Bill Ralston writes from Berlin, where the far-right party Alternative for Germany has failed to take root.
For weeks before setting off from New Zealand, fearing I might starve to death or die of thirst while here, I had been wracking my brain for my ancient war-comic German, but fortunately most people I meet have a good level of English. In fact, they greet me in it, which is puzzling as I am sure I must look as German as any other bloke on the street. But unerringly I get, “Hello, good morning.” I’ve tried replying, “guten morgen”, but they still persist in English.
In John Cleese fashion, I have resisted talking about the war; it did end more than 70 years ago, after all, but Berliners seem happy to confront the issue head on.
I walked through a large, haunting memorial to the millions of Jews who were slaughtered, great towering slabs of stone near the Tiergarten. Beside the park, there was a memorial garden commemorating the hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma, commonly referred to as gypsies, who were also systematically killed.
Immigration and a steady refugee flow into Germany have stoked resentment among some that has seen the return and rise of right-wing political groups such as Alternative for Germany (AfD). In August, a fatal stabbing of a German man in the eastern province of Saxony, allegedly by a migrant, sparked mass protests, riots and counter-demonstrations.
Berliners, particularly those from the western part of the country, seem more liberal than those who lived for decades under communist rule. There are still parts of the Berlin Wall to be seen, brightly painted and preserved as a reminder of that time. I was taking a photo of one of the murals, a rendition of former USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev’s famous socialist fraternal kissing of East Germany’s Erich Honecker, when I noticed an apparently naked man with his trousers around his ankles and a horse’s head on his shoulders, playing the guitar on the pavement beneath the lip-locked pair. A sign beside his guitar case described him as “The Neigh Kid Horse”. I suspect that passes for a thigh-slapping joke here in Germany.
The AfD exploded onto the political scene just six years ago and now occupies 94 seats out of 709 in the Bundestag, making it the largest opposition party in that parliament. It is growing fast and poses a threat that Chancellor Angela Merkel has struggled to combat.
It is a reminder that we are very lucky in New Zealand to have none of the violent extremism that characterises European politics. If Don Brash is the hard right of Kiwi politics and Golriz Ghahraman the loony left, then we have got off very lightly compared with Europe.
It is puzzling that a country pounded by the loss of two wars in the past century and subjected to a half-century of political fracture should, once again, be veering into extremist politics. Germany should take a cue from its capital, Berlin, traditionally a more relaxed, enlightened and open-minded region than others in the country, take a breather and – what the hell – drop its trousers, plonk on a horse’s head and sing.
Anything is better than an action replay of the past 100 years.
This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.