A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a temporary exhibition on the history of the post-war far right in Germany, curated by Munich’s Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. This institution, established in 2015, typifies the political and civic pedagogy that has been integral to the culture of the Federal Republic since the Second World War. As well as an excellent permanent exhibition on the history of National Socialism, the Centre hosts occasional temporary displays, such as the current installation: ‘Never Again. Back Again. Still There. Right Wing Extremism in Germany Since 1945’. Although focused solely on the German experience, the European-wide resurgence of populist far right politics gives the exhibition a much wider resonance, including, as I shall argue here, in Great Britain.
The exhibition first takes visitors through successive manifestations of far right organizing since the war, showing how such politics have ebbed and flowed: from the diffuse nationalist protest parties of the immediate post-war years and the Socialist Reich Party of the early 1950s to contemporary manifestations of far-right extremism, culminating in the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The far right is depicted as a diffuse milieu of broadly shared sensibilities, characterized by movements that emerged, merged, blended and faded at particular junctures. It has never fully established itself in the mainstream of German politics – until now – but neither has it ever entirely disappeared as a significant political presence. The dramatis personae of this relentlessly depressing story are wealthy yet marginal entrepreneurs, disaffected members of the ‘establishment’ right, ordinary citizens concerned about economic security against a backdrop of rapid change, and skinhead thugs of the far right underground. At the same time, the response of the democratic majority – be it in the form of anti-fascist demonstrations or concessions on asylum legislation – is woven intelligently into the account.
The exhibition also reveals 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 considered alongside the authoritarian nationalism of the National Democratic Party (NPD) and resentment over national division in the 1960s following the erection of the Berlin Wall. The focus then shifts to contemporary hostility towards multi-culturalism, immigration, liberal asylum politics and Islamophobia.
However, older resentments have not disappeared. The exhibition does an excellent job of illuminating 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. It identifies the ten main building blocks of far-right ideology: racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinist nationalism, Social Darwinism, sexism, hostility to Romany culture, anti-democratic thought, Islamophobia, historical revisionism and xenophobia. ‘Neo-Nazism’, ‘Right-Wing Radicalism’, ‘Right-Wing Extremism’ and ‘Right-Wing Populism’ are distinct, it argues, but their boundaries are demonstrably fluid and porous too. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which the display highlights the difficulty of demarcating the boundary between the ‘far’ and ‘mainstream’ right, because the language of each cross-fertilises the politics of the other. The exhibit closes with a powerful photo-board documenting the shocking number of people who have been murdered in recent decades due to far-right or racist motives.
As a scholar of modern Germany, the exhibition gave me an enormous amount to reflect upon. Yet I was particularly struck by the question of what a similar exhibition on post-war British history might look like. How would one tell the story of the emergence of the League of Empire Loyalists from the remnants of the British Union of Fascists, or the story of the National Front and the subsequent rise of the British National Party? How might one treat the links between these predecessors and the more recent emergence of UKIP, the English Defence League or the Britain First movement? Upon which businessmen, which members of the rightwing fringes of the Conservative Party, 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 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 form a meaningful correlate to the ‘historical revisionism’ which the Munich exhibition identifies as a key marker of far right politics? How big would the photo-board need to be if it were filled by the faces of victims of racist and far-right murders in post-war Britain? From Blair Peach and Stephen Lawrence to Jo Fox MP, through countless forgotten members of 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 far right politics in Britain since 1945 with those in Germany. My point, rather, pivots on 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 that one cannot imagine such an exhibition taking place in Britain is not because of the lack of material to fill it, but 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.
An earlier version of this piece appeared at www.neilgregor.com.