Germany’s New Ultranationalist Intelligentsia

The far-right is associated with the disaffected masses—but has a growing intellectual class.

Alice Weidel speeks with former Christian Democrat Erika Steinbach during an AfD election campaign event on Sept. 6, 2017 in Pforzheim, Germany.
Alice Weidel speeks with former Christian Democrat Erika Steinbach during an AfD election campaign event on Sept. 6, 2017 in Pforzheim, Germany. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

DRESDEN, Germany—It smells of beer and Bavarian food in the Augustiner, a crowded beer hall in the reconstructed historical city center of Dresden, the capital of the East German state of Saxony. The restaurant, whose rooms are covered in black-and-white photos showing Dresden before its destruction in World War II, is next to the Church of Our Lady, the famed symbol of the city’s beauty and cultural wealth. The square in front of the church has become one of the main gathering spaces of Pegida, Dresden’s far-right movement that claims to mobilize “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident.”

I was at the Augustiner, on a chilly January evening in 2018, to meet with Michael, a young historian working for the Technical University of Dresden. (He wishes to preserve his anonymity, for fear of professional consequences.) The subject of Pegida quickly came up, and Michael made it clear he found the group distasteful. “I never felt like joining them, but I felt even more strongly against joining the counterdemonstrations,” he said. The reason he didn’t participate in Pegida was not its “central message” but rather “the people organizing it.” The implication was clear: Pegida was vulgar—too vulgar for a member of the intellectual class like Michael.

And yet, Michael was equally clear that he supported Pegida’s central aim: the fight against the supposed Islamization of Germany. “Islam,” he said he is convinced, “will be the central problem for the future generations in Germany.” Indeed, Michael had voted for the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the 2017 national elections when the party won 12.6 percent of the vote and made it into the BundestagGermany’s parliament. Two years later, on Sept. 1 this year, the party won more than 27 percent in Saxony’s state elections.

Michael does not fit the most common accounts of the typical AfD voter and Pegida supporter. Many believe the rise of the populist far-right is primarily being driven by the anger of the economically left-behind or a typically East German susceptibility to the charms of far-right ideology. But this analysis overlooks an intellectual dimension that is central to the spread and legitimization of far-right ideas in East Germany and beyond. With the rise of the AfD, a small but increasingly influential group of artists, writers, and academics of the far-right intellectual scene in Dresden and East Germany has joined forces with established actors of the radical right, who, until recently, were active at the margins of German politics.

Today, this milieu contributes to establishing a far-right culture that reaches deep into the East German mainstream and increasingly finds its place in national political debates. The protagonists meet in bookshops and private salons, publish in new media ranging from blogs to polished and expensive highbrow publications, and present their ideas at think tanks. And they are central in building an intellectual backbone to Pegida and the AfD.

Michael is representative of a well-developed alternative intellectual culture in Germany that is deeply dissatisfied with the course the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has taken under Chancellor Angela Merkel, specifically with regards to immigration and Islam. It is a network that is linked to a conservative educated bourgeoisie, long-established intellectual radical right circles, and the AfD and the CDU’s Werteunion—a branch of Merkel’s center-right party that, since it was founded in 2017, has been building bridges to the AfD. Most of the ties are informal, and these circles don’t openly call for support for the AfD. But voting for the AfD is now seen as an obvious choice.

What makes this milieu different from conservative circles in the past is that it brings together different intellectual groups that, until recently, did not seem to have much in common. One the one hand, it is carried by fringe West German far-right intellectuals such as Karlheinz Weißmann, Heimo Schwilk, Ulrich Schacht, and Götz Kubitschek. Since the 1970s, they have been lobbying for a more assertive German nationalism, the prevention of a multicultural Germany, and an overcoming of what they see as a German culture based on self-hate and guilt. As part of the so-called New Right, they took inspiration in the French movement of the same name and attempted to brand themselves as a right distinct from what was largely seen as a delegitimized “old right” linked to Nazism. They developed some influence under Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1980s and ’90s and reached a broader audience with a number of books in the early post-reunification years. Nevertheless, lacking a party and media to support and represent their claims, their overall impact was limited, and as a political group they remained marginal in German politics.

More recently, this has changed as they have been joined by a group of prominent representatives of a formerly well-established West German intellectual class. Members of this group have mainly lost their influential positions in media, politics, and culture due to a changing Germany where minorities became more visible and gender and multicultural politics more mainstream. Their loss of influence is mainly linked to their resistance to these trends, their rejection of Islam’s place in German society, their views on social justice, and, most recently, their opposition to policies tackling climate change.

