Beware of the beginnings!

With the recent rise of populist, nationalist and xenophobic movements such as Pegida and AfD, some have begun to draw comparisons with the politically turbulent 1920s. Are we in a Weimar situation? We asked right-wing extremism expert Hajo Funke.

Image for Beware of the beginnings!

Bundesarchiv, Photo 102-15783 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The recent rise of populist, nationalist and xenophobic movements such as Pegida and AfD has prompted some ominous parallels to pre-Nazi Germany. Are we in a Weimar situation? And if so, how do we prevent reproducing its political outcome? We asked right-wing extremism specialist Hajo Funke.

Image for Beware of the beginnings!
HAJO FUNKE: Born in 1944 in Lower Silesia (today’s Poland), the son of a Nazi Party member who fought in the Wehrmacht, Hajo Funke studied political science at the Free University, where he was part of the ‘68 student movement. A professor at the university since 1993, he retired from teaching in 2010 and serves as a consultant in matters of right-wing extremism, such as in the 2012 NSU inquiry.

A political science professor at Berlin’s Free University, Funke has recently published the book Von Wutbürgern und Brandstiftern (Of angry citizens and arsonists), in which he traces the links between the AfD, Pegida and violence-prone right-wing activists.

You have warned of parallels between today and the late Weimar Republic. In what way are we facing a similar situation?

We cannot put it on the exact same level – politically, the Weimar Republic suffered from the fact that it was never solidly grounded. It was a democratic revolution that came out of despair rather than a proud new start. The political system was under threat – on the one hand by the anti-Semitic Deutschnationale Volkspartei; on the other hand, by the Communist Party. Neither was there economic stability – the middle class was impoverished after World War I, and the Great Depression brought more poverty and despair, all against the background of a welfare state that was rudimentary compared to today’s. Still, in my opinion it is worthwhile to look at certain parallels between right wing movements back then and now if you want to learn from history.

To what extent can we compare AfD and Pegida to the right-wing movements of the Weimar era? Their supporters are often called “Nazis”, aren’t they?

Image for Beware of the beginnings!
VON WUTBÜRGERN UND BRANDSTIFTERN: In his book (Of Angry Citizens and Arsonists, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, 2016) Hajo Funke examines the politics of fear and violence behind the rapid rise of the AfD and Pegida movements over the past three years.

The AfD is not a Nazi party. In its current state, it is a right-wing extremist party, with some leading figures being openly racist, though there still exists a more moderate wing. And it has radicalised over a relatively short period of time since it was founded in 2013, initially as a protest party against euro rescue measures, moderately to the right of the Christian Democrats. Not long after the Pegida demonstrations started in 2014, a group of extreme-right AfD politicians around deputy chairman Alexander Gauland used the power of that anti-Islam movement to steer the party in a more extreme direction. It became particularly evident that the right-wing group now dominates when member Hans Thomas Tillschneider announced in May 2016 at the party convention that “an enlightenment of Islam” was “neither possible, nor desirable” and that therefore “Islam is not part of Germany” – to the applause of a large majority of the audience. This position is now reflected in the party’s programme; it has not been corrected.

Where exactly are the parallels with Weimar?

Chairwoman Frauke Petry has characterised the AfD as “deutschnational”. In the Weimar Republic, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei was anti-Semitic and it helped the Nazis come to power. Petry surely must know this. While the AfD’s official line is not anti-Semitic, its tolerance towards anti-Semitic positions has been shown, for example, by the party leadership’s slow reaction to the statements by [Baden-Württemberg parliament member] Wolfgang Gedeon about Judaism allegedly threatening to dominate Western politics. His position had been known to AfD co-chairman Jörg Meuthen for over two years, but it took media reports, in June 2016, and calls from other parties for Gedeon’s resignation, for Petry to urge him to leave the parliamentary group of the AfD. Which he eventually did – but he did not leave parliament itself.

But the AfD, and of course Pegida, are more defined by their anti-Muslim stance than anti-Semitism…

True, Jews and Muslims, as groups, were and are perceived in a very different way. The anti-Semitic Nazi movement in the Weimar era saw Jews as an inner enemy and as an influential elite. Today, Muslims are seen by Pegida and AfD as a threat coming from outside. And of course they are portrayed not as elites, but as underdogs, coming to Germany to benefit from our welfare system. But what the right-wing movements then and now have in common is their paranoid worldview, remarkably focused on the respective minority group singled out as a scapegoat. As a recent analysis of a large number of comments by Pegida supporters on the movement’s Facebook page has shown, they consider Islam violent, inhuman and close to terrorism, without distinction.

Would you say that in both cases, singling out those groups as threats helps build the movements’ strong national identities as “we, the German Volk”?

AfD agitators, notably the party’s chairman in Saxony-Anhalt, André Poggenburg, and Thüringen parliament member Björn Höcke, have an ethnocentric notion of the German people. Höcke has called for a “right of self-determination”, based on ethnic origin. All this creates a sentiment of “us against them”. From studying Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism, we know that the power of the paranoid is unstoppable if it is not kept in check at an early stage.

Does the AfD share some ideological sources?

