‘Never again!’ says Germany’s anti-national movement

Raphael Schlembach reviews Against the Nation: Anti-National Politics in Germany, by Robert Ogman
May 2013

yellow book cover

Robert Ogman’s short book charts an important point in the development of the radical Left in Germany, just before and after the country’s reunification. It introduces and assesses a heterogeneous anti-national social movement that at first swam against the stream of nationalist euphoria in 1990 and that in subsequent years fought against a tide of resurgent xenophobic violence.

Ogman shows how the demise of real-existing socialism that culminated in the collapse of the German Democratic Republic not only signalled the triumph of neoliberal capitalism; it also initiated a new phase of aggressive and xenophobic nationalism in the reunified Federal Republic. While the nation served elite-purposes to smooth over labour conflicts and class interests, this was also echoed as nationalism from below. The euphoria that accompanied the new nation-building process was soon followed by significant increases in xenophobic sentiments and violence, so terrifyingly captured in the pogroms of Rostock and Hoyerswerda, when neo-Nazis and locals joined forces in driving asylum seekers from their towns.

It was in this context that a distinct, and rather unique, anti-national movement began to take shape. Ogman focuses on two campaigns of the time.

The first, which at its highpoint in 1990 attracted more than 20,000 people to an anti-national demonstration in Frankfurt, was the radical Left’s response to what it perceived as the ‘annexation’ of the former GDR by the Federal Republic. Using a phrase by the popular singer Marlene Dietrich, the campaign called itself ‘Never Again Germany!’ Somewhat hopelessly, it opposed reunification outright, with many activists fearing a geopolitical and economic strengthening of Germany that could pave the way for something akin to a Fourth Reich.

The second, after reunification, arose as a coalition of anti-racist activists that joined together in the ‘Something Better than the Nation’ campaign against a seemingly national consensus of xenophobia. Here again, it wasn’t the state alone that forced a tightening of asylum laws. The campaign highlighted how wide sections of society were actively involved in at times violent attacks on refugees and migrant workers.

Both campaigns brought together activists from a variety of backgrounds, former members of the Greens, Maoist organisations, Autonome and squatters. Ogman suggests that its heterogeneity also led to the movement’s decline. Yet, many of its principles live on in today’s German Left and still inform current campaigning.

While the sections on these specific campaigns are rather short, the non-German reader might find Ogman’s contextualisation of particular interest, and indeed it describes an aspect of German history that is often conveniently forgotten. It looks at the support for xenophobia not just amongst the reconstituting far Right but also among wide sections of the German public, some of whom joined in with acts of violence.

Ogman argues that the anti-national campaigns rightly broke with more traditional left-wing attitudes towards the nation. They were questioning of notions such as ‘the people’, and instead grappled with the problem that broad sections of the population had been complicit in supporting and even enacting nationalist and racist ideology. For Ogman, this is not just a matter of history. His point is that we can find lessons for the Anglophone Left today.

Raphael Schlembach is an Associate Lecturer at The University of Central Lancashire


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James O'Nions 14 May 2013, 14.21

Thanks for your review Raph. Without being an expert, from what I know of German anti-national politics, for me one of the problems is the attitude they seem to have developed to the question of Palestinian liberation. I think this is a result of their politics developing out of the anti-Nazi struggle. Flying Israeli flags on anti-Nazi demos to taunt the Nazis, seem to have developed into a position which claims any focus on the Israeli state in particular is evidence of anti-Semitism as all nations/states are a problem. Thus most of the left and the whole Palestinian movement exhibit varying degrees of anti-Semitism.
Like I say, without speaking German my exact understanding of this is limited, but I’ve come by these criticisms from German speakers.
I wonder if this is covered in the book – from what you say Ogman doesn’t seem very critical.
I also think there’s a problem in saying that “broad sections of the population had been complicit in supporting and even enacting nationalist and racist ideology”. I’m not one to minimise racism (when the BNP did well, some politicians were quick to claim their voters weren’t racist – well yes quite clearly were) but this seems to be the kind of politics which paints you into a purist corner, isolated from the mass of ‘racists’ in the rest of the population.
I think we need to pick our lessons for the Anglophone left out of German anti-national politics very carefully.

