Revisionist Memory: How the far-right Alternative for Germany is seeking to reshape the nation’s collective memory to promote a Eurosceptic, German-centric foreign policy agenda

Throughout the history of modern Germany, an unwavering government commitment to the remembrance of the National Socialists’ atrocities has permeated an ingrained sense of guilt for the nation’s past actions among the broader population. Ensuring the transmittal of Holocaust memory across generations has been a top priority of the German government. The ensuing solidification of guilt both within the German collective memory and in the German identity has, in turn, constrained political decision making in other policy areas. The German welcoming of large immigrant populations, for example, is often cited as a policy whose origins can be traced back to guilt of the Nazi atrocities. Yet, the recent surge of electoral support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — making it the third most represented party in the Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) with 89 of the 709 seats — poses a great threat to this traditional memory landscape. This paper will seek to answer the questions of how, why, and to what extent is this radical party attempting, through unconventional rhetoric and policy proposals, to reshape the collective memory of Germany away from a preoccupation and guilt for the Nazi’s actions. Ultimately, a close examination of the Alternative for Germany’s party platform, the party leadership’s speeches and proposals, and contemporary journalistic accounts of the party reveal a systematic attempt by the Far Right to supplant German Holocaust remembrance and atonement with a sense of nationalistic pride to promote the party’s Eurosceptic and Germany-centric policy goals.

In order to understand the revolutionary nature of the AfD’s rhetoric and actions, however, a thorough exploration of the traditional German memory landscape as it pertains to the actions of the National Socialists proves necessary. This analysis reveals a deep-seated sense of German guilt within the collective memory for the actions of the nation’s ancestors during the Holocaust. The formation of this memory landscape has in no small part been formed by the physical landscape of monuments, counter-monuments, museums, and archives dedicated to Holocaust remembrance dispersed across the nation.[1] This abundance of institutions and repositories of memory specifically related to German historical atrocities has created a national remembrance of history that is, in the words of historian Leonard Schuette, “almost entirely dominated by the 12-year period of National Socialism,” largely at the expense of memory of other historical periods.[2] In this way, Germany has formed a unique national memory centered largely around guilt for the perpetration of crimes rather than pride for past achievements. German historian Reinhart Koselleck elaborates upon this guilt in his work on collective memory, arguing that “this distinguishes us from other nations, for we are politically responsible, and for that reason, we must also remember and memorialize the actions and the perpetrators and not solely the victims.”[3] Here, Koselleck ties German culpability for the Holocaust to a continued obligation to remember that responsibility. Remembering the victims of the National Socialists is not enough for the modern German people, he argues; Germany must also remember the guilt of the nation in harming those victims.

The profound power of this sense of shame ingrained in German remembrance on the German political landscape comes largely in the shame’s effect on the shaping of collective identity, that is, on how the German people began to define themselves. A look at the work of the Egyptologist Jan Assman, in particular, illuminates the way in which German guilt has transcended mere memory, becoming instead an undeniable facet of modern German identity. Building upon the work of sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the pioneer of studies of collective memory, Assman distinguishes between two forms of group memory: communicative memory, which is defined by the everyday sharing of thoughts and experiments, and cultural memory, defined by group commemoration of fixed events of the past through shared monuments, traditions, and texts.[4] Because cultural memory is only formed when no one is alive to remember the fixed point of history first hand, the memory of the Holocaust and National Socialism cannot at this point be deemed cultural memory. Yet, with a dwindling population of those with first-hand memory and with much of Holocaust memory institutionalized through museums, monuments, and ceremonies of remembrance, this memory cannot be defined merely as communicative. Holocaust memory exists in a transitionary phase between the two forms. Therefore, Holocaust memory has begun to encompass the attributes of cultural memory. Most relevant of these attributes, for our purpose, is what Assman defines as shared cultural memory’s ability to concretize a group identity.[5] This mode of memory, he argues, manifests in identificatory statements of a group’s character, giving the examples of “We are this” and “That’s our opposite.”[6] Using this theoretical framework, we can see how the collective memory of the Holocaust has seeped into the creation of German identity centered around the statement of “we are guilty of our nation’s past atrocities.” In this way, shame for the nation’s past actions has been codified into the identities of the nation’s current citizenry.

