Cold War and the German Far Right

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‘The German extreme right was unable to make headway because of the Cold War but reunification has opened many new possibilities for it’ – do you agree?

The Cold War was undoubtedly a period during which Germany’s right wing was stifled. With an oppressive Communist government in the East and a more stable and moderate form of government in the west, extremism was largely isolated in the Cold War years. This is not to say however that the extreme right was completely inactive during this period. Reunification though has certainly given a wider platform for right wing extremists and to some extent opened up new possibilities.

Despite the eventual defeat of the Nazis, at the end of the Second World War there appeared to be good conditions for a neo-fascist revival. The war had left 10 million German refugees who had lost their property and 2 million civil servants who had lost their jobs having previously benefited under the Nazi regime.[1]Certainly those committed to a right wing revival would have hoped to harness the dissatisfaction of those who had lost both economically and socially from the war. Had the difficult post-war conditions continued, then this may have been the case, but the rebuilding of Europe and Western Europe’s determination to build up its defences against the Eastern bloc ensured that Europe’s post-war recovery was designed to include West Germany as an important ally in the fight against Communism. On the whole, all European countries, Germany included, came to benefit from post-war prosperity and the post war settlement was acceptable even to defeated Germans. As von Beyme concludes:

“Labels like ‘defeated’ and ‘victors’ – unlike after the first world war – were of minor importance, so that in all countries neo fascism stood less chance.”[2]Had the Allies looked to humiliate a defeated Germany the outcome may have been different, as it where there was little to stir up nationalist sentiment with.

The post war consensus of politics in West Germany clearly prevented the spread of fascism that might have been expected. Post-war reconstruction created favourable economic conditions that in turn enabled the state to satisfy both the political and economic interests of the major social groups. The middle classes benefited financially in the post-war years, unemployment benefits were in place for the poor and public health insurance and pension provision were both put into place. The successful economy effectively silenced many critics of the post-war governments and left extremists without a popular cause with which to fight. As Stoss writes:

“Thus the socio-economic preconditions were established for a broad legitimation of state power and the integration of forces critical of or hostile to the system.”[3]

The post-war party political system in West Germany also made right wing growth difficult.. A popular consensus emerged including representational democracy, social market economy, interaction with the West European community and anti-communism. Importantly, the three major political parties – CDU, FDP and SPD dominated elections at the expense of smaller parties. The five per cent barrier to a place in government prevented extremist parties from establishing a political foothold. Between 1957 and 1983, no small party succeeded in surmounting the five per cent barrier to representation in the Bundestag.[4]

It should be noted however that whilst organised right wing extremism failed to develop into a mass movement in West Germany, there were certainly elements of the population that maintained anti-democratic attitudes and sympathies with the extreme right. In 1971 a survey found that 50 per cent of those questioned found ‘National Socialism, in principle, a good idea, poorly put into practice, whilst the SINUS Institute found in 1979 that 13 per cent of the West German population had a right wing extremist picture of the world and 37 per cent a ‘potential for authoritarian disposition.[5] In effect, a substantial amount of the West German population was susceptible to right wing extremism.

Membership figures of right wing extremist parties gives little clear indication as to the influence of the right. Whilst membership reached 76,000 in 1954, it fell to 21,000 in 1964, rose again to 40,000 in 1967 and fell to 23,000 in 1985.[6]Such relatively low numbers combined with fluctuation in membership suggests little consistent long-term support for the extreme right. Certainly in West Germany, right wing extremism remained alive during the Cold War but economic prosperity, stable government and a state that was determined not to let extremism flourish ensured that the extreme right made little headway.

Whilst there was some awareness of the dangers of right wing extremism in West Germany, the picture in the east was less clear. In many ways the old GDR seemed an unlikely breeding ground for the right wing and indeed the old communist government had often boasted of its successes in defeating fascism.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany brought about huge political and social change to Germany. To some extent this has given added momentum to right wing extremism, in the East as much as the West.

Reunification was initially expected to bring about a fall in support for the right as it removed the principal political demand of nationalist groups from the agenda. On both sides of the wall however there were issues other than a united Germany for right-wingers to concentrate on. Additionally, the power of the old East German regime to prevent right wing extremism can be overstated. Prior to the fall of the Wall, extremist activities and violence had formed a part of East German life but had been largely played down by the authorities. The way that extremism took a foothold early in the 1990s serves as some evidence of this. By 1992 there were 2000 neo-Nazi members in East Germany, twice as many as the West with four times the population.[7]

There are other reasons as to why right wing extremist may have flourished in the East. The activism and novelty of West German right wingers will, at the time of reunification, have been seen as something of an attraction to a generation that had grown up in East Germany and lived through the ideologically directed education system and socialisation processed of the Communist regime. Ease of access to membership of groups would also have appealed to young East Germans who had previously been excluded from the old—style Communist Party apparatus.

