Berlin (AFP) – A leading member of German right-wing populist party AfD sparked an outcry Wednesday by criticising the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and calling for the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past.
Bjoern Hoecke’s comments also exposed a damaging split in the anti-immigration party, just months before Germany heads to the polls.
“Up to now, our state of mind is still one of a totally defeated people… We Germans, our people, are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of the capital,” Hoecke told party faithful including youth members, according to a video of the speech circulated online.
“We need nothing less than a 180-degree shift in the politics of remembrance,” he said in the remarks on Tuesday to chants of “Germany, Germany”.
Instead of introducing younger generations to home-grown “internationally-acclaimed philosophers, musicians and ingenious inventors… German history has been made lousy and ridiculous,” he complained, winning a standing ovation from the crowd.
“There is no moral responsibility to make yourself disappear,” said Hoecke, who was a high school sports and history teacher, adding that Germany should instead “build up a positive relationship with our history”.
The comments were met with an instant uproar, with Social Democrat vice chief Ralf Stegner accusing Hoecke of making a “hate incitement speech” — which is illegal in Germany — that called for history to be rewritten.
Chairwoman of the Greens party Simone Peter said the comments were “unspeakable” and demanded an apology from the AfD to Jews.
“Germany’s Central Council of Jews also lashed out, accusing the politician of trampling on six million Jewish Holocaust victims murdered by the Nazis.”
“The AfD has shown its real face with these anti-Semitic and extremely hostile words,” said the council’s chairman Josef Schuster, adding that he “never thought that 70 years after the Holocaust, a politician in Germany could say such things”.
Council of Europe chief Thorbjorn Jagland also weighed in, saying that “calling our remembrance culture into question is outrageous and dangerous”.
The case also exposed a rift within the party.
AfD co-leader Frauke Petry told Young Freedom weekly that the episode showed that “Hoecke has become a burden on the party with his go-it-alone attitude and constant sniping”.
But deputy chief Alexander Gauland defended the politician, telling national news agency DPA that Hoecke had “in no manner criticised the remembrance of the Holocaust”.
In a post on Facebook on Wednesday, Hoecke also insisted that he had been misinterpreted and that he “described the Holocaust… as a shame for our people”.
The AfD had started out as an anti-euro party, but has since morphed into an anti-immigration outfit railing against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy that brought some 890,000 refugees to Germany in 2015 alone.
The party, which disputes the place of Islam in Germany, is polling nationwide at around 12 to 15 percent ahead of general elections.
Hoecke, who is a regional deputy in the eastern state of Thuringia, is viewed as one of the most right-leaning leaders of the populist party.
In December 2015, he sparked outrage when he said that the “reproductive behaviour of Africans” could be a threat for Germany.
Most recently, he was greeted by students chanting “Nazis out” as he tried to make a speech at a university in the eastern city of Magdeburg, and had to leave the hall under police escort.