Conference Report: “Right-Wing Extremism as a research object in Contemporary History”

On February 1st 2019 a workshop was organized by the Zentrum für zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) (Centre for Contemporary History) in Potsdam, with Frank Bösch, Yves Müller, Dominik Rigoll, Sarah Schulz, Julia Kleinschmidt, Christoph Schulze, Anke Hoffstadt, Henrike Voigtländer and Sebastian Bischoff, to name only those present on stage. The purpose of this workshop with approximately 120 participants, established academics, young researchers, memorial site staff and civic educators among them, was the founding of a permanent workgroup on right-wing extremism as a research object in contemporary history with a focus on interdisciplinary networking.

After the welcome message, the director of the ZZF, Frank Bösch, gave an introduction to the topic (right-wing extremism), the current state of research in general, right-wing extremism as a research object in contemporary history, and the ZZF. He stated that research about ring-wing extremism is not deeply rooted in contemporary history, but that there is the chance for new perspectives on this research object. Furthermore, he expressed the demand for a stronger focus on the social history of the extreme right instead of focusing only on its organizational history. Bösch finished by making further recommendations to strengthen studies comparing East and West Germany and Europe, as well as gender perspectives in future research.

The opening address, “‘NormalfallNeonazi Oder: Gibt es eine zeithistorische Rechtsextremismusforschung?” (“ ‘Normal case’ Neo-Nazi – Or: Is research on right-wing extremism in contemporary history existent?’”) was given by Yves Müller (University of Hamburg). After outlining the current state of research and the observation that right-wing extremism has not been a preferential subject of (German) contemporary history, Müller addressed some striking research gaps in this field, ranging from the Weimar Republic to the present day. He argues in favour of a perspective on the research on right-wing extremism as a pre-history of the present and not as a post-history of National Socialism or West-Germany. Another important research gap, according to Müller, are the numerous, varying definitions of theoretical and operational terms used in this area of research, that hamper interdisciplinary cooperation and the establishment of a coherent framework. In an overall perspective he states that in the course of research on right-wing extremism there is a (deep) division between historical science, on the one hand, and sociology as well as political science on the other hand. With this problem-centered, cursory state of research presentation Müller transitioned over to the following three panels.

The first panel, “Gefahr von rechts und innere Sicherheit” (“Threat from the (extreme) right and internal security”) was opened by Dominik Rigoll (ZZF) with his talk on “Die Gefahr von rechts in der frühen Bundesrepublik” (“The threat of the (extreme) right in the early Federal Republic of Germany”). Rigoll took a closer look at the extreme right in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and the early GDR, as well as in the Bi-/Trizone and the early Federal Republic of Germany from 1945 to 1960, with regard to the threats, perspectives and counter strategies for the FRG after 1960. First, Rigoll referred to the lessons learned from post World War I and Weimar Republic times: the integration of former (not too heavily burdened) Nazis into the new German society was more beneficial for a new (democratic) society than their exclusion from the administrative bodies. Even though it was a moral problem (i.e. social cohesion of victims and culprits), the considerations in terms of security policy (i.e. former Nazis as a potential subversive resistance movement) outweighed these moral concerns. While the practical approaches in the SBZ and the FRG in this respect only differed gradually, the official policy to protect the respective political order was totally different. The SBZ promoted repressive anti-fascism and the exchange of burdened elites. In the FRG two competing approaches were discussed: (social or procedural) democratic (self-)defense (SPD, unions) or militant democracy, albeit only the latter became the official security policy approach of the FRG. The result of the inclusion of the vast majority of former Nazis was the formation of political splinter groups on the fringes and the rise of nationalist mimicry of the mainstream political parties.

