Can you explain this phenomenon?

Right-wing extremism

Johannes Kiess

Johannes Kiess is a political scientist and sociologist. He is a research associate at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Leipzig and at the Chair of Comparative Cultural Sociology and Political Sociology of Europe at the University of Siegen. From 2008 to 2010 he was a member of the right-wing extremism working group headed by Prof. Dr. Elmar Brähler and Prof. Dr. Oliver Decker.

Oliver Decker

Oliver Decker, PD Dr. phil. habil., is professor for social psychologist. One focus of his work is right-wing extremism research. Since 2002 he has headed the "Mitte" studies at the University of Leipzig. In 2013, the University of Leipzig appointed him spokesman of the board of the competence center for research on right-wing extremism and democracy.

Elmar Brähler

Elmar Brähler was Professor of Medical Psychology and Medical Sociology at the University of Leipzig until 2013. His main research interests included right-wing extremist attitudes in Germany. Together with Oliver Decker, he directed the "Mitte" studies at the University of Leipzig.

When people rush in front of refugee shelters, when slogans are shouted at demonstrations against "foreign infiltration", Islam or labor migration from Eastern Europe, these people are often ascribed a "right-wing extremist worldview". But what exactly is it? What constitutes a right-wing extremist attitude, what does it include and what does not?

On February 11, 2003, the defendant Matthias R. was sitting in the trial room of the Frankfurt (Oder) regional court, with the word "hate" tattooed in Nazi runes on his finger. In the so-called disco murder trial, the 23-year-old with the tattoo attracted the indignation of the chief public prosecutor right at the beginning of the trial, who did not want to tolerate the display of Nazi symbols in the courtroom. (& copy picture alliance / ZB)

In addition to dealing with the structures and ideologies of right-wing extremist organizations and the observation and explanation of right-wing extremist violence, the attitudes level is also an important subject of research on right-wing extremism. In particular, quantitative attitudes research also deals with the question of how far right-wing extremist worldviews are widespread in society, and with explaining what promotes or could prevent this spread. Qualitative research also tries to understand specific causal relationships and characteristics. So what exactly is part of a right-wing extremist worldview?

In the social sciences as well as in public, the term "right-wing extremism" is often used quite naturally to characterize a certain set of phenomena, both attitudes and actions. This collective term only gradually asserted itself against terms such as (neo) fascism, (neo) Nazism, authoritarianism, right-wing radicalism, etc., which are often used synonymously, and is still controversial. It is often unclear which elements and thought patterns belong to right-wing extremism and which do not. For attitude research, the problem arises as to what should actually be recorded - for example in opinion polls.

Right-wing extremism: diverse concepts without a common denominator

The term "right-wing extremism" comes from political and constitutional practice. It was first used by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in its 1974 report. As a result, right-wing extremists describe efforts that turn against democracy and see nation and race as decisive for the value of people. However, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution only deals with the actions of people and organizations and does not research their attitudes. It was not until the SINUS study [1] of 1981 - the first study that explicitly examined the phenomenon of right-wing extremist attitudes as such - that the use of the term was expanded from the action level to the attitude level. [2]

With the origin of the term, a component of right-wing extremist ideology is already indicated, but the problematic of the term is also identified. On the one hand, the rejection of (pluralistic) democracy is a relatively undisputed element of right-wing extremist attitudes; on the other hand, this finding is emphasized differently depending on the protagonists' understanding of democracy. There are mainly two opposing positions: the advocates of a model of extremism based on theories of totalitarianism see the danger for democracy from extremists on the left and right political fringes, but the "center" as guarantor of democracy. On the other hand, there are proponents of a dichotomous concept who differentiate between democratic and undemocratic / right-wing extremist attitudes regardless of social position. The main points of criticism of the extremism model are that "a) this construction [of the extremism model] only partially depicts the political structure, b) it does not do justice to the complexity of society, c) it does not place extremism at the center of society , but locates it as a marginal phenomenon and finally d) it makes the - actual or supposed - threat it poses to the core of the constitutional order its unique selling point ". [3]

Political scientist Hans-Gerd Jaschke provides a general, widely accepted definition of right-wing extremism, which should serve as a starting point here: "By 'right-wing extremism' we mean the totality of attitudes, behaviors and actions, organized or not, those of the racial or ethnically conditioned social inequality of people, demand ethnic homogeneity of peoples and reject the principle of equality of the human rights declaration, which emphasize the primacy of the community over the individual, are based on the subordination of the citizen to the reasons of state and which reject the pluralism of values ​​of a liberal democracy and want to reverse democratization ". [4]

Right-wing extremist ideology consists of ...?

