing contemporary intersectional and internationalist struggles, structures of the New Right and present day historical revisionism and neo-Nazism.
We all like to say that the 8th of May (give or take a few days) didn’t liberate the Germans from National Socialism, but the world from Germany. And the Allied militaries were the ones to do it (with the help of some partisans). The Allies and European pockets of resistance put an end not just to Nazi Germany as a political entity, but, most importantly, to the mass murder of European Jewry, Roma, Sinti, and to the persecution and murder of homosexuals, so-called “Asoziale”, neuro-atypical persons, political opponents and Jehovah’s witnesses. And yet, the 8th of May didn’t rid the world of anti-Semitism, of racism, or even of Nazis. It’s hard to ignore that, despite all the flag waving, in its project to defeat National Socialism, the Allies failed.
Starting a dialogue about the limitations of the whole flag waving spiel will help us build a stronger defense against anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization, one that recognizes the importance of loosening (white) Germans’ monopoly on this discourse. Here are some ideas to start us off.
How can you denounce racism if you wave a racist flag?
The National Socialist system, and with it, all its destructive power, depended on a racial and anti-Semitic hierarchy that governed all aspects of life in the German Reich and its occupied territories, from food rations to marriage to who would escape death. This hierarchy was felt even within concentration camp prisoner populations and the NS forced labor system. It further prevented cooperation among “non-Aryan” groups and even created perpetrators out of victims [eg camp functionaries]. When we ignore German (past and present) discourses on race or we exclusively limit German racism to anti-Semitism, we mischaracterize the extent to which exclusionary racism played a role in constructing the inclusive racism of the Volksgemeinschaft. We thereby understate the breadth of fanaticism and the extreme nature of Nazi ideology. Taking a broader view of the National Socialist system can help us account for not only the number of people removed from (German) society and murdered, but also the extreme diversity of Germany’s victims. Doing so will enable us to strike at the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft more effectively.
This means that we shouldn’t need to choose between pissing off Nazis and pointing out discrimination. Flying the flag (to quote the British Eurovision entry of 2007) ignores or downplays that the segregated armies of segregated societies defeated Nazi Germany. Saying the segregation in the US Armed Forces doesn’t really matter because ‘‘the Americans” liberated the concentration camps turns military action into a Golden Ticket for racist states. We know that the US American government perceived integration, as well as accepting (Jewish) refugees as threatening to the war effort. This sort of policy was further reflected in the personal opinions of high-ranking US-American, Canadian and British military officers who liberated Europe from Nazism while noting down horrendous anti-Semitic tirades in their diaries and in their letters sent to the home front. The history of the so-called ‘good occupation’ of Germany in the long postwar period is likewise full of examples where the occupying powers expressed their disdain for the so-called “whining” nature of the Nazis’ victims. To excuse this would be to conflate military power with goodness, a victory with moral superiority.
We also know that African-Americans who served in the US military were often met with lynch law upon their return home. When we refuse to talk about these interacting structures of marginalization, we ignore the lethal effects of discrimination. Even if Nazism was the ultimate evil, we don’t need to put blinders on and proclaim the Allies “the ultimate do-gooders”. We shouldn’t need to choose between pissing off Nazis and calling out the effects of discrimination.
When we ignore the seriousness of other forms of injustice by performing nationalism, aka waving an official state-sanctioned flag, we also ignore the successes of international and historical reflections as not being applicable to Germany, and silence the voices and the power of the marginalized. By waving flags rooted in racist history, we are performing racism. That is, we are ignoring the reasons for opposing Nazism today.
What do you mean by Germany? What do you mean with your flags?
We find, as historians, that we need to move away from an understanding of “Germans” as those whose grandparents lived in Germany during the Second World War. We understand how the Liberation is an important event to be celebrated and commemorated. However, the tradition of flag waving imprisons the celebration of the Liberation in one perspective, namely in a white bubble and an exclusionary collective memory. Many people who are German citizens would have been persecuted or killed by the Nazis simply for their existence. We consider it appalling to still frame the German discourse as an ensemble collective guilt when more and more migrants from the last three generations are contributing to the collective culture. What do we do with Jews who decided to come back? With our fellow Turkish descents friends and neighbours whom, we recall, are still denied access to the public space by Nazis? What is their place in the discourse, in the celebration? How can we expect people of all backgrounds to celebrate the death of the Third Reich if we centre our celebration on the symbols of colonialism, aggressive expansion and unjustified murders with the excuse that it represents the end of another unjustified mass murder campaign? The time for introspection maybe has come, when the discourse is targeted in a manner which excludes other members of society. This is probably not the first time you had a WTF moment from non-German antifas. We kindly ask you to listen to our voices and the ones from numerous others trying to share with you this collective remembrance. When you proudly brandish the symbols from our national countries, it is difficult to bury our own rage. These symbols have been and still are the symbols of colonialism and genocide. They are embedded in their own histories of hate and racism. We have the impression that the German Left forgets that Germany doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We might argue that Germany shouldn’t exist at all, argue against or for a certain form of memory culture, but what we certainly condemn is the idea that Germans may ironically use symbols of racial domination to denounce another terrible moment in history. In our opinion, this goes beyond the idea of us being “offended” or the result of a clash of perspectives. It is just another confirmation that many fringes of the white German Left should open their eyes to their positionality instead of performatively thinking they become better Germans by ironically ignoring any international critique to their dominant conceptual framework.
If no one should be proud to be German according to a basic anti-nationalist and anti-racist critique, no one should be forced to look at your celebration of other nationalisms in order to give you the illusion of expiating the crimes committed almost 75 years ago.