An ethnic-nationalist citizens’ movement has finally emerged in Germany too, and in record time; and with the entrance into the Bundestag of the Alternative für Deutschland it is becoming normalised.
The only really new feature is the speed at which this has occurred. The political situation and atmosphere in Germany has fundamentally changed and, from a left perspective, dramatically worsened. However, it is the dynamic of the phenomenon, the force of the rollback, and the way in which it has trapped left actors, that is surprising. After a long phase of shock and analysis, and only gradually, has there been some movement – within a phase in which normalisation has already begun to set in.
But let us start at the beginning: If in 2007 the talk show host Eva Herman got into trouble for her outrageous utterances about family policy, the role of the mother, and the ‘Third Reich’, and was fired by the public radio station on which she was a well-known personality, her attitudes are by now the no longer tabooed core repertory of a mass of ‘concerned’ ‘angry citizens’ strongly influenced by the new right and which make up a new and, naturally, ethnic-nationalist citizens’ movement. In her anti-feminist book Das Eva-Prinzip: Für eine neue Weiblichkeit (The Eve Principle: For a New Womanhood), which already appeared in 2006, she anticipated the ‘68 bashing from the point of view of the role of women and mothers – which is just now rearing its ugly head again. She got into less trouble for this than for her downplaying of National Socialist family policy, which for contemporary taste was somewhat too simple. At the presentation of her new book, Das Prinzip Arche Noah (The Principle of Noah’s Arc) she had said: ‘And we need to learn to value again especially the image of the mother in Germany, which was unfortunately suppressed with National Socialism and the subsequent ’68 movement. With the ‘68ers at that time practically everything – everything that was our values – …; it was a brutal time, that was a completely freaked out, highly dangerous politician who led the German people to ruin, we all know that. But then there also were things that were good, the values, that is, children, mothers, families, cohesion – that was abolished. Nothing was supposed to remain of that …’
One of many provocateurs from the 2000s decade, one might say. However, the Herman story can be seen as a sort of initial spark of a potential for indignation that ignited the Sarrazin debate in 2009 with the cry ‘We ought to be allowed to say this!’ The indignant and defiant phrase was directed against the ‘political correctness’ allegedly established by ‘the ‘68ers’ as a tool of repression, the media-hyped ‘PC terror’-based prohibition to speak ‘the truth’ that supposedly lay in ‘healthy common sense’ or in the ‘vernacular’, on ‘tongues thirsting for freedom’. (Andreas Waibel has already demonstrated that the battle cry of ‘PC’ was an invention of US right-wing conservatives.)
With Thilo Sarrazin, in any case, a reactionary took the floor who in no way fit the picture of a ‘right-winger’, let alone ‘right-wing extremist’ and who set the tone for subsequent debates. Before his famous 2009 interview with Lettre International, Sarrazin had been Berlin’s Finance Senator and then in 2009 risen to become a member of the executive of the Bundesbank. And Sarrazin is a died-in-the-wool Social Democrat.
With his racist theses Sarrazin took up old, deplorable, completely social democratic traditions of ‘social hygiene’ and ‘eugenics’ that go back to the beginning of the twentieth century and even further. And now ‘Islam’ also began to appear as a trigger issue. The Turkish and Arab population of the Berlin district of Neukölln for example was ‘producing only girls with headscarves’ and only contributed to the economy as ‘green grocers’, Sarrazin blustered in the ongoing ‘integration debate’; the district mayor of Neukölln, Heinz Buschkowsky, also a Social Democrat, seconded him in 2012 with his racist balance sheet ‘Neukölln is everywhere’. In making his case biologistically, Sarrazin showcased genetic reasons for the claimed deficits of the immigrants by ascribing a ‘fertility of the stupid’ to them and instead wished for Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, since the IQ of Jews there was about ‘15 per cent higher’. But that which at this point Die Zeit, the flagship of bourgeois ‘quality journalism’, gave him a pass on as ‘flirtatious borderline racism’ was actually breaking all taboos as crude racism and anti-Semitism and opening the floodgates to unbridled ethnic rabble-rousing, which in subsequent years, intensified by the new emerging social media, broke new ground and is continuing to do so. The bursting of the dam was also documented in the more than 1.5 million copies sold of Sarrazin’s pamphlet Germany is Abolishing Itself: How We Are Jeopardising Our Country. It repeated his racist theories in dressed-up, pseudo- scientific terms and sparked heated debates. Characteristic of the debate was the image of ‘prohibitions on speaking up’ and ‘muzzles’; the supposedly ‘gagged’ and ‘ostracised’ Sarrazin appeared on practically every TV talk show and spoke in innumerable municipal halls and state ceremonial rooms filled with thousands of listeners on the top issue of the year 2010 – a curious way of being ‘muzzled’
