Marchers steal limelight as Germany recalls Holocaust

The opposing events — one of reconciliation and the other of hate — demonstrate that taboos against Nazism are fading and that Germany's democracy, though strong, is struggling with its anti-democratic fringe. It's a battle that has been exacerbated by the campaign finance scandal that has shaken faith in the mainstream conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union.

Though most observers say German democracy is strong enough to overcome these challenges, many agree that the road ahead is filled with major obstacles.

This is true particularly in former East Germany, where democracy is only 10 years old.

"The danger is great that youth will go into right-wing structures, with groups that are not democratic," said Anetta Kahane, head of the Berlin-based Regional Workshop on Foreigner Issues, Youth and Schools. "As long as people are voting, they are participating in democracy. But many youth do not vote."

Last weekend, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party won the right to march based on free-speech laws, even though public expressions of Nazism — like the Hitler salute, the display of swastikas and the singing of SS songs — are prohibited.

Some 600 young extremists marched through Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate, shouting such slogans as "Glory and Honor to the Waffen SS," and carrying a banner that read "Stop the Memorial." About an equal number of counterdemonstrators showed up as well.

Police blocked streets and public transportation was rerouted during the march, which went through the famous Brandenburg Gate that once divided East and West Berlin. This was the first time police had allowed neo-Nazis to march through the gate, which during the Third Reich was the site of torchlight Nazi marches.

Reportedly, two neo-Nazi marchers were arrested for displaying banned symbols, and some 25 people were stopped from singing an SS song.

The NDP, meanwhile, announced that it is moving its headquarters from Stuttgart to Berlin, where — starting next week — the party flag will fly from the rooftop of a villa in Kopenick.

The weekend demonstration, however small, stood in sharp contrast to the solemn ceremonies of Jan. 27, Holocaust remembrance day in Germany, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945.

Speaking in the Reichstag, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel said Germans were responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews, including his 8-year-old sister, according to the Associated Press. He also said, "No nation, no ideology, no system has ever inflicted brutality, suffering and humiliation, on any people, as yours has on mine, in such a short period."

During the ceremony in the Reichstag that morning, klezmer musician Giora Feidman had played "Shalom Chaverim" on his clarinet, walking slowly past Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Johannes Rau, Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse and other political and communal leaders.

Sometimes Feidman's notes were as soft as a whisper. But it seemed fitting that here, in the rededicated halls of Germany's democracy, even the smallest voice could be heard.

"We all know," said Thierse, "that many people around the world view our new-old capital with worry and skepticism, adding that "it is our duty to remember how much injustice and unholiness came out of this place."

Later, at the site of the planned memorial — which will consist of a field of 2,700 cement slabs resembling a huge cemetery, Thierse said Germany is building this "because we want to warn against terror and injustice, because we want to make confrontation with the Nazi history a part of our identity."

Juliet Heck, 15, came to the memorial dedication with several classmates from the Leibig high school in Berlin. "I think this is a very good idea," she said, "because you have to know what happened so we won't make the same mistakes." The students will visit Auschwitz in the spring as part of a class trip.

Though not a real ground-breaking — there are still problems to be ironed out before building can begin — the event culminated some 11 years of debate over whether such a memorial was needed and what it should look like.

Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen's opposition to the memorial is not seen as an obstacle to its construction. But his decision not to attend the dedication was controversial, especially in light of the neo-Nazi demonstration that followed.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.