In Germany, Liberals Lead the Authoritarian Turn

The rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland has prompted a wave of troubled reactions in Germany. But authoritarianism isn’t just a far-right creation, and today, liberals are leading the charge against basic democratic freedoms.

A protester confronts riot police at a gathering of pro-Palestinian demonstrators on October 18, 2023, in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

For German weekly Der Spiegel, there’s no doubt about the real meaning of the Alternative for Germany (AfD): this far-right party is, in fact, an “Alternative against Germany.” This headline referred to alleged wrongdoing by the AfD’s lead candidate for June’s elections to the European Parliament, TikTok star Maximilian Krah, who is said to have received payments from China. One of Krah’s employees was arrested on suspicion of spying for the People’s Republic; Der Spiegel raised the accusation of “treason.”

It might be observed that Germany, just like any other major power, itself extensively finances actors abroad and influences foreign countries’ internal affairs via its numerous party-affiliated foundations and NGOs. Obviously, Germany’s own secret services are also spying. But beyond that, we may well question those liberal anti-fascists who think that it is really so clever to use the term “treason” against a right-wing authoritarian party that claims to be doing “everything for Germany“ — an SA slogan used by Thuringia AfD leader Björn Höcke. One day they will wake up surprised that they themselves reestablished this illiberal and nationalist rhetoric in the Federal Republic’s political culture.

Obviously, left-wingers can already set the clock for when criminal prosecution with accusations of treason will once again be turned against them. They could, in coming years, be leveled against anyone who raises the slightest doubts and even calls for an open discussion about some of the important questions facing us. Such as whether massively expanded military spending is really such a good idea. Whether Germany’s nuclear armament — once demanded solely by hard-right warhorses such as Franz Josef Strauss, but today with a fresh, pious, cheerful, open “yes to the nuclear bomb“ from Green and liberal icons like former secretary of state Joschka Fischer — is really a good idea. Whether a new bloc confrontation against China and the deployment of the frigates Bayern and Württemberg to the South China Sea to “fly the flag“ for “our values and interests“ — as the cruiser division once did off the Kiautschou Bay Leased Territory — will really help to secure peace and tackle global problems such as social inequality and the climate catastrophe.

Turning Point

The “Zeitenwende” (turning point) was announced by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz (of the Social Democratic Party, SPD) on February 27, 2022, without prior parliamentary discussion, let alone broad social debate — a democratic scandal in form alone. This is indeed a turning point also in content. It turns the clock not toward a golden future, but toward a dark German past.

The internal “Zeitenwende” is a return to a time of soldiers’ memorials, so that a “society addicted to happiness“ (as former Federal President Joachim Gauck once put it) can once again learn to honor as heroes those who died “defending Germany in the Hindu Kush.” It goes back to the time of the national service called “Pflichtjahr,” with which the same people who once put a bomb under social cohesion through the welfare-slashing “Agenda 2010” and the Hartz laws now want to “strengthen public spiritedness.” Perhaps they forgot that the “Pflichtjahr” already existed once in German history, or what its purpose was and remains. It was the Nazis who introduced it back in 1938 to ideologically repair what was broken in terms of material economic and social policy.

The internal “Zeitenwende” is also about the reintroduction of the military into public schools. According to Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (of the Free Democrats, FDP), children should practice warfare together with soldiers in the interests of a “relaxed relationship with the Bundeswehr” and for “our resilience.” Youth officers from the Bundeswehr would be let loose on pupils as “career advisors“ in order to solve the troops’ general recruitment problems with the current record numbers of teenagers in military service. But clearly, in times of tight labor markets, relying solely on the “economic draft” is no longer enough. This approach once replaced “citizens in uniform” with “precariat in uniform,” creating an “underclass army,” as Michael Wolffsohn described it. In this system, the former East Germany contributed no generals to the German army but almost two-thirds of the soldiers to the war in Afghanistan, following the motto “unemployed or Afghanistan.”

