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MocGowan, book cover

The Evolution of Germany's Radical Right

Book Essay on: Lee McGowan,
The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present
(Longman, 2003), 224 pages.
UCSB: JN3971.A91 M35 2002

by Andrew Milman
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 Andrew Milman

I am a senior philosophy and German studies major. I lived in Dusseldorf, Germany last summer while studying art and architecture in Nazi Germany. I became interested in the radical right after reading that nationalist parties persisted after the fall of Nazi Germany. I had many questions about the origin, prevalence, and popularity of these parties. I hoped to expand my knowledge of the subject by reading this book.

Abstract (back to top)

In the The Radical Right in Germany, Lee McGowan examines the role of the radical right in Germany from 1871 to 2002. McGowan begins by investigating the origins of the radical right in ideologies founded in imperial Germany. An example of this is, the rise in popularity of antisemitism and antisemitic parties at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. These ideologies, McGowan argues, compounded by the social and economic failures of the Weimar Republic set the foundation for Hitler’s rise to power. After the fall of Nazi Germany, the radical right continued as a fringe movement, with brief periods of popularity during stressful economic and social times. Many of the supporters were drawn from the 17% of the economically and socially disenfranchised segment of the population who had been expelled from the former eastern territories. The West German parties that espoused radical right nationalist goals after the war were primarily the SRP (Socialist Party of the Reich), the NPD (National Demokratische Partei Deutschlands), and lastly the Republikaner.

Essay (back to top)


The role of the radical right in Germany has been viewed from many different angles. In the immediate post-war period many believed that Nazism was the logical outcome of previous historical developments from the Middle ages. Others viewed the occurrence of National Socialism as a bolt of lightning from nowhere. Still, some political figures and scholars hold ant-German sentiments, such as Tony Blair and Margret Thatcher, and have seriously entertained the view that the Germans are simply an unstable and aggressive race. (McGowan pg 11)

  • With so many differing opinions, how are we to look at the development of the radical right in Germany?

In The Radical Right in Germany by Lee McGowan, McGowan attempts to give an account of the genesis and evolution of the far right in Germany from 1870 to present (2002). McGowan does this along the lines of a classical plot line in which one sees the exposition of the radical right in the Bismarck era, the climax with the Nazi regime, and the asymptotic demise of the radical right after the fall of Nazi Germany, into the Germany of today. McGowan attempts to explain the causes of the rise and fall of the radical right movement in Germany as a major political force before 1945, while also showing the role of the radical right as a fringe movement thereafter. McGowan argues that the origins of the ideology of the radical right can be found in imperial Germany, and the economic and social failures of the Weimar republic were the catalyst of the radical right taking control of Germany. Furthermore, McGowan argues the modern resurgence of the radical right in Germany is the result of similar economic and social failures that continue to plague Germany today.

What is the Radical Right?

The first most pressing issue McGowan tackles is defining the radical right. Most identify the radical right in Germany first and foremost with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism, however, McGowan gives the following as a definition:

any parties, organizations and individuals whose self knowledge and activities are formed by the majority, if not all, of the following characteristics: nationalism; ethnocentrism; xenophobia; particularly in the guise of anti-Semitism and racism; anti-pluralism; anti-communism; anti-parliamentary; militarism; a law and order mentality; the longing for an authoritarian state under one leader; often sympathy for conspiracy theories; and the acceptance of violence as a suitable means of political discourse

Formation of The Radical Right in Imperial Germany

These characteristics in 1870, according to McGowan, can be found at the inception of Germany unified in 1871. The two principal conservative groups in 1871 were the Reichspartei and the Conservative Partei. The two conservative parties of the time did not initially embrace some of the essential characteristics that we identify with the radical right today. In particular, anti-Semitism and radical nationalism. McGowan describes the first “stirring of a new and more radical right occurred with the arrival of anti-Semitic agitators in the 1880’s” (pg. 22). This is represented by the fact that in 1871 no specifically anti-Semitic parties were represented in the Reichstag, however, by 1893 there were 16 anti-Semitic seats held. (pg 23).

