An “ambivalent day”: How the AfD attempts to re-frame the 8th May as day to commemorate German Victimhood  

Suggestions to make the 8th May a national German holiday on occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of Second World War have given the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) the opportunity to challenge dominant German memory culture by urging to remember German victims and offering alternative lessons to be learned from German history.

What was planned as a full state ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe became a smaller and ‘lonely’ ceremony due to the COVID-19 situation. Keeping a due distance, President Steinmeier and chancellor Merkel came together to lay down a wreath in memory of the victims of war and Nazi tyranny in the heart of a locked-down Berlin. In a speech, Steinmeier warned of the “temptation of new nationalisms” and stressed that there was “no end to remembering”. The AfD, as key mobilisers of such dangerous nationalism, however, used the anniversary to challenge the dominant interpretation of the 8th May as marking the liberation from Nazism by coining it as a day that should commemorate German victims – namely Nazi supporters as well as bystanders for whom the 8th of May and its aftermath meant suffering rather than liberation.

This became apparent during the debate on whether 8th of May should be made a public holiday in Germany to commemorate the liberation of Europe and Germany from the Nazis as suggested by the chair of the German Auschwitz Committee Esther Bejarano in an open letter to Steinmeier and Merkel. The idea quickly gained support and was soon commented on by the honorary chair of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, who claimed that the 8th of May was no cause for celebration but an “ambivalent day”. “A day of liberation for those in the concentration camps, but a day of absolute defeat for Germans implying the loss of German territories and possibilities. Gauland’s statement sparked criticism from the Central Council of Jews in Germany and various politicians. Nevertheless, he successfully managed to make a narrative of German victimhood a salient part of the discourse surrounding this year’s Second World War commemorations, thus challenging the dominant narrative of historical guilt as a corner stone of modern Germany’s self-conception.

A milestone for the modern German perspective on WW2 is the speech of former President Richard von Weizsäcker on 8th May 1985 in the Bundestag. Weizsäcker claimed that German´s had “not been defeated but liberated by the Allies from the inhuman system of Nazi tyranny”. While this statement is historically wrong, it became the dominant framing of the 8th May 1945 in German memory culture: While hardly experienced as liberating by Germans at the time, in hindsight it gave Germany the opportunity to become better version of itself. Namely through coming to terms with its dark past, embracing “Never again” as a central ‘lesson learned’ from it and adopting the identity of a reformed perpetrator. This, however, did not strictly exclude elements of German victimhood or innocence. The liberation narrative invites to attribute historical guilt to Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler and leading Nazis while negating or minimizing the individual guilt of the ‘average German’ and particularly of one’s family members. Narratives of innocence and victimhood have thus not been the sole focus of, but just present within, post-Holocaust German memory culture, as is e.g. is apparent in the 2013 TV drama Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War), a portrayal of Nazi bystanders containing narratives of (passive) guilt, innocence and moral redemption. Now, the AfD attempts to make those the key frame for interpreting Germany’s 20th century history.

This becomes even more explicit when examining further AfD statements around the above-mentioned debate. Claiming to put forward a balanced account of history, all these contributions indeed aim to highlight German victims and losses connected to 8th May 1945 and urge to remember “our mothers and fathers […] who were victims of the biggest crime against humanity in history”. In such narrative, a main focus is put on those Germans who were expelled from former Third Reich territory, in what is labeled as the “biggest history of expulsion in the history of humankind”. This is achieved by showing video material of and stressing family histories of expulsion, emphasizing the “loss of the homeland of Eastern Germans” and mourning ´irretrievably lost´ cities like  Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Danzig (Gdansk) as former hubs of German culture and history. Also, the victimization of millions of raped women and  girls and German prisoners of war  with mainly Soviet troops as perpetrators is mentioned. Here, the AfD mobilizes elements of deflected guilt and narratives of victimhood and innocence that exist within but are not articulated prominently in official post-Holocaust German memory and public commemoration.

To defy accusations of right-wing extremism, AfD actors formally acknowledge the victims of the Holocaust and guilt of some Germans. They stress, however, that Germans were not a people of perpetrators as many had not even voted for Hitler. Attempting to furthermore normalize their positions, they relate their interpretations of history to statements of recognized post-war politicians such as Theodor Heuss, who referred to the 8th May as “most questionable and tragic paradox in [German] history”.

Finally, the AfD constructs connections between past and present. Here, Georg Pazderski, head of the AfD fraction in the Berlin state parliament, points out that the 8th May brought a new dictatorship, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), upon parts of the German people. He then stresses that today, Socialists are again gaining dominance in Germany, referring to the Left party as the legal successor of the GDR’s governing party SED together with its “leftist-green allies”, the Green party and the Social Democrats. He accuses them of not sincerely remembering the victims, but of misusing commemoration to defame conservative positions and the AfD. His lesson learned from 8th May and its aftermath is “Never again Socialism, be it left or right”. Moreover, Stephan Protschka, AfD MP in the Bundestag frames the NS rule as a “socialist tyranny”. By stating that the loss of freedom of opinion and criminalization of the opposition “can still happen today”, he alludes to the surveillance of parts of the AfD by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, thus implicitly comparing the Nazi dictatorship with the current administration. An equivalence between Nazi Germany and the Merkel government is constructed even more explicitly by the AfD Bavaria, claiming that not the 8th of May but “Merkel stepping down from office would be a real day of liberation”[1].

This attempt to re-frame history on occasion of the 8th May is part of a central AfD strategy: To offer an alternative German self-conception that does not deny but relativize the importance of the Holocaust, that demands less refection on German guilt and allows instead for patriotism; an idea that does not see the return of fascism as major danger for modern Germany, but warns against the dominance of what is framed as a socialist-green mainstream. An alternative national self-understanding thus that serves as the legitimizing backbone for the AfD’s radical-right populist political positions.

[1] This Tweet was deleted later but has been captured by the author.

Ms Sophie Schmalengberger is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate at School of Culture and Society (Department of Global Studies), Aarhus University. See her profile here.

©  Ms Sophie Schmalengberger. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).