As an enthusiastic student of German history and culture, I relish the moments when I can sit down with Germans and make small talk about their lives and how they feel about their country. And I must say that I came away from a trip to Berlin last week with the feeling that something is rotten in Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
Bad social indicator number one is that the Neo-Nazi movement keeps hanging around.
Why is there still a following for a movement like this in the wealthiest, most advanced country in Europe? Why in a nation that was destroyed by the same ideas 65 years ago? Yes, every western nation has a far right movement, although the meaning of that term as a description is highly subjective in different political hands. I'm talking about a collection of different Neo-Nazi groups in Germany and headed most visibly by the National Democratic Party, a descendant of the old German Reich Party. This movement, rooted ideologically in Imperial Germany and the Nazi period, hates Jews, "non-Aryan" dark skinned people and the U.S., which it believes is controlled by Jewish interests. One fellow who left the movement told me the Neo-Nazis have hidden weapons and explosives depots all over Germany but primarily in the east.
No, the Neo-Nazis are not about to take over Germany, but they're a symptom of something bad. They have shown steady to growing appeal in economically depressed eastern Germany and they completely control the political life in some small towns. Seven thousand mostly young men tried to march in Dresden last month to protest the Allied firebombing of the city in World War Two. They were stopped by an opposing protest, but they'll be back in force on May Day, a major holiday in the Third Reich. The Neo-Nazi movement is a welcoming home for any German who feels left behind in today's society.
In depressed parts of East Berlin I listened to Germans in their 40's and 50's reminisce about the old DDR, or communist East Germany. The recurring theme heard was that one form of slavery has been replaced by another. A stifling communist dictatorship was traded in for a stifling bureaucratic welfare state. One said to me that East Germans actually believed that after unification with the "free" West Germany 20 years ago, they would be allowed to start businesses and get rich. (I certainly would have thought that.) But most of those dreams were smashed against the bureaucratic rocks as myriad laws and regs make it very difficult to amass riches in today's Germany.
From a few I heard whispered nostalgia for the Nazi era and sympathy for some of the positions of the Neo-Nazis ("they're pro-family.") And perhaps most telling, I never got a straight "yes" when I asked Germans if they felt free in today's Germany. Although I'm sure many probably would say they do.
The explosion of the size of the German government into a sprawling, suffocating nanny state, like all over Europe (and increasingly in America), has chunked away considerable personal freedom and made more and more people feel like victims of state oppression. In Germany the oppression ranges from the political correctness that controls speech, to more brazen acts like the merciless snatching of children from good families at dawn by the sinister Jugendamt (the government child "welfare" agency). Big government creates victims and victim complexes, whether it's trying to do good or not.
In his masterful book, Life and Death in the Third Reich, Peter Fristche explains how the Nazis appealed to a victim complex in the German psyche to help justify the terrible things done to Jews, Poles and other "enemies of the Reich."
The worst thing the Federal Republic of Germany can do today is to make more Germans feel like victims, but it seems to be doing exactly that.