Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism

With the rise of Germany’s new right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany or AFD [mocked as “A F**** Disgrace”], a heated debate is taking place. The debate is about whether one should call the AFD Fascist or the German equivalent Nazi. Mainstream academics and media label the AFD right-wing, right extremism, populists, etc. One of the very few who call a spade a spade is none other than Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel who has openly labelled AFD leaders “real Nazis”. Perhaps, one way to assess whether Germany’s AFD is a Nazi party or truly fascistic is to measure it against what became known as Ur-Fascism. The AFG might fulfill the classical criteria of Ur-Fascism laid out by none other than Italian philosopher and creator of “In the Name of the Rose”, Umberto Eco.

Umberto Eco identified fourteen elements that make up Fascism. The cult of tradition is the first item on Eco’s 14-point list. The AFD fancies The Cult of Germanic-Mythical Traditions (1) glorifying Germany’s Nazi past in particular. The party wants to return to traditions such as a racially purified and a deeply Anti-Semitic society – the so-called Volksgemeinschaft. The AFD seeks to revive honoring the Nazi-Army’s soldiers that went on a murderous killing spree throughout Europe torturing and slaughtering millions of people. This became known as Crimes of the Wehrmacht. The AFD’s cult of tradition is less directed towards the mythical and elusive Germanic-Aryan race and more towards Germany’s recent Nazi period (1933-1945).

Secondly, the AFD rejects modernism (2) hating modern liberal society, its art and culture, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, feminism, trade unions, post-1789 democracy, progressive political parties, and most, if not all, international institutions and global NGOs. It longs for a romantic past that was never really romantic. Instead, the romantic nostalgia for the past often mirrored what British philosopher Hobbes once called “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Like the real Nazis, the hatred of modernity has never prevented Nazis from using modern means, from applying scientific management to the Holocaust. The modern right-wing uses modern means like Facebook and Twitter.


The AFD’s Cult of Action for Action’s Sake (3) is expressed in many ways. All too often the AFD is “action-guided” rather than “thinking-guided”. Favoring actions over thinking often come with a rejection of intellectual discourse and rationality. Perhaps in reminiscence of Hitler’s “deep fear of the thinking man and [his] hatred of the intellect”, the AFD too espouses rampant anti-intellectualism. This is, at least partly, signified in the stupidity of some of its leaders. Their acronym (AFD) might actually stand for “Alternative for the Dumb”. Virtually, the same can be seen in the AfG’s street fighters called Peglia and the violence expressed by the so-called (and well armed) 15.600 Reichsbürgersovereign petit-bourgeois.

There might be a link between the rise of the AFD, its language of hate, and the rise of Nazi and racially motivated violence in Germany such as for example, the assassination attempt of Cologne mayor Henriette Reker in 2015 and a 2016 Munich mass shooting. Aligned to the even more violent and truly Neo-Nazis, it creates a political culture which supports the establishment of Anti-Semitic and racially cleansed “No-Go” areas (no Muslims, no Jews, etc.) recently extending to the East-Germany city of Cottbus.

Many inside Germany’s current pre-fascistic orbit – AFD, Pegida, Reichbürger, Neo-Nazis, Homeland Defense, Aryan Race, White Power, Freie Kameradschaft Dresden, etc. – believe that present day Germany is governed by the USA. They also fancy the annihilation of today’s Federal Republic of Germany in favor of a mythical Reich – a reactionary and militaristic Germanic empire. This is a  quintessentially reactionary, fascistic or “fascistoid” idea. Here, the German language distinguishes between being outright fascistic and “fascistoid”. Fascistoid means showing fascistic tendencies, being similar to fascism and carrying elements of fascism without having yet reached the level of full fascism. Fascistoid denotes a pre-fascistic state.

For many fascists as for the AFD, Disagreement is Treason (4). This is found in the belief of extreme party loyalty – “them-vs-us”. Violate this and you are gone. This was most famously shown in the short-lived rise and demise of the AFD’s semi-Führer Petry. The party is plagued by in-fighting. Too many want to be the next Führer below Gauland. These changes come on the basis that one is getting the axe the moment one is slightly off the current party line. Worst of all, once you have betrayed the AFD’s true Il DuceAlexander Gauland – you are history.  Next to strict party loyalty, the AFD calls everything critical about the AFG ‘fake news’. Much of this is mixed with a revival of an old Nazis idea of Joseph Goebbles’ Lügenpresse [lying press].

