The Challenge of Right-Wing Extremism: Facts and Insights from Germany

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Right-wing populism is on the rise across Western societies. In Germany, the establishment of a new far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AFD), has been accompanied by an unprecedented mobilization of right-wing extremist protest groups like the PEGIDA movement (in English, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), and accelerated by a heated debate about immigration. Right-wing populists have been even more successful in other countries, as the Brexit vote in the UK, Donald Trump's election in the US, and Marine Le Pen's polls in the race to the French presidency show.

For 15 years, researchers (including myself) at the University of Leipzig, Germany, have conducted a study to track Germans’ political attitudes, and in particular, their views on democracy and right-wing extremism. Contrary to the common perception that the AFD is part of an entirely new global, right-wing phenomenon, our study shows that anti-democratic and xenophobic sentiments have long existed. While we find strong evidence that the recent rise in right-wing extremism builds on previous trends, our findings strongly suggests that German society as a whole has not shifted towards the far-right.

The following analysis draws on the findings of the 2016 University of Leipzig Study, “Die Enthemmte Mitte” (the Disinhibited Center) to shed light on the case of Germany and report key findings on right-wing extremist attitudes. It also focuses on some explanatory dynamics that seem to be vital for most contemporary Western societies: a deepening polarization of society, increasing radicalization on the far-right, and a partial decline in the legitimacy of political and societal institutions. Ultimately, the study suggests a renewed focus on questions of legitimacy and social equality to counter the rise of right-wing populism.

Measuring right-wing extremist attitudes in Germany since 2002

The Leipzig Center Studies (the title references the studies’ focus on the “center” and not the “fringes” of German society) are a series of surveys started in 2002 that use face-to-face interviews with randomized, representative samples to measure political attitudes. In 2016, the study included 2403 participants. The core instrument is a questionnaire designed to measure six dimensions of right-wing extremist ideology: approval of dictatorship, xenophobia, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, social-Darwinism, and revisionism of National Socialism. Right-wing extremism is thus defined as an ideology of inequality, including both anti-democratic and racist attitudes.

The 2016 study was funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and the Otto Brenner Foundation and has, as in previous years, received considerable attention in the German public debate. The continued monitoring of political attitudes helps civil rights groups and policymakers to better understand the challenges of anti-democratic and racist attitudes and to raise awareness of the phenomena. For years, the study’s key message has been that right-wing extremist attitudes are not on the margins of society and that institutional actors, like the police, cannot be left to deal with these attitudes on their own. The 2016 study continues to show that sentiments against minorities and anti-democratic attitudes are existent in every layer of society and that their prevalence is a challenge for democratic societies as a whole.  

Despite the success of far-right actors, no rise in right-wing extremist attitudes

The core of the Leipzig Center Studies is a questionnaire comprised of 18 statements, with three statements for each dimension of right-wing extremist ideology. Each participant in the survey was asked to respond to these statements on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 means “fully disagree” and 5 means “fully agree”. Table 1 shows participants’ acceptance of some selected statements: for example, approximately 10% of respondents agreed with the phrase, “We should have a Führer”. This percentage is similar to what earlier studies dating back to the 1980s have found.

Overt anti-Semitism is less common in Germany compared to Eastern Europe, because of Germany’s difficult history. We know from other research that there is a particularly low social acceptance of anti-Semitism in Germany, shaped by the dominance of an official “anti-anti-Semitism” consensus. We can therefore assume that the social pressure not to express anti-Semitic views informs participants’ responses and leads to an underreporting of anti-Semitism in Germany. Still, around 10% of the respondents openly agree to classic anti-Semitic statements like the ones shown in Table 1 (“The Jews work with dirty tricks more than others to reach their goals.”).

Xenophobia has been identified by researchers, but also by far-right demagogues, as the “gateway drug” to a right-wing extremist attitude: it builds on widely shared beliefs and is thus relatively easy to communicate (particularly when compared to anti-Semitism). A third of all respondents throughout Germany agrees with the survey’s xenophobic statements, particularly with the idea that immigrants are culturally “overwhelming” Germany. The Federal Republic has only recently developed a self-perception as a country of immigration and is thus particularly vulnerable to such exclusionist sentiments.

