Four Components of German Right-Wing Populism

by Thomas Klikauer and Danny Antonelli

German Right Wing Populism
Source: author’s photo, 2020

In too many European countries, the extreme right, outright Neo-Nazis, and Neo-Nazis posing as right-wing populists have been mobilizing in recent months. From Sweden, to Italy, to France, to Poland, Hungary, and beyond, Europe’s far right has disproportionately implemented racism as one of its most prominent devices. This is straight out of the Steve Bannon playbook:

One common thread in the global implementation of The Playbook? Steve Bannon, a US naval officer turned Goldman Sachs banker turned right-wing media executive, Trump advisor, and Cambridge Analytica board member.

The success of right-wing populists and adjacent Neo-Nazis was on display not just in France’s Rassemblement National but also Trump’s failed anti-democratic coup d’etat on 6th January 2021. Strong right-wing populist elements were also detected in the vote for Brexit, which has now turned into decades of Bregret.

In order to jack up right-wing delusions even more, populists like to instigate fights against the alleged hegemony of left-liberal values. Largely invented by the early Nazi propagandists, this is the assumed enemy German Top-Nazi Hermann Goering was talking about when he said:

…the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Apart from this, German right-wing populists can be better understood if focus is brought on four key elements:

a) the ideology of right-wing populism,

b) the specific living conditions of right-wing populists,

c) their social composition, and

d) some unique features that makes them right-wing populists.

The Ideology of nativism: Nativism is a blend of nationalism and xenophobia. Right-wing extremists believe that non-natives are a danger to their hallucination of a racially homogeneous nation. At the micro-level, it can be white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. These are perceptions of the outsider seen as cultural threat.

Authoritarianism is comprised of semi-fascistic submission to the leader (a father figure if possible but not exclusively). Paradoxically, this is paired with aggression toward the petty criminal and not the oligarch criminal, and thus arise demands for law-and-order policies, strong leadership, and the eradication of the out-group – the non-German who is regarded in this sense as part of the criminal class. For example in the USA, Trump’s very sick accusation that all Mexicans are murders and drug dealers was part of this campaign.

Populism demands the unrestricted sovereignty of the “legitimate” population, which is fired up by a belief that the “legitimate” are a homogeneous and virtuous people who have occupied the territory since time immemorial. That attitude is reflected in the German word völkisch (read: Aryan). In the delirious machinations of the radical right, the sovereignty of the Volk remains unfulfilled because Germany is currently under enemy control, and the enemy is a corrupt liberal, often non-Aryan, elite that allows “the illegitimate” to enter the sacred homeland region without restraint.

Much of this is then linked to an individual’s feelings towards their place of residence – an uber-romanticized idée fixe about the land (Boden), a blood-and-soil ideology, the Heimat. Beyond that, two attitudes are particularly important here: localism and resentment.

Right-wing populists cleverly connect this to localism, which is the imagined feeling of belonging to one’s locality – an emotional closeness to a specific region, with feelings of pride underpinned by a striving for more local authority. Localism is based on an illogical and ill-defined geographical demarcation between in-groups (us) and out-groups (them).

Often in this context rivalries between football (soccer) teams are exploited to convince a section of the fan base to accept the right-wing arguments associated with hate toward the rival.

The feeling of localism is often flanked by resentment. Resentment – mostly against modernity, universalism, and cosmopolitanism – comes from an exaggerated rural consciousness, a rural population that has experienced economic, cultural, and political inequalities between regions and is jealous or resentful of the urban regions that prosper. Right-wing populists often set this in a center vs. periphery dichotomy with a strong rural vs. urban cleft. In Germany, this is also linked to the East-West split.

Political parties, right-wing extremists, and media-induced perceptions of local deprivation and decline fuel feelings of being left behind and of an existential threat to a known way of life. This is defined by the ideological construction of the outsider, the foreigner, the non-German, “the other.”

The “other” is framed as a menace. The usual pathologies of capitalism are shifted from class to race. The problem of capital versus worker is reframed as a problem of the outsider, the migrant, the Muslim, the non-German versus the true German. It is right-wing populism’s scapegoatism.

This sort of resentment can also be directed against the elusive elites, and against the out-group more generally as well. In Germany, right-wing populists direct a strong focus on eastern Germany versus western Germany, and that often means an exaggerated uber-attachment to eastern Germany.

This is injected with romantic illusions about a former GDR that – due to the reality of its Stalinist regime – never existed. Its facile use is manipulated to provoke a loathing not only against the super-arrogant western Germans, the Wessis, but also of all who can be regarded as “foreigners.”

Similarly, the actual underrepresentation of eastern Germans in Germany’s business and state apparatus can be used to garner political support for right-wing populists. This is then turbo-charged to elicit feelings of social marginalization.

Right-wing populists also move the debate away from capitalism’s structural deprivation of the underclass towards the engineering of we-are-left-behind feelings. In right-wing propaganda, feelings always outweigh facts.

Rather dry and boring economic issues are not at the top of the agenda of right-wing populists. Creating nebulous feelings is. This can be done by reinforcing political dissatisfaction and by blaming others – migrants, the elite, etc.