The xenophobic Fear of Difference (5) is standard repertoire of the AFD. Racial intolerance can almost daily be seen in the many xenophobic claims made by the AFD. Among the countless cases, recent instances are AFD-deputy and MP Jens Maier calling the son of tennis star Boris Becker “Halb-Neger” meaning half-negro or, more likely, “half-nigger”. Another case is AFD-boss Gauland’s personal assistant Shirley Borchardt’s “not so” personal racism. Hate speech remains a punishable crime in Germany. Many of these include not just the hallucination of an Anti-Semitic pure German race but also the demand to shoot and kill refugees at Germany’s borders. Much of this is linked to the aforementioned Volksgemeinschaft based on racial hatred of anyone looking not Aryan enough. The AFD is an active proponent of a planned return to the Volksgemeinschaft.

Sixth, the AFD does indeed Appeal to Social Frustration skillfully converting the negative impacts of neoliberalism’s cut of welfare provisions into racism. It re-directs these frustrations away from state and capitalism and against everyone foreign looking. Traditionally, fascism has always sought to overlay the vertical capital-vs.-labor conflict with the horizontal nation-vs.-nation conflict. The latter supports capitalism – the former challenges capitalism. Instead of exposing capital-labor contradictions, AFD racism sets worker against worker often German worker against non-German worker. As a consequence of the exploitation of social frustration, the AFD does well in disadvantaged geographical areas. It cleverly harnesses social frustration with capitalism and its adjacent political regimes currently expressed in a conservative-social-democracy coalition government.

The AFD also has a strong Obsession with a Plot (7). This comes largely through the right-wing and Neo-Nazi internet websites functioning as echo-chambers that mirror delusion about Islamic conspiracies seeking to infiltrate and destroy Germany. Never far away is the Jewish World Conspiracy. Inside the AFD, as one of its own members recently testified, there is a strong belief in the conspiracy of the Jewish banking family Rothschild and the Jew George Soros. Linked to such hallucinations is the idea that The Enemy is both Strong and Weak (8). This is found in the phantasm of a flood of Muslim refugees. They are accused of taking over Germany and eventually Europe.

In reality, Europe’s Muslims population numbers just 5.4% to 5.7% of Europe’s roughly 740 million people. Still, the AFD believes “Europe is full”. Many of these non-European and non-German people are presented as the enemy. Fascism thinks in strict friend and foe terms. The foe is to be exterminated. It is for them when AFD-sympathizers want to build a new railway from Berlin to Auschwitz. This sort of thinking is linked to the hallucination that Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy (9). AFD militarism strongly rejects pacifism. This particular fantasy feeds the media’s quest for the spectacle under the heading “when it thinks, its stinks – when it bleeds, it leads”. The AFD’s “Politics of Fear” focuses on the fear of Muslim terrorism. To defend Germans against that, a strong army is needed. The new enemy is Muslim terrorism of which virtually anyone non-German is accused. In some cases, 1950s anti-communist speeches can be re-delivered by simply swapping the word “communist” with the word “terrorist”.

Not surprisingly, AFD verbal militarism includes a call to arms to defend Aryan Germany and white Europe. Such calls have led to ‘racist murders as well as arson attacks against asylum seekers’. This is much in line with a Nietzsche-like Contempt for the Weak (10). Those considered weak range from women, to refugees, handicapped people, LGBTQ and to those deemed surplus labor. In short everyone fitting the description of the Untermensch – the sub-human. Much of the defaming of the weak is geared towards de-humanization – a vital step towards Auschwitz as British philosopher Bauman has shown in his seminal masterpiece “Holocaust and Modernity”.

On the other side of current AFD ideology is the strong. The strong range from the sexually omnipotent African man (raping our blond women, in AFD mythology) to hero glorification (Wehrmacht soldiers and SS). For the AFD, this means Everybody is…to become a hero (11). Traditionally, such heroes are the Wehrmacht soldiers of Nazi Germany once engaged in a devastating race war in Eastern Europe. There is also an AFD call for a new Führer signified in the AFD’s very own demagogue Björn Höcke – the prominent AFD’s “would-like-to-be-Führer”. Like real fascism, the AFD links much of this to its own version of Machismo and weaponry (12). This can be seen, for example, in the AFD’s call for manliness. AFD-leader Höcke demands masculinity.