This strategy is, however, no longer adequate to reach the declared goal of a 203,000-strong army by 2031. Foreign recruits from within the European Union (EU) have also failed to materialize so far because youth unemployment in Southern Europe is no longer 50 percent or more, as it was during the euro crisis. Added to this is the drop-out rate during basic military training, which is sky-high because the reality of joining the army has little to do with the image promised by the €35 million a year Bundeswehr advertising plastered across trams, bus stops, and YouTube: camaraderie, wrenching around on cool, horsepower-packed vehicles, war as gaming (only without a reset button), globetrotting, saving the world, finding meaning in life.

And by all means, Germany needs new soldiers in view of the record numbers of reservists who subsequently refused to enlist once the Ukraine War began and whose desire to be shot up for their fatherland is obviously low. Their caution on this front is only surpassed, at least in one sense, by Green voters. In survey after survey — unlike the supporters of any other party — they call for weapons and military service for Ukrainians and other people; but only 9 percent of these Greens, according to a Forsa poll, would be willing to take up arms to defend Germany personally.

Meanwhile, the internal “Zeitenwende” is not only bringing the military back into schools, but also to universities. Here, the government and the conservative opposition, cheered on by the left-liberal media, want to violate the mandatory peace requirement in the German constitution and override the civilian clauses that, as a lesson from World War II, have so far prohibited research and science from being put at the service of private and for-profit arms manufacturers. In North Rhine–Westphalia, easily the country’s largest state, this has long since happened with the votes of the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats.

The internal “Zeitenwende” also means the return of the distinction between “good” (us, of course!) and “evil” (the others, who else?), between (Western) “civilization” and (Eastern) “barbarism.” What has changed is that the frontier of the “Eastern Problem” has been shifted further east and the barbarism no longer begins at the Polish border. We see the return of “hereditary enemies“ (once France, now Russia and China) and the “white man’s burden“ to civilize the barbarians, who are once again supposed to “heal from the German soul.” As former Maoist Reinhard Bütikofer, the Greens’ foreign policy spokesman in the European Parliament, recently put it, the Chinese must “simply let us transform them“ in such a way “that in the end something comes out that simply corresponds to the ideas we had about the country and about how the world as a whole should be organized.”

Enemies Within

The internal “Zeitenwende” is also the return of an ostentatious unwillingness to think about historical context or to take the “enemy” perspective (if not to promote international understanding, then at least to prevent the escalation of war). A knock-on-effect media ostracism punishes the mere attempt to think in such terms. Leftists are again called a “fifth column“ and prevented from exercising their freedom of assembly by illiberal justice and police violence — as recently happened during the suppressed Palestine Conference in Berlin. Alleged enemies from outside are banned by authoritarian means from entering Germany or speaking, as recently happened to the renowned American philosopher Nancy Fraser and the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

It is a symptom of the internal “Zeitenwende” when a federal minister of science and higher education justifies massive police violence against peacefully protesting students by referring to a muck-spreading article in the tabloid Bild. This authoritarian liberalism places its critics and those who merely exercise their civil rights under blanket suspicion of being enemies of the constitution. We see the internal “Zeitenwende” when the Bundestag passes laws overnight that chill scholarly debate and produce conformity of opinion, using penal measures where historians once debated openly. This was what happened two years ago with the tightening of the German Criminal Code and the German Bundestag’s “Holodomor resolution.”

Blacklists have long been back in force for “internal enemies” kept out of public service through tests of political conviction, as with the “extremism check“ in the state of Brandenburg. This is the newest incarnation of the old “Radikalenerlass“ that sought to keep leftists and other radicals from finding public employment. The Bundestag decided this January — with the votes of Social Democrats, Greens, and supposed Free Democrats — that migrants should only be granted citizenship if they are committed to the “liberal-democratic basic order” and the raison d’état of unconditional support for the Israeli state, regardless of which far-right extremist forces are currently governing it and which AI-controlled war crimes it is currently committing. But more than that, migrants are even to be deprived of their citizenship retroactively, for up to ten years, for failing to obey this standard. Federal Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (Free Democrats) and the Social Democrats, among others, demanded this for dual citizens.

