Far Right

Fascism isn’t just a German problem

Raised in a culture of repentance, modern Germans are trained to spot radical evil—even if it shows up in disguise. When they rise up, we should take note

February 13, 2024
A crowd of demonstrators wave placards and flags supporting democracy, feminism and LGBT rights © Imago - Alamy Stock Photo
In early February, demonstrators in Berlin took to the streets to express their opposition to the AfD and fascism, and their support for democratic freedoms © Imago - Alamy Stock Photo

The western world has drummed into global collective memory the idea of fascism as a German brand—something like Lederhosen. Due to historical reasons, the job has been easy—but the argument is somewhat convenient. The simplified story reproduced through the cultural and political industry soothed humanity’s mind: There was once an out-of-this-world evil guy with a funny moustache who did horrible things to people until the western democratic forces saved the world. Since the bloke is dead, and fascism is buried in the battlefields of the Second World War, there is not much to worry about. 

The lasting image of Hitler’s death and the Nazis’ military defeat as the political exorcism of fascism has been so successfully carved in our minds that when the new circus-like version of fascism showed up in clownish hairstyles or awkwardly long ties, many failed or refused to recognise it for what it was. There was enough excuse not to: the new authoritarianism wasn’t wearing army boots like in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it didn’t announce itself by shouting, “Achtung! Achtung!”, but instead, it crept into the political system. Therefore, this political phenomenon, this new breed of political evil, needed a different name. Maybe something more docile, like right-wing populism? Or something like illiberal democracy? Or anarcho-capitalism, as our new madman in Buenos Aires calls it? The political debate quickly created a global intellectual industry. Many argued that if a few things in the political status quo were fixed, the horrid political fancy would wear off. 

Yet, things got serious. The dehumanisation of immigrants across western democracies became blatant; the far right’s audacious attack on basic human morality paralysed many with disgust; whispers of civil war were heard in the United States; the founding principles of western democracies felt suddenly shaky. When it was clear that the new lightweight concepts didn’t suffice to describe the unprecedently ugly situation, we still turned to the old quarters of the collective memory from which lazy similarities between the new generation of dictators and Hitler were drawn. In several countries, people took to the streets with posters of their dictators wearing Hitler’s moustache, and memes spread through social media highlighting today’s parallels with the early Nazi era. The bottom line: fascism was still a German brand. 

After all the shaming and penitence, we believe Germans should have studied radical evil enough to know what to do when it shows up again 

Germany is, in fact, the only country in the west that, at some level, was made to face its dark past and give account to humanity; the others who had their genocides and concentration camps built in faraway countries got away without a day in Nuremberg or the Hague. They never were held to account for their antisemitism or their rejection of Jewish refugees in the Second World War. That is why today, when political order is kaputt in Europe and across the pond, we still look at Germany to understand what should be done to stop fascism’s deadly current. After all the shaming and penitence, we believe they should have studied radical evil enough to know what to do when it shows up again. Luckily, Germans do not disappoint. At least, not entirely. The masses are taking to the streets to be the firewall against political insanity.

The hotel in Potsdam where the November meeting took place. Via Wikipedia The hotel in Potsdam where the November meeting took place. Via Wikipedia

Germany woke up to the news on 10th January. The investigative journalism website Correctiv had published transcripts of secret meetings attended by representatives of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), two Christian Democrats and some businessmen. The series of meetings, which began in November 2023, was about planning the “remigration” of immigrants who were “not assimilated enough”, even if they were German citizens. The term “remigration” is a euphemism for deportation, and it is a particular term that marked the Nazi period. The zombie lexicon alarmed the large part of the nation committed to the motto, “Never again”. They lost no time in organising themselves to say, “Never again is now”. The revelation of transcripts was the tipping point for the long-accumulating concern.

For several years, Germany has debated whether the country’s political precedents were strong enough to withstand the far right, and therefore whether the AfD could be allowed to continue, albeit on the political margins. Some intermittently called for it to be shut down, arguing that it was part of a new fascist, racist wave, capable of committing radical evil in the 21st century and, thus, that it should be stopped by Germany’s constitutional might. Yet the majority, like in many other western countries, chose to take refuge in that mind-shelter of “they wouldn’t dare”. The once calm debate began to get heated after recent polls showed that AfD’s support was getting stronger and, in some states, had even surpassed the historical red line of 33.1 per cent that carried Hitler to power. That is why, immediately after the secret Potsdam meeting transcriptions were published, Germans poured on the streets—to do something, anything to show that they’d learned from history. In almost every German city, including those where AfD surely will get the most votes in the regional and European elections later this year, people filled the city squares. 

For a new Berlinerin like myself, there was something worrying about the mass.

