Jun 242020
 

I was always lousy with Theory™. I still am lousy, but thankfully, it does not matter so much anymore. To be fair, I’m OK with empirical theories. It’s the big ideas stuff that throws me.

There was a Theorist™ on my PhD committee, but he seemed to be an OK geezer. Unfortunately, he and my supervisor fell out over something related to the Thing That No-one Talks About To The Present Day (nothing to do with me, I was just collateral damage). So I had to wait for my viva for six or seven months and got a little nervous over time.

How Habermas and I went for a swim 1
Taking critical theory to the pool

The night before the viva, I had a nightmare so vivid that I remember it to the present day. I went to a public swimming pool to meet Jürgen Habermas. As you do. We were both wearing trunks, and I must sadly report that Habermas (even then not a young man) looked more overweight to me than I would have expected.

After exchanging some pleasantries and treading some water, I turned to Habermas (who was quite friendly actually), opened my mouth, and to my utter horror out came the following words:

“I must say that I think you are totally overrated Herr Habermas. Although to be fair, I cannot be sure, because I did not manage to finish even one of your books.”

I woke up in a cold sweat. Compared to that dream, the actual viva wasn’t so bad.

May 122020
 
Who are the Germans protesting against the COVID-19 measures, and who is benefiting? 2

Last weekend, thousands of Germans took to the streets to protest against the anti-Corona policies. The scenes were quite extraordinary and were widely reported in German and in international media, not least because the rallies were attended by far-right actors and conspiracy theorists.

The good folks at Handelsblatt interviewed some colleagues and me, and someone on the other side of the channel asked me to translate my part. For what it’s worth, here it is 👇

“What do you make of the ”new“ disaffection with the government’s COVID-19 policies and the anti-lockdown protests?”

First, a degree of disaffection is perfectly understandable. Also, critiquing the government is part of returning to normality. However, if you look a bit closer, many of the actors involved in the recent protests are part of the radical right or even belong to outright right-wing extremist groups. Like they did with the 2014 “vigils for peace” movement, far right groups are trying to build an alliance with their opponents at the opposite end of political spectrum, not least by appealing to the legacy of the peaceful revolution in the GDR. Well-known merchants of conspiracy theories and esoterics are also part of the package.

“Will the AfD [the major radical right party in Germany] benefit from this? Is this the beginning of a new political movement, comparable to the 2014/15 vigils or the anti-asylum demonstration in 2015/16?”

The 2014/15 cross-spectrum alliance never really took off in terms of popular support. The 2015 anti-asylum protests, on the other hand, were part of the bigger far right movement that had existed for decades. The AfD has been building bridges to this movement since 2015 and, insofar, is already benefiting from it. At the moment, I don’t think that there is much additional potential that they could tap into.

“What is the implication of this for the wider German society, and how should politicians respond?”

It was always clear that the rally ’round the flag effect would not last for ever. A return of dissent and (partisan) conflict over the right strategy and measures was to be expected, and is also necessary for a liberal democracy.

But these demonstrations are only a small and by no means the most significant part of this conflict. For various reasons, they attract a lot of media attention: people openly break the rules on social distancing, there is not much else to report about, and some of the claims and slogans are really out of this world. But actors within parties, civil society, and the media should think long and hard if these demonstrators are really suitable allies for them, and whether they should be paid much attention at all.

May 082020
 

On May the 8th 1945, the Wehrmacht surrendered, bringing the war in Europe and the terror reign of the Nazis to an end.1 40 years later, then-president Richard von Weizsäcker, himself a former officer of the Wehrmacht and a scion of the same Prussian gentry that for centuries has supplied the army with cadets, kicked a hornets’ nest by calling it “a day of liberation”.2 While the “liberation” angle seems rather obvious, it was revolutionary at the time, especially coming from a (liberal-minded) member of the CDU.

Since then, the debate in Germany’s editorials has never fully stopped. While “liberation” has been the dominant narrative for a while, there are still conservative holdouts that point to the military defeat and ensuing loss of territory.

An initiative to make May 8 a national holiday on its 75th anniversary has come to naught. In a statement that resonates with Trumpian “good people on both sides”, Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s godfather, pointed out that May 8 “is ambivalent. It was a day of liberation for the inmates of concentration camps. But it was also a day of utter defeat …”. Think about this, and the implications, for a second.

In 2020, 77 per cent of Germans see the end of the war as liberation, only five per cent think of it as defeat

Survey data (infratest dimap) on Germans’ views of the end of the war in Europe

Somewhat surprisingly, the general public has moved on from this stale debate a while ago. A survey by infratest dimap shows that like in 2005, more than 75 per cent of the population see May 8 as liberation, while a mere 5 per cent think of defeat, with the rest being ambivalent or not willing/able to answer the question.

