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  • The Presence of the Past—Xenophobia and Rightwing Extremism in the Federal Republic of Germany: Psychoanalytic Reflections
  • Werner Bohleber

See also Lawrence A. Rickels, Nazi Psychoanalysis: Response to Werner Bohleber, in this issue of American Imago.

1. The Presence of the Past

Since 1991 we have been experiencing a wave of violence in the Federal Republic of Germany, motivated by ultraright ideas and directed against foreigners and asylum seekers, who are insulted, physically attacked, and murdered, their homes and houses set on fire. These are not isolated, single acts. They flourish in a climate that has been brought about by the extreme right. Serious economic and social problems arising from German unification, the failure to find a political solution to the question of asylum seekers, concessions made to xenophobic sentiments, as well as the refusal to produce legislation on immigration have led to an increase of an already present hostility to strangers. In the recent elections in Germany fear of being swamped by foreigners was the main motive of those voting for parties of the right. The influence of economic uncertainty, unemployment, and impoverishment on voting behaviour is generally overestimated. Rather, a xenophobic mentality is always a strong sounding board for right-wing parties and provides for young people especially a consensual focus for a shift to the right. Hatred of strangers is also the unifying motive for most violence among youth. Eighty percent of them belong neither to extreme right-wing organizations or the skinheads. Violence has its origins within the mainstream of society. Anti-Semitism has also flared up again. It has all the characteristics of a defense mechanism against guilt. Ultra-right youths who defile Jewish cemeteries and attempt to destroy monuments and memorial places are trying to erase the memory of Nazi crimes. They want to remove this blemish from Germany. [End Page 329]

Apart from these right-extremist attempts to enforce a reinterpretation of history, there is also a social and political dispute in progress, nourished by the wish many people have to make a clean break with the past and rekindle a positive patriotism. Instead of acknowledging historical truth, accepting guilt, and converting it into political responsibility, many politicians are trying to offer positive national values to people. Unity, which is still missing after reunification of the two German states, is to be brought about by means of a new, historically less contradictory national identity. The most recent example of this is the inauguration of the Central Memorial in Berlin. Chancellor Kohl insisted on an enlarged replica of Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture, “Mother with her dead son.” The artist had created this piece of work in the nineteen-thirties, while mourning for her son, who had been killed in the First World War. On the pedestal, on which the sculpture now stands, the following inscription was engraved: “To the victims of war and despotism.” This supports that concept of “victim” which covers up differences and names those who were killed in one breath with those who killed them. However, the “schism in our memory” (Kosselleck) cannot be allowed to cover up the contradiction between SS-perpetrators and the people they murdered. After a long political and social dispute, a sign was finally put up on the outer wall of the memorial, naming the various groups of victims.

The loudly proclaimed wish for a clean break with the past shows, on the other hand, how strongly guilt feelings are still at work underneath the surface. Memories must fade and many would prefer to forget the Holocaust completely, instead of recognizing the criminal past and converting it into political and social responsibility. These tendencies also become apparent in the way immigrating strangers are treated and in the animosity they encounter.

The “battle of remembrance” (Mitscherlich) is also the field of psychoanalysis. In a painful process of remembering, Germany psychoanalysts had to confess to their own involvement in the Nazi regime. The silence had to be broken, idealizations had to be taken back and the truth recognized, before we were able to deal with the Nazi inheritance that is [End Page 330] still transgenerationally effective in psychoanalytic treatments. The power of guilt feelings and the desire...

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pp. 329-344
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