It was quite preposterous for these same people to solemnly warn against the far right’s plans for mass deportations — after the AfD’s so-called “Wannsee Conference 2.0“ with the far-right Identitarian Movement leader Martin Sellner became known — and raise scandal over the fact that AfD MP Gerrit Huy advocated dual citizenship at this meeting, in order to make it easier to remove German passports from people with a migration background. In any case, problems of credibility surely arise when the same people who call these plans a red line, because the withdrawal of citizenship was ultimately the Nazis’ means of driving out their opponents, now flirt with it themselves. The same could be said about the outrage over the AfD’s “remigration” dreams, which were already — without question — “an unvarnished plan of state terror” when AfD leader laid them out in his 2018 book. Such outrage looked rather implausible just a few weeks after the current government had itself torn up European asylum law and Scholz had called for “deportations on a grand scale” as part of the “new toughness in refugee policy“ welcomed by Der Spiegel.

Manufacturing Consent

The internal “Zeitenwende” also includes the return of agitation and propaganda in state and private media, which has little to do with the fourth estate and much to do with “manufacturing consent” — spreading images of the enemy, certainty of victory, and slogans of perseverance. This is partly an effect of the fact that for long stretches of postwar history the population was not prepared to follow its elites into rearmament and war operations.

The new propaganda includes the creation of a “Schicksalsgemeinschaft” (community of fate) with an external enemy, national myths, and a “dominant culture“ meant to hold together a country torn apart by social inequality and neoliberal politics, a general renationalization and militarization of language, and the promotion of emotional coldness. We see this internal “Zeitenwende,” for example, when the single highest-circulation newspaper has the largest German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall — share price since the Ukraine war: up 523 percent — call for a return to compulsory military service because “the Zeitenwende . . . is a task for society as a whole“ and “liberal societies . . . must be able to stand up for their values.”

If things continue at this pace, initiatives such as the “Federal Program for Patriotism“ called for by the Christian Democrats will inevitably lead to the celebration of a reincarnated “Sedan Day,” used in the German Empire to celebrate the victory over the hereditary enemy of the time, France. Some planners are surely already considering how a military victory over Russia — which was never likely and is now increasingly unlikely — could be appropriately anchored in the collective memory of the masses.

The many articles from bourgeois-liberal media that warn against the AfD in the spirit of an “impotent“ anti-fascism or accuse the right-wing authoritarian nationalists of “treason” apparently do not notice that every text they write with a morally upraised index finger is driving at least a few hundred new supporters to the right-wing extremists. Their voters are led to believe that by voting for the AfD they are sticking it to the man. Surely these AfD voting masses fail to recognize that — to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht — they are actually just like the calves that trot behind the drum for which they themselves provide the drumhead. But the liberals fail to recognize one thing above all: it doesn’t take the far right itself to bring back the ghosts of the dark past. It is they themselves, the liberals, who conjure them up.

Heroic Thinking?

The “internal Zeitenwende” promoted by left liberals is already rehabilitating the concepts, language, political styles, and means of the German nationalist and authoritarian right of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “National security” is back, in the name of which the otherwise sometimes-invoked international law can be trampled upon. Also back are “raison d’état,” “autarchy,” which is now called “derisking,” massive military spending, and the call to be “ready for war“ — because otherwise, of course, “in five to eight years“ the Russians will be knocking on your front door. Once again, there are warnings of “war fatigue“ among the people, public pledges and military parades in front of state parliaments, and the “new desire for heroes“ that marks a return of “heroic thinking,” which tells us that in the bloody “unwinnable war“ of position and attrition in Ukraine — reminiscent of Verdun and World War I — “the slaughter is necessary.”

Moreover, a new cult of violence has emerged. The same politicians who bewail the “violence” supposedly committed by youths who set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve have established a political culture whose slogan is “weapons, weapons, and more weapons.” Liberal journalists and a federal Green Economics minister rave about the technical data of the latest weapons systems from the military-industrial complex like the pimps from the German Jungvolk of old, only to then act like first-person shooters in front of the screen celebrating kill counts against enemy soldiers dehumanized as “orcs“ and gloating over the killing of Russians from “world-record distances.” In short: all of this is returning in the words and deeds of the “liberal” middle classes, for which no Nazis are needed.