However, a very important aspect of right-wing ideologies lies precisely in this victim myth, which was at the bottom of the social ‘breakthrough’ of the ‘concerned citizen’. Self-victimisation is one of the power cells of ethnic agitation in the new nationalist discourse that is by no means limited to Germany. Viktor Orbán’s irredentist victim discourse comes to mind: a Greater Hungary punished by the world with massive territorial losses, which is suffering from the phantom pains of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon and which must now move itself to new heights. Or Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric of a nation used by the whole world, which must now take care of its own interests. Or of the grotesque self-pity of Turkey’s head of state Erdoğan. It is thus not only in Germany that victim myths play a significant role in the formation of national ‘counterforces’ to the ‘ruling bloc’, with their hysterical formulas of ‘population exchange’ and the ‘demise of a people’ that now characterise the ongoing reactionary discourse. The main bogeyman is Federal Chancellor Merkel, the ‘betrayer of her country’, who with her ‘refugee policy’ has opened the door to the extermination of the ancestral ‘German people’. She is in league with ‘the people up there’, those suspect elites from the world of finance, who in the last analysis determine how the world runs, whether they are the ‘Fed’ (Federal Reserve Bank), the ‘East coast’, or also the Bilderberg Group. The anti-Semitism conveyed in these images is readily manifested in the ubiquitous mention of billionaire George Soros, the Rothschild banking family, or the finance company Goldman Sachs. In the outlook of these conspiracy theories it is always one’s own ‘people’ who are the victim of these sinister and untouchable powerful people who rule the world and to whom one’s own elites are subservient, if not co-conspirators. No idea is too crazy to attract followers in assemblies or on the internet: Even completely loopy theories – for instance, of ‘chemtrails’ from the skies in which Jewish instigators have toxic substances sprayed from airplanes to anaesthetise or sterilise the population – find their believers. The viral effect of these horror stories launched on social media must not be underestimated; their effect has spread to the everyday lives of people.
And it is this victim posture in the face of invisible powerful figures determining one’s destiny at whose mercy we are which finds left and right adherents in equal measure; at peace demonstrations and Monday demonstrations people are invited to join in a transversal front against these ‘dark powers’. It is no longer a matter of right or left, we are told; it is about power elites and the people behind them who are out of touch with the ‘people’. As long as this is directed against ‘oppressors’, ‘warmongers’, or ‘the Zionists’, there are many famous left protagonists ready to rub shoulders in demonstrations and protests with ethnic-nationalist trolls.
But back to the beginning of the 2010s. At first, the Sarazzin debate did not lead to a new party, as many ethnic-conservatively oriented people hoped for, for example with Sarazzin as front man. The ‘wise’ protagonist, whose lack of charisma and unconcealed arrogance hardly made him attractive to the leader-hungry masses, declined. Then other prominent people came into the public spotlight who could take up the incited populist furore and use it for a new conservative offensive. One of these was the former IBM manager and head of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Hans-Olaf Henkel. It was from the euro-critical Wahlalternative 2013 he co-founded that the new party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) later arose; at first it was a party of market-radical, neoliberal notables and academics with the perspective of Germany being a victim of the EU and the euro. The evolution of the AfD, abandoning figures such as Henkel and the economics professor and first party head Bernd Lucke to become an ethnic-populist party, occurred at breathtaking speed: Henkel is said to have left the party due to the rise of the later party head Frauke Petry because she was too right-wing for him. In the meanwhile, the rightward drift has also left Petry and her newly founded Die Blaue Partei behind as not right-wing enough.
How could it happen, and what factors favoured this meteoric rise of a party that at least up to 2017 has steadily and no less rapidly drifted rightward? Many of the issues already staked out by Herman and Sarazzin, which continued to evolve in various lines of discourse, suddenly, in 2014, came together through the enormous response and far-reaching disinhibition unleashed in the diverse echo chambers of the internet – or they were actively strung together by particular players.
