Politicians for Germany’s upstart populist party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, are getting sick and tired of apologizing for World War II. The Wall Street Journal reports that AfD, which rose to prominence denouncing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees, is “pushing to change how the country views its Nazi past, upending decades of consensus.”
Although it might sound shocking that anyone, let alone German politicians, would want to challenge the historical consensus on Nazism and World War Two, the impulse to do so suggests something important and yet misunderstood about what the new nationalism sweeping the West is all about.
Last week, Michael Brendan Dougherty asked, “What do nationalists want?” For all the momentum of Brexit, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and other nationalist parties across Europe, it’s unclear exactly what these new nationalists want or whether they have a long-term vision for their countries. Sure, they all want secure borders and fewer immigrants and freedom from an anti-democratic European Union, but to what end? What’s the overarching vision for the post-globalist world they seek?
By contrast, the globalism they decry, “has a kind of logical motor within it,” writes Dougherty. If history and experience teach us that unrestrained nationalism is dangerous, that parochial attitudes and cultural chauvinism are self-defeating, then the egalitarian globalist future will be a place, as Hillary Clinton once said, “of open trade and open borders.” Not only does such a vision suggest endless policy reforms, notes Dougherty, but it “touches on deep millenarian impulses in the Western mind, implanted in it by Christianity, and later adopted by Whigs and Marxists—namely, the idea of eternal human progress and moral arcs bending across the universe.”
But do the new nationalists, in contrast to the globalists, really lack a compelling narrative? In a word, no. If their long-term political aims are at times inscrutable, their impulse for a collective identity that goes beyond the anodyne prosperity of globalism is easier to understand.
Even Germans Need An Historical Narrative
Take the recent fracas over the AfD. In January, Björn Höcke, an AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia and one of the party’s more strident politicians, provoked outrage when he called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” and called for a “180-degree turn” from Germany’s tradition of remembering and atoning for its Nazi-era crimes. “A great people like the German people, which lost two world wars in one century, no longer has a historical narrative of its own,” he said.
Frauke Petry, the party’s leader, distanced herself from Höcke’s remarks and called for his ouster, and Höcke apologized. But are his views very far from Petry’s or other members of AfD? In a recent interview, Petry said: “The negation of our own national interests is something that has become a political maxim in Germany since World War II.”
No doubt, this is a dangerous game—especially in Germany. For the past 70 years, most Germans have been wary of nationalist or patriotic sentiment. The memories of the Holocaust, Nazism, and World War Two still loom large, and even the idea of a distinct German national character is met with some suspicion (in one national poll, more than a quarter of respondents said there is no such thing). If Germans have nationalist yearnings, they’ve learned to channel them into their national football team.
The Höcke controversy damaged the fledgling AfD, which has plummeted in recent polls. But the reason for making World War II remembrance a political issue ahead of the fall elections has less to do with thinly veiled racism than it does a desire for an historical narrative that makes Germans proud. Even Germans, it seems, crave a sense of their place in history—a story about themselves in which they don’t always have to be the villains or the cowed descendants of Nazis.
It Won’t Work Simply to Vilify the New Nationalists
The desire to reconsider the past, in this case, is really about creating a tangible and positive vision for the future. The millenarian future offered by the global elite has its limits for ordinary citizens—especially when the benefits are often illusory. We saw that here in the presidential election last year. You can tell working class people in the Rust Belt and Appalachia that as a whole they’re better off with globalization and free trade, and that they just don’t understand how it works or how well off they really are.
That might be true, as far as it goes. But if you also pretend that globalism doesn’t sometimes decimate once-prosperous communities, or yank some people out of the middle class, or rapidly change cities and neighborhoods into something unrecognizable and maybe unwanted, then globalism’s shining vision of the future begins to lose its luster.
So too in Europe. Yes, unchecked nationalism on the continent eventually becomes dangerous. And of course Germany has much to be ashamed of for its twentieth-century forays into unchecked nationalism. But European elites have insisted on the complete absence of nationalism for the sake of their own globalist agenda. They have also insisted that mass migration is a net positive, that it’s the future of Europe, and that it poses no danger to European culture and identity.
The problem for them is that a growing number of their countrymen aren’t buying that anymore. They want something more than integration and middling prosperity: they want an identity and a narrative and a history. They want to preserve a way of life they know and love, which they feel is slipping away.
For the political establishment in Europe, it won’t be enough simply to vilify Petry and Höcke, or Marine Le Pen, or Geert Wilders, calling them and their supporters fascists and racists, just as it wasn’t enough to vilify Trump and his supporters here in America. Dismissing people who are yearning for an identity is a big mistake. Eventually, they stop caring if you call them fascists. That’s dangerous enough. A greater danger is that at some point they might just start calling themselves fascists.