The Area Has Not Yet Been Cleared of Mines: On Heinrich Böll, Germany, and Fascism — Marcel Krueger

I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. I am a writer who at one point decided not to live in her country anymore because her country was no longer hers.

Dubravka Ugrešić, “The Writer in Exile”

The 2016 documentary My Escape/Meine Flucht by director Elke Sasse, produced by German public broadcaster WDR, consists entirely of cellphone videos shot by refugees on the way from their homelands to Europe the year before. At a point towards the end of the movie, there are scenes when the refugees on the road in the Balkans and elsewhere receive the message that Germany has offered to take them in, and they burst out in spontaneous song, on trains and on buses, singing “Almanya! Almanya!” with big smiles on their faces. Watching this scene was the first time in a long while that I felt something you might call patriotism, pride in the country of my birth.  

Sir James, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

I began this piece at the desk of Heinrich Böll in his cottage study on the island of Achill, out in the far west of Ireland, during the first weeks of the pandemic in 2020. The cottage is offered throughout the year to writers, visual artists, musicians, and other creatives for residencies, enabling them to stay here for two weeks to work undisturbed. The house is filled with the works of Böll and the art of previous residents; stones, bones, and driftwood line the windowsills, paintings and collages, copies of the residents own books fill the bookshelves. From the window of the study I could see the white horses of the Atlantic in Blacksod Bay, and the brown rock lump of Doohoma Head in the distance.

Cologne-born Heinrich Böll (1917 – 1985), who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, was a lifelong fighter for social justice, sometimes called the “conscience of West Germany.” Böll first came to Ireland to clear his head from a stressful period of writing and building a house in his hometown in 1954. He liked Achill so much that he returned here again and again, eventually buying the cottage in the small village of Dugort.

Böll expressed his own, somewhat romanticised view of poor Ireland in his Irish Journal, published in 1957 and still in print today, still accompanying many a German tourist who comes to Ireland for the first time. He did however always return to Germany from his Irish exile, return to his country and language, the place where he could move things through writing. While he was highly critical of much of the politics of the Federal Republic (though being a member of the SPD, the German Socialist Party, all his adult life), he was never frustrated enough with Germany to consider moving to Ireland permantently.

It is different for me. I have lived in Ireland since 2006, first moving here for a short experience abroad that would look good on my CV, but I liked it so much that I decided to stay. And it was Ireland that made me pick up a pen and become a writer. What helped my writing grow was the country and the language. Writing in my second language gives me a different outlook, a clearer approach to composing on sentence level—maybe because I cannot do it subconsciously, as I might do in German, I have to structure things much more slowly and clearly in my head before I write them down. Writing in my second language has also allowed me to reinvent myself, up to a certain point.

Hiberno-English is something I had to learn later in life, and maybe that added layer of conscious engagement with language helps me to be a very different person on paper as Marcel Krueger, ditching my Umlaut to make it easier for Irish people to understand my name and at the same time adding a small step towards individuality: I’m the only Krueger in a family of Krügers. And unlike in credential-heavy Germany, the Irish literary scene was easy for me to gain access to. Here, if you declare yourself to be a writer, you are taken for one, without the need to shove your CV and accomplishments into anyone’s face.

I experienced acceptance from day one, and the stories of the Irish and their richness of language provide me with a freedom of expression that German never allowed, and by now I proudly carry both German and Irish citizenship. Because of this acceptance I could, for example, as a German nobody with only a few essays under my belt, still partake in a public reading with Seamus Heaney in 2012. It would have never been possible for me to be part of a similar event with Günther Grass or Heinrich Böll in Germany with that status at all. One thing that does unite Böll and myself, however, is our abhorrence of Nazism and Fascism.

Oh, you dead and living friends, never forget: be on your guard, you are in Germany!

Heinrich Böll, “You enter Germany”

The country I grew up in was the Federal Republic that Böll wrote in and about, with a capital in the small city of Bonn on the Rhine, with grandparents warning me that the “Russians could come any day”—they had witnessed them come to their home in the former German provinces of Pomerania and East Prussia 1945, refugees both—five TV programmes that showed American shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider; and an overall felling of order and security in the small conservative town of Solingen where I grew up. Maybe it is a good thing that my coming of age coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and its aftermath, that often-quoted end of history.