Fascists are not needed in order to introduce “Veterans’ Day“ and memorials to fallen soldiers or to demand “military education in schools.” They are not needed in order to declare Holocaust enablers like Stepan Bandera as freedom fighters. And they are not needed for there to arise an unprecedented historical revisionism — and the monstrous Holocaust relativization that equates Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler and Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine with Nazi Germany’s war of extermination in the East. Did these people perhaps forget that the aim of that war was the enslavement of the Eastern peoples and the liquidation of their entire social elite — at least 30 million people — through systematic massacres of the unarmed (“Kommissarbefehl“) and systematic starvation (as during the siege of Leningrad, with more than one million civilian deaths)? That this was all part of the “General Plan East,” from which the “Final Solution” plan for the systematic murder of the European Jewry also emerged?

While liberals love to talk about the “Putler” on X (formerly Twitter), it was an influential editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Berthold Kohler, who even before the Russian war crime in Bucha became known, used the term “war of extermination” for the Ukraine invasion. He was, of course, fully aware that he was equating Russia’s war against Ukraine, which according to United Nations figures has claimed at least 10,810 civilian lives in more than two years, with the “Russian campaign” of the Nazis, who killed 27 million Soviet citizens from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in this “crusade against communism” in less than four years, about half of them civilians.

It was not Nazis but the European Parliament that four years ago, with the votes of the liberals and in the spirit of the historical revisionism of Ernst Nolte, blamed the Soviet Union for World War II. The liberal-left newspaper taz and the Green Youth already on their own initiative performed AfD’s fascist Björn Höcke’s hoped-for “180-degree turnaround in remembrance politics.” Hence the Berlin daily, under the title “Putin is the new Stalin,” explained to its green-alternative readership that “the real history of World War II” was “that Stalin had planned this war . . . long before Hitler came to power.” The Green Youth declared Operation Barbarossa the climax of a war of “settlement-conquest“ by a Russian “colonial state” which today needs decolonizing — thus giving retroactive legitimacy to the Nazis and their claimed “European mission“ to liberate the “Eastern peoples” from the Russian Hun.

Incidentally, an anti-feminist rollback does not require an extreme right-wing incel and “men’s rights movement,” either. Seven years ago, when AfD man Höcke called for an unwavering “masculinity” as a prerequisite for military prowess at the rally for anti-immigration movement Pegida in Dresden, he was scolded for being old fashioned. In the course of the internal Zeitenwende, the same demands are now coming from the so-called bourgeois center, for example when the award-winning literary scholar Tobias Haberl explained in Der Spiegel that the “German city-dwelling man” with his “polka-dot socks” who “is capable of cooking” is “too soft for the new reality,” which is why we need a return to the “necessary toughness” and the “conflict orientation of his fathers,” who — but only for our own good! — regularly beat us with their belts because they still knew that “not every problem can be discussed away.”

Hurtling Toward the Past

For liberals, it is part of the new normal to label their opponents and critics of (one-sided) arms deliveries as “lumpen pacifists,” “Putin’s willing executioners,” and “second-hand war criminals.” It is liberals who are already preparing for the time after the war in Ukraine and demanding that “pacifism must not be allowed to rise again.” It was the liberal newspaper ZEIT that, on the exact day of the eightieth anniversary of Joseph Goebbels’s “Do you want total war?“ speech, entitled the interview with a left-wing liberal, Eva Illouz, “I wish for total victory,” explaining that she wished for this “total and annihilating victory” because “the Russians are committing crimes against humanity every day that must not go unpunished” and because “Putin is threatening the ideal values of Europe.” (Illouz later had the audacity to publicly excommunicate her academic colleague Judith Butler from the Left, because, even though they are Jewish, they do not follow Illouz’s pro–Gaza War position.)

In short, none of all this requires the far right. The same people who today warn conservatives not to tear down the “fire wall” to the AfD, as a lesson from the history of 1933 — while they, like former health minister Jens Spahn declare that fire wall to, run to the right of Giorgia Meloni in Europe, and while they, like multiple corruption scandal suspect European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, kiss the “post-fascist” Italian leader wherever they meet her — do not even notice the flamethrower in their own hands, with which they have long since set the country on fire.

