The rise of German extremism: How shame culture catalyzes right wing extremism in Germany

By Vincenzo Caporale

The Rise of Right Wing Extremism

In March, 2021, the German intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), announced the far-right authoritarian party, Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), would be put under surveillance. In essence, the BfV legally has access to AfD member’s phones and will monitor their activities and member’s movements, due to the threat they pose to democracy in Germany.

This news came just two months after a two-year parliamentary investigation into far-right extremism’s rise in Germany had concluded with sobering answers. The inquiry found that far-right extremism has risen to frightening levels and has penetrated German security forces, including its special forces and police. The AfD was especially condemned by many for its role in normalizing and spreading extremist views.

For those who have followed German politics for the last ten years, this conclusion is not surprising. As the head of the Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution, Thomas Haldenwang, said in 2020,  “We know from German history that far-right extremism didn’t just destroy human lives, it destroyed democracy…Far-right extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany.”

The AfD and far-right extremism have been on the rise in Germany over the last decade. The AfD, who was founded by a man named Bjorn Hocke, famous for writing a political book that, at times, is indistinguishable from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, has been surging in popularity since its 2013 founding and, today, it is the leading opposition party in the German Parliament.

Perhaps the most excellent demonstration of its influence came in early 2020 when the German Chancellor Merkel’s protégé and successor to lead the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and eventually Germany- Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK)-, stepped down. Her stepping down notably came just a week after intense criticism was lobbed at her over the local CDU party in Thuringia’s small state joined forces with the AfD to help elect a new state premier. Although the candidate was from the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and not the AfD, mainstream parties had unofficially agreed to not work with the AfD in any capacity, including indirectly. Nonetheless, the seemingly minor incident sent shockwaves throughout the country, resulting in a shift in national politics.

Still, examples of far-right extremism go beyond mere politics: it can be found in the civil service apparatus. In September of this year, 31 officers- including the units superior- from North-Rhine Westphalia were suspended by higher-ups for sharing pro-Hitler images, immigrants in gas Chambers and the shooting of a Black man. Meanwhile, Germany’s domestic security agency reported that some 12,700 far-right extremists are oriented towards violence. The deadliest example  came in early 2020 when a German shooter shot up two shisha bars in Hanua, killing multiple people after a history of spreading far-right conspiracy theories and racist and anti-Semitic hate online.

“Working off of the Past”

How can we begin to explain the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany? The rise of extremism can be explained by Germany’s approach to dealing with its authoritarian past.

Shortly after World War II, the German response was a disinterested mess in which the East Germans would blame the West Germans and vice versa. Deborah Lipstadt sums it up as, “Germans, East and West, refused to articulate the words: I was guilty.” Eventually, however, as the children and grandchildren of Nazi-era Germans grew up to become politically, socially and morally conscious, they began to embrace the corrective spirit of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung- roughly translated to “working off of the past.”

In practice, “working off of the past” means embracing the collective guilt and working towards internalizing and learning from the Nazi era atrocities like the Holocaust. Initially, this took the form of financial reparations. In 1953, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed to pay 3 billion German marks to Israel between 1953 and 1967 and 450 million German Marks to the World Jewish Congress. Inadvertently, Adenauer summed up the mindset of “working off the past” when he defended this decision to pay reparations by saying, “In the name of the German people, unspeakable crimes were committed which create a duty of moral and material restitution.”

The “duty of moral and material restitution” extended beyond financial reparations. The 1949 constitution bans the use of symbols that promote hatred against specific pockets of the population, and in 1952 the government officially apologized for the Holocaust. Since then, the government has erected countless memorials to the victims of the Holocaust- such as the massive 2,711 slab Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the three other memorials to non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust such as the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism- and a national annual memorial day.

The key to the German experience is that restitution manifests itself in Germany’s heart and soul- both culturally and geographically. As Susan Neiman, the philosopher and author of the book on the German response to Nazism in the post-World War II era, titled “Learning from the Germans,” says, “A nation that erects a monument of shame for the evils of its history in its most prominent space is a nation that is not afraid to confront its own failures.” This notion is seemingly supported by survey data from 2020. When asked if the Holocaust garners too much attention, 72% either said it received enough attention or too little attention. Likewise, 61% said everyone should examine their family’s role/behavior during the Nazi era. The takeaway is that although the Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung was initially instituted from the government’s top-down, it has successfully been instilled in the culture of the nation.

The Failure of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung

However, at its core, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung has created an over-cautious culture that enforces a collective shame in Germany. David Brooks of the New York Times gets at this phenomenon by contrasting a “guilt culture” and a “shame culture.” Brooks describes the two as:

“In a guilt culture, you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you.”

That is to say, while guilt culture comes from within by relying on individual conscience, shame culture comes externally from community judgment. Brooks sums it up with, “In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture, social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” Therefore, a shame culture outsources a sense of right and wrong to the community from the individual. As a result, it creates social taboos and cultural norms.

