These days everyone’s always distancing themselves from other people, and everyone’s always demanding other people distance themselves from other people. If you’re a politician, but also just if you have opinions on social media, it’s not enough to simply be you – you have to say you’re not with those others, the bad people. This is a performative world, in which you define yourself by saying you’re not a Nazi.
But luckily, distancing yourself is easy, because all you have to do is say it, preferably in a social media post. Because what no one else tells you is that once you’ve said you’re not a Nazi, no one ever checks. No one ever looks any closer, for example, at your policies. Once you’ve demonstrated an act of distancing, you may go about your day. You are free to pursue whichever policy you think serves your purposes.
This results in some confusing spectacles. In Frankfurt last month, for example, the trial of Stephan Ernst came to an end as the judge handed down a life sentence. You’d think this would be a trial that conservative politicians would pay some attention to, because in June 2019, Ernst, a neo-Nazi with a history of violent crime, murdered a conservative politician – a regional governor in the city of Kassel named Walter Lübcke.
Lübcke was not, say, a Jewish person in a synagogue in Halle, or a Muslim in a shisha bar in Hanau, but a 65-year-old white man and a loyal servant of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who had spent 32 years in various unassuming regional govern- ment offices. It was a career in public service that many other CDU politicians might have had. If they can’t care about Muslims in shisha bars you’d think they’d care about CDU politicians.
Stephan Ernst executed Lübcke because in October 2015 the governor was carrying out one of his public duties: He went to a town hall meeting in the village of Lohfelden and explained to the citizens why a refugee home was being set up in their town. His future murderer was at the meeting, standing with his friend and later co-defendant Markus Hartmann, who filmed Lübcke’s famous speech in which the politician reaffirmed the rights of German citizens to defend their democratic values: “And whoever doesn’t advocate these values can leave this country at any time, if he doesn’t agree with them. That’s the freedom of every German.”
Racists are not just potential murderers, they’re also a constituency.
Hartmann posted his video of that quote on the internet, where it attracted hundreds of death threats, and obsessed many AfD supporters and one neo-Nazi murderer for years to come.
And yet, other local CDU politicians have shown surprisingly little interest in the fate of Walter Lübcke or the trial of his murderer, or in uncovering the network of terrorists who may have been behind it, or the intelligence agency officials who may have protected the murderers.
That’s because racists are not just potential murderers, they’re also a constituency. It’s easy to distance yourself from neo-Nazi murderers, just like it’s easy for the new CDU leader Armin Laschet to promise he’ll never countenance a coalition with the AfD.
What is harder – for Laschet and especially for regional CDU leaders – is to resist introducing racist policies to try and win over the AfD’s voters. That’s why, ever since the refugee crisis that triggered the events that led to Lübcke’s murder, Germany’s asylum laws have become tighter and tighter.
It’s why there are camps full of miserable people in Greece and the Balkans, and it’s why Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is determined to deport people to Syria, pandemic or no pandemic, civil war or no civil war. He’s distanced himself from the Nazis too. The performance is all, and all politics is performance, after all.