Raph 14 May 2013, 19.12

Hi James, you are quite right with your ‘careful’ conclusion; but also let’s be careful not to confuse issues and moments in time.
Ogman’s book does NOT deal with the anti-German tendency (which, by the way, I would think has now become largely irrelevant in the German left) and it is this tendency (which maybe started to emerge in the latter half of the 1990s) that you seem to refer to. My review should have probably made this clear that Ogman’s book is about the ‘anti-national’ movement of 1989/90 and early 90s as opposed to an ‘anti-German’ politics. There is a strong sympathy for the anti-national position in the book, but none (no mention) of the anti-Germans. We should be sure to keep the two apart. The former might well entail a pro-Isreal (the principle of the right to its existence, not its policies) perspective, but it is distinct from the bellicose Islam-criticism of the latter (as I wrote here: http://interfacejournal.nuim.ie/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Interface-2-2-pp.199-219-Schlembach.pdf)
As for your second point, I am not so sure. I appreciate your anti-purist sentiment there, but equally the masses vs. the elite narrative is dangerously populist and can have a nationalist subtext. I think this is the point of the book, as well as of the anti-national critique at the time: The nationalist sentiment in Germany post-reunification led to a much more consensual xenophobia, which was not just marked by isolated, ‘dysfunctional’ elements in society, but one that was actually the constitutive basis of its state-building project.

Robert Ogman 15 May 2013, 08.53

Hi James, Hi Ralph,
It is true, I don’t deal with the anti-German tendency in particular, as something distinct from an anti-national one. I wanted to show the basis for both of these critiques, that emerge in the conjuncture of “German reunification.” (As Ralph writes, a specific anti-German tendency begins to emerge in the mid/late 1990s.)
In response to the question of “complicity” of the general population, that’s not so easy. First, the main topic was *not* anti-fascism, nor anti-racism. Those were critical for the movement (especially the “Nothing Better than the Nation” mobilization, responding to the mob attacks on asylum seekers, Vietnamese contract workers, Roma and Sinti, etc.), but they became only parts of a broader anti-national critique. And this was not solely a critique of nationalist “ideology”, whether from above or below. I try to show how the group behind the anti-“reunification” protests, originated in response to the modernization of capitalism at the end of the 1980s, and especially to the integration of the left, labor, ecologists, feminists and other potential oppositional forces into that process. It was only when nationalism became an increasingly important ideological component of that integration, that the loose formation, “The Radical Left”, began focusing on nationalism.
And this was never reduced to ideology alone — whether from above or below — in the sense of something free-floating, or separate from material reality. They were targeting nationalism as a material aspect of capitalist society in the sense of providing certain privileges to those who belong to the ‘national community’. Nationalism is not simply a ‘false consciousness.’ ‘The national’ has material implications for people, somewhat independent of personal identity. They also argued that even those within this collectivity also suffer from the imagined equality within this formation. So they point out how patriarchal notions of the family were used to justify female unemployment and patriarchal gender roles, as part of a national labor market strategy to strengthen international competitiveness.
So, while I want to bring attention to the anti-racist aspects of these movements, I don’t want this to overshadow the materialist analysis that they were advancing, as part of a new social movement engagement with the relationship between nation, state, and capital.

Paul Levi's Ghost 16 May 2013, 00.24

“The former might well entail a pro-Isreal (the principle of the right to its existence, not its policies) perspective, but it is distinct from the bellicose Islam-criticism of the latter”

What does it even mean for a purportedly “anti-national” movement to entail a pro-Israel perspective? Why should supposed opponents of the nation-state dole out certificates of a “right to existence” to particular states?

Robert Ogman 16 May 2013, 07.57

Hi Paul, Hi James,
In my research on the protests against “reunification” and on the mobilization against the far-Right mob and popular anti-immigrant mood of the early 1990s, there was absolutely *zero* mention of Middle East politics, almost nothing about antisemitism, and very little about Nazi history.

Edmund Potts 17 May 2013, 10.27

I must admit I’m very confused by the reference to “Nie wieder Deutschland” coming from a Marlene Dietrich song – surely it’s acutally derived from Käthe Kollwitz’s famous artwork “Nie wieder Krieg”? http://www.jena.sdaj-netz.de/files/2012/11/nie-wieder-krieg.jpg

Anyone care to enlighten me?

Edmund Potts 17 May 2013, 10.34

Have read up a bit and apparently it was an interview in which she said something to that effect, not a song (my mistake). But still, is this really the only derivation?

Bugsy 26 May 2013, 17.55

I’m not at all sure that the collapse of the GDR regime initiated the xenophobic extremism that caused the disgusting examples of Rostock, Hoyerswerds and Cottbus, among other places. I happen to have been in the existing and then former GDR from February 1990 until September 1996 (as well as having spent a couple of years in the GDR in the late 1970s). I thus lay claim to having more than a passing knowledge of the “Ossi psyche” and of the events as they transpired.

The extremism displayed, came not immediately after the so-called “reunification”, as is suggested, but rather a little later. It was after the former GDR citizens realised the full extent of what had happened to them and their state, was not a “reunification” at all, but a annexation and occupation, whereby they were reduced to second-class citizens by the Wessis. They had no hope, no future and nothing to believe in, so that the Wessi Nazi agitators found a fruitful field.


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