Enoch Powell’s “Rivers Of Blood” speech became a model for the European far right, using deliberate taboo-breaking and rhetorical finesse to carry racist and fascist narratives into mainstream discourse. Björn Höcke of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) is following in his political footsteps.
Shattering the Mainstream
The resurgence of populist, racist views is shaping the European political landscape. Rhetoric that breaks the barrier that separates the extreme right fringe from the center of society has been the key ingredient for the success of European far-right movements and parties.
Enoch Powell, a former Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons for the Conservative Party and Minister of Health, infamously broke this barrier on April 11, 1968, with his “Rivers Of Blood” speech. During a meeting with conservative activists, Powell predicted that continued immigration to the UK would lead to violent clashes between white and “colored” communities. To avoid this from happening he proposed not only closure of Britain’s borders but also re-emigration to reduce the immigrant-descended population. Far-right movements and parties still regard it as a prime example for the attempt to make nationalism and the idea of ethnic homogeneity accessible and consensual for so-called ordinary, often apolitical, voters. Not only did his speech reverberate within his party, but it also shook the post-war consensus in British politics on race relations. The impetus for Powell’s speech was the continuing immigration from the former British colonies of the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and East Africa in the 1950s and 1960s and opposition to the resulting Race Relations Act 1968 which “banned racial discrimination in public places and made promoting racial hatred a crime.”
Other politicians have attempted to follow Powell’s example – with limited success and reach. Rarely did they match him in the subsequent, significant criteria: being the first politicians to shatter post-war mainstream consensus in their respective countries and evoking support on a large scale from normally centrist voters for openly racist and fascist sentiments. In Germany, Björn Höcke, spokesman for the AfD in Thuringia, followed in Enoch Powell’s rhetorical as well as ideological footsteps. Höcke is the first politician in post-war Germany with extensive media coverage as well as support among the rank and file‘ of his party and the “ordinary people”, to dare bring “fascist narratives” into the midst of German society again. Similar to Powell, mainstream politicians reacted with abhorrence to both his language and open appeals to racial prejudice. In many controversial speeches, he has studiously tapped into fears of large segments of the German population by deliberately breaching taboos. Migration to Germany during the so-called European refugee crisis, was a hotbed for these fears. In the Thuringian state elections in 2019 the AfD became the second-strongest party, proving that Höcke’s rhetoric resonated with many voters.
Self-Sacrifice for Decent, Ordinary Citizens
Powell’s 1968 speech marked a turning point in his political career and put an end to his rumored ambitions to become Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. After his “Rivers of Blood” speech, Powell was dismissed from his post and never held a ministerial position again.
Höcke’s controversial appearances and statements have also drawn consequences. His contacts to known representatives of the extreme-right NPD (National Democratic Party) and articles written for NPD newspapers under the pseudonym “Landolf Ladig,” prompted impeachment proceedings to remove him from his position as speaker of the Thuringian AfD. This initiative to oust Höcke failed, as did two party expulsion proceedings in 2015 and 2017.
Characteristically for populists, both managed to exploit this headwind by presenting themselves as uncompromising advocates of the people, willing to take the flak from the political establishment to speak out in their names. Powell alluded to himself as a “decent, ordinary English citizen.” Höcke also claims to be the mouthpiece for the ordinary man and woman. According to his team of strategic advisers, many supporters view him as “a prophet, […] the Incarnate.”
The similar rhetorical patterns of both Powell and Höcke evoked immense attraction amongst their followers. Particularly conspicuous is the tendency toward pathos. Probably the most famous example of this is Powell’s dramatic allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid indicating toward feared violence due to immigration into the UK: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” Less allegorically, but with just as much pathos, Höcke also conjures up the supposedly fatal consequences of immigration: “But when it comes to immigration today, everything is done wrong: too much, too fast, too foreign. Even more so in a country that is questioning its own culture. That cannot go well. And if Germany falls, Europe falls.”
Carrying Racism Out of The Taboo Zone
Central similarities between the speeches of Powell and Höcke are the nationalist and racist views they convey and openly express to a large audience. In his “Rivers of Blood” speech Powell depicts the danger of non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth countries and their nonintegrable cultural differences. He stoked fears of these immigrants violently imposing themselves on the native, white population to dominate the streets, particularly of larger cities. By quoting a concerned voter from his constituency in Wolverhampton, he gave a somber outlook on multicultural coexistence: “In this country, in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Powell used citizens’ experiences from his constituency to lend additional legitimacy to his views and to present himself as a humble advocate for his constituents, who were allegedly not taken seriously by political elites: “The sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country […] is something that those without direct experience can hardly imagine.”
Höcke uses a more offensive rhetoric. This difference is due to several factors: he is a member of a younger, smaller, and more radical party, where anti-immigration attitudes are more visible than in the Conservative Party. Second, at the time of his speeches, the internal party dissent over whether the party should conceive itself as a center-right alternative or a far-right movement party was already underway. Höcke’s speeches were thus also a deliberate attempt to give the party a radical alignment. Like Powell, Höcke formulates the danger of so-called foreign-born, predominantly African and Muslim immigration, flirting with a vocabulary similar to the Nazis’ racial ideology:
“As long as we are ready to absorb [Africa’s] surplus population, the reproductive behavior of Africans won’t change. […] The divergence of African and European birth rates is, of course, currently reinforced by the decadent zeitgeist that has Europe firmly in its grip. In short, in the 21st century, the life-affirming African dispersal type is coming up against the self-negating European placeholder type.”
Will Höcke Suffer Powell’s Fate?
The most striking common feature between Powell and Höcke is their deliberate, racist and taboo-breaking rhetoric that shook the mainstream and changed the political culture of debate. Yet, two differences need to be considered. While Powell was already a well-established politician before the infamous speech that made him a political outcast, Höcke was a pariah from the outset. He gradually gathered more support for his ideas and for steering the AfD further to the right. Höcke’s career is at a crossroads. The outcome of the intra-party power struggle between himself and the moderate Meuthen-faction will determine whether he will truly follow in Powell’s footsteps and sink into oblivion.
Maximilian Kreter is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Hannah Arendt Institute Totalitarianism Studies, TU Dresden. See full profile here.
Kiran Bowry holds a master’s degree in political science with a specialization in party and migration politics as well as the prevention of extremism. Next to being a writer, Bowry is an intervention and prevention coach at a Youth Migration Service (Jugendmigrationsdienst) within Germany’s Internationaler Bund.
© Maximilian Kreter and Kiran Bowry. 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).