Since the 1980s, beginning with the SINUS study - that is, remarkably late - there have been attempts to measure the spread of right-wing extremism at the attitudes level. For a long time, however, there were mostly individual studies with often different right-wing extremism concepts and measurement methods. Wilhelm Heitmeyer's conception, according to which the "dazzling spectrum" of right-wing extremist ideology had two basic elements, namely an ideology of inequality (including nationalism, racism and the natural right of the stronger) and acceptance of violence as a means of political but also everyday confrontation [5], was influential. Wolfgang Benz counted nationalism (combined with xenophobia and Greater German, revisionist ideas), anti-Semitism and racism, intolerance (and the rights of the fittest), militarism and the cult of the leader, glorification of the Nazi state, tendency towards conspiracy theories and, finally, willingness to use violence or acceptance among the criteria [ 6]. A third example is Richard Stöss' concept, which includes authoritarianism (willingness to suppress the weaker and subordinate oneself to the stronger), xenophobia (each ethnically and socio-economically motivated), anti-Semitism and pro-Nazism [7]. The question of what actually belongs to the right-wing extremist worldview is aggravated by the fact that it is controversial how these components should be measured (with which and with how many questions), how the answers should be summarized and, finally, from when a respondent or one Respondents are considered right-wing extremists. [8]

The definition of the consensus group

The extremism model mentioned above has little influence in political sociology. The consequence of the plurality of right-wing extremism concepts was that even with studies that differed only slightly, no comparisons could be made between regions, groups of people or even over time. For this reason, a consensus conference of social scientists [9] took place in 2001, the aim of which was to develop a joint questionnaire.

The definition on which the consensus group is based describes the right-wing extremist worldview in six dimensions: "Right-wing extremism is an attitude pattern, the common characteristics of which are ideas of inequality. In the political field, these are expressed in the affinity to dictatorial forms of government, chauvinist [i.e. nationalist] attitudes and one The trivialization or justification of National Socialism. In the social field, they are characterized by anti-Semitic, xenophobic and social Darwinist attitudes. "[10]

The questionnaire developed on the basis of this definition has been used, among other things, in the long-term study of the Leipzig "Mitte" studies since 2002 [11]: Respondents are presented with three statements for each of the six dimensions and asked for their assessment. It has been shown, for example, that people who agree with the anti-Semitic statement "Jews have something special about themselves and do not really suit us" also tend to agree with statements from the other dimensions. These empirical relationships between the dimensions are viewed as confirmation that the attitude patterns formulated in the theoretical definition actually and constitutively belong to right-wing extremism.

Marginal attitudes of the right-wing extremist worldview

The (marginal) phenomena of right-wing extremist attitudes include, so argue some scholars, but also fundamental criticism of capitalism, approval of conspiracy theories, willingness to use violence and perceived social and economic injustice. It is questionable whether these elements can be regarded as a necessary or even sufficient component of right-wing extremist attitudes. Because then studies would have to show a strong connection with the other dimensions. Willingness to use violence and the tendency towards conspiracy theories often go hand in hand with approval of other dimensions of right-wing extremist attitudes - these connections are, however, nowhere near as strong as between the six dimensions of the consensus group [12]. Therefore, these attitudes are not counted as part of the core repertoire of a right-wing extremist worldview.

There is also the question of cause and effect. In research, economic deprivation in particular, i.e. the feeling of being disadvantaged, is viewed as an explanatory factor for political attitudes - and is therefore not part of right-wing extremist attitudes. If something is part of a phenomenon, it can no longer be cited to explain the phenomenon.

