In Germany, scepticism and even open hostility towards democracy and pluralism are on the rise again. After decades of research, documentation, and education about Nazi and communist crimes, many still seem to consider authoritarianism as a viable “alternative” to democracy. New-old questions about national identity resurface as calls for a revaluation of 20th century German history and its dark legacies are growing stronger among a large and loud minority. In the 2017 general election, nearly six million voters chose Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a new party that is pooling conservative and extreme-right forces, including neo-Nazis. Can we therefore say that the “Discreet Charm of Dictatorship” is manifesting itself once again in Germany – and indeed throughout many parts of Europe? How can we counter “Hazards to Democracy in Past and Present” and promote responsible history education in schools, museums, and memorial sites?
These very timely questions formed the core and title of the 11th Geschichtsmesse, a “history trade fair” combining an exhibition of institutions and projects with conference-style plenary discussions. The event took place on January 25-27, 2018, in the small town of Suhl, nearby the former border between eastern and western Germany. Held annually since 2008 by the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany (Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung), it focuses on how to educate about 20th century German and central-eastern European history. Around 300 people attended, representing projects, educational and research institutes, as well as memorials and memory sites in Germany and central-eastern Europe.
The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory participated with a presentation of its oral history portal Kogu Me Lugu, a newly created collection of over 150 video interviews with witnesses of 20th century Estonian history. The material has a special focus on the Nazi and Soviet occupations and resulting human rights violations, deportations, and (r)emigrations. Interviews were recorded throughout Estonia and the Estonian diaspora worldwide. The material is available in Estonian, Russian, and English and can be accessed through a detailed online search function. It can be used for research and educational purposes, providing educators with authentic, multiperspective sources to foster analytical and critical thinking abilities in the classroom – not the least about the realities and legacies of authoritarian regimes. Read more about kogumelugu.ee here.
This short report will have to limit itself to two highlights that stood at the heart of the three-day event: the key-note lecture and the ensuing panel discussion on the “charms” of dictatorship in Germany and central-eastern Europe. More accounts are currently being collected by the organisers and will be available shortly on www.geschichtsmesse.de.
In his opening remarks, Prof. Jörg Baberowski (Humboldt University Berlin) set out to tackle the big question: When and why can authoritarianism be appealing to a society? Observing that dictatorships can change into democracies just as much as democracies can turn (back) into dictatorships, Baberowski – a historian of eastern Europe – turned to Soviet Russia as a case study. He began by arguing that there had never been democratic rule in Russia in the first place. Instead, from Lenin onwards the Bolsheviks had to rely on violence rather than established laws and traditions to legitimise and carry out their rule. While in the longer term, the Soviets adapted and introduced their own traditions, they also took recourse to an indefinite state of emergency and the propagation of successive threats from within to justify their power (particularly under Stalin). Mass surveillance and persecution soon reached unprecedented levels. According to Baberowski, this is a logical outgrow of authoritarian rule: “Dictatorships are not only dangerous, they are also constantly endangered.” It explains the Soviets’ need to fight fictional threats and develop ever-changing conspiracy theories as much as it lets us understand their frequent overreactions to real, but harmless signs of dissent. (Estonians might think of punks in the 1980s as a good example).
In addition to their necessity for gaining and keeping the power, repression and violence are also effective tools for consolidating power and integrating large parts of the population. Functionaries and ordinary citizens complicit in violence and crimes tend to stay loyal to the current order. At the very top, dictators will cling to their position just the same for fear of conspiracies and eventual retribution – Stalin being the best example. Systemic violence will cast a long shadow even when it has become less prevalent as victims and innocent citizens stay fearful, such as under Khrushchev. And rightly so: authoritarian rulers keep their options open and use fear as much as actual violence to sustain their grip on a society.
Ultimately, dictatorships will never acknowledge their despotism as a means by itself, but rather justify their existence and actions on the grounds of a “mission” that people can – or can pretend to – believe in. In doing so, an individual that bows down to dictatorship might very well gain considerable social and material advantages. Dictatorships tend to favour certain groups of people and protect their rights. By muffling internal conflict, they can guarantee “quiet and order” to their followers and bystanders. Although all this comes at a price, observers in a given context might come to embrace a form of authoritarian system out of completely rational reasons. This might especially be so after a previous, more democratic system has been abolished, but can also develop within an already existing autocracy – such as in periods of “thaw”, when violence and repression become less common and threatening than previously experienced. This calls for historians to assess individual stances towards authoritarianism with great care, paying attention to the specific historical contexts.
