Towards an Extremism of the Centre in Germany? A Discourse-Analytical Approach.

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Von Siegfried Jäger. Paper presented to the conference „Fifty years later. The Resurgence of the Radical Right in Eastern and in Western Europe“, held by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, April to 1995, short version.

Germany is drifting – to the right! This was admitted even by Friedbert Pflüger, conservative member of BRD-Parliament, in his recent book with the same title, and he detailed that there is a well established black-brown network, the speakers of which are propagating the ideas of that Conservative Revolution of the twenties, which then had prepared the so-called „Third Reich“.

Pflüger suspects: „If now right-wing tyranny is being put aside, normalised and minimalized, whereas left-wing tyranny is being demonized – right radical and Conservative Revolutionaries will become presentable again. They will then claim a place inside the democratic spectrum of the constitution and the centre will move to the right. Democratic yardsticks blur and Germany starts drifting.“

Heiner Geißler, the former general secretary of the Conservatives and now one of the vice presidents of the faction of the CDU, is warning of a further drift of his party to the right. At the famous Römerberg-Talks in 1994 he said: „Now, that the re-unification of Germany is settled, concepts of an isolated and nationalist Germany gather momentum.“ And he goes on: „It is the notion of a homogeneous nation that is proclaimed again as the only natural and legitimite form of the community; and at the same time there is very militant agitation against any concept of a multiethnic and multicultural republic. They are fighting the idea that people of non-German descent get German citizenship“.

Ignatz Bubis, president of the central body of Jews in Germany and member of the Liberals (FDP) states „so-called conservatives, who consider themselves conservatives are in reality spreading right radical ideologies.“

There are many other prominent scholars and politicians who see a drift of German society to the right. Our empirical research on the discourses of politics, media, education and everday talk, which we have done in our institute during the last ten years, also shows that there is a drift towards the right on all important levels of discourse and within almost every important political subject or issue.

But this drift cannot predominantly be seen in terms of taking over ideologies of present right-wing parties by some of the conservative politicians or party majorities, in order to regain lost voters. The primary ideological connection of the present drift to the right seems to be the so called Conservative Revolution of the Weimar period.

Conservative Revolution stands for a flock of names such of Arthur Mueller van den Bruck, Ernst Forsthoff, Hans Freyer, A. E. Günther, Ernst Jünger, Ernst Niekisch, Carl Schmitt, Hans Zehrer and others.

It can be seen that modern or neo-conservatives are modifying their notions, they modernize them, turn them to new subjects und themes, and sometimes there are only loose connections to the Conservative Revolution and its folkist nationalism („Völkischer Nationalismus“).

The fact that neo-conservatives of today could adopt those ultra-conservative and folkist ideas of the German past is by no means self-evident. The neo-conservatives of today benefit from a countermovement against the 68 revolution, starting in the seventies, which had risen as a rebellion against the broken promise of democracy and against the generation of the fathers and mothers, who had been sozialized in the Third Reich.

One of the great climaxes of this right-wing counter discourse was performed in terms of the so-called contest of historians („Historikerstreit“), opened by Ernst Nolte in 1986 with an article in the conservative FAZ and which was answered by Jürgen Habermas and others. The dispute did not end in a defeat of the right, as is wrongly claimed again and again. Because the result of this debate was, among others, that Hitler is considered the singular and the only figure who caused the second world war and who was the only one responsible for the Holocaust. By this the big flock of Germans was exculpated as mere fellow travellers.

Another climax of this development was the reunification and the way it was managed. This event was looked at as a national victory, and conservatives of all parties persued the aim of re-establishing Germany as a mighty state together with all implications belonging to it. This concept was soothingly labeled a return to a German „normality“.

Today, 50 years after the liberation of the concentration camps, the experiences of the Third Reich do no longer function – as they used to – as a bulwork or a bastion against a new racist, neo-nationalist and neo-militarist Germany. With regard to many politicians and authors one must say that today there are hardly any scruples of outing oneself on the extreme right.

This can be shown by the examples of writers like Botho Strauß, scholars like Ernst Nolte and the efforts of a couple of members of the liberal party (FDP) to draw their party to the right, in analogy to the development of the Austrian liberals under their chairmann Jörg Haider.