Essentially, the big moment had come for the New Right, which is in no way new and has been called new for some decades now. The Hamburg historian Volker Weiss sums up this ‘magic moment’ for the new right intellectuals in his brilliant book Die autoritäre Revolte: ‘Within a short time a milieu that for years had been self-sufficient found its way into everyday political confrontation. After long years as officers without soldiers, the New Right appeared to have found its army in the “concerned citizens”.’ While in Dresden and many other places in Germany demonstrations began to be held every Monday by PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the West) and regularly brought many thousands – at the beginning of 2015 even 25,000 – participants into the streets, mass protests surged against ‘gender terror’ and ‘early sexualisation’ of children in schools especially in southwest Germany, so-called hooligans marauded through Cologne and Hannover against Salafis, and the intellectual spearheads of ethnic-nationalist thinking moved from their studies to the streets and since then have supplied a good part of the speakers at these large events that are widespread not only in Saxony.
Alongside the head of the new-right think tank Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS) and head of its publishing house Antaios, Götz Kubischek, and his companions, there have subsequently been significant figures taking up the microphone such as the fascist troll and former leftist, and editor of the expanding rabble-rousing magazine Compact, Jürgen Elsässer; the crudely racist German-Turkish author of cat detective stories Akif Pirinçci; and the ethnic-right-winger and Thuringian parliamentary group leader of the AfD Björn ‘Bernd’ Höcke. Even in a small hamlet like Altenburg in Thuringia, Elsässer, for example, was able to attract more than 500 listeners twice within a few months between 2015 and 2016 and stir them up with his ethnic rhetoric. The ‘old warhorses’ of the new-right and reactionary guild have been joined by younger figures such as Philipp Stein of the ‘resistance movement One Percent’ and Martin Sellner of the ‘Identitarian Movement’ (IB), who have organised photogenic ethnic-identitarian disruptive actions with media impact, with forms of activism borrowed from the radical left’s toolkit, such as the occupation of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. With this presence in public space as debaters, and with ‘their influence on the AfD they [the New Right] have an instrument to carry their political ideas into the parliaments. Sections of society moved towards their ideas, a process of normalisation had begun’, Weiss wrote.
What were these ‘sections of society’? This question has occupied observers ever since, for few of the current notions are adequate to describe the masses who have assembled in the country’s streets and squares on these occasions in a dangerously escalated mood since the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from the crisis- and poverty-ridden regions of the world in mid-2015. Relatively early poll surveys of these protesting citizens quickly made clear that it was not at all the socially disadvantaged, or not only they, who had been set in motion. This was a right-wing ‘citizens’ movement’ of a new kind which alongside its fundamental opposition to ‘those up there’, the ‘politics of the establishment’, had inscribed on their German banner enmity towards the established media, the ‘lying press’.
A media machine that felt it had been caught, combined with vexed representatives of all bourgeois parties, and a hectic civil-society discussion, got cracking to shed light on the phenomenon and to ponder where it came from, and where this overwhelmingly silent movement, which called its demonstrations ‘going for walks’, was heading – this movement that had begun with lightning speed to plant offshoots in some eastern and western German cities. There was a more or less thorough investigation of who was in the streets and what moved the ‘indignant’. It quickly became clear that the overwhelmingly male (almost 80%) and middle-aged (35% aged 25-35 and 42% aged 40-64) milieu was far from consisting of drop-outs and the socially weak (these made up a mere 5%) but that about 56% of them were workers, employees, and officials who were part of the petty bourgeoisie; they were thus well-qualified people with middle incomes. A glance at the movement’s protagonists showed that about 15% were self-employed and often precarious freelancers. But in addition, from the beginning, among the growing number of protesters there always were some faces connected to the neo-Nazi and right-wing hooligan scene and from the neo-Nazi party landscape (NPD, ‘The Third Way’, ‘the Right’). And from the AfD, in whose ranks many regarded PEGIDA as ‘natural allies’.
Perhaps it was the departure of the well-off professors from the AfD and the increased presence in the AfD of the equally well-qualified middle class that made it possible for the New Right to build a bridge here from the parties solidly present in the state parliaments to the extra-parliamentary protests in the streets and monopolise the latter up to now. In this way a broad spectrum of the ‘politically homeless’, ranging from professorial know-it-alls to fascist intellectuals, from incensed normal citizens to some organised neo-Nazis, could find a connection to something that can be regarded as a political and social movement.