This exploration of the “mechanics” of dictatorship was followed by a panel discussion on authoritarian tendencies in the present, German and central-eastern European context. The speakers – Prof. Birgit Aschmann (Berlin), Kristian Brakel (Istanbul), Prof. Jörg Ganzenmüller, and Dr. Eva-Clarita Pettai (both Jena) – hail from backgrounds in academia, the NGO field, as well memorials and history education. They started by adding a major point to the growing list of the “charms” of authoritarianism: the appealingly easy, understandable way in which it tries to explain an ever more complex world. This is just one example how present-day forms of authoritarianism in Europe largely follow the example of their 20th century forebears, another common point in the discussion. Both would-be authoritarian leaders and those already in power are likely to proclaim a “will of the people” that only they can enforce. The very schematic understanding of society that they promote will, once they are in power, require efforts towards the homogenisation of the “national community”. In contrast to the interwar period, when many countries experienced different forms of politically motivated violence, today’s comparable conflicts are largely taking place in the discursive realm, particularly around cultures of history and remembrance. This can be seen in many places. Amidst growing authoritarian tendencies in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey (the examples that the panellists discussed), the respective governments are promoting streamlined views of the past to further their political purposes. In the case of Germany, at present it is not the government, but a major opposition party that is undermining political culture and the post-war, post-reunification historical consensus by giving voice to extremist opinions – leading to speculation what AfD would do if they were to form a government one day.
How to respond to this situation? Overall, the speakers recommended that citizens engage more directly with these threats and stand up for pluralist democracy. As for professionals and experts, they acknowledged that legitimate concerns of ordinary citizens have oftentimes been left unaddressed, leaving a void for political instrumentalization. History education in schools, museums, memorials and elsewhere has a crucial role to play. It must therefore draw even more on its varied methodological toolkit to counter antipluralistic narratives and divisive cultures of remembrance.
In this context, an especially inspiring moment happened at the end of the debate, in the questions and comments session. From among the audience a state parliament member for Alternative für Deutschland took to the microphone. Repeating one of his party’s most frequent claims, he criticised the “establishment” for treating AfD and its voters with disdain, excluding them from political procedures and public events, including the Geschichtsmesse. In his spontaneous reply, Prof. Ganzenmüller best exemplified how to deal responsibly with challenges from the extreme right. The panellist – who holds a chair in comparative research into European dictatorships at Jena University – began by conceding that voters are of course free to choose their representatives so that they be included in the political decision-making. However, he also underlined that these representatives must abide by democratic rules and respect common standards of political conduct. Ganzenmüller then cited some of the phrases and ideas that AfD politicians keep using and promoting. This very elegantly revealed how the party’s rhetoric and underlying worldview lie outside the democratic order and how AfD seeks to undermine it. Despite the party’s constant efforts to publicly distance itself from antidemocratic forces, slogans such as “Wir holen uns unser Land zurück” (we’re taking our country back) as well as its re-introducing of antipluralistic concepts and even Nazi parlance to political debate clearly show that AfD is not fit for democratic participation nor truly interested in it. Delivered throughout in a calm and focused way, the statement let the facts speak for themselves. In a time of “information bubbles”, growing contempt for politicians and experts, and emotionally charged debates, this was a welcome reminder about the value of historical awareness, critical analysis, and how arguments should be communicated.
Apart from this memorable exchange, statements during the Q&A session proposed additional parallels between history and present challenges: “What we call fake news now”, one commenter observed, “in the old days was known as propaganda.” It was also pointed out that current developments such as the re-emergence of widespread conspiracy theories and the phenomenon of “alternative facts” can be understood better in relation to their earlier counterparts. Others, however, warned of the common pitfall of overcomparing the past with the present and other simplifications that need to be avoided. Notably, ideologies and crimes should neither be equated nor used to readily explain or even justify present-day politics. If it is already difficult to lead balanced, fact-based discussions about sensitive topics within the academic and professional communities (not to mention across international borders), then extra care must be taken by experts and educators to act and communicate responsibly when participating in the larger public discourse.
In conclusion, it is remarkable that this year’s Geschichtsmesse, despite its large scale and ambitious programme, made the desired open and varied exchange possible. The organisers and speakers are to be applauded for their finding and keeping the balance between high academic quality and direct relevance for present-day problems. The thoughtful debates “on-stage” among scholars, politicians and public servants, NGO representatives, as well experts from various other fields opened up a variety of informed perspectives to reflect on. These were met with a lively response from the audience, testifying to the currentness and importance of the conference topic. One can look forward to next year’s Geschichtsmesse, which is likely to focus on the dual anniversaries of Germany’s first democracy in 1919 and the demise of communist rule in 1989.
Sven Mörsdorf, Deputy Project Manager at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory