Let’s Not Call Them Neo-Nazis

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest of its kind in the world, in recent years boasting more than 275,000 visitors, around 10,000 accredited journalists ...

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest of its kind in the world, in recent years boasting more than 275,000 visitors, around 10,000 accredited journalists, and more than 7,000 exhibitors. It may also be the oldest such event: the fair traces its history to the mid-15th century, shortly after Gutenberg invented movable type in nearby Mainz. Generally, though, the fair doesn’t choose to linger on its history. It’s a modern, even postmodern affair, with every available space dedicated to some commercial activity or other.

This year, however, the Book Fair was host to a series of clashes between right-wing extremists, emboldened by their recent electoral victories in Germany and Austria, and their opponents in the center and on the left. Fortunately, serious injury was avoided, a fact that should not, however, obscure the clashes’ importance. German society today, like its US counterpart, is deeply divided. The recent electoral success of the populist Alternative für Deutschland party, which won about 12 percent of all votes in the country’s September election, is only the most concrete sign of a rightward shift in Germany.

More than their scale, it was the ease with which the altercations were sparked that was so disturbing to so many German commentators. The 74-year-old publisher Achim Bergmann was punched in the face after allegedly yelling, “Shut your trap,” at a speaker sponsored by a far-right paper, and the stands of several right-wing presses were vandalized.1

The most dramatic event took place, ironically enough, at an event to promote a book called Living with the Left (Mit Linken leben), by Martin Lichtmesz and Caroline Sommerfeld, which purports to be a guide for the exchange of ideas between people with different political convictions. According to the Frankfurt Police, the scene consisted of a “disruptive action” and resulted in the “provisional arrest” of two people who were thought to have been contributing to the potential escalation of the disagreement. “Further hand-to-hand altercations were also reported.”2 In the context of right-wing resurgences in the United States and throughout Europe, it’s easy to overlook what amounted here to a shouting match with a few fisticuffs.

The scuffle was more than physical, though. Unlike in the United States, where there are no notable alt-right intellectuals (though Richard Spencer sometimes plays one on television), in Germany there has emerged a whole class of theoreticians set on providing historical and philosophical justifications for the resurgence of right-wing extremism. That the Living with the Left event so quickly dissolved into chaos seems, to many, to indicate that a productive dialogue between the two sides is impossible.

If you want to defuse the right wing, one recent argument goes, you’re better off simply refusing to play their game.

It’s especially disheartening that the scene occurred at this event not only because of the subject of the book being promoted, but also because of its authors. Sommerfeld especially is ostensibly an expert on living with leftism, as she has been married to the prominent German scholar and critic Helmut Lethen for more than two decades. When they married, Lethen, who is 35 years older than Sommerfeld, was already widely acclaimed as the author of Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany (Verhaltenslehren der Kälte, 1994; translation, 2002), a seminal book on the interwar period. The former Maoist had softened his political stand by then, but he has remained firmly entrenched on the political left, even as his wife has moved further and further to the right.

If we can’t keep it together and have a discussion here, the feeling is, then there’s little hope in continuing to try to talk at all. Some commentators have taken exactly this kind of position. “If you invite Nazis,” said the left-wing sociologist and author Jutta Ditfurth, “you’ll have Nazis at the Trade Fair. And, oh shocker, they behave like Nazis.”3 By and large, however, intellectuals in the center and on the left have taken more nuanced positions.

Denying the right a platform has “clearly helped them more than it has hurt them,” wrote the literary critic and memoirist Ijoma Mangold in Germany’s largest weekly, Die Zeit: “It made them interesting, like anything is when it’s wrapped in a cloak of mystery.” The problem is not that the new right doesn’t have anything interesting to say, or any thinkers capable of expressing those thoughts clearly, and with style. Indeed, Mangold says, drawing on historian Thomas Wagner’s 2017 book The Fear Mongers: 1968 and the New Right (Die Angstmacher: 1968 und die Neuen Rechten), people like those at Antaios (Living with the Left’s publisher) show a real dedication to working with text, and it’s worth reading them. Living with the Left “has a lot of blind spots, but it also has a good eye for the blind spots of the left-liberal public sphere.”

Mangold, who has written that, as the son of a Nigerian father, he may have “overassimilated,” is perhaps the most idulgent of the many left-leaning commentators on the events.4 The consensus position, to the degree that such a thing has evolved, is that the Book Fair, like other cultural institutions, should quietly let the New Right do its own thing. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, which has recently reentered public discourse in the US with the release of the Paradise Papers, carried an article arguing that it was only the protest that brought such attention to an event sponsored by what is, after all, “a rather small New Right publishing house.” The Swiss historian Philipp Sarasin, in a widely circulated piece published on Geschichte der Gegenwart, points out that there’s little novelty to scenes like the ones at the Book Fair:

Warning, spoiler: what we’re living through today is anything but new. Instead, it has always been a part of what we call the “bourgeoise public sphere,” “freedom of the press,” and “democratic exchange.” The public sphere isn’t a walk in the park, and it never has been.

