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.