Berlin and German Politics

What Germany Does to Fight Nazis

by Joseph Pearson, historian

Germany is a country that jumps on Nazis every time they come out of the woodwork. The lesson was learned the hard way: through war, the catastrophic end-result of Hitler’s politics of aggression and hate. Germany is determined never to go back, but can America learn by example?

Mass Grave, KZ Bergen-Belsen, Imperial War Museum, Photograph Number BU 4260. (Public Domain)

Germany’s harsh anti-Nazi rules emerged from the ashes of the Second World War. Once-proud German cities were piles of smouldering ruins. Berlin was 90 million cubic metres of rubble. Dresden was 90% obliterated by the firestorms of Allied bombing. 14 million Germans were expelled from their homes, having lost all their possessions in lands annexed by the victors to the East. Overshadowing, exponentially, all these calamities was the Holocaust. The Nazis had made their politics of hate, their racism, into state policy, killing millions in purpose-built death camps. Nazism destroyed not only a country, but its humanity.

The German Constitution that emerged from these calamities needed to stand on-guard against the threat of far-right hatred. It needed to take seriously the potential of far-right groups to destroy not only vulnerable victims but also its own nation. Nazism is so dangerous precisely because it relies on the volatility of violence and destruction to achieve its ends. The new Germany needed to put structures in place that would serve as an early-warning alarm system to put out even the smallest of fires before they grew into a blaze.

What I will do today in this piece is outline point-by-point what Germany does to protect its society against extremism. I will then consider what Americans might want to take from the German system to counter their homegrown extremists––such as the ones we saw in Charlottesville–– who abuse American freedoms to advance racist agendas. I’ll conclude by asking whether America needs to endure a horrific war to learn Germany’s hard lessons.

Anti-Nazi Protections in Germany

How has Germany built-in the fight against Nazi extremism in the very fabric of its society?


The Germany Constitution (or Grundgesetz, know as the ‘Basic Law’) guarantees the inviolability of human dignity in its first article. It protects democracy, republicanism, social responsibility, federalism, and also the right of resistance should anybody attempt to abolish these structures. Having learned from the mistakes of the Weimar Republic––the context of the Nazi rise to power––the makers of the Constitution sought to make it, in perpetuity, impossible to create an authoritarian and racist State, such as came to power during the Nazi years, that abuses individual rights.


A Federal Constitutional Court exists as the guardian of this constitution. A government intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has the brief of monitoring extremists (both far-right and far-left) who threaten the Basic Law. In short, the experience of German history means distrust of the country’s past propensity to fall into illiberal authoritarianism, and so special structures were put into place to protect Germany against itself because it had so spectacularly failed in protecting democracy and the lives of its citizens (and those elsewhere in Europe).


These structures have the power to ban political groups that threaten the Constitution. A far-right nationalist movement or political party, for example, can be banned in Germany because it threatens the Grundgesetz. And on this basis, there have been several procedures to ban the NPD, or National Democratic Party. If you substituted the word “Socialist” for “Democratic” in their name, you wouldn’t be far off. The NPD is a hypernationalist and racist neo-Nazi party. Just look at their electoral material: a man on a motorcycle saying “Gas geben”, or “give them gas” (really about a motorcycle, or about Jews?). Or Middle Eastern immigrants on a flying carpet with the words: “Have a good flight home”. The NPD has not (yet) been banned because it is considered too insignificant a threat to the political order.


Political parties need to meet a threshold of 5% to enter government. This is a lesson learned from the 1920s when small protest groups, such as the Nazis, were able to launch themselves to power from only a few percentage points of support. These days, to gain the visibility afforded by the German parliament, a party must obtain at least 5% of the vote. The NPD achieved 1,3% in the 2013 election, and so failed that test. The populist right-wing movement, the AfD, or Alternative for Germany, looks like it might get 7% in the coming election. Its party platform––nationalist, protectionist, populist, anti-immigrant––is broadly comparable to the US Republican Party or the Conservative Party’s in Britain. But unlike in those countries, the populist right is nowhere near taking power in Germany.


The President and Chancellor have limited powers compared to many other countries. In 1933, Hitler was able to invoke emergency powers to suspend rights. The German constitution provides no such powers, and the suspension of human rights is simply impossible. In addition, the President is no longer the commander of the Armed Forces.


This includes hate lyrics in songs, for example: the neo-Nazi rock band, Landser, was found guilty by a court for spreading anti-Semitic hate through lyrics. Neo-Nazi symbols and symbols of other “unconstitutional organisations”, the swastika or the White Power fist, for example, are also banned, unless they are being used in the arts or for academic purposes. This includes uniforms, slogans, and the Hitler salute. Tourists who give Nazi salutes are sometimes surprised to find themselves arrested by the police. But Nazi symbols crossed-out are allowed.


