On the weekend of 14-15th of January, the German radical right-wing party NPD coordinated a march through the streets of Magdeburg to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the city’s bombing by the Allies in 1945. There was only a relatively small number of neo-nazis, but for every neo-nazi on the street that day, at least 10 protestors demonstrated against them. Finally, caught between two hard places was the police, fending off the more militant of the anti-neo-nazis in order to protect the neo-nazis constitutional right to demonstrate. When I asked my friend Frieda who had traveled from Berlin to Magdeburg for the protest whether she had come into much contact with the neo-nazis, she said “No,” sounding rather disappointed. “But I did catch a glimpse of them over the policemen’s helmets a couple of times.”
This is emblematic of the neo-nazi presence in Germany. While they go entirely unnoticed for a great number of years, when they are finally brought to the public’s attention, their significance is drowned in the reactions they elicit. Currently, people of all stripes and colors from around the country are preparing to travel to Dresden today, to deter the year’s biggest neo-nazi rally on the anniversary of the Allied bombing. Church groups have issued statements on civil disobedience; prep groups have been meeting since the beginning of the year to coordinate human blockades. An entire segment of the population is all abuzz about Dresden. Why?
Part of the answer may be found with the German writer W.G. Sebald. In a lecture first delivered in 1997 and which later caused some controversy, Sebald pointed out that there has been very little literature on the terror bombings. He suggests this is due to the Germans’ “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia,” their knack at forgetting “what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes.” Politically, lending the event any importance runs the risk of painting the Germans as innocent, i.e. of victimizing the German nation under Hitler and thus trivializing the Holocaust. It seems to be a vast underestimation of human capacities to mantain that people cannot hold both the idea of responsibility for the Holocaust and the idea of unjust, innocent civilian deaths at the same time in their minds.
But in 2012, the actual details and significance of the bombings have faded almost entirely against the vivid colors of today’s political struggle over the event’s memory. This year the demonstration and anti-demonstration that is brewing has become about quite different set of issues: the police’s use of private cell phone data to track suspect protestors and the neo-nazi scene’s connection to the Zwickauer Zelle, the right-wing terrorist group discovered in October 2011 to have been behind a series of murders spanning the country.
The combination of these issues is particularly revealing: on the one hand, the protestors at the demonstrations in Dresden in 2011 were infuriated to find that their cell phone data had been used by the police in an attempt to monitor agitators on both sides. This year, they are highly distressed at the prospect of an additional Big Brother breach of privacy. At the same time, Germany’s civil society has been in an uproar since October about the state’s revealed incompetence in monitoring and catching the Zwickauer Zelle. How is it, it has been asked time and again, that three serial murderers could go roam the country robbing banks and murdering people left and right for over a decade without being caught? Where is Big Brother when we need him? The whiff of double-standards will be quite strong in the air on the 67th anniversary of the Dresden bombings.
Read more in this column Anna Polonyi: The Iron Curtain’s Comeback