The Prophet of Germany’s New Right
James Angelos, New York Times, October 10, 2017
Götz Kubitschek, a self-proclaimed “rightist intellectual,” lives in a medieval manor house in Schnellroda, a rural village in eastern Germany.
Kubitschek does not officially belong to the AfD — he and his wife applied and were rejected as too radical in 2015, when the party’s leadership was more moderate — and he doesn’t see party politics as his domain. (His wife has since joined the party.) He prefers to promote his ideas in what he calls the meta-political realm, where he can sway a culture that, in his view, is dominated by leftist thinking.
“The fundamental question of our time,” he said, “is whether the West has the will to survive.”
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.
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 who once declared before a crowd of acolytes: “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Wegner told me that the American idea of a “racially defined ethno-state” would “come across as pretty weird over here,” because Europeans are not comfortable putting identity matters in racial terms. I asked him if this discomfort was substantive or merely semantic, and his answer was surprisingly forthright. “I would say that the main difference is the semantic difference,” he said. “Also, the modus operandi is not really the same.” Unlike alt-right activists in the United States, he went on to explain, activists on the European New Right tend to avoid appearing alongside “orthodox” right groups — neo-Nazis — because “the look” would impede their effort to appear as a “new kind of postmodern” patriotic movement.
Wegner said another difference was a matter of intensity. The Americans, he said, see their country as collapsing, and therefore they advocate revolutionary action — the creation of a white ethno-state in the Pacific Northwest, for example. European New Right activists don’t see their circumstances as that dire, he continued. They would be content with a “roll back” on immigration.
“It’s not yet a revolutionary situation,” he said. “The old structures are to be kept intact.”
He now speaks of the former West Germany in derisive terms. He sees “Wessis” — the people who live there — as having been indoctrinated into a form of hyper-moralistic mass thinking. Its cities, he believes, are “lost” to immigrants. His wife, Ellen Kositza, who writes polemics against what she calls “hyper-feminism,” also hails from the West — from a working-class city near Frankfurt that, she said, has become almost completely “foreignized.” The former East Germany, where they’ve made their new home, has experienced comparatively less immigration; it’s the place where, as Kubitschek put it, “Germany is still Germany.”
Kubitschek now keeps close contact with a faction of Alternative for Germany politicians who refer to themselves as der Flügel, or “the Wing.” It is led by some of the most extreme politicians in the party, including a former history teacher named Björn Höcke, a head of the party in the eastern state of Thuringia
In March 2015, it was Höcke who initiated an internal party revolt against the party’s founder, an economist named Bernd Lucke, releasing a resolution that accused the party’s leadership of unduly embracing the “establishment” and failing to resist “the further erosion of Germany’s sovereignty and identity.”
The resolution, which set into motion Lucke’s downfall as party leader, read like something Kubitschek could have written. In fact, Kubitschek told me, he drafted it in his library in Schnellroda. What Lucke had failed to grasp, Kubitschek said, was the degree to which Alternative for Germany represented an emotional “outbreak” that went way beyond the economist Lucke’s “technocratic dissatisfaction” with the euro.
Flügel politicians are now ascendant within the party — and they are increasingly mixing their nationalism with the antiliberalism agenda of the New Right. Before the election, I attended an Alternative for Germany rally in Artern, a depressed-looking town not very far from Schnellroda. There, I was struck by how Flügel politicians devoted much of their speeches to a number of economic issues traditionally though of as leftist — low wages, poverty in old age, insufficient social benefits, rhetoric designed to shift the party away from its roots in economic liberalism. One of the politicians, a man named Jürgen Pohl, who was subsequently elected into Parliament, denounced the claim that Germany is doing “better than ever” economically. Should Angela Merkel and “our new African citizens” come to the former East Germany, he said, they’d see the “poor house of Germany.” Another speaker, André Poggenburg, the head of the party in Saxony-Anhalt, declared Alternative for Germany to be “the new party of social justice.” The message was simple enough: more benefits for the Volk, and fewer foreigners to take those benefits away. In the former East, where unemployment remains higher and salaries remain lower than in the former West, that message seems to resonate, helping the party peel away hundreds of thousands of voters from die Linke, the descendant of the East German Communist Party.
The shift is not entirely surprising. New Right thinkers often entertain the idea of establishing a querfront, or a “cross front” that would unite opponents of liberalism on both extremes of the political spectrum. During my talks with Kubitschek, I often found myself detecting what at first seemed to me a perplexing leftist bent, an aversion to American-style materialism. You had only to go the shopping center on a Saturday morning, he once told me, and observe people in their “consumption temple” to see how there is “nothing at all there, spiritually.” For Kubitschek and other New Right thinkers, American liberalism — with its emphasis on individual rights and the individual pursuit of happiness — is perhaps the most corrosive force eating away at the identity of the Volk, replacing a sense of “we” with individualism and profit-seeking self-interest.
One evening, as we sat in the gloaming dimness of his library, Kubitschek delivered a long lament about what he perceived to be the ills of modernity: banal consumption, the decline of Christian belief (Kubitschek is a Catholic), mechanization that is making workers superfluous. These forces were undermining the Volk, he told me, and there was very little that could be done to stop it.
I asked him then what was left for him to do. Despair?
“Yes,” he said.
What, I asked, does political victory look like for a movement of despair?
The best that could be done, he said, was “to prevent the worst.”
