1989 Redefinition: The Far-Right’s Return To Legitimacy – Demonizing The Other

Wesley M.

This week’s readings look at how the European far-right was able to use the momentum of 1989 involving the reunification of Germany as well as the overall collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to redefine their own position and use the resulting chaos of those two events throughout Europe to slowly regain the public perception of their own legitimacy by channeling fears of authoritarianism against the far-right’s enemies; the chosen ‘Other’ instead of against themselves in order to legitimize themselves, helped by criticism.

In Professor Bull’s article, she discusses how populists utilize and redefine popular memory in order to clarify  the notion of who is considered ‘people’, specifically arguing constructing of ‘people’ involves “developing empty signifiers but also constructing powerful myths that draw on a collective memory of an imagined past in order to define who belongs to ‘the people’.”[1] Using examples of Italian populist leaders from the Second Republic: Silvio Berlusconi, Umberto Bossi, and Antonio Di Pietro, Bull demonstrates how all three used strategy of rejecting elites and constructing people so as to “redefine the polity in terms of legitimization and de-legitimization of friends and enemies.”[2]

The Molnar article expands on this issue of redefinition and legitimacy by relating it to the reunified the German state and how they inadvertently allowed the reunification to stoke fears of either a societal collapse or a civil war, against minority groups such as non-European Germans or foreigners, resulting in vast scepticism about the governments policies towards immigration and migration, despite the fact that a significant amount of the violence during this period was not caused by migrants at all.[3] This demonstrates that the German government’s policy of allowing migration actually weakened their own legitimacy in the eyes of their people, thus directly correlating to an expansion of the far-right’s influence.

The Kalb reading discusses how following 1991 conciliation of the former Soviet bloc territories was not evenly done thus the economic devastation of the 2008 crash created a widespread way for populist rejection of liberal influences within those devastated countries (such as Viktor Orban), resulting in the far-right gaining legitimacy through targeting minority groups, as well as setting up their own version of Europe as being against the liberal EU, with the EU’s weaknesses becoming the far-right’s strength.[4]

The Mamonova article discusses how due to the failure of neoliberalism, a capitalist crisis involving farmers and agriculture, and COVID-19 resulting in major rural alienation, the far-right populists have been able to use resulting rural dissatisfaction as a powerbase: with German villages seeking to revive the Nazi concept of Volksgemeinshaft, with Spain the far-right party Vox gained support due to the massive rural depopulation, the UK’s Brexit has allowed for claims of people against elites in a rural vs. urban argument, in the Ukraine the far right’s capitalized on all of the land reform issues in order to assist their use of selective memory; claiming democratic weakness, inequality and emptiness result in stagnation.[5]


[1] Anna Cento Bull, “The role of memory in populist discourse: the case of the Italian Second Republic” Patterns of Prejudice, 50:3 (2016): 217.

[2] Bull, “The role of memory”: 219.

[3] Christopher Molnar, “Greetings from the Apocalypse”: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification” Central European History, (2021), 1-25.

[4] Don Kalb, “Post-Socialist Contradictions. The Social Question in Central and Eastern Europe And the Making of the Illiberal Right” The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century: a Global View edited by Jan Breman et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019). 208–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr7fcnz.17.

[5] Natalia Mamonova, Jaume Franquesa, and Sally Brooks, “‘Actually Existing’ Right-Wing Populism in Rural Europe: Insights from Eastern Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ukraine,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 47, no. 7 (2020): 1497–1525.

Bibliography:

Cento Bull, Anna. “The role of memory in populist discourse: the case of the Italian Second Republic” Patterns of Prejudice, 50:3 (2016): 213-231.

Mamonova, Natalia, Franquesa, Jaume, and Sally Brooks, “‘Actually Existing’ Right-Wing Populism in Rural Europe: Insights from Eastern Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ukraine,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 47, no. 7 (2020): 1497–1525.

Molnar, Christopher A. “‘Greetings from the Apocalypse’: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification.” Central European History 54, no. 3 (2021): 491–515. doi:10.1017/S0008938920001090.

Kalb, Don. “Post-Socialist Contradictions: The Social Question in Central and Eastern Europe and the Making of the Illiberal Right.” In The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century: A Global View, edited by Jan Breman, Kevan Harris, Ching Kwan Lee, and Marcel van der Linden, 1st ed., 208–26. University of California Press, 2019. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr7fcnz.17.

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