Crisis and the Return to the Nation: Dismantling the Right Ecology in Germany


"The struggle for the good life for all Cologne!"
“The strug­gle for the good life for all Cologne!”

In August we  con­ducted an inter­view with Sarah, an antifas­cist based in Berlin, in the wake of a co-ordi­nated attack against a refugee cen­ter in Hei­de­nau, East­ern Ger­many. Eight months later we returned to Ger­many to dis­cuss the cur­rent polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Ger­many with Sarah’s com­rades based in Frank­furt in west­ern Ger­many. As the dynam­ics of the cur­rent Euro­pean refugee cri­sis con­tin­ued to play them­selves out,  a series of sex­ual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne were promptly racial­ized by the right as part of a wider polit­i­cal offen­sive. Recent elec­tions have shown large gains for the AfD (alter­na­tive for Ger­many), a right pop­ulist party formed in 2013, and cities in east­ern Ger­many still con­tinue to see large demon­stra­tions by the right pop­ulist and islam­o­pho­bic PEGIDA (Patri­otic Euro­peans against the Islamiza­tion of the West). But the left is regroup­ing, I met Sarah and Dominique from Kri­tik und Praxis (Cri­tique and Prac­tice), in the after­math of a large national antifas­cist and antiracist con­fer­ence in the city aim­ing to get to grips with the sit­u­a­tion and start fight­ing back.

Ben: From the out­side it seems that the racial­iza­tion of the sex­ual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne have been some sort of water­shed moment, and have pro­duce a polit­i­cal oppor­tu­nity for the right. Could you tell us a lit­tle about the major responses to these attacks?

Dominique: The fact that the media response took such a chau­vin­ist form has been very reveal­ing. The ugly truth is that sex­ual assaults and harass­ment against women hap­pens on an every­day basis in Ger­many, espe­cially at large gath­er­ings such as the Okto­ber­fest. But in this speci­fic case, the rea­sons for the pub­lic out­cry were that those accused of the assaults were refugees. The Cologne events have been a turn­ing point in a pub­lic debate in which we have seen two clear sides develop;  a right wing “upris­ing”, with racist posi­tions being strongly artic­u­lated within pub­lic dis­course, and attacks on refugees and refugee cen­ters also tak­ing place ( der Spiegel [a Ger­man newspaper]calls this “the dark side of Ger­many”); on the other hand there was “the bright side of Ger­many” which con­sisted of an unex­pected wave of sol­i­dar­ity includ­ing “Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tees”, peo­ple donat­ing clothes, food, and even (tem­porar­ily) shel­ter for those arriv­ing here. Until early win­ter we had both sides in the debate. The right used a ‘fem­i­nist” dis­course to frame the events in Cologne in a bid to strengthen nation­al­ist argu­ments against refugees. From then there have been many ref­er­ences to these attacks from both the right and main­stream politi­cians. The image of the “crim­i­nal for­eigner” or the “crim­i­nal refugee” is back in pub­lic dis­course and has been one of the main argu­ments for strength­en­ing the pow­ers of the state to quickly deport refugees that break the law here. The “rapefugee” slo­gan is now seen at right wing demon­stra­tions more fre­quently.

Sarah: The debates around the attacks never focused on sex­ual harass­ment as a gen­eral social prob­lem. For instance, the first women who reported inci­dents to the police were sent away with com­ments like “we can’t do any­thing about it… this is noth­ing unusual.”  None of the main­stream media or polit­i­cal par­ties used this as an oppor­tu­nity to talk about sex­ual harass­ment in Ger­man soci­ety, how this is seen and pros­e­cuted within the law, or to dis­cuss how to strengthen women’s rights. What they went for was a speci­fic racist argu­ment that blamed Mus­lims and Islamic cul­ture for oppress­ing women. It was only the quan­tity of attacks which forced the police and Mayor of Cologne to hold a press con­fer­ence where the nature of these attacks became politi­cized. At the con­fer­ence the Mayor gave out ‘tips’ for women which included “stay an arm’s length away from men” and “don’t smile at them and encour­age them to talk to you.”