Some of these intellectuals were once close to the conservative CDU and have been disappointed in the way Merkel has modernized the party. The most prominent examples here are Erika Steinbach, a longtime CDU member and former president of the Federation of Expellees, a West German nonprofit organization representing Germans who had been expelled from the territories the country lost in World War II, and Hans-Georg Maaßen, a former president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security agency, and now the leading figure in the Werteunion. But this group is not limited to the right. It also includes former representatives of the left such as Thilo Sarrazin, of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and the journalists Henryk M. Broder and Matthias Matussek, both of whom were part of the left-wing ’68 movement and later took up influential positions in Germany’s leading print media.

Michael represents a third group that today makes up this milieu—a growing number of East German intellectuals who were in part dissidents in the socialist German Democratic Republic and took up leading civil society roles in East Germany’s political transition to unification. Some were disappointed in the ways reunification took place, many frustrated that they lost their influential intellectual positions in a now West German-dominated culture many of them see as driven by capitalism and a blind embracing of American culture. Their hope to play a more central role in building a new German society was mostly disappointed. Only when there was a growing interest in East German culture did some manage to become more visible. Yet, initially, this did not happen in politics but mainly in the realms of culture and civil society. Since the emergence of Pegida, this group formed a distinct political identity represented, for example, by the best-selling writer Uwe Tellkamp, the East German dissident Vera Lengsfeld, and the renowned psychoanalyst Hans-Joachim Maaz, who have all expressed their support for Pegida.

Before, these intellectuals did not share political goals, common networks, or even media. Today, their rejection of a multicultural society and their fear of an alleged Islamization of Germany, gender mainstreaming, and what they see as totalitarian climate policies has helped create common networks, think tanks, and a new landscape of media ranging from populist far-right magazines to highbrow publications. This intellectual class surrounding the rise of the far-right became more openly visible in 2018 when the so-called Declaration 2018 was published, calling for an intellectual backing of protests against “mass immigration.” Bringing together intellectuals of a radical right, moderate conservatives, and disillusioned former leftists, it provides new audiences for West German intellectuals who have been ousted from influential positions or for East German intellectuals who are reclaiming their political agency. It has become a force that dominates part of East Germany and that has been able to increase its influence on German politics.

It is this newly fashioned network that makes Michael hopeful for the future. In his thirst for intellectually legitimized dissidence this milieu has given him a new intellectual home. Here he finds support and an ideological framing that helps him to make sense of his unease with a changing Germany. His experiences in West Germany and his discovery of an alternative intellectual culture have turned him from a largely apolitical person into a “homo politicus,” as he put it. The intellectual far-right provided him with a space where he could turn his diffuse feeling of unease into a political project.

The label “far-right populist” doesn’t just hide the intellectual dimension in the rise of the AfD in East Germany. It equally makes it difficult to see a shared base between Germany’s peaceful revolution of 1989 and the far-right’s success in East Germany. For most Germans, 1989 equals the peaceful fight for freedom against the oppressive state of East Germany. Yet, 1989 was not only about that. It was also a moment of nationalism that, in its extreme forms, led to an outburst of violence toward immigrants. Almost 30 years later, the heritage of 1989 is central to the AfD’s East German election campaign, in which the party calls for a “Wende 2.0”—a new revolution implying a continuity between the German Democratic Republic’s totalitarian regime and contemporary Germany.

Like the fear of cultural decline, the idea that Germany is dominated by a left-liberal totalitarianism is not new. It has been part of the German postwar far-right’s ideology for the past 50 years. For my interviewees, the idea that Germany is currently witnessing the return of a leftist totalitarianism was an obvious fact.

Several former East German dissidents including Monika Maron and Vera Lengsfeld have been central in legitimizing this discourse. Lengsfeld, a co-initiator of Declaration 2018, has emerged as one of the central East German representatives of this new cultural class. A former East German dissident and former member of the Green party, she argues that a second revolution must take place. In 2018, this discourse seemed marginal. Today even journalists from center-right newspapers argue that Germany is developing into a new repressive state driven by a Green populism that would silence any dissent.

This complex intellectual heritage is evident in new AfD voters like Michael. He has not always been on the far-right. “Ten years ago, I would have considered myself to be center-left and liberal,” he said. He has been frustrated with the way Germany has been developing for a while but was not able to find a political way to express this frustration. As a historian, he told me, his main concern has been the lack of value given to culture in politics. Yet he never thought this could turn out to drive his politicization.

Michael said he felt that when Pegida started, people who expressed their support for the group were silenced, “just like in the GDR.” Like many others supporting the AfD in East Germany, he is convinced that media are developing into the kind of “propaganda organs” that he witnessed when growing up in the German Democratic Republic. Back then, the media presented a perfect socialism; today, the media proclaim a utopian multiculturalism that silences any concerns about problems stemming from immigration.