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The study measures the respondents’ average response in each dimension. Only if respondents average above 3.5 (max 5, min 1) on all three statements in a certain dimension, such as xenophobia, are they considered as agreeing with this dimension of right-wing extremism. Graph 1 shows the agreement per dimension over time. Contrary to the increased attention paid to far-right parties and groups, our study finds that right-wing extremist ideology has not spread in Germany. In fact, the overall trend, interrupted by a rise after the global financial and economic crisis, points downward. Some dimensions of right-wing extremism only garner agreement among a small minority of about 5% of the population. However, the peaks in the early 2000s, when Germany experienced slow economic growth and high unemployment rates, and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, give some evidence to the fact that (real and/or perceived) economic deprivation matters.

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The potential of anti-democratic and racist attitudes

The steady decrease in respondents’ agreement with right-wing extremist ideology is a positive sign for German democracy. So, too, is the relatively small minority of respondents who can be identified as holding a “closed right wing extremist worldview” by demonstrating agreement with all six dimensions of right-wing ideology. But on closer inspection, the numbers also show a more worrying trend. Although a majority of respondents rejected a majority of the anti-democratic statements, this was not true in every category: the three xenophobic statements were opposed by less than 50% of respondents, with a third of the respondents agreeing and many others undecided. The same was true for nationalist-chauvinist statements. These findings show that, although manifest right-wing extremist ideology is not a majoritarian view, a number of statements, particularly those emphasizing a homogenous, elevated in-group and an ill-intentioned, less-valued out-group, are also not dismissed by a majority. This suggests an increasing fragility in popular support for Germany’s liberal democracy.

A shift in right-wing discourse: the targeting of specific minorities

While acceptance of right-wing extremist ideology in Germany is decreasing overall, aggression against specific groups is increasing. Certain groups are increasingly targeted in both verbal and physical attacks (the federal police reported a spike in attacks in on refugees in 2015 and 2016). The 2016 study included additional questionnaires measuring antiziganism (enmity against Roma people), Islamophobia, and attitudes towards asylum seekers. These group-focused enmities have risen slightly from 2014 to 2016 as these groups, particularly Muslims and asylum-seekers, are increasingly portrayed in the media. Furthermore, these targeted groups fit into a pattern that social scientists have investigated for some time (and that has historically been trues for other minority groups, as well): Muslims, Roma, and asylum seekers are perceived and socially constructed as abstract threats to an imaginary “we” group. Roma people, who have been perceived as outsiders for centuries, are often depicted as a security threat in Europe. Muslims are increasingly perceived as both a security threat and a cultural threat to what is imagined as a homogenous “we”. Finally, asylum seekers are predominantly seen as an economic threat. These various perceptions of threat intersect and fuel racism and anti-democratic attitudes particularly in times of perceived economic distress. Right-wing demagogues use this strategically to push an authoritarian agenda – a pattern that has been repeated throughout history as different minority groups are perceived as particularly threatening (the Irish in the US, the Turkish in Germany, etc.)

The AfD as the new home for an old problem

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has quickly adopted this strategy. Germany has not seen a successful far-right party for a long time, though racism has not never been absent from public discourse. Until recently (2012), neo-fascist parties like the National Democratic Party (NPD) were only elected on the state-level and failed to keep seats in regional parliaments for more than two consecutive terms. However, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and with the unfolding Euro-crisis, a new party, the AfD, has stepped in. Though the party just barely missed the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag in 2013, it has since entered the European Parliament and every regional German parliament up for elections. The party is currently predicted to win around 10% of the vote in this year’s national election (September 2017), paving the way for its entry into the Bundestag. This string of electoral successes was accompanied by a discursive shift in the public sphere: the AfD was able to further stir up and benefit from sentiments against European integration and against 5minorities like Muslims and refugees. As shown above, the number of people agreeing with this right-wing extremist ideology did not necessarily increase, but it certainly became louder.