What is important here, as Volker Weiss notes, is that the ‘New Right already [had] a well-developed world view long ago and only had to pass this on to the aroused masses’. Suddenly, once lonely right-wingers crying in the ethnic wilderness had gigantic masses listening to them in agreement when they enunciated – with audience appeal (populistically) – the teachings of their intellectual fathers, the Oswald Spenglers, Carl Schmitts, Arthur Moeller van den Brucks, and the Ernst Jüngers. These figures’ traditions, via mediators like Armin Mohler and the recently deceased Henning Eichberg (who in later life went over to the left) lead conceptually to the contemporary protagonists. The rhetoric of ‘the West’ or the ‘space’ strategies of important European pioneer thinkers of a new-right tendency, such as the Frenchmen Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye, of the Russian ‘Eurasia’ propagandist Alexander Dugin, and of Italy’s Casa Pound movement, mark the contours of a potent network of reactionary ideas, simultaneously ethnic-nationalist and European (or ‘Eurasian’) , whose Europe-wide rise appears unstoppable.
A characteristic of this new movement is the cult of masculinity, which has re-emerged from deep within the twentieth century. To be a man and soldier, battle and death, heroism and the evocation of the ruthless, ‘naturally’ brutal, combative, and iron-clad man’s body – already described by Klaus Theweleit in the 1970s – is put forward as an ideal and constitutes an immanent hatred of women, of everything ‘feminine’, and ambiguous: ‘These cults of masculinity clearly apply to all authoritarian tendencies,’ Weiss notes. This raging antifeminism, determined by self-victimisation, finds its effective public expression in, for example, the speeches of the Thuringian AfD head Höcke, when he called out in November 2015 in Erfurt, to the jubilation of the audience: ‘I say we have to rediscover our masculinity, and only then when we rediscover our masculinity will we become manly, and only when we become manly will we become able to defend ourselves, and we must be able to defend ourselves, dear friends.’ Höcke, who sees his mission as historic, likes to deploy a bombastic national awakening rhetoric – as in his notorious Dresden speech of 17 January 2017 – and repeatedly indicates to his followers ‘a long path full of privation’, calling on them to ‘pine for service [to the fatherland]’.
In his gripping essay ‘Militant Racism’ Felix Korsch describes the armoury of the ethnic-national revolt, in which the present situation is already described as a ‘pre-civil war’’ and ‘state of emergency’, and the case is made – on the basis of the so-called ‘resistance article’ 20/4 of the Basic Law – for the right to arm oneself now and rise up against a government acting illegally and against the (national) interests of the people, a corrupt, or alternatively also decadent, ‘ruling bloc’.
The hate figures of the citizens who have flocked together are naturally the Chancellor herself who is asking ‘her people’, with her dictum ‘we can handle this!’, to accept the mass influx of refugees, from ‘foreign cultural environments’ to boot, down to the state parliamentarians and mayors, who had to take care of lodgings and provisions for the arriving refugees on the municipal level. The mayor of the Anhalt-Saxon city of Tröglitz, Markus Nierth, for example, resigned from office under massive personal threats, after an apartment block there was designated as the future collective housing for the asylum seekers. Shortly afterwards, the building went up in flames and the state parliament also received death threats. Similar things happened to many municipal politicians who were crushed between the requirement to accommodate the refugees and the raging racist protests.
In this sense, a state of emergency really did appear for a few months in many parts of the country, ‘in which partially brutalised […] respectable citizens’ (Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière), but also organised neo-Nazis felt themselves again – after the pogroms of the early 1990s – empowered to ‘enforce the popular will’. The federal government’s answer to a small inquiry of Die LINKE’s Bundestag delegation regarding racist attacks and criminal offences as well as assaults on asylum accommodations for the year 2016 alone contains a list of over 2,500 such acts and 217 further attacks against people helping the refugees. In many municipalities so-called ‘Nein zum Heim’ (no to homes) initiatives and militias appeared (in this connection Korsch speaks of neo-vigilantism); in part heavily armed self- styled ‘Reich citizens’ crept out of their holes, considering their ‘fatherland’ an occupied country and insisting on not recognising the authorities of the federal republic and on the right to defend themselves against their ‘attacks’: A policeman paid with his life for his attempt to arrest a ‘Reich citizen’ in October 2016.
