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Is German Society Becoming Fascist?

Without any doubt, Germany’s most successful right-wing extremist – some say neo-Nazi Neo-Nazi – party has been the AfD. The Alternative for Germany or AfD Alternative für Deutschland received sufficient votes in 2017 to enter into Germany’s Federal Parl;ament, the Reichstag 12.6%. Before that, the AfD has already managed to gain seats in several regional state parliaments. By 2020, there was not a single state left in which the AfD was not represented. While the AfD has succeeded in Germany’s formal side of politics–together other right-wing and Neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi organisations – it has also made inroads into civil society.

The situation in the United States in the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency has many parallels or, at least, significant analogies. Not only has Trump taken over and completely transformed the Republican Party, but he has issued a slew of executive decrees that have undermined the constitutionally ordained checks and balances between the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches of government. His supporters include gangs of thugs, street brawling bullies and armed militias. By not filling many positions in various departments—not least many diplomatic posts in key allied capitals–he moves ever closer to one-man autocratic rule. If what is going on in America often mirrors the behaviour of extremists in Germany, it is frightening to see German neo-Nazis carrying posters with Trump’s face as though he legitimized their ideology of hatred and bigotry.

The most recent demonstration of right-wing extremist infiltration into mainstream German society occurred on Saturday 29th August 2020 when, as Time Magazine put it, Germany’s “Far-Right Attempted to Storm the Reichstag.” This is a wake-up sign, if ever there one, that dangerous things happening in Germany. At an anti-Coronavirus rally, right-wing extremists waved Neo-Nazi flags, while attacking the seat of German democracy. The AfD’s top apparatchik von Storch announced: “We had a good day”. Yes, to put it mildly, another indication of the AfD’s rejection of democracy.

As is happening elsewhere in the world, from Lukushenko’s Belarus to Trump’s America, the infiltration of Germany’s right-wing extremists into many areas of civil society continues. In Germany, the right-wing targets five key areas: workplaces, churches, welfare organisations, sporting clubs, and cultural organisations. One might like to distinguish here between right-wing populism, i.e., setting the pure Volk against the elite and right-wing extremism, i.e., Neo-Nazis. American voters ought, as the campaign for and against the re-election of Donald Trump looms, to note similarities to the various violent clashes between extremist groups on all sides, but predominantly on the right. Patriotic slogans, flag-waving and appeals to rabid nationalism encode deeply divisive ideological and racist tensions.

One of Germany’s leading sporting organizations Otto Brenner Foundation, for example, sees right-wing populism as working within a democratic framework. By contrast, the extremists are set to destroy democracy in favour of a new fascism fascist dictatorship. However, neither is as neatly separated from the other as academic categories might like to have it. Borders are soft and in some cases simply non-existent. It all depends on how sensitive the observer is to the use of language, the display of images and the performance of gestures. In the end, what matters is what is done on the streets and in the chambers of government.

Things get a little clearer when you realise that right-wing populism the populists operate within a rather simplistic them-vs.-us ideology. It is insider (good Aryans) against outsider (bad immigrants). Germany’s right-wing extremists follow the ideology of Nazism and its not so subtle history of distorted language. Thus, on the one hand, right-wing populism tends to limit itself to themes of resentment, xenophobia, and racial stereotypes; while on the other hand, right-wing extremism never stops there and calls for, in the secret language of the Hitler regime, eradication, incarceration, expulsion and murder of the unwanted other. Rub the two models of German extreme nationalism together—the figure is of an assayer’s touchstone—and there emerges a powerful and irrational anti-humanism uniting both groups. In many cases, too, right-wing populism builds bridges to right-wing extremism.

In any case, the somewhat weaker-appearing right-wing populism is not properly targeted by Germany’s very powerful Verfassungsschutz Once a political party, like the AfD, crosses over into right-wing extremism, the secret police might get involved. Units of the AfD are already under investigation by the Verfassungschutz because they seek to destroy Germany’s democratic institutions. But the differentiation is just a trick to try to outwit voters and police.

