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The Success of the Extreme Right in 20th Century Germany

Book Essay on: Lee McGowan,
The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present
(Longman, 2002), 240 pages.
UCSB: JN3971.A91 M35 2002

by Dan Schneiderman
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
at amazon

About Dan Schneiderman

I am currently a student here at UCSB finishing my sophomore year. McGowan, book coverI am a Political Science and History double major and will graduate in 2009. I am interested in extreme rightist and post-WWII Germany because these themes mirror many other conflicts of interest around the world and serve as accurate examples for policy making in the future.

Abstract (back to top)

In her book The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present, McGowan analyzes the pattern of extreme rightism throughout each phase of German history, beginning with the Bismarckan era and leading up to the present. These factors are and continually appear to increase right extremism when: nationalism is a top priority of the state, a common enemy of the people is established, times of economic and social crisis occur (including war), and when the country is brought together under a unifying force such as a hero or cause. This is seen in each stage of German politics and remains a concern even today.

Essay (back to top)

In his book The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present, Lee McGowan observes the complicated history of right wing extremists throughout the different eras of German government. McGowan breaks the past of right wing extremism down into four different stages of importance since the late 19 th century: the pre-WWI era, the Weimar era, the Nazi/post Nazi era, and the eventual unification of East and West Germany. In each of these areas, one may notice certain distinct factors which continuously work in favor or against the success of the far right extremists. These factors are and continually appear to increase right extremism when: nationalism is a top priority of the state, a common enemy of the people is established, times of economic and social crisis occur (including war), and when the country is brought together under a unifying force such as a hero or cause. This paper will address the fluctuations occurring in extreme right membership and popularity according to these factors throughout 20 th century Germany as well as the eventual mutation of right extremism to National Socialism to Neo-Nazism.

Pre-WWI: A Tradition of Nationalism, Conservatism, Militarism, and anti-Semitism

As stated in Chapter Two, to understand the decisions and paths taken by early German leaders, one must start at the real beginning of contemporary Germany history. This period, ranging from the unification of the German Empire in 1870 to the start of the First World War, set the initial steps for the possibility of a Nazi run German state to take place later in the 1930s. During this time period, the right was classified as the pillars of “political conservatism, that is large landowning class, the aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the military” (McGowan 20). Not only did this class have the money and ability to establish themselves as a leading force in Imperial German politics, but they were also able to gain a firm foothold within the political spectrum; the government set up by Bismarck strongly favored conservative supremacy up until after the First World War. Using their position in the state, the right was able gain support by showing a push for increased German power and military strength. They were able to do this by passing several acts to increase the naval power of Germany. This movement, called the Naval League, sought out to increase Germany’s military power while at the same time break up the liberal membership (McGowan 31). This show of militaristic might would become a lasting characteristic among the German right.

Although in the end the Bismarck government failed to satisfy the needs of the new growing middle class (McGowan 40), the ideologies of these first right extremists and conservatives set the stage for what would eventually form into 20 th century right extremism, a principle which would eventually engulf the entire nation. The early leadership built its people around a central theme of extreme nationalism and patriotism.

“After unification nationalism and patriotism featured as binding forces within German society and owed much to the regime’s efforts to foster a ‘German identity’ for the citizens of the new construct of Imperial Germany…specific holidays, the national anthem, the flag, statues” (McGowan 29).

Through this political setting in Imperial Germany, the right wing would eventually use this nationalism to unite for war in 1914, in an attempt to break up the liberal following in Germany and the socialist state itself. This animosity between right extremism, democracy, and socialism would carry on even past the division of East and West Germany in 1945.

This is where the next factor of right extremism begins to come into play. The outbreak of war in 1914 “certainly unified most of the nation in support of what was generally viewed by the public as a defensive war waged to secure Germany’s survival against aggressive foes” (McGowan 36). Not only had Germany been breaking away from relations with London, France, and Russia, but the right now had a reason to unify through war while at the same time, pursue a far right agenda in domestic and foreign policy. In order to combat the socialist SPD, the right’s ideology

“became intertwined with an upsurge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and propaganda among all sections of the political right…Jews were continually portrayed and vilified as the founders and the leading advocates of international socialism” (McGowan 36).