Though I found out that the past was not quite dead and was still afflicting everyone around me. I was 12 when the Wall came down, my history teacher crying in class when he told us the news on the morning of November 10th, and 13 when Germany was re-united. My interest in history and the understanding of its currents was intensified. From eight or nine years of age on I had started pestering my grandparents about stories of the war and their home countries, but now I participated in summer history camps and went on excursions of my hometown together with time witnesses. I watched these people cry as we stood in front of the old town hall in Solingen, where the Gestapo had imprisoned and tortured political prisoners early on after 1933, and heard the story of a young Jewish man who had survived the war hiding in the attic of a small house in the suburbs for five long years.

My history teacher Horst Sassin, who received the Carl-von-Ossietzky-Prize for his work on resistance against National Socialism, was key in teaching us how the power structures of the Nazis had operated in Solingen itself. We visited memorials, read testimonials, went to annual memorial celebrations at the Wenzelberg, a ravine where just days before Solingen was liberated by US forces the Gestapo and local police executed 71 political prisoners and forced labourers. I became aware of the crimes of the Nazis and how they used the mechanics of democracy to rise to power. I was also aware of German terror: after all, I had been born in the Deutscher Herbst itself, the German autumn of 1977 when the RAF, the extreme left Red Army Faction, had kidnapped and killed industry representative Hans-Martin Schleyer and taken a Lufthansa flight hostage to pressure the Federal Republic into releasing their incarcerated leaders.

The state and chancellor Brandt did not give in to the demands, and the leaders all committed suicide in prison. But there had been other terror as well, from the right, that strangely always seemed to receive fewer German headlines: at the Oktoberfest in 1980 a bomb planted by a neo-Nazi terrorist killed 12 people. The perpetrator was part of a so-called Wehrsportgruppe, groups of neo-Nazis training undercover in the countryside preparing for a day X, and despite the fact that his particular group had been dissolved by West German authorities in early 1980, it did not prevent them from murdering Jewish publisher and Rabbi Shlomo Levin and his partner Frieda Poeschke in December of the same year.

Today, Germany is often hailed as a prime example of having come to terms with its past, with openly engaging with the crimes of the National Socialists, with memory and guilt.  This is nothing that happened overnight in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is not that the western part of Germany suddenly declared in 1949 with the foundation of the new republic that it needed to openly engage with and process the crimes of the Nazi. After the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials it took West Germany almost twenty years and the efforts of people like federal judge Fritz Bauer to see more trials against Nazi criminals. Nazi party members like Kurt Georg Kiesinger (former deputy head of the Third Reich’s Foreign Office’s broadcasting department and German chancellor from 1966 to 1969) had been deemed necessary for the stability of a new west German state by the western Allies.

At the same time writers like Siegfried Lenz, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Heinrich Böll showed the German public that Nazism had not quietly gone away both by writing about it and by taking public actions. As poet and critic Michael Hoffmann writes in his 2019 essay “A Word Like a Bullet” in the London Review of Books, “[Böll] was perceived to be a public figure first, novelist second. […] without being a controversialist, he was controversial.” During a Christian Democratic Union party conference in West Berlin on 7 November 1968, activist Beate Klarsfeld mounted the podium, slapped Kiesinger and shouted “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi.” The next day Heinrich Böll sent the young woman 50 red roses in gratitude and was admonished publicly for this by Günther Grass, to which Böll responded: “I owed these flowers to Beate Klarsfeld—because of my generation, those who died and those who survived.”

In September 1969 Kiesinger lost the election to the Social Democrats. The new chancellor was Willy Brandt, who had left Germany when Hitler took power. The next year Brandt would fall to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. A new era in West German history had begun, in which a reckoning with the Nazi past seemed to a large part of society not only permitted but mandatory. The first museums and memorial sites commemorating the crimes of the National Socialists came into being during that time and originated among private citizens and civil society.

In Böll’s hometown of Cologne is the EL-DE House, officially the NS Documentation Center of the City of Cologne, the former headquarters of the Gestapo where they incarcerated, tortured, and killed, and today an award-winning museum documenting the Third Reich in the Rhineland. The spark of its creation was when two citizens, photographer Gernot Huber and teacher Kurt Holl, entered the building in 1979 when it was used as an administrative building and documented the heartbreaking graffiti that the prisoners had left in the former cells in the basement. So, in the years immediately after the Fall of the Wall I was convinced that the country I was born into, and subsequently the whole of reunited Germany, would carry an awareness of Fascist workings with it, keep engaging with the Nazi past and keep learning from it, keep being a bulwark against any neo-Nazi movements.

Then they set fire to the house.          

The loss of memory by a nation is also a loss of its conscience.