This entrenchment of guilt into the broader German identity has, in turn, created proscriptions and prescriptions on the nation’s policy decisions. That is, the guilt of the past has become so ingrained into how the German nation sees itself that it has constrained the actions of the German government, specifically in relation to its foreign policy decisions. These constraints have often forced Germany to forgo its material interests to fulfill a more mythic duty tied to atonement for the past. In their work on German collective memory, sociologists Jeffrey Olick and Daniel Levy argue that memory of the Holocaust has created a set of taboos as well as duties in present German politics.[7] Taboos prevent the German government from carrying out specific actions, which, if followed through, would be deemed a moral transgression.[8] Conversely, the duties spawned from the nation’s identity of guilt have forced Germany to enact certain policies based on moral obligations that are seen as necessary for the nation to prove an ethical distancing from its past.[9]

Several recent examples of Germany’s policy decisions illustrate this theoretical understanding of moral, rather than rational, prohibitions and requirements stemming from the collective memory of guilt. Germany’s response to the recent refugee crisis in Europe serves as a prime example of one such moral national duty that stemmed from Holocaust memory. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow over a million refugees to seek shelter in Germany is widely regarded as a policy choice counter to the material interests of the nation, putting a strain on economic resources with little measurable benefit.[10] This decision, therefore, can best be explained as motivated not by tangible interests but instead by a sense of moral obligation to humanitarianism.[11] Using Merkel’s own words, it becomes clear that this belief in a German humanitarian imperative is directly tied to the guilt ingrained in the nation’s collective memory. In justifying her approach, Merkel argued that the decision to welcome a large population of refugees proved a welcoming German culture that, in her words, “is something very valuable when one casts a glance at our history.”[12] Here, Merkel demonstrates how her 21st century political decision making is shaped by her belief in a moral duty to be welcoming as a form of compensation for Germany’s past actions.

Just as Germany’s response to the refugee crisis demonstrates the collective memory’s generation of imperatives, the close German relationship with the European Union shows how the memory of the Nazi era has created prohibitions against German unilateralism. The ingrained sense of shame for the National Socialist’s conception of Germany as a strong, militarized, and largely independent state has, for decades, pushed mainstream German politicians in the opposite direction.[13] The idea of recreating the heavily armed, Germany-centric state has thus become a moral taboo associated with the worst of Germany’s past. This taboo helps explain Germany’s deep ties with the European Union, stressing the need for multilateralism in decision-making even when it interferes with the nation’s autonomy and its ability to promote its own material interests. In this way, Germany’s reliance on international cooperation can be seen as the result of the taboo of a strong, independent German that stems from the collective guilt.

A thorough reading of the AfD’s party platform reveals that the party seeks to counter these exact traditional policies that result from the longstanding memory landscape. In its party manifesto’s second chapter, the AfD makes its Eurosceptic dispositions clear, demonstrating the party’s hostility to a reliance on multilateralism. Arguing that Germany’s allegiance to the EU has forced the nation to sacrifice its own wellbeing to subsidize weaker nations, the party calls for Germany to loosen its ties to the EU, reassert its sovereignty as a nation-state, and dissolve the Euro.[14] Similarly, the party calls for the militarization of the state, increasing the capacity of the German armed forces, while rejecting the idea of a joint European military force.[15] Further, the AfD, in their manifesto, strikes a clear contrast with Merkel’s welcoming of refugees, advocating for the narrowing of legal immigration to occur when it best suits the economic and cultural interests of Germany.[16] Thus, the party’s manifesto demonstrates that its policy goals run completely counter to the traditional German policies of multilateralism, cultural immersion, and lenient immigration that have spawned from a collective memory centered around guilt. Instead, the party advocates for right-wing, populist policies that they see as best promoting the material interests of the German state — namely, the adoption of unilateralism, closed borders, and the preservation of traditional German culture.

This clash between the Alternative for Germany’s policy goals and the nation’s current policy priorities, seen by the Right Wing as the result of Holocaust collective remembrance, has led to overt AfD animosity towards Germany’s traditional memory landscape. The rhetoric of party leadership demonstrates this link between the AfD’s disapproval of the mainstream political policies they view as counter to Germany’s best interest and the party’s contempt towards the nation’s focus on Holocaust remembrance. Frauke Petry, a former chair of the AfD, once argued that “the negation of our own national interests is something that has become a political maxim in Germany since World War II,”[17] while a different AfD politician is quoted as saying “this laughable policy of coming to terms with the past is crippling us.”[18] Here, the AfD politicians draw a direct connection between the ingrained sense of guilt and the policies they see as harming the nation. The AfD’s animosity towards the long-standing German guilt is further shown by the leadership’s open hostility to the network of Holocaust memorials dotting the nation. Another AfD political leader, Bjorne Hocke, argued in a speech that “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”[19] This quote reveals a slightly different frustration than those of the previous AfD politicians. Here, Hocke expresses anger not only toward the fact that Germany’s memory landscape is constraining the country’s policy options, but also that this constraint is unique to Germany among all other nations. No other nation, Hocke argues, holds an equivalent depth of guilt in their collective memory and, thus, no other nation has faced the same moral constraints as the German state.

