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’.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.