The AfD’s strategy – to use democratic elections for their undemocratic objectives – is at least reminiscent of the radical right in the Weimar Republic.

Some of the AfD’s supporters, namely the Identitarian movement around Götz Kubitschek, founder of New Right think tank Institut für Staatspolitik, are attracted by the writings of anti-democratic intellectuals of the Weimar Republic, in particular Ernst Jünger. Among the ideas which today’s Identitarians draw from the conservative revolutionary movement of the Weimar era are the rejection of multiculturalism in favour of a völkisch-inspired nationalism and a certain romantic notion of resistance against Western liberalism. At its extreme, this resistance is understood as the onset of a civil war to defend the nation against the perceived apocalyptic threat posed by an “invasion” of asylum seekers.

What about actual right-wing violence?

The Pegida demonstrations have unleashed a wave of resentment against Muslims and refugees, leading to a sharp increase in violence against these groups to a degree unprecedented since the early 1990s. The number of individual acts of such violence in Berlin and the eastern states doubled from 2014 to 2015 (and further increased in 2016, according to recent police statistics). The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation has recently warned of the potential risk of new right-wing terrorist groups. This violence-prone fringe is specific to the right-wing movement in Germany compared to its counterparts in other European countries. While Muslims and refugees are by far the most likely groups to be affected, the assassination attempt against then-mayoral candidate Henriette Reker in Cologne in October 2015 can be attributed to that same hostile climate.

Does this parallel right-wing violence in the Weimar Republic?

The dimension is not the same as that of the violent attacks by paramilitary groups and the SA during the 1920 and early 1930s. But the Weimar experience certainly serves as a warning where the violence could lead if police, political parties and civil society fail to effectively defend democracy. Beware of the beginnings! There have been cases where the police failed or hesitated to protect asylum seekers against angry protesters – notably, in Heidenau in August 2015 and in Clausnitz in February 2016. If our society wants to stick to the rule of law, those charged with defending it have to counter xenophobic resentment without compromise. There are numerous positive examples of civil-society initiatives supporting refugees, but they have to able to count on those in office!

The AfD is now represented in 10 regional parliaments, with over 20 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern… Do you see these results as a threat to democracy?

In today’s Germany, there is wide support for democracy overall. But there are exceptions in some regions in eastern Germany, where the legacy of an authoritarian past combines with widespread disappointment at the realities of regional development in view of false promises by the post-reunification government under Chancellor Kohl. This has led to significant segments of the population feeling left behind, making them susceptible to the propaganda and scapegoating of AfD and Pegida. The extreme-right-wing group now dominating AfD aims for a thorough transformation of the state and society outside the constitutional order, notably their rejection of freedom of religion for Muslims.The party’s strategy – to use democratic elections for their undemocratic objectives – is at least reminiscent of the radical right in the Weimar Republic.

To what extent can we compare AfD voters to those of the Nazi party in the 1930s?

Most recent regional elections [in Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the party scored over 20 percent last year, and in Berlin where it scored 14 percent] show that we have an over-representation of middle aged men with lower education, workers and the unemployed among AfD voters. But more significant are the reasons given by voters for their decision. In Saxony-Anhalt in March 2016, the AfD’s best result so far, 73 percent of its voters thought that they did not benefit from economic growth. Forty-seven percent thought they were victims of social development. And 92 percent were of the opinion that more was being done for refugees than for locals. So a certain share of the Wendegeneration, those who were young adults at the time of reunification, feel that they have been left behind. Similarly, in the late Weimar Republic, the Nazi party attracted all those who were frustrated or disappointed by the political system, including both workers and members of the middle class.

What about the anti-capitalist element in both movements?

The Nazi party’s programme in the late Weimar era included both anti-capitalist and anti-Marxist elements. By making clear that it had no intention of abolishing private property, it remained acceptable to the middle class. Its anti-capitalism was mainly directed against international finance, which was associated with “the Jews”. Although the rhetoric of some of the AfD’s agitators can sound anti-capitalist at times, the party’s programme clearly is not, as shown in particular by its calls for a business-friendly tax policy, for abolishing property tax and inheritance tax. Chairwoman Petry opposed the minimum wage until recently. Then the party changed its course on that point, without, however, specifying how high it should be. Certainly its social policy per se is not a decisive factor for voting for AfD – but social factors are among the reasons. While, to some, Germany is experiencing a golden era, economically speaking, not everyone is part of it.

Any lessons for dealing with “post-truth” politics?

It does get harder to reach people in their filter bubble, and one could argue that this reinforces political cleavages. Then again, there is still an outside world, people’s immediate surroundings, and here, a general conclusion applies: you will reach people if there are accessible local politicians who listen to them – to the people who are here, and those who newly arrive. It is important that the field of local politics is not left to the extreme right. The example of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the extremist NPD party has been highly successful in building up and maintaining a close network with like-minded grass-roots organisations, serves as a warning for democratic parties. Disappointment, perceived social injustice and fear of social decline have to be taken seriously. But listening to people who experience them is not the same as fomenting fear and using it politically, unleashing resentment and violence. The politics of fear – this was exactly the ticket used by the Nazis to come to power.