It should be noted that it is not only the die-hard conservatives of the “Stahlhelm faction” but also the “left” wing of the bourgeois class who are particularly committed to the internal Zeitenwende. Sure, it was the Christian Democratic foreign minister in waiting, Roderich Kiesewetter, who demanded a few weeks ago that the “war must be taken to Russia” and that “everything should be done” to “destroy” not only “Russian military facilities and headquarters” or “oil refineries,” but also central government offices like “ministries.” It was Kiesewetter who recently suggested that Ukrainian refugees in Germany should be stripped of their income as an incentive for them to let themselves be shipped off to war.

Liberal extremism, however, does not need die-hard conservatives. This approach —  typified by the fact that it takes no account of the true circumstances, risks, and realistic goals, that crusades against “totalitarianism” with a somehow totalitarian fanaticism of its own, with a self-righteous moralism that is to be sated by all available means — has its ultimate origins elsewhere. We see this in the former Maoists in the German Green Party, for whom the “West” and NATO replaced Maoist sects and China as the vanguard of history. Then again, it was a Social Democratic defense minister who called for German “war capability.” And when the Christian Democrat Kiesewetter demanded a further 100, 200, 300 billion euros for the German armed forces — even as austerity measures are imposed on the working class — his demands were, of course, merely an echo of the SPD politicians Scholz, Eva Högl, parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius.

The warning of “war fatigue” came from a Green foreign minister, who would have liked to dress up as a Leopard tank for carnival and who, as a result of a profound Freudian slip, has long seen herself as “at war with Russia.” It was the Green economic minister who went into raptures about the Panzerhaubitze 2000 armored howitzer on a TV talk show: “It can really do something!” It was Free Democrat Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chairwoman of the defense committee, who answered a talk show question as to whether she had served by saying that she was “good for the Volkssturm.” And the call for “weapons, weapons, and more weapons” also came from a Green federal politician, in this case Anton Hofreiter, who also wants to make systematic starvation a principle of German power politics again, just like in the good old days of the siege of Leningrad. As an example of the foreign policy he called for, which would finally return to “negotiating with the colt on the table,” he suggested in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung in December 2022 that, with the European breadbasket of Ukraine on the leash, 1.4 billion Chinese should — because one of them might once again “dare” to “look cross-eyed at a German“! — be openly threatened with death by starvation: “If a country were to withhold rare earths from us, we could reply, ‘What do you actually want to eat?’”

It should thus come as no surprise that it is the left-liberal bourgeois class who are now publicly correcting their attitudes and proving their loyalty to the fatherland through symbolic vows, as if it were August 1914 all over again. A long list of figures have felt it necessary to symbolically withdraw their objection to military service and swear an oath of allegiance to the nation in arms. It ranges from Scholz and the “green-alternative” economics minister Habeck to aged intellectuals, journalists, and writers such as Ralf Bönt, Stern editor Thomas Krause, and taz editor Tobias Rapp to other public figures such as the Protestant bishop Ernst-Wilhelm Gohl, the comedian Wigald Boning, and the “eternal court jesterCampino from “punk” band Die Toten Hosen. It was then only logical that Rapp — coeditor of the war-loving “radical left” organ Jungle World — recently welcomed Veterans’ Day in Der Spiegel as a “big step away from old lies”: “A society” can now “say: we can’t take the burden off your shoulders of having fought and possibly killed. But we can give you a stage once a year and remind you of this burden. It was not pointless.”

Theodor W. Adorno repeatedly expressed the feeling that even more dangerous than the traditional far right was the right-wing radicalization of the “center” — of the return of nationalism, authoritarianism, and fascism in the language of democracy. Those who believe they can best beat the AfD by taking their own migration policy, culture war, and political tools from the “age of catastrophes” are doing the far right’s business for them. In the short term, the AfD’s poll ratings may fall as a result of the scandal raising over its lead candidate for the European elections. In a recent interview for Italy’s La Repubblica he announced that “he would never say that anyone who wore a SS uniform was automatically a criminal” — prompting even French far-right leader Marine Le Pen to break off collaboration with the party. In the long term, however, the AfD may lean back and take a rest, for they know that their politics are winning. Germany is hurtling toward a right-wing past at breathtaking speed; however, it is not the AfD in the driver’s seat, but the liberals themselves.