In the fol­low­ing weeks there were sev­eral racially moti­vated attacks in Cologne and groups under the label of the “Bürg­er­wehren” (cit­i­zen patrols) were formed to ‘pro­tect’ neigh­bour­hoods and women from “for­eign crim­i­nals” which obvi­ously has both racist and sex­ist under­tones.

Even though it took a while for a left per­spec­tive to form a strong response to these forms of racism and sex­ism, a state­ment was released under the title #aus­nahm­slos (#with­ou­tex­ep­tion) signed by dif­fer­ent fem­i­nists schol­ars and politi­cians. Shortly after Inter­na­tional Women’s Day there was also a demon­stra­tion in Cologne with sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple under the slo­gan “our fem­i­nism is antiracist.”

Dominique: It is inter­est­ing that we can see exam­ples of this form of argu­ment used by those jus­ti­fy­ing the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. The same argu­ments were used to pit an “une­man­ci­pa­tory, sex­ist Islam” against the “eman­ci­pated, fem­i­nist West”. The racist fram­ing of the attacks is clearly being used across the coun­try. In the recent local elec­tions in Frank­furt one of the CDU elec­tions posters fea­tured a young woman jog­ging out­doors in it, under­neath the text read “vote CDU, we will pro­tect the cit­i­zens of Frank­furt.” Cit­i­zens was writ­ten in both male and female ver­sions which is unusual for the CDU. There is no direct ref­er­ence to Cologne but it is clear as to what this is refer­ring to.

Ben: The AfD have been described as “the spine” of the new right pop­ulist move­ment that is emerg­ing. Could you explain the role they are cur­rently play­ing in this right pop­ulist ecol­ogy?

Sarah: It’s really impor­tant to remem­ber the ori­gins of the AfD when try­ing to ana­lyze their cur­rent role in soci­ety. They gained a lot of pop­u­lar­ity at the peak of dis­cus­sions around the eco­nomic cri­sis here in Ger­many . All the par­ties were dis­cussing aus­ter­ity and the “nec­es­sary cuts” that would be needed. The AfD formed shortly before the Euro­pean Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2013, offer­ing right pop­ulist answers to the cri­sis. They were aim­ing their right wing, neo-lib­eral mes­sage at fright­ened cit­i­zens scared of los­ing their qual­ity of life. They were quite suc­cess­ful and received many votes. This mes­sage was, of course, mixed with some xeno­pho­bic, social chau­vin­ist, and anti-fem­i­nist mes­sages.

Dominique: This was where they emerged from. It quickly became clear that there were two poles within the party; one pole was orga­nized around an eco­nom­i­cally neo-lib­eral per­spec­tive, this pole framed the Euro­zone cri­sis as being char­ac­ter­ized by “Ger­many pay­ing for the cri­sis” and pick­ing up the tab for other, more reck­less, coun­tries; The other pole was socially con­ser­v­a­tive and nation­al­is­tic, com­bin­ing anti-fem­i­nist, socially chau­vin­is­tic, and xeno­pho­bic dis­courses. At the begin­ning these two poles worked in tandem but even­tu­ally a power strug­gle over the pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion of the party devel­oped. The more neo-lib­eral wing led by Bernd Lucke, the for­mer head of the party, even­tu­ally left the party.

From this point onwards the party empha­sized its con­ser­v­a­tive char­ac­ter. It’s main focus is now the refugee ques­tion. The new leader Frauke Petry is deeply rightwing, xeno­pho­bic, and anti-fem­i­nist and the head of the AfD in Thurin­gen (a state in the East) is an openly bio­log­i­cal racist and has made such argu­ments on prime time TV talk shows. The pub­lic image of the party has shifted con­sid­er­ably from its ori­gins.

