Germany’s New Politics of Cultural Despair

Will the return of the European far-right be the undoing of the West?

People carry German flags and a banner which reads "Stop Islamization" during a march organized by the far-right AfD party in Rostock,  Germany on September 22, 2018.
People carry German flags and a banner which reads "Stop Islamization" during a march organized by the far-right AfD party in Rostock, Germany on September 22, 2018. (Ralf Hirschberger/AFP/Getty Images)

The decade after Germany’s reunification in 1990 saw a flurry of meditations on the future of German right-wing politics. There were good reasons for concern. The 1990s were a disorienting time; the familiar Cold War order had broken down, and a new and uncertain millennium was dawning. The decade also witnessed the move of the nation’s capital from modest Bonn to massive Berlin, a change some feared might encourage Germans to “flex their muscles.” More troubling were televised images of skinheads marching to denounce Germany’s asylum policies and firebombings of asylum housing in Mölln, Rostock, and Solingen. The wave of neo-Nazi violence against foreigners culminated in 2000-2006 with the so-called “kebab murders,” which mostly targeted the country’s large Turkish population.

Die autoritäre Revolte: Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes, (The Authoritarian Revolt: The New Right and the Decline of the West), Volker Weiss, Klett-Cotta, 20 euros. March 2017.

This resurgence of Germany’s brawling, Nazi-sympathizing far-right was met with provocations in print by the self-styled intellectual vanguard of an assertively nationalist German politics. This was the New Right—a movement, arising in the 1960s, of articulate, often youthful right-wing revolt against the politics of the Federal Republic. A kind of mirror image of the German New Left’s extraparliamentary opposition of the 1960s and ’70s, which ended with the formation of the Green Party in 1980, the New Right aimed to open up space for respectable politics to the right of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Maintaining a studied distance from Nazism and its skinhead disciples, the New Right’s spokesmen were writers and lawyers, professors and publicists. The most prominent voices during the 1990s—figures such as the Die Welt editor Rainer Zitelmann, the historian Ernst Nolte, the journalist Heimo Schwilk, and the filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg—mostly stayed clear of party politics. Their hallmark salvos were the kind of querulous cultural criticism typified by Botho Strauss’s much-discussed 1993 essay, “Anschwellender Bocksgesang” (untranslatable but well-captured by the phrase “Impending Tragedy”).

This resurgence of Germany’s brawling, Nazi-sympathizing far-right was met with provocations in print by the self-styled intellectual vanguard of an assertively nationalist German politics.

In a scorching attack in Der Spiegel, Germany’s premier newsweekly, Strauss denounced the nation’s frivolous TV obsessions, “totalitarian” public sphere, shallow economic values, and unwillingness to defend its native culture. The essay was the launching point for an anthology the following year called “Die selbstbewusste Nation,” which echoed Strauss’s many laments and called for a “self-confident” Germany no longer enslaved to “Americanization” and bent in contrition by the albatross of the Nazi past.

If the 1990s marked a high point for the New Right, the meaning of all this attention was debated; it became the stuff of op-eds and academic argument. One commentator, the Swedish sociologist Goran Dahl, saw the development as a revival of Weimar Germany’s conservative revolution—that broad movement of proto-fascist writers, academics, and activists who supplied an aura of respectability to the ultranationalist politics that culminated in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich (a cause in which some, though not all, of those right-wing radicals would eventually enlist).

The historian Fritz Stern famously labeled Weimar’s conservative revolution “the politics of cultural despair,” whose champions sought to “destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future.” Yet, as Stern also recognized, cultural despair is a flexible logic, adaptable to changing times. Its manner of anguished response to a supposedly calamitous present was by no means defeated in 1945. In modern times, fears of social change and spiritual impoverishment can always tempt the malcontented to imagine that the present is an interregnum destined to yield to a new age of faith and wholeness.

Observers such as Dahl sensed in the 1990s-era New Right the siren call of the politics of cultural despair. “In the worst case,” Dahl predicted in 1996, “if there are no values, no jobs, no hope, or no future, radical conservatism may become a realistic political alternative—Beavis and Butthead may start to listen to those forces that know their [Ernst] Jünger and [Carl] Schmitt. Radical conservatism becomes ‘cool.’”

As the new millennium dawned, such fears seemed overblown. Writing in 2003, Jan-Werner Müller could argue plausibly that the New Right’s bid for influence had failed. The leading figures of the movement lacked institutional support—especially a political party to promote their ideology—and seemed incapable of “ideological innovation.”

Twenty years on, Dahl’s assessment seems closer to the mark. With the populist-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) celebrating the first anniversary of its September 2017 entry into parliament—and with the rise of anti-immigrant movements such as Pegida or the recent 8,000-strong mob in Chemnitz, which chased foreigners through the streets while shouting “we are the people”—the rightward shift of German political culture is hard to ignore. The adolescent callousness and violent urges helping to fuel this right-wing resurgence (and visible in its American cousin, the “alt-right”) suggest that the tradition of militant cultural pessimism is indeed reaching today’s Beavises and Buttheads.