Despite being a novice in the city, I am a pretty seasoned neo-fascism expert because of my personal experience in Turkey. After leaving my country in 2016, the year of the coup attempt that gave President Erdoğan the excuse to fortify his dictatorship, I made Zagreb my home, my cocoon for six years. Last August, though, I moved to Berlin because, in today’s world, it is Rome for people like me, all the unwanted of the dictatorships. “I somehow feel at home,” I told friends many times, “Berlin is like a fat old woman, a bartender in a historic bar. She doesn’t care much about the new arrivals. Her tired eyes half-closed with nonchalance; she says, ‘So you too came, ah? Whatever. Pull a chair, then.’ Hers is a compassionate indifference.” 

I moved to Berlin because, in today’s world, it is Rome for people like me, all the unwanted of the dictatorships

Berlin’s lack of scrutiny probably comes from decades of experience with strangers. That is the sexy part of the city, which makes all the vagabonds, wanderers and outlaws of other countries’ dictatorships feel at home. I didn’t take it seriously when Berliners kept telling me about the infamous Berlin winter (“Let’s see if you can bear the lack of light.”) To my misfortune, the winter came early this year. 

It was 7th October. Hamas attacked Israel, and Netanyahu’s government began its retaliation. As the brutality of the attack appeared to many to become genocidal and the global community protested in growing numbers against it, old Lady Berlin turned timid. An atmosphere of interrogation and scrutiny took over the bar. Even personal conversations on the topic were impossible without testing the ground first. The political temperature dropped below zero. 

The German government’s support for Netanyahu didn’t resonate well in a city with so many darker faces. Germany’s historic burden muted many Germans but made the immigrant community unprecedentedly vocal. The debate in the city was already frozen when the first snow fell. By the time the Potsdam meetings were revealed, the snow had turned to stone-like ice on the ground. When I joined the Berliners in their march, we were all hopscotching between the slippery patches on the streets, hoping our speed was not too slow to stop fascism as we flowed through the iconic Brandenburg Gate to gather in front of the Bundestag, the house of the German parliament.

Since the Potsdam meeting was about the deportation of immigrants, one would expect to see a range of people with darker skin and from diverse backgrounds. Yet, as I stood at Brandenburg Gate and watched the gathering crowd, it was predominantly white, middle-class German families. Babies in pushchairs and senior citizens with walking devices made the protest appear as a peaceful Sunday stroll with a twist—the homemade “Fck AfD” cardboard banners. When the crowd finally gathered before the Bundestag, there was no electric air of urgency, no sense of pushing against something. The crowd was neither particularly cheerful to see the big turnout nor visibly furious against the danger of fascism. What was in the air was the calm composure of fulfilling a duty. For a Mediterranean who has seen the masses failed when protests wracked by political emotion don’t lead to organised political action against political evil, the solemn German way was reassuring.

The most popular slogan was “We are more than them”. Yet the voices were hesitant with the question, “Are we enough?”. As the other slogan of the protest went, we stood together against fascism for a few hours; literally standing, for there was not much discussion or conversation among the crowd. Neither the speeches from the podium nor the slogans were too enthusiastic. I asked my friends, some prominent German intellectuals and journalists, “Is the lack of energy due to Germanness, or is there a particular lack of emotion here?” They smirked, “You cannot expect the energy of a Turkish demonstration in Germany.” The gathering had brought together people with varied political views, which made it difficult for the crowd to be too precise about the political demand, my friends explained. “The goal here is to show that we are many.” 

“Everyone hates Nazis”, said one demonstrator’s sign. The same phrase is the title of a political anthem about standing up to right-wing extremism by the band KAFVKA © Imago - Alamy Stock Photo “Everyone hates Nazis”, said one demonstrator’s sign, echoing a political anthem by the band KAFVKA © Imago - Alamy Stock Photo

Yes, the people were many. The problem was—though there were numerous “Fck AfD” banners in the crowd, there wasn’t a consensus about how to do it. Shut the party down? Organise against fascism in a new manner? And if so, how? Can we expect from the political centre a sufficiently strong stand against rising and increasingly blatant racism, when they themselves shyly engage in hardening the debate around asylum laws that has been activated by the far right? Can the judiciary take over and make this political madness go away? Does expecting the law to shoulder the political responsibility for protecting people’s rights and freedoms mean admitting the defeat of politics? Where should those who do not expect much from the political centre or the conventional opposition take their anger—and their votes? How can we turn these demonstrations into something more than a photo op for anti-racism? The cloud of silent questions was closing on the crowd like the famously grey Berlin winter sky.

In every country where the new form of extreme right is on the rise, these questions create a political cul-de-sac in which we have become stuck. The lack of precise answers (or the variety of ambiguous ones) becomes so puzzling for democratic forces that they feel exhausted, catatonic even before the political action begins. There is no political home that can simultaneously accommodate such a variety of demands and direct them into one clear political goal. Conventional political tools are insufficient in resisting the new, amorphous form of fascism. All this creates a hesitancy in political action against the far right. 