Sarah:  Before the cri­sis we could say that Ger­many lacked a right pop­ulist party, the neo-fas­cist NPD only ever won about 2% of the vote.  From the mid­dle of the 1980s the largest party to the right of the CDU has been its sis­ter party the Bavar­ian Chris­tian Social Union (CSU). Polit­i­cal ana­lysts devel­oped the “Lagerthe­o­rie“ (camp the­ory), to explain the divi­sion of the Ger­man polit­i­cal world into two oppos­ing camps - the con­ser­v­a­tives and the left.  For­mer CDU politi­cian Franz Josef  Strauß spoke for many when he stated “There shall be no demo­c­ra­t­i­cally legit­imized party to the right of the CD/CSU.”

The AfD has really shaken up the way Ger­man par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics func­tion. Though none of the estab­lished par­ties are will­ing to form a coali­tion with the AfD at the moment, they are now in sev­eral regional par­lia­ments. They received a large num­ber of votes, includ­ing  many from those who hadn’t pre­vi­ously voted before. They have been able to mobi­lize a lot of “poli­tikver­drossene” [polit­i­cally dis­en­gaged and cyn­i­cal] Ger­mans to build a strong oppo­si­tional party. 

Dom­in­que: Whilst the NPD are almost uni­ver­sally dis­missed, the AfD have been able to ben­e­fit from the refugee cri­sis. Angela Merkel has been fac­ing seri­ous oppo­si­tion within her own party for her stance on the refugee issue. This opened the door for a more rightwing polit­i­cal slant that many Ger­mans were dis­ap­pointed to not see within the CDU itself. The AfD have grown through­out the cri­sis, they are now invited to pub­lic debates and TV talk shows and are seen as a rel­e­vant com­men­ta­tor on the issue. In sev­eral regional elec­tions they recently won more than 10% of the votes, in Sach­sen-Anhalt even 23%, which is the biggest suc­cess in a party’s debut in ger­man his­tory.

Sarah: It’s hard to dis­tin­guish between PEGIDA (Patri­otic Euro­peans against the Islami­sa­tion of the West – a pop­ulist street move­ment) and the AfD. Most of the peo­ple who are part of PEGIDA are using the argu­ments that the AfD are pro­mot­ing to protest refugees. They have an inter­de­pen­dent rela­tion­ship. The AfD is still very new and doesn’t have a long­stand­ing polit­i­cal tra­di­tion. This gives it the flex­i­bil­ity to react oppor­tunis­ti­cally, as and when sit­u­a­tions develop. They’ve been able to suc­cess­fully shift the empha­sis of their cri­sis dis­course from an eco­nomic one sit­u­ated at the Euro­pean level to a national one focused on the man­age­ment of migra­tion flows. 

Dominique: The pres­sure on the CDU from the right has led to many local coun­cils sug­gest­ing the poten­tial for coali­tions with the AfD, depend­ing on the results of the next local elec­tions. The “grand coali­tion” of the CDU and SPD (Social Demo­c­ra­tic Party) might need to call ear­lier elec­tions which means the pos­si­bil­ity of a CDU-AfD coali­tion at the national level is not out of the ques­tion.

Sarah: Whilst we need to oppose the AfD, we have to rec­og­nize that all the polit­i­cal par­ties are shift­ing to the right. It’s the grand coali­tion that is respon­si­ble for cut­ting asy­lum rights to their bare bones not the AfD. We can’t lose sight of the par­ties who are actu­ally in power.

Ben: There was an SPD  led block­ade of a new cen­tre for refugees in Essen in the West of the coun­try recently. 

Dominique: Although this was a fairly iso­lated action at the local level it does show that the dis­course is shift­ing. It’s not just dis­ap­pointed CDU vot­ers turn­ing to the AfD. There is a split between the heads of Die Linke (the Left Party) who are feel­ing the pres­sure of the gen­eral racist atmos­phere. The posi­tions they are tak­ing would have been unimag­in­able two years ago. All the par­ties are tri­an­gu­lat­ing.

