The AfD and the Commemoration of the Holocaust: The Power of the Past to Shape the Present

Acknowledging the importance of a continuous examination of the abhorrent crimes committed during the Third Reich, German Holocaust commemoration policy has been nothing to compromise on for the last decades. Nevertheless, with the rise of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), one can observe an increased tendency to question the importance and adequacy of the established Holocaust commemoration. Is the power of the past to shape the present fading away?

By Careen Becker

The Holocaust was a watershed in history. This is especially true for Germany because as the main perpetrator of the horrendous genocide, the centrality of the Holocaust is particularly salient in the country’s identity politics as questions about “who we are” are often directly or indirectly related to the Holocaust. Although 70 years have passed, Germany’s culture of contrition is still central to its democratic spirit and deeply anchored in everyday German political and societal life. For example, the national monument commemorating the murdered Jews of Europe was constructed at the heart of the capital Berlin and next to the Bundestag, the country’s federal parliament. Indeed, in many ways Germany has “a past…that will not pass away”.

While in most western European counties the commemoration of the Holocaust evoked controversies and debates, there has been a wide-spread public consensus on the importance and adequacy of the German Holocaust commemoration policy since the 1990s. It remained unquestioned that a continuous examination of the past is important not only to acknowledge German responsibility for one of the greatest crimes in history, but more importantly to remind the public that history must not repeat itself. In recent times, however, one can observe a change in the acceptance of the Holocaust commemoration policy in Germany. Increasingly, politicians of the German right-wing and pro-nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) question the German state’s Holocaust remembrance policy by referring to it as inappropriate, harmful and outdated. The tendency to diminish the importance of the Holocaust can also be observed in other European countries: In France, for instance, Jean-Marie Le Pen called the Holocaust a historical “detail”. More recently, Poland’s Senate passed a bill outlawing the issuing of statements claiming that the country was guilty for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. With the trend to question the importance of the Holocaust commemoration and a growing popularity of right-wing parties across Europe – who often function as the drivers behind this development – it is more important than ever to shed light on the motivations and methods of right-wing parties. Thus, this essay explores why the AfD is trying to fundamentally change the Holocaust commemoration and what it aims to achieve with this change. A discourse analysis of three speeches by AfD politicians suggests that the party regards the contemporary commemoration policy as harmful to Germany and its people. Instead of focusing on the crimes of the past, the AfD wants to abolish public contrition for the Holocaust and establish a new narrative that focusses primarily on the presumable positive aspects of German history. This approach serves the party’s goal to strengthen German national consciousness and provides the backbone to the AfD’s “Germany first” policy, which is a key element of their party-political strategy.

Erinnerungskultur: a question of shame?  

A recent study on the Erinnerungskultur, the German ‘memory culture’, found that only a minority of Germans actually feels guilty for the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Indeed, guilt presupposes that a direct action or inaction led to a certain outcome. However, this logic cannot, of course, be applied to the third generation of Germans after the collapse of the Nazi regime, as their actions or inactions were not causally related to the crimes committed during that period. While the notion of collective guilt might therefore not be a useful concept, one may argue that there rests a historical liability within present-day Germans, which can be best understood by the concept of shame. Although shame is in its essence a negatively connotated feeling, it also has a constructive function by translating the commemoration of the Holocaust into reparative actions. As such, shame is a motivating force to restore relationships and make up for past mistakes. More precisely, shame is translated into taboos and duties. While there are legal prescriptions such as the prohibition to deny the Holocaust, there are also moral taboos arising from Germany’s past. For instance, as the line between patriotism and nationalism is very thin in Germany and the risk of the misuse of German identity is ever-present, efforts to enforce a strong German national identity have long remained a societal taboo. Conversely, there used to be a general tendency to de-emphasize instead of over-emphasize German national consciousness.

In contrast, there are also duties arising from the feeling of shame. Today, the most important duty arising from the German past is the continuous critical examination of one of the darkest periods of its history. Other duties include the protection of minorities and dissidents as well as of refugees, the adherence to human rights and the respect for human dignity. This attitude, which is virtually present in all spheres of German public and political life, serves to remind the nation that history must not repeat itself. Thus, the Holocaust is still a strong point of reference for contemporary German culture and politics.

The AfD and the Holocaust remembrance: A Discourse Analysis

To identify the AfD’s position towards the German Holocaust remembrance two speeches from the chairmen of the AfD Alexander Gauland in 2017 and 2018 as well as one speech of the chairmen of the AfD fraction Thuringia Björn Höcke delivered in 2017 will be analysed. Infamously, Gauland stated “Hitler und die Nazis sind nur ein Vogelschiss in unserer über 1000-jährigen Geschichte” (“Hitler and the Nazis are only a bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history”). While the AfD does not deny the Holocaust itself, the belittlement of the Holocaust lies in its relativisation as just an insignificant event compared to a long, glorious German history. Thereby, it clearly diminishes the significance of six million murdered Jews. Furthermore, Höcke argued that the commemoration culture portrays the German history as “mies und lächerlich” (“rotten and ridiculous”), because the conception of history exclusively focusses on the Third Reich, which led him to call for a “erinnerungspolitische Wende um 180 Grad” (“180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance”). He justified this turn by claiming that the commemoration policy would paralyze Germany as the awareness of German guilt prevents people from forming “healthy” identities. AfD politicians also directly questioned the importance of the commemoration culture. Most prominently, Höcke called the memorial to the murdered Jews in Berlin a “Denkmal der Schande” (“monument of shame”) as he considered it a mistake that the memorial constantly reminded Germans of past crimes. He also attacked the commemoration culture by indirectly defining it as an imposed moral duty which would lead to the self-destruction of the German identity.

