Germany's Right-Wing Crusaders

Germany's Right-Wing Crusaders

There’s more than meets the eye to the upstart Alternative für Deutschland—and it’s not going away.

The AfD hardly operates in a vacuum. There is a constellation of smaller far-right political formations—Die Rechte, Die Freiheit, Der Dritte Weg and the Reichsbürgerbewegung, to name only a few—that surround it. There is also a series of amorphous street movements that have been fueled by economic grievances, and ignited by antirefugee sentiments, which feed into the AfD membership. The most well-known is PEGIDA, founded in 2009 by the petty criminal and house burglar Lutz Bachmann. It was initially aimed against pro-Kurdish demonstrations in Dresden. Bachmann was alarmed to find a debate about the Turkish state being waged between rival Turkish groups on the streets of his own city: wasn’t the monopoly of public disturbance supposed to be in German hands? The small marches he organized in downtown Dresden—conveniently, the same sites of protests against the collapsing GDR—soon expanded into hundreds, and at some rallies, thousands of people. “Winter is Coming Merkel,” they chant, with placards that depict the chancellor as Hitler or as a Muslim. “Wir sind das Volk,” they shout, appropriating the same cheer that was used in 1989 against the GDR. Petry the streber and Bachmann the agitator have never gotten along, but they are careful to speak respectfully about each other’s organizations, since at least half of PEGIDA supports the AfD.

MORE THAN any other major country in western Europe, the Germans have been successful at containing right-wing extremism at the parliamentary level in the postwar period. Each side of the divided Germany dealt with the political inclusion of former Nazis in a different way. The East Germans created a special party for them called the NDPD, which served as a halfway house for former Nazis of middling rank who could be assured of a stable status in the GDR, though without the promise of rising high. In the West, the political opportunities for former Nazis were boundless, and the CDU, the CSU and the FDP swelled with their ranks (while the intelligence agencies overflowed with them). In response to the events of 1968, the NDP—an openly fascist party—was created by former Nazis. But despite some early electoral successes and political pressuring, the NDP now mostly functions like a wildlife preserve for the extreme-right scene, where the German state can more easily keep track of it. In January, the Federal Constitutional Court declared the NDP to be too small to be dangerous, a shrewd ruling that sought to deny the party any martyrdom that might have come had they outlawed it.

The intellectual origins of the AfD’s ideological wing can be traced back to the tumult of the 1960s, but it is not found in the circles that founded NDP, but rather in a group that would come to call itself “conservative revolutionaries.” The key figure was the historian and journalist Armin Mohler. Born in Switzerland in 1920, Mohler had failed to persuade the Nazi authorities to take him into the SS during World War II. After serving prison for deserting the Swiss army, Mohler returned to Germany, where he completed a doctoral dissertation at Heidelberg University under Karl Jaspers. He later served as a secretary for his hero, Ernst Jünger, and went on to be a Paris correspondent for Die Zeit. His dissertation, later expanded into a book, The Conservative Revolution in Germany 1918–1932, has become an urtext for extreme-right German intellectuals. In it, Mohler uncovers what he takes to be the lost conservative and rightist traditions of Weimar Germany that were obliterated by the success of National Socialism. Many of these “revolutionaries”—Ernst Jünger, Otto Strasser, Claus Stauffenberg—supported the National Socialists at the beginning without joining the Nazi party, which they took to be a crude expression of their own hopes to reinvigorate and purify the German race through revolutionary violence, what the sociologist Hans Freyer called the “revolution from the right.” It was more their suspicion of Hitler’s method, rather than any particular policy, that frayed the relations between some of the conservative revolutionaries and Nazism. They worried about Hitler’s military blunders, and that an authoritarian state was becoming a totalitarian one, as the führer vitiated the old diplomatic corps and the Junker class. In a clever turn of phrase, Mohler calls conservative revolutionaries the “Trotskyites of National Socialism,” since they were, in his mind, persecuted all the more fiercely for being right-wing heretics of the Nazi cause. Mohler’s diagnosis of the state of Germany in the 1960s was acute: he believed the triumph of American-style decadence and materialism in Germany was more dangerous than the Soviet threat. The Americans, according to Mohler, had forestalled any revolutionary conservatism in Germany, only allowing for forms of “gardener-conservatism” and the “humility-conservatism” of the Christian Democrats.