In Germany, shame culture is rooted in its Nazi and authoritarian past and manifests itself against a form of patriotism that celebrates the German identity. A clear example of this on a national stage came in 2013 after Angela Merkel won re-election for the German Chancellorship. Although it was a night of national celebration, the German flag was absent until later in the evening when someone on the stage pulled out a miniature flag to proudly wave around. Shortly after, Merkel grabbed the flag and disposed of it, looking uncomfortable about sending the wrong message.

This national event illustrates a sentiment felt across Germany. As Emily Schultheis writes, “When you ask many Germans if they’re proud of their country, they almost viscerally recoil from the question; waving the national flag or singing the anthem still gives many people discomfort.” It isn’t uncommon to see regional flags flying outside of homes as many Germans will opt for regional pride instead of national pride because it comes with less wary and uncomfortable looks from neighbors. Patriotism, therefore, is not only complicated but suspicious.

This shame in feeling proud of your nation’s history, culture, and politics- something uncontroversial in nearly any other country- has driven people to areas of the political spectrum that tells them it’s okay to have these feelings. This desire for shame-free patriotism, in part, explains the rise of the AfD. The AfD presents itself as the party for ordinary Germans who want to embrace their German identity and feel pride in their history, not be defined by roughly fifteen years of atrocities. As the leader of the AfD, Hocke, said in an interview, “There is no people that has given more to humanity than Germany. It is a great and old people…”

Although expressing pride in being a German is a reasonable political stance, Hocke also attacks the concept of shame culture but through the politics of resentment. As he told a group of Germans at a beer hall rally in Dresden, “German history is handled as rotten and made to look ridiculous.” He would go on to lament the fact that the Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital” and that this represented the “mentality of a totally vanquished people.”

Moreover, these views are cast with such solemnity. For instance, in an interview, Hocke claimed, “We Germans have to be self-aware, We can see our state falling apart; it’s falling apart before our eyes. It’s about survival.” By casting the embracing of German identity in cataclysmic terms like “survival” and “falling apart,” it heightens the severity of everything political while making everything cultural, political. It is not difficult to see how a normal desire for national pride and a resentment at a culture that shames you for that desire can be taken advantage of by a charismatic party to isolate these people further and get them to support a party with some extreme viewpoints on immigration, culture and the Nazis role in history (seeing it as less negative). In a way, a desire for ordinary patriotism has acted as a gateway towards right-wing extremism.

The gateway theory is supported when you break down the makeup of the average AfD supporter. Rather than being the expected uneducated and poor Germans who sit on the fringe of society hating foreigners, they are average Germans. A study done by Daniel Baron argues that “the average age as well as the average income among AfD-partisans decreased indicating that the AfD recently [has] more supporters who are situated closer to the centres of society…” Moreover, it claims identity or cultural issues are what animate AfD support, not economic issues. Essentially, the study measures this through negative views on immigration and how immigration will affect German identity. Importantly though, the study notes towards the end that a worry over immigration is not exclusive to the AfD but consistent across “all partisan groups.”

All of this is to say; German shame culture has cultivated an environment where average Germans have grown resentful of a domineering society that shames them for displaying pride in their nation, culture, and history. They find a home in far-right political parties like the AfD despite their extreme rhetoric on immigration and foreigners through this resentment. From there, the line between everyday politics and extremism begins to blur. As an anonymous German woman- a chemist with her doctorate- told Amanda Taub of the New York Times, “Only in Germany, I found it very strange, people don’t want to say ‘I am German’.” Taub would go onto conclude, “Because the party was the only one willing to challenge that taboo, it was the AfD’s message she absorbed.”


Over twenty years ago, Peter Schneider identified this growing shame culture in his native Germany. Although he would refer to it as collective guilt, he would define it in similar terms as a thesis that “paints all cats grey and leaves little distinction between collaborators and decent people.” While criticizing Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, “Hitlers Willing Executioners,” and the German’s who celebrated its thesis, he both defines the central problem with shame culture in Germany when he writes, “What does it mean that thousands of young Germans have embraced a man who says to them: … When we talk about guilt, we’re not talking about the SS and the Nazis, we’re talking about Germans and German culture, from Luther to Thomas Mann. Are they trying to prove how un-German they are by applauding this sweeping charge?”

Without a doubt, this sentiment is the same one identified in this paper, yet, Schneider also understood the seriousness of shame culture on the German polis. He leaves us with both a plea and cryptic warning: “Germans must be permitted to believe and to state that our history is more than 12 years long [because] I would not expect anything good from the children of a country whose national archives offered only murderers and no heroes.” If only that warning was taken seriously 20 years ago when Schneider gave it.

Vincenzo Caporale is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge POLIS graduate program who writes on development, poverty, infrastructure and domestic politics in Southeast Asia for the Borgen Project. He also researches development in Ghana for She Grows it Consultancy. 

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