Thus, in order to promote these populist, German-centric policy priorities, the AfD seeks to use memory — what the party blames for the policies they see as against German interests — as a political tool. In both its rhetoric and actions, the AfD and its leaders are attempting to reshape the memory landscape, replacing collective guilt for National Socialism with national pride. In doing so, the AfD is hoping to eliminate the moral constraints placed on the nation, while promoting a sense of nationalism that would bolster support for the party’s German-centric policies. In a September 2017 speech, co-leader of the AfD Alexander Gauland made this goal clear, telling the crowd that they “have the right to take back not only our country, but also our past.”[20] However, frustration with constraints placed on Germany by Holocaust memory is not new. In 1981, for example, when Chancellor Helmut Schmidt sold German tanks to Saudi Arabia, angering Israel which expected co-operation from Germany due to the past atrocities, Schmidt was infuriated, claiming that the Holocaust could no longer “hold hostage” German policy.[21] Yet, what is exceedingly novel about the AfD’s approach — illuminated by Gauland’s quote — is that the party is not simply attempting to subvert the constraints imposed by the memory of Nazi atrocities as shown in Schmidt’s example, but is instead attempting to transform the collective memory itself. That is, the party is not seeking to work around the powerful sense of guilt solidified into German identity, but it is trying to replace this sense of guilt altogether.

To do so, the AfD has advocated for the expansion of the collective memory of German history to lessen the focus on Nazi atrocities, specifically calling in their manifesto for the “current narrowing […] of remembrance to the time of National Socialism” to be “opened [… to] encompass the positive, identity-establishing aspects of German history.”[22] Such efforts to shift collective memory in this way have recently emerged at state-level budget negotiations. AfD politicians at the state-level have made news for attempting to redirect state funding allocated for Holocaust education programming to educational trips that would instead celebrate German historical achievements, specifically in regards to German scientific and cultural breakthroughs.[23] Moreover, the party’s leadership has, as previously mentioned, shown clear disdain for the abundance of Holocaust memorials in the nation. While little successful action has been taken by the AfD to alter the physical monument landscape of Germany, these sentiments do show that, if having secured the necessary political support, the AfD would favor the creation of new, nationalist monuments over the traditional practice of prioritizing memorialization of the Holocaust and World War II. Finally, an additional, more subtle way in which members of the AfD are attempting to reshape collective memory is by the reintroduction of nationalist words, currently taboo due to their association with Nazi causes, into the common vernacular.[24] Multiple AfD political thinkers have, for example, integrated the word Volksgemeinschaft — a term for an ethno-nationalist community — into their work. While this term is still in the mainstream associated with anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, and racist views, the integration of it back into the political thought of a major political party shows how the AfD is slowly attempting to break down the taboos formed by German collective memory of the Holocaust. Thus, these examples demonstrate the widespread and varied attempts of AfD politicians to alter the memory landscape of historical guilt, seeking to broaden German collective memory of history to focus on national pride rather than shame.

Before concluding, it is important to address the limitations of this argument due to the inability to reference untranslated German sources. First, because the paper relies solely on previously translated material, the number of primary sources was greatly limited. Specifically, we were unable to access full speeches and interviews with AfD politicians. Thus, many of the quotes cited are from translated excerpts of such speeches. Secondly, as is the case when dealing with any translated materials, the original meanings of the quoted primary sources have likely been obscured. As such, the specific rhetoric referenced in our arguments may be slightly imprecise, yet probably not in a significant enough manner to indict the veracity of our conclusions. Additionally, because the AfD does publish an official platform in English, the integrity of this heavily cited primary source is ensured. As such, while the inability to access original German-language sources has limited the source material used in this paper, we argue it has not done so to an extent that would invalidate the arguments made herein.

