If you have ever seen even a single TV documentary about the collapse of East Germany, the image of a sign with the words Wir sind ein Volk – We are one people – is unavoidable. Protestors across the German Democratic Republic began to chant the slogan Wird sind das Volk – We are the people – as a means of legitimizing their dissent against the state that claimed to rule on behalf of the people. But the turn to from das to ein Volk (so: from the people to one people) was the moment when demonstrations in the streets veered from reform within East Germany towards reunification with West Germany.
The reunification of Germany is now just a fact of geography and it is often hard to recall how threatening the concept was to so many in 1989. Framed as a rebellion against totalitarian communism, the idea of reuniting the Volk has been neutralized of its heavy historical baggage: namely the the Nazi slogan – Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer.
The idea of the German Volk predated the Nazis, but this particular vision of it the took the logic of a racialized nationalism to the genocidal extreme. The Volk of the Nazis was a racially pure German people, purged of foreign and “degenerate” influences, both genetic and cultural. Those who were not of the Volk were to be sterilized, displaced and murdered. Genocide was the endpoint of the logic of the Volk.
And it is this dark history that makes Angela Merkel’s commentary this week on the German Volk so meaningful:
“The time of German unity, the time when the Iron Curtain fell, the time when Europe was coming together, was a wonderful time. And therefore there is no justification to presume to define out of our society small groups, to define who the Volk is. The Volk is everyone who lives in this country.”
This is a big deal. A really big deal, in fact. It was controversial when former German President Christian Wulff said that “Islam belongs to Germany” in 2010. Merkel defended Wulff on the grounds that while German culture was grounded in Judaeo-christian values, Muslims were citizens and equal before the law. This was not a ringing endorsement so much as an acknowledgement of legal realities.
In January, Merkel had already edged towards this line of thought saying “We are all the Volk,” but she had not committed to a cosmopolitan vision of German national identity to such an extent. Here – at a CDU party election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (not necessarily an friendly audience for this message) – she was trying to link the idea of the Volk to a civic national identity rooted in shared residence in Germany, and explicitly rejected the notion of the Volk grounded in racial or ethnic identity.
The idea of a German civic identity is not new – Jürgen Habermas’s idea of a constitutional patriotism as a replacement for ethnic nationalism is a famous example – but this positive declaration that everyone who lives in Germany belongs to the Volk is something new.
The Basic Law – the German constitution – roots the power of the state in the German Volk, which is legally defined as citizens. Even after the end of the Nazi-era, however, German citizenship has remained linked with “blood” rather than civic identity. West Germany claimed to represent all ethnic Germans across Eastern Europe during the Cold War and they were provided immediate citizenship upon arrival in the country. Guest workers from Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia on the other hand were not. This contradiction was laid bare in the early 1990s when second and third generation Turks were not considered German, but those seeking to flee economic collapse in Russia whose families had emigrated in the time of Catherine the Great (the so-called Volga Germans) were automatically given a passport. While today, it is possible for long-time residents to gain German citizenship, this remains controversial, as is the concept of dual citizenship.
The slogan Wir sind das/ein Volk was once again popular in 1990, as it was employed by a variety of movements fighting over the consequences of the collapse of state socialism. It was used to demand a better rate of exchange for East German currency by the Party of Democratic Socialism and by the CDU to promise a better economic future through reunification. And by ultra-nationalists who wanted reunification to include all lost German territories – including Austria as well as parts of France and Poland.
In 2014, however, Wir sind das Volk made a comeback with PEGIDA – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. Starting Dresden, in the former East German province of Saxony, PEGIDA was an offshoot of the far-right that saw Germany besieged by Muslims who want to destroy the nation.
The group aped the East German human rights activists by copying the tradition of weekly Monday demonstrations as well as the slogan “Wir sind das Volk.” As a socialist country, the word Volk was everywhere in the GDR – the police were the Volkspolizei, the army was the Volksarmee and almost everyone worked for a Volkseigener Betrieb or people’s enterprise. Saying “we are the Volk” was a way to highlight the contradiction between a state that claimed to rule on behalf of the people, while ignoring their demands.
PEGIDA supporters vary in their claims from those who claim to be fighting against the influx of people who are simply culturally incompatible with the Judaeo-christian values of Germany, to those who see the German Volk from an ethno-racial perspective. Among the familiar tropes of the modern far right: that immigration, particularly from the Middle East is thus described as an effort to commit genocide against the white race. [Not providing links because I don’t want to give these people the clicks]
Expanding beyond street demos, many PEGIDA supporters flocked to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Originated as a far-right Euro-sceptic party, the AfD now began to capture the rising anti-immigration backlash stemming from Germany’s mass admission of Syrian refugees in 2015. Since then, the AfD has become a major political force in several German Länder and is currently polling at 10% nationally. One of their slogans of choice: Wir sind das Volk!
This rising anti-immigration rhetoric is not just being expressed in demonstrations and at the ballot box, but also through arson and assault. In 2016, there were more than 3,500 attacks on migrants in Germany.
Merkel’s image on immigration internationally is split between those who remember her earlier statement that “multiculturalism has failed,” and those whose impressions have been shaped by her decision to admit close to a million refugees in the recent crisis. Regardless of her contradictions, she is radically more cosmopolitan in her conception of Germany as a culture and as a country than other Christian Democratic leaders and even many of her political allies. Her CDU predecessor, Helmut Kohl, has publicly criticized her befitting his own anti-immigration policies as Chancellor, including at one point his plan to reduce the number of Turks in Germany by half.
The reaction to Merkel’s speech from the AfD as well as from the right of the CDU and many her sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Socialist Union, has been close to apocalyptic. She is being accused of seeking to redefine Germany’s Basic Law and attacked as an enemy of the constitutional order.
Beyond the legal categories inherent in modern immigrant law, Germany is currently faced with the problem of creating a national identity that can include citizens and residents who are not ethnically German. This, of course has been a problem for decades, but with a national political party openly advocating a ethno-nationalist vision of German, only to members of the Volk, political leaders such as Merkel will be forced to choose whether to once again turn down this road or to actually present alternatives to it.
This is not a new debate, but one that has been brewing at least since the collapse of East Germany. Already in the spring of 1990, human rights activists were denouncing the rise of a racist far-right in the wake of the collapse of communism. After becoming ein Volk in 1990, a wave of xenophobic attacks broke out across both East and West Germany in Solingen, Mölln, Hoyerswerda and Rostock. The backlash against refugees from the Syrian civil war is eerily reminiscent of the backlash against those fleeing the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
It is a momentous thing that Merkel has done, but in many ways, only a start. Being a Canadian who has lived in Germany for many years, I’ve lived in a strange space of not being one of “those” foreigners, but I’ve certainly never been seen as part of the Volk. I have friends who, even after gaining citizenship here, are still told they “aren’t really German” with all of the ethno-nationalist and racial subtext that goes with it. As some one affected by this, I appreciate that Merkel is speaking to me and other immigrant families and repudiating the politics of the AfD (and many in the CDU & CSU … and probably the SPD as well). Foreign tabloids may portray Merkel as the omnipotent Queen of Europe, but for now this is only a signifier. Until it is transformed into action, it will only remain a slogan.
Another example from an anti-far right demonstration I attended in Berlin yesterday: Wirr ist das Volk – Confused is the Volk. It seemed appropriate facing a crowd of 300 who seemed to think that Sharia law is imminent across Germany.
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