Nazi imagery has baffled a German guest

Posted: September 24, 2009

In Germany these days, one sees swastikas only in history books, museums, and the movies. The public display of the Nazi symbol is banned in any form, for the good reason that unspeakable crimes were committed under it there.

I know laws are different in this regard in the United States, for the good reason that the Constitution protects freedom of speech. Still, as a German in America for the past summer of conservative discontent, I couldn't help but find it bizarre to see swastikas on protesters' posters next to the face of the U.S. president - a man who, because of the color of his skin, would have been a certain victim of the Nazis' murderous ideology.

Photoshopped images of President Obama sporting a Hitler mustache or a Nazi uniform seemed to be a required accessory at town-hall meetings across the country. At first, I thought the best approach would be to let the absurdity of the whole thing speak for itself. As it turned out, it isn't.

One can take that high road when dealing with a lunatic fringe that has no noteworthy influence. And, granted, the most blatant Nazi imagery in the health-care debate has come from eccentric conspiracy theorists. But there was also Rush Limbaugh declaring health-care reform a "Hitler-like policy"; Glenn Beck linking proposed end-of-life counseling to Nazi mass murder; and the former Republican nominee for vice president imagining her son standing before Obama's "death panels."

The health-care debate was poisoned in many ways in recent months. But for me, the Nazi comparisons were the worst poison of all. Given our historical guilt, we Germans are particularly sensitive to the phoniness of Nazi comparisons.

Equating Obama to Hitler and the Democratic health-care plans to Nazi policies shows no understanding of the inconceivable cruelty of Third Reich Germany. The people who invoke the Nazis don't seem to know what they're invoking - or, worse, don't care. This is a reckless insult to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes - especially given that, 70 years after the outbreak of World War II, we are rapidly losing those who lived through the horror.

To be clear, we Germans suffer from our share of historical blindness. Nazi comparisons are taboo in Germany, but, in contrast to the swastika, they're not illegal.

In fact, although resorting to such a blunt rhetorical weapon is usually taken as a sign that a person is short on good arguments, German politicians sometimes seem to suffer from a compulsion to denounce adversaries by linking them to the Nazis.

In 1979, a conservative candidate for chancellor likened protesters disrupting one of his rallies to "the worst Nazi types in the Weimar Republic." More recently, a high-ranking member of the Social Democratic Party said a conservative campaign slogan reminded him of the motto engraved on the gate of the Auschwitz death camp.

How politicians again and again let themselves get carried away in this manner is one of the great mysteries of German politics. They all know it's inappropriate, and the provocations are inevitably followed by outrage and then apologies.

In the end, the austere German political culture - unused to ideological wars and spared the impact of incendiary television and radio pundits - rejects Nazi comparisons. The consensus is that no debate ever profited from such analogies - and that, of course, no one ever wants to diminish the atrocities of the Nazi era.

Though decency ultimately requires refraining from all Nazi comparisons, German politicians who make this mistake often try to explain themselves by saying they didn't mean to compare anything to Nazi deeds - only to Nazi rhetoric or methods.

This underscores one important difference between Nazi comparisons here and those in Germany: In the American health-care hysteria, the offenders can't claim they are invoking only Nazi rhetoric and methods. On the contrary, they have compared Obama and the Democrats to Hitler and the Nazis precisely in their alleged determination to put people to death. Out of respect and self-respect, that should be unacceptable anywhere in the world.

Roman Deininger is a political reporter for the Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, one of Germany's two leading daily newspapers, and is visiting The Philadelphia Inquirer on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship. He can be contacted at rdeininger@phillynews.com.

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