The reasons for the New Right’s staying power—and its deep ties to Weimar’s conservative revolution—are the subject of Volker Weiss’s 2017 book, Die autoritäre Revolte: Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes (“The Authoritarian Revolt: The New Right and the Decline of the West”). A historian and journalist, Weiss shows that what has enabled the New Right’s authoritarian revolt to catch on is not ideological innovation so much as better branding, tactical adaptation, and patience. He is also clear about the broader implications of the story he tells. Weiss dubs the AfD a “German Tea Party” and points to the parallels between the New Right’s media strategies and the American style of “culture war” politics. Outfits such as Breitbart, Weiss observes, assail “elites” and the “liberal media” in ways identical to the New Right and for similar ends.

One key to the New Right’s success, as Dahl predicted, has been its effort to capture a hip style of political engagement usually associated with the left. Starting in the late 1970s, the New Right appropriated environmentalism, anti-imperialism, and the sort of active citizenship for which the Greens became best known. Like the leftist counterculture that emerged from the 1968 student protests throughout Europe, the New Right is adept at styling itself as an “alternative milieu.” This is partly due to its origins in the same anti-establishment zeitgeist as the New Left, but it is also partly a self-conscious co-option of leftist notions, another way in which members of the New Right, as Weiss puts it, “seem to have learned from the left and offer themselves as ‘new ’68ers.’”

One favorite is the New Right’s claim to be practicing a right-wing version of the “metapolitics” preached by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who counseled that the proletarian revolution would be preceded by the conquest of “cultural hegemony.” Though Weiss makes plain that the New Right is in fact divided between provocateurs who want to focus on the culture war and others eager to enter the parliamentary scrum via a party like the AfD, both causes are aided by mimicry of the left.

Among the metapoliticians, leftist icons such as Gramsci and the French situationist Guy Debord are more invoked than studied, a source of buzzwords and postures redolent of radical chic. None have been more effective than Alain de Benoist in the metapolitical tactic of dressing right-wing ideology in left-wing garb. A former 68er and chief mentor of the French New Right, Benoist promotes what he calls “ethnopluralism,” which conscripts a vaguely leftist celebration of cultural difference for the nativist end of protecting European cultures—a kind of upside-down multiculturalism of white self-defense. In co-opting the left, the New Right’s metapoliticians long preceded the recent trend by Europe’s right-wing politicians, who embrace progressive causes such as gay rights or women’s equality as a way to bash the Muslim immigrants presumed to threaten them while poaching enough voters to challenge mainstream parties’ hold on power.

Weiss approaches the relationship between the New Right and far-right parties gingerly, well aware that the two are not synonymous. Within the group around Götz Kubitschek and his wife, Ellen Kositza—together they help run a New Right press (Antaios), a magazine (Sezession), and a think tank (IfS) in the tiny eastern German village of Schnellroda—the question of whether to embrace the AfD was by no means clear. Some feared engaging in party politics would be “system stabilizing,” a mere venting of frustrations that would forestall a revolutionary break.

Headquartered in an ancient manor house in the rural countryside, the Schnellroda circle in fact offers an ideal refuge for those New Righters whose disaffection with modern society includes the party system. Many would prefer to discuss their Schmitt and Jünger at the IfS’s regular seminars while lobbing “fundamental criticism” into the public sphere. Erik Lehnert, the head of the IfS, noted in 2013 that the New Right has been disappointed before by the inability of far-right parties (e.g., Die Republikaner) to produce a decisive Tendenzwende, or reversal of trends.

But even so-called reformist parties such as the AfD, nominally committed to parliamentary democracy, further the metapolitical aims of the most revolutionary members of the New Right—functioning as a ploughshare that breaks new ground for the movement’s message. Once “officers without soldiers,” the New Right, Weiss notes, now finds in the “concerned citizens” of Pegida its long-missing army and in the loosely allied AfD another instrument for normalizing its language and positions. Whereas the 1990s New Right agitated in the public sphere, today’s members can also count on a degree of symbiosis with protesters on the street and with politicians close to the levers of parliamentary power.

Ultimately, new digital technologies may prove the most powerful tool for right-wing metapolitics. Facebook and YouTube, more than any geopolitical shift, are what separate the world of the 1990s-era New Right from today. “Much as nationalism needed print capitalism, and socialism needed full industrial capitalism,” the political scientist Catherine Fieschi has argued, right-wing populism “will thrive under digital capitalism.” Weiss provides ample support for the claim. “The New Right,” he observes, “has long since grasped the mechanisms by which attention is generated in our hypermediatized world.” The recipe is simple enough: break taboos and deliberately provoke to gain the spotlight, decry the media gatekeepers and the “lying press,” and organize spectacles that can be recorded and circulated endlessly online.