And this can be seen as well by a manifesto of some hundred of politicians, writers and scholars, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung some weeks ago, in which they insisted, that the end of the second world war in May 1945 was not only a deliberation but the beginning of a new supression of Germany.

Under this manifesto you find the names of many conservatives, liberals and and even of one former minister of the social democrats, together with representatives of right wing parties.

It was not only such big discoursive events as the Historikerstreit or the famous-infamous essay of Botho Strauß with its dark title „Anschwellender Bocksgesang“ (somewhat like „the up-swelling of the goat’s song“) which were markers and amplifiers of the described development.

Step by step, and with new impulse after the conservative change of government in 1982 and accelerated after 1989 and the following re-unification of Germany, the political agenda has been occupied by right ideologies. We are being confronted with slogans like „Germany is called back into history“ or with the notion of „Germany as the central power in Europe“, and concepts of „race“, „reich“, the „people“ and „nation“ are being mystified as unquestioned final foundations of German existence.

The development of this discourse may easily be viewed in the media and in everyday life, and as regards the proliferation of this discourse the media have to be regarded as its most important mediator.


In the next step I will try to describe the development of the last years on the basis of the empirical research, we have done in our institute. I shall concentrate on the subject of immigration and presence of so-called foreigners in Germany. This subject is very important because folkist-nationalist and right extremist ideologies have always used racism as their central and most effective tool.

Racism can be seen as a sort of can-opener to several additional folkist and nationalist ideologemes because it suggests simple explanations of social conditions as determined by nature. If racism is increasingly gaining ground in the media and in political talk of the centre of society, this must be seen as an indicator of German society as a whole drifting even further to the right in the future.

Ideologically it is ever so easy to use the subject of immigration, flight and presence of so called foreigners as a starting point, because racist feelings are latent in all strata of the population. Attempts at strengthening those emotions and to trying to use them as a legitimization of rightish ideology as a whole will not have to overcome high barriers of opposition.

In my following discussion I want to illustrate by empirical details how the formation of an extremism of the centre works. I shall do this on the basis of detailed research work we have done on the subject immigration, flight and presence of foreigners or/and others who do not fit German image of normality – on various levels of discourse.


Political discourse plays an even more important role as regards the definition of the situation of immigrants than the discourse of the media. This discourse produces the central key-words and general arguments to the discourse of the media.

The examples found in several western parliaments show that there are very similar strategies and figures of argumentation, when foreigners and refugees are turned to objects of talk. Most characteristic of this kind of the political discourse is the strategy of >Whatever we decide, we are fair<.

Strategies of this kind can only work, when the minorities about whom decisions are made, do not possess any political power. Insofar this political discourse does not only reproduce certain dispositions in the population, but it produces its own legitimation by producing consensus on the politics of immigration as well; at the same time this discourse determines patterns of behaviour towards immigrants and refugees and the politics of immigration and of foreign affairs in general.

An exploration of the debates of the German Bundestag on this subject from the beginning of its existence up to 1993 makes clear, how especially conservative politicians have tried to intensify the debate in the long run, and how they have followed the strategy of abolishing the asylum-article 16 of the German constitution, which had been an important part of this constitution and a symbolic example of Germany’s intention to turn into a democratic state after the time of fascism.


Analyses of the media show that they play an important part as regards the production and reproduction of racism. The media do not alone produce everyday racism. They pick up everyday thought, they link it to political argumentation, they condense it more or less, and by this they reproduce those attitudes anew day by day.

Let me give you some examples:

On its title of September 1991 the news magazine Der Spiegel delivered a very poignant picture. Here you can see in a negative chain: „Refugees – refugees of German descent – asylum seekers“, in German: „Flüchtlinge – Aussiedler – Asylanten“.

