Where German Nationalism Is Thriving — and It's Not the Far Right - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Where German Nationalism Is Thriving — and It's Not the Far Right

Where German Nationalism Is Thriving — and It's Not the Far Right

By Alexander J. Motyl



Because nationalism in Europe extends far beyond Germany.

By Alexander J. Motyl

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University–Newark and an expert on Ukraine.

The recent G-20 summit in Hamburg demonstrated two sides of modern-day Germany: the rational cosmopolitanism of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s political elites, and the irrational anarchism of the country’s extreme left.

Noticeably absent? The German extreme right, usually labeled (wrongly) as nationalist. There are many reasons why they’re not visible within the corridors of power, or even on German streets. It’s not because nationalism is weak; quite the opposite, it’s because nationalism now defines Deutschland’s mainstream.

Most Germans would disagree, but that’s because they mistake chauvinism and supremacism for nationalism. That is, in fact, a very narrow and historically incorrect interpretation of nationalism. Far more accurate is viewing nationalism as one of three approaches to the nation-state. The first is the belief that nations should be united and have their own state. The second is that policymakers should ruthlessly pursue the interests of the nation. The third is that national identity should be the core of collective identity. 

Even Germany’s laudable commitment to coming to terms with the Holocaust and World War II has a decidedly nationalist dimension.

Examples of the first view of nationalism include Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor who waged three wars to unite the German-speaking territories in the German Reich, and Adolf Hitler, who annexed the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland on the grounds that its German inhabitants belonged in his Reich. 

A more recent example is the recently deceased former chancellor feted as a great European: Helmut Kohl. His reunification of Germany in 1990 was nothing less than a nationalist coup par excellence. And left-wing critics of reunification correctly saw it as just that. Kohl admittedly never would have called himself a nationalist, but that just goes to show one can be a nationalist and not realize it.

Helmut Kohl

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in December 2009 — a nationalist who did not realize it.

Source Andreas Rentz / Getty

Today, the ruthless pursuit of national interests underlies Berlin’s policy toward the Nord Stream I and II pipeline projects. Both entail collaborating with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, while sacrificing the interests of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic states to German-Russian collaboration. They also place German interests above European unity. The fact that the primary supporters of this nationalist policy are Germany’s Socialists who claim to support human and civil rights above all else goes to show just how deeply rooted the pursuit of national interests is in Germany’s political culture.

The third form of nationalism — a strong sense of national identity — is so ubiquitous and so taken for granted in Germany as to be almost invisible. Hitler and the Nazis are abjured, but Bismarck’s influence continues as reflected in numerous statues, museums and everyday objects (like the Bismarck herring). Imperial Germany, an expansionist, nationalist state that started World War I, is visible in scores of palaces, buildings, monuments and arches, many of which are being reconstructed in the former East Germany. Despite strong evidence of their complicity in war crimes, Germany’s soldiers from both world wars continue to be commemorated in the country’s graveyards.


Even Germany’s laudable commitment to coming to terms with the Holocaust and World War II has a decidedly nationalist dimension. By placing its crimes at the center of national identity, Germany has — probably unintentionally and unwittingly — claimed a special status for itself: Unlike other countries’ citizens, Germans are exceptionally moral, ethical and committed to human rights. The tendency of German intellectuals and policymakers to preach to their neighbors, and especially to Eastern Europeans, probably has its roots in the feeling of moral superiority engendered by its Holocaust-related self-criticism and self-abnegation.

But this invisible mainstreaming of German nationalism has implications — for our understanding of nationalism, for Europe and for Germany.

First, if Germany can be nationalist even as a democracy, then nationalism clearly is as compatible with democracy as it is with authoritarianism. Both democrats and authoritarians can want their nations to be united under a state, ruthlessly pursue their interests and possess a strong sense of identity. So it follows that the nationalism of Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans need not be cause for alarm — at least no more so than German nationalism. It also follows that the Eastern Europeans are no more nationalist than the self-styled cosmopolitans, the West Europeans.

Followers of the neo-Nazi party NPD wave

Followers of the neo-Nazi NPD party demonstrate in Berlin on May 1, 2009. May Day regularly features clashes between far-right skinheads, anti-fascist groups and police.

Source Axel Schmidt / Getty

Second, Europe must recognize that nationalism is mainstream, not just in Germany and Great Britain, but in every country of the European Union. France stands out: Take a walk through Paris and marvel at its continued glorification of the imperialist warmonger Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolutionaries who guillotined, burned and pillaged with abandon, and such statesmen as Charles de Gaulle, who always pursued a “France first” foreign policy. The bottom line is that nationalist states created the EU and that nationalist states will continue to populate it. As a result, there will always be limits to just how much integration the EU’s Western European members will stomach. And it is their nationalism, far more than the nationalism of the Eastern Europeans, that will serve as the main obstacle to an ever-closer union. 

Finally, Germany will face a national identity crisis if it continues to welcome immigrants and refugees. On the one hand, the centrality of the Holocaust in German national identity means the country will remain hard-pressed to say no to refugees. On the other hand, the greater the number of immigrants — and especially of Middle Eastern immigrants — the more difficult it will be for Germany to maintain the Holocaust focus at the core of its identity. Refugees, after all, bear no guilt or responsibility for Germany’s past crimes. Increasingly, they will question Germany’s insistence that to be German is to have a special moral relationship to the genocide of Jews.

If Germans reject such concerns, the refugees will remain unintegrated. If Germans recognize their concerns, they will have to develop a new national narrative, thereby incensing Jews and their European neighbors.

It’s high time that Germany — and the rest of Western Europe — recognize just how central nationalism is, and will remain, to them and to their self-understanding. Nationalism is anything but the preserve of extreme right-wingers or the quaint self-perceptions of Poles and Hungarians. Nationalism thrives … in Berlin, Paris and all the other capitals of Western Europe.

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