Unlike the way democratic institutions function widely and openly in Germany, the infiltration of right-wing extremists–and of the AfD in particular—infiltration takes place in civil society , but not in parliaments. It happens in the part of society that is neither run by the state nor by business. In particular, the AfD and other right-wing organisations target Germany’s organised civil society: workplaces, churches and religious groups, welfare organisations, sport clubs, and cultural institutions.

Unlike the influence of National Socialists in the 1930s, this time around civil society organisations do not appear to have handed themselves over to Nazism. In recent years, in fact, civil organisations have successfully resisted the infiltration of right-wing extremists. They do so in three ways. Firstly, they act as though a democratic society can safely incorporate right-wing extremists into its democratic institutions. They do not see the implications of this weak form of resistance,, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to manipulation from within. Secondly, they ignore the radical right. Although it is only a relatively few organisations who have kept aloof from right-wing extremism, they do not form a bloc to protect themselves from moral and political corruption.. Finally, the most common form of resistance of democratic organisations is that of confrontation, rejection, and an active fight against right-wing extremism.

Working Life

Apart from managers, corporate apparatchiks and the like, Germany’s working life is largely governed by two democratic forces: legally elected works councils works councils and trade unions. Traditionally, both have resisted the infiltration by right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis. Still, the AfD has infiltrated the system sufficiently to set up two right-wing organisations. The more known organisation is Zentrum-automobil Deutschland “Zentrum Automobil” – centre for cars and other private vehicles. The second organisation is IG Beruf und Familie, a trade union for jobs and family. Rather stupid names, to be sure, but nobody has ever accused the Nazism of being smart, linguistically refined, or intelligent. Overall, both of these clunky entities remain fringe organisations incapable of challenging Germany’s 5.9 million trade union members.

On the downside, however, trade union members are represented disproportionately among AfD voters (15%) compared to the overall population (12.6%). This does not indicate that Germany’s right-wing extremism is strongly supported by the working class. Still, 15% is way too high. Support for the AfD has infiltrated into too many workplaces. Inside German car factories, for example, Zentrum Automobile has made an untoward appearance at Mercedes-Benz. It gained eight out of 106 seats on works councils in recent elections. At Porsche, it received two out of 33 seats on the works council and at BWM’s East-German Leipzig factory it got four out of 35 seats. In other words, the AfD and its radical right ideology is now represented in a few German car factories. A few of these trouble-makers is always too many.

Overall, however, there is no nation-wide, industry-wide or even factory-wide coverage of right-wing extremism. Still, in those isolated cases where right-wing extremists, including the AfD, made an appearance, they always found willing supporters. On the whole however, they remain a fringe issue. Their key ideological task remains to undermine the legitimacy of trade unions. The radical right claims – somewhat similar to the early Nazi movement during the 1920s – that trade unions are in the pockets of big business. Then as today, this is a tactical move to entice some to join the radical right by presenting itself as an anti-capitalism forces.

In any case, the Zentrum Automobile is well connected to Germany’s right-wing extremism even though his boss – Oliver Hilburger – originated from Germany’s rather small Christian union movement. Meanwhile, Beruf-and-Familie boss Frank Neufert is a member of the AfD. Beyond these rather isolated successes, the AfD has also setup an internal organisation called “Employees for the AfD”. Its boss is the former social-democrat and public service union official Robert Buck.

As a reaction to all this, many German trade unions have written exclusion clauses which state that membership in the AfD and in a trade union is incompatible with one another even though such a clause might contradict Germany’s constitutional right to belong to a trade union. In any case, German trade unions strongly reject and isolate right-wingers and the AfD.

In conservative Bavaria, two-hundred metal-union member resigned after they participated in the AfD’s street-fighting movement called PEGIDA PEGIDA. PEGIDA’s boss, Lutz Bachman, likes to dress up as Adolf Hitler. The 200 were ordinary union members but chose to give their support for PEGIDA. Among trade union officials, an Otto Brenner poll found no support for the AfD, right-wing extremists, or right-wing populism. Instead, the union officials strongly denounced right-wing ideologies. These union officials were, at the same time, fighting against company-based workplace agreements initiated by the extreme right that favour German workers over non-German workers.