 In conclusion, this paper demonstrates how the Alternative for Germany has sought to use the reshaping of memory as a tool to promote a nationalist, Eurosceptic policy agenda. In order to understand the reactionary nature of this political strategy, an examination of the way in which an undeniable sense of guilt has traditionally become ingrained in the German collective memory is imperative. Using the theoretical work of Koselleck and Assman, we can see how the unique obligation of the German people to remember the atrocities of their ancestors has permeated a feeling of shame not only into the German memory but into the German identity. This facet of German identity, shaped by cultural memory of the Nazi period, has proven to be the underpinning of many decisions by mainstream German politicians, seeking to atone for national guilt by instituting policies in stark contrast to those of the National Socialists. Specifically, these policies include the welcoming of large refugee populations, the focus on multilateralism, and the codification of deep ties with the European Union. Yet, these very policies have drawn the ire of many AfD politicians who see them as hampering Germany’s interests. These right-wing politicians have, in turn, blamed the national focus on guilt for these policies, arguing that the collective memory of German history must be shifted away from a fixation with the National Socialist period to actualize more materially beneficial policies. To do so, the AfD has employed several tactics, seeking to shift educational funding to support the celebration of German achievements and to reshape the German monument landscape away from a focus on Holocaust memorialization. In this way, ultimately, the right-wing Alternative for Germany has endeavored to revise the German collective memory, attempting to eliminate the pervasive sense of national guilt of the German people, as means to promote the Far Right’s Eurosceptic, German-centric policy goals.

Works Cited

Assmann, Jan. “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique, no. 65 (Spring/Summer 1995): 125-33. Accessed April 4, 2020.

Dearden, Lizzie. “German AfD politician ‘attacks Holocaust memorial’ and says Germans should be more positive about Nazi past.” Independent, January 19, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2020.

Harris, Cecily. “German Memory of the Holocaust: The Emergence of Counter-Memorials.” Penn History Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 34-59. Accessed April 4, 2020.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories. Translated by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Manifesto for Germany: The Political Programme of the Alternative for Germany. N.p.: Alternative fur Deutschland, n.d.

Olick, Jeffrey K., and Daniel Levy. “Collective Memory and Cultural Constraint: Holocaust Myth and Rationality in German Politics.” American Sociological Review, 62, no. 6 (December 1997): 921-36.

Salzborn, Samuel. “Antisemitism in the ‘Alternative for Germany’ Party.” German Politics and Society 36, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 74-93.

Schuette, Leonard August. “Collective memory in Germany and the great foreign policy debate: the case of the European refugee crisis.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 31, nos. 3-4 (2018): 272-90. Accessed April 4, 2020.

Troianovski, Anton. “The German Right Believes It’s Time to Discard the Country’s Historical Guilt.” The Wall Street Journal (New York City), March 3, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2020.


[1] Cecily Harris, “German Memory of the Holocaust: The Emergence of Counter-Memorials,” Penn History Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 35, accessed April 4, 2020.

[2] Leonard August Schuette, “Collective memory in Germany and the great foreign policy debate: the case of the European refugee crisis,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 31, nos. 3-4 (2018): 276, accessed April 4, 2020.

[3] Reinhart Koselleck, Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, trans. Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 244.

[4] Jan Assmann, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” New German Critique, no. 65 (Spring/Summer 1995): 127, 129, accessed April 4, 2020,

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jeffrey K. Olick and Daniel Levy, “Collective Memory and Cultural Constraint: Holocaust Myth and Rationality in German Politics,” American Sociological Review, 62, no. 6 (December 1997): 924.

[8] Ibid, 923.

[9] Ibid, 924.

[10] Schuette, “Collective memory,” 282.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 277.

[14] Manifesto for Germany: The Political Programme of the Alternative for Germany. (n.p.: Alternative fur Deutschland, n.d.), 16.

[15] Ibid, 30.

[16] Ibid, 61.

[17] Anton Troianovski, “The German Right Believes It’s Time to Discard the Country’s Historical Guilt,” The Wall Street Journal (New York City), March 3, 2017, accessed April 4, 2020.

[18] Lizzie Dearden, “German AfD politician ‘attacks Holocaust memorial’ and says Germans should be more positive about Nazi past,” Independent, January 19, 2017, [Page #], accessed April 4, 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20]  Samuel Salzborn, “Antisemitism in the ‘Alternative for Germany’ Party,” German Politics and Society 36, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 81.

[21] Olick and Levy, “Collective Memory,” 921.

[22] Manifesto for Germany, 47.

[23] Troianovski, “The German.”

[24] Salzborn, “Antisemitism in the ‘Alternative,” 77.