Germany’s New Neo-Nazi Intelligentsia
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 Bundestag—Germany’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.