(Fig. 1: Title of Der Spiegel September 1991)

Let me only make a short remark as to the special symbolism of the drawing with the boat, symbolizing Germany, which is more than full of people and which suggests that it is impossible to let more refugees come in. But what I’m interested in in the first degree is the line „Flüchtlinge – Aussiedler – Asylanten: attack of the poor.“

In this context it is important to show, that there is a splitting of a social problem of poverty and that one side of it is locked out. This can happen very easily because of the fact that in German the word „Asylant“ is connected with absolutely negative connotations.

In addition to that you can see that the term „Asylant“ is linked with some other collective symbols, which at the same time transport special meanings. These collective symbols may appear as pictures in a literal sense, for example photos or caricatures. But they can be linguistic pictures as well. It is important, that these symbols used by the media at once evoke the effect of ‚clearness‘ for the largest part of society and appear to be ‚meaningful‘.

In the debate on refugees, as it has been exercised in the media for a number of years, you can reconstruct the regular use of such symbolism day by day. This symbolism produces feelings of menace, and of being threatened by the storm or flood of foreigners, which is seen as a most dangerous challenge to be urgently responded to – even by violence.

Yet the media-debate on refugees in Germany has not only been accompanied by symbols of flood and boats alone. In addition there is the military complex of symbols, by which such immigrants are being stigmatized.

(Fig. 2: Broad stream from the Balcan)

The effect of this symbolism is evident. In this picture the verbal symbol of the stream is connected with the military association of spearheads which point to the very heart of Germany.

Symbols like these, which can be observed in large numbers in everyday talk and in the media as well, do not function isolatedly, they form a system.

This system of collective symbols is representing the political topography of Germany, and it is used in the discourse on immigration etc. to draw a picture of „We, the Germans“ being threatened and therefore put in a situation of self-defense, which eventually triggers off violent action. Thus it is evident that the media contribute to the fact, that people in our country resort to violence against foreigners or tolerate such violence.

After the murders of Mölln and Solingen it was especially – but not exclusively – the widely spread tabloid BILD which exercised this double strategy. On the one hand BILD condemned the riots as a shame for Germany and it rejoiced in the first successes of the police in catching the fire-raisers; but on the other hand it went on fueling the flames of racism when writing about „Asylanten“ and about „floods“, „we“ will not get under control.

With this form of journalism the next racist attacks are programmed.

An example from the political magazine FOCUS is apt to illustrate the new strategy:

(Fig. 3: FOCUS)

In the title-story of Febrary, 2nd, 1994 you first find lots of figures and statistics showing that there is no special criminality of foreigners. After this introduction follows a passage in which the real causes of the anxieties of the Germans are listed. According to FOCUS the real ground for these anxieties lies in the well organized criminal gangs of foreigners. The article ends with a quotation from the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes‘ book Leviathan: „The obligation of the citizens against the Sovereign can last only so long, as he is able to protect them.“ And FOCUS goes on concluding with Hobbes: „If the state is no longer able to do so, it will be the natural right of the people to protect themselves.“

This conclusion is shaped like a proclamation to the citizens to exercise self-protection against foreigners – violence included. By this the article turns to the racist side.

Texts of this quality can be found in many other newspapers. You find them not only in tabloids and in the rainbow press, but even in serious papers like Die Zeit or in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, more or less subtle according to their own discoursive position.

It is now very important for me to show that the central contents of the media appear on the level of everyday talk and thought as well.


For this reason I will roughly summarize and illustrate the results of our analyses of everyday discourse from 1991 up to now.

1. All the people we have interwied, old and young, men and women, with higher or lower education, rich or poor are entangled in racist discourse. Not all of them are racist, but they all reproduce elements of racist ideology.

2. Racism is not looked upon as very decent. Therefore racist attitudes normally or at least frequently are uttered under cover.

3. There is a catalogue of about thirty negative stereotypes, which in this form can be found in the media, too.

4. There is abundant use of collective symbols.

5. Many Germans are entangled in antisemitic discourse. Beside blatant antisemitism, you find it also applied to Turks for example in form of sentences like this: If they will get rich, they will be treated like the Jews in the Third Reich.

6. Sometimes democratical arguments are used as pretexts for racist views, for example: „The Turks mistreat their wives, and therefore they ought to leave our country.“

7. Some of the people we interviewed, especially older men, showed an open readiness to use violence against foreigners.

In the last two years we have continued this research until the point just befor the murders of Solingen, and we found that our results were confirmed.

