Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Of magma and craters: The surge of the far-right in Germany

hearted and quickly aborted ‘November Revolution’ showed that Germans lack the vigour and focus of the French or Russians when it comes to revolutionary endeavours, confirming the poet Heinrich Heine’s adage that the German oak tree lends itself badly to be transformed into gallows for the wealthy and powerful. In 1923, a fascist rabble-rouser called Adolf Hitler tried to conquer power in Bavaria, unsuccessfully for the time being because he had not yet understood that he would be more successful by counting on the German electorate and the compliance of liberal and conservative elites instead of forcing his way to power with violence only. In 1938, Germany’s Jewish population was given a taste of even more horrible things to come during the pogroms of the ‘Kristallnacht’, one of the most barbaric and visible first steps towards the Holocaust. And finally, in 1989, the Berlin wall fell, marking the end of the division of Germany.

Nothing out of the ordinary could be reported for the 9th November 2015, but in the mid-sized city of Dresden this Monday bore again witness to a deeply worrying weekly spectacle: a demonstration of thousands of followers of PEGIDA, an organisation that presents itself as a collective of concerned Europeans fighting against the Islamisation of the Occident.

In recent months, events in Dresden have gained some space on the news agenda in countries like Britain, but I would argue that this attention has often been based on two misconceptions regarding first the question as to what PEGIDA represents, and secondly the equally important matter of what it actually is. Let’s look into these two points in turns.

While it may be fascinating to ask why this movement has managed to sustain its mobilisation in Dresden to an extent unseen in any other parts of Germany (and there are local factors that could explain this conundrum), asking this question implies that PEGIDA is a localised problem, something that neither other German cities nor the rest of Europe need to worry about. Instead, it makes more sense to see Dresden as the crater, the visible exit, for magma that is bubbling under the whole of German society.

This magma, to stick to the geological analogy, consists of two interconnected political forces: On the one hand, we can observe in Germany as much as in many other European countries especially of the North and East a considerable number of people whose worldview is aligned to what the sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer calls ‘group-focused enmity’, in other words a set of core beliefs that considers other human beings, because of their belonging to specific social groups such as ethnic minorities, as being inferior. On the other hand, German society has in the last years been marked by the presence of a highly violent activism of the far-right, which strangely enough usually fails to attract the attention of international media observers who are normally so quick in falling over themselves to laud the virtues of the German model, be it with regards to its economic success or its presumably consensual, mature politics. According to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, since 1990 178 people have been killed by right-wing extremists; since the beginning of this year, there have been 637 criminal acts against refugee accommodations including arson, often committed by persons who are not yet known to the security forces (even though one shouldn’t read too much into this, given that the scandal around the ‘National Socialist Underground’ has shown to what extent there is an opaque link between right-wing terrorist groups and the security apparatus).

In the magma chamber of contemporary Germany, these hitherto largely separated two strands of xenophobic racist ideology and far-right activism seem to have come together, forming a volatile brew that erupts with a foul stench from the crater that is Dresden.

If this is indeed the case, the question as to what PEGIDA is becomes important beyond academic debates, given that it may allow for insights into what is bubbling under German society. In the media, terms such as right-wing populism, ‘Wutbürger’ (angry citizens) or ‘the frustrated’ are frequently used, demonstrating a certain insecurity as to how this movement ought to be categorised. But looking at how the movement presents itself and its concerns and objectives, some key themes emerge. There is a clear focus on defending German society against an enemy from both within (political elites that PEGIDA considers to be complicit in opening the country to its outside adversaries) and the outside (Muslims, refugees, unwanted foreigners); a sense of being betrayed by those in power; an urge to keep Germany ‘pure’ to prevent its further decline and to address with strong voluntarism its presumed profound crisis.

Going through that list, it is striking that these views correspond neatly to the definition of fascism given by the historian Robert O. Paxton (2004). Therefore, things become much clearer and we can start calling a spade a spade, or in this instance a fascist a fascist, without being too cagey about offending anyone.

Now, qualifying PEGIDA as fascist is not the same as being overly alarmed. Fascist movements have only ever got to power when they found support among conservative and (to a lesser extent) liberal elites, when they confronted a dysfunctional political system that had lost the ability to regulate social conflicts and political questions in a legitimate way. Despite the profound crisis of European polity, we are not yet there. But it seems crucial to be careful and to keep an eye on these developments that seem unlikely to get better before they get worse.

Which brings me to my final point: As unpleasant as the regular sight of PEGIDA in the picturesque centre of Dresden may be, at least this crater allows us to look into the magma chamber underneath, to frequently gauge the latter’s condition. It is not much, but in a period when the far-right with its reactionary and aggressive rhetoric and worldview gains ground almost everywhere in Europe, one can’t be picky when it comes to ‘good news’.

Paxton, R.O. (2004). The Anatomy of Fascism. London: Penguin Books. 

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