Trade unionists at Volkswagen even ran a campaign called “clear cut” [Klare Kante] that protects non-German workers from such right-wing extremists. One of the most outspoken fighters against the radical right and Neo-Nazis is a works council member at Mercedes-Benz. Even though the radical right has made some inroads into these councils, their electoral gains did not come from Germany’s powerful metal workers union, IG Metali IGM but from the smaller Christian unions.

While the AfD’s Zentrum Automobile remains active at Mercedes-Benz running their own website, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels, the effects are minimal. Overall, despite a few attempts to infiltrate Germany’s union movement, the workers’ councils have been highly successful in rejecting right-wing extremists.

Religion

With 55% of all Germans affiliated to churches, organised religion still remains important in Germany. The country has about 23 million Catholics and 21 million Protestants. Both churches employ roughly 1,5 million workers. Churches remain one of the largest employers in Germany. Even though, the radical right, including the AfD, likes to present itself as a defender of Christianity and has placed this in its election platform, Germany’s churches strongly reject attempts by right-wing populism to infiltrate them.

In 2017, Church members rallied against the AfD. One of the more noted rejections of the AfD came from Cardinal Woelki. He ordered the lights at Cologne Cathedral to be switched off during a rally of PEGIDA near the city’s famed Cathedral. In their rejection of the AfD’s xenophobia, churches have issued what they call “church-asylum,” a traditional way of protecting refugees from deportation. Five years after the arrival of about one million refugees and Angela Merkel’s statement that “we will make it” the AfD launched a campaign of fear mongering about the non-existent crisis, chaos, and rising crime rate. The refugee intake is widely regarded as a success, with only a few minor glitches in the early stages of absorption success. Germany’s churches have worked hard to ensure this success. At church conventions, the AfD is not invited. Instead, religious organizations run a programme called “seek peace – not the AfD”. German churches see themselves as in the forefront of opposition, as highly visible anti-fascists strongly rejecting the AfD.

Church official Heinrich Bedford-Strohm says that the AfD stands for antisemitism, racism, and inhumanity. These ideologies are not compatible with the Christian belief. Still, deaf to the voice of the majority of German believers, the AfD has organised a group called “Christians in the AfD” to which the aforementioned right-wing nationalist leader von Storch belongs. Her forefathers were real Nazis working for Adolf Hitler. People like von Storch seek to infiltrate Germany’s Christian institutions through a conservative Bible interpretation and, especially, the issue of abortion. So far, these attempts have failed—comprehensively.

In contemporary America, most of Trump’s so called base consists of Evangelical Protestant churches and other dissenting sects. For them the key issues include extreme anti-abortionist views (they advocate blocking and bombing family-planning clinics, murdering doctors and other clinicians), gun control (which they take as a “God-given right” based on a spurious interpretation of the Second Amendment), family values (coded language for male domination and physical punishment of children and homophobia in general) and law and order (in the sense of white nationalism, more prisons for social deviance and the death penalty). In designating Trump as “the chosen one”, put in the White House by God, these anti-rationalists and anti-science activists, promote the idea of a leader (der Führer) who is above and beyond the law. In the patriotic ideology of America First, the president is a messiah, thus making any opposing individual an anti-Christ or group the Party of Satan,

Social Welfare Organisations

Whereas America’s right-wing opposition groups decry any social welfare or national health care as socialism and pandering to lazy people of colour and immigrants, Germany has a sizable non-government sector of welfare organisations that engage largely with childcare, social work, homelessness, and age care. The movement’s social and moral roots suggest a strong determination to act against racism and discrimination. This is an obligation of its roughly two million employees and its three million volunteers. As a consequence, the sector rejects any division between German and non-German welfare recipients so strongly favoured by the AfD. For Germany’s welfare organisations, such a division would violate their ethical foundation found in human dignity.

Attacks from the AfD on the welfare sector came largely through AfD parliamentarians. Inside parliaments, the AfD consistently seeks to undermine the welfare sector by questioning the legitimacy of state support for the sector. AfD apparatchik Thomas de Jesus Fernandez even suggested that Germany’s welfare sector represents a “dark Mafia clan”. Set against such attacks is, for example, the Red Cross’ campaign “together against hatred”.

