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A Crisis Reminiscent of the 1930s: Germany Facing the New Populism: An Interview with Paul Nolte

Paul Nolte is a historian at the Free University of Berlin. The following interview with Dominique Eigenmann for the Tages-Anzeiger took place on June 17, 2016. Copyright: Tages-Anzeiger, Switzerland.

A right-wing populist party has emerged in Germany. The political landscape is shifting in ways not seen since the founding of the Greens in the 1980s. What exactly is happening?

You are right to refer to the Greens. What we are experiencing now is a development that began three and a half decades ago, and not only in Germany but everywhere in Europe. The party system is eroding and is being reinvented, but with less stability. Until recently Germany occupied a relatively stable middle position in this process. But that is over now.

Where did these changes begin?

In the Netherlands and Italy, the classical postwar party systems collapsed a long time ago. In contrast, the de facto two-party systems in Great Britain and Spain were more stable than in Germany. But all that unraveled in recent years.

The speed and force of these recent shifts are especially astonishing.

Yes, especially in contrast with the previous developments. In Germany, the Greens needed decades to arrive in the political center. They began as a left-wing protest party, with lots of turmoil, but through hard work and with many small steps they were able to enter the parliament, the commissions, and the governing coalition. The breakthrough of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which jumped from zero to 15% or more just since last summer, took place, comparatively, like a coup.

Are there parallels in German history?

As far as the drama of the process is concerned, one has to look back much further into the past than the 1980s, i.e., to the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and early 1930s. Regardless of the content of a party’s program, a historian must find it worrisome, if a new party formation jumps immediately to 24%, as the AfD did in Sachsen-Anhalt in March. That indicates a quasi-revolutionary unrest.

Politicians who warn us against the New Right have been speaking about “Weimar conditions.” Isn’t the comparison with the pre-Hitler era exaggerated?

Not as far as the surprise attack dynamic is concerned. One is in fact reminded of the speed with which the National Socialist party gained political ground in the Weimar Republic. First it had 18%, then suddenly 30%, and soon governing without it became practically impossible. Let’s be honest: Today no one knows where the AfD will reach its limit. In Austria, the candidate of the right-wing populist FPÖ got half the votes. Not that long ago, who would have thought this possible?

In addition to the intensity of these changes are there other similarities?

Certainly structural ones. Throughout Europe we are seeing democracies become unstable, like in the mid-1920s. But a big difference is that this instability has not led, yet, to a definitive collapse, not even in countries like Hungary or Poland, but rather to a hollowing out of the system from the inside. But just like in the “great crisis of democracy,” which is how I describe Europe in the twenties, the self-evidence of democracy is endangered and being questioned.

As far as its program is concerned: is the AfD fascist?

No. The party is multifaceted, changing, and internally contradictory, but I would not call it fascist. Nonetheless: It does include politicians who dream of a folkish revolution. And the National Socialists were also contradictory and multifaceted at their outset. Despite all the differences, there is a similarity in that both in a certain sense embody an extremism of the center that does not fit well in the classic scheme of left and right.

What is the source of the enormous political dynamism that we are witnessing?

It comes from the already mentioned dissolution of the party systems of the postwar era, which in most cases date back to well before the war, in Germany for example to the imperial era of the 1870s. Not only did the parties take shape then but so did the milieus that they represented, in other words, society and political structure. Back then, whoever was a Social Democrat or a Catholic, i.e., a voter of the Center Party, stayed so from cradle to grave, and their children would follow on the same path. These social milieus have nearly entirely dissolved, and that is why those political loyalties no longer hold. This is a result of the individualization of society that has led to an individualization of political convictions. Today those convictions are nearly free floating.

In the 1920s, the world fell into a severe economic crisis. Is the crisis of globalization today a reason why Western democracies are under pressure? Because the West is losing its exceptional economic position?

Maybe. But at the same time it is not at all the case that globalization is running against the West, in other words, against its inventors. The backlash has more of a cultural character. One might say that what we call globalization—free trade but also worldwide migration—has finally arrived in the heads and the everyday experience of the general public. Many people are confused by this strange mixture of new dependencies and new freedoms that globalization and neoliberalism carry. And for the first time people appear to be asking: Do I really want this? Is it good for me? This too points to a cultural parallel to the crisis of the 1920s. Lots of people have a hard time coming to terms with modernity. It is a matter of a genuine crisis of understanding the world.