With the new radical right gaining strength (as opposed to the old right) the old conservative parties were faced with the choice of incorporating the new principles of the radical right into their own party platform, thus legitimizing the radical right, or rejecting the radical right and facing further competition. With the SPD gaining strength the old conservative forces were left with little alternative to incorporating a more nationalistic and radical platform by incorporating organizations such as the Pan-German league and the Agrarian League before the outbreak of war in 1914. (McGowan pg 22)

World War One solidified the radical right’s place in German politics. By 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been appointed to the Supreme command (OHL). With the country engrossed in the first world war in the pursuit of Siegfrieden (total victory), the OHL effectively controlled the country. Ludendorff and Hindenburg used their added power to “mobilize radical right elements and associations within German society to support the aims of complete victory and planned territorial expansion” (pg. McGowan 37). This manifested itself in the formation of the Vaterlandpartei in 1916 which was the “first prime example of the anti-parliamentary right finding a mass following“. (pg. 37)

Weimar Period: The Catalyst

The total victory Hindenburg and Ludendorf so desperately tried to achieve never happened. In a last ditch effort the stranglehold of the conservative government fell under the leadership of Hindenburg. In order to gain favor with the allies a more liberal democratic government was chosen. With Germany defeated and the conservatives stripped of their power “the responsibility for the new government fell upon the SPD, the largest political force in November 1918” ( pg. 43-44). The first challenge faced by the SPD government was the signing of the Versailles treaty.

The treaty of Versailles was almost universally viewed by the German populace with contempt, however, Germany was not in a position to negotiate with the allies. This was one of the fundamental problems given the purpose of the Versailles treaty was designed to punish the conservatives in power, who had instigated the war, but the newly founded democratic government led by the SPD was forced to sign it. As a result the SPD and Weimar government in general bore the brunt of the so called “stab in the back myth” when ironically the fault was of the conservative parties, the most ardent supporters of the war. (McGowan pg 45)

This played into the conservatives hands and the SPD and Weimar democracy in general were blamed for the acceptance of the war guilt clause (stating Germany bore full blame for the war) and the harsh economic repercussions forced upon Germany as a result of the Versailles treaty. The SPD and the Weimar government could never totally recover from this blow and it was constantly used by right wing groups as propaganda tool against the SPD.

This is at the heart of the radicalization of the German political system and is best described by McGowan in “these problems cast doubts on the democratic experiment in the minds of many Germans, and in the first and final stages of the Weimar Republic, led many to contemplate the political extremes of both right and left” (McGowan pg. 46).

The Rise of National Socialism

The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei (NSDAP) was a product of this polarization of the German political scene. The leader of this new radical movement, Adolf Hitler, represented the epitome of the radical right. Hitler and National Socialism embody all of the characteristics McGowan has given as the definition of the radical right.

One of the major factors of the NSDAP success was capitalizing on the economic strains placed upon the Weimar Republic by the Versailles treaty and the international economic crisis. In particular the hyperinflation of 1923 and the Wall Street crash of 1929, “which heralded the beginnings of the demise of Weimar regime“ (McGowan pg 60). The economic, crises which effected the Weimar regime, rocked all aspects of society. By 1930 the country had plunged into a “state of deep economic and political crisis” (pg. 61). Most Germans, were losing faith in the current government given the economic and political crises. Many flocked to both ends of the political spectrum.

On the right side of the Political spectrum the NSDAP was competing for votes with the conservative Deutsch Nationale Volkspartei (DNVP). The DNVP, much like the conservative parties of pre-1918 Germany, held 14.2% of the vote in 1928, but by 1930 their numbers fell like most other parties in the government, to 7%. This represents the dissatisfaction of the German people with those in the Weimar government. In contrast the Nazi party increased its voter share from 2.6% in 1928 to 18.3% in 1930 (McGowan pg 60 & 94). It is important to remember one of the major differences between the DNVP and the NSDAP was that Nazis ran on the platform they would seek the destruction of the Weimar government. So a vote for the Nazis was essentially a vote against the Weimar Republic.

By 1933 the NSDAP enjoyed 43.9% of the vote, more than twice as much as the closest competing party (McGowan pg. 94). The radical right was now the largest political force in Germany set to dominate. However, Hitler still needed the blessings of the conservative government in power under von Papen and Hindenburg to legitimize his power. Both von Papen and Hindenburg underestimated Hitler and held “a dismissive assessment of Hitler as an over ambitious proletarian whom they had hired and could control“ (McGowan pg. 64). Hitler received his wish and was appointed chancellor in 1933.

NPD Rally in West Germany

Post War: The Fringe Movement

Post war Germany lay in ruins. The radical right had effectively destroyed the country and resulted in the death of tens of millions. In spite of this the radical right gained significant popularity in the electorate on three occasions within the Federal Republic of Germany. The first phase (1949-52) it occurred under the Sozialistische Reichs Partei (Socialist Party of the Reich) or SRP; in the second, from 1964 to 1969, under the National Demokratische Patei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party) or NPD, and in the third, from 1984 to 1990, principally under the guise of the Republikaner” (McGowan pg. 148). In all three cases, like in the Weimar period, one can see the resurgence as the result of economic and social strife within West Germany.