By 1992 right wing parties were beginning to achieve some electoral success in the new Germany, winning three seats in the Lander parliaments.[8]One of the primary reasons for this was that right wing extremists were able to adapt to the new political and social landscape across Germany and find new goals. Initially a number of groups laid claim to some minor East European territories that had been part of Germany immediately before the outbreak of the war. Quickly though the shift in focus moved towards a traditional hub of right wing thinking – attacks on the number of foreigners living, working or claiming benefits in the country.

Right wing extremist groups from early in the 1990s began to criticise the increasing number of asylum seekers coming into Germany from across Eastern Europe. There was a positive attempt by the right to stir up fears on the effects of immigrants both economically and socially. Right wing groups pointed to the demands for right of settlement made by many guest workers and students who had previously arrived in East Germany from third world states. In 1991, 256,000 foreigners, many from Yugoslavia and Romania, entered Germany to apply for political asylum and a further 222,000 applied to become citizens under the constitutional provisions for ethnic Germans.[9]Again, right wing extremists pointed to the fact that many asylum seekers visibly lived on state subsidies while waiting for their applications to be processed. Unification quickly became a source of ammunition for the right. As Roberts writes:

“Unification, far from depriving them of the nationalist theme, offered them a new variation of it, a policy success for which these groups could seek to claim the credit and which had created a larger, more powerful, Germany freed at last from the last restrictions imposed by the post-war occupancy policy of the victorious allies.”[10]

Another viable point is that Communist rule in East Germany in itself had left the country with some characteristics in tune with the right wing. The anti-democratic nature of the old regime in East Germany could be mirrored in some traits of the right wing extremists. As Roberts again suggests:

“Authoritarianism, the claim to possession of an absolute truth, a clear ‘friend-enemy’ distinction, fanaticism, and the idea of homogeneity of the people, were characteristics fostered by communist rule in the GDR and – suitably transferred – are also elements of the claims of extreme right wing parties and groups.”[11]

There were other reasons for citizens in the East to look to the extreme right. Corruption amongst politicians was relatively widespread in the early 1990s with party financing scandals, ministers becoming involved in improper financial dealings and increased salaries for politicians. There was a feeling amongst many poorer Germans that orthodox politician were becoming too self serving and that the state subsidies for mainstream party political campaigns were too expensive – a 1992 survey found that twice as many East Germans were dissatisfied with the German democratic system than West German voters.[12]

The period 1991-94 saw a notable upturn in violence orchestrated by the extreme right. Guest workers, asylum seekers and hostels housing these people came under regular attack. The violence culminated in murder on occasions – in Dresden in 1991 a young Mozambican immigrant was thrown under a tram, refuges were burnt down in cities such as Leipzig and Rostock and in a particularly chilling event in Hayerswerda, a five night protest by right wing extremists culminated in all foreigners being bussed out of the town.[13]

The reaction of the government of a united Germany would be crucial in determining the post-unification progress of the extreme right. Throughout the 1980s, successive West German governments had been criticised for their lax approach in tackling the right wing. McGowan concludes “this was refuted by the administrations concerned but their reactions to the right were often contrasted with their more sever approach towards the left wing terrorists from the 1970s onwards.”[14]

In the years immediately following reunification, there was a response by the states to the initial upsurge in right wing extremism. The Offices for the Protection of the Constitution have utilised powers to carefully watch anti-democratic organisations and the law has ensured that civil servants cannot join groups officially declared extremist- this measure in itself will continue to deny the right some mainstream support. Whilst new possibilities may have emerged for the extremists, the German state is working hard to ensure that it does not make great headway.

Other forces in German society have continued to rally against the extremists. There is very little media coverage of right-wing extremist groups for example. Since the early 1990s the right-wing Republikaner Party has been the subject of an outright boycott by the federal press and by many public radio and TV channels.[15]

What is also clear is that the new right in Germany cannot be built around the forces that supported the Nazi’s in the 1930s. Kischelt writes, “in particular, white-collar employees, professionals and members of the administrative, political and cultural elite who then backed the Nazi Party are no longer available for right wing appeals.”[16]The core support for the extreme right in Germany today is primarily lower class males who feel that they have lost out economically and socially since unification. This narrow support base continues to be a hindrance to the rights attempts to expand.

Moving into the mid to late 1990s, the gradual expansion of the extreme right has continued and whilst post-war Germany has vowed never again to allow ultra-nationalism or racism to play any part in its politics, this principle has gradually come under threat. The most prominent far-right party, the Republicans, have openly asserted that “unrelenting mass immigration has brought criminal foreigners into Germany” and campaigns hard on an anti-immigration agenda.

