- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

When Austrian far-right leader Jorg Haider's Freedom Party entered a coalition government this fall, European governments went into panic mode. The European Union downgraded contacts with Austria and continues to treat it as a kind of rogue nation. For Germany in particular Mr. Haider's triumph was a disagreeable surprise. Was another would-be Hitler waiting in the wings to infect Germany proper?

Jan Herman Brinks' "Children of A New Fatherland" thus arrives at an opportune moment. His scholarly but accessible book examines the depth of support for the far right in Germany. The problem with many books on the German right is that they ignore the fundamental stability of Germany. Mr. Brinks offers a careful diagnosis of German affairs, neither exaggerating the extent of right-wing sentiment nor seeking to dismiss it. The result is an illuminating work.

Ever since the end of World War II, Germany has not had a mass right-wing party. What Germany has had is a nominally conservative party: the Christian Democratic Union. But this party broke with the bad traditions of the prewar past; it postured itself as pro-American and anti-German nationalism. In addition, it shunned free market doctrine, preferring to emphasize the need for a welfare state and unemployment benefits that would help to avoid a replay of the Weimar-era conditions that provided fertile recruiting grounds for the Nazis.

For all the predictions of a resurgence of the right after 1945, it never happened. Instead, the German left, led by figures such as Nobel laureate Guenter Grass, controlled the cultural milieu and set the political tone even when left-wing parties were not in power. Since reunification, however, the political landscape has been shaken up. A number of intellectuals, some formerly on the left, have started to chafe at the adjurations of their colleagues about the dangers of German pride and the Christian Democratic Union has run into a bit of trouble with the revelations that Helmut Kohl conducted a number of shady campaign-finance deals during his tenure as chancellor.

But perhaps the most important development, as far as the right is concerned, has been the accession of the former East Germany to West Germany. As Mr. Brinks demonstrates, the former East Germany is a hotbed of right-wing activity. He traces the persistence of far-right beliefs to the Communist Party's deliberate refusal to confront the Nazi past. Moreover, despite denials, it continued many Nazi practices and was not averse to espousing nationalism.

Mr. Brinks shows that the East German army relied on former Nazis like Gen. Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus to help organize its fledgling troops. "When in 1943 Gen. von Paulus was taken prisoner after the defeat at Stalingrad," the author writes, "he could probably not have dreamed that he would be able to spend his old age peacefully and with a good pension in the 'first-workers'-and-'peasants' state on German soil, as East Germany liked to call itself."

It was also the case that the East German regime, like other communist countries, largely ignored the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews and focused on their persecution of communists. In this version of history, the war was an anti-fascist crusade in which the United States played a minor role and the communists helped bring about a new golden age by defeating the Nazis. Anti-fascism became the founding myth of the Soviet Union's satellite regimes. The idea was this: Were communism to collapse, the plutocrats and would-be Nazis in West Germany would launch a revanchist war and create a replay of 1939-45.

Of course, this was nonsense. The East European regimes ended up collapsing of their own weight, and the last thing any West European country wanted to do was take over these countries. But as Mr. Brinks shows, East Germany also left a toxic legacy in the form of right-wing radicals whose activity in a united Germany shows few signs of abating.

Despite the periodic flare-ups of violence in Germany, a mass right-wing party on the lines of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party simply does not exist. There is no charismatic, mainstream leader who could put a palatable face on the young skinheads who periodically run riot, attacking foreigners and asylum homes. But if it seems unlikely that a significant right-wing political movement will develop, a debate has certainly begun over German attitudes toward the Nazi past.

The current government, led by socialist Gerhard Schroeder, has taken a tougher line on issues such as reparations. In his negotiations with the German government and industry, the State Department's Stuart Eizenstat has met with formidable resistance to paying reparations to slave laborers. And inside Germany, a younger generation has begun to wonder about the extent to which Germany should make the Holocaust the basis of its national identity. Mr. Brinks' book is hardly the last word on this topic, but it does offer a stimulating overview.

Jacob Heilbrun is a writer living in Washington.

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