Ben: PEGIDA have been around for a year now as a social move­ment, thou­sands have attended weekly “Mon­day demon­stra­tions” which mobi­lize right pop­ulist and xeno­pho­bic sen­ti­ment whilst riff­ing on the pop­u­lar demon­stra­tions against the East Ger­man state held in the 1980s. The cen­ters of this move­ment are the east­ern cities of Dres­den and Leipzig. One year in how are the PEGIDA dynam­ics evolv­ing?

Dominique: PEGIDA as a social move­ment varies region­ally. From here in the West we can only com­ment on the analy­sis we have seen from com­rades in the East. In the West although the AfD have a sig­nif­i­cant sup­port base, PEGIDA failed. In Frank­furt for exam­ple there were sev­eral demon­stra­tions with only a max­i­mum of 70 peo­ple involved. These were opposed by hun­dreds, and at times thou­sands, of often mil­i­tant coun­ter-demon­stra­tors. Things are very dif­fer­ent in the East; PEGIDA began in Dres­den and is still a strong force there. Every Mon­day there are still thou­sands attend­ing their demos. For event such as their first anniver­sary, or the 6th Feb­ru­ary Europe wide PEGIDA day of action there were ten to fif­teen thou­sand peo­ple on the streets. 

Whilst the dis­course hasn’t become rad­i­cal­ized, we can say that there are now strong part­ner­ships between PEGIDA and orga­nized Nazis in many places. In Dres­den in the last few months we know there have been around twenty Nazi events a week. That is more than we see in Frank­furt in a year! This includes Nazi gigs, the blockad­ing or attack­ing of asy­lum cen­ters, as well as the nor­mal cal­en­dar of PEGIDA activ­i­ties. In Leipzig we saw PEGIDA on the streets on Mon­days, a more reac­tionary split march­ing on Wednes­days, and open Nazis march­ing on Sat­ur­days. This is a fairly nor­mal cal­en­dar in these cities in the East at the moment.

A lot of us had spent our antifas­cist “careers” destroy­ing the large Nazi “mourn­ing marchs” in Dres­den through a vari­ety of tac­tics. These ended in 2011, but it took only 3 years to see even larger num­bers gath­er­ing every week, not just once a year! This is a sober­ing sta­tis­tic that gives you an idea of the scale of the sit­u­a­tion.

Sarah: One of the under­ly­ing dynam­ics behind this sit­u­a­tion is a grow­ing legit­i­macy cri­sis  where many peo­ple have lost all trust in author­ity. Many of these peo­ple no longer believe in any of the estab­lished polit­i­cal par­ties, or the “lying press” who crit­i­cized their move­ment from its begin­ning, and now argue that they need to do things for them­selves. This level of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion for such a large sec­tion of Ger­man soci­ety is unusual. As we’ve already men­tioned PEGIDA and the AfD are con­nected. Whilst much of the polit­i­cal con­tent of the PEGIDA demon­stra­tions is focused on crit­i­ciz­ing Merkel for her pol­i­tics the AfD are let off the hook. Björn Höcke, the bio­log­i­cal racist and leader of the AfD in Thurin­gen we men­tioned ear­lier is often invited to speak on the plat­forms of PEGIDA demon­stra­tions. PEGIDA can mobi­lize every Mon­day, what­ever the weather, and this shows the depth of pop­u­lar chau­vin­is­tic feel­ing within Ger­man soci­ety.

Ben: What is the con­nec­tion between Nazi struc­tures and PEGIDA?

