Why you should care
Because Elsässer’s antics may be all you need to understand the political firestorm spreading in Europe right now.
If you want to understand European politics today, Jürgen Elsässer is a name you have to know. The 57-year-old journalist and activist from Brandenburg, Germany, is everywhere these days — especially up in Russia’s face.
He’s a troublemaker and skeptic of mainstream European politics whose voice is getting louder and louder in Germany, and starting to reverberate across the continent.
In person, Elsässer is slim and tall. Wearing a smart suit and sporting gray hair, he looks like a cooler version of the bleached-blond Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders. Elsässer would insist he is distinctly to the left of Wilders, but the two share something surprising in common: Both are deeply critical of the concept of Europe as a single coherent body.
Elsässer, a self-proclaimed leftist, is where Europe’s extreme right and extreme left converge, in common distaste of ‘the common project’…
Across the continent, many Europeans resent efforts to further erase national identities, integrate the continent and pass greater powers to the European Union. And Elsässer, a self-proclaimed leftist, is where Europe’s extreme right and extreme left converge, in common distaste of “the common project” — as British Prime Minister David Cameron put it. The argument goes that European politics has become too big, too bossy, too interfering.
Concerned about an encroaching “foreign domination” of Germany, Elsässer enumerates his worries: First, thanks to the EU, cultures are mixing too much. (By this, he surely means more than just culture mixing — it’s also about immigration and Germany’s recently fraught relationship with it.) And secondly, the already-weak continent could be about to get even weaker, thanks to the crisis in the Ukraine.
To Elsässer, Europe’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been all wrong. He’d prefer isolationism, and worries that the continent risks promising too close a relationship with Ukraine — thereby implying greater financial comfort.
He points to the trip that German minister of foreign affairs Guido Westerwelle made to Kiev to encourage the rallies as just one more example of false hopes. And Elsässer is not alone. Plenty of Europeans would argue that the prospect of bringing Ukraine into the European fold inevitably provokes the anger of neighboring Russia, a nation which can easily undermine Ukraine’s political and economic stability.
Born to working-class, conservative parents in Pforzheim, Germany, Elsässer emerged as a rebellious, ultra-left-wing teenager who soon went on to write for Communist publications that decried German nationalism. He still considers himself a “left-wing” journalist, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell from his public face. The extreme right objects to the EU because its basic principles of freedom of movement and freedom of services allow residents of, say, Romania and Bulgaria to come to Germany and apply for social benefits. The far left is also critical, viewing the EU, the U.S. and NATO as imperialist powers. You can see how it’d be tough to distinguish between the two sides.
Elsässer has called the EU a nation-destroying imperialist, while also joining in with the right-wing arguments of the euroskeptics. Right-wing parties did enormously well in the election for the European Parliament in May. With 7 percent of the German vote, the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), a party that Elsässer openly supports, may not have won a majority — but it’s a minority with a big voice.
Besides his political zine, Elsässer also serves as a kind of street worker to rally his people. The weekly protests he’s seen at the helm of — which are small but attract enormous media attention — resemble a speakers’ corner, where anybody is welcome to give a speech about anything. The result? Anything from a wild mix of conspiracy theories about who killed Michael Jackson to sophisticated critiques of capitalism.
I saw Elsässer not on a street corner, but at a Berlin hotel, where the audience was a blend of young and old, male and female, who’d come to watch Elsässer speak about the Ukraine crisis. I asked him about his xenophobically tinged blog posts gathering steam online. (One blog entry, for example, is titled “Help, the Roma are coming!”) By way of explanation, he told me: “I only feel that when you are in Germany, you should actually feel you are in Germany. When in Greece, you should feel you are naturally in Greece. Otherwise your vacation is no fun.”
It’s a deceptively simple statement that underscores much of what is brewing in Europe: an inhospitability to immigration, a sense that borders must be less porous. What does Elsässer feel is being lost, thanks to the European experiment? He cites — praises — German virtues like diligence and punctuality, which he says could be destroyed by “intermixture.” I then ask if I could destroy a culture merely by being half-Turkish. This, he responds quickly, is a totally different question.