In this Series, our Head of Ideology Research Unit Balša Lubarda speaks to some of the people helping to make CARR the ‘one-stop shop for knowledge and resources on right-wing extremism’. Today’s guest is Sabine Volk.
Sabine is working on her dissertation in the context of the EU-funded Marie-Sklodowska-Curie project “Delayed transformational fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the rise of illiberalism/populism (FATIGUE)”, coordinated by Jan Kubik at University College London (UCL). Her research project explores far-right populist politics of memory as well as the ritualization of counter-hegemonic protest in post-socialist eastern Germany. Specifically, she studies how the Dresden-based “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA) mobilize historical memories in the context of the thirtieth anniversaries of the 1989 East German ‘Peaceful Revolution’ and the 1990 German Reunification.
You work on the politics of memory in post-socialist eastern Germany. What can memory politics tell us about ideologies and the way they are “packaged”, presented and disseminated?
The relationship between political ideologies and politics of memory is a multifaceted one. On the one hand, ideologies alter the view on the past. For example, twentieth century German history, including two totalitarian regimes, division and “reunification,” will be interpreted quite differently from a left-wing than from a right-wing perspective. On the other hand, memory politics are a key feature of, and tool to construct, ideology: as an element of culture, memory may sustain ideology.
My research on the Dresden-based far-right social movement organization “PEGIDA” (short for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) shows how we can study ideology by looking at political uses of memory. An in-depth analysis of PEGIDA’s uses of memory sheds light on how scholarly concepts such as “populism” and “far right” can be studied empirically. In particular, PEGIDA’s political strategy draws on memory as a key tool to construct a broader historical narrative of a constant struggle of the “democratic people” against “leftist-totalitarian” elites. According to this narrative, far-right actors such as PEGIDA, the political party “Alternative for Germany,” and others appear as morally superior freedom fighters against a hegemonic Left.
Why is history so “vulnerable” to manipulations and interpretations by the radical right? Do you find the statement that the “radical right are obsessed with the past” somewhat inaccurate, at least bearing in mind the contemporary populist variations of this ideology?
History is “vulnerable” to manipulations by strategic political actors because there is never only one history, but only a variety of readings or interpretations of the past. It is therefore hardly surprising that far-right actors also promote their own versions of the past. Oftentimes, they strategically construct and disseminate their visions in order to attain or consolidate power and, importantly, to delegitimize their political opponents. In post-socialist Europe, radical right actors in power promote simplified versions of the past that typically create victimhood narratives, denying responsibility for past wrongs. In eastern Germany, radical right actors instrumentalize the past to sustain a positive image of themselves. For instance, actors such as the far-right party “Alternative for Germany” or “PEGIDA”, claim the memory of the civil rights activists of 1989 and even anti-Nazi resistance fighters to present themselves as “democratic resistance” against an alleged “leftist-totalitarian dictatorship” in contemporary Germany.
At the same time, it is of course not only the far right who is “obsessed” and instrumentalizes the past. Since the 1980s, European and western societies more generally have undergone a so-called ‘memory boom’, including the construction of ever more physical spaces as “heritage sites” that supposedly foster collective identity. I agree with these kinds of practices as long as the past is used to promote pluralist visions of society in agreement with the values and principles of liberal democracy.
You recently wrote about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on democratic politics in Germany. What do you see as the most important takeaways for democracy during the pandemic?
Overall, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on democratic processes in Germany and beyond, most importantly in relation to transparent decision-taking procedures by governments and legislatures. But also, the crisis has increased the public salience of the concept of democracy, which might have sensitized both policy makers and voters for the need to live democracy in everyday processes.
As I show in a recent piece in the open access journal Frontiers in Political Science, during the COVID-19 pandemic different political actors in Germany have been trying to perform control over what they understand as “democracy”. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, actors from across the political-institutional spectrum have been strongly focusing on “safeguarding” democratic values in the context of restrictions to individual rights – or at least many of them claim to do so. For instance, in her much mediatized TV address of 18 March 2020, Angela Merkel did not only appeal to the German population to take the pandemic seriously, but also framed her speech as a democratic act of governmental transparency and accountability. In this larger discursive context, far-right actors such as AfD, PEGIDA, and the new organizations associated with the so-called ‘anti-lockdown movement’ have claimed to defend civil rights and individual freedoms against an alleged “Corona-dictatorship”, adopting global conspiracy narratives to delegitimize the different levels of government. Comparing the claims to safeguard democracy by the Federal Chancellor and the far right reveals that concepts such as democracy and civil rights are so-called floating signifiers, which both institutionalized and grassroots actors can employ and fill with meaning.
As your research focuses on the domain of the discursive and performative in politics, can you tell us a bit more about the methodological challenges you encountered in your own research?
Approaching the far right from the vantage point of constructivism, I do not see ideology as static and predefined, but as dynamic and processual, that is, constantly changing and evolving. Accordingly, I am convinced that scholarship needs to examine the social processes in which meaning is created – rather than assuming predefined meanings. Therefore, my research took me right to the spatial and temporal context in which far-right ideology is constructed in post-socialist eastern Germany: to the squares and streets of the city of Dresden in which PEGIDA mobilizes for street protest every second week or so. In Dresden, I conducted participant observation of PEGIDA’s demonstrations, focusing on the symbolic dimension of the protest events. Such an “internalist” ethnographic approach bears a couple of challenges, for instance to overcome both mental and physical discomfort while being in the midst of demonstrators chanting hateful content against immigrants, people of color, or a vaguely defined political Left. But the advantages of the ethnographic lens vis-à-vis “externalist” approaches to the social world prevail: most importantly, I was able to generate an original dataset based on my own fieldnotes, and gained deep insights into the meanings protestors associate with the protest events and the symbols displayed on the square.
Could you tell us a bit more about your ongoing and future works?
My ongoing academic work seeks to make a contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship on the far right, social movements, and political culture more broadly. My findings so far suggest that the far right’s strategic use of culture, including memory, have key explanatory power for mobilization as such. Specifically, I put forward the argument that the far-right group PEGIDA persists over time due to the creation of its own protest culture (what I call the “PEGIDA-ritual”). Far-right attitudes do not sufficiently explain why an individual joins far-right protests; rather, we need to focus on the specific features of the ritualized, symbolic events to explain mobilization. In the future, I would like to test my hypothesis about the causal relationship between (political) culture and the persistence of far-right actors by looking at further cases of culturally sustained protest mobilization – possibly including actors from the left or the center of the political spectrum. Additionally, I want to explore the dynamic memory regimes in which mnemonic manipulations by the far right are unfolding more closely, focusing on Europe as a constructed cultural space more broadly.
You can read more about Sabine’s work on far-right populist politics of memory in Germany and Eastern Europe here.
Read more interviews with CARR Fellows here.
Find out more about CARR’s Ideology Research Unit here.