At the moment we are analysing a new series of everday interviews we conducted in 1995. A first glance at these new interviews shows that there have only been minimal changes as regards the evaluation of foreigners. At the same time we can notice, that there has been an increase of national and nationalist feelings in comparison to former years. So you can observe that there are – in the mind of everyday citizens – still „floods“ of foreigners, which after amending the asylum article of the constitution are not really „ebbing away“. Moreover you find old nazi-phrases like „Folk without space“ (= „Volk ohne Raum“) and others. This terminology did not appear in our interviews of 1991 and 1992, and I think that this is the point, where you can observe that the general shift of political attitudes to right extremist ideology has reached the basis of everyday thinking.


Racist attitudes can be observed in the educational discourse as well. Analyses of school and children books reveal, that racist and biologist elements can be found in almost every book of any subject up to mathematics.

But also the influence of everyday discourse in the families is considerable. When grandmothers and grandfathers are tightly entangled in racist and anti-semitic discourse, as our investigations brought to light, you cannot be astonished that such attitudes are handed down to children and grandchildren.


In the special discourses of academic work of all disciplines racist elements are to be found as well. In Germany the discourse of ethology is prominent as regards these elements, especially in the books of Konrad Lorenz and of Irenäus Eibl Eibesfeldt.

Their central message is that aggression and xenophobia are not learnt but that they are inborn.

Some conclusions

So far I have – very roughly – described some of the more important levels of racist discourse in Germany. They are knodded together and penetrate each other, and they contribute to produce a nationalistic and racist climate in Germany.

Racist discourse is very apt to influence the development of society into the direction of folkist nationalism, among others. In this context nationalism, militarism and aggression against disabled persons play an important part, not to forget sexism, biologistical population politics, and other ideologically harmful discourses directed against all those people who deviate from German normality.

The latency of racism (and anti-semitism) in German society is an excellent precondition to install biologistical and social darwinist discourse as well. Racist attitudes are, however, proto-typical of the naturalization of social events and social systems, and this tendency of naturalising social affairs may be found in all the other ideologemes of folkist nationalism.

As a matter of fact, racism can fulfil a number of functions for folkist nationalistic discourse as such. It allows to clearly seperate ethnic or other minorities from what is considered the normal Germans inside the country, and to set the German nation in contrast to the outside world.

It is thus instrumentalized to spread and strengthen imaginations of national identity and of the nation as a real body.

Last but not least it allows, if you look at its fundamental quality, to imagine and to call for the nation as being homogeneous and healthy.

The present political discourse in the Federal Republic, seen as a whole, will fundamentally transform the political landscape. A new national feeling as a sort of cement of German society is being established. Germany is to become the „Central force in Europe“ again.

Stigmatizing foreigners and refugees will play its part in strengthening those feelings and in unifying the population under the roof of the national idea.

In so far I think that the racist and nationalist discourse in Germany taking its roots from the ideas of the Conservative Revolution of the twenties does indeed help to embed the idea of a folkist-nationalist society. This discourse does not stand isolatedly aside from other forms of discourses of demarcation. Because of its being rooted in everyday discourse and its biologistic implications it is highly apt to serve as a vehicle of political goals which go far beyond it.

The strategy behind this transformation of the German politcal landscape into the direction of a folkist nationalism seems to be to strengthen Germany with respect to new economical and social challenges which have been sharpened by the decrease of the Soviet Union and of other states of the East.

But: The drift of Germany’s centre to the right cannot be understood as a consequence of right-wing agitation or of right wing successes at elections. The emergence of folkist-nationalist ideology in the centre of society cannot be explained in terms of a growing influence of persons, groups, organizations and parties of the extreme right.

We must concentrate on the centre of society itself and on its leading political class: When National Socialism is interpreted a unique Asian and criminal act, and this is what has been eagerly persued by revisionist politicians and ideologists like Ernst Nolte and others, the discourse of folkist nationalism, as it has been developed by the circles and individual members of the Conservative Revolution, could easily be reinstalled.