The breakdown by party supporters is striking, but not really surprising: more than 30 per cent of the AfD’s supporters see the end of the war as a defeat, for all other parties, this number is in the low single figures. I leave the fact that the FDP has by far the highest number of ambivalents as an exercise for the reader.

Footnotes:

1Incidentally, it is also our wedding anniversary, but that is probably besides the point.

2Were it not inappropriate, you might even say he caught a lot of flack.

Mar 202020
 

Update #3 March 25:

Looks like we are indeed getting an option 1+2 outcome: Höcke & Kalbitz say they cannot shred the membership list b/c there is none, but tell members to refrain from political activity under the “wing” brand. Obviously, they will otherwise remain very active within the party.

Update #2 March 21:

The wing (who exactly?) has chosen option number 1 (see below), probably in a really, really ghastly WhatsApp group chat. The message they sent out on twitter is telling: while the wing is no more, their beliefs and values are unchanged, and they remain a “part of this great party project”. In other words, the wing shall henceforth be known as “AfD”.

The wing's final post on twitter

The wing disbands. Problem solved. Simples.

Update #1 March 21:

The meeting of the wing has been postponed because of the Covid19 crisis. Apparently, it’s not fake news when your own life is on the line. The national leadership said that the April 30 deadline applies, regardless.

On March 12 2020, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (aka the spooks) stated that the AfD’s “Flügel (“wing”) faction is right-wing extremist and will be put under surveillance. This also applies to the faction’s most prominent members, its head honchos Höcke & Kalbitz. This has far-reaching consequences. Surveillance up to the use of informers aside, the official “extremist” label will make the party less attractive/acceptable for some of its voters. Members of the “wing” who are public servants may well lose their jobs and their pensions. Most importantly perhaps, the move against the “wing” suggests that the party as a whole might come under observation next.The wing emerged almost exactly five years ago as an informal group of rebels who signed a declaration against the (relatively moderate) course of the party’s then-leader Bernd Lucke. Within days, the manifesto attracted hundreds of signatories. The formation of the Flügel presaged the 2015 split and subsequent radicalisation of the party (read everything about this trajectory in my recent paper on this topic (ungated)). Over the following years, the group has held annual meetings in a spot where right-wing extremist have gathered since the days of the empire. These were often attended by prominent members of the national leadership. Over time, the wing has replaced another faction (the “Patriotic Platform”), and its influence has grown, especially in the eastern states. However, it was never recognised by the party as an official group and never sought an official status. What the wing really wanted to be was an influential network of like-minded ultra-radicals, with ties to openly extremist elements outside the party proper.

Bernd Höcke

Bernd Höcke. Based on work by Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0Treating the wing as an organisation that represents the party’s extremism problem and could be removed in principle is therefore slightly misleading. But this is exactly what the party, the media, and the authorities are doing at the moment. Today, the party’s national executive has called upon the wing to dissolve by the end of April. It is the latest in a string of appeals for moderation, and considerably more low-key than the previous (failed) attempts to expel Höcke from the party.Today’s meeting was prompted by two stories that were all over the media before COVID-19 drowned out everything else. First, it emerged that Kalbitz and his family had been members of the HDJ for several years, something that he had always denied, although it was already known that the he had attended one of their meetings. The HDJ was a right-wing organisation (now disbanded) whose stated aim was to indoctrinate children with Nazi ideology. Only a couple of days later, a video of a wing meeting was leaked. In the video Höcke made an awkward pun about sending his enemies within the party to a concentration camp.Höcke and Kalbitz are the leaders of the AfD in their respective states. Most MPs for the AfD in these state’s belong to the wing. Think about that for a minute.COVID or not, the wing will have a meeting of its own on this weekend. I can see three ways in which this could go.

  1. The wing complies and dissolves. That could be acceptable for them. The exec did not vote to kick out Höcke, Kalbitz, or anyone else. This would be a win-win: the network networks on (perhaps under a different name), the AfD can claim that they stopped extremism in its tracks.
  2. The wing tells everyone that you cannot formally disband informal structures. They don’t have a membership list, because they are not a proper organisation – just a long list of names under the original resolution and chaps sending emails to other chaps. Nothing to be done about. The standoff continues in a cold-war like scenario.
  3. Full-on conflict. The party splits: easterners trying to kick out the westerners and vice versa, perhaps even splits within state chapters. This would probably be the end of the AfD as we know it. Germany being Germany, it would probably also result in lengthy battles in court over who may use the old name.

