Britain, Germany, and the Threat of the Far Right

A couple of weeks ago I visited the temporary exhibition on the history of the post-war German Far Right curated by Munich’s Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. The institution, which opened in 2015, is a typical expression of the political and civic pedagogy that has been an integral part of the culture of the Federal Republic since the Second World War. As well as hosting an excellent permanent exhibition on the history of National Socialism it mounts occasional temporary displays, of which the current offer – ‘Never Again. Back Again. Still There. Right Wing Extremism in Germany Since 1945’ – is one.

The exhibition first takes the visitor through successive manifestations of Far Right organizing since the war. From the diffuse nationalist protest parties of the immediate post-war years through the Socialist Reich Party of the early 1950s, through the nationalist upsurge of the National Democratic Party of Germany in the mid-1960s, through the Republikaner and the Deutsche Volksunion of the late C20th century, and on to contemporary manifestations of far-right extremism, the display shows how such politics ebbed and flowed over the years. The Far Right is shown as a diffuse milieu of broadly shared sensibilities characterized by movements that emerged, merged, blended and faded at particular junctures, never fully establishing itself in the mainstream of German politics – until now – but never going away either. Wealthy yet marginal entrepreneurs, disaffected members of the ‘establishment’ Right, ordinary citizens concerned for their economic security against a backdrop of rapid change, and skinhead thugs in the fascist underground form the dramatis personae of this relentlessly depressing story. At the same time, the response of the democratic majority – be that in the form of anti-fascist demonstrations or concessions on asylum legislation – is woven intelligently into the account too.

The exhibition also shows how the obsessions of the Far Right have changed over time. The overtly neo-Nazi sentiments of the immediate post-war, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are treated alongside the authoritarian nationalism of the NPD and resentment over national division in the 1960s. The focus then shifts to hostility towards multi-culturalism, immigration, liberal asylum politics and, most obviously now, onto Islamophobia. However, the older resentments have not gone away either. Indeed, the display does an excellent job of showing how different strands of far-right ideology weave in and out of each other in a toxic, eddying brew of resentments that is never fixed for long.   ‘Neo-Nazism’, ‘Right-Wing Radicalism’, ‘Right-Wing Extremism’ and ‘Right-Wing Populism’ are, so the argument of the installation, distinct, but their boundaries are demonstrably fluid and porous too. What is perhaps most impressive about this display is the manner in which it shows the difficulty of demarcating the boundary between the ‘far’ and ‘mainstream’ Right, so much does the language of each cross-fertilise the politics of the other.

A second section addresses the main building blocks of the ideology, focusing on ten key tenets upon which it draws in an ever-evolving mix – racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinist nationalism, Social Darwinism, sexism, hostility to Romany culture, anti-democratic thought, Islamophobia, historical revisionism, xenophobia. The exhibit closes with a powerful photo-board documenting the shocking number of people who have been murdered for far-right or racist motives in recent decades.

As a scholar of modern Germany the exhibition gave me an enormous amount to reflect upon. Yet most of what I thought about after I left was: how might a similar exhibition on post-war British history look? How would one tell the story of the emergence, from the remnants of the British Union of Fascists, of the League of Empire Loyalists, or the story of the National Front and that of the British National Party? How might one treat the links between the remnants of those and the more recent emergence of UKIP, the English Defence League or the Britain First movement? Upon which businessmen, upon which members of the right-wing fringes of the Conservative Party, upon which nationalist publicists might one focus? What place in the story would one find for Monday Club MPs who surreptitiously sympathized with white supremacist rule in Rhodesia? How might one connect these and other such actors to the worlds of football hooliganism, provincial xenophobia, growing indifference to democratic norms and everyday mass media racism that have been the staples of British political culture over the years?

The questions roll on. Where does one define the boundary between the ‘acceptable’ and the ‘unacceptable’ Right in a British context? At what point does the colonial nostalgia that so mars British political culture offer a meaningful correlate to the ‘historical revisionism’ upon which the Munich exhibition focuses as a marker of extremist politics? How big would that photo-board be if it were filled by the faces of victims of racist and far-right murders in post-war Britain? From Blair Peach through Stephen Lawrence to Jo Fox MP through countless forgotten members of Britain’s ethnic minority communities over the years, British society has also been disgraced by many acts of murder analogous to those represented in Munich.

My point here is not to equate the diverse manifestations of extremist right-wing politics in Britain since 1945 with those in Germany. That is not the issue at stake here. My point, rather, lies in the contrast between a political culture that recognizes that it has a problem – Germany – and focuses the public history work of its civic institutions accordingly, and a political culture – Britain – that doesn’t recognize the problem in the first place. The reason why one cannot imagine such an exhibition in Britain taking place does not lie in the lack of material to fill it, but in the lack of political, cultural and institutional commitment to grappling with the issue. Here, as in many other ways, we have much to learn from the efforts of our German friends and colleagues.