The AfD politicians furthermore criticised the tradition of making the German’s historic liability the core of national identity. The party aims to draw a line under this emphasis on German disgrace, arguing that a focus on mistakes is harmful to the development of German national consciousness. For instance, Gauland stated that Germans have cleansed themselves from their past. Therefore, he argued, the crimes committed during the Third Reich neither affect contemporary German identity nor can they be held against Germans. Several other AfD politicians have claimed that the existing memory culture is a threat to German identity. For instance, when talking about the air strikes of the Allies on Dresden in 1945, Höcke claimed that by portraying Germans as perpetrators instead of victims, German history would be presented as entirely negative, shading the remarkable and positive aspects of German history and identity. He went on claiming “bis heute sind wir nicht in der Lage unsere eigenen Opfer zu bedauern” (“to date, we are unable to mourn our own victims”), concluding that the mind-set of Germans is that of a brutally beaten people. He emphasised that Germans would only rediscover their identity by establishing a positive relation to their past. Indeed, the AfD’s re-writing of history aims to redirect the focus away from the Third Reich towards the positive achievements throughout German history. For instance, Gauland stated “wenn die Franzosen zu Recht stolz auf ihren Kaiser sein durften … dann haben wir das Recht stolz zu sein auf die Leistungen deutscher Soldaten in zwei Weltkriegen” (“if the French are rightly proud of their emperor … we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars”). Similarly, Höcke advocated for a portrayal of German history which emphasises the achievements of the nation. Instead of constantly remembering the historical German crimes, the next generation should be taught about the “große Wohltäter, den bekannten, weltbewegenden Philosophen, den Musiker, den genialen Entdeckern und Erfindern….von denen wir ja so viele haben” (“great benefactors, the famous, ground-breaking philosophers, the musicians, ingenious discoverers and inventors…of which we have so many”). He went on calling for a historical narrative “die uns vor allen Dingen und zuallererst mit den großartigen Leistungen der Altvorderen in Berührung bringt” (“which above all and first of all brings us into contact with the great achievements of the ancestors of the past”).

Thus, this brief analysis of the speeches shows that the AfD aims to change the established commemoration policy. It regards the memory culture not only as inappropriate for today’s Germans and as harmful and out-dated, but also argues that the emphasis on the past crimes is harmful for the development of a “healthy” German identity. A break with the existing Holocaust remembrance policies serves as a vehicle for the AfD’s nationalistic political strategy. It can be argued that the party’s approach to stress German greatness while at the same time minimalizing the crimes of history is used to provide Germans with a new reference point for the formation of a strong national consciousness. This is, in general, one of the main elements of the AfD’s party strategy. As an anti-immigration, anti-Islam and pro-nationalist party, the AfD aims to create a folkish conception of German statehood based on a strong national consciousness. For instance, the party advocates a “Leitkultur statt Multikulturalismus” (“guiding culture instead of multiculturalism”). Although Leitkultur is not clearly defined, the basic programme indicates that Leitkultur is composed of a strong connection to German history, language, art and tradition and is seen as opposed to cultural influences from non-Germans such as African and Arabic migrants. Thus, the AfD regularly argues that the German Leitkultur is endangered by non-German cultural influences and calls upon the voters to defend their Leitkultur. At the same time, the AfD calls for a policy of German preference in which Germans are preferred over non-Germans for instance in housing, education and work. Thus, the change in commemoration policy and the subsequent end of German atonement for the Holocaust would allow the AfD to abolish the duties and taboos arising from the country’s past, such as the protection of minorities and refugees. Together with the emphasis on German greatness, it would thus be acceptable to implement a nationalistic preference policy of “Germany first” and to justify the exclusion of refugees.

Conclusion: The Holocaust Commemoration is Nothing to Compromise on

Today’s generation can neither be held responsible for nor be considered guilty of the mass murder of millions of Jews during the Third Reich. Nevertheless, there rests a historic liability in contemporary Germany. While this policy has long remained unchallenged, with the rise of right-wing parties such as the AfD the idea that Germany should atone for the crimes of the past is increasingly questioned. Portraying the commemoration of the Holocaust as inappropriate, harmful and outdated serves the nationalistic political strategy of the AfD. In the same vein, by emphasising the more positive aspects of German history, the party aims to re-narrate history and establish a narrative that centres on the presumed glories of the past. In the wider picture, this approach legitimises the essence of their political strategy: strengthening German nationalistic consciousness and the exclusion of minorities in favour of a “Germany first” policy. When zooming out, these tendencies also point to the growing notion that the power of the past to shape the present is fading and that Germany’s historical narrative is experiencing a change. These developments highlight that more needs to be done to keep the commemoration policy vivid and timely in order to ensure a continuous, honest examination of Germany’s past which prevents history from repeating itself. Indeed, the commemoration of the Holocaust is nothing to compromise on.


Careen Becker is studying for an MA in European Studies at Maastricht University and writing a thesis on the European Union as a normative power in its cooperation with Israeli NGOs. She holds a European Studies Bachelor’s Degree from Maastricht University.

This article is a revised version of a paper produced for the course Post-war Europe: Political and Societal Transformations within the MA in European Studies at Maastricht University.

Cover image credit: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany, Photo by Giulia Gasperini on Unsplash.

Suggested reference

Careen Becker: VThe AfD and the Commemoration of the Holocaust: The Power of the Past to Shape the Present. In: RUB Europadialog, 2019. URL: (22.07.2019).

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