Authoritarian politics in postwar Europe, or: Why fascism is a bad way to describe what is happening in Germany

EUGYPPIUS | 20 Feb 2024

Saturday’s post on the authoritarian turn in German politics has become one of the most widely shared pieces I’ve ever written. I am truly grateful to all of my readers for helping me report on what is happening in my country.

A great many have argued that my comparisons to the DDR are off-point. They suggest that National Socialism is a better historical analogy, and that we are seeing before us a re-manifestation of classic German fascist tendencies. I think this is a misreading, and at the risk of repeating myself to I’ll try to explain why. In a second piece later this week, I’ll write further about fascism and its nature, because I think this is a locus of particular confusion especially in the Anglosphere. (That will be a much more complicated essay, but I’ll try to get it finished by Wednesday; here, you need only know that I’m avoiding terms like ‘fascism’ and ‘totalitarianism’ very deliberately, for reasons I’ll soon clarify.)

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In the beginning, there was liberalism. This is the political and moral ideology emphasising individual rights and equality that emerged alongside “capitalism,” which is just a loaded term for the economic relationships that arose spontaneously in industrial society. Liberalism sought to impose strict limits on the state, originally for the purpose of protecting individual freedoms, and as an ideology it had its critics. On the left, socialists and communists attacked liberalism for its failure to achieve true human equality. These leftists believed that illiberal interventions in the market economy and in many other areas of human society were required to achieve egalitarian ideals. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, right-nationalists explicitly rejected the universalist pretensions of both liberalism and the socialist left. These right-nationalists were generally ethnic particularists who explicitly embraced social hierarchy.

Importantly, both the socialist left and the nationalist right retained some liberal elements and vocabulary. Communists preached that a revolution of the proletariat would achieve true human freedom and democracy, while the right-nationalists adopted some liberal and even socialist terms, often expressing egalitarian concerns for ethnic in-groups. It is thus best to conceive of liberalism, socialism/communism and right-nationalism as overlapping electron clouds, which achieve mutual exclusivity only at the extremes.

One commonly hears that the left and the right are political illusions and that they no longer apply to modern politics. This is because World War II destroyed right-nationalism as a meaningful political force. Western Communism survived until the collapse of the wall in 1989, and in attenuated form socialist ideology lives on within our respective liberal democracies. In this new world, being “on the right” has acquired a different significance; it simply means “not being on the the left.” Thus libertarians, free marketeers, the traditionally religious, gun enthusiasts, free speech advocates and even certain strains of environmentalists who are not worried about carbon dioxide all find themselves “on the right.” While this is pretty stupid, it does not mean that the political spectrum is an illusion or mere propaganda. Leftism is still a thing, and leftists are easily identified by their egalitarian, universalist aspirations. Functionally, leftism operates as a political technology, whereby an elite at the top of society pursue patronage relationships with clients at the bottom, with promises to redistribute the wealth and privileges either of a displaced elite or of the middle classes.

Authoritarianism is much more ideologically neutral than often acknowledged. Illiberal socialists and right-nationalists alike have no problem taking repressive measures against their own people. As for liberalism, it is more complicated. Liberalism presents itself as anti-authoritarian, and the historical prosperity of liberal states has permitted liberal regimes to follow through on at least some of their promises to recognise individual liberties. People who are fat and happy are generally content with their political establishment, whatever its nature. Faced with restive or even potentially recalcitrant citizenries, however, liberal systems can become quite repressive. We saw this very clearly during Covid.

Even in the absence of popular uprisings, liberal regimes have been elaborating ever more authoritarian political programmes for generations now, because exercising control is simply something that states do. As one’s political concerns move away from core liberal commitments, authoritarian interventions also become easier to justify. A hypothetical liberal state dominated by right-nationalist parties would deprioritise individual freedoms in service of national goals. While such states hardly exist in today’s world, war or other external security threats awaken nationalist sentiments even in leftist governments and inspire much the same behaviour.

Vastly more common in the West are nominally liberal states dominated by left-leaning or socialist parties, whose politicians see liberal commitments as an obstacle to their egalitarian programme. At the national level, these leftist regimes have circumvented liberal constraints by developing an elaborate ideology of positive rights. Like their negative precursors, positive rights are constructed as prior to the democratic prerogatives of the people and they require state power to enforce. The entire Civil Rights regime in the United States and the Green policies currently destroying the German economy all unfold within a universalist positive rights regime.