The so-called refugee crisis, Pegida, and the AfD accelerated Michael’s radicalization but were not at the origin of it. His unease had been driven by a series of prior experiences that made him feel that German culture is facing a fundamental threat. A year before Pegida, he had run into a French friend in Berlin. She told him that France was undergoing a process of Islamization and warned him that Germany was too laid-back toward Muslims, too permissive in letting them immigrate, and too accepting to the ways in which they asserted their culture. Unless this changes, she said, Germany will face the same situations France already faces today: social unrest, a growing visibility of Islam in the public sphere, and the development of parallel societies, all of which could lead, as Michael fears, to a civil war. “Pegida,” he said, “expresses this feeling of threat in the form of a protest movement.”

Michael explained his unease calmly, without anger, sipping on his beer in the Augustiner. His fear of German culture being replaced by foreigners and Muslims echoes the spreading far-right conspiracy theory of the “great replacement.” Based on a book by the French far-right author Renaud Camus, the theory argues that European liberal elites want to replace Europe’s autochthone peoples with immigrants and, specifically, Muslims.

Dystopias of decline are central to the far-right, and one can read about them in Cato or Tumult, two of the more highbrow far-right magazines. Both publications are pricey, highly polished, and among the most popular alternative journals among the intellectual far-right. While here the idea of a “great replacement” is less openly spelled out, a popular topic is the notion of “imported tribal wars” that would drive Germany “into a new Thirty Years’ War”—one of the bloodiest early modern wars, driven by a clash of Protestantism and Catholicism in the 17th century.

These fantasies also appear in Maron’s 2018 novel, Munin or Chaos in the Head, a best-selling book that has been celebrated in the intellectual far-right network. Maron, a former East German dissident writer, used to be a member of the Green party. More recently she has openly expressed her support for the AfD. In the book, she describes an educated bourgeois class based in a wealthy district of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, that has lost its belief in German culture. As a result of this envisioned self-hate, Germany would be defenseless to a Muslim and African cultural invasion.

Published in the anniversary year of the Thirty Years’ War, the book dives into the history of the 17th century and translates the Catholic-Protestant clash into a Muslim and Arab-Christian one. The left-liberal-educated bourgeoisie ignores this clash. Only the people in the streets protest—an implicit reference to such movements as Pegida. As rapes and gang crimes reach the posh neighborhood, the elites finally join the street protests, expressing their solidarity by waving the German flag and singing folk songs.

Michael shares these fears about a future civil war in Germany. He is convinced that soon, Germany could face a new cultural destruction due to mass immigration. “Maybe,” he said, “we will need to move to Eastern Europe or Russia.” Here, so a widely shared belief in the far-right, countries are still ethnically and culturally homogenous and more self-loving—something the far-right believes is needed to persevere in the clash between African and Muslim cultures and Europe.

The Augustiner seems to be a place where all these developments can be forgotten for a moment, where one can take refuge from a tainted past and a dystopian future. Here one can meet in an atmosphere that seems to be from a time before German guilt and self-hate. There are no signs of a multicultural Germany, no Islam. Instead, there is beer, German food, and plentiful pictures of Dresden’s lost beauty.

In Michael’s worldview, these black-and-white photos almost appear as a warning memory of a lost Heimat, or homeland. As part of one of the first major reconstructions of a historical city center, Dresden represents the avant-garde of a nostalgic cultural revivalism both to regain and defend this Heimat—a trend that also depends on elites and intellectuals to be conceived, legitimized, and realized. Not only is this renewed Dresden Pegida’s backdrop, it is also praised in far-right publications along with the reconstruction of Berlin’s palace, the Humboldt Forum, and Frankfurt’s city center as a triumph over a soulless and uprooted modern architecture.

The expectations established by such cultural efforts can also produce cultural resentments. Shortly after his French friend warned him about creeping Islamization, Michael took up a guest lectureship in a big city in western Germany. He had never lived in West Germany before. It’s clear this was his first experience of an increasingly diverse German society. Over 95 percent of Germans with an immigrant background live in West Germany, where they make up over 26 percent of the overall population, or in Berlin. In East Germany it is only 8 percent. “This was the real eye-opener,” Michael said. He had rented an apartment close to the train station and soon realized that his landlady “was the last German living in the house. When I looked at the letterboxes, there were only non-German names, and the general atmosphere in the area made me feel uncomfortable.” When I asked him to tell me what exactly it was that made him feel uncomfortable, he said that “the streets were dominated by women in headscarves in the morning, in the evening they were full of men in big German cars. This was the first time I realized that I was witnessing a fundamental cultural rupture taking place.”

For Michael, as for most of the far-right, being German is obviously defined by name, ethnic heritage, but increasingly also by being Christian. The Germany he had witnessed in West Germany, however, did not match this definition anymore. The houses were German. The streets were German. The cars were German. But not, as far as he was concerned, the people living, walking, or driving in them. It is an assessment that Michael shares with much of his fellow intellectual class.

Julian Göpffarth is a PhD candidate at the LSE's European Institute and a ECR Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.