Shortly after the launch of my first book, I was invited to speak in a small town in Saxony, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party was making considerable gains. I spoke about my volunteer work with the “Salaam-Shalom Initiative,” a Berlin-based organization promoting solidarity between Jews, Muslims, and allies. I discussed the importance of fighting against racism and for the equal representation of ethnic and religious minorities in public life, including in politics and the media. After a lively discussion, one of the participants, an elderly man, came up to me: “At first, I had no understanding for your work, now I do. But why don't you also fight for us, the common people, the unemployed, those without secure jobs, without higher education?” I understood what he meant. In the current German parliament, 80 percent of elected representatives have a college degree, compared to only 17 percent of the total population. In a representative democracy, the parliament should be representative of the society—but many people feel that the elected representatives in the German Bundestag don’t represent them at all.
In Germany and much of Europe, the political force that claims to speak for those without higher education and secure jobs is the far right. Exploiting the economic instabilities of the working class and blaming immigrants for the precariat's situation, far-right politicians have made major gains in recent elections. The AfD and the Freedom Party of Austria placed third in their countries’ recent parliamentary elections—the latter even became part of the government in Austria—while in the Netherlands, the far-right Forum for Democracy Party came first in the recent provincial elections. Far right-parties have participated in coalition governments or supported minority governments in Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Switzerland. In the European Parliament elections in May 2019, the far right came first in major member states like France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Just recently, in the September 2019 elections in the east German states of Brandenburg and Saxony, the AfD secured between a quarter and a third of the votes. Though the party failed to win a relative majority, a far-right success of this magnitude has not occurred since before the Second World War.
As an activist, I wanted to better understand what drives so many Germans to the far right, and to speak with people outside my academic-activist bubble in Berlin. So in 2016, in the run-up to the 2016 German federal elections, I began collaborating with my fellow activist Shai Hoffman to develop the “Bus of Encounters.” A group of young urban people – many of them from various minority backgrounds – traveled through Germany in a bus, stopping in small cities and villages of mostly underprivileged white communities. In each town, we set up a coffee stand in front of our bus and invited locals to come by to have a cup of coffee and talk to us. We hoped to learn more about each other’s realities. We wanted to step outside comfort zones and expand horizons, both our own and those of others, just like in my eye-opening conversation with the elderly man in Saxony. To me, the project had the same ethos as the Salaam-Shalom Initiative: we sought to build understanding through a joint platform instead of letting far-right narratives divide us.
Of course, the rise of the far-right is not only a European phenomenon, but a global one. In the US, FBI data has shown a sharp rise in hate crimes, spurred by the growing tolerance for hate speech in the public sphere. The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Transatlantic Partnership on Memory & Democracy, organized in cooperation with the Center for German Studies at the University of Virginia, seeks to challenge these trends by providing University of Virginia faculty and students the opportunity to work with visiting fellows from Germany through hands-on projects in art, activism, and scholarship. Bringing together perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic, the project explores how societies learn from the mistakes of the past—and how they can save these lessons for the future.
As one of the 2019 visiting fellows, I was assigned to work with a class of undergraduate students studying German history. In the spirit of the “Salaam-Shalom Initiative” and the “Bus of the Encounters,” I wanted to open up a dialogue beyond the social and political boundaries that have come to define us. I was overwhelmed to see how interested and engaged the students were: they were very much aware of the current global rise in right-wing movements and of the far-right threat to open societies. The University of Virginia community experienced this first hand when far-right extremists staged a torchlight parade through the university grounds in August 2017. The next morning, a parade participant rammed his car into a group of peaceful counter-demonstrators, killing civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injuring around thirty others.