The second presentation, “Opposition und Staatskatastrophe – juristische Geschichtsdeutung am Beispiel des SRP-Verbots 1952” (“Opposition and state disaster – legal interpretation of history using the example of the SRP-ban in 1952) was given by Sarah Schulz (University of Kassel). Schulz presented the historical background of the first ban of a political party, the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP) (Socialist Reich Party), in the FRG. Differing from many scholars, she did not focus on the reasons of the party ban or the wording and/or meanings of “Freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung” (FDGO) (Liberal democratic basic order) that are essential to the courts’ decision, but on the historical interpretation of the Third Reich that is presented in the decision of the court. She argued that the members of the First Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court offered an interpretative frame of the rise to power of the NSDAP that is also used nowadays when (political) actions of (Neo-)Nazis are present in public discourse: a naïve, misled youth was engrossed by the manipulative strategy of the NSDAP. This rather depoliticized, depersonalized narrative stands in contrast with the results of various structural analyses, for example by Neumann (Behemoth) and Fraenkel (The Dual State). These analyses point out that the rise of National Socialism was not the result of multiple historical misfortunes but a systematic striving to power with the goal to expand and secure dictatorial power in Germany. This interpretation of history was the blue print for the (legal and political) anti-totalitarian consensus of the FRG as well as the (political and moral) legitimation for the discrediting of upcoming political movements. Finally, Schulz explained possible prospects of this legal interpretation of history for the future, especially for the case of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (Alternative for Germany).

The second panel, “Politik und Kultur der extremen Rechten” (“Policy/politics and culture of the extreme right”), started with a presentation by Julia Kleinschmidt (University of Göttingen) entitled “ Ausländerstopp – damit wir eine Zukunft haben!’ Die extreme Rechte Westdeutschlands im Vorfeld der Asyldebatte” (“ ‘Immigration halt – For our future’ – The West German Extreme Right prior to the debate on asylum policy”). The tripartite talk began by situating racism in contemporary history research, referring to recent public discourse about the spreading of racist or xenophobic political opinions. Kleinschmidt emphasized that migration should not serve as a supplement to national history, but as one of the determining narratives of modern nation-states. As a consequence, societies and scientific research have to deal with racism and right-wing extremism, which are blind spots in contemporary history. Kleinschmidt had chosen the debate on asylum policy in the FRG in the late 1970s and 1980s as an example. She showed that the debate was framed in different ways by many actors, so that there was no common frame or narrative for the term of the debate on asylum policy. Furthermore, she argued that the narrative of linear political and social liberalization (in line with Fukuyama’s narrative of the end of history, i.e. the victory of liberal democracy and capitalism) ended in the 1970s/1980s when public discourse was dominated by (a new kind of) Islamophobia. The dominant narrative of “superalienation” (not to use the term “foreign domination”) was no longer located on the political fringes, but at the heart of the German society as a part of the process of self-assurance of national identity. It culminated in the change of article 16/16a of the German Basic Law, resulting in a significant curtailment of the asylum law. Finally, Kleinschmidt sketched out the possible courses of action and practical results of changing public discourse. On the one hand, one can observe the harsh rhetoric in the electoral manifestos and campaign speeches of political parties, and also in day-to-day politics. On the other hand, these changes fueled the rise of extensive xenophobic/racist violence in Germany. Kleinschmidt, just as the previous speaker, closed by comparing prospects for the present age, regarding the debates on immigration, asylum and xenophobia.

The next presenter on the second panel, Christoph Schulze (Moses Mendelsohn Zentrum für europäisch-jüdische Studien in Potsdam) (MMZ) (Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish studies), dealt with a particular kind of culture of the extreme right: white power music (“Rechtsrock”). His investigation, “Rechtsrock – Zur Geschichte einer Kultur der extremen Rechten am Beispiel des Landes Brandenburg” (“White power music – History of a culture of the extreme right using the example of the state of Brandenburg”), explored the development of white power music as a movement scene in the state of Brandenburg before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. First, Schulze explained the functions of the culture(s) of the extreme right: recruitment of new supporters and leaders (to sustain activities of scene and movement); reproduction and development of the core ideology, (new) narratives and strategies; and the funding of activists, the scene, the movement and political activism. Schulze underpinned these functions with practical examples. He showed how the violent and partly pro-terrorist politics of the extreme right movement were rooted in the dynamics of the white power music scene in extreme right youth culture. Certain key events (like the detention of the “Cottbus Six”, detention of white power musicians in 1991, prior to a show of the band screwdriver and some other, nowadays “legendary” concerts with a large number of visitors in the early 1990s) led to the radicalization of activists and the formation of a persistent movement that is still led by the actors of the called “Generation Hoyerswerda” (i.e. teenagers and young adults who were socialized in/with the extreme right around the times of the pogroms of Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Hoyerswerda in the early 1990s), who are still visible today. These people are well connected to nearly all institutional and non-institutional players of the extreme right, ranging from political parties, to (local) action groups, groupuscules, intellectuals, as well as white power musicians. The research conducted by Schulze et al. investigated interactions and interdependencies between the political and cultural extreme right and the consequences for the development of the scene in Brandenburg, but also in Germany as a whole, including what are the conditions for success or failure of the extreme right. Schulze ended with a hint to an upcoming book where the results of the whole research project are going to be published.

