Why a German official 'flipping the bird' at neo-Nazis reverberates

For many Germans, the refugee crisis and the rise of the far right is the latest flashpoint in reconciling the problems of the present with the lessons of a painful past.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrives for a television interview in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, August 7.

Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor of Germany, was visiting the city of Salzgitter in Lower Saxony last Friday for an election campaign event. During the visit, he was confronted by a group of far-right protesters with posters emblazoned with the word “Traitor.”

After a few moments of chuckling at the protesters, Mr. Gabriel turned towards them and showed them his middle finger.

The event, which was captured on video and went viral on Tuesday, was a byproduct of the current anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and the resurgence of far-right parties in a country where the shadow of Nazism still looms large in the country’s not-so-distant past.

Gabriel has become a hated figure among the country’s far right for supporting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-borders stance during the refugee crisis. Last summer, his party received bomb threats and hate mail after Gabriel vocally dismissed protesters behind anti-refugee riots in the town of Heidenau near Dresden as "lowlifes," according to Europe Online Magazine.

But Gabriel would feel the shadow of Germany's World War II past more than most. His father was a die-hard Nazi, a legacy which he has publicly denounced.

One of the abuses hurled at Gabriel in the video referenced the vice chancellor’s parentage, according to The Guardian.

“Your father loved his country, and what do you do? You destroy it.”

The masked protesters also called Gabriel a “communist” and “cultural Marxist.” Gabriel is, in fact, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, a center-left political party in Germany. 

The video comes at a time of increasing anti-immigration sentiment in Germany and across Europe. As The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported, refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are facing growing resistance in Germany, as evidenced by a dramatic rise in attacks against refugees and calls to restrict immigration.

The Young National Democrats, the youth branch of the National Democratic Party (NDP), organized the protest against Gabriel, reported the Guardian. The NDP is a far-right party considered by many observers to be the most successful neo-Nazi organization in Germany. While their influence in government is relatively small, a member of the party, Udo Voigt, was elected to the European Parliament in 2014, largely due to anti-immigration sentiments in the country.

While the NDP is on on the most extreme end of the conservative spectrum, other organizations are seeing growing popularity in Germany. One such group is a new right-wing party called the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD), founded in 2013. While the party has made an effort to distance itself from extreme groups like the NDP, the AfD espouses nationalism, dissolution of the Eurozone, and strong anti-immigration policies. 

Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD, called Gabriel’s crude response to NDP protesters the act of an “unworthy vice chancellor,” according to Agence France-Presse.

For Germany, it’s not simply a question of how to react to the rise of the far right, but of how to deal with the legacy of Nazism that it often evokes.

Gabriel broke off contact with his father, Walter Gabriel, when he found out about his father’s Nazi sympathies at age 18, according to the Guardian. The split left an impression.

“What remains is an almost untameable anger. When I see something unfair, when injustice is being done to people, I can get properly worked up,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit published before the 2013 federal elections, according to Spiegel Online.

But the vice chancellor also says that he’s heard neo-Nazi criticisms before.

“I’ve already heard everything [the far right has to] say from my father, who was a Nazi until his last breath,” he said in an interview with Die Welt in June. “These are people ... who want the old West Germany of the 1960s back: Women had to stay at home, gays and lesbians had to be invisible, and in the evening old Nazi army songs were sung over a beer.”

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