Are people primarily insecure because of the economic worries? Or is it a cultural discontent?

As a historian, I believe that one has to consider both dimensions, socio-economic and socio-cultural. On the one hand, one can say that today many people no longer recognize modern capitalism, which is far from the industrial capitalism of the Thyssens and Rockefellers. On the other hand, many do not understand same-sex marriage—in the same way that earlier, women with short hair or trousers could cause an uproar. In the past two decades, social liberalization has taken a very big step. Now we are seeing extensive resistance against this new mainstream.

Germany is in enviable economic shape. Does this explain why the German political protest has taken the special shape of a cultural counterrevolution from the right?

To be sure, the German protest is different from what one finds in Greece, which faces the threat of state bankruptcy, and the Greeks therefore vote for a socialist left. In comparison, Germany is evidently a relative winner in globalization. While the gap between the rich and the poor has certainly grown, the middle is still doing so well that the economic populism and alarmism that one now hears everywhere—”Help, we’re losing ground!”—has no basis at all, when considered objectively. The theory that it is the economic losers who are voting for the right-wing populists in Germany, Switzerland, or the United States is at best only partially true. Their losses are often not real losses but rather emotional losses or the fear of loss.

It is noteworthy that the right-wing protest is strongest in the countryside and is opposed to the urban centers.

The Austrian election map shows this division very clearly: the countryside voted strongly for the FPÖ, while the cities were small islands for the Greens. Socio-historically this opposition is also familiar from the twenties and thirties, but we thought it had largely become obsolete. Back then there was an enormous abyss between the modern metropoles like Berlin, with their social freedoms, and the still very backwards provinces. It was like a gap between centuries. Since then the differences have shrunk enormously because, especially in Germany, rural areas have become extensively urbanized. Nonetheless the contradiction between metropolis and province has obviously returned to the political stage. Particularly in eastern Germany, the ressentiment of the abandoned provincial population is definitely strong. It turns viciously against the multi-ethnic, multi-sexual values of the metropolis, against the whole “left-red-green poisoned Germany of 1968,” as one of the leaders of the AfD recently stated, and it finds a political home in right-wing populism.

An Austrian political scientist explained the growing rural discontent with the claim that emigration [depopulation of the countryside—trans.] evidently generates worse responses than immigration, which primarily affects the cities.

In any case, the two decades of departures from eastern Germany have led to a situation in which the region is inhabited especially by men who have not fully adapted to the new republic.

Let’s talk about the AfD. What kind of party is it actually?

The AfD is a curious and contradictory party, a kind of chameleon that can change its colors depending on context. This is a result of the circuitous route it has taken. It was founded as a party of professors opposed to the euro, embedded in a very bourgeois milieu. But its appeal extended far beyond the question of the euro by touching on a general resentment against politics and the state, surprisingly widespread among academics. This current, which would like to redefine bourgeois conservatism because it has allegedly lost influence, continues to resonate within the party.

So is it true that Angela Merkel has led the Christian Democrats so far to the center that a vacuum has emerged on the right?

This claim is less self-evident than many believe. In any case, it assumes a static political space, which in fact does not exist. Merkel did not simply move to the center or to the left; instead she programmatically followed social change. She understood that her voters were just not as conservative as her predecessors thought. At the same time it is clear that there are voters who see a need for a new national conservative party on the right. It would have an electoral potential of 5–7%, similar to the liberals.

But in the refugee crisis, the party has tapped into a new and much larger electoral reservoir.

Yes. After its transformations last year and the departure of its founder, Bernd Lucke, it has also become the party of the revolt of the frustrated lower middle and working class. It has become the home of those who despise the system and its elites, who want to keep foreigners out and who wrap themselves in the mantle of ethnic nationalism. In this alliance of the upper bourgeoisie and the proletariat, today’s AfD combines a protest by the elites and a rebellion against the elites at the same time.

Was the refugee crisis a “gift from heaven” for the AfD, as some of its politicians say?

Without it, the party would certainly not be where it is today. The issue worked like a fire accelerant or a catalyst. Many AfD voters feel uncomfortable in contexts with foreigners and that are no longer culturally homogeneous. This discomfort that not infrequently turns explicitly racist is a central motivation for the party. It is a feeling of a disturbed order, combined with a gesture of resistance and a will to reestablish that lost past.

