Remember the SS? Far-Right Populism and Collective Memory in Europe

by Katarina Ristić

In the wake of the recent European elections, far-right parties are grappling with internal conflicts over historical narratives. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National severed ties with Germany’s Alternative for Germany, following controversial remarks about the Nazi past by the AfD’s Maximilian Krah. This incident highlights the delicate balance that populist parties must strike between nationalist memory politics and broader European alliances.This article looks at the meaning of collective memory in populist politics and examines how far-right parties across Europe use revisionist history to advance their agendas. It explores the strategies of populist memory politics, the role of digital activism in shaping far-right narratives, and the challenges of aligning nationalist memories on a European scale.

Marine Le Pen and Alice Weidel, in the background a wall with crumbling paint depicting the flag of the european union

 

On 22 May 2024, Marie Le Pen’s the Rassemblement National (RN) announced that they would break their partnership with the German far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, only a few weeks before the European elections. The reason behind this decision was not a disagreement about immigration politics, security, or economics. The partnership broke due to the memory of the Nazi past – it was a response to the statement by Maximilian Krah, AfD candidate for European elections, who questioned Hitler’s paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS) as a criminal organization. In one interview, Krah wondered if every member of the SS should be automatically considered a criminal: “One million soldiers wore the SS uniform. Can you really say that because someone was an officer in the Waffen-SS, they were a criminal?”

This was by no means the first revisionist comment coming from AfD politicians. In 2018, the co-leader of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, dismissed the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in a thousand years of successful German history. A year before, Björn Höcke, the AfD’s state leader in Thuringia, voiced his discontent with German memory politics: “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital,” he said during the Pegida demonstrations in Dresden, referring to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Krah’s statement is by no means more problematic than the previous statements by his fellow party members. It is the same kind of scandal-making provocation that turns the engines of populist politics. The difference is not in the revisionism of the past and normalization of Nazism, but in the scale at which it is received. Importantly, this scandal featured not only in the national but also in the European arena, and a new memory of the Nazi past offered by the AfD does not seem to sit well with their partners in Europe.

In most cases, such scandals go unsanctioned apart from raising a public outcry. The populists’ response varies from denialism (they were misunderstood) to dismissals (they were “only telling the truth”). If public irritation persists, then populists turn the debate into its own victimization, being the targets of hostility (Wodak, 2015). Neither dismissing accusations as misunderstanding nor declaring the AfD as the victims – the AfD reacted atypically and removed the candidate from the election race. In this case, the scandal backfired, not only alienating the AfD’s French allies but also leading to the party banning further public appearances and withdrawing Krah from the election race.

Apart from pointing out the incompatibility of normalized, destigmatized Nazi past among populist parties, as well as the high value that the AfD sets in the cooperation with RN in the European Parliament, the incident poses another, more interesting question: To what extent are state-specific revisionist memories of the past propagated by populist parties compatible on a European scale? To answer this question, I will first address the importance of memory in populist politics, then turn to the strategies of populist memory it two forms: populist parties’ memory politics and the far-right’s memory of extremist movements, finishing with a speculation about the potential future of populist memory on a European scale.

 

Collective Memory and Populist Politics

Sociologist Rogers Brubaker sees taboo-breaking scandals as one of the five elements of populist “rhetorical repertoire”, together with antagonistic repoliticization, majoritarianism, anti-institutionalism, and protectionism (Brubaker, 2017b). In his own words, “through an attention-seeking strategy of provocation, they [populists] foreground their willingness to break taboos, refuse euphemisms, and disrupt the conventions of polite speech and ‘normal’ demeanor” (Brubaker, 2017b: 367). A linguist and cultural theorist, Ruth Wodak calls this kind of scandal-making a “populist perpetuum mobile“, which enables the persistent visibility and attention paid to populist parties (Wodak, 2015). The strategy relies on euphemisms, Orwellian “double think”, calculated ambivalence, and denial of racism.

Collective memory fits well with populist political agenda, as the construction of homogenous demos and protection of the homeland “implies belief in a common narrative of the past, where ‘We’ were either heroes or victims of evil (of a conspiracy, evil enemies, enemies of the fatherland etc.). In this way, revisionist histories are constructed, blending all past woes into success stories of the Volk or stories of treachery and betrayal by others” (Wodak, 2015: 102).

Scholars have identified a number of reasons for the importance of symbolic politics and memory for populists. According to Mabel Berezin, populists are exceptionally successful on the “cultural axis”, which deals with culture, the past, memory, religion, and myths, in contrast to the relatively poor performance on the “institutional axis”, which deals with national policy recommendations, communal politics, or general agenda setting (Cesari and Kaya, 2019). Secondly, the very topic of memory is easily subjected to the scandal-making logic and antagonistic nature of populist politics. While the global economy, climate change, or world hunger might be hard topics to be framed as issues of national humiliation and victimhood, memory provides a perfect ground, lending itself easily to this kind of discourse.