Dominique:  Nor­mally orga­nized Nazi groups can join the demon­stra­tions with­out any con­flict within the move­ment. PEGIDA has cre­ated an atmos­phere of legit­i­macy for tak­ing the fate of Ger­many into one’s own hands. This has been inter­preted as mean­ing attack­ing refugees and their homes, or try­ing to block­ade buses and so on. Since a large wave of attacks in the 90s, these forms of polit­i­cal activ­ity were only used by a small hard­core of Nazis, but now the AfD-PEGIDA com­plex has cre­ated an atmos­phere whereby aver­age Ger­mans are also feel­ing encour­aged to go out and take direct action. Since the begin­ning of this year there have been over 500 attacks on refugees and their homes. The quan­tity of attacks has grown as well as the inten­sity. Recently we have seen  firearms attacks and a (failed) hand grenade attack on refugee homes – luck­ily nobody has been killed yet. Whilst PEGIDA hasn’t estab­lished roots in West Ger­many these attacks have spread across the whole coun­try. This is a new dynamic. 

Q: There was a recent Global day of action called by PEGIDA, whilst this mainly ended in fail­ure, does it point to a shared polit­i­cal con­text in the Global North from which these move­ments can base their activ­ity?

Sarah: The PEGIDA day of action was wide­spread and hap­pened in many coun­tries – the UK, Canada, Aus­tralia, Czech Repub­lic. It’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize this attempt at export­ing the PEGIDA model. The rad­i­cal left here has failed to really come to grips with ana­lyz­ing PEGIDA as a poten­tially inter­na­tional model yet.  There was a Euro­pean wide coun­ter-mobi­liza­tion for “Sol­i­dar­ity with­out lim­its“ which was the first seri­ous attempt to con­nect dif­fer­ent struc­tures and to try to work together inter­na­tion­ally with dif­fer­ent rad­i­cal left groups. We need to deepen these con­tacts and to try and find an analy­sis and prac­tice towards right pop­ulist marches like PEGIDA at a transna­tional level. We need to work out who these actors are in each coun­try and how they con­nect to each other and the soci­eties they live in. 

Q: In Feb­ru­ary …ums Ganze orga­nized a large con­fer­ence for antifas­cist and antiracist orga­niz­ers to come together to dis­cuss this sit­u­a­tion. Could you tell us more about where this came from and what has emerged from the con­fer­ence?

Sarah: At the start of 2015 we had the big Block­upy M18 day of action which saw mil­i­tant, col­lec­tive action com­bined with a large demon­stra­tion encom­pass­ing many polit­i­cal tra­di­tions. We were all opti­mistic after this until the sum­mer of migra­tion came and shifted the polit­i­cal ter­rain so quickly that the rad­i­cal left has been strug­gling to catch up ever since. The sec­ond half of 2015 was a period of fire­fight­ing and analy­sis. We orga­nized this con­fer­ence as a place for com­rades to col­lec­tively dis­cuss the cur­rent polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. We wanted it to be broader than just the antifas­cist move­ment, we have moved on from the antifas­cism of the 90s. Our com­rades in East­ern Ger­many are strug­gling to keep on top of things. We wanted this con­fer­ence to be a chance to con­nect with each other and dis­cuss new tac­tics and strate­gies – for instance try­ing to build bridges between the anti-fas­cist and anti-racist move­ments which were dam­aged in the 90s. 

Dominique: Despite the short build-up 500 peo­ple from dif­fer­ent regions and tra­di­tions met here in Frank­furt. There weren’t just antifas­cist groups, but also anti-racist struc­tures and peo­ple from small refugee sol­i­dar­ity groups.

Although we only had one day the dis­cus­sion was very fruit­ful. It was clear peo­ple wanted to come together and talk. It was some­how empow­er­ing for every­one. The regional dif­fer­ences really came out but we reaf­firmed we needed to start com­ing up with responses. The most con­crete out­come is a “com­mon claim” against the nation­al­is­tic, racist, right-wing pol­i­tics we can see in soci­ety. The com­mon slo­gan “Nation­al­is­mus ist Keine Alter­na­tive” (nation­al­ism is not the alter­na­tive) and shared web­site will help sup­port these smaller groups and help co-ordi­nate our activ­ity. This will help give a plat­form to smaller groups, or those in smaller places, and place their activ­ity in a wider con­text.

