Populists v. Elites: Lessons From Germany, Past And Present

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


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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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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