Getty
Show Hide image

How Alternative für Deutschland is trying to resurrect German nationalism

The far-right party is focused on culture, rather than the economically left behind. 

Once a year in September, the towering, 19th century Kyffhäuser memorial in central Germany attracts a large crowd of people. Equipped with German flags, they climb up to a restaurant at the foot of the memorial for the so-called Kyffhäuser meeting. Organised by Der Flügel (The Wing), an ultra-nationalist sub-organisation inside the Alternative für Deutschland (the Alternative for Germany), the gathering embodies the way what is now the third strongest political force in the German national parliament understands and makes politics.

There are four dimensions central to this political mindset: memory, myth, metaphysics and the media. The Kyffhäuser meeting is a good starting point to make sense of this peculiar but successful cocktail.

1. "Taking back the past"

The inaugural Kyffhäuser meeting was held in 2015. Back then, the gathering attracted only the followers of Der Flügel and maybe some observers of the German New Right. This year’s meeting, however, was the subject of ferocious national debate. The reason: a speech by Dr Alexander Gauland, a former member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party. He left to found the AfD, and four years later, has led the party into the German parliament. In the speech, Gauland called for Germans to be proud of the soldiers that fought for Germany in the First and Second World War and not to build German identity on the 12 years of Nazism. “These years don’t concern our identity anymore," he said. "Which is why we have the right not only to take back our country, but also our past.”

The party knows that it is prodding a taboo. After all, one of its core slogans reads: “Dare it, Germany”. Gauland’s speech means nothing less than a fundamental questioning of the German post-68 consensus on how to remember its past. Only a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a relevant party to say something alike and to continue to play a serious role in German politics. Today, it has helped the AfD to make it into the German Bundestag and to become its third strongest political force.

2. Forging a national myth

This significant shift in German politics does not only represent a general weariness of being confronted with the horrors of the Third Reich. The success of the AfD is also closely linked to its distorted, but coherent narrative of German identity – something that most of the other parties lack.

At the core of this political storytelling are national myths that link the AfD to an idea of a millennial national history. The Kyffhäuser meeting is a great example of this. The place of the meeting, the Kyffhäuser memorial, was built between 1892 and 1897, a period of surging nationalism. It commemorates the first emperor of the so-called second German empire as well as the legend of Barbarossa, or Kaiser Frederick, a medieval emperor of the first German empire. As the legend goes, Barbarossa lies asleep in the mountain under the memorial until the German empire is reborn. By holding one of its central meetings at this symbolic place in the middle of nowhere, the AfD embeds itself in a national mythology. 

Der Flügel, and a large part of the AfD, see themselves as defenders of what they see as a lost legendary German greatness. In his opening speech of this year’s meeting, Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, where the memorial is located, and a core figures of Der Flügel, argues that the German identity is not characterised by the horrors of Nazi Germany but rather by three myths. These are the Nibelungs (made world famous by Wagner’s operas), the legend of Faust (equally well-known through Goethe’s seminal books), and the very Kyffhäuser legend that provides the background scenery for the meeting. Embedding the party and its politics into these well-known national myths has allowed the AfD to sell the idea of a new German cultural memory and identity. And as the election has shown, this has appeal.

3. A populist party of PhDs

Recent research on the AfD’s electorate suggests this focus on culture, myth and emotions may have been a decisive factor in the party's success. Studies have shown that the main supporters are not, as many observers initially argued, left behind economically but rather well-off and well-educated. This is reflected by the party’s leaders, almost all of whom have a PhD and some even are professors. Many of the party’s ideological masterminds have a background in philosophy and history. At AfD events, reference is often made to the group of  Conservative German intellectuals who opposed the ill-fated Weimar Republic, such as the nationalist Ernst Jünger, and the Nazi supporters Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger.

Why do these circles put so much emphasis on culture and philosophy? Core to the strategy of the AfD and the New Right is to focus on what they call “metapolitics” - a term developed by French New Right thinker Alain de Benoist in the 1970s and based on the Gramscian idea of cultural hegemony, the manipulation of cultural norms to suit your own ends. In the eyes of many New Right intellectuals, cultural hegemony is to be reached in the pre-political, cultural sphere through engagement in civil society. Hence the importance of think tanks and cultural magazines.

Given the dominance of the German post-68 consensus, the efforts by the New Right are focused on the long term. The final goal: make the German past great again in order face the challenges of the future. This aim is based on the conviction that a German identity based on negative historical experiences will in the longterm lead to the perishing of German culture – a fear that today has grown in a time of rapid change.

This conviction is endowed with legitimacy among conservative elites by drawing on Heideggerian metaphysics and ideas of national spirit. Echoing Heidegger, Höcke himself says in a promotional video for the Kyffhäuser meeting: “I think we have founded a great tradition that is forward-looking. (…) We have all pointed at the fact that we as a Volk need a spiritual return to our great history, our great culture, to shape the future and to win back the future”. This culturalist approach is appealing to many well-educated voters who see German culture threatened by nihilism, commercialisation and the increasing influence of migrant communities.

The unlikely alliance of philosophy and populism contradicts the dominant idea that far-right populism and philosophical reasoning are antagonistic. The AfD has a rich New Right literature at its disposal. 

4. Social media mythmaking

The German New Right has been trying to spread its ideas in Germany for a long time, mainly without success. One of the main reasons for its success today is not only the growing importance of emotions and storytelling in politics, but its capability to reach a larger audience through social media. The University of Oxford has shown that the AfD dominated social media during the election campaign. With almost 380,000 likes on Facebook the party has more than twice as many likes as the CDU.

The party knows how to use this network effectively. It has, for example, learnt to produce professional videos full of pathos to reinforce its main campaign slogan “Take back your country”. The clips often show shots of major German cultural sites such as the Kyffhäuser memorial or typical German landscapes. The party also uses social media to trigger scandals, such as Gauland’s speech, bending the borders of what is legitimate in the German political debate. These messages are first spread via social media and later picked up by established German media, drawing even more attention to the party. The party and many of its supportive organisations have created a network of echo chambers.

By merging the power of mythical storytelling, philosophical ideas and outreach via social media, the AfD has fundamentally shaken up German politics and the country’s post-68 historical and cultural consensus. Its success reflects a long-smouldering Kulturkampf on what it means to be German in the 21st century.

The AfD is sending more than 90 MPs to the Bundestag. It remains to be seen if the party can survive the pitfalls of realpolitik or, as many observers hope, whether it will fall prey to divisions and a lack of political professionalism. What is clear is that the party has already succeeded in laying the ground work for a new, more assertive German nationalism. 

Julian Göpffarth is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. He holds a degree in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to his PhD, he worked for the European Parliamentary Research Service. His research interests include nationalist ideologies, radicalisation, European politics and philosophy.

Getty
Show Hide image

Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.