A scholar of the Enlightenment himself, Sarasin counsels us not to overreact: rather than rushing to accuse our political enemies of Nazism, we should tolerate a diversity of political opinions, and only seek to isolate speech that crosses the boundaries of Germany’s constitution, by advocating hate or totalitarianism, for example.

It makes the arguments of Living with the Left’s natural analog, entitled Talking to the Right (Mit Rechten reden), disappointingly hard to swallow. The two books, released more or less simultaneously, share a certain skepticism regarding the discursive style of the left. For Per Leo, Maximilian Steinbeis, and Daniel-Pascal Zorn, authors of Talking to the Right, “the right” has emerged as a counterpoint to “the left.” Far more than a political position, the right is the result of a crisis of identity, and it engages in a kind of discursive game, or “Sprachspiel,” with the left to provide itself with the identity its members so desire. By provoking their political opponents to call them racists, fascists, or Nazis, those who identify with the right are able to lay claim to the status of victim, to an identity as a member of a persecuted political minority.

The left plays into this game by embracing positions that are neither intellectual nor political but, instead, moral. If you want to defuse the right wing, the argument goes, you’re better off simply refusing to play their game. Don’t call them Nazis; don’t claim that there are anti-Semitic motives behind their desire to commemorate German victims of the Second World War. If German society meets them with a disinterested shrug, their radical political positions will do little to nothing to provide them with an identity.

Instead, the non-right should insist on turning the conversation toward common ground. Here, the book finds its strongest arguments, even if they aren’t entirely original. It wasn’t simply the rage sometimes attributed to caricatures of right-wingers that inspired the language game on display at the Book Fair. Instead, populist intellectuals are steeped in leftist philosophy, and, in fact, have more in common with progressives than either side might care to imagine. They share, according to Talking to the Right, a resentment of globalization and of capitalist hegemony, as well as a longing for more communitarian forms of living.

It’s a compelling theory, and, I think, probably right as far as it goes. In Germany, as in the US, accusing right-wingers of racism, sexism, or of failing to check their privilege often seems to reinforce their reactionary tendencies. It may be analytically correct to do so, and it might feel good, but the most productive approach might be one that refuses the right some special identity.

Let’s not call them neo-Nazis, in other words. Let’s call them what they are, which is, generally speaking, something much sadder and far less glamorous: lonely people, whom life has passed by, who don’t have the resources to find an identity for themselves outside of some putative national heritage. The right insists on its strength, on its unique claim on reality, the book claims—contradictory positions and differing kinds of claims about identity are dismissed as “weak” rather than contradicted. That’s why, according to the book, you can never win an argument with the right. They’ll dismiss their interlocutors as weak before they’ll hear a position they find threatening. Yet it is right-wing positions that are so weak and so sad that we should be able to undermine their claims to strength without resorting to flat contradiction.

Still, even if Talking to the Right is basically correct about the discursive game played by the right, one wonders how much might really be accomplished by a leftist refusal to engage. The basic problems of globalization, alienation, and commodification that form the common basis of left- and right-wing populist positions aren’t likely to be resolved through either the refusal to engage advocated in Talking to the Right or, for that matter, through any of the right-wing discursive tricks they describe. The identity crisis that precipitates right-wing anger will remain, even if the left refuses to ground it through moral outrage.

And can we really blame the right for their anger? After all, there’s plenty to be resentful of in late capitalism. It’s important to engage with books like Talking to the Right that show us how we might avoid conflicts like the one at the Book Fair. But the book we actually need is one that helps us to direct the anger both the left and the populist right feel today at the institutions of global capitalism; the one that shows them that their real problems aren’t each other, but are, instead, a series of repressive institutions. It may seem an impossibility, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the first iteration of the fair, in the 15th century, focused on the distribution of religious treatises that would, in short order, lead to the Reformation. Now, as then, the book we need would speak less to the style of our discourse, and more to the conditions that shape it. icon

  1. Andreas Fanizadeh, “Faustschlag zum Jubiläum” (Fistfights at Festivities), taz, October 13, 2017. Here and below, all translations from the German are my own.
  2. I quote from a report from the Frankfurt Police, available here.
  3. Quoted in “Prügeleien und rechte Parolen: Tumulte bei Höcke-Auftritt auf der Buchmesse” (Brawls and Right-Wing Words at Höcke’s Appearance at the Book Fair), Huffpost, October 14, 2017.
  4. Kristina Maidt-Zinke, “Deutscher als jeder Deutsche” (“More German than any German”), Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 23, 2017.
Featured image: Defaced campaign poster for politician Björn Höcke of the Alternative für Deutschland party, Erfurt, Germany (2016). Photograph by strassenstriche.net / Flickr