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6 March 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 7:06am

Why is the far right obsessed with gold?

It started with a community of “gold bugs” on the fringes of the internet. Now, far-right politicians across Europe are stockpiling the precious metal.

By Quinn Slobodian

In 2010, a precious metals blogger called Peter Boehringer posted an image of Karl Marx’s head floating over Frankfurt, the home of the European Central Bank. Like many online “gold bugs,” his message reflected the belief that currencies without the backing of gold amount to “monetary socialism” and pave the way to government overreach and eventual economic collapse. Boehringer now sits in the German Bundestag for the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), and chairs the parliament’s budget committee.

A few years later, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen launched a campaign to return French gold deposits kept in New York. The gold bars “do not belong to the state, nor the Bank of France, but to the French people,” she announced. Last month, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini called gold the “property of the Italian people” and threatened to plug a gap in the budget by selling off Italy’s gold deposits.  Gold has also caught the attention of far-right politicians further eastwards. In 2018 Poland began stockpiling gold; Hungary, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, has multiplied its gold reserves tenfold.

Why is the far right fixated on gold? Politicians like Le Pen and Orbán are typically cast as advocates of a “closed society” pitted against globalisation and free movement. Gold doesn’t fit this mould; historically, it has been a symbol of connection, not isolation. The gold standard was the bedrock of the first age of globalisation that enabled exchange across continents and lasted from the 1870s to the outbreak of the First World War. To classical liberals, gold was the metal that bound the world economy together.

But the far right has long understood the power of symbols. Gold is the natural vessel of value that harks back to an era where finance and commerce were unburdened by supranational institutions like the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve. It evokes morality grounded in traditional ideas of economic value – to stand for gold is to stand against states printing “fiat money” unbacked by precious metal. Think of it as the opposite of left-leaning economists’ recent interest in Modern Monetary Theory, which sees currency as a creation of the state. To understand the right’s political vision, follow the money.

Gold has had a wild ride in the new millennium. Its value more than sextupled from 2000 to a high point in 2011, driven mainly by the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 and the subsequent Eurozone crisis. German savers, in particular, fled to gold as a safe haven in times of uncertainty and zero interest rates.

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The far right saw the rising price of gold as an index of anti-establishment anxiety. In the US, Tea Party cheerleaders Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh pitched gold on their respective shows, with Beck’s favored company eventually charged with fraud. Gold played an especially visible role in the rise of the far-right AfD, currently the official opposition in Germany’s parliament.

The AfD was formed by a clutch of economists in 2013 to tackle the German government’s perceived mismanagement of the European financial crisis. Germany’s electoral system matches individual political donations with state funds. After garnering little support in 2014 elections, the AfD opened an online gold shop selling the defunct Deutsche Mark alongside four denominations of the South African Krugerrand. It was a canny move: by counting the purchases as donations, the AfD could increase their share of state funding.

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In 2014, an AfD spokesperson proudly told a reporter “we are the only party whose headquarters is also a profit centre.” The AfD’s gold shop was a significant boon for a party with a small donor base – it made €2m across 2014 and 2015, before the law was changed.

But the AfD wasn’t just growing its funding base: it was prophesying the downfall of the Euro. By selling gold, the party promoted suspicion of the German state’s ability to manage its own currency, and sold an exit from the state-managed monetary system. At the same time, the AfD profited from the state’s electoral funding law, designed to encourage party competition within Germany’s democracy.

For AfD thinkers, gold was more than just a reliable store of value. It was a filament of cultural and social order. Long-time member of the AfD federal board Dirk Driesang wrote in 2014 that “the fatal effects of fundamentally fake money (“falschgeld”) on our society and politics, our family and our values, are destructive and undermine the fundamentals of our civilisation as well as our western culture.”

To hazard a coinage, we could call the AfD’s approach to gold a type of “auripatriotism”—a national feeling whose reference point is not a territory, ethnicity or language, but whichever monetary system backs its currency with the precious metal that is perceived as the natural currency of modern humanity. Although the AfD rejects the slogan of “open borders,” they imagine open borders for gold. Far from eschewing globalisation, the AfD’s vision subjects the actions of the state to the continual audit of those who have the gold.

It was AfD MP Peter Boehringer who launched the “bring our gold home” campaign that was later imitated by Le Pen in France and among copycat organisations in Switzerland, Austria, and Holland, all led by far-right parties. With monetary policy, as with other political matters, the far right isn’t a throwback to a supposedly autarkic past, but a creature of our contemporary moment. Even their demands for sovereignty and autonomy are uttered with one eye on the global picture. The far right is not blind to how the world works. Rather, they are turning its weaknesses into their strengths.

Quinn Slobodian is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, and the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He tweets @zeithistoriker