French and German Nationalism

A common history from the French Revolution to the New Right


"Le Jour ni l’Heure 9729 : Messkirch, l" (CC BY 2.0) by Renaud Camus



To understand the contemporary phenomenon of New Right nationalism, the narratives of the intellectuals, movements and parties which make up the New Right need to be traced back. This article aims to do so by focussing on the examples of French and German nationalism and sketching out elements of a common history. 

When the leaders of European New Right parties met on January 21st 2017 in the German city of Koblenz, many were surprised that nationalist politicians could attempt to work together and actually talk about international cooperation. An international nationalist meeting? To many, it at first sounded more like an anachronistic oxymoron than an actual political event taking place in the 21st century. However, when one looks back in time, the histories of European nationalist movements in general, and French and German nationalism in particular, are intertwined. So much so that one could even speak of a common history.

The genesis of liberal and anti-liberal nationalism

The common history of French and German nationalism goes as far back as Martin Luther’s reformation and the meaning of individualism for nationalism. It can be argued[1] that the first wave of individualism took place in the Lutheran reformation, as Luther placed the beliefs of the individual higher than the beliefs dogmatically propagated by the Vatican. However, this Lutheran individualism was limited to religion and was not applied to the socio-political realm. The second wave of individualism did not counter the Catholic church, but rather opposed the absolutism of the French ancien régime. Individualism here reached a sociopolitical level which eventually culminated in the overthrowing of the ancien régime through the French Revolution. The ideal was that anyone who freely decided to be a member of the French nation, regardless of their ethnic or cultural origins, should be able to enjoy the individual liberties granted to French citizens. In nationalism studies, this inclusive ideal-type of nationhood is called “liberal” or “civic nationalism”.

The genesis of nationalism in France and Germany is interdependent

Under Napoleon, the idea of individualism “returning” to Germany spread in a sociopolitical guise, linked to a civic idea of nationhood. Napoleonic expansionism provoked a counter-reaction which picked up ideas of nationalism and individualism but applied them in a way which opposed the French ideal of civic nationalism. The German answer to French universalism and civic nationalism comprised ideas such as the principle of nationhood based on exclusive natural common bonds of language and ethnicity.

In this element of the German counter-movement, one can see the prefiguration of the anti-modernism and anti-liberalism which is still central to today’s New Right nationalism. The ethnic nationalism conceived in the German model merges the principles of individualism and nation into the idea that the community of the nation is the ultimate bearer of individual freedom and not the individual citizen of the nation. Community and culture is more important than the individual, but, at the global level, the individual nation is more important than universal human rights.

The predominant ideals, even if wrapped in the same terminology, follow different trajectories

Hence, the genesis of nationalism in France and Germany is interdependent. It is also important to note that elements of ethnic and civic nationalism can be found in both countries, and even in both forms of nationalism. French civic nationalism strongly relies on national myths, just as German nationalism stems from a liberal, more civic tradition. But the predominant ideals, even if wrapped in the same language and terminology, follow different trajectories in both countries.

The New Right and the “conservative revolution”

In the time between 1918 and 1932, a group of German thinkers such as Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger picked up the German anti-liberal, anti-modernist and anti-rationalist nationalist tradition. For this elitist group, liberalism and democracy were signs of a decadent, materialist, shallow society contrary to the profound spirit and culture vested in the German community. Interestingly, it is not just today’s German New Right, but the transnational New Right altogether that sees itself as a part of the tradition of this group, which they call the “conservative revolution”.

One figure attributed to the “conservative revolution” who is central for the contemporary New Right, not just in France and Germany but in transnational currents of the New Right as a whole, is Martin Heidegger. His rejection of liberalism, individualism and modernity is most obvious in the years where he openly supported the Nazi regime, calling individualism a threat to the state and claiming that the focus on law and parliamentary politics would lead to a banalisation of politics and its reduction to a technocratic administration of the state.

Heidegger’s ideas today take the form of ethnopluralism in the New Right

Yet what makes Heidegger’s nationalism attractive to the German and French New Right is that he rejects biologism and the notion of race as the basis for the nation. Instead, he claims that “the destiny of a people has to be understood in distinctively historical terms.” According to Heidegger, national identity is not rooted in a common German race, but rather in a common German tradition, history and mythology. Heidegger saw the German nation, defined by and essentially made up of German history, as under threat by modernity and liberalism. This principle is applicable to all culture and provides an ideological mould that can easily be filled with a specific national context. Heidegger’s ideas today take the form of ethnopluralism in the transnational New Right, meaning that every nation should have the right to remain different and to not be diluted by excessive economic, cultural or social (neo)liberalism.

Nation, metapolitics and civil society against the liberal world order

This culturalist thinking, which avoids blunt racism, is what makes Heidegger so attractive to New Right movements. He was discovered as a possible core for a New Right ideology by the French Nouvelle Droite, a school of thought which is ideologically largely based on the work of the GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne) and its predominant thinkers Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye. Both are admirers of Heidegger and have written on his philosophy. The GRECE can be seen as formative of the European New Right and the German New Right in particular, as many of the core concepts in New Right thinking stem from its intellectual circles.

