You would think such a question would be particularly easy for the Germans. They should even be the world’s experts in this sort of thing.
What do you do with the legacy of a monstrous political regime? Particularly when you represent the successor regime, which in reaction rather understandably becomes hesitant to tell people what to think? Inevitably, there are going to be some partisan holdovers, even some misguided fans from new generations that never had to live with it. (See Russia: Papa Stalin.)
Do you refrain from banning the former dictatorial party and its symbols, confident that the voting public at large will have too much sense to ever let it get close to power again? That has been the Czech Republic’s approach to its Communist Party, which after the Velvet Revolution was allowed to survive and simply renamed (rebranded?) itself the Communist Party of the Czech Lands and Moravia (KSČM – that link is to their English page). This decision has not quite redounded in an unfortunate way on the Czech political scene – by which I mean, the Communists have never been back in government – but occasionally they have come close, even though all major political parties claim that they will never work with them. (I actually treated this question of the KSČM on this site back in 2003, in a somewhat over-long post.)
Or do you say “Yes, we believe in free speech, but sometime there have to be exceptions and this is one of them”? In particular, this is what Germany – or the Germanies, both of them – did with the Nazi Party once they were allowed to regain some measure of sovereignty after World War II: no swastikas allowed, no Mein Kampf, no organization calling itself National Socialist, all under threat of real legal sanction.
Now the question has arisen with respect to the DDR, that is, the Communist and Soviet-dominated “German Democratic Republic” that was the ruling regime of East Germany from 1949 until almost a year after the Wall fell – until Reunification on 3 October, 1990. That’s what this tweet, and the Die Welt article it links to, by Richard Herzinger, is about, namely a growing consensus (at least among Germany’s ruling coalition parties, the CDU/CSU and FDP) to try to get a law passed that would similarly forbid the display of DDR symbols.
Why now? I mean, it’s over 13 years after the Wall fell, 12 years since Reunification. The answer is last May 9, when a contingent of a former State Security (= “Stasi”) unit marched in full DDR uniform at the Soviet war memorial in Berlin (Treptow), in celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany. As the Tagesspiegel reporter noted at the time, “such an appearance is not forbidden, anyway police report that the weapons they brandished were not real, but so-called theater weapons.” Nonetheless, their insignia marked them in particular as representing the Stasi’s “Felix Dzerzhinsky Guard Regiment” – and that is the name of the notorious Soviet functionary, originally from Poland, who a century ago founded the Cheka, i.e. the murderous Soviet State Security Service, later known as the KGB, whose murderous record over the decades quite certainly exceeds even that of Hitler’s SS.
In the eyes of many German observers, this really went too far. But pressure to do something had been steadily building over the years anyway, mainly due to the Ostalgie (“Ostalgia”) craze (which I also treated at length in that 2003 post) over the past decades, that is, a growing feeling among some elements of the German population that life in the DDR might have been strictly-watched and poor, but at least everyone was poor together and basically pretty comfortable. In other words, the DDR really wasn’t so bad, and this meme was increasingly being adopted not only by those of the East who had actually lived under it, but also by those in the West who never had but who liked to reason that the DDR was never really either the military threat nor the political ogre that it had been made out to be at the time.
On the contrary: Herzinger reminds us in this piece what the DDR really was: “[A]n evil totalitarian dictatorship, that only relatively soundlessly and peacefully stepped down from History’s stage because the Soviet Union, whose vassal state it had been from the beginning, withdrew its support.” For the coalition parties, then, it’s time to start considering a ban on such demonstrations, and indeed on all DDR symbolism. At least it is time for an explicit debate within German society about where the clear legal limit is to be drawn on such expression, presumably one that would outlaw any such future marches in DDR uniforms.
One problem is that not only is it not the case that all the major German political parties are in agreement about this, but one in particular is sure to be directly opposed. That is of course Die Linke (site also in English), or “The Left,” the party that is basically the direct descendant of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei or SED, which was the DDR’s monopoly ruling (Communist) party. Die Linke officials have already made it clear that they would strenuously object to any such ban on pro-DDR manifestations, as a measure which would unfairly cast them into equal status with the Nazi Party whose demonstrations have long been banned.
Of course, in the view of the writer of this piece, Richard Herzinger, and many German politicians of the right, bringing Die Linke down to the same level as the Nazi Party would be basically the correct thing to do. Now, that does really seem unfair – Die Linke engages in German politics, at both the national and state levels, in the accepted way, and indeed has a healthy level support within the lands that once made up the DDR. On the other hand, the party does – and the DDR did – claim special credit for itself as representing a special anti-fascist tradition, almost as if everyone who fought against the Nazis headed eastward as WWII was winding to a close and helped found the East German state. That clearly ranks among yet another misconception, even a political myth, which a healthy, society-wide debate could do much to debunk. That and the misguided sense of “Ostalgia” has been allowed to persist for far too long; such a debate is clearly overdue.