A rather typical attack by the AfD occurred in Passau where the AfD wanted to donate 600 cups of soup but only on condition that they be allowed to (mis)use the donation for their own propagandistic purposes electoral campaign. Welfare organisations rejected the AfD’s attempts to appropriate them for the AfD’s right-wing ideology. At same time, church oriented welfare organisations like the Catholic Diakonie powerfully stated that the inhumanity of the AfD represents views incompatible with the Diakonie’s beliefs.

Sport and Recreation

Since around the time of the year 2000, Germany’s radical right has increased its attempts to infiltrate German sport. Nevertheless, most attempts to penetrate sporting organisations have, so far, failed bitterly. Still, there have been plenty of racist incidents in sport. In soccer, for example, games are used by right-wing extremists to push a “them-vs.-us” ideology framing other teams as enemies to be destroyed. Much of this is highly important since there about 88.000 sporting organisations in Germany with roughly 27.6 million members, about one-third of Germany population.

Soccer remains a favourite of the radical right, its Neo-Nazis and hooligans. Soccer gives the radical right a platform to push nationalism and racism. Meanwhile, the AfD focuses on national identity and chauvinism. For the AfD, sport represents Germanic ideas like honour, discipline, punctuality, law & order, hard work, and duty.

Furthermore, the radical right also tries to use private gyms for their ideological activities. From there, right-wing extremists organise boxing and fighting clubs as well as war games. Its Boxing Club Bautzen (East-Germany) recruits young men into the local Neo-Nazi scene. Similarly, the soccer club Chemnitz FC includes Neo-Nazi fans waving Nazi flags and singing Nazi songs while also running a right-wing extremist WhatsApp group.

AfD and PEGIDA member Achim Exner was security boss at Dynamo Dresden, a East-German soccer club. At the same time, a trainer at the soccer club Lokomotive Leipzig showed a photo of himself performing the Hitler salute. This is illegal even in East-Germany. Building a bridge between populism and right-wing extremism, the AfD works towards the normalisation of radical right ideologies. This is what Henry Giroux calls “mainstreaming fascism”.

Making the radical right accepted also occurred when the captain of the Chemnitz FC wears a t-shirt labelled “support your local hooligans” and when the local “NS Boys” (NS stands for National Socialism, or Nazi) sign the clubs guest book. When sports clubs act against that and issue decrees that nobody can be a member in a soccer club who is a racist and spreads inhuman ideologies, the AfD is there to take such a club to the court accusing the soccer club of defamation.

More than in the western parts of Germany, these things occur in East-Germany where sports clubs are engaged in an intense battle against the radical right. On the field, soccer clubs have introduced a three strike rule to fight against the racism that all too often occurs during soccer games:

1) the game will pause after a racist incident;

2) the game will be interrupted, players leave the field; and

3) the game will end if racist attacks continue.

In Trump’s America where institutionalized and historically deep-seated racist attitudes persist against blacks and other people of colour, sporting bodies play a major part in keeping resistance in the public eye. Because Afro-Americans play a highly visible part in many sports, and black athletes are considered iconic celebrities, kneeling at games is a mark of defiance, walk-outs when yet another instance of police brutality occurs creates an occasion for discussion, and delay or deferral of games involves the public ibn acts of solidarity.

These visible displays of opposition to injustices in the American way of life—not only by openly racist, right-wing militia groups, but by insidiously subtle and secretive judges, police unions, conservative legislators and even White House officials—hit at the heart of the struggle for equal justice, fair treatment and proper support for civil rights. German and American sportsmen and women, as well as sporting bodies, have much to teach one another about the fight against fascism.

German clubs have already issued fines of up to €1,000 ($1,200) for racist offenses. Overall, German sports club are one of the main battle fields when it comes to right-wing extremism and the AfD. Overall, clubs have developed workable instruments to reject attempts to infiltrate their sport.

