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Germany’s Nazi past, and the right-wingers who want to hide it

View taken on January 18, 2017 shows Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Bjoern Hoecke, a leading member of German anti-immigration party AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland), sparked an outcry on Jan. 18, 2017, over his criticism of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and calls to stop focusing on the country’s Nazi past. (Jens Kalaene / AFP/Getty Images)

"We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital."

— Bjoern Hoecke, German politician and a leading member of Germany’s upstart nationalist party, Alternative for Germany

"He who resists dealing with the past is ill-prepared for the future."

The nationalist juggernaut sweeping across Europe has taken an ugly turn in Germany, where leading members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party have been calling for an end to atonement for Germany’s Nazi past. Bjoern Hoecke, one of the party’s leading firebrands, has urged the country to take a "180-degree turn" away from mindfulness of its Nazi history. He called Berlin’s famed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe "a memorial of disgrace." Germany’s history, he said, "is made ugly and ridiculous."

Elena Roon, an AfD member from Bavaria and a candidate for parliament, recently posted a picture of Adolf Hitler on a WhatsApp chat with the headline, "Missing since 1945" and a caption that read, "Adolf, please respond! Germany needs you!"

The Alternative for Germany party rose to prominence on its strident anti-refugee policies and its push for Germany to detach from the European Union’s common currency, the euro. Those stances resonated deeply with a citizenry fed up with a bloated European Union and an open-door policy to waves of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

Running away from history, however, is a dangerous step backward for a nation whose postwar identity has been shaped by coming to grips with its dark and difficult past.

Party leaders have had plenty of opportunity to cut the tether on Hoecke and Roon, whose remarks and actions have caused a good deal of discord. Despite all the hand-wringing going on in the AfD, Hoecke and Roon have not been ousted. That inaction is causing damage — the party’s poll numbers have been slipping, and Alternative for Germany is in danger of becoming a nonfactor in national elections slated for September.

At a time when nationalism and insularity are on the rise around the globe, it is heartening to see so many Germans recoil from AfD. Countries with troubled chapters in their past heal and move forward when they resolve to learn from those chapters. To shove them aside is to remain mired in intolerance, paranoia and fear. Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, which persecutes political opponents and chokes civil society, conveniently forgets the genocide committed under Josef Stalin and instead embraces the Soviet leader as a guardian of Russian order and national prestige?

Every country needs to acknowledge every part of its history — the bad with the good. And Germany’s uncompromising postwar acceptance of its history represents an important part of its identity. Germany is Europe’s leading economy, a democratic success story and one of America’s strongest allies in the struggle against terrorism and an increasingly aggressive Russia. It’s because of its dark past that Germany embraces multiculturalism and tolerance. Disavowing that history betrays Germany’s identity today.

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