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Max Czollek
Polemical Essays

Germans are world champions in remembering and coming to grips with their own history, racism is a thing of the past, so why don’t we focus on positive developments instead? Max Czollek punches holes in these pious certainties and shows that racism and radical right-wing views have become far too socially acceptable in present-day Germany again.

By Natascha Holstein

Czollek: Gegenwartsbewältigung © Hanser “No one can say exactly when the coronavirus crisis really started,” writes Max Czollek in Gegenwartsbewältigung (Overcoming the Present), a collection of his recent essays, which goes to show that Covid-19 has now made it into the political literature. Czollek briefly recalls the beginning of the pandemic and asks whether everyone is really equally affected by this “levelling” virus. He sees it more as a “contrast medium”, as the German writer Carolin Emcke puts it, that starkly reveals the divides in German society.

Search for alternatives

But Gegenwartsbewältigung is by no means a book about the coronavirus. It’s a work of contemporary history, so the pandemic does get mentioned every now and again. But it actually provides guidance in addressing the titular issue: how to overcome the present, or, in Czollek's words, “How do we adjust our political thinking so as to make the AfD [xenophobic Alternative for Germany party] impossible?” It undertakes a critical analysis of everyday racism and right-wing radicalism in Germany, as well as concepts like “Heimat”, or “homeland”, and “Leitkultur”, “dominant/mainstream culture” or “core values”, as well as outmoded notions and mindsets that are not about to help our society get through the present day and age. And it’s a search for alternatives that brings to light other narratives and competing interpretations of history, by which he doesn’t mean the efforts of mainstream parties against reducing German history to the murderous Holocaust – on the contrary. He also makes a point of naming architects of German culture who don’t fit into many people’s image of “German-ness”. What is German Leitkultur anyway? “If anything, it wouldn’t just be Schiller, the pop group Revolverheld and onion tart, but also May Ayim, Russendisko [a regular Berlin night club event] and baklava,” says Czollek.

Don’t talk to Nazis!

So these essays belie German claims to be world champions at overcoming the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigungsweltmeister, what a word!). Czollek puts this contention to the acid test, dissecting pivotal events in Germany in recent years: the uncovering of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist group that was behind a number of grisly murders, in 2011; the violent clashes in 2018 between far-right and far-left protesters in Chemnitz; the abortive 2019 terrorist attack on a synagogue in Halle; and the 2020 shooting spree at shisha bars in Hanau, as extremist manifestations of the normality of right-wing thought in Germany. He goes on to recount how FDP (Free Democratic Party) politician Thomas Kemmerich got himself elected minister-president of Thuringia in February 2020 with the support not only of the FDP and CDU (Christian Democrats), but also of the far-right AfD, and even shook hands with the racist right-wing extremist Björn Höcke. Under mounting public pressure, especially from the press and social media, Kemmerich eventually resigned. But all’s well that ends well, right? “Well, paper doesn’t blush as much as Twitter,” writes Czollek. “So I’d like to sum up my feelings at the time as objectively as possible: The FDP and CDU are opportunistic sleazebag parties in cahoots with a fascist.”

Back in 2018, socio-political commentators and literati were already divided in their reaction to Czollek’s angry manifesto Desintegriert Euch! (De-integrate Yourselves!). His new essays are no less vituperative, cynical and polemical. Journalist Günther Nonnenmacher writes in the FAZ that this book is “above all about self-understanding and makes no effort at all to engage with people who hold different opinions”. Czollek might well agree, for he makes no bones about the fact that his remarks are not for “right-wingers”, but for like-minded friends and peers. He has no desire to talk to people who call basic human rights into question. They always manage to have their say anyway, without let or hindrance, so why shouldn’t he at least get to pick his own readership.

He concludes by contemplating the prospect of a “Jewish-Muslim Leitkultur”, which is bound to wrinkle some conservative noses yet again. Gegenwartsbewältigung is a rejection of the “talk-to-Nazis” approach often posited in liberal circles, because for Max Czollek the situation is crystal clear. He exhorts instead: “Write in such a way that the Nazis would ban you.”

Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank Max Czollek: Gegenwartsbewältigung
München: Hanser, 2020. 208 S.
ISBN: 978-3-446-26772-5
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