How we deal with our history also influences our present. As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With this in mind, our class discussed memory culture in Germany, focusing on the example of the Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones. A project by the German artist Günter Demnig, the stumbling stones commemorate individuals at their last place of residency before the person fell victim to Nazi terror. The small bronze bricks are placed in front of the victims houses and inscribed with their names, date of birth, and whatever information is available about their murder. We discussed the stones as a powerful example of memorialization, and the students raised many questions about the lessons German memory culture might hold for America’s own dark history of enslavement. Their questions were especially relevant in the context of the University of Virginia, which was built by enslaved laborers. Is it at all possible to live in an open society that neglects the crimes of the past and fails to provide reparations? How does our own local environment deal with its history when it comes to enslavement? Ultimately, the students wanted to engage in a dialogue with the broader community of Charlottesville on the role of memory in a democratic society.
I shared my own approach to history and memory with the students: as an activist, I believe that engaging with difficult chapters of our national histories must mean more than learning dry dates and names. It’s not enough to learn the date when Hitler rose to power – we have to understand the societal process that led to that moment. Doing so spurs us to engage, in order to prevent history’s repetition. This is exactly what the students did: after discussing the history of racial oppression in Charlottesville and behind the University’s founding, they organized a series of political actions across Charlottesville. Some stayed on campus to raise awareness of the university’s dark past. The hard work and dehumanizing treatment of the enslaved African-Americans who built the university is currently commemorated only by a small, hard to read, and often overlooked, plaque in a corridor underneath the University’s main building. Inspired by the German stumbling stones, the students staged a cleaning of the plaque and intercepted passers-by to discuss what the memorialization revealed about the University’s approach to its own history. Other students focused on unmarked cemetery sites around campus, which are believed to contain the remains of both free and enslaved African-Americans. They found that most of the university community had never heard of the burial sites, and many students seemed troubled by the revelation. The remaining students installed stands at “The Corner,” a busy street with restaurants and stores, and at Market Street Park, where the controversial Robert E. Lee statue still stands. They addressed passers-by to discuss the role of Confederate memorials in Charlottesville today.
As I watched my students grapple with these difficult issues, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities and differences to my experiences with young people in Germany. Generally, I find that German leaders do a better job facing difficult chapters in the country’s history than their current American counterparts. In Germany’s narrative, the legacy of the Holocaust has made the fight against antisemitism a “raison d’être,” a reason for Germany’s existence. But there is a difference between theory and practice: secondary forms of antisemitism continue to thrive. According to various studies, almost half the German population downplays the Holocaust. Other forms of hatred, most notably Islamophobia, are even more accepted in the population. In the US, however, the current administration does not embrace a confrontation with America’s difficult past. According to the President, “there were good people on both sides” during the far-right marches and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville in August 2017. So instead it’s American civil society and young people like my students who are forcing a more honest reckoning with the past and calling for a more just society.
In Germany too, young people are important in shaping the future. In the eyes of the new German generation, multiculturalism is not threatening. It’s their reality: among today’s youth, 39 percent were born into a family with some history of immigration. The current young generation has already proven that it won’t let itself be divided by the far-right: In the 2019 European elections in Germany, only 6 percent voted for the AfD. Instead of falling to fear-mongering, the majority of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported the progressive Green Party. In the US, too, 62 percent of Millennials and Generation Z agree that increasing racial diversity is good for society. This is the generation which is most likely to see a link between human activity and climate change. They are the ones demanding a stronger state that prioritizes workers against big business. This coming year, when American citizens will elect—or maybe re-elect—the president, young people’s actively engaged in the political process will play a key role.
Like many in the US and Europe, I believe we are in a “Weimar” moment – the precarious period just before Germany succumbed to National Socialism. As in the 1920s, we are witnessing the simultaneous rise of progressive and far-right voices and it’s not yet clear who will win. But history teaches us that we who support open societies cannot sit back. There is no guarantee of democracy—that is something we have to fight for. For my students, reaching out to the Charlottesville community was their first step in advocating for a democratic debate culture. For most, it was their first time as social activists. But I could see that they enjoyed their new role, breaking the divide between academic theory and stepping out to practice democracy on the street. Many said that this new experience had a great impact on them. Of course, we didn’t change the world, or even Charlottesville, with one day of political action. But if these encounters made some passers-by step outside their comfort zones and reflect on their own worldviews, as the participating students did, I think it was worth the effort.