For Mohler, 1968 was not a momentary charge forward for the Left, but rather a quiet victory for the liberals, who consolidated their hold on German society by making some superficial cultural changes while getting the leftists to sign up as citizens of the market state. It did not take long, as Mohler saw it, for the new generation to fold up its Maoism and start vacationing in Tuscany. Unlike other powerful right-wing thinkers who never could shed their Nazi diction, Mohler was among the first to mobilize left-liberal language for his own cause: it would take “civil courage” to beat back the ascendant liberal hegemony. He went so far as to draw parallels between true Germans in post-1945 Europe and the underclass of American blacks, who he liked to claim were the only troops to offer water to German soldiers when they liberated the concentration camps. As for the confrontation with its Nazi past, which the 1968ers take such pride in, Mohler interpreted their effort as a peculiar political illness: an extreme form of moral one-upmanship that had culminated in a nationalism of antinationalist self-hatred. This is what the conservative revolutionaries set out to reverse. Toward the end of his career, Mohler found some solace in the possibility of authoritarian states in the rising Asian Tigers. The 1980s saw the first arrival of a full-fledged conservative revolutionary party, Die Republikaner, founded in Munich by Franz Schönhuber, a protégé of Mohler, but it was still too regional, attached too much old Nazi stigma and too unfocused on any particular issue to take off.

Though one occasionally catches tidy recitations and phrase making of right-wing worthies in contemporary German radical-right magazines—Gehlen, Heidegger, Schmitt—it is perhaps Mohler who is having the greatest moment of all. When I attended a PEGIDA rally in Dresden, I was puzzled by the presence of bare-chested cowboys in Russian-flag capes and Wirmer flags around the Altmarkt square, until it was explained to me that the Wirmer flag was Stauffenberg’s banner, that what was needed was a “Europe of fatherlands,” and that Vladimir Putin was the only man standing up to the American-brokered liberal world order. The brilliance of Mohler’s “conservative revolutionary” position, and what has lent it such an afterlife, is that it more thoroughly questions the legitimacy of the German Federal Republic because it allows its adherents to consider themselves untainted by the Nazi past. The AfDers do not hesitate to portray Merkel as the new führer, and embrace Putin as the antiliberal par excellence.

One of Mohler’s students, Götz Kubitschek, is among the more curious specimens of the extreme-right intellectual scene today. He operates the Antaios publishing house and Sezession magazine out of his ersatz castle, “Schnellroda,” in the Saxon countryside, where he lives with his wife, Ellen Kositza, and their seven children. A German special-operations veteran of the Balkan War, who “reads Homer in the original,” uses the formal Sie form of address with Kositza, deliberately plays up his Swabian accent and makes a display of milking his own cows when visited by members of the German press, Kubitschek is not so much a thinker as a tender of the flame of conservative revolution. His recent collection of essays, The Width of the Narrow Edge, draws on the same repurposed 1968 language that Mohler used to ask why the Holocaust cannot at least be questioned by a free-thinking society, and whether Germans, paralyzed by their memory politics, are also too afraid to ask crucial questions about their self-preservation. In the manner of his fellow Identitarians, and like Mohler before him, Kubitschek channels the language of indigenous rights—the rights of Palestinians to the occupied territories, the right of Laplanders to their ancient sled routes—but applies them, perversely, to the rights of working-class ethnic Germans to maintain their industrialist and agricultural identities that have been under sustained threat from Anglo-American liberal capitalism for more than a century. Though Kubitschek has been kept out of the AfD by the Petry-Pretzell faction, he freely dispenses tactical advice to the party in his essays, believing that the AfD will squander its momentum if it becomes a normal conservative party. To consider the party as an instrument for budging Merkel to the right is far too modest a goal; to reach its potential it must make the most of the antiasylum moment and upend domestic politics by proving that bien-pensant parties cannot govern Germany or protect its sovereignty.