In my view, 3) is the wing’s first inclination, but also the least rational solution. The wing is strong (allegedly it has some 5,000 members) but hardly strong enough to go it alone. It is also unnecessary: while there are people left in the party who call themselves moderates, the party as a whole has become very radical over the last five years. Disagreement with the wing is mostly over style (many dislike the Höcke cult), over keeping up appearances, and over dealing strategically with the legal pressure the party is under. In many ways, the wing is seen as a naughty child that needlessly provokes the authorities. Then again, this brand of naughtiness is a vote getter in the east and strongly motivates some members. So 1), or a mixture of 1) and 2) looks like the most likely outcome to me. I shall keep you posted.

Dec 202019
 
The 10 most popular posts on this blog in 2019 5

Yet another end-of-year post

It’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about mindless consumerism, pointless over-indulgence and the Great Starbucks War on Christmas. What I’m talking about is my yearly reflection on why I still solo blog in <insert year>, and which posts were the least unpopular. To which the answer is not so easy. With today’s infrastructure, server logs have become meaningless. Google analytics is an Orwellian nightmare for both my few readers and me. Which leaves the humble wordpress tracking code: yet another data protection scare, but less high-profile. And so, without further ado, here comes this blog’s top ten for 2019.

The contenders

#10 Conceptual confusion is kinda ok

This post, written a year ago, demonstrates how research on the Extreme Right became research on the Radical Right without missing a beat. I know, it’s a bit meta.

#9 Regional support for the “Alternative for Germany” varies wildly

A short post with maps that summarises some of my recent work on the geography of the radical right vote in Germany.

#8 Conference Posters with beamerposter

Do you need a conference poster, fast? Do you love \LaTeX? This post may be old (it is from 2011), but people still find it useful.

#7 A new putsch in the AfD

Almost a year ago, a third reasonably prominent politician (though not a former leader) left the AfD to set up their own shop. As we now no, he failed, utterly, but it’s still a cautionary tale.

#6 AfD leader Gauland speaks at the New Right “winter school”

The leader of the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag gave the keynote at an institution that aims to educate the future extreme right elite. That is quite something. And because all this list is super self-indulgent anyway, I’m also reposting the video I made about it

Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, headlines a far-right "winter school"

Watch this video on YouTube.

#5 How the tidyverse changed my view of R

A short-ish post about R with the tidyverse is slightly and pleasantly different from grandpa’s R (i.e. the R of my PhD days). I guess people liked the post because of the memes.

#4 The March 2019 update of the Extreme Right Bibliography

I maintain this slightly obsessive bibliography on the Far/Radical/Extreme Right and their voters. The March 2019 update was a big one, which attracted some attention from fellow nerds.

#3 nlcom and the delta method

This post from 2013 is an evergreen, because Stata’s implementation of the delta method (still) rocks.

#2 The regional elections in eastern Germany

Everyone with the slightest interest in German politics was watching the 2019 state elections in the east. Here is/was my five-minute analysis of what was going down.

#1 The state election in Thuringia

This eastern state election made quite a splash, what with the collapse of the SPD, the rise of the AfD, and the underwhelming result for the Greens. Given the size and importance of Thuringia for the great scheme of things, the post attracted disproportionate interest. I blame twitter.

Coda

I find it hard to believe, but I’ve written almost 80 posts this year, which is well above my yearly average. Most of them are just short throw away things (“Look, I was misquoted by some university radio station in Bosnia!”). Others are more substantial, and some reach a rise up to a length, sophistication, and dullness that I should reserve for my best proper academic writing. I have no idea why I’m still doing this, but while I’m still doing this, people might as well read it, so share a post or two, will you?

Dec 152019
 

A coalition to keep out the AfD

Back in the distant past of 2016, the rise of the AfD in Germany’s eastern states and the fragmentation of the party system began to force the formation of awkward coalitions. In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD captured about a quarter of the vote and so brought together a ‘Kenya Coalition’ (CDU / SPD / Greens). As menages a trois go, it was not a happy arrangement, but somehow the coalition rumbled on. But the AfD remained a problem. Like in other eastern states, some in the CDU (mostly second and third tier politicians) would be much happier in a coalition with the radical right than with two left-ish parties. Many others and the federal CDU quite rightfully think that this would be political suicide. And so there was was the occasional wink-and-nod, and a lot of kerfuffle and shenanigans, but not much else.

A neo-Nazi in the local CDU

While we were all obsessing about the UK General election, a scandal broke in the eastern periphery. Robert Möritz, a young and relatively recent member of the CDU turned out to be a member of ‘Uniter’, an association of former soldiers, and special forces and police officers that has been linked to the right-wing extremist ‘prepper’ scene. On closer inspection, it also emerged that Möritz was a steward at a neo-Nazi march, is a fan of neo-Nazi bands and sports a massive ‘black sun’ tattoo (a combination of swastikas, infamously linked to the SS) (if you read German or know how to run Google translate, here are all the gory details) 👇

All of this undisputed. Möritz apparently removed some posts from his accounts, claimed youthful innocence and said he had moved on. His local association said they were happy with that.

