When enrolled in Hebrew classes in Jerusalem some years ago, I befriended an impressive young German academic. He was researching outstanding Jewish scholars who had been forced out of Germany in the 1930s and had contributed to the rebirth, and flowering, of the modern Israeli State.
We spent considerable time discussing both that work and his earlier research project – a study of antisemitism and sympathy for Nazism in (pre-reunification) West Germany.
Working in the region where his family had lived, attended Church and undeniably belonged for as long as records existed, he had made sure he was fully trusted by those he surveyed, in an effort to uncover genuine beliefs and feelings. He uncovered an enormous reservoir of antisemitism and positive views of Nazism, which was coupled with the belief that there would be extremely negative consequences for anyone expressing this publicly – even to opinion pollsters.
He would not be surprised at the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) now achieving double-digit voter support, with dozens of its members now receiving wages, paid by the German public, to serve in Parliament.
When I first visited Berlin, to participate in a conference hosted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I befriended a Greens’ Party leader. Although I was invited to the OSCE Conference on Antisemitism as an “International Expert” to contribute to discussions on Law and Racism, because my passport was Australian, an OSCE official initially denied me entry to the Conference venue.
The affable MP saw what happened, put his arm round my shoulder, and walked me into the hall, knowing that he would not be challenged. He then discussed with me his concern that antisemitism, racism and xenophobia were not just present but dangerous, and his view that the success of the European Project was essential if a tide of nasty, if not Nazi, nationalism was to be kept in check.
This profoundly decent man and his colleagues have witnessed close to a third of German votes going to parties which are opposed to the vision of integration and a strong European identity.
In Washington this year, I met a brilliant, dynamic German Social Democrat, whose party has now seen its electoral fortunes plummet after a period as part of a Centre-Right/Centre-Left governing coalition.
A Muslim, with twelve siblings and a recently-widowed mother, she has overcome economic and social disadvantage, and remained faithful to her religion, and has elected, and been elected, to devote her considerable talents to her city, state and country.
At the Muslim Jewish Conference in Berlin in 2015, I met other Muslims, Jews and members of a variety of ethnic, national and religious minorities, who saw Germany as not just their country but viewed the development of Germany as a personal and communal mission.
These people are now aware that one in eight German voters apparently saw no problem in voting for a party which promotes a vision which not only excludes them but identifies them as a problem to be dealt with.
During my most recent visit to Germany, I spent time at dignified, moving memorials to Jews, Roma and Sinti, and other victims of Nazism. I heard locals explain to visitors, calmly and rationally, why the monuments and museums existed.
Now the third largest party in the German Parliament is one which sees sophisticated understanding of history as an unnecessary burden.
It is undeniable that threats to German democracy come from a number of sources, with varying motivation but common malevolence. Xenophobia and antisemitism are not just features of those who publicly identify as far-right, with some important recent analyses also documenting Muslim, far-left and even liberal promotion and tolerance of bigotry and hate.
The cohort of hate mongers does not just comprise anti-foreign “nationalists”. It is vital they are all challenged, opposed and – if Germany is to avoid reverting to some of the worst features of its past – out-argued and returned to the gutters from which they emerged.