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Police block left wing counter-protesters opposing a right wing demonstration in Berlin.
Police block left wing counter-protesters opposing a right wing demonstration in Berlin.
Alan Posener

-OpEd-

BERLIN — The rise of populists has given way to an alarming reaction among so-called elites. Many of them are blaming themselves for not having considered those who have been "left behind," for not having paid attention to the needs of common people.

Journalists blame themselves for having been too politically correct, too fond of globalization, too prone to xenophilia.

That is, with all due respect, nonsense. The thinking behind this nonsense is even more disturbing. Firstly, the premise that elites are the masters of history. If only they had acted differently, talked differently, written differently, everything would have happened differently. Secondly, and this is connected to their first mistake, this kind of thinking grossly underestimates the abilities and independence of those who use their hatred of elites for political gain.

Finally, this kind of self-criticism makes a misjudgment. Populists do not hate elites for doing or not doing something; they hate them simply because they are elites. This holds true for all populists, in all countries and at all time periods, of all cultures, religions, classes and social strata.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Philipp Jenninger, fell prey to the last misunderstanding in 1988 when he, as the then president of the lower house of Parliament, gave a speech about the pogroms against Jews of 1938. In his speech, he attempted to explain the susceptibility of the German nation to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda saying: "And in regards to the Jews, did they not in the past maybe presume to take on a role that was not theirs to claim, or so the Nazis said?"

Jenninger avoided details about Jews holding leading roles in economics, politics, culture and science in the Weimar Republic. But it wasn't their Jewish arrogation that was the problem but the Nazi propaganda of it. You cannot compare the current elite with German Jews prior to 1933. There were quite a few Jews back then that were of the opinion that a little more restraint would be beneficial in regards to anti-Semitism. But they were wrong. No matter what they did or did not do, they were hated.

With regard to maneuvers and tactics of elites, let's compare the current move toward populism with the last one, namely that of the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Could the elites of that time have prevented the riots and rebellions? Could Axel Springer publishing house have fended off the hatred directed at them if they had been less anti-Communist, pro-U.S. and pro-Israel?

Maybe. Should Springer have surrendered its convictions? No.

Hatred and anger are emotions that we have learned to clampdown in the long process that is civilization.

The students did nothing to break the silence engulfing the Holocaust but they made anti-Israeli hatred, the new form of anti-Semitism, socially acceptable. The rebellion that entered our history books as "1968" was a movement led by extremely intelligent and charismatic people, who, like most populists, recognized the tremendous potential of anger and hatred.

Radicals accused the establishment of "repressive tolerance" because they approached anti-parliamentary opposition with reforms. They accused elites who called upon the state to curb a violent reaction to the revolts of "structural violence." Every attempt at cooperation and concession led to more radicalization.

An AfD protest in Berlin on March 18 — Photo: Jan Scheunert/ZUMA

These circumstances are now repeated, as can be seen with Björn Höcke, a politician for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose party has castigated the government for being cooperative.

The establishment, which faults itself for the rise of the right-wing and believes the key to averting further disaster lies with itself, does not understand the liberating power of anger and the attraction of hatred, especially to those who have a privileged and tranquil life.

Hatred and anger are emotions that we have learned to clampdown in the long process that is civilization. If someone opens Pandora's Box, into which these emotions have been relegated, it is impossible to recapture these emotions until they have let off steam.

It means the unconditional respect for the law. It means vigilance toward social injustice.

This requires a constant balancing act of thinking, so as not to slide into the mire of prejudices and hatred, to not succumb to the demons of anger. These are our "default settings' — the mode that we fall back into when we cease to think.

It is exactly this thinking against hatred that populists describe as "lying media." They offer their followers the highly enjoyable letting-yourself-go, which allows them to succumb to their base instincts.

To do so, we should hold onto the lesson that Jenninger offered, namely that we "have to establish a new moral tradition."

"This means that, to the outside world it is our duty to foster peace and thereby actively liberate the world. This also includes the right for Jewish people to exist within secured borders. It means the comprehensive cooperation between the political systems of East and West. And it means a guarantor's obligation to secure survival for the Third World. On the inside, we have to be open and tolerant towards our fellow human beings no matter their color, their origins, and their political convictions. It means the unconditional respect for the law. It means vigilance toward social injustice. It means uncompromising action against despotism, against any attack on human dignity."

It is this moral sensitivity that populism is fighting. And, just as during the 50th anniversary of the pogrom back in 1988, we must continue today to defend it.

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