CRF Blog

The Prophet of Germany’s New Right

by Bill Hayes

In The Prophet of Germany’s New Right for New York Times Magazine, James Angelos profiles Götz Kubitschek, a leading far-right German thinker.

Kubitschek’s views are reaching a growing audience. Despite the unique cultural taboos arising from the historical memory of Nazism, Germany has joined a long list of European countries — Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia among them — where far-right, sometimes explicitly racist political parties command significant minorities in national elections. This ethno-nationalist renaissance presents an odd paradox. European nationalists who at one time might have gone to war with one another now promote a kind of New Right rainbow coalition, in which sovereign states steadfastly maintain their ethnic and cultural identities in service of some larger “Western” ideal. This “ethno-pluralism,” as New Right activists call it, is not based on Western liberal notions of equality or the primacy of individual rights but in opposition to other cultures, usually nonwhite, that they say are threatening to overtake Europe and, indeed, the entire Western world by means of immigration. The threat to the West is also often cast in vague cultural terms as a kind of internal decay. When President Trump visited Poland, he argued in a speech that the United States and Europe were engaged in a common cultural battle. “The fundamental question of our time,” he said, “is whether the West has the will to survive.”

That question has deep roots in Germany. In 1918, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler published the first volume of “The Decline of the West,” arguing that cultures decline as regularly and predictably as any other organic entity — and that Western civilization was near the end of its cycle. Germany had just lost a war, and Spengler’s book struck a chord with disillusioned Germans looking to explain their sense of downfall. Spengler belonged to a loosely defined group of German thinkers called the Conservative Revolutionaries, who argued that Western decline was the inevitable result of materialism and soulless democracy. They opposed the fractious parliamentary democracy of the time, the liberal values of the French Revolution and ultimately modernity itself. They called for national revival by way of an authoritarian leader who could bring about an almost-mystical regeneration of the Volk — in part by pitting them against the Volk of other nations. “A people is only really such in relation to other peoples,” Spengler wrote, “and the substance of this actuality comes out in natural and ineradicable oppositions, in attack and defense, hostility and war.”

The German New Right portrays itself as the contemporary reincarnation of the Conservative Revolution. Kubitschek regularly echoed Spengler in our conversations and on more than one occasion told me that Germany was a “tired” nation in its twilight years. The New Right’s efforts to reclaim this dated political and intellectual movement serve a purpose. Despite their unmistakable ideological overlap with the National Socialists, many Conservative Revolutionaries were ambivalent toward them and rejected Hitler as a proletarian brute. That apparent distance provides New Right thinkers not just with a nationalist, antiparliamentary tradition rooted in German history but also with a useful argument: National Socialism is a deviation from their chosen ideology, not its inevitable conclusion.

The ideas of the Conservative Revolutionaries, however, cannot be separated from the rise of Hitler. In 1923, one of the movement’s most prominent thinkers, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, published “The Third Reich” — another critique of Western liberalism. As the title suggests, Moeller van den Bruck had some influence on the Nazis (Goebbels said his book was “very important for the history of National Socialist political ideas”), though they later repudiated the author himself. The Conservative Revolutionaries’ more consequential influence, however, was on the wider population. Their despair over modernity contributed to the “debility of democracy” and fueled a “politically exploitable discontent,” the historian Fritz Stern wrote in “The Politics of Cultural Despair.” In other words, their ideas helped pave the way for the arrival of a Führer, even though the one who arrived was not necessarily to their liking.

After World War II, Armin Mohler, a Swiss-born writer who had tried unsuccessfully to join the Waffen-SS, took on the project of disentangling the Conservative Revolutionary ideology from Nazism. Mohler, a self-described fascist who had an early and profound influence on Kubitschek, sought to create a more palatable tradition for the postwar era, and he is considered the father of the German New Right. Until recently, though, New Right thinking mostly remained on the fringes of German society, lacking grass-roots expression or a viable manifestation in party politics. But the German political climate changed in 2015, when Angela Merkel allowed nearly a million refugees and migrants to enter the country over the Bavarian border. While many Germans celebrated their arrival, others were angered, feeling that their worries about “Islamization,” criminality and the erosion of German identity were being ignored by the political establishment. For New Right activists, that anger is good. It is the ineradicable opposition that will bring about the political transformation they seek.

But the German New Right has other influences as well. Nils Wegner, a young writer who translates English-language books into German for Kubitschek’s publishing house, follows the American alt-right scene with great interest — listening, for example, to podcasts by Richard Spencer, the white-supremacist leader …. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Putin’s Illiberal Democracy.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.