The SRP officially claimed it espoused the principles of the old conservative parties of the Weimar period. However, “to what extent it held National Socialist values, must remain open to question.” A major pool of social unrest and source of support for the SRP came from the 17 percent of the population of West Germany which were listed as expellees from the lost territories. The success of the SRP was short lived by it gaining 11 percent of the vote in Lower Saxony and 7 percent in Bremen, since it was outlawed by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1952. The SRP was outlawed, mainly, because of its increasing affinity to National Socialism, now illegal, is best expressed by one of the leading party figures “commented that the difference between the SRP and the NSDAP lies only in the time period.” (pg. 149 & 152).

The second resurgence of the radical right from 1964 to 1972 took the form of the Nationaldemokratische Partei (National Democratic Party). The NPD presented itself as a party “to whom a strongly nationalistic and authoritarian policy would appeal” (McGowan pg. 154) By 1968 the party managed to have itself represented in seven of the eleven state legislatures. Again, the success of the NPD “centered on the first economic downturn of 1966 to 1967” with unemployment reaching the 700,000 at its peak. By 1972 the improved economy saw the percentage of the voter share drop from 4 percent to less than one percent. Once again the resurgence of the radical right can be correlated with the growing dissatisfaction of German populace due to economic recession. (McGowan pg. 158)

The final resurgence of the radical right occurred between 1984 and 1990. This was made possible by the new radical right movement orchestrated by the Republikaner. The Republikaner held a “national and anti-foreign rhetoric” and made use of slogans such as “Deutschland den Deutschen” (Germany for the Germans) and particular “aus” phrases such as “auslanderaus” (foreigners get out). At the height of their popularity the Republikaner gained 7.1% of the vote in 1989. Much like the first two resurgences of the radical right the Republikaner owed their success to “the common feeling was one of increasing economic, social and political marginality”. (pg 164-166)

Final Thoughts

It is clear that there is a strong correlation between economic and social unrest and the popularity of radical right parties, in the German electorate. One question I feel McGowan did not address was: do the German people in particular have a greater propensity for turning to radical right political movements than other western democracies? It seems this question would be difficult to answer given it would be impossible to compare Germany to any other country given its unique and tumultuous past.

However, the answer to a certain extent is yes. Given that there is a direct correlation between the percentage of voters voting for the Republikaner and their age in 1989. Perhaps some of the experiences of the older generation have influenced their propensity to vote for the radical right. However, if this is true, as the older generation fades so will the support for radical right parties.

One theme that is common, is resurgence of the radical right movement can be directly correlated social and economic stress. This is particularly true in Germany, given the country has suffered devastating social and economic impact directly following the loss of both world wars. In addition, for the past 18 years, Germany has been struggling with the social and economic challenges in re-uniting the east and west. If the particular pattern outlined above is true, as the Germany economy and society stabilizes, the likeliness of the electorate to vote for radical right parties will also decrease.

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


  •  Alastair Thompson, History Department, Durham University “The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present“. (Book Review) Published by: H-German (March, 2005) URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=36321117655562
    Thompson sharply criticizes McGowan’s book as overly simplistic and in some cases factually inaccurate. He does however acknowledge that squeezing 130 years of history into a 200 page book is difficult. The various inaccuracies and oversimplifications leads Thompson to the conclusion that this book should not be recommended to students “unreservedly.”
  • Acha, Beatriz, “The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present." (Book Review) West European Politics 27.3 (May 2004): p542(2).
    Acha gives a much more favorable review of McGowan’s book. She notes McGowan touches on the some of the key topics debated by historians in “Historikerstreit.” This book, according to Acha, gives readers the ability to see the continuity of similarities between radical right movements in Germany from 1870 to 2002.
  • Hist 133c reviews by: Kevin McCormack, Dan Schneiderman

Other Books

  • Kitschelt, Herbert The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (University of Michigan Press; Reprint edition (September 1, 1997) 352 pages. UCSB JN94.A979 K569 1995 (Wikipedia on Kitschelt)
    This book examines the success and failure of right wing political movements in western Europe. Herbert argues that social and economic conditions do not fully account for the success of right wing political movements, rather one must analyze the internal political situation.
  • Klandermans, Bert Extreme Right Activists in Europe: Through the magnifying glass (Routledge, 2005), 309 pages UCSB: HN380.Z9 R3295 2006
    Klandermans examines the right wing movements in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. He takes the psychological approach and tries to find out what motivates the radical right.

Web Sites

  • Wikipedia lists current and past German political parties. If you would like to learn more about the German political parties mentioned in the essay, you can find them mostly listed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Germany) under “Minor Parties” and “Defunct parties in (former) West Germany”. If the party you are still interested still exists, you can get a direct link to the current party website. The English translation is normally given.

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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.

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