chapter  3
15 Pages

Right-wing extremism and populism in contemporary Germany and Western Europe


In the first half of the 20th century, right-wing extremists came to power in Germany through a gradual process and not, as sometimes suggested, more or less overnight. Extremist ideologies had slowly developed throughout the period of industrialization in the second half of the 19th century: anti-Semitism, racism, and the belief in Germany’s superior role in the world were popular reactions to modernization leading all the way up to the Holocaust several decades later (Jaschke 2006: 59ff). Preventing the return of right-wing extremism was therefore regarded as a major political challenge in Germany after World War II. This was the main motivation behind the establishment of the Grundgesetz (basic law) as a democratic constitution in 1949, with its emphasis on human rights, civil rights, and the freedom of political parties. The law also provided right-wing-extremist movements, associations, and parties with the freedom for political action. In the process of rebuilding the German party system, far-right parties such as the Deutsche Reichs-Partei (DRP) and the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP) were founded, gathering former National Socialist Party members and voters. Although far-right parties have so far never been particularly successful in the federal republic or even in any of the 16 states, they do still exist, some of them have existed for decades, and they are increasingly successful at recruiting and attracting younger members. Germany is not alone in witnessing these developments. Other European countries have experienced the revival of right-wing parties as well. Experts explain the phenomenon with larger social developments: globalization, growing social inequality, and high unemployment rates may be the most important ones. These may be the causes for dissatisfaction and social fears, which have always been the breeding-ground for right-wing extremism. However, the specifics of German post-war history also provide a unique environment that differs significantly from developments in other European countries. What united all German post-war right-wing organizations for decades

were the exaggeration of national and ethnic identity, the belief in the positive aspects of National Socialism, and the conviction that Germany was unjustly humiliated by the allied victors. Myths of persecution and the deprivation of rights as well as other conspiracy theories were developed from this perspective, as was the common expectation that “better times” would eventually

return. In Germany, mainstream culture is able to use the politically, culturally, and morally charged shadow of the National Socialist past to threaten with sanctions right-wing extremist parties that refuse to disassociate from that past. Therefore the relationship of present right-wing extremist groups to National Socialism is not only a question of the proximity of their ideology. Most right-wing organizations share a similar worldview. They share a belief

in “systems of leaders and vassals, in struggling as an existential form of life, the belief that peoples should be sharply separated and the identification with one’s own.” Those are the basic patterns of a political ideology which is legitimated “by the unquestionable axiomatic faith that these principles are a natural given” (Jaschke 1993: 126). However, right-wing extremism has created different forms of political action since 1945. This study will focus on current trends in Germany and Western Europe by following the process of democratization and its obstacles after the Holocaust. Part one will give a summary of recent developments, including populist movements. Comparative studies of the situation in Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Germany indicate that extremist parties are increasingly becoming a challenge for mainstream conservative and social-democratic parties (Decker 2006). In Germany violent protest from the right has become a reality since the debates about asylum seekers at the beginning of the 1990s. Part two will deal with right-wing militancy and society’s reactions. Part three gives a brief overview of right-wing extremist tendencies in neighboring Western European countries to show that although their ideology condemns them, extremist movements are clearly benefiting from globalization and European integration. Other questions of interest will be: Who actually votes for and supports right-wing extremist parties? What parts of society do the voters come from?