It is illegal to incite hatred or assault human dignity of “national, racial, religious groups or a group defined by their ethnic origins”; punishment is imprisonment of three to five years. Volksverhetzung, or “incitement of the people” is a hate-speech criminal law that has been used in Germany to counter Holocaust denial, which is also banned, unlike in the United States. Glorifying the Nazis is illegal under the same law: one cannot downplay the horrors of the Nazi regime (such as the Holocaust or other forms of Genocide), or disturb the public peace, violating the memory of victims and justifying the Nazis.

What can American learn?

So the question is: what would it mean if such protective measures were in place in the United States?


The US Constitution only implicitly protects human dignity (such as the eighth amendment of the Bill of Rights, which contains an injunction against cruel and unusual punishment) but the word dignity itself does not appear in the text. The emphasis is on rights and freedoms, not on protections. The US Constitution is held up as almost a holy document: but shouldn’t it be just as difficult to violate human dignity as to question the right to bear arms? (Thinking about guns: it is precisely American freedom that allows the proliferation of guns in society. The strength of the Constitution is its weakness because Americans can’t, for example, just ban guns––this needs to go to the Supreme Court (who could limit what constitutes a “well regulated militia”)). What would it be like if the very existence of racists and nationalist groups suffered the same overview, and were monitored by special courts and government agencies? One wonder if the US were to adopt the German Constitution’s emphasis on human dignity if abuses such as Guantanamo would have been possible.


What would it mean to reconsider the incredible power of the President as Commander in Chief in possession of nuclear codes? Much of the anxiety surrounding President Trump is the enormous power he wields––his unpredictability in affairs ranging from nuclear confrontation with North Korea to domestic support for the alt-right––and comes from a fear of what he could do unchecked. The American system puts too much trust in its leaders to act according to conventions that do not have the force of law.


Americans would need to reconsider the sacrosanct value of First Amendment rights. Can one imagine a situation in the United States where the propaganda of white nationalists, their meetings, their symbols, and their statements were subject to severe oversight? Where Holocaust denials were illegal? Because all of these are ruled to threaten human dignity on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity? It would mean giving the government the power to ban extremist groups in America and enforce those bans through Constitutional measures and a spy agency. Perhaps this could be achieved through Supreme Court decisions: such as the 1942 decision on “fighting words” that are likely to put people in immediate danger.

All of these measures involve a curtailing of freedom, which is at the centre of America’s myth of itself. But it is precisely this freedom that threatens the freedom of America’s most vulnerable. While German society is set up to protect the vulnerable, America’s is set up to protect freedom of action. Germany’s values came out of war and Holocaust; America’s were a reaction against the overweening power of British authorities.

War’s Lesson

Is it even possible to imagine such protections (or violation of human freedoms, to take the opposing libertarian perspective) without the experience of cataclysmic war? The memory of the mass destruction of lives and property has not been forgotten in Germany. It is part of everyday public memory in city spaces: the memorialisation of Holocaust victims is a constant reminder of what Primo Levi, a Shoah “survivor”, warns us “who live safe in our warm houses”. Hating those who are different from us––thinking “that every stranger is an enemy”––has only one logical conclusion, and that is death camp: “at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal” (Levi, If this is a Man, preface).

Germany has its problems with racism, with provincialism, and it flirts dangerously with neoliberal economic policies. But it has learned to listen to the alarm signal of extremist groups because it has experienced in recent history what Levi calls its “conclusion”. This is no abstraction, unlike in a country like the United States where recent war is something that only happens on other continents.

Take the reaction to the AfD, or Alternative for Germany, party when one of its members, Björn Höcke, an AfD leader in State Thuringia, questioned the very existence of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin. This revisionist streak with regards to World War Two history was a disaster for the party’s public image, in a climate where even right-wing tabloids are anti-Fascist. But the damage was done: sometimes only a few people need to speak to understand what many others in the party are thinking. The AfD––unlike the Trump leadership of the Republican Party with regard to the view of the past in the Confederate South––was obliged to quickly move into damage-control mode, asking that Höcke be expelled from the party. The AfD is a nasty piece of work, but even it knows its hands are tied, and that it has restricted space for allowed movement, in Germany’s anti-Nazi climate. One can imagine how shocking it is then, for Germans, to see in America a President who refuses to condemn neo-Nazis sporting far-right symbols and chanting far-right slogans, bearing arms in a public space. And I think about how many of Trump’s own statements should have been cause for his own party to expel him.

One should not get too comfortable, but Germany feels immunized against Nazis because it’s had the disease. The problem is that the disease of Nazism killed tens of millions of people all over Europe. No country wants to go through those horrors simply to learn to be more cautious in future. Certainly not America. Does America need to suffer the same way? No, that’s why we have history, and why investment into the teaching and research of history is so important. History never repeats, but it does rhyme, and there is something to be learned from Germany. And a lot can be done in America through public protest and jurisprudence. The question is if America can learn these lessons through careful study of its allies’ experiences, by looking at other examples past and present, or whether it will suffer itself.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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