For the AFD masculinity leads to chauvinism and to Wehrhaftigkeit – a “culture of cruelty” spiced with violence and brutality and what Umberto Eco calls “weaponry”. Much of this is part of rampant AFD populism (13) with simple slogans for the simple minded. Fascism, Nazis and even the AFD features populism. The AFD is not an elite organization. Instead, it is based on what French sociologist LeBon calls “the crowd, the mass” or in Nietzsche’s terms ‘the herd’. The AFD fulfills the classical definition of populism as it promotes an ideology that claims to support the rights of ordinary people in their struggle against a privileged elite – the establishment. Its populism seeks to disrupt the existing social order by solidifying and mobilizing the bitterness of the common people against elites and the establishment. The AFD often portrays both bourgeois capitalists and socialist organizers as unfairly dominating the political landscape. As a consequence, the AFD claims to free Germany and the Germans from the rule of the elite.

Finally, Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak (14). Some of the AFD’s more educated leaders skillfully merge reactionary terminology with present political vocabularies. Most AFD language, however, simply signifies a return to semi-fascist and crypto-Nazi language. It is not exactly Orwellian Newspeak as the AFD has not –yet– invented a new language. AFD language is basically racist vocabulary, standard Anti-Semitism, nationalism and the like. Instead of creating new words and an entire new language as in Orwell’s “1984”, the AFD sticks to classic crypto-fascist language.

It regularly gets extremely close to what would qualify as “hate speech” – a punishable offence according to Germany’s criminal code. Hate speech is known in Germany as Volksverhetzung. While mostly avoiding outright hate speech, AFD language creates a pro-Nazi atmosphere in which talk of “concentrating refugees in camps” as a “final solution” for refugees have increasingly become mainstream. It is “mainstreaming fascism” as Canadian philosopher Henry Giroux calls it. AFD leader Jeanette Ihme is, for example, among those AFD personalities already convicted of such an offence. According to a leading weekly “Die Zeit” (2nd January 2018) there are more than 100 lawsuits against the AFD on grounds of hate speech.

Given these rather preliminary investigations into the AFD measured against Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, it is hard to avoid the impression that Germany’s new right-wing party AFD has indeed a fascistic ideology. It has very strong fascist tendencies. It is a fascistoid or pre-fascistic party. Despite all this, what the AFD is still lacking is a violent and brutish paramilitary street fighting organization like Italy’s blackshirts, Hungary’s Arrow-Cross, or Germany’s SA, HJ and later SS. These were running secret – and often not so secret – torture chambers between the 1920s and 1945. In many cases, this included rounding up, beating, and killing trade unionists, perceived non-Aryans, homosexuals, democrats, progressives, pacifists, liberals, communists, anarchists, Jewish people, gypsies, etc. Much of this was once so pointedly expressed in the magnificent words of Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Secondly, the AFD has not managed – so far – to convince Germany’s conservatives to appoint one of its own as the new Führer of Germany. In 1933, Adolf Hitler as the Nazi Reichskanzler came to power through a right-wing coalition government furnished by Germany’s conservatives. The Nazi Party simply never had the majority of German voters. Thirdly, and this is despite Gauland (the AFD’s ‘behind the scenes’ leader), the shiny front-women Alice Weidel, and semi-Nazi demagogue Björn Höcke, the AFD has not yet found a Hitler-style leader. Despite the many similarities to Fascism and Nazism, mainstream Germany refrains from calling Nazis Nazis preferring instead “right-wing populism”, “right extremism”, “nationalism”, “nationalistic right”, “far right”, “extreme right”, etc.

Beyond  that, Germany’s powerful right-wing Springer press has decided to become somewhat  the “semi-official” mouthpiece spreading AFD ideology. Its main outlet is, albeit declining but still with 1.8 million sold newspapers daily, the “Bild” tabloid. More often than not it broadcasts racism parroting AFD propaganda. Bild still has an extremely large readership. Next to the massive support of the right-wing corporate press, AFD leaders are frequently invited to still very popular TV talk-shows where prominent TV-hosts such as Maischberger, Plasberg, and Lanz provide a mass broadcasting outlet for Nazi ideology.