On the Monday after my first visit to Schnellroda, I went to see Kubitschek speak at a demonstration in Dresden. The event had been organized by “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” — known by the German acronym Pegida — which had been holding rallies in Dresden on Monday evenings since 2014. By the following year, as the global refugee crisis arrived in Germany with full force, the demonstrations often drew more than 10,000 people, but attendance has since dwindled, and on this night only a few thousand people were expected.
Soon after the Pegida demonstrators returned to the square, Kubitschek hopped onto a makeshift stage and clutched a microphone.
The crowd cheered and chanted: “Resistance! Resistance!”
Kubitschek paused, as if to collect his thoughts. There was a way for the Volk to escape the cat’s paws — it must demand the re-institution of “law and order” through the sealing of the German border, and it must demand that the political parties putting their own interests above the country’s be reined in by restricting their public financing. He mocked Angela Merkel. She presides over a party called the Christian Democratic Union, he said, but would have gladly opened Vienna’s city door to Ottoman Muslim invaders in 1683. “Why does our establishment despise its own people?” he asked.
The source of the contempt, according to Kubitschek, was Germany’s “memory politics,” the effort by Germans to confront their Nazi past, which involves tempering any nationalist urges. New Right thinkers see that restraint not as a virtue but as a symptom of a deeply ingrained self-hate — a hatred that must be overcome for Germany to be great again.
In January, Björn Höcke, the AfD leader, voiced a similar lament in a speech at a beer hall in Dresden, and much more caustically. Germans are “the only people in the world who have planted a monument of disgrace in the heart of their capital,” he said, referring to the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. German history was being made “rotten and ridiculous,” he said. “It cannot and must not go on like this! There is no moral duty to dissolution!” The speech provoked a national uproar, and even some politicians within AfD criticized it.
Kubitschek saw it as a tactical error. Höcke’s comments, he said, were “correct in substance but wrong in tone.”
Kubitschek has had greater success advancing the “self-dissolution” theme in the meta-political realm. Recently, he published a book called “Finis Germania,” written by Rolf Peter Sieferle, an environmental historian. Sieferle warned that shame over Nazi crimes is driving a neurotic German belief that the “Earth will be cleansed from the shameful mark of the eternal Nazis only when the Germans have completely disappeared.”
In June, “Finis Germania” was selected for a prominent book-of-the-month list, an entry into the mainstream of public opinion that itself stoked another major controversy. How could such a book, deemed anti-Semitic and extremist by many within the media and literary establishments, be so readily accepted into the public discourse? Kubitschek called the reaction a “panic.” Expanding the boundaries of discourse was precisely what Germany needed, precisely what the Volk required. This was the way to heal its broken wing.
My last visit to Kubitschek’s home was on a Saturday evening, some hours after he had hosted a book reading.
Kubitschek casually mentioned that he would not mind at all if a strongman came to replace Merkel, if that was the only way to correct her decision to allow the migrants to enter Germany. In a time of great peril, he noted soberly, a leader must act beyond the law. He cited Carl Schmitt, the conservative political theorist who criticized parliamentary democracy and aligned with the Nazis after they took power: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Merkel herself had acted outside the law by opening the border, Kubitschek said, and that proved she was sovereign. And yet, he continued, “I’d have absolutely nothing against it if someone came along and with the same sovereignty did the opposite. Someone who would say: ‘The experiment is over. The Parliament won’t be consulted. I will prop up with my power the administration, the organs of the state, the police’ — who would in any case be supportive — ‘the border patrol, the military, and we will end this experiment.’ That means: borders shut. Test to see who can be assimilated; they can stay. Those who can’t be assimilated, they’ve got to go.”
Kubitschek put a few new candles in the candelabrum, pressing them into the molten red wax of the old ones. This seemed like the right moment to ask him about a concept often discussed in New Right circles: thymos — an ancient Greek word use to signify a sense of prideful, righteous indignation. Marc Jongen, a philosopher and Alternative for Germany functionary who was once an assistant to one of Germany’s best-known contemporary philosophers, Peter Sloterdijk, argues that Germany lacks the thymos necessary to defend itself from cultural erosion. Kubitschek addresses Jongen’s idea in his own writing, referring to lacking German thymos — which Kubitschek has defined more simply as “rage” — as tantamount to the “emasculation of our Volk.” Kubitschek writes that it is valid to question whether a revolt, an eruption of mass rage, can be controlled. Yet, he writes, the consequences of a revolt are less troubling than the threat of what would happen if the Volk’s thymotic energy became insufficient to fuel the “successful defense of what belongs to it.”
I asked Kubitschek about the sharp rise of right-wing violence in Germany since the refugee influx. “It’s a reaction that someone can have who really has the feeling that his country is being taken,” Kubitschek said, “that everything he knows and what he grew up in is changing, and who sees that something totally alien is spreading and he doesn’t want it.”
“Is violence justified?” I asked.
“I don’t see it as justified,” he said. The migrant is “ultimately only the figure that we can see, so to speak, but behind him is much bigger development.”
“Why then isn’t violence justified?” I asked. If these refugees were conquerors, and their presence was destroying a way of life, couldn’t a person justifiably claim self-defense?
“The refugee is the false opponent,” Kubitschek said.
After a pause, he added an amendment. “Actually, if it’s going to come to violence, we ought to storm the Parliament. We have no replacement to offer, but this woman can’t govern any longer. We must go on from here in a different way.”