Finally, far-right memory is in the process of being created, with a few official manifestations (monuments, commemorations, days of remembering, memorials, history textbooks, and museums). As such, it does not have the durability and stability of official memory politics. This might be its weakness, but it also allows it to appear as a fresh, novel, provocative practice – an alternative to the petrified lessons of official memory. Revisionism itself is a taboo-breaking practice, hence it is a perfect match with the way populists do politics.

 

Illiberal Memory

Populist memory can be seen as a reaction to and rejection of “politics of regret” (Olick, 2007), that is to say self-critical memorialization that centres around one’s own responsibility for the traumatic past. This kind of “cosmopolitan memory” emerged during the 1990s, following the globalization and Europeanization of the Holocaust, as a “product of a reflexive choice to incorporate the suffering of the ‘Other’” (Levy and Sznaider, 2002:103). Scholars started evoking the Holocaust as a “negative foundational myth of Europe”, with critical memory as a (potential) anchor of European identity, emerging in contrast to “the ideas and practices associated with the Holocaust: racism, hatred, cruelty, moral indifference” (Müller, 2010: 658). It comes as no surprise that 27 January, the date Auschwitz was liberated, became the first official European commemoration in the twenty-first century (Levy and Sznaider, 2002). Despite mnemonic efforts, European memory remained contested and controversial, with different, often incommensurable memories of the Second World War, Nazism, and Stalinism across the continent. Nevertheless, the possibility of critical memory as shared European memory remained open (Assmann, 2012). At the same time, such memory greatly aggravated any honour-driven, heroic national memory. In populist eyes, self-critical memory is seen as detrimental to national survival, producing national humiliation and shame.

Populist memory emerges as an attempt to reterritorialize memoryscapes within a secure, heroic, shame-free national memory. Historian Gavriel Rosenfeld sees the emergence of far-right memory as a side effect of the rise of illiberal democracy, hence calling a new form of memory “illiberal memory” (Rosenfeld, 2021). As an acceleration and intensification of national, conservative memory politics, populist memory is based on two main strategies: mnemonic negationism (rejection of self-critique or guilt/responsibility) and mnemonic affirmation (normalization of the past). Rosenfeld identifies a number of tactics used to boost illiberal memory: rejection of guilt, rehabilitation of perpetrators, self-victimization, and fabrication of facts, to name a few (Rosenfeld, 2021).

All three statements by AfD politicians could be subsumed under the “rejection of guilt” tactics. But they are certainly not the only ones pursuing normalization of the past through rejection of guilt. Marine Le Pen did just the same in 2017, when she rejected any responsibility of France for the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in 1942, reiterating the emotional need behind illiberal memory. “So, I want them [French children] to be proud of being French again”, she said. Similar examples abound, from Poland and Hungary to Serbia and Spain – populists vehemently reject the “pedagogy of shame”, instead embracing their own victimhood as the only relevant and morally justified element of national memory. Similarly, self-victimization discourse flourishes throughout the populist camp. Whether focusing on victimhood during the war (civilian victims in areas bombed would be a typical example in Germany) or by conflating the term “genocide” with any national grievance, far-right populists unmistakably signal the primary principle of illiberal memory: the very possibility of victimhood is preconditioned on belonging to the (ethno)nation.

Complementary tactics apply to the perpetrators, who are absolved of criminal responsibility by the very nature of belonging to the nation. The process ranges from relatively speculative rehabilitation, like in Krah’s statement (it is possible that some of the SS members were not criminals despite the legal criminalization of the group in the Nuremberg trials), to the complete rehabilitation of convicted war criminals who are welcomed as public and political figures in, for example, former Yugoslavia (Ristić, 2018). For rehabilitation to work, victims need to be demonized – hence, the Bosniak and Kosovo Albanians will remain aggressive terrorists and warmongers, constantly plotting a new conflict. Depending on their strength and access to power, far-right populists might seek to institutionalize and legalize revisionist history and illiberal memory, sanctioning genocide denial, for example, or prohibiting expressions that might damage national pride. Finally, if historical facts do not fit the national memory of heroism and victimhood then they can be distorted and fabricated whether by appropriating Holocaust images to represent national suffering, as in the case of Ukrainian Holodomor (Zhukova, 2019) or a Serbian use of Buchenwald photos to represent the extermination of Serbs (Subotic, 2019). These examples indicate that populist memory emerges around shared strategies and tactics that are used by various populist parties. But, while rehabilitation of perpetrators might be easily justified within the state with references to national pride and the inborn moral code of the nation, it is far more problematic to get neighbouring countries – often the same ones that constituted national memory around the victimhood of the rehabilitated perpetrators – to join such a memory project.