There was dis­cus­sion about what to do on the 1st of May. All the sug­ges­tions had an anti-fas­cist char­ac­ter. For exam­ple, there is a large AfD gath­er­ing in Stuttgart, and there is a more clas­si­cal fas­cist gath­er­ing in Plowen, a city near Leipzig. These reflect both regional dif­fer­ences and the dif­fer­ent parts of the puz­zle: the AfD, clas­si­cal neo-Nazis, the gov­ern­ment, and so on. 

Ben: Many of our read­ers will be unfa­mil­iar with the his­tor­i­cal divi­sions between the antifas­cist and antiracists move­ments in Ger­many. Could you shed some light on this for us?

Sarah: The divi­sion between antiracism and antifas­cism as polit­i­cal prac­tices devel­oped as a result of debates and dis­cus­sion in the 1990s. The antifas­cist move­ment accused anti­ras­cist struc­tures of only pro­vid­ing help for refugees and of lack­ing a deeper crit­i­cism of the nation, state and cap­i­tal. Antiracist col­lec­tives, it was argued, would sta­bi­lize the sys­tem by pro­vid­ing the sup­port the state wouldn’t or couldn’t offer to refugees and migrants whilst also  lack­ing a vision of what soci­ety we would live in if there really was “no bor­ders, no nations.” Due to tac­ti­cal and strate­gic choices made by these move­ments there was hardly any over­lap between their prac­tice.

To do antifa work in that speci­fic period of time meant to build both a polit­i­cal move­ment and to raise aware­ness about the issue of racism within soci­ety against both that very same soci­ety and the state. The praxis con­sisted of dif­fer­ent forms of mil­i­tant antifas­cism, such as orga­niz­ing pro­tec­tion for those in need (namely migrants and refugees) and left­ist struc­tures, orga­niz­ing youth antifa groups and estab­lish­ing a speci­fic “sub­cul­ture” as a form of iden­tity. But more than that it also meant an orga­nized form of antifas­cism, that didn’t only react to fas­cist and racist mobi­liza­tions, but one that sought to orga­nize and con­tin­u­ously work against fas­cist struc­tures and prob­lema­tize the racist foun­da­tions within soci­ety that lay the ground for such struc­tures. Antifas­cists saw antiracism as pri­mar­ily being a prac­ti­cal form of sup­port for refugees and migrants, but not tack­ling the root causes.

Ben: Any last com­ments?

Sarah: When the AfD emerged a few years ago, the rad­i­cal left and espe­cially the antifas­cist move­ment rec­og­nized it was lack­ing an analy­sis on the phe­nom­e­non of right wing pop­ulism. Our cur­rent goal is to find the responses to this reac­tionary ecol­ogy which reflect regional dif­fer­ences and avoid get­ting stuck in the trap of fire­fight­ing pol­i­tics. We plan on hold­ing another, smaller, meet­ing of del­e­gates in the near future and per­haps a larger repeat of the last meet­ing in Autumn. The sit­u­a­tion, obvi­ously, could change though. I think we need to be try­ing to form large coali­tions beyond our own polit­i­cal tra­di­tions and this was a great start. 

Dominique: It is encour­ag­ing to see steps taken to build links between the anti-fas­cist and anti-racist move­ments here in Ger­many. We also need to remem­ber there is still a “bright side” here in Ger­many. We aren’t alone as a rad­i­cal move­ment. We need to find ways to inspire and incor­po­rate peo­ple who are not happy with the racist atmos­phere here in Ger­many. This is our polit­i­cal chal­lenge.

Author of the article

is a member of Plan C, an anti-capitalist organisation based in the UK. Plan C and “…ums Ganze!” are members of Beyond Europe, an exchange platform for European anti-capitalist groups.