Recently, the ugly head of German Nazism – beefed up by a heavy dose of antisemitism – roared its brain-dead head. Meanwhile, a Neo-Nazi leaflet surfaces which, as it appears, was written by the deputy premier of Bavaria, Hubert Aiwanger. Undeterred, Aiwanger’s popularity gained 4% “after” the affair became public.
The Neo-Nazi flyer talks about Auschwitz, executions for free, gas chambers, etc. – in short, the usual Neo-Nazi fare. Aiwanger claims that, not he, but his brother wrote the leaflet. It is reminiscent of top-Nazi Kurt Waldheim who once claimed, not he, but that only his horse was a Nazi.
Nazism isn’t unknown in Aiwanger’s Bavaria – past and present. In fact, it was Hitler’s beloved hideout. More recently, Bavaria was also the location of Germany’s worst Neo-Nazi attack: the Octoberfest bombing killing 13 people.
It was also in the state of Bavaria where Jewish Rabbi Shlomo Levin – chair of the Association for Christian-Jewish Cooperation – was shot to death along with his friend, Friday Poeschke in 1980.
Most recently, Germany’s most outspoken Neo-Nazi party – deceptively labelled as Alternative for Germany – has been riding high in opinion polls. In Aiwanger’s Bavaria, the AfD sits at 18% – with the state elections set for October.
Worse, the AfD is also set to win strongly in other upcoming elections, particularly in the former East-Germany. Yet, the question remains, what explains all this about a country that gave the world Auschwitz? …and should know better!
The eternal crises of neoliberal capitalism and its political system that is often linked to a feeling of losing control among those receptive to right-wing populists and Neo-Nazi propaganda may possibly explain why this is so.
To many, the rise of the right-wing AfD came as a no surprise in Germany. Yet, the reasons for this lie much deeper than in current politics in Germany. Meanwhile, in current opinion polls, an increasingly extremist AfD receives up to 20%.
Interestingly, that is exactly the number that Nazi-expert Sebastian Haffner diagnosed the hard-core support for Hitler’s Nazis party to be, during the early 1930s. Then as today, Germany seems to have a sizable mass of Nazi supporters.
Remarkably, the AfD has been particularly successful in collecting support from those Germans who previously never wanted to vote for the far-right party. The AfD has been reaching deep into the ideological wares of right-wing extremism for a long time. For many years, there has been a kind of normalization of previously non-say-able Neo-Nazi ideas. The AfD benefits from what the Canadian expert and one of the most astute observers of right-wing populists – Henry Giroux – calls “the mainstreaming of fascism”.
Yet, the AfD isn’t a classically far-right party – it is sophisticated enough in covering its Neo-Nazi tracks rather skilfully. For example, it has never “explicitly” call for violence. Its petit bourgeois’ patina and its innocent-sounding name “Alternative for Germany” make it electable for many. However, to call the AfD merely a “right-wing” or “populist” is trivializing this crypto-Neo-Nazi party.
While some might like to call this type of party as an authoritarian nationalistic radical party, the term “Crypto-Neo-Nazi Party” might be more suitable. Unlike the AFD’s rather strong Neo-Nazi undercurrent, simply calling it as right-wing populist is insufficient, as right-wing populists aim at short-term excitement based on a shallow ideology that simply sets “the people against the elite”.
Right-wing populism simply isn’t enough to grasp the phenomena of the AfD. Instead, the AfD is distinguished by three characteristics:
- Authoritarianism: its authoritarianism means that the AfD is striving for a new order based on an imaginary traditional German way of life with clear hierarchies and a semi-fascist “we against them” ideology, setting Aryans against foreigners;
- Nationalism: its nationalist ideology is about German culture – the code-word for race. Being German (read: Aryan) as a central anchor of the AfD’s national identity; and finally,
- Mobilization: the AfD’s radicalism consists of emotionalized mobilization. This type of politics is compatible with what might be called raw petit bourgeois.
This version of petit bourgeois’ arrogance feeds on resentment and a contemptuous attitude towards those defined as weak. It is part of an ideology that sees certain social groups as unequal, inferior, and useless – the Untermensch. All this and much more remains hidden behind the smooth external façade of the AfD.
Meanwhile, almost half of all Germans no longer rule out electing the AfD. This might sound scary but in reality, the AfD lingers around the 20% margin. When it comes to actual voting, the AfD might return to its more traditional base of between 12% and 15%.
In other words and not unlike 1933, Germany’s Crypto-Neo-Nazi Party would need the support of German conservatism to get into government. Hitler was never elected but was appointed instead by conservatives like Papen. In today’s political constellations, the AfD would need the support of Germany’s conservatives in the form of the CDU – a support that, so far, has been denied by German conservatives.