 

Digital Memory of the Far Right

Complementary to populist parties’ memory projects, there is an ongoing process of digital memory activism of the far right, which emerges as a bottom-up memory activism in social media. Propagated by anonymous actors, new mnemonic forms (memes, gifs, and videos), and affordances of social media (hashtag, comment, like, or share), digital memory appears as an elusive and ambiguous phenomenon. Focusing on specific affordances of social media, it can take the form of “hashtag memory activism” (Fridman, 2020) or “memetic memory activism” (Swiatek, 2016). Far-right activism especially flourishes due to the anonymity of social media and the lack of legal regulations for hate speech and calls to violence. Moreover, references to the past are only one among the rich intertextuality of digital formats like memes, which often include double meanings, humour, references to pop culture, and catchy phrases. Importantly, memes enable far-right actors to reach beyond a small circle of members and appeal to apolitical youth (Bogerts and Fielitz, 2019: 150). Moreover, they are “fostering in-group belonging among constituents” (Trillò and Shifman, 2021, 4). 

Some of the examples of such memory activism were captured by Christian Fuchs, for example, who looked at Twitter posts surrounding Hitler’s birthday in 2016, identifying a whole set of digital tactics and presentations by users to normalize the memory of Nazism and celebrate its leader (Fuchs, 2017). Although his analysis focuses on the ideological framings of these tweets, it reveals the process of normalization of the Nazi past and rehabilitation of its main perpetrator.

Similarly, during the Trump election campaign, the memes of Pepe the Frog emerged as a main mobilizer of the far right, often with a clear revisionist tone referring to the Nazi past. Pepe appears in SS uniform, smiling in front of the gates of Auschwitz or with Hitler’s typical moustache, always with a dismissing smile and the innocence of the humorous youth (Krämer et al., 2020; Miller-Idriss, 2019). Again, the conceptualization of such practices within the memory of the far right remains unaddressed, but it indicates the importance of revisionism for the populist movement.

Another meme that travelled globally and gained high digital currency was a “Remove Kebab” meme, extrapolated from the war music video created in Bosnia, evoking the Serbian fight against Muslims and even genocide as a historical lesson for channelling Islamophobia (Ristić, 2023). In this case, a relatively elaborate revisionist memory of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s could be created by relying on different sources, like terrorist manifestoes and 4Chan boards.

In each of these cases, we see digital activists who might – or may not – be part of the extremist groups, contributing to the virality of the memes. The question if and how these actions contribute to the larger societal memory of the past is one of the important questions for future research in memory studies.

Unlike the memory of populist parties, digital far-right mnemonic activism is more ambivalent and harder to pin down due to anonymous actors, blurred contexts, and transnational audiences. At the same time, compared to the memory of parties, it is more radical and prone to violence: if populist parties engage in the rehabilitation of perpetrators, then digital activism promotes perpetrators as heroes. If, in Krah’s words, at least some of the one million members of the SS were not criminals, then in the 4Chan/pol imageboard they are celebrated as heroes fighting global conspiracy against white Christian civilization. Finally, with the far-right populism of political parties being considered “fascism adapted to democracy” (Finchelstein, 2017), far-right digital activists are also less concerned with procedural and legal constraints and more prone toward violence and terrorism, which is seen as a prompt response to the perceived imperilment and demise of the civilization.

The question of relations and mutual connections between political parties and extremist groups is not easy to answer. Critics who are less favourable toward populism and suspicious of its dedication to participate in the democratic process reject the clear division between the two, instead talking about existing, albeit hidden, connections. Moments of violence, like the Capitol riot in the USA, reveal some connections between the two.[1] Similarly, the mass arrest of extremist Reichsbürger in Germany, accused of plotting to overthrow the government, included a former AfD member of the Bundestag, Berlin judge Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, thereby indicating some overlaps. Consequently, I will include both illiberal and fascist forms within a broad definition of far-right memory.

