The recent cover of Der Spiegel showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of the Acropolis surrounded by Nazi officers serves an important purpose: it finally poses, in a way that cannot be evaded, the question of Germanophobia in Europe.
The abuse of Germany has dragged on for quite some time. Demonstrations in Cyprus in March 2013 included banners bearing caricatures of Merkel done up as Adolf Hitler. In Valencia at around the same time, on the occasion of the annual Fallas celebration, there was Merkel as an evil headmistress delivering to the head of the Spanish government and his ministers “The Ten Commandments of Angela the Exterminator.” She ended up being burned in effigy in the flames of the bonfires of St. Joseph.
Two months later, in Portugal, similar parades featured the same Hitlerized Merkel caricatures, borne by howling demonstrators dressed in mourning clothes and decrying the German leader’s “policy of massacring the poor.”
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And, naturally, there was Greece, where the phenomenon reached its apogee during the near-riots of October 2012, in which the world was treated to the spectacle of Nazi and German flags flown together – and then burned – together before the Acropolis in scenes that presaged the Der Spiegel cover.
In Italy, the right-wing daily newspaper Il Giornale had no scruples about devoting its headline for August 3, 2012, to the emergence of the “Fourth Reich.” Likewise, conspiracy websites in the countries of northern Europe claim that Germany’s eagerness to support Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko against Russian President Vladimir Putin is a reenactment of Hitler’s subjugation of Ukraine.
Then there is France, where the game seems to be to see who can come out on top in populist denunciations of the new and detestable “German empire.” From the extreme right, National Front leader Marine Le Pen chides Merkel for the “suffering” that she is imposing on the peoples of Europe. From the opposite extreme, we have the Left Party’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon thundering against Merkel’s “austerity” policy and inviting her to “shut up.”
The problem with this Germanophobia is not simply that it is stupid, or that it is yet another symptom of the decomposition, before our eyes, of the noble European project of integration and ever-closer union.
No, the problem with today’s Germanophobia is that, contrary to what the sorcerer’s apprentices who stoke it would have us believe, their behavior is not a sign of their opposition to the true fascism that lies on the horizon, but rather of their allegiance – and even contribution – to it. Why?
There are several reasons. For starters, to oppose Germany’s social, economic, and foreign policies by equating Merkel with Hitler is to banalize Hitler. However legitimate disagreement with those policies may be, Germany is one of the continent’s most scrupulous and exemplary democracies. To say that it resembles in any way the Nazi regime – which in Europe still stands for the destruction of democracy (indeed, civilization itself) – is to exonerate that regime, and to reassure and encourage today’s neo-fascists, allowing them, whether intentionally or not, to reenter the public debate.
What is more (and this is key), those keenest to discredit Merkel just happen to be the same people who do not hesitate to waltz with Viennese neo-Nazis or to form an alliance, as in Athens, with the leaders of a genuinely extremist party. All of the clamor raised around a Germany that has supposedly “reunited with its demons” masks the voice of fascistic parties – from Greece’s Golden Dawn to Hungary’s Jobbik, Slovakia’s SNS, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and Bulgaria’s Ataka – that are in the process of establishing themselves in Europe.
It should also be noted that Merkel is a woman, and that hatred for women – the disdain in which they, right alongside the Jews, were regarded by the racist theoreticians of the 1920s and 1930s – has been an essential dimension of every expression of fascism. Likewise, the slogans slung about in Valencia in October 2012 – with demonstrators urged to chant at the chancellor’s effigy, “You will love money above all else” and “You will honor the banks and the Bank” – had the unmistakably foul odor of the old mantras about “the golden calf” and the “cosmopolitan plutocracy.”
People have finally come to understand that anti-Americanism, born on the extreme right and fed, in Germany, for example, by the philosophy of Martin Heidergger and his acolytes, is a fixture of fascism.
It is now time for us to understand that the same is true of Germanophobia. In France, it appeared with the French anti-Semitic novelist and activist Maurice Barrès, who saw in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a vehicle for the “Jewification” of European minds. It triumphed with Charles Maurras’ Action Française and its protracted war with “Jewish and Germanic abstractions.” And it culminated with the red-brown cells that, even today, on sites that I prefer not to mention, offer “grub” and a “hideout” for persons willing to “bump off” the “bosses” on the chancellor’s “payroll.”
The history of ideas has its logic, reason, and folly, its unconscious and its trajectory. It is both futile and dangerous to deny any of them.
That is why, today, it is critically important, in the face of a dark force that is rising, swelling, and unfurling in Europe, to defend Angela Merkel.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a leading French philosopher and writer, and is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His works include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.