Society

"Populism is propaganda" 

Article published on June 6, 2017
Article published on June 6, 2017

Since coming out of a coma, Rainer Höss, the grandson of an Auschwitz executioner, has dedicated his life to destroying his grandfather's legacy. His book The Commander's Legacy explains the dangers of right-wing extremism in Europe. Here is what he had to say about his life's mission. 

cafébabel: You never knew your grandfather, an executioner at Auschwitz. Can you tell us about your heritage?

Rainer Höss: Growing up knowing that I am the grandson of a mass murderer who killed thousands of people, in a family who was ideologically convinced, is not a heritage of which I am proud. I would have preferred it if my grandfather had been a gardener or a prisoner, because then I would have been on the other side of the story. I would have had fewer problems. But I think that I have managed to make amends, at least with my own family and my children.

cafébabel: You were initially trained as a pastry chef. Can you remember the exact moment when you knew that you wanted to engage in your family's past?

Rainer Höss: No, it was kind of an unconscious decision. My children have always been my priority; I had to protect them by not allowing these terrible red flags indoctrinate them. I became a father at a young age, when I was only 17 years old. I knew at the time that my son shouldn't have any contact with his father. I wanted to spare him the pain that I had to go through. I've given talks at my children's school about my heritage, so I never made a secret of what I do and how I do it either. 

cafébabel: Does it not annoy your children that Dad always talks about the Holocaust? Does your family attract any unwanted attention?

Rainer Höss: No. My children have managed to distance themselves from it. And if they are asked about their father, they say: "So? Do you have a problem with him? Are you a fascist? Why are you interested in what he does?" My oldest granddaughter is 15 years old and she often says to me: "Grandad - when you retire, I will continue your work." You simply couldn't ask for a higher accolade. It's in those moments I can say to myself that I have done my job well.

cafébabel: You criticise Germany's treatment of the Holocaust. Is there a risk that their history is being forgotten?

Rainer Höss: We have forgotten a lot of it. It makes me angry that, in schools, teachers rush through the Holocaust. The entire period tends to be covered in only six lessons. Knowing how things panned out in Europe during the era of national socialism, the superficial side of this education makes me very angry. And every time, someone says: "OK, but it was 70 years ago," as if there are no more Nazis today. 

cafébabel: We often describe parties such as the AfD in Germany or the FN in France as right-wing populists. Do you think this is the right term to use?

Rainer Höss: For me, populism is a type of propaganda. Propaganda itself is only ever negative as it has one simple goal: to marginalise a group or groups of people. I think that, even if we were to use more technical terms, the majority of the population would still struggle to understand it because they have never really grappled with the concept itself. For some time now I have been working on the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, which is quite a good example. I received calls from French citizens who claimed that they were never involved. To expose something like the National Front, you need to start with education. All they see is this woman on stage and her name tag 'Marine'. No 'Le Pen', no National Front. But everyone knows that the family in question and especially her father are fascists; he is a radical right-winger and a Holocaust denier. The whole topic, unfortunately, has been watered-down. 

cafébabel: Marine Le Pen broke with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French call this 'undemonisation'. Do you not think that one can deny their past? She herself renounces the ideologies of her ancestors. 

Rainer Höss: Then she should be in one of the other parties.  There are significant differences between the two of us. I am authentic and honest, she isn't. I stand by my principles, and I sometimes get punished for that. But I'm like a bad habit - you can't get rid of me. This woman tried to hide her attitude behind a wonderful blue curtain, and I see the same thing happening with the AfD: no one really wants to put them out of their comfort zones. What would happen if Le Pen, Petry [NB. ex-AfD leader] or Wilders came to power? We would find ourselves in a similar situation as Turkey with Erdogan. Out of a democracy would grow a dictatorship - a one-man operation - one person could control the whole country with a snap of a finger, just like in North Korea

cafébabel: Looking back at the French presidential elections, it seems that there was a sort of acceptance of right-wing ideology which, 15 years ago, would have led to an enormous revolt. Do you think that we are getting used to this renewed idea of right-wing extremism? 

Rainer Höss: I think that the topic has been dumbed down and there is a lot of ignorance surrounding it. Selfishness persists in the background, and it can be found in politics too. There is no new energy within politics. In France, at least, it seems that it's been the same since the turn of the century. Macron appears to be an innovative young man, though. He stands for his principles and he makes no secret of the fact that his wife is 24 years older than him. 

cafébabel: In the first round of the elections, France's youth mostly voted for the right rather than the left. What would you say to those who feel excluded from society to help them to keep up the fight? 

