Earlier this month, a prominent member of the governing Social Democrats (SPD) stirred up a political hornets' nest when he likened a phrase in the opposition Christian Democrats' (CDU) election platform to a notorious Nazi slogan. Ludwig Stiegler is known for being outspoken, but his comparison of the CDU's job creation slogan, "What creates work is good for society," with the phrase that often appeared above Nazi concentration camps, "Work sets you free," was a step too far. His Nazi comparison drew widespread condemnation, and not just from within the CDU.
"Democratic parties should not clash using slogans of far-right parties or of the Nazis," SPD chairman Franz Müntefering said. "That is not our language."
They shouldn't, but they so often do. Stiegler's misstep was hardly an isolated incident. Only weeks before, veteran politician and leader of Germany's new left-wing party Oskar Lafontaine caused an uproar by using the Nazi-tainted term "Fremdarbeiter" (foreign workers) in a speech on unemployment.
Looking back at German postwar politics, it's not difficult to amass a whole catalog of Nazi comparisons and gaffes, intentional and otherwise. In many cases, the incidents had serious consequences for the politician in question. One of the most frequently cited examples is that of former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin (SPD). During the 2002 campaign, she compared US President George W. Bush's tactics on Iraq to those of Adolf Hitler, effectively ending her career.
Knowing just how sensitive and aware Germans are when it comes to talking about the Nazi past, the long list of similar blunders is bewildering. Why don't politicians just ban all Nazi references and comparisons from their vocabulary? Why do they tread such risky terrain?
"There are two main reasons," said Dr. Martin Wengeler, a linguist at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and co-author of a book about the history of controversial terms in the German language.
"The first is to gain attention in politics, especially during election campaigns, when it happens more frequently. It's a way of hitting out at political opponents, to defame them. The second reason is that the Nazi past still plays a role in the political discourse today. Political rhetoric often involves looking back on the past, using the past to serve as a warning, perhaps. The Nazi past is a very dramatic way of sharpening a debate."
Importance of 1968
The president of the central council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, once told ZDF television that he attributed the frequency with which Nazi terms and comparisons pop up in political discourse to the weakening of taboos around the subject.
"I've come to the conclusion that inhibitions in the communication of ideas we thought were no longer part of everyday life in Germany are lower now. People are more prepared now to give voice to hurtful things then they were in the past," Spiegel said.
But Wengeler said his research tells a different story. In the period immediately after the war, he said, Nazi comparisons were made and words used that didn't draw the kind of condemnation they would today. The turning point, according to Wengele, was the student movement of 1968, which marked a change in how Germans dealt with the past.
"After 1968, the sensibilities surrounding the Nazi past became much stronger, and there were certain things that you just couldn’t say anymore, which was a good thing," Wengeler said.
The result was a new era of political correctness, which today is inspiring some politicians -- particularly from the far-right -- to rebel. A recent high-profile example took place on the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden, an event many from the far-right in Germany insisted on referring to as a "bombing holocaust" in an effort to reclaim a word that people the world over singularly associate with the Nazis' killing of the Jews.
What's in a word?
After the war, linguists concerned with the "de-Nazification" of the German language engaged in countless debates about which words ought to be struck from popular use, and which were still permissible.
"Everyday words such as 'Betreuung,' (to care for) were discussed, because the Nazis used that word to talk about how prisoners in concentration camps were treated," Wengeler said. "Most linguists agree that such a word can be used again. But when there are particular words that have a strong association with Nazi crimes -- for example, 'entartete Kunst,' which is how the Nazis described art they banned --then it’s not okay to use them in political discourse today."
Many politicians who resort to Nazi-tainted terms or comparisons to make a point or score one against an opponent defend themselves in the aftermath by saying the word just slipped out in the heat of the moment. For Wengeler, that excuse is unacceptable.
"It is part of our national political culture that such things don't just slip out," he said.
Given the history of Nazi gaffes in German postwar politics, it's reasonable to assume that it's just a matter of time before the next scandal hits the headlines. But even that certainty has a positive element, Wengeler said.
"The fact that such a big deal is made when this sort of thing happens is a sign that a culture of defamation is not encouraged in Germany. It’s a sign of a functioning democratic culture."