The ideological goal of Germany’s version of Rupert Murdoch – Axel Cäsar Springer (1912-1985) and current bedfellows – is the normalization of the extreme right. This is despite the fact that after Auschwitz there can be no political and cultural “normality” in Germany, as the eminent philosopher Adorno once said. This applies to Germany and the Germans. The historical uniqueness of Auschwitz –factory style genocide– had two ingredients: Anti-Semitism and Germans. Even with the AFD’s very own court certified Holocaust denier, it is very clear by now that the AFD is not much more than a bunch of racists and Anti-Semitists. Many have already been called Offspring-Nazis [Nachwuchsnazis]. Certainly after the AFD’s latest party convention in 2017, the party has moved even more towards its racist and Anti-Semitic “völkische” side with the goal of an ethnically cleansed Germany based on a mythical Aryan race. Despite all this, there are at least five reasons why mainstream Germany avoids calling Germany’s new Nazis Nazis preferring instead to engage in “mainstreaming fascism”.

The first reason for not calling Germany’s new Nazis Nazis has something to do with the fact that Germany’s international image might be damaged by admitting that a new breed of Nazis has indeed entered Germany’s Parliament in 2017. Watching their eerie speeches in the legislature on YouTube is truly mind numbing. On election night, AFD Führer Gauland announced the AFD will “hunt Merkel”. These aren’t the positive images Germany’s industry (and its politicians) like to portray to the world. Much more than in 1933, today’s export oriented industry depends on a positive international image often presented as a clean, modern, scientific and technologically advanced. In 2016, German industry exports ranking just behind the USA and China. Any damage to this by telling the truth is to be avoided.

Unlike the days when Hitler was made Reichskanzler (30th January 1933), the majority of German industry today wants to avoid any damage to its carefully crafted image of simply being a machine-, pharmaceutical- and car exporting country. Corporations like Krupp, Porsche, BMWs, Mercedes, Volkswagens, Allianz, Deutsche Bank, SS-uniform-maker Hugo Boss, etc. although once heavily involved with Nazism, want to be seen to be distant to the newly rising image of Germanic Nazism. Instead, German corporations and Germany’s establishment pride themselves to be world champion of exports [Exportweltmeister]. Nazism might damage the pretense of a clean, modern, technology-driven and democratic Germany that has truly ended its recent Nazi past. As a consequence, mainstream Germany prefers populism under the propagandistic ideology “we are just like any other country” – even though it is the only country that has created Auschwitz.

Secondly, Germany’s establishment does not want to be reminded of its Nazi past, it also does not want to be reminded of what it did during the immediate post-Nazi years, namely the seamless integration of high-ranking – and not so high-ranking – Nazis into the legal (with 90 of the 170 top-bureaucrats being exNazis), political and economic apparatus of post-Nazi Germany. Even though the Allied Forces pushed the denazification of Germany between 1945 and 1949, it was soon wound down with the exception of a few high profile court cases carried through to make the world believe that Germany had broken with Nazism.

Meanwhile, Germany’s post-Nazi system was filled up with exNazis. Many of their names are listed in the seminal source: the Braunbuch. Still, there are some noteworthy Nazis: Waffen-SS Untersturmführer Hanns Martin Schleyer (later CDU and President of two powerful commercial organizations, the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations and the Federation of German Industries); SA Obersturmführer Theodor Oberländer (later: CDU and Minister); NSDAP member Karl Carstens and later President of Germany (CDU); Hans Globke’s extraordinary efforts in drafting the Nazi law for Anti-Semitism called “Protection of the German Blood” under Hitler, was later appointed undersecretary in Adenauer’s Chancellery. There are many more.