Inside the AfD is the most powerful mini-Führer, Björn Höcke who likes to make spiritual borrowings from Nazism – often coded in right-wing dog-whistling language. This includes references to out-group-hating misanthropy that devaluates and discriminates “the other” i.e., the non-German.
It feeds on resentments found in Germany’s petit bourgeois. This is deeply rooted in some sections of Germany’s population. It is also something that existed long before the AfD has been made popular by Germany’s right-wing tabloid media and the growth of online filter-bubbles.
The propaganda of the AfD so far has made it possible to have people who might distance themselves from the violence of classical right-wing extremism, but are still inclined to support the AfD. Meanwhile, an authoritarian and the unleashed neoliberal capitalism that confines democracy to an entertaining sideshow has helped the radical right to make huge gains in Germany – and elsewhere.
Democracy has lost a great deal of control over political decisions impacting on social standards, society, and in combatting social inequality. This has been turbo-charged by social disintegration and a loss of trust in politics. Neoliberalism is emptying democracy. Simultaneously, the neoliberal apparatus is working extremely well – just as it was set out by the Pinochet-loving mastermind of neoliberalism – Hayek. Meanwhile, trust in democratic institutions is eroded.
The destructive onslaught of neoliberalism can be measured. Not too long ago, 58% of Germans thought that the democratic parties just talk but don’t solve problems. In other words, the beneficiaries of rampant neoliberalism were right-wing populism, Italian-style neo-fascism, Germany’s AfD, and so on.
The fact that neoliberal capitalism remains destined to be in crises has resulted in a feeling that society is no longer recoverable. This aided the increased feeling of losing control over one’s own biography. The AfD’s right-wing populism appears to be able to stabilize lives because it promises to restore control, law, and order.
In short, right-wing populism and neo-fascism are symptoms of a neoliberal-capitalist order that is sick in-itself. Today’s right-wing populists reap what the economic neoliberalism unleashed and corporate globalization of the 1980s began to plant.
Neoliberalism has led to social upheavals that can be ideologically exploited by right-wing extremists, often under the motto of “America, Germany, Italy, Britain (or country…) comes first”.
As for Germany, a specific historical situation emerged. It came with Germany’s re-unification during the 1990s when West-Germany took over East-Germany. In political and economic terms, it was nothing short of an Anschluss. It was accompanied by false promises of blooming industrial landscapes never eventuated. A corrupt and conservative politician called Helmut Kohl simply lied to get re-elected.
Instead of economic development, East-German industries were taken over by West-German companies or simply destroyed. A marked economic decline, prevalent during decades of neoliberal free market fanaticism, aided a sharp upturn of the AfD in the former East-Germany. Even today, there still is a stark difference between East and West Germany.
Many people in East rather than in West Germany have been socialized within authoritarian regimes such as a Stalinist government in the East, and the standard authoritarianism experienced in schools, the German army under decades of conscription, managerial bosses in workplaces, factories, offices, and companies.
In addition, the AfD advocates “more security and less freedom”. On this, right-wing populism collides with neoliberalism’s “more freedom and less security”.
In East-Germany, there were rather painful losses of personal recognition, jobs, and opportunities. These are dangerous developments and there still is a widespread feeling of not being noticed.
This remains by far, more common in the East than in the West, wherein the East-Germans more than West-Germans are perceived as useless and second-class citizens living in Dunkeldeutschland – the backward regions of dark Germany.
The feeling of a lack of being recognised is particularly dangerous when linked to sentiments of being disadvantaged, and of being told to be inferior. In the classical them-vs.-us setting of right-wing populists, this is paired with simplistic notions like, the ruling elites are traitors, and we are the forgotten Germans.
Not surprisingly, 72% of Germans who consider their own group – the in-group – to be disadvantaged, also tend to develop xenophobic and racist attitudes towards the out-group. Accordingly, they are either resentful or against an open society. They support the AfD because of their racism.
This became even more explicit in the culture war replacing class struggle from the radical right. It is the right-wing’s promise to solve socio-economic problems in a cultural way. The imagined chaos of a globalized world is to be eliminated and an original order is to be restored. Ideologically, it is framed as “take back control”.
In the end, the legal prohibition of a right-wing extremist party like the AfD – very unfortunately – is only of some help. Making the AfD illegal is one thing. But it does not change the political attitudes of its supporters.
These right-wing attitudes have been planted into their minds largely through years of successful propaganda. Neither right-wing ideology nor propaganda can simply be banned. As Madeleine Albright once noted,
it is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than to kill the ideas that gave them birth.
Still, right-wing extremists’ ideologies can be fought. Whenever people articulate ideas of hate against perceived out-groups, they must be contradicted immediately. If we do not do this, we are partly to blame for the normalization of right-wing populists, racism, and in the case of Germany, the AfD.
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