Zbigniew Herbert

On the night of May 28, 1993, three days after the conservative government of Helmut Kohl had agreed on changing Paragraph 16 of the German constitution, which basically ended the right for unrestricted asylum in Germany, four young men aged 16 to 23 and belonging to the far right skinhead scene set fire to the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen. They killed Gürsün İnce (27), Hatice Genç (18), Gülistan Öztürk (12), Hülya Genç (9), and toddler Saime Genç (4). It was a hot May, an early onset of summer, and from the TV room in the attic I followed the news about the attack and the consecutive riots where Turkish citizens aired their frustration after this last of a series of xenophobic attacks that happened in Rostock, Hoyerswerda, and Mölln, smashing shop windows and blockading intersections.

This was the first time that I consciously saw Nazism lift its ugly head again, and I was shocked. It made me realise that, while on one level the FRG did a good job in analysing and conveying the horrors of the Nazis, there were still parts of society that found all that attractive, that saw in a Nazi worldview an alternative to a democratic society, with all that it entails: murder of those deemed unworthy, of political enemies, artists, children, and babies.

What heartened me was the reaction of civil society. One hundred thousand people joined a solidarity concert in Cologne, 150,000 in Frankfurt. What I did not realise back then, holding a candle at the official memorial service in Solingen, was that this reaction of civil society was limited to the west, while in the former GDR people my age were living through what was later called the “Baseball-Bat Years,” a period of neo-Nazi skinheads dominating youth culture in eastern Germany. Only in those places where Anti-Fascist groups organised and  fought back could a different alternative culture develop. The conservative government of Helmut Kohl that had promised blühende Landschaften, blossoming landscapes in east Germany, did nothing to counter this, despite the lessons from the west. It also took me, as a white member of the middle-class, quite a while to realise that racism was and still is ingrained in German society.

One example is the story of Mevlüde Genç (1943 – 2022), the mother and grandmother of the victims in the Solingen attack. From the first day she called for peace and reconciliation between migrant Turks, Germans with Turkish roots, and white Germans, for which she received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1996. She did so, however, in Turkish, as this was the language mostly spoken in her family. From the first time she spoke out, she was faced with voices from my hometown that, instead of demanding better integration, blamed her for never learning proper German. To this day the people in Solingen widely repeat absurd rumours and urban legends about her, about Mevlüde not paying bus fares or skipping the queue in the supermarket while reciting the names of her dead children to justify these actions.

In the years following that attack and the reactions to it, I realised that Nazis raus, Nazis out, has to be the standard response of society anytime a neo-Nazi dares to show his face in public.  And it seems I was not alone: many memorial sites and foundations that are active across Germany today, places like the Brandenburg Memorial Foundation and the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp museum, only came into being after reunification. It took time to create these memorials, and a change in public opinion. As historian Christoph Meissner puts it in his essay “Evolution of Memory Policy in Germany”:

The reunification of the two German states on October 3rd 1990 also brought a change in memory politics. […] it became increasingly difficult for those responsible for Germany’s memory politics to externalise guilt and to use a victim narrative. The recognition of guilt and “negative remembrance” was reflected in the unveiling of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which took place in Berlin in 2005. Today, within walking distance of this memory site there are also other memorials that commemorate the victims of Nazi crimes, including murdered homosexuals, murdered Sinti and Romani, as well as victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme. The construction of these memorials was based on a consensus on remembrance policy which recognises various groups that were victims of the Nazi regime and acknowledges German guilt for the crimes it committed.

I have lived in Ireland for almost two decades, and in that time I’ve seen many of the lessons about the past I took for granted in German society disappear. Maybe it is related to the fact that we are now entering a time when all the warning voices are dying, when all those people who witnessed the Nazi rise to power and who could publicly expose petty demagogues and populists have left us; maybe it is related to the overall fragmentation of the media landscape and the fact that these days everyone has now a personalised news stream on their social media; or related to the fact that the Nazi period is taught differently in school today. Whatever the reason, things that had been considered consensus in German society ten years ago now need to be explained in detail.

Many Germans today reject the consensus that millions of Germans voluntarily supported the Nazis, instead seeing German civilians and soldiers mostly as victims of a brutal regime and a murderous war. The far-right AfD is now an opposition party in the German parliament, a party that aims to diminish what they perceive as misdirected fixation on the guilt of Germany, something they and neo-Nazis call the Schuldkult, the Cult of Guilt. The party’s co-founder, Alexander Gauland, said that “Hitler and the National Socialists are just a bird’s shit in the 1,000 years of successful German history” and suggested that Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in the two world wars.” His party colleague, Björn Höcke, a history teacher and Fascist, specifically cited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe as a “memorial of shame” in the heart of Berlin and called for a “180-degree turn in [Germany’s] memory policy.” In 2020, 37% of Germans said it’s time “for Germany to draw a line under its Nazi past.