Internationally, left-liberalism has learned to abhor the autonomous politics of the nation-state, both as a breeding ground for its enemies on “the right” and as the culprit for the slaughter of the great twentieth-century wars. These left-liberals have erected an entire globalist postwar order, extending from international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union, to lobbying operations like the World Economic Forum, and to many other non-governmental organisations and philanthropic enterprises. It is very common to read that this phenomenon is somehow fascist, but this is a grave misunderstanding. These are institutions inspired by liberal egalitarian ideas and fears that overmuch national democracy will play into the hands of (right-wing) antidemocratic actors. Precisely because of its National Socialist past, Germany since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 has at its disposal robust enforcement mechanisms to defend our democratic constitution against undesirable democratic outcomes. These are now being deployed against notional “right-wing extremists” in a similar manifestation of illiberal liberalism domestically.

What is happening in Germany is therefore quite simple: Our left-liberal government, faced with a concrete electoral threat to their hold on power, are abandoning ever more of their liberal scruples to maintain their position. This makes them increasingly illiberal, but it does not make them fascists. (Fascism, as I’ll argue on Wednesday, is a specific historical phenomenon that emerged on the right in response to the pressures of modernity and the social consequences of the First World War.) The measures Nancy Faeser outlined are all directed against perceived enemies on “the right,” with the explicit goal of maintaining an “open society.” That sounds like a laughable joke and it is, but it also betrays the fundamentally leftist, universalist impulses behind this campaign.

Postwar liberalism has elaborated an entire mythology of itself rooted in its triumph over the right-nationalist Axis powers, and in consequence “right wing extremists” have become the only conceivable enemies. It is understandable that many observers, confronted with the authoritarian behaviour of the left-liberal establishment, can conceive of no other way than ‘fascism’ to conceptualise this new politics. I merely want to describe what is happening in different terms, because a world in which a zombie fascism is beckoning around every corner is precisely what Nancy Faeser uses to justify her repressive fantasies.

Now to some side matters.

All historical analogies are imprecise, and that includes my references to East Germany. I very much agree with those who have voiced doubt that a shallow schoolmarm like Nancy Faeser is remotely capable of re-founding the DDR. As I’ve said many times, the states of the liberal West have only ‘soft’ authoritarian means at their disposal, and their enforcement apparatus looks positively emaciated compared to those of the former Warsaw Pact regimes. Our rulers will have serious problems quashing AfD and the rest of the political opposition, and they are just as likely to mess up and make things worse for themselves as they are to succeed. In a way, that has already happened: The AfD owe a great part of their success to the short-sighted triangulation via which Angela Merkel abandoned the right flank of her own CDU. The errors of her successors are an order of magnitude more egregious and likely to fail even more spectacularly. That said, these lunatics are anything but toothless; they can do a lot of damage to ordinary people.

Some readers asked whether Faeser’s measures against “right-wing extremism” are a mere trial balloon, or a proposal to test the waters. I must report, alas, that this is all very real and immediate. The Interior Ministry believe that the greater part of these prerogatives lie already within their powers. Only in a few areas, such as their eagerness to sniff into the financial affairs of ordinary Germans, do they face legal hurdles. In the present environment, these will be easily overcome. As a I said above, Germany has an extensive political enforcement apparatus, in the form of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The BfV stands under the direct control of the Ministry of the Interior, and it is trivial to direct its powers against political opponents. The BfV have been dogging the heels of the political opposition for years now.

Others asked me what can be done about this. I addressed this question a few weeks ago; the short and discouraging answer is that I don’t know. It helps to recognise that Faeser’s repressive plans are themselves a reaction to the solution sought by vast parts of the German electorate, who have cast their lot with the anti-establishment AfD. One often reads in dissident circles that voting is entirely useless, but I think that’s an overstatement; certainly, our rulers appear anything but unbothered by the electoral preferences of ordinary German people. Of course, I don’t think mere voting is the only answer, and for the moment I fear that we’re along for the ride whatever we do.

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