Among the masters of spectacle are the proponents of “identitarianism,” a movement that emerged in France around 2002 with the aim of preserving homogenous nation-states against the supposed menace of multiculturalism. But, as Weiss demonstrates, it is only a youth-oriented update of Benoist’s earlier ethnopluralism. Kubitschek, an early German advocate of identitarianism, is something of a theorist of “targeted provocation” in the digital age. Staging protests and placing propaganda in public spaces—“Secure borders, secure future,” read a banner unfurled by the identitarians on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 2016—create ripples beyond their immediate impact. As Kubitschek explained in Sezession, such actions build self-confidence, convey authenticity, and make battle lines clear. They also give rise to appealing narratives and reproducible images, multiplying “the ‘I’ of the provocateur into the ‘we’ of the observers.”

Members of Kubitschek’s circle, which includes Martin Sellner (a leader of identitarianism’s Austrian branch) and the writer Nils Wegner (a sometime contributor to American white nationalist blogs), are among the more highbrow characters populating Weiss’s account. But he is clear that metapolitics is the work of many hands, which serve up the New Right project to a range of demographics: Dieter Stein and the weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit provide a pragmatic national-conservative perspective that is aligned with the populist politics of Pegida and the AfD; Jürgen Elsässer’s monthly magazine Compact pursues a similar line but with grouchier Islamophobia and a more extreme tone that dabbles in conspiratorial innuendo; and the website Blaue Narzisse targets a younger audience under the motto “read and act.”

While he does not say so directly, Weiss provides—to borrow the lingo of economists—a largely “supply side” story. In this view, the far-right’s resurgence is less the product of untutored grassroots outrage over economics or immigration (i.e., new “demand”) and more the fruit of better strategies by the suppliers of right-wing politics. While the refugee crisis that began in 2015 made ordinary Germans more susceptible to the New Right, its messaging had also improved and proliferated.

But for all its makeovers, the New Right is very much an old faith. Provocation belonged to the repertoire of interwar fascism, too. At its heart, it is a Heimat-und-Kultur philosophy that is interested in myth and ethnic community and that has little time for democratic discourse or the material conditions of inequality. Weiss traces how the New Right and the old far-right have rubbed shoulders, and how figures such as Kubitschek are keepers of the “idea reservoir” whose wellsprings include Weimar’s leading conservative revolutionaries, a supposedly wholesome intellectual tradition they are forever trying to disentangle from Nazism. Weiss finds the effort unconvincing: As he repeatedly shows, the boundaries separating New Right intellectuals, AfD politicians, unsavory neo-Nazis, and interwar fascism are often blurry and permeable.

Invoking an unsettling image, Ellen Kositza likened the New Right to a snake, which “sheds its skin again and again—and yet remains always the same.” The image nicely captures the New Right’s self-positioning within a tradition that takes inspiration not from Nazism per se but from earlier versions of the politics of cultural despair. Weiss has provided us with an in-depth look at the postmodern, digital-age skin now worn by the old radical conservative tradition.

As he shows, radical conservatism can accommodate a host of causes and enemies, with salvation of the West from a tide of Muslim immigrants the current favorites. But for today’s New Right, like the illiberal German right of earlier generations, the absolute enemy is always liberal modernity and the forces of universalism, which are seen as a threat to traditional identities and communities and the comforting authority they provide.

Weiss’s claim that we are in the grip of a globally insurgent conservative revolution is no stretch and for the reasons Dahl feared two decades ago. Feelings of nihilism and cultural exhaustion have produced a hunger for radical redemption, especially among those who have come of age since the 1990s. The dominant form of revolt today is not the left’s battle against capitalism or patriarchy but authoritarianism fueled by nostalgia, hatred of the present, and dread of the future. The politics of grievance and purported victimization at the hands of global elites thrive today from Moscow to Washington—underpinning Putin’s Eurasianism and the white nationalist fantasies of the American alt-right.

Islamic fundamentalism, Weiss argues, is also an authoritarian revolt against the materialism and rootlessness supposedly spawned by liberal globalization. Ironically, Europe’s identitarians are ideologically closest not to their cosmopolitan fellow nationals but to the most pious among the Muslim immigrants who insist on holding onto their culture and religious identity.

In his 2015 novel, Submission, the French writer Michel Houellebecq pointed to the same affinity, envisioning French nativists in the year 2022 beginning to convert to Islam in order “to establish a new organic phase of civilization.” With Christian Europe in terminal decline, they decide that Christianity’s more vital sister faith is the better camp from which to continue the fight against secularism and humanism.

Could a common hatred of liberal modernity be enough to make identities so fungible? Perhaps. Less likely is that a world remade by the conservative revolution would ever settle into amicable ethnopluralism, split by mutual consensus into neatly demarcated cultural zones. For one thing is certain: There is nothing in the far-right’s violent past to portend such an irenic future.

Eliah Bures is a historian of modern Europe and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies. His forthcoming book is Friends and Enemies: Ernst Jünger and the Countercultural Survival of the German Far-Right.