(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was seeking more than provocative headlines when he said Saturday that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird poop on 1,000 years of successful German history.” His remarks fed into a larger debate as Germany wrestles with a historic opportunity to become one of the poles of a multipolar geopolitical system. Achieving that goal would require a perspective about the country’s history that is closer to Gauland’s than to the political mainstream.
Gauland’s statement in a speech to the party’s youth wing provoked angry reactions. For mainstream politicians, it recalled an infamous remark by the French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1987 (which he has since repeated) that the gas chambers were “just a detail” of World War II history. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested Gauland’s comments were part of an effort to erode the postwar taboo about the National Socialist regime. “Those who today deny, minimize or relativize that unique break with civilization don’t just mock the millions of victims but deliberately open old wounds and sow new hatred, and we should stand against them together,” Steinmeier said. Even some AfD members apologized for Gauland.
The AfD co-leader probably didn’t intend his statement as borderline denial of the Holocaust. That kind of rhetoric isn’t a vote-getter in Germany, and it can lead to legal trouble. Gauland also honored Jewish heroes from German history and said the negation of Nazism was now “in our blood.” In that context, his bird poop reference suggests the 77-year-old politician was following his party’s line: Germany should stop apologizing for the darkest pages of its history and instead stress the inspiring ones.
“The great figures of the past, from Charlemagne through Karl V up to Bismarck provide the scale against which we must measure our actions,” Gauland said.
Those sentiments are echoed in the national discussion of Germany’s current role in the world. Even many liberals -- to whom Gauland’s nationalist views are anathema -- want their nation to wake up from its post-World War II slumber and become a global leader. “Confront German leaders with a mere potential threat to their liberal internal order, and most will feel the immediate need to act,” Jonathan Hackenbroich wrote recently for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Confront them with a clear and present danger to the liberal international order, and most will say: Well, what can we do about it?”
The push for an enhanced role for Germany has intensified as President Donald Trump is increasingly shrinking the U.S.’s global influence. Germany is seen as the defender of European values, and as the potential leader of the resistance to populism, particularly given its dark history.
Still, a guilty conscience is not a great inspiration for any kind of leadership, even in the name of liberal values. As Magnus Schoeller wrote in a 2016 study of Germany’s role in resolving the euro zone crisis, the country tends to take on a leading role reluctantly and only when it calculates that the rewards, the so-called leadership surplus, are greater than the potential downside.
If Germany looked to the glorious parts of its past, not its impossible-to-live-down failures, it might harbor more ambition, show more pride and take the lead. But the responsibility, caution and consensus-building, not assertiveness, are written into political establishment’s DNA. The refusal to lead is a direct consequence of Germany’s determination to make rejection of Nazi rule the focal point of its recent history. Even the AfD, which has declined to put forward a charismatic leader and has been co-led throughout its brief history, shows this caution.
“The responsible treatment of the depths of Nazi crime is part of the basic consensus of our democratic law-governed state,” Parliament speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble said in response to Gauland’s remark.
The reluctance to assume the mantle of “leader of the free world” and defender of the liberal order reflects Germany’s sincere realization that leadership is to be treated with extreme care. If Germany adopted the Gauland line or even a milder variation of it, the country would probably jump at more chances to take the reins. But the world is likely a better place because it refuses to do so. Attaching more importance to horrible failures than to glorious victories is a powerful discipline to be imitated rather than condemned.
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