Rainer Höss: Primarily, I would say don't give up. There are plenty of opportunities to challenge things and to keep a critical mindset. For example, young people are starting to question their use of smartphones, but this criticism is somewhat superficial. We know which car we want, what type of woman, which house, but we don't really know our political agendas. We don't know what we want for our country. It's hard to establish which are the true facts and stray away from a herd mentality. One must try to escape the masses and stand out, even when things aren't working. 

cafébabel: How can we encourage more young people to campaign against right-wing extremism? 

Rainer Höss: We recently set up a page called Footsteps on Facebook, where we explain modern history in the context of today's society. We want to reach out to young people. I like to think that I'm not the bony, old man that people expect. I'm not afraid to confront demagogues directly. Even in Sweden, I promised my 15-year-old granddaughter that I would film a clip with her. Young people there wanted to do something other than classic campaign films. She explained her project to me, so I went there and it was a huge success. I am so proud of this young woman because she has shown such courage. We have pushed the SD, and therefore the radical right, down by 8%. Reaching a consensus and building bridges is exactly what I would like to achieve. 

cafébabel: Some people criticise you in saying that you made a business out of your family's history. How do you respond to these accusations?

Rainer Höss: How should I answer this? There are simply education-resistant people, who try to enforce their opinions on others. But they won't be successful and I am always there. And the wonderful thing is that others grow with me. I have helped to cultivate the next generation of activists within my own family. And whoever claims the contrary is an idiot. My daughter is married to a Muslim. I think that's great. A multicultural family has sprung out of an ex-Nazi family. We've become a hybrid and the mixed the whole shabang up and down – destroyed it! 

cafébabel: In Germany, satire is flourishing and the topic of the Third Reich is still a relatively new phenomenon. Do you think that it's right to look at historical drama with humour?

Rainer Höss: There is no wrong way to educate people. We don't really like dry stuff, we prefer things done with good taste and humour. Böhmermann did great things on this topic. After his piece on Erdogan, he reacted almost immediately because the truth wasn't to his taste. As for me, I had to learn to live in harmony with the survivors. They have a sinister sarcasm and a black humour attitude towards the Holocaust. From the start, I wasn't ashamed. And to this day I refuse to be ashamed. 

cafébabel: Germany wants to be seen by its neighbours as a leader that can be condemned and mocked, but also admired. What role do you think Germany should have on the world stage in today's European context?

Rainer Höss: The Germans showed, after the era of National Socialism when the phoenix rose from the ashes, that they could rise again - even with all of the problems that the country has. And this has been the case today too, especially with the refugee crisis. I come from Baden-Wuerttemberg and we were the first to take in 12,000 traumatised children. Right-wing extremism is not tolerated by us in this region, Pegida has no place here.

cafébabel: But the AfD in Baden-Wuerttemberg is quite a powerful force.

Rainer Höss: Many of the supporters are frustrated voters. The way I see it is that the AfD will destroy itself, so I don't worry too much about it. Only if more right-wing extremists come to power in Europe, UKIP's Farage, Hungary's Orban, and the wolf in sheep's clothing that is Le Pen, then I will get angry.

cafébabel: In Germany, the far-right is generally weaker in comparison to the rest of Europe. With the AfD and Pegida, however, we have seen a new awakening of racist thought in recent years. Where does this new patriotism come from?

Rainer Höss: I always tell my pupils: god loves stupid people because he has made so many of them. We will never get away from fascism or national socialism, it will always exist in the world.

cafébabel: But can you denounce so many voters as being stupid? Should the concerns of the population not be taken seriously?

Rainer Höss: If I see skinheads on the march and hear their shouts, I would like to say to them: "Sit down with me or come with me to Auschwitz." I have had such encounters. One should meet problems head on. I have also faced the problems in my family, in all forms, colours and facets. And I am still alive and I am happy. I don't need anything else. Changing perspectives has become a profession for me. 

cafébabel: Has your work gotten under your skin? A few years ago, you got a tattoo of a star of David. Can we see it?

Rainer Höss: No, that's private [laughs]. But in any case, it is too cold in Paris. The tattoo shows my respect for the survivors who have given me confidence. They did not judge me for my family and origin. And I wanted to give back to these people in some way. Sure, I could put some marzipan wine on the desk now, but I wanted to leave something behind, which is beyond their death and give them the feeling that they live on. This tattoo is not supposed to scream, look how tough I am, it's really only for these three survivors and for me. It is an expression of how close our community is. We are no longer the grandchildren and victims of Nazi grandchildren and victims, in many cases they have been accepted into the family. And that takes courage. I want them and their stories to survive as long as possible. Because they are the only bulwark we have against [right-wing populists] such as Le Pen or Orbán. They are witnesses of that time. When they are not around anymore, then we are alone surrounded by this whole shit.

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Rainer Höss: 'Das Erbe des Kommandanten' (2013) - im Französischen: 'L'Héritage du commandant' (Notes de Nuit 2016) in English – 'The Commander's Legacy'