Could a fourth-tier politician be the end of the coalition in Saxony-Anhalt?

A neo-Nazi scandal could bring down the 'Kenya Coalition' in Saxony-Anhalt 6

Not all news are good news

As far as I can tell, Möritz is a member of some advisory assembly at the very local level. It strikes me as unlikely that he has any juice within the CDU, or that anyone would think he was worth wasting political capital on. On the other hand, the potential political fallout is massive. The normal reaction would have been to investigate the matter, with a view to chugging the guy out (legally complicated but doable).But when the story broke, the state-level CDU leadership did not pull the plug. They were happy with the way the local guys had dealt with it, period. Incredulous silence all around, then the Greens piped up and asked, quite literally, ‘How many MORE swastikas do you have in your ranks’. Excellent question. To which the state leadership responded by … 🥁 … demanding an apology and threatening to end the coalition.Cue emergency delivery of mil-grade tranquillisers to CDU HQ back in Berlin and head-scratching all around. What is this all about? Internal CDU power struggle? Testing the waters? The state CDU forcing early elections or a year of minority government to warm up for the campaign? I have no idea. But this is how we in Germany spend the weekend after the day after the night before.

Nov 292019
 
A vast majority of Germans sees the AfD as a right-wing extremist party

For the radical right in Europe, Alternative for Germany is an increasingly unusual case

In a recent paper published in JCMS, I argue that unlike other German far-right parties, the “Alternative for Germany party” (AfD) managed to avoid being associated with Nazism. The strong presence of establishment figures that previously were (or could have been) members of centre-right parties acted as what Elisabeth Ivarsflaten has once called a “reputational shield“. Without such a shield, a party will be branded “fringe” or extremist, and many voters will be reluctant to support it. Also, such parties will find it difficult to recruit competent and presentable would-be politicians – an argument that David Art makes and illustrates in his fabulous study of radical right party activists.

A vast majority of Germans sees the AfD as a right-wing extremist party 7

In the JCMS paper, I also look at the trajectory of the Alternative for Germany. The AfD started out as a socially conservative/market radical “professors’ party”, then, within just two years, developed into a (mostly) bog-standard Western European radical right party. What sets the “Alternative” apart from similar parties in Western Europe, however, is its desperate flirt with traditional German right-wing extremism.

Back to the future?

The Front National (now the Rassemblement) recently expelled its founder and long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen because the old man would not stop talking about the Holocaust. The Sweden Democrats gave up the uniforms, then had a real purge of the old guard. Other parties like the PVV never had any connection to the old inter-war Extreme Right. And this looked like the way forward for the last couple of decades or so.

In the AfD, regional leader Björn Höcke can publicly trot out racist tropesattack the culture of remembrance and use rhetoric and ideas straight from the 1930s playbook without getting as much as a slap on the wrist. Regional leader Andreas Kalbitz was a member of various right-wing extremist groups and the former “Republican” party. Kalbitz also attended a Greek Neo-Nazi rally in Athens and a festival for Fascists and Neo-Nazis in Belgium. Not a problem. National leader Alexander Gauland, who infamously called the rule of the Nazis “a spot of bird shit” in an otherwise glorious history, thinks that Höcke is “right in the middle” of the party, and that Kalbitz is a “good man”.

 

80 per cent of Germans are suspicious of the AfD

In the JCMS paper, I suggest that this trajectory, which is fueled by electoral successes in the East and intra-party outbidding for the most outrageous positions, could not just bring legal problems (the offices for the protection of the constitution seem to be set to heighten their scrutiny of the AfD) but also undermine its electoral appeal in the medium term. Lo and behold: in a (very rare) instance of not being completely out of touch with reality, I may have gauged the public mood just right. Today’s Politbarometer poll asked citizens how far right-wing extremist ideas have spread within the AfD. A cool 41 per cent said “far”, and further 39 per cent said “very far”. For comparison, 15 per cent thought these ideas have spread “not very far”, and just two (two!) per cent said that right-wing extremism within the party did not exist. In other words: 80 per cent see Alternative for Germany as a right-wing extremist party.

80 per cent believe right-wing extremists are have spread far or very far within the Alternative for Germany

This dovetails neatly with slightly older polls which show that notwithstanding its national electoral support of 10 to 15 per cent, the AfD is by far the least popular party in Germany. About 80 per cent of voters would never consider voting for them. So far, the main result of the AfD’s ongoing radicalisation is not a collapse of its support, but rather a segmentation of the German party system. If you want to see the future of Germany, look to Flanders (minus the excellent fatty food, the quirky beers, and, well minus Belgium).