For right-wing populists, engineering feelings of deprivation is by no means limited to economics. Geographical regions, particularly in the more remote parts of eastern Germany, are generally defamed as Dunkeldeutschland (Dark Germany).

Even today, these isolated geographical regions still suffer from a shrinking population, a growing gender imbalance, as well as an ageing local population. This too can be used to insinuate that there is a downward spiral at work.

Maintaining expensive local infrastructure for an ever-smaller population becomes too expensive. This leads to cuts in services – local public transport, public health, etc. – which, in turn, causes even more people to move away.

Demographic decline is then used by right-wing populists to whip up discontent and ethnocentrism – a fancy term for racism. Worse, those who move away are mainly the highly educated, high-income earners, women, and people who are more open-minded. In turn, those left behind are the lonely, old, male, low-income, and uneducated supporters of the radical right.

Paradoxically, they do not see immigration by non-Germans as a chance to revitalize their peripheral region. They see it as the opposite, an intrusion, a defamation of their holy ground.

By continuously cranking the downward spiral idea, right-wing populists have convinced the remaining locals to fear migrants. The story told is that these intruders compete with “us” for scarce resources like jobs and housing. Feelings of insecurity are fostered and threats to their way of life are mooted. This is the Politics of Fear and it has started to work particularly well in western Germany of late.

Germany has now been reunified for almost as long as the GDR existed. Yet, unification came with anxieties generated by a mixture of a conservative-neoliberal policy – Kohl’s blossoming landscapes – and the rapid social and economic takeover of eastern Germany by western Germany during the 1990s. The harshness of free market neoliberalism created ongoing economic problems, identity conflicts, and an experience, for those in the eastern half, of living on the periphery of the country.

One of the most prominent determinants for right-wing sentiment that remains – more in the East than in the West – is the low level of formal education. Lack of education is strongly linked to nativism, authoritarianism, and the ideology of the radical right.

Manual and working-class occupations are also an important predictor for right-wing populists. Again, more in eastern than in western Germany, neoliberalism’s deliberately engineered precariat – the unskilled working-class – remains a fruitful reservoir for right-wing populists.

More than other occupational groups, manual production workers are threatened by digitalization, automation, and neoliberal globalization’s race to the bottom, as well as the fear of ever harsher labor market competition. Right-wing populists shift this conundrum away from untouchable capitalism and aim it toward race, xenophobia, and anti-migrant attitudes.

To sum up, the four core elements that assist the rise of right-wing populism: the engineering of right-wing ideological attitudes; the specific living conditions of people in remote areas, e.g. people in eastern Germany; the social composition of people infected with right-wing populism; and a handful of unique features that distinguish right-wing populists from democrats, are useful indicators when trying to understand right-wing populism.

Beyond these four, there is also Germany’s recent history of a post-Nazi division and reunification. This unique history is also exploited by right-wing populist demagogues. Even though unified Germany has strong redistributive mechanisms that seek to balance regional inequalities and although Germany on the whole lacks serious internal ethno-linguistic conflicts, right-wing populist demagogues focus on hyped-up regional differences in order to politicize regional disparities – particularly in terms of East versus West.

Right-wing populist demagogues follow a clear playbook when engineering polarization. Despite that, right-wing populist attitudes are still unevenly distributed throughout Germany. Right-wing populism is more prevalent in the former GDR – particularly in the states of Thuringia and Saxony because of the reasons illustrated above.

However, in the western German region of eastern Bavaria, right-wing populist demagogues have managed to successfully manufacture a cultural threat (USA “the culture war”) by positioning “them” (foreigners) against “us” (Bavarians). Conversely, parts of northern and north-western Germany stand out as bastions of anti-fascism.

Hamburg and the Antifa St. Pauli football club Ultra fans is a good example. These aren’t hotspots of right-wing populism. In these regions, levels of right-wing sentiments are particularly low and are actively opposed through confrontation if necessary.

Structural variables such as demographic decline, East-to-West migration, and overall deprivation remain significant. In eastern Germany, there are also the still lingering effects of the former authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, the current conditions of being a periphery are exacerbated by right-wing populists by playing on feelings of inferiority, of being regarded by others as “losers.”

So there are still substantial grounds available for right-wing populist demagogues to recruit people. As a consequence, eastern Germans are twice as likely to vote for Germany’s most outspoken right-wing populist partythe AfD – compared to western Germans. This is likely to show up in coming state elections in two western German states – Bavaria and Hessen – and two eastern German states – Thuringia and Saxony.

In this context it is very important to remember what Steve Bannon said when he was invited to speak to Marie Le Pen’s Front National. The Front National recognized that he was “the guy that goes round and understands us as a collective.Up on stage he told the crowd:

“You fight for your country and they call you racist. But the days when those kind of insults work is over. The establishment media are the dogs of the system. Every day, we become stronger and they become weaker. Let them call you racists, xenophobes or whatever else, wear these like a medal.”

Thomas Klikauer has over 800 publications (including 12 books) and writes regularly for BraveNewEurope (Western Europe), the Barricades (Eastern Europe), Buzzflash (USA), Counterpunch (USA), Countercurrents (India), Tikkun (USA), and ZNet (USA). One of his books is on Managerialism (2013).


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