The first anti-gender party was the NPD

A conversation on the opposition to feminist movements in Germany rising alongside authoritarianism and right-wing populism worldwide.

Photo: Esther Lehnert by FES

The education studies scholar Dr. Esther Lehnert has been analysing the topic of women and right-wing extremism for many years. She works as a free-lance staff member in the Amadeu Antonio Foundation's post for “Gender and Right-Wing Extremism.” She has been sharing and passing on her knowledge as a professor at the Alice Salomon University in Berlin since 2014. We interviewed her about current developments relating to right-wing populism, right-wing extremism and gender.

FES: The [right-wing populist] political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) made it into three Landtage (regional parliaments) in March. How long will it last there?

Lehnert: We will have to deal with the AfD for some time. The issues they focus on, like the question of how to cope with refugees, will not vanish that quickly. On the one hand, it depends how skilfully or unskilfully the party operates in the actual field of practice. On the other hand, it exploits latent emotional states, for example, latent racism. At the same time, it is virtually inconsequential how politicians behave in the regional parliaments. The society is divided and people are now venting their hate in a manner that I could not have ever dreamed possible a couple of years ago. You also see this manifested in the way that Angela Merkel has become a bogeyman, subjected to the most vicious abuse and threats. There is a lot more sexualised hate that is surfacing in some places, or hate against homosexual lifestyles. This has all taken on such a momentum that it will not just go away. Moreover, right-wing populism is a European-wide phenomenon - why should Germany remain an "island of bliss"?

“A lot more sexualised hate [...] is surfacing.”

FES: Are the people who vote for the AfD aware of what the party wants?

Lehnert: Some of them are not aware of it, otherwise not that many unemployed persons would have voted for the AfD, which in terms of its basic party platform is quite neo-liberal. In its first draft of a party platform, the AfD wanted to eliminate unemployment benefits. But racism and sexism just overshadow everything else.

FES: Are AfD voters anti-democratic?

Lehnert: Yes. Many people who vote for AfD would be characterised by Adorno as "authoritarian personalities": they want someone to give orders. And they obviously don't believe in protecting minorities. This [voting] is a fundamental principle of democracy, however.

FES: Are there two AfDs? One in the East and one in the West of Germany?

Lehnert: Racism is a problem throughout Germany. But the way it is being practiced varies. Racism in regions in which civil society is fundamentally anti-racist differs from regions where this is not the case. That is why the image and approach of the AfD in the eastern German federal states, for instance, is much more nationalistic. I find it difficult to describe the AfD in Saxony or Saxony-Anhalt even as a right-wing populist party. It is clearly a right-wing extremist party there. The AfD in Baden-Württemberg, on the other hand, is much more neo-liberal and is making an effort to put on a bourgeois cloak.

FES: What does "nationalist" mean in this context?

Lehnert: Nationalist means that an ethnically homogeneous population that, of course, has never existed in reality, is fabricated. This notion is based on the Nationalist Socialist "national community" and posits that the "value" of people and the rights that they derive from such are to be judged by their belonging to this imaginary society. When people are assigned different rights because of their "being German" by virtue of their blood, it violates every fundamental principle of democracy.

FES: But when Björn Höcke from the AfD in Saxony talks about different modes of reproduction between Africans and Europeans, he still refrains from attaching different values to them. What makes you think that a rejection of human rights is behind it all?

Lehnert: It's not all that simple. Take just one example. In Thuringia, I know a committed activist for democracy who holds a seat on the Health Committee of the regional parliament for the Green Party. An AfD politician on the Committee raised the question as to how the government intended to cope with the many illnesses that are introduced by "foreigners". The leap from this question to then asserting that we have to treat "foreigners" differently than Germans - because after all they spread diseases - is not a great one. This means that the AfD is navigating along the perimeters of open racism. The regional Parliament has just agreed to only treat AfD delegates the same way as the National Democratic Political party of Germany [Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD] for instance, if they are overtly racist. At present the party is making an effort to always hover in a "grey" area.

The cohesion of the imagined “national community” is kept up and reaffirmed by propagating fantasies of the enemy pouring in from outside.

Or to cite another example. The phrase "deport foreign criminals" was not an invention of the AfD, but rather the NPD. Foreign criminals are supposed to be treated differently than Germans. This is racism that is being more or less legitimised through criminal law because, after all, who wants criminals? So a shift is being prepared very skilfully: "we" are treated differently than "the others". This is, so to say, a dress rehearsal for the revocation of fundamental human rights. Beatrix von Storch approached it similarly with her call for border guards to be ordered to shoot people attempting to cross the border. She seized on the fact that border guards carry weapons in case of emergencies and transformed it into a nightmare fiction of hordes of invaders that "we" have to defend ourselves against. This is also a constitutive element of the make-believe "national community". Its cohesion is kept up and reaffirmed by propagating fantasies of the enemy pouring in from outside.

Attack as a strategy of defence brings about this shift to the right that we are witnessing at present

FES: Could one say that the AfD is preparing a debate situated at the margins of a state governed by rule of law, thereby moving these margins to the right?

Lehnert: Definitely. After all, Mr. Höcke also called for white heterosexual men to affirm their masculinity by being prepared to strike out and go on the attack. That is not a direct summons to action, but portraying attack as a strategy of defence brings about this shift to the right that we are witnessing at present.

FES: How should parties in the regional parliaments cope with the AfD?

Lehnert: It is important that there be clear procedures, comparable to the one that was settled upon to deal with the NPD: no broad discussion or debate takes place with the NPD. Only one person responds to its statements. After that the debate is over. The reason why I think that this is necessary is that the AfD is clearly a racist and sexist party.

FES: What arguments would you use to counter the AfD?