Through this, Jews became the target of far right activities as anti-Semitism became prevalent in every encounter with far right extremism for the rest of the 20 th century and into the present. Although “military defeat brings about democratic government and the demise of conservative supremacy” (McGowan 40), the German state continued to maintain a tradition of right wing ideology as it had become embedded in every aspect of German politics. This sense of nationalism, antisocialism, and anti-democracy, and anti-Semitism provided “fertile soil and roots for the next phase of right-wing radicalism…and the descent into political extremism that becomes characterized by intimidation, persecution, murder, war and genocide” (McGowan 40). Nevertheless, for the time being, the far right had to take a spot on the sidelines as it waited for, or at least hoped for the eventual failure of the new system of capitalism, democracy, and left wing liberalism; this time period would become known as the Weimar Republic.

The Weimar Republic and the Failure of Democracy and Liberalism

The eventual return of far right extremism stems from the inability to incorporate democracy into the German state both economically and socially; this is shown in the establishment of the Weimar Republic which took place from 1919 to 1933. After World War I, many Germans were found disimpassioned due to the loss of the war as well as the need to pay for reparations declared by the Versailles Treaty. In terms of right wing popularity, “the reputation of the right had not been seriously tarnished by the outcome of the war…the conservative right had deflected any criticism for their part in preparing the war effort” (McGowan 46) by blaming their defeat on treachery from within their own ranks; for example, blaming the loss of the war on the German Jews. This explanation gave the far right enough room to drive for further radicalization of their political agenda in the Reichstag. As the political atmosphere continued to stir into the late twenties, there were two events which brought around the beginning of the Weimar’s end, the first being the drop in agricultural prices in 1928 and the second, the Wall street Crash of October 1929 (McGowan 60). As it showed in the past and as it continued to do so in the future, the German radical right tended to gain popularity during times of economic and social crisis, especially when coming to the end of a democratic/capitalist regime. After the American government recalled their short term loans from WWI, by 1932, unemployment had already risen past the 6 million mark. This gave the spark necessary to attract new members to the right wing parties, and popularity of the right continued to grow as the political and economic situation worsened in Germany. As McGowan argues, “without them [the events of 1928 and 1929] it is entirely probable that the political system might have well stabilized and seriously undermined the cohesion and attractiveness of the radical right” (McGowan 60). However, the Weimar Republic did not stabilize and would soon be replaced by Hitler and the establishment of National Socialism.

National Socialism: The Return of the German Tradition

After looking at Germany’s past, it is easy to see why the far right mentality of the Nazi party was so attractive to the German people after the failure of the Weimar. The fact that National Socialism stemmed from the traditions and ideologies ingrained in the German people since before even Bismarck brought back the allure of a united, nationalistic and militarily superior Germany, such as that which took place in the early 1900s. This created an easy passage after the utter disappointment of democracy in the Weimar.

“National socialist ideology was built in opposition to democratic, liberal and humanist values…Nazism was constructed on an aggressive nationalism, a revulsion from parliamentary democracy, resolute anti-Marxism, the promotion of Volksgemeinschaft and racism. All were bound together by the primacy of the German state” (McGowan 74).

