Nazi Emergency Declared in Dresden: a shuddering call for a wounded city

Councillors in the east German city of Dresden have taken the unprecedented step of declaring a ‘Nazinotstand’ (Nazi Emergency) after the increase in far right-wing sentiment and activity means that ‘open democratic society is threatened’.

Dresden has become accustomed to witnessing far-right protests

Whilst the resolution of the city council is likely to have little significant affect on policy, its symbolic impact is undeniable given Germany’s recent fascist past. Indeed, the thought of the far-right being on the march once more through Europe’s biggest economy is likely to send shockwaves across the continent.

Saxony – the state in which Dresden resides – and neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt lie at the centre of the German right-wing resurgence. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which sits far to the right of the political centre, polled heavily here in the 2017 elections, taking around a quarter of the vote. This helped the AfD to 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third largest party in parliament.

The 2017 Federal elections saw an historic upsurge in AfD support

Running on an ultranationalist, anti-Islamic platform, the AfD has harnessed the popularity of the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) movement in the region, which sprung into life during Angela Merkel’s ‘open-door’ policy towards the Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in 2014-2015.

PEGIDA rallies in Dresden have drawn thousands of supporters, many of whom have done little to distance themselves from accusations that they are little more than a quasi-Nazi conglomerate. Given that Dresden has also traditionally been a stronghold of the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), there certainly seems to be some justification in the council’s ruling, however drastic the terminology of its declaration.

PEGIDA rallies have not been confined to Germany

Clearly there is an issue with the city addressing both its past and present. Whereas the official line for much of Germany in recent years has been to shown contrition for the actions of their Nazi predecessors, and take pains to demonstrate a repulsion of right-wing politics, this is not a stance that is accepted wholesale across the country.

Complicating matters further in Saxony is another historical event whose 75th anniversary is fast approaching: the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Over the course of four raids between the 13th and 15th of that month, British and American heavy bombers dropped 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Dresden, destroying more than 90% of the city centre and killing an estimated 25,000 civilians (the number may be higher).

The bombing of Dresden led to a huge firestorm which gutted the city

The bombing of Dresden has remained a hugely controversial episode of World War Two. In some quarters, the destruction of this ‘cultural’ and ‘historical’ city is the ultimate example of Allied excess at a time when German defeat seemed inevitable. As with the deployment of the atomic bombs on Japan, however, others have argued that such decisive action was necessary to shorten the war. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the chief of Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command at the time, certainly subscribed to this view, whilst also asserting Dresden’s strategic importance as a transport hub and centre of munitions manufacturing. Winston Churchill vacillated between defending the bombing and distancing himself from the carnage it wrought.

For some Dresden natives, there has never been a sufficient apology for the firestorms of February 1945. Whilst Germans are supposed to feel an eternal guilt for their silent complicity with the Nazi murder machine, no such pressure is brought upon the governments of the UK or America to atone for ‘the bombing holocaust’ as the far-right sees it. For some, the ‘invisible’ crimes of the Nazis pale into insignificance compared to the very visible consequences of the Dresden bombings.

More than 7 years after the bombings, the scars on the landscape were still clear to see

A sense of historical unfairness, coupled with the common concerns of economic and social security in the midst of a changing ethnic and political landscape, is dividing Dresden. The actions of the council will not have been taken lightly, for they risk further inflaming right-wing tensions and distancing a large minority in the city from their political representatives.

Whatever your political persuasion, to be called a Nazi in modern Germany is to be an outcast. Yet with the resurgence of the political right, and calls for a revisionist view of German history, how long this will remain to be true is hard to say.

The Land of Vodka and Drunkards no More? Russian alcohol consumption slashed under Putin

It would be reasonable – if not a little unfair – to say that Russia is synonymous with alcohol consumption. Strong, undiluted alcohol. Stereotypes abound for all nationalities and races, many of them unpleasant. Like the Irish , Russian people are often generalised as being heavy drinkers. Rather than a tipple of Guinness, though, for the Russians vodka is their assumed poison.

Whilst undoubtedly ridiculous to declare a population of more than 140 million a bunch of drunkards, there is evidence that the Russians suffer the scourges of alcohol more than most countries. Alcohol-related deaths have traditionally been high per capita, likewise alcohol-related crime.

Doesn’t make pretty viewing for Russians

Matters have not been helped by Russia’s refusal for many years to count beer as an ‘alcoholic’ beverage and by the proliferation of street vendors selling the hardest spirits at all hours of the day from small kiosks.

As Nikolai Gogol wrote:

Go along, go along quickly, and set all you have on the table for us.  We don’t want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes, and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year old mead!  And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavorings, but pure foaming vodka, that hisses and bubbles like mad.

Akaky Akakiyevich visits the drunken, one-eyed tailor Petrovich in Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’

Vodka is, regardless of its potency or adverse affects when voraciously consumed, an undeniable part of Russian culture, just as drinking alcohol is in many countries.

The myth goes that Vladimir the Great, Prince of Novgorod from 980 to 1015, rejected Islam because of its prohibition of alcohol. The sale of intoxicating beverages was encouraged for centuries in a bid to fill royal coffers, with Ivan the Terrible even demanding the erection of more kabaks (taverns) as a primary source of taxation. By 1648 more than a third of Russian men were in debt to kabaks, and by 1860 the sale of vodka accounted for 40% of government revenue.

The kabak became an important place for social interaction

It was little wonder, then, that by 1909 the average Russian consumed eleven bottles of vodka per year, and that by 1913 nearly 5% of the population of St Petersburg were alcoholics. With the Tsarist system coming under increasing strain, and a World War on the horizon, something had to be done.

But attempts at prohibition fell short. Beer was still not classified as alcoholic and procuring harder liquor was not particularly problematic. By the time of Stalin, alcohol sales were again required to generate state income and the half-hearted attempts by his Communist successors to stave off the blight of drunkenness were rebuffed by an unwilling populace.

Stalin and Churchill apparently enjoyed some heavy binges during WWII

One question that seemed not to be considered, however, was why so many Russian people were seeking solace in the bottle in the first place. Culture is one thing…but an epidemic needs more explanation. Dostoevsky hit on an idea in Crime and Punishment:

“And the more I drink the more I feel it. That’s why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink…I drink so that I may suffer twice as much!”

Misery, loneliness, lack of opportunity; Russian’s lower classes have suffered from all of the above, whether under the Tsars, the communists, or Putin. Systemic causes for alcoholism have always been overlooked, not to mention a frigid climate!

Yet there seems to be a bright patch on the horizon for, as a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report has outlined, Russian alcohol consumption decreased by a whopping 43% between 2003 and 2016. The abolition of the old kiosks, the increase in alcohol prices, penalties for drinking on the street, a president whose personality cult revolves around a healthy, all-action lifestyle; all these things have helped.

Street kiosks selling strong liquor have been banned

As with other countries, alcoholism will never be eradicated in Russia. Nor will it stop being an important part of the nation’s culture…nor should it. Still, in an era where Vladimir Putin seems intent on making the world a less stable place, potentially leading his people on a path of economic ruin, his reign has at least begun to address an important balance.

Pleasure vs over-indulgence. We all struggle to find that balance now and again. Whether the debilitating plague of alcoholism is dispersing from Russia on the Arctic wind remains to be seen, but at least the promise is there. The chances of other opportunities arising for the people under Putin, on the other hand, is far less likely.