At the end of 2017 the forward march of the new-right citizens’ movement and its ‘parliamentary arm’ the AfD appears – despite its entrance into the German Bundestag with a staggering 12.6% of votes – somewhat attenuated; the extra-parliamentary protests have waned, especially as the much-maligned federal government has successfully entrenched itself behind the border fence – universally condemned as ‘brutal’ – of the authoritarian Hungarian head of state Viktor Orbán and a scandalous ‘refugee pact’ with the Turkish potentate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Altogether, the government, for its part, is using the so-called refugee crisis to cash in on its hard-won minimum standard for dealing with refugees and immigrants and – in the above-described ‘state of emergency’ since the middle of 2015 – to enact stricter new regulations than even the AfD is demanding. In konkret 6/2016 Peer Heinelt has trenchantly described this overbidding politics and the cruelties of the new rigid, and in parts completely arbitrary, deportation regime to which the rejected asylum seeker is subjected and which even designates the completely shattered Afghanistan as a country to which people can be ‘repatriated’. The attempts by the federal government precisely in the ‘failed state’ of Libya to win over the brutal militia to cutting off the path of the refugees and detaining them in infernal camps or – as the TV magazine monitor reported on 24 August 2017 – blocking the way north through the desert to the Mediterranean with a monstrous border wall, illustrates the barbaric ‘anything goes’ in the wake of what is called the refugee crisis. While the whole world is rebuking Donald Trump for his plan to build a wall at the Mexican border, in Europe completely similar activities against the neighbouring continent are unfolding in total disregard of the most basic human rights.
The ambivalence of Merkel’s government policy – which so willingly enabled ‘marriage for all’ and entry for tens of thousands of overwhelmingly Syrian refugees, but on the other hand tells the ‘people’ what they want to hear in the case of deportations or for example in the hysterical measures against so-called left extremists in the wake of the G20 Summit in Hamburg – earned the Chancellor a comfortable but now precarious majority that has forced the CDU and CSU into difficult negotiations for a ‘Jamaica’ coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP, Greens), a continuation of the grand coalition with the SPD, or even a minority government for another term. In any case, the sister party CSU in the Free State of Bavaria has meanwhile been making gestures to suggest it is a cousin of the AfD; the racist and rabble-rousing statements of some of the party’s grandees, the completely insane ‘upper- limits’ ravings of its chair Horst Seehofer, but also racist attacks and incidents in the immediate milieu of the CSU, can be read as part of an attempt to put into practice the dictum of the ‘great Prime Minister’ Franz Josef Strauß that there can be ‘nothing to the right of the CSU but a wall’.
And now? If we start from the editor of konkret, Hermann Gremliza’s assertion that ‘populism is always right-wing’ we have to reject the postulate of a ‘left populism’ as an antidote to ethnic-nationalist populism. The notion put forward by Thomas Goes and Violetta Bock in their book Ein unanständiges Angebot? Mit linkem Populismus gegen Eliten und Rechte (An Unrespectable Populism? With Left Populism Against Elites and the Right) that a ‘progressive’ left populism could encourage the breakthrough of what they call a popular socialism would seem rather simpatico. But even if this populism speaks somewhat diffusely of the ‘working class’ and ‘popular classes’ for which it wants to fight, and thus at first sounds cool and promising, still even a left populism carries within it the germ of reaction and of cowardly compromise because it is prey to the temptation to simplistically sharpen reality; and, as heated rhetoric, it speaks to always easily excitable base instincts within these amorphous masses.
In October 2016, the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell was at the Berlin theatre Hebbel am Ufer speaking about the ‘Return of European Fascism’. To the question, posed by some discontented, impatient listeners, of what can actually be done against this right-wing bursting of the floodgates he answered that we have to ‘stand on the truth and on universalist values’. An answer whose simplicity provoked considerable irritation for some present. However, the great importance of coming back to the values and achievements of the (critically understood) Enlightenment and universalism, strengthening them and protecting them from populist attack, is shown by the disastrous examples of left politicians who believed that, because they were left, they could draw on a ‘pure’ populism. But there is no pure populism. The crisis of the left is so all-encompassing and global that the red line of an ineluctable humanism, radical democracy, and anti-capitalist and anti-masculinist consensus cannot be lightly abandoned for the sake of dubious electoral success or other short-term advantages.