Appropriating the Narratives of the Second World War for a Contemporary Context

By Ali Yasin

Our readings this week focused on the ideological transformation undertaken by the subversive right, and left, during the transnational student protest movements of the late 1960’s. Although each article emphasized the characteristics which distinguished post-war revolutionary ideologies from their pre-war counterparts, an enduring tendency which appears in the politics of both the “New Right” and the “New Left”, is the appropriation of the Second World War’s historical narratives for a contemporary context. Both ideologies present a distinctly Manichean worldview in which modern society is holistically dominated by corrupting influences and undergoing a phase of terminal decline.

The “New Left”, as represented by the West German student movement of 1968, regarded the liberal states of post-war Europe as not being post-fascist democracies, but pre-fascist societies like the Weimar Republic, undergoing a transitionary period which would inevitably end in authoritarianism. From this assumption they argued that the Federal German Republic was fundamentally unreformable and that the revolutionary abolishment of its existing institution was the only alternative to the re-emergence of fascism in Europe. This dichotomy is best captured by the revolutionary slogans of the era “freedom or barbarism” and “revolution or authoritarianism”. Accepting the inevitability and necessity of revolution, proponents of the New Left in Germany largely favored the tactic of revolutionary vanguardism, arguing that the urgency of the situation necessitated the leadership of a small core of predominantly male revolutionary activists. An argument extremely similar to those made by Bolshevik leaning leftists during the pre-war era, but with student activists substituting the urban proletariat as the revolutionary minority charged with leading/commanding the inherently reactionary masses.

By contrast, supporters of the New Right instead claim that the democratic states of post-war Europe, represent the victory of liberal and communist imperialism over the organic revolution of the far-right. Rather than characterizing modern society as being dominated by intrinsically authoritarian influences and on a trajectory towards fascism, the New Right depicts contemporary culture as pervasively nihilistic and decadent, and on a trajectory towards spiritual decline, much like their pre-war counterparts. They also, however, reject the possibility of immediate revolutionary action, particularly in the form of fascist paramilitarism, arguing that the role of far-right activists in modern politics is to prepare the ground for a cultural transformation which will precede the political accession of the far-right.

While the objectives and tactics of the New Right differ substantially from those of the New Left, both have clearly maintained the dominant narrative of the Second World War, that of a declining society faced with a violent crossroads between two diametrically opposed alternatives, into a post-war political context. Both ideologies present themselves as the only possible alternatives to the corrosive hegemonic order which currently exists. Furthermore, they claim that if the current status quo is not actively subverted, it will inevitably decline into a state which both emotionally portray as “barbarism”, suggesting that it is a condition that is to be avoided with absolutely any, including violent, measures.

Works Cited:

Frank Biess, “Revolutionary Angst” German Angst: Fear and Democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020), 195-241

Roger Griffin, “Between Metapolitics and Apoliteia: The Nouvelle Droite’s Strategy for Conserving the Fascist Vision in the ‘Interregnum.’” Modern & Contemporary France, vol. 8, no. 1 (Feb. 2000): pp. 35–53.

Norimitsu Onishi, “The Great Replacement and Renaud Camus” New York Times (September 20, 2019)

One Reply to “Appropriating the Narratives of the Second World War for a Contemporary Context”

  1. Hi Ali,
    I think it was really interesting how you outlined the ways in which the post-war Far-right distanced themselves from the violence seen in pre-war fascism while that was not the case for the far-left. As explored in the Biess article, the New Left quickly adopted violent methods of resistance while also discussing and presenting themselves of violence that has continued since the Nazi era. This difference between ideologies was really fascinating to me give the historical context.


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