 

Repertoire of Far-right Memory

In addition to the re-evaluation of the Nazi past, the historical repertoire of far-right memory includes different kinds of commemorations of fascist and collaborationist regimes – Romania Iron Guard, for example (Zavatti, 2021), or revisionism of Italian fascism (Trillò and Shifman, 2021). With Islamophobia and Muslim immigration constituting the main “civilizational threat” in the populist imaginary, the history of military battles with the Ottoman Empire and of the Crusades constitute an indispensable source for far-right memory activism in digital media. These are mainly used to boost self-confidence and Christian pride, presented as victories in the previous civilizational battle and important preparation for repetition in the future. Ruth Wodak and Bernhard Forchtner explore the importance of 1683 and the victory against the Ottoman army besieging Vienna, noting its high value among the far right as it provides “an emotional reservoir for anti-Turkish sentiments” (Wodak and Forchtner, 2014). A whole set of Ottoman battles and obscure Balkan warriors are turned into a pantheon of the far right, as shown by Phillip Baun in the analysis of the Christchurch shooter’s narrative (Baun, 2021). Even if rightly described as a “paranoid historical imaginary” (Moses, 2019: 5), Baun’s analysis reveals a Eurocentric focus, persistent glorification of victories and battles against Islamic opponents, and a long list comprising historical figures and contemporary terrorists. Another important site of memory is the Reconquista, the 700-year-long rule of Muslims in the Iberian peninsula, which ended in 1492. It provides a suitable analogy for the far-right obsession with immigration, enabling the jump from refugees and immigrants to invaders, hence justifying anti-Muslim rhetoric as a part of a centuries-long struggle against the dominance of Muslims in Spain (Valencia-García, 2020). In other words, far-right memory easily incorporates different historical periods and experiences from all parts of Europe into new, bellicist, civilizationalist memory frames.

Brubaker identifies “civilizationalism” as a new kind of identitarian “Christianism” developed in a response to the (alleged) civilizational threat from Islam. He sees it both as a novel formulation of nationalism and its alternative (Brubaker, 2017a). With quite different configurations in Northern and Western Europe, where it operates within secularist and liberal rhetoric, and Eastern Central Europe, where it is more securitarian and identitarian (reflecting the shared trope of antemurale Christianitatis in the region), both variations nevertheless fall under the new civilizationalist framework. Memory of heroic battles against the Ottoman Empire, victories over Muslim invaders, or Christian crusaders provides memory for the new framework of populist politics.

 

Conclusion

We should not overestimate the Krah incident and its importance for far-right populist memory or cooperation. Here, I used it as an occasion to address the formation of populist memory, its main strategies, strengths, and weaknesses. The discussion did not bring more light to the question of possible shared European populist memory, but it indicated several reasons for its appeal and potential directions in which it can develop.  

As a corrective to the politics of regret, the main appeal of populist memory is the rejection of blame, criminal guilt, and responsibility for the wrongs of the past. Far-right memory attraction lies in its heroic, guilt-free, honourable memory of the past. With a clear division between “us” and “them”, which is then projected backward, it secures a positive image of the people throughout history.

Secondly, populists offer an alternative way to make sense of crises in the twenty-first century. If cosmopolitan memory served well the political and moral purposes of the 1990s – as Müller notes, simultaneously legitimizing multicultural integration and humanitarian intervention (Müller, 2010) – then it seems utterly incapable of providing clear guidance in the current Palestinian-Israel or Russia-Ukraine conflict. Far-right memory privileges authoritarianism, the uncompromised right of the state to fight its enemies, and absolute sovereignty in solving (real or imagined) security threats, absolved of any legal or international obligations when facing an existential threat. In that sense, it provides an orientation for political action.

On the other hand, the Krah scandal indicates that the revisionist memory of the Nazi past, at least among the Allied states of the Second World War, might create a limit to the acceptability of revisionist memory on a European scale. The rise of a new civilizationalist discourse moves away from the memory of the twentieth century toward the Middle Ages and “clash of civilizations” discourse, pitting white Christian Europe against non-Christian, primarily Muslim foes. Whether and how these reconfigurations will continue on the European scale in the future remains to be seen. Not unlike its critical cosmopolitan counterpart, European populist memory remains (only) a possibility.


[1] At the same time, it is important to note that majority of protesters who stormed the Capitol were not members of extremist organizations. Of the 230 people charged, only 31 had such affiliation, mainly with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers (Lokay et al. 2021).


Profilfoto von Katarina Ristic

About the Author

Katarina Ristić is a lecturer and senior researcher at the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University. She is working on the intersection of Southeast European history, media and memory studies. Holding a PhD in history from the Faculty of History, Arts and Regional Studies of Leipzig University (2013), she studied philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade (2004). In her first monograph, she focuses on war crime trials in the Hague Tribunal and their media representation in the former Yugoslavia. She was a research associate at Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg and at the University of Magdeburg in the field of International Security and Conflict Studies. She is currently researching far-right extremism and memory culture in the digital age.


 

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Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
recentglobe (2024, 10. Juni). Remember the SS? Far-Right Populism and Collective Memory in Europe. Global Dynamics. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11sep

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