These exNazis in politics, economy, law, education, culture, banking, sports, police, army, universities, the press, etc. were busy camouflaging Nazi crimes from the consciousness of Germans. At the same time, Germany’s film and TV industry assured that the past vanished into thin air. Nazi crimes and those responsible simply never appeared on German cinema and TV screens. Noteworthy exceptions are, for example, Hildegard Knef’s Murderers Among Us (1948 released in Sweden!), East-Germany’s Naked Among Wolves (1963) and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1979). Not surprisingly almost all Holocaust films eventually shown (after most Nazis had died a peaceful death) in a few selected cinemas and in mid-night TV were foreign. These were mostly “foreign” movies like Spencer Tracy’s US classic “The Seventh Cross”.

The first time German mass audience (including me) who saw a little bit of Nazi history on German TV was when the US mini-series called “Holocaust” (with Meryl Streep) was shown on German television in 1978. Half a decade later, an Australian written (Thomas Keneally) and US-made film called Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg) was shown. It was as foreign as Claude Lanzman’s seminal masterpiece Shoah (France), Roman Polansky’s The Pianist (France, UK, Germany, Poland), Italy’s Life Is Beautiful, and Brad Pitt’s wishful Inglourious Basterds (USA). In other words, having successfully diminished Germany’s recent Nazi past in film and television, Germany’s establishment still seeks to avoid highlighting the “Germany-Nazi” link as much as possible. It simply carries on a long post-war tradition. The mainstream’s treatment of the AFD fits into the tradition of de-emphasizing Nazism.

Thirdly, the rise of the AFD, the upswing of its street fighters Pegida (the racist “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”), the AFD’s entering of Germany’s federal parliament and its mass media engineered widespread support and appeal might have convinced mainstream media that both – AFD and Pegida – are just too big to be called Nazis. Even though this should be even more of a reason to call both Nazis as its danger grows the moment the AFD infiltrates Germany’s political institutions.

Not just institutions but also size matters. Nazism, militarism, dictatorship, and fascism always needed massive support to take over democracy to destroy it – one of the unspoken goals of the AFD when seeking its racist Volksgemeinschaft. Currently, the AFD is boasting that a renewed conservative-social-democratic coalition government would mean that the AFD is Germany’s largest opposition party. The AFD talks pride in this. It means more institutional power, more self-importance, and more opportunities to broadcasts its hate speeches.

Fourthly, the Potsdam Agreement of 30th April 1946, the Proclamation Number Two of 20th September 1945, and a subsequent law (10th October 1945) clearly state that the intention of the Allied Forces is “to prevent the revival or reorganization of German militarism and Nazism”. The objective of the Allied Forces was “to destroy the National Socialist Party and its affiliated and supervised organizations, to dissolve all Nazi institutions, to ensure that they are not revived in any form, and to prevent all Nazi and militarist activity or propaganda”. Violation of these provisions is a punishable offence.

These are the things Germany and the Germans do not want to be reminded of. Furthermore, article 21(2) of Germany’s constitution notes that “parties that, by reason of their aims or the behavior of their adherents, seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order or to endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany shall be unconstitutional”. Despite having clear legal and constitutional provisions, mainstream Germany still shies away from a possible court case against the AFD. Calling Nazis Nazis would inevitably be a first step towards such as legal case as it makes clear what the AFD actually is. One of the real dangers of Nazism is not seeing it as a danger.

Fifthly, calling Nazis Nazis may conjure up renewed calls to declare the AFD illegal as its political goals will lead to the destruction of Germany and its democratic constitution. In AFD politics, current democratic institutions are to be replaced with an authoritarian Volksgemeinschaft. Previous supreme court cases against the AFD’s smaller frontrunner, the NPD failed in 2001-2003 under the social-democratic Chancellor Schröder. Contemplating a second attempt for a renewed anti-NPD court case in 2013-2017 was also abandoned. The second attempt occurred in the wake of the neo-Nazi NSU killings – the National-Socialist Underground. It was never followed through. In the NSU case, young Neo-Nazis received generous support from Germany’s secret service financing and arming NSU killings. Ten people including a female police officer between 2000 and 2007 died.

Despite rampant racism and Anti-Semitism with violent attacks and killings, German officials shy away from a legal showdown with a party that holds parliamentary seats and has a large support base throughout Germany. Historically and with the exception of the immediate post-war SRP, taking on Nazis has never been the intention of the German state. All this might explain why German mainstream avoids calling Nazis Nazis.

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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