Over the last ten years there has been a rise in crimes not seen in Germany since 1945: in 2020 alone, German authorities registered over 22,000 right-wing extremist crimes, right-wing terrorists assassinated regional politician Walter Lübcke on his front porch near Kassel, attacked a synagogue in Halle, and in February 2020, killed 10 people in Hanau. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has also shown that, despite the laudable work of all the memory sites across Germany, “Never again Auschwitz” has become “Never again war” for many in Germany—an utterly alien sentiment to me when you consider that Fascist Germany was not defeated at the negotiating table. 

It pains me to write this, but 78 years after the end of World War II in Europe, Germany (Germany!!) has a widespread network of neo-Nazis.

My experience has taught me that democratic society will never be completely free of such extremists, but what it can do is de-platform them. Neo-Nazis aim to occupy myths of identity and memory. They starts by promising a clean-up of a neighbourhood or village and by bringing seemingly conservative positions into public discussions. One sentence I keep hearing often these days is Das darf man doch wohl noch sagen, We should be able to tell it like it is, when referring to outright racist statements. They tell you that your nation, however vaguely defined, is only meant for you and others like you, and that violence, if it’s ever needed, will only be directed against those who don’t confirm to a “norm” of skin colour, behaviour or religion. It never stops there however: in the end Nazism and Fascism always mean murder of those deemed unworthy, of political enemies, artists, whole families, children, and babies.

Sadly, even my craggy rock, despite a history vastly different from that of imperialist and Fascist Germany, now has a Nazi problem. In the last two years alone, far right extremists, using the COVID pandemic and a crisis in the Irish housing market as pretexts, have orchestrated violent protests in East Wall, Ballymun, Carlingford, and Fermoy. They have blockaded Dublin airport twice and instigated arson attacks in Kill, Athy, Sandwith Street in Dublin, and Buncrana in Donegal. In May 2023, a bus carrying refugees was boarded by vigilantes that “checked” and recorded passengers on video in Inch in County Clare. German right-wing extremists are increasingly interconnected across Europe: Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, former MP for the AfD, was a guest speaker at an Irish Freedom Party conference in Ireland in August 2020. In December 2022, she was arrested as a member of the “Reichsbuerger” network that had planned to overthrow the German government. 

Heinrich Böll died in 1985. He did not witness reunification, the attempts of coming to terms with the Nazi past, nor the resurgence of Fascism in Germany. But he knew what could stop it: a strong democracy and solidarity in society. In his Nobel Price acceptance speech he said that “the real conscience of a nation is to be found in its parliament, code of law and judicial system, roles that neither could nor should be replaced by authors.” For me as a German, there can be no deliverance from my—from our—past. There can never be an uncritical German patriotism, never a “my country right or wrong” ever again. As a state that takes its founding principle from the resistance against National Socialism, Germany and its people need to constantly re-evaluate and maintain their vigilance against contemporary Nazism and Fascism.

For Germans today this must mean acknowledging the guilt and at the same time the suffering of our forebears, and to ensure it never happens again. And to understand who to support in the fight for democracy and human rights. But this is nothing new, neither for me nor for Heinrich Böll, us two friends of Ireland. As he wrote in 1979: “Amnesia is still recognised as a sickness, and one cannot heal those suffering of it by talking about another sicknesses. Auschwitz is and remains part of our history.” The fight continues, in Germany and in Ireland.

I finish this piece at my desk in Dundalk on the east coast of my craggy island, three years after the appearance of COVID and over a year after the renewed Russian attack on Ukraine. This year, I felt pride in the country I was born in again, when I saw German Gepard anti-aircraft tanks that had been provided to Ukraine shoot down Russian drone after Russian drone, protecting the citizens of a republic that had been invaded by an imperialist aggressor. It looked to me as if those tanks had been provided by a country that had learned from its history.  

Marcel Krueger is a non-fiction writer and translator living in Ireland, writing in English and German. Through the prism of family history and his own existence as an emigrant, he explores the tragedies and violence of 20th-century European history and what these mean for memory, identity, and migration today. His articles and essays have been published in The Guardian, The Irish Times, New Eastern Europe, Catapult, and by CNN Travel, among others. Marcel works as the books editor for the Berlin-based Elsewhere – A Journal of Place. Twitter: @kingofpain666