Following the upheavals of 1989, the role of memory became an increasingly useful tactic in building support for populist movements. Evoking (and often, completely revising) collective memory of recent political and economic strife allowed for populist parties and their leaders to instill not only a belief in a collective national identity (“the people”), but also a deep-seated fear of the “Other” in a society experiencing rising levels of immigration.
As Christopher A. Molnar notes in “Greetings from the Apocalypse: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification,” the use of fear has long served as a powerful agent of change. Whether this change can be labelled as productive or otherwise has been the subject of intense debate, however, in the case of Germany in the 1990s this growing fear of the “Other” (most often due to fears of migrants and the “over-foreignization” of the German nation) became widely-perceived as a in the public sphere (493). In some cases, even leading to a resurgence in targeted violence by the far-right.
Likewise, Anna Cento Bull’s “The Role of Memory in Populist Discourse,” examines the ways in which fear and creation of the “Other,” worked in furthering Italian populist movements in the Italian Second Republic (from 1992-2011). By affirming the characteristics of the national identity and drawing on recent historical memory, which Bull aptly terms as “empty signifiers,” populist movements likewise created a portrait of those who posed a threat in this national identity (214). At times using the controlled media in the creation of such memory politics – with Italian leader Berlusconi using his ownership over media channels to spread messaging warning against leftist (or communist) corruption (224).
Interestingly enough, the discrimination and violence towards migrants did not evoke memories of another recent atrocity in Europe: the Holocaust. Molnar notes that distaste towards migrants in Germany could often be pinned on either religion or pseudo-science, although one must also question how much the fear evoked by populist movements played into reactions towards immigration (500-502). Did swathes of Germans really believe that it was God’s will for people to stay in their designated region? Or that different races had vastly differing biological makeup? (Remember, this was only in the 1990s, not the distant past.) Or was this acting in self-interest and protectionism? Perhaps providing a way for Europeans to explain away their racism in the wake of populist, fear-driven hysteria – no matter how fringe those movements may have been.
Anna Cento Bull, “The Role of Memory in Populist Discourse: the Case of the Italian Second Republic” Patterns of Prejudice, 50:3 (2016): 213-231.
Christopher A. Molnar, “Greetings from the Apocalypse”: Race, Migration, and Fear after German Reunification” Central European History, (2021), 491-515.