Once again the German people were forced to turn their support to traditional 19 th century German ideals due to the failing economic status left over by the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, even with the support for National Socialism, what separated the NSDAP from all the other rightist groups and parties? There is one major factor which contributed to the success of the NSDAP and the national socialist movement; that factor is the establishment of Adolf Hitler as a national icon. His attractive and energetic speeches rallied millions of Germans around the German ideal and “ultimately, the onset of the global economic crisis in the late 1920s enabled Hitler to use his essentially nationalist propaganda to exacerbate middle-class fears while seemingly respecting institutional legality and the principle of free elections” (McGowan 73). Hitler took advantage of the failing economic times and through a new approach to the “old regime” was able to introduce the idea of National Socialism in a youthful, new, and dynamic way. For example, after the failure and frustrations of the Weimar, people were looking for something completely innovative and “strong.” The representation of Adolf Hitler, a very vibrant speaker, and the authoritarian nature of National Socialism gave the extreme right a new and refurbished image. This ability to stir up strong public support as well as a sudden increase in the German financial status made it possible for Hitler to radicalize many domestic policies, such as the draft of the Final Solution, therefore shaping the definition of Nazism and National Socialism forever.

Post-War Decline of the Extreme Right and the Rise of Neo-Nazism Today

After the fall of Germany in World War II, the Potsdam agreement of August 1945 declared that the primary goal in Germany was to eradicate all forms of National Socialism and militarism within the people. Not only did 1945 mark the end of the German nationalist movement, a movement which had taken place since the turn of the century, but it also called for the end of the German “tradition”; it called for the end of a nationally and militarily driven Germany. After World War II, right extremism had little if any chance to become popular again; “by the early 1950s the economic miracle was beginning and overcame certain conditions, such as unemployment, that had initially facilitated the rise of political extremism” (McGowan 152). This was the answer to the problem of the Weimar Republic, and if it had occurred, the world might never have seen the abrupt rise of Nazism and National Socialism. In the post-war case however, economic recovery not only aided the re-installment of liberal democracy in West Germany but it also called to strengthen the West’s political and social setting. Nevertheless, the tradition of right extremism has found a new niche in today’s world in what has become known as Neo-Nazism. Although in statistical terms the overall force of neo-Nazism is small, this sect of modern right extremism is a force to reckon with.

In essence the neo-Nazis see themselves as the successors of the NSDAP and strive for the creation of a totalitarian state based on the leadership principle and constructed on a racial agenda that should promote and protect German culture and identity from both Jews and other foreign influences. These aspirations directly contravene Germany’s liberal democratic constitution and impinge on such fundamental principles as free speech, free assembly, the independence of the courts, political pluralism and the sovereignty of the people (McGowan 178).

In reality however, most attraction to of neo-Nazi activities relates only on a violent level and do not come anywhere close to the immense right-sided support experienced during the Nazi era. Although the possibility of return of an organized right-wing extremist party in today’s united Germany is possible, given present day situations, the force in which it would be experienced would most likely never extend farther than a protest movement.


As mentioned before, ever since the Bismarck age, the German state has placed specific emphasis on certain cultural views and traditions which have continued to carve a pattern throughout each stage of German history. Even in loss of war, the right wing agenda has found a way to permeate through German society. This has been shown in how German culture has become intertwined with conflict, nationalism, anti-Semitism, and several other factors. The actions of the extreme right in Germany will remain forever imprinted in the country’s history, as it turns to look forward to a future of democracy and national change.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)

Book Reviews

  • Alastair Thompson. "Review of Gabriele Lee McGowen, The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present ," H-German, H-Net Reviews, March, 2005. URL: http://www.h-net.org /reviews/showrev.cgi?path=36321117655562. 3 pages. This article recognizes McGowan’s use of themes and motifs throughout each of the different political situations in Germany. It also criticizes McGowan’s often oversimplified look of German politics.
  • Amazon.com McGowen page contains a simple review and summary of McGowan’s book on German nationalism.
  • Acha, Beatriz. “Review of Gabriele Lee McGowen, The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present ," AccessMyLibrary.com, May, 2004.\ http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-22062003_ITM. 1 page. This article also recognizes McGowan’s continuous use of themes when describing the evolving pattern of the German right. It makes note of McGowan’s thesis and how it is represented in each segment of German history.
  • Hist 133c reviews by: Kevin McCormack, Andrew Milman


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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/12/07; last updated: 6/13/07
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