The German state in the meantime attempts to use constitutional tools to counteract the growth of the right – the Republicans and another group, the German Peoples Union or DVU for example, are both under surveillance by Germany’s counter-intelligence agency, suspected of anti-democratic or unconstitutional behaviour. There is a similar tendency to be suspicious of the right that continues to run through much of German society, both before and after reunification. Bockes and Mudde summarise as such:

“As a consequence of the continuing and extensive dealing with the Nazi past, political mobilisation at the extreme right meets with public scrutiny and generally leads to strong counter reactions within society.”[17] The crux of right wing campaigning remains largely the same. It maintains the crude demand that jobs should be taken away from foreigners and given to Germans. To some extent this has begun to deliver some electoral success. In Saxony-Anhalt in 1998, nearly one-third of all voters under the age of 30 supported the right wing DVU whilst in the country as whole, opinion polls showed some that 10% of voters sympathise with far-right groups. Alongside these changes in the political scene, more than 100 neo-Nazi or skinhead groups have grown up which glorify violence and praise the ideas of Hitler. Assaults on immigrants and asylum seekers have continued to rise and a thriving skinhead culture has emerged in parts of Germany, particularly in the east. Official figures show that assaults by such groups on foreigners, including Asian or African refugees and Turkish, Italian, and other immigrants, are on the rise. In 1998 for example more than 400 injuries resulted from such assaults ( The German government’s hard-line response has been to ban dozens of extreme right-wing groups. There is a danger that the philosophy of the extreme right can spill over into mainstream politics. Conservative politicians for example have loudly complained about “foreign criminality” and Germany’s “immigration burden”, ignoring warnings that such talk would encourage racist attitudes. Such politicians vehemently deny that, but they have clearly staked their claim to the right-wing ground of German politics, in an attempt to ensure that no other group takes an advantage there.

There are obviously wider historical issues to consider when analysing the role of the extreme right in Germany. Clearly the horrors of the Nazi era do work as an antidote against right-wing extremism and there has been an ongoing vigilance against the spread of the right booth before and after unification. Politicians towards the right within the mainstream party political system may skirt around extremist ideas but generally the mainstream political landscape has remained clear of out and out extremism. The determination of the vast majority of Germans to consign the nazi era to the past can act as a restraint on most with serious political aspirations.

The Cold War did certainly act as a barrier to the extreme right in post-war Germany, both east and West. In East Germany, a hard-line Communist government was successful in suppressing the right wing until the final years of its rule. In West Germany, the post-war political consensus was crucial in playing down possibilities for the right, as was the new constitution that made the electoral route to influence equally difficult. Germany it should be noted was geographically at the centre of the Cold War – the Western allies were keen to ensure stability in West German politics and likewise Eastern bloc leaders were quick to clamp down of right wing extremism. The Cold War threw together a combination of factors that made expansion of right wing extremism all but impossible across the whole of Germany.

Reunification then along with the end of the Cold War, did indeed open up new possibilities for the extremists on the right. In the East they enjoyed new found political freedom and a growing support base, whilst in the West, economic difficulties following reunification and the upturn in numbers of foreigners on the country helped to fuel support for the right.

Whether the German extreme right can make the most of the possibilities that reunification has brought about remains to be seen. Although it has enjoyed the occasional electoral success it cannot yet compare with the successes of right wing parties in other parts of Europe. McGowan succinctly states, “Neo-Nazism remains a part of German life just as national Socialism remains a part of German history.”[18]This in essence presents the most difficult issue for the extreme right-wing in Germany – whilst it may enjoy an element of support, the lessons of history have hopefully taught the German nation that right-wing extremism is a route it cannot allow itself to take again.


Beckes Uwe & Mudde Cas, Germany: Extremism without successful parties, Parliamentary Affairs, vol 53 (3) July 2000)

Kitschelt Herbert, The Radical Right in Western Europe – A comparative Analysis, University of Michigan Press, USA 1998

McGowan Lee, The Radical Right in Germany – 1870 to present, Pearson Education Ltd, Harlow 1998

Roberts Geoffrey, Right wing Radicalism in New Germany. Parliamentary Affairs, vol 45, 1992

Stoss Richard, The Problem of Right-wing Extremism in West Germany, West European Politics, vol 11, 1988

Von Beyme Klaus, Right-wing Extremism in post-war Europe, West European Politics, vol 11, 1988



[1] Von Beyme, K, Right wing Extremism in post-war Europe, West European Politics, vol 11 1988

[2] p10 Von Beyme 1988

[3] p34 Stoss R, The problem of right wing extremism in West Germany

[4] p35 Stoss

[5] p38 Stoss

[6] p40 Stoss

[7] Mcgowan L, P189 The Radical Right in Germany – 1870 to present, Pearson Education Ltd, Harlow 1998

[8] Roberts G, Right-wing Radicalism in New Germany, Parliamentary Affairs vol 45 1992

[9] p332 Roberts 1992

[10] ibid

[11] p339 Roberts 1992

[12] p340 Roberts 1992

[13] McGowan L p190

[14] McGowan L P191

[15] Bockes U & Mudde C, p466Germany: Extremism without successful parties, Parliamentary Affairs, vol 53, July 2000

[16] Kitschelt , p239 The Radical Right in Western Europe – Acomparative Analysis, University of Michigan Press, USA 1998

[17] p466 Bockes and Mudde 2000

[18] McGowan L, P201

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