Cultural Organisations

Germany’s culture and art scene might be divided into visual art (paintings, graphics, photos, etc.) and performing art (theatre, orchestra, etc.). Germany has about 200 private and 150 state theatres, 130 orchestras with 65,000 events per year in state theatres and 46,000 in private theatres. While art sees itself as a multi-cultural event, the AfD sees it the other way around advocating a Germanic leitmotif for the arts. The AfD seeks a return to German-dominated culture. Top AfD apparatchiks like Jens Maier want to move culture and art into the direction of a “völkische-nationalism”. The word “völkisch” is inextricably linked to Hitler’s deeply racist and anti-Semitic idée fixe (obsession) of a Volksgemeinschaft. Most Americans wouldn’t know a Gemeinschaft from a mine shaft!

American cinema, radio, television, stage, television and video celebrities are starting to play a key role in raising awareness both of cultural inequalities in the structure of companies and networks that produce and distribute material for highbrow and middlebrow audiences and of the historical tendency to generate the images and sounds of a narrow band of supposedly genuine white culture. Change is on the way, but more is needed to bolster the ability of the system to resist the return of fascist and racist dominance.

Refugees from Nazi and Fascist countries during the 1930s and 1940s helped create a latent tendency towards such resistance, but the McCarthy era in the 1950s and the sweep of corporate take-overs since the 1960s has weakened those structures. The susceptibility of digital versions of film and television, as well as of recording studios, to racial and anti-democratic forces should raise eyebrows and cause individuals and groups to become wary of what is probably on the way. Right-wing radio talk-back hosts and anti-social social media sites spread fake news, alternative facts and toxic appeals fir violence and rebellion. Trump’s use of a daily barrage of twitter messages to obfuscate, confuse and arouse hatred against his political opponents is notorious.

The AfD in southern Germany even sought to get a number of German and non-German artists into the department of culture. This effort was resolutely rejected because it smacked of the infamous Nazi exhibitions of so-called degenerate art, monumenta, archktecture bssed on fascist realism and public book-burnings. Aryernachweis. In another case, the AfD sought to end state support for the Maxim Gorki theatre. Again their attempts were without success. The AfD is trying to undermine culture and art by seeking to force parliaments to withdraw state funding from liberal, left-wing, avant-garde and progressive enterprises, just as the Nazis did in the 1930s.

Since the appearance of the AfD, Frankfurt’s book fair has been targeted by the party along with a cohort of right-wing extremists. There are fights regularly between the radical right and Germany’s liberal book scene at the fair. This is something never experienced before the appearance of the AfD. Right-winger Marc Jongen is the AfD’s spokesperson for culture. He seeks to end what he calls the “anti-fascist indoctrination” that is supposed to take place in Germany’s theatres. Perhaps he wants to bring back a fascist education.

Similarly worrying is the stratospheric rise of right-wing extremism in music. Neo-Nazi rock events attract thousands of people. Among them are many young people. Right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis have established their own record labels, music venues and events, set up right-wing homepages selling Neo-Nazi rock. While Germany’s culture and art scene rejects right-wing infiltration and has successful fought against the AfD, right-wing extremists, and Neo-Nazis, it has not found a “one best way” to deal with attempts by the radical right to penetrate culture and art.

Undermining Germany’s Civil Society

Overall, the most visible intrusion of the AfD, as well as right-wing extremism, has been a subject for legislatures. Nevertheless, the AfD and its radical right is always seeking to infiltrate and undermine Germany’s civil society. So far Germany’s civil society has not found a “one-size-fits-all” strategy to fight the radical right–and perhaps there is no such a thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy. In general, right-wing extremism and the AfD have not penetrated Germany’s civil society. So far, institutions and organisations of Germany’s civil society have been able to fend off the AfD and right-wing extremism.

Even though attacks on Germany’s civil society have increased in recent years, perhaps furnished by public visibility of the AfD, no deeper structural change in Germany’s civil society has been found. So far, thankfully, the institutions and organisations of civil society have not moved towards the radical right or have they been infiltrated by the AfD and its radical right ideology. If anything, the rise of the AfD has made civil society more aware of the problems of antisemitism, xenophobia, nationalism and racism. It is almost as if civil society has been strengthened in its determination to reject the AfD’s radical right ideology since the rise of the AfD.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of 550 publications include a book on the AfD. Norman Simms is a retired academic who lives in New Zealand and continues to write articles and books, as well as editing an online journal.  

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