By contrast, new fascism uses all the up-to-date tools, both in politics and technology. Its proponents create movements while democracies try to protect themselves with the bulky party system of representative democracy. They thrive on social media, terrorising political communication and dismantling the truth as their conventional opponents are still considering whether or not to open a TikTok account. It is like an organised army trying to deal with guerrilla warfare—the established opposition cannot or does not dare to accommodate the new political energy stemming from the social reaction against the new fascism. That is why many in western democracies feel politically homeless. This is a global problem that we, the political thinkers together with political organisers, have been labouring over for the past 10 years. In the German context, the additional problem today is connected to 7th October, and Germany’s response to Israel’s actions since, which fragmented the progressive forces in Germany.

As night falls on the protest, the Berliners, with the lights of their smartphones as they sing a resistance song, look like fireflies before the Bundestag. The cold becomes too unbearable for this Mediterranean to stand against fascism without any hardcore political singing and vigorous dancing, so I pass through the Brandenburg Gate that once divided West and East Berlin to walk along the Unter den Linden Boulevard. Towards Friedrichstraße, I hear slogans and chanting. There is a big group, quite energetic and enthusiastic. The electric air of urgency is flowing through a police cordon. I see a few Palestinian flags waving, and a crowd boiling behind the security line. “We are not allowed to the main demonstration”, they say, “And we are the immigrants they are talking about.” Who did not allow them is not entirely clear. Police? The organising committee?

The following day, several German friends asked me the same question after showing me the photos of the big turnout in Berlin and other cities, “Isn’t it like the Gezi uprising?”, they ask, recalling Turkey’s wave of protests in 2013. I purse my lips, “Not really.” But with their mood, colour and results so far, the demonstrations look like the 2007 Republic demonstrations in Turkey, when the founding ideological consensuses of Turkey—secularism and multi-party democracy—reacted against Erdogan through big protests in the cities. The similarity was not only the pushchairs or the walking devices but also the same exclusion of the darker faces, which in Turkey meant the Kurds and the socialists. The shades of opinion in the political centre were trying to cling to the conventional political status quo by leaving out sensitive matters, fearing that the darker faces could have overshadowed the legitimacy of the protests and caused political discomfort. Any German would know the rest of the story: First, they came for the

It is not only distressing but also quite alarming to see western European democracies make similar mistakes as Turkey. By now, we should’ve all learnt that the far right in its new form appears on the political stage without a consistent political program but with arguments that poke into a country’s fragile consensus, paralysing the political sphere and tampering with its political red lines. It does not necessarily attack a political opponent but drills into the already problematic status quo. Then, it needs only to enjoy the spectacle as the conflicts and weaknesses of that political status quo create active infighting. Those who see the danger of the far right turn to the political centre, hoping to be protected by the founding principles of their democratic country, which they expect to be guarded by the state. However, we should all have learned—from Turkey, and elsewhere—that it is only possible to strengthen the centre when new, progressive social forces and the political left are empowered.

On the 3rd February, 300,000 people again gathered for protests in front of the German seat of parliament, the Bundestag, calling on citizens to stand against the normalisation of the far-right in Germany and Europe. © Andreas Stroh/ZUMA Press Wire On the 3rd February, 300,000 people again gathered for protests in front of the Bundestag, calling on citizens to stand against the normalisation of the far right in Germany and Europe. © Andreas Stroh/ZUMA Press Wire

In 2016, political editorials and social media commentators fed on the Game of Thrones frenzy, warning “Winter is coming.” However, after a few years, many admitted defeat—“the centre does not hold,” they said. By that time, it had become clear that if the political centre wanted to protect itself, it first should decide which one was more terrifying: losing democracy to fascism or renovating conventional democratic mechanisms to accommodate new political and social movements and voice their demand for social justice and true political equality. We know from Turkey, the energy that the democratic front puts into avoiding icy, sensitive issues, can, in fact, be channelled to mobilise the anti-fascist resistance in a manner that can match up to the feverish support for the far right. Yet, for Germany to do that, spring should come to melt the ice so we can finally stop hopscotching to avoid the slippery patches of political sensitivities in our countries. Only then, perhaps, can we run to the barricades fast enough to save our democracies. Only then can we be many enough.  

Since arriving in Berlin, social media algorithms have kept showing me accounts making fun of Germanness, their dedication to following the rules, their seriousness, strict punctuality, sense of duty and whatnot. There are so many that one might think mocking Germanness is a global hobby. However, when it comes to serious stuff, in our heart of hearts, we collectively trust them. When shit hits the fan, we know that they will be the ones who are serious, dutiful and punctual. Having observed and studied how the new fascism has been handled in other western democracies in the last decade, I (at least) trust them to be a firewall against the dangerous political currents that the AfD and others represent—one with the solidity that matches the size of the danger. And so far, Germany is the only country where people have risen en masse, not after but before a terrifying clown seized power. The protests continue with a rising turnout. In the last weekend of January, almost one million people joined demonstrations in several cities. The Berlin demonstration this time appeared more diverse, including some darker faces on the podium and a small, somewhat detached group in the crowd chanting “Ceasefire in Gaza”. Is there a possibility of joining the forces there? Time will tell. But spring, they say, is the most beautiful thing in Berlin, and it comes suddenly when you least expect it.