The third and final panel, “Rechtsextremismus und politische Bildung” (“Right-Wing Extremism and Civic Education”), started with the investigation “Vom ‘Fußball-Skin’ zum ‘Kontrollmaterial Faschist’ – Rechtsextreme Frauen in der DDR” (“From ‘football-skinhead’ to ‘control-subject fascist’ – Extreme Right women in the GDR”) by Henrike Voigtländer (ZZF). Her presentation was based on research conducted for an exhibition of the Amadeu- Antonio-Stiftung (AAS) (Amadeu Antonio Foundation) that dealt with women of the extreme right that were monitored, partly detained and recruited in the GDR. Voigtländer first presented the current state of research that can, according to her, be described as “rather non-existent”. Building on earlier research by Walter Süß (“Zur Wahrnehmung und Interpretation des Rechtsextremismus in der DDR durch das MfS” / “Perception and interpretation of Right-Wing Extremism in the GDR by the MfS”), she follows Süß by assuming that the GDR externalized right-wing extremism to the West, and perceives that teenagers and young adults are just a few deviant cases that did not fit the ideal of a ‘socialist personality’ but were “negativ-dekandente Jugendliche” (negative-decadent youngsters, i.e. rebellious youngsters who were not satisfied with their current personal and/or social situation). Voigtländer focused on a gender perspective, taking a closer look at how women were perceived and treated by the Ministry of State Security (MfS). How did their behavior and treatment differ from the majority of the male members of the (extreme right) skinhead scene? Therefore, she had chosen two examples of women who were part of this scene back then, to shed light on the role of gender in this scene. One of the examples showed that adaption to male ideals and patterns of behavior were one way to be accepted and to move up the ladder. The other example showed how the category of gender influenced the view of the MfS (officers), as she was disparaged for promiscuity, which was not the case for male members of the skinhead scene. Voigtländer finished her presentation with the appeal that further investigation is necessary to get an idea of what the situation was like, as she stresses that her research with a case study can only be the beginning of further research.

The last presenter on the third panel, Anke Hoffstadt (University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf), presented her investigation “Der Neonazi im Comic-Strip Über Graphic Novels in der historisch-politischen Bildung” (“The Neo-Nazi in comic-strips – On graphic novels in historic civic education”). Hoffstadt started with a short introduction to the topic, with a focus on the art of graphic novels, as well as the chances and constraints of its use in historic civic education. She focused on the graphic novel “Drei Steine” (“Three Stones”), which deals with the life of the author in the Ruhr area in the 1980s, where he was regularly attacked and injured by a football related groupuscule called “Borussenfront”. The graphic novel discusses the dynamics of right-wing violence, strategies of the extreme right, and possible counter-strategies, ranging from non-violent protest and alliance formation to violence. On the basis of this graphic novel, Hoffstadt discussed if and to which extent the depiction of violence is an appropriate mean/resource for historic civic education, especially at memorial places. The second issue was more broadly discussed: How much knowledge and preparation do the educators using these graphic novels in their courses need in advance, and is it possible for them to conduct profound source criticism before using them? These two questions were the starting point of a debate with several attendees that had no agreed upon outcome, but clearly showed that there is the need for more debate about the use of this tool in (not only historic civic) education.

With this concluded the program of presentations held by scientists coming from various academic disciplines. The last item on the agenda was the establishment of an interdisciplinary permanent workgroup “Historische Rechtsextremismusforschung” (“Historic Research On Right-Wing Extremism”). This process was chaired by Sebastian Bischoff (University of Paderborn) and attended by 60 participants. It quickly became clear that the expectations of the participants differed. Therefore, a structured discussion of the needs, topics, disciplines and methodology was hampered, but the different expectations and proposals were recorded in writing and pooled in the aftermath of this workshop. The only two definite results was the creation of a mailing-list and a website. All other ideas are subject to further internal discussion by the participants.

Mr Maximilian Kreter is an Early Career Researcher Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism at University of Technology Dresden. His profile can be found here:

© Maximilian Kreter. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).