Since then, the New Right’s concept of metapolitics has been at the core of its post-war strategy. Michael O’Meara, a political analyst close to the New Right movement, described metapolitics as “seeking to undermine the liberal order by discrediting its underlining tenets and affirming those liberal European ideas supportive of the identities and communities it champions”. Interestingly, this idea of the civil society as a tool to influence the public sphere, to spread New Right ideas and to undermine democracy, counters many widely-spread accounts of civil society as the bulwark of democracy. Published in 2004, in a world where a President Trump only existed in The Simpsons, O’Meara describes something that sounds quite familiar today.

In the 1980s, there never seemed to be a serious threat of a New Right cultural hegemony. This has changed today

Ideas such as metapolitics and Heideggerian notions of nationhood and national identity were (re)introduced to New Right thinking in the 70s and 80s. The German New Right emerged, just like its French “brother”, in the late 60s and was formed by a young, post-war generation who wanted to give extreme right thinking a new legitimacy. In his recent book on the New Right, Volker Weiß has shown how far the New Right’s connections were able to reach into the mainstream politics of the 70s and 80s. In particular, some of the closest advisors of Franz Joseph Strauß, the notorious Prime Minister of Bavaria from 1978 to 1988, came from the New Right milieu. However, in France just like in Germany, the New Right’s influence remained largely restrained to smaller elite circles and could never reach a broader political base. In France, the Front National had its first successes in the 1980s, but, as the continuing distance between GRECE and the Front National shows, this did not mean a broader support for New Right ideas. In the post-cold war years dominated by liberalism and the impression of the end of history, the New Right could only celebrate partial successes. However, there never seemed to be a serious threat of a New Right cultural hegemony.

This has changed today. The New Right in Germany has built up a new, thriving network of think tanks and publications centred around the Institut für Staatspolitik or the Bibliothek des Konservatismus in Germany, or the Institut Iliade in France. With her emphasis on the “dédiabolisation” of the Front National, its leader Marine Le Pen has managed to spread New Right ideas into the mainstream of society. In Germany, PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have developed into branches representing the New Right on the streets and in politics at a level unprecedented in the post-war period.

Much of what the New Right has been discussing in their metapolitical spheres for the past thirty to forty years has not only become part of a broader public debate, but, in the case of Russia, the United States or Hungary, has become a decisive element of policy making. In the cases of France and Germany, the issue of national identity and history plays a central role in the policy programs of the Front National and the AfD.

Notions that were once part of far right subculture are today part of mainstream debates

In the Front National’s programme for the 2017 presidential elections, a whole chapter is reserved for Une France Fiére (a proud France). Here we can find policy proposals such as “flagging all public buildings with the French flag and removing the European flag” or “reinforcing the national unity through the promotion of the national narrative and the rejection of any repentances of the state that divide”. The AfD calls for a stronger emphasis on national identity and history to teach national pride in schools. In the light of the success of Front National and AfD, centre right politicians have partially picked up on these ideas. As a consequence, notions that were once part of far right subculture, such as Gutmenschentum, are today part of mainstream debates.

The focus on identity, community and culture has helped the New Right to gain unprecedented support

What has allowed the New Right to successfully become a central actor in early 21st century politics is the strategy of using democratic civil society to undermine liberal democracy, coupled with ideas of anti-liberal nationalism that are based on the idea of a nation whose ethnicity is defined not by race but in terms of national identity, traditions and mythical history. The focus on identity, community and culture as well as the avoiding of openly racist narratives of superiority has helped the New Right to gain unprecedented support at a time when globalisation has become a synonym for neoliberalism, hyper-capitalism and “mass-immigration”.

The New Right’s re-conceptualisation of Heidegger’s concept of nationhood based on history and identity is clever because it responds to hopes for de-globalisation, or at least a different kind of globalisation which is respectful of local and national histories. It also transposes the principle of an exclusive ethnic nationhood, based on a less obvious racism, into the 21st century. It is on this ethnopluralist basis, uniting old ethnic ideas of nationhood with common contemporary grievances, that the New Right can celebrate itself in an international nationalist conference. An event, as we have seen, unthinkable without the shared history of French and German nationalism.

Bibliography

Guenon, Denis (2013): About Europe. Philosophical Hypotheses. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Heidegger, M. (2013): Nature, history, state : 1933-1934. London : Bloomsbury Academic.

Moore, Gregory (2009): Fichte. Adresses to the German Nation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

O’Brien, Mahon (2015): Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. Bloomsbury: London.

O’Meara, Michael (2013): New Culture, New Right. Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe. Arktos: London.

Schulze, Hagen (1991): The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck, 1763-1867. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Taguieff, Pierre-André (1994): Sur la Nouvelle droite. Descartes & Cie : Paris.

Weiß, Volker (2017): Die Autoritäre Revolte. Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes. Klett-Cotta: Stuttgart.

[1] Such as Luis Dumont (The German Ideology) and Denis Guenon (About Europe).