Once in West Berlin I staged a Nazi march, with American GIs. In Germany in the 1970s it was illegal to display Nazi memorabilia and to wear Nazi uniforms. But West Berlin was still considered then to be occupied territory, and Allied soldiers were to some extent not subject to West German law, hence the ban didn’t apply to them.
At the time I was an assistant director on feature films. One of the movies on which I worked told the story of a young Prussian officer, played by David Bowie. It was set between the end of the First World War and the rise of Nazism. In the penultimate scene, the script called for a column of Brownshirts to march along a Berlin street. But none of the German extras would agree to wear the uniform for, to do so, would break the law.
To solve the problem, the director and I hit on the idea of using soldiers, U.S. soldiers. We met the commander of the Berlin Brigade, explained our predicament and – early one Sunday morning two weeks later – two dozen American servicemen were dressed in replica SA uniforms...and marched through town.
Sunday morning had been chosen so as to attract as little attention as possible. On the deserted streets there didn’t seem to be a single soul about to witness our cinematic antics. Until the last shot when an elderly resident stepped out of her apartment, and right into the scene. The woman stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at the swastika banners. She blinked at the polished boots and glistening belt buckles. Her eyes widened and she whispered to herself, within my hearing, ‘They’re back. They’re back.’
To this day, I don’t know if the old woman utter those words in horror...or in wonder. But I do know that it is still illegal to display Nazi memorabilia in Germany (any one who displays its symbols or uses its greetings can be punished with up to three years in prison).
I was reminded of that incident when veteran, uniformed Stasi secret policemen marched through Berlin’s Treptow neighbourhood last month. The march caused an outrage, and rightly so. It has led to calls for the banning of symbols of old East Germany, in the same way that it is illegal to display Nazi memorabilia.
Such ‘provocation’ should not be tolerated, the CDU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder told the Berliner Morgenpost. He said the march had made a mockery of the victims of a dictatorship which had harassed and persecuted its people for decades.
Germany has dealt with the darker ideologies of its past by banning their symbols. But it’s a top-down approach, in which legislators instruct the public on correct behaviour (or rather punish them for incorrect behaviour). In many ways it’s a traditional way of doing things here. Yet to me it seems to be incompatible with an open society, and modern pluralist European democracy. How much better it would be if lawmakers could trust individuals to be responsible themselves. How much more honest those nostalgic Stasi veterans would be if they'd admit to the pain and heartache they once caused.
That said, at the same time I cannot forget the sight of the old Berliner, standing in her doorway, staring at the marching Brownshirts, and whispering ‘They’re back. They’re back.’
(Der Führer photograph by Gundula Schulze Eldowy)