Many AfD voters believe that Germany is dismantling itself. The sudden arrival last year of a million refugees has dramatically amplified their fears.

Indeed, there are many catastrophe fantasies. On the one hand, these are fantasies; on the other, however, they are also an expression of a serious crisis of trust. One feels like telling the people: “The world is much more stable than you think! The tenacity of what you cling to is in any case structurally much stronger than whatever comes from the outside. And if traditions are threatened, for example the Christian West, then the threat really comes from inside, because the tradition is no longer experienced as vital, and not from outside.” But that helps very little because these people, wrapped up in the cocoon of conspiracy theory, are not open to arguments.

Does the cultural break that the new right complains about really exist?

Yes it does. But it is more a result of internal Western modernization tendencies than of a conflict of cultures or religions. It is no accident that Islam is experienced as a threat particularly in secularized societies like our own. And the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” [PEGIDA], who are allegedly fighting for the Christian heritage, often do not know what Easter or Pentecost means. But they project this cultural break from the inside to the outside. In this sense, the zealots of the West are remarkably similar to those Muslim fundamentalists who see the world in the exact same way: threatened by the dynamism and liberty of Western societies.

Also noteworthy is that an anti-feminism is a strong unifying element of this new right, as well as with Donald Trump. How do you explain this?

It is basically the second phase of the response to the feminist challenge. The first phase involved the demands for equal rights, after 1968, slowly but definitely becoming mainstream. We can see aspects of this increasing emancipation, especially in the educational achievements of women. Yet at the same time many promises have not been fulfilled in the economic system, for example in terms of equal pay or representation in highest management levels. That means that women are still fighting for equality. Yet at the same time a powerful countermovement has developed. Many men are not reconciled to the emancipation of women. They are themselves afraid of losing ground. For that reason, they are now attacking feminism straight on and trying to reverse its accomplishments. In any case, I am astonished at the scope of misogyny in these new right-wing populist parties.

Social justice was the second most important factor for AfD voters in the German regional elections in March, right after immigration. How can it be that these voters look for justice more in the new right than with the Left Party or with the Social Democrats?

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Hartz reforms traumatized the SPD and harmed its credibility. The elite consensus remains that the reforms were a definitely successful and necessary reform, which contributed to Germany’s premier economic standing in Europe. But there are many voters who believe that they lost social security due to the reforms. The Left Party has taken over the populist social justice appeal from the SPD. However, in the eyes of many who have gone over to the right, the Left Party too, in its way, has become part of the system and too oriented to the elites, so much so that it cannot be trusted.

It is common to speak of the crisis of Social Democracy in Europe. In fact, the Christian Democrats are not doing much better. Doesn’t the crisis really hit the whole political center?

Contemporary politics increasingly involve the opposition between system defenders and system skeptics or despisers. The former gather in the center, the latter on the margins. This is the new axis that defines everything. For the system defenders, it is in fact secondary whether they come from a Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, or Green background. The career of the Greens is particularly spectacular on this point: it is noteworthy that it is precisely politicians of the vaguely left middle class, like Winfried Kretschmann in Baden-Württemberg or Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria, who lead the camp of the liberal system defenders against the anti-liberal, authoritarian system despisers.

If defenders and opponents of the system are increasingly in conflict, traditional parties and parties who claim that “we are the people,” how can skepticism of the system turn into trust?

That is the toughest question. In any case, I do not believe that this is a cathartic process, that is, a crisis that we just have to get through and then everything will be better. I do not have an answer as to how trust can be regained. Yet I also am convinced that there is just not much to the populist system criticism. And I do not see any convincing alternatives. Our politics have to treat seriously the anxieties about social loss and the pursuit of social justice. But racists will not turn into genuine democrats if we only shower them with social benefits.

What can ordinary citizens do?

We liberals have to regain the courage to defend our system, to clearly oppose the populists, and to reject their worldview. Opposing them does not mean excluding them, however, but rather engaging with them, persistently.

Interestingly in Europe there is a strong international grouping of nationalists. But there is no similar international of liberals who defend Europe. Why not?

Perhaps the threat is just not sufficiently threatening. Perhaps liberals lack emotion and passion. Or perhaps liberals are just no longer accustomed to having to fight for their freedoms and values. I’m not sure. But it would certainly be time to gather our forces.

Translated by Russell A. Berman

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