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Opinion: Nazi resistance fighters, Holocaust victims and the nonsense of COVID-19 denial

  • November 23, 2020

Last week, a few politicians from the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party referred to government-planned infection protection legislation as an “enabling law.” A reminder: in March 1933, the Nazi-led government won the right to enact laws without the consent of the German Reichstag with that very law. The AfD was comparing regulations providing for contact restrictions to protect against a pandemic with a law that symbolized the end of parliamentary democracy and the beginning of Nazi tyranny.

Read more: Coronavirus: Can Germany’s infection protection law be compared to the Nazis’ ‘Enabling Act?’ 

Unanimously condemned by historians and political scientists as historical nonsense, the remarks, nevertheless, motivated coronavirus deniers. Last weekend, they took to the streets in several German cities to demonstrate against the alleged seizure of power. An 11-year-old girl in the western city of Karlsruhe compared herself to Anne Frank, a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, and a 22-year-old in the central city of Kassel compared herself to Nazi resistance fighter Sophie Scholl. Their bizarre performances were met with worldwide media interest.

Read more: Coronavirus: German foreign minister slams COVID protester’s Nazi resistance comparison

It should be clear to everyone that there is a difference between being fined for possible violations of coronavirus protection decrees (and being able to take legal action against the fines) and being killed either for being Jewish or for being committed to freedom and justice. But the far-right populists and radicals who throng around the coronavirus deniers don’t care. They care about something else. To them, it is all about freedom of interpretation or cultural hegemony. Oftentimes, it is more a question of emotions than of intellect.

Martin Muno

DW editor Martin Muno

The powerless exert power

Throughout history, elected rulers who acted as dictators, as well as members of the opposition, have used the role of victim to legitimize their own actions.

The Nazis used a — non-existing — Jewish world conspiracy to justify their extermination policy. The East German leadership called the borders it secured with walls and barbed wire, virtually imprisoning people in their own country, an “anti-fascist protective wall” — GDR citizens were made to believe there was a threat from the outside, and East Germany was merely trying to keep them safe. Alleged powerlessness is used to exercise power. Struggling to stay in power, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko resorted to a similar pattern of argumentation, as did the China-led leadership in Hong Kong.

The White House currently harbors the champion of the victim role, however: US President Donald Trump, one of the most powerful people on the planet, uses his favorite medium Twitter on a daily basis to tell the world how unfairly he is being treated. Be it investigations concerning outstanding taxes or conceivably illegal agreements with foreign governments — he perceives a “witch hunt” everywhere. He also feels cheated out of his “overwhelming election victory.”

Sounding board for populists

On a factual level, this is as ridiculous as the public performance by the 22-year-old protester who compared herself to a Nazi resistance fighter and who achieved temporary fame as “Jana from Kassel.” It is not, however, a matter of truth. It is about keeping like-minded people together and legitimizing legal as well as illegal protests. Even if Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the US presidential election using legal means fail again and again, the number of supporters who believe the 2020 election is rigged is on the rise. He has skillfully pointed the ax right at the foundation of democracy.

Germans can be thankful that the sounding board for populists is so much smaller, the reason being a much greater common understanding in society of what is true and what is false. A look at the US and the history books show the belief that this will continue to be the case in the future is naive. That is why it is important to nip things in the bud and to oppose the mixing of truth and lies, of perpetrator and victim.

This article was translated from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.

  • Göring, Bormann visit Wolf's Lair after the bomb attack of July 20, 1944 (picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    The assassination attempt of July 20, 1944

    Seventy-five years ago, a bomb exploded in the Führer’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, which was supposed to kill Adolf Hitler. The assassination attempt failed; Hitler survived. The resistance fighters involved were executed in the days following the attempted coup.

  • Black and white portrait photo of Claus von Stauffenberg / Foto um 1934 (picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Man behind the July 20 plot

    Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg was instrumentally involved in the bomb plot of July 20, 1944. As early as 1942, the officer realized that the Second World War could no longer be won. In order to save Germany from imminent destruction, Stauffenberg and other Wehrmacht officers decided to overthrow the Hitler regime.

  • Germany, trial of Graf York v. Wartenburg in 1944 (picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Kreisau Circle

    Fundamental political reform in Germany was the goal of the Kreisau Circle. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg (pictured) were the driving forces behind the movement. Some members of the Circle joined the July 20 plot in 1944 and were tried and sentenced to death after the assassination attempt failed.

  • Portrait photos of siblings Hans und Sophie Scholl (picture-alliance/dpa)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Hans and Sophie Scholl

    Starting from 1942 a group of Munich students, led by siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, tried to resist the National Socialists. The group, which called itself the White Rose, distributed thousands of leaflets denouncing the crimes of the Nazi regime. In February 1943 the Gestapo found the siblings and sentenced them to death.

  • High ranking Nazis in 1939 visiting victims injured in the bombing attempt on Hitlers life in Munich (picture-alliance/AP Images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Attempted Hitler assassination by Georg Elser

    In 1939, carpenter Georg Elser fastened explosive devices behind Hitler’s lectern in the Munich Bürgerbräu brewery. The bomb detonated as planned. However, since Hitler’s speech was shorter than expected, he had already left the hall before the explosion. Seven people died and 60 more were injured. Elser was arrested on the same day and taken to Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

  • 1941 staff photo of Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind in the Rosenthaler Straße 39Berlin, 1941 (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind

    During the Second World War, Berlin manufacturer Otto Weidt employed mainly blind and deaf Jews. His broom and brush bindery was considered an “important defense business” and could therefore not be closed down by the Nazis. Weidt managed to provide for his Jewish employees throughout the war and protect them from deportation.

  • Berlin cabaret group Katakombe 1934 (picture-alliance / akg-images/J. Schmidt)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Resistance by artists and intellectuals

    Numerous artists and intellectuals already turned against the regime when Hitler came to power in 1933. Many who did not want to adapt or openly oppose the system fled into exile. Others, such as the Berlin cabaret group Katakombe, openly criticized the regime. In 1935 the theater was closed by the Gestapo and its founder Werner Finck was imprisoned in the Esterwegen concentration camp.

  • Students dancing the jitterbug (Getty Images/Hulton/Keystone)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Die Swing Youth

    The Swing Jugend or Swing Youth, regarded the American-English way of life, represented by swing music and dance, as a clear opposition to the Nazi regime and the Hitler Youth. In August 1941 there was a wave of arrests, especially in Hamburg, of Swing Youths, many of whom were taken into custody or deported to special youth concentration camps.

  • Direction finder used by the Gestapo to track down illegal transmitters used by resistance groups (picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    Red Orchestra resistance group

    The Gestapo used direction finders to track down illegal transmitters used by resistance groups. In the summer of 1942, more than 120 members of the Rote Kapelle were arrested. This group, centered around Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack, wanted to help Jews document the crimes of the Nazi regime and distribute leaflets. More than 50 members were sentenced to death and executed.

  • Unveiling of a memorial in Berlin 1953 (picture-alliance/akg-images)

    Known and unknown heroes: People who resisted Hitler

    German Resistance Memorial Center

    On July 19, 1953, the ceremonial unveiling of the Memorial to the German Resistance took place in Berlin in the inner courtyard of the Bendlerblock building, the place where Count Stauffenberg was executed after the failed Hitler assassination. In addition, however, the memorial also commemorates all the other courageous men and women who stood up against the Hitler regime.

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