The rise of the AFD suggests that the party has created a new political home for a pre-existing group of right-wing advocates. This becomes evident if we consider the reported voting patterns of those 106 respondents that showed a coherent right-wing extremist worldview. In 2014 most of them reported that they would not vote for a right-wing party but were instead integrated by centrist parties, or even by parties on the left. This fundamentally changed in the 2016 survey. Now, a third of the survey respondents holding extremist views would reportedly vote for the AfD while another quarter would abstain from voting at all (see table 2). In comparison, in 2014, a quarter each had said they would vote for the center-left SPD and the center-right CDU.

In short, racist and anti-democratic attitudes have been a significant presence in German society and within our democratic parties for some time. On the one hand, this raises the fundamental question of what produces these sentiments in our societies. On the other, it is worth examining how democratic parties were able to integrate voters with extremist right-wing views. These insights offer important starting points for a wide spectrum of pro-democracy politicians to act against growing right-wing extremism.

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The increasing polarization of society – and radicalization on the far right fringe

In addition to the standard, 18-question survey, the 2016 survey included two additional questionnaires that were used in the 2006 survey (to be cost efficient, not all supplementary questionnaires can be repeated in every survey). The first asked respondents to give an assessment of their trust in a number of political and societal institutions, including political parties, the police, the media, and the German Supreme Court. The second asked for respondents’ approval of violence as a means for political contention. The 2016 survey found that, over the last ten years, there was no significant change in the level of trust in institutions nor did violence become more accepted. However, there was a significant increase in polarization: Among respondents with low right-wing extremism scores, the level of trust in institutions and the rejection of violence has significantly increased. The opposite is true for the (still) small minority with high levels of right-wing extremist views. We interpret this as the result of polarization processes, accompanied by a radicalization of the far right. For a small but loud minority, political and societal institutions are no longer trustworthy and some increasingly see violence as a legitimate means for their political goals. This might well be a shared challenge throughout Western societies today.

The challenges ahead, drawing lessons from Germany for other Western democracies

These key findings from the Leipzig study suggest some important lessons for Germany and for other Western democracies. First, the findings in Germany should serve as a cautionary tale to avoid equating vocal right-wing extremist movements and parties with a general societal shift to the right. While the visibility and persistence of right-wing extremist attitudes is an obvious challenge to democratic societies, they are not necessarily the majoritarian opinion. Rather, it is possible that right-wing demagogues are able to skillfully mobilize and radicalize a right-wing extremist minority. If they are successful, as in Germany, this small minority may dramatically shift the mainstream political discourse to the right, and to their advantage. In particular when accompanied by threats of verbal or physical violence, this vocal minority can silence opposition and discourage political opponents. But it should not be misunderstood as a general societal shift to the far right.  

Second, the polarization in Western societies, which has led to growing distrust in basic democratic institutions, needs to be addressed at its roots. While racism and anti-democratic attitudes are not new, they have gained what liberal democracy has lost in legitimacy in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the steady growth of inequality. The perceived losses of globalization are the driving force for this polarization and radicalization. When such socioeconomic issues are not addressed, the political discourse tends to center around cultural ones, opening opportunities for far-right populists. To escape this trap will require a renewed focus on socioeconomic issues–a good starting point to build convincing political programs.

Last but not least, the simultaneous loss in political trust and growth of right-wing populism suggests that this will be a long-term challenge. Rebuilding trust will take longer than destroying it. Civilizing political debate will be more challenging than poisoning it. And yet, at least in Germany, the firmly pro-democratic majority should give us hope. Perhaps the silver lining of rising right-wing populism will be the increased politization and mobilization of this pro-democratic majority.


Johannes Kiess is a sociologist at the University of Siegen, Germany, and a researcher at the Center for the Study of Right-wing Extremism and Democracy at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He is a co-author of the 2016 study, "The Disinhibited Center: Authoritarian and Far-Right Political Attitudes in Germany".

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