Lehnert: I am not interested in having any discussions with Frauke Petry or von Storch. I do not want to offer those politicians any stage for them to propagate their racism or contempt for human life. Instead, I would advocate a two-pronged strategy. The first part of this involves informing people: who profits from the introduction of a minimum wage and who does not? How can participation by recipients of transfer payments be improved? Or what exactly does freedom of the press mean when the AfD characterises the entire media as "purveyors of lies" à la Josef Goebbels? Information campaigns no longer work, however, when people project all their frustrations against "those at the top", which is to say politicians and the media, or "those at the bottom" - frequently refugees - and are eager to finally give vent to their frustrations. Then arguments no longer make any sense because it is not about arguments. The second aspect is the commitment to a democratic society that is open to the world. If this commitment is not nurtured at the level of the family, then it should at least be cultivated at nursery school. What do human rights mean, what is diversity all about, what is democracy? Our schools still exhibit deficits at the level of participation and commitment against social inequality. People have to be able to practice democracy, to experience that they can do something themselves: what will change if I participate? These are the basics.

I would advocate a two-prongued strategy [...] informing people [...] and commitment to a democratic society that is open to the world

FES: The AfD is the first party that has been able to register gains in elections with an anti-gender focus ...

Lehnert: The first anti-gender party was the NPD. It called it G-ender - with a German "G". Incidentally, the AfD in the eastern German federal states has adopted this as well. I have collated anti-gender activities by actors ranging from "worried parents" to critics of gender mainstreaming. Generally speaking, the NPD has provided the buzzwords. Calls for a roll-back of gender mainstreaming, a stop to alleged "early sexualisation" of children, an end to "gay marriages" - everything that was originally demanded by the NPD has been adopted by the AfD and made palatable to the mainstream.

FES: And how dangerous is all this at present?

Lehnert: Anti-feminism is nothing new. It comes in waves. One can observe how progress in gender policy is followed by a wave of reaction. A reactionary masculine movement got under way at the beginning of the millennia: it is driven by a feeling that women receive undue privileges and a desire to eliminate gender commissioners and women's shelters. This has been distilled and spelled out for the first time by the AfD. What is new about it all is that it has become socially acceptable to openly forward anti-feminist arguments.

It has become socially acceptable to openly forward anti-feminist arguments.

FES: Why are these movements ascendant? Where exactly has all this progress taken place in gender policy against which they are reacting?

Lehnert: Gender mainstreaming has been official EU policy since the turn of the millennium. A Law for Protection against Violence was enacted for the first time in 2002. Among other things, it entitles victims of domestic violence to take sole possession of the dwelling. More women are rising to positions of leadership - and we even have a "small quota". All of this constitutes progress. The leading debate, including and especially taking place in the media, has been guided by middle-aged heterosexual men so far. The actions of "Pro Quota" are a good example of this: they present an experienced senior editor a frog as an "award" for not having any women working at the senior editor's desk. This elite is thus being put in question at present.

FES: In the past, a separate space was reserved for women - and everyone left it at that.

Lehnert: That's right. They were not really questioning the debate at the time. This has now changed. Our overall view of women is changing. How long was femininity directly linked to motherhood, for example? Together with these elites, the AfD and Pegida have been successful in fighting against that which they perceive to be a denigration of their masculinity.

FES: Does this also play a role in the tirades against Angela Merkel?

Lehnert: Yes, indeed. It is pretty clear. She was welcome as "mother of the nation", but motherhood was supposed to be restricted to the "German people". When she advocates more open borders, she is stripped of this role by these people.

FES: What role does the Catholic Church play with its anti-abortion discourse?

Lehnert: Many activists in the West are fundamentalist Christians, like Beatrix von Storch, for example. They are not that common in eastern Germany. But on the whole we are witnessing a "re-religionising" of Germany. Some people want fundamental Christianity to play a major role once again, while others want the same for Islam. Religious foundations for norms are playing a bigger role once again. I think it's absurd, but that's the way it is.

FES: What role does neo-liberalism play in movements like the AfD? The caption here would be: social ties are being lost to a certain extent because rampant individualism and unbridled egotism are the order of the day - this is disquieting for people.

Lehnert: That plays a substantial role - in a sort of pincer movement. On the one hand, the AfD is forwarding neo-liberal arguments, adorned with a strong dose of social Darwinism that it views as "natural". Glorification of masculinity and misogyny fit in nicely with this. Individuals who are isolated and left uncertain as a result are then on the other hand reintegrated into society through the "national community". We can definitely compare this with strategies of the Nationalist Socialists: they were successful in appealing to the working class even though their policies did not benefit the working class at all. They also appealed to women - even though their policies were inimical to the interests of women.

AfD is forwarding neo-liberal arguments, adorned with a strong dose of social Darwinism [...]. Glorification of masculinity and misogyny fit in nicely with this

FES: If one looks around the globe at other countries, it would appear that authoritarian leadership structures are ascendant, from Putin to Le Pen all the way to the supporters of Donald Trump in the USA. To pose the question in pointed terms: is this the beginning of the end of the Age of Democracy?

Lehnert: Oh, come one, give me a break. Still, one must admit: that which Adorno referred to as an "authoritarian personality" has always remained latent. History is never linear, nor does it repeat itself. We are not only seeing the rise of authoritarian governments, but also considerable protest against them. And in Germany there is not only the AfD, but also a commitment on behalf of refugees that is without parallel in our history. We have achieved a new dimension of openness to "other" people and are discussing post-colonialism for the first time. Openness and tolerance must be demanded again and again - like a mantra. Democracy has to be learned anew day in day out.

The interview first appeared in German, in the sixth edition of Gender Matters, the gender politics infobrief of FES.

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