It is less common to assume from different directions that certain personality attitudes belong to a (right-wing) extreme attitude. Here, too, there is a risk of a circular conclusion: "If, for example, one counts a dogmatic personality structure among the characteristics of the concept of right-wing extremism, it cannot be used to explain right-wing extremism at the same time. Progress in knowledge is therefore ruled out. Rather, the conditions that lead to the development of an extremist personality structure are to be examined effect ". [13] But that too is of course a conceptual question.

The debate about what really belongs to right-wing extremism is still open. Other dimensions that are sometimes included in the right-wing extremist view of the world are, for example, social dominance orientation, sexism, authoritarianism and willingness to use violence. The amount of overlap between people who have both one of these attitudes and a right-wing extremist worldview is large, but the correlation is nowhere near as strong as in the six dimensions defined by the consensus group. [14] The Thuringia Monitor team, which also uses the right-wing extremism questionnaire of the consensus group, comes to the conclusion on the basis of its data that "the questions [of the questionnaire used] have no longer been understood as indicators of a homogeneous right-wing extremism phenomenon since the middle of the last decade at the latest". Instead, there are two levels that can be distinguished: on the one hand, a "neo-Nazi ideology", consisting of the trivialization of Nazi Germany, social Darwinism, a tendency towards right-wing authoritarian dictatorship, as well as racism and anti-Semitism; on the other hand, ethnocentrism, which manifests itself in chauvinism and xenophobia. [15]

This is where another research problem becomes clear: there was a relative consensus on what should belong to the right-wing extremist attitudes. Subsequently, however, the different studies used different measurement methods (e.g. telephone interview and self-filling questionnaire) and different questionnaire constellations (query in a block or distributed between other questions). Even if there are now studies for a whole series of theoretically more or less well-founded assumptions and thus evidence for or against them, the debate about what exactly belongs to right-wing extremist attitudes is not over.

Research on authoritarianism and prejudice: concepts alongside right-wing extremist attitudes

In the Anglo-American region in particular, right-wing extremism is rarely mentioned, at least in terms of attitudes. Concepts such as authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, racism and prejudice are more widespread here, and of course this also has an impact on the German debate. Above all, the study on the "Authoritarian Personality" by Adorno et al. (1950) stimulates the debate like hardly any other work. The research group, mainly scientists who emigrated to the USA like Adorno after 1933, wanted to understand why "normal people" were susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda. For this they followed up on the study "Authority and Family" carried out in Germany before 1933 by Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, which based on Freudian psychoanalysis assumed a connection between upbringing, personality and political attitudes.

These explanatory approaches are still taken up today, for example by Hopf & Hopf (1997) and in the Leipzig "Mitte" studies with the concept of "secondary authoritarianism". The even older concept of ethnocentrism (Sumner 1906), according to which one's own ethnicity is set as central and superior, also remains relevant to this day, especially as an explanatory factor for the devaluation of outgroups (Fritsche et al. 2013). These so-called socio-cognitive approaches explain the emergence of political attitudes as psychological effects of general processes of thinking: The multitude of impressions is reduced by classification, and prejudices are the effects of this schematization of people in groups.

Group-related misanthropy

The sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer and his team introduced the concept of group-related misanthropy (GMF) for their long-term study "German conditions" from 2002 to 2011. Here, too, the dimensions and occurrence of an "ideology of inequality" are measured. GMF comprises at least six elements: racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, heterophobia (aversion to people who are constructed as "different", measured here as rejection of homosexuals), established privileges and sexism. [16] For this purpose, in response to social developments in particular, further dimensions are differentiated, e.g. Islamophobia and, since 2007, heterophobia are recorded separately in the three dimensions devaluing homosexuals, homeless and disabled people. A year later, the category "devaluing the long-term unemployed" was added. [17] For the purpose of the study it says: "Misanthropy begins unobtrusively" [18], so it can arise among us, which is why the detailed description of the GMF and the elaboration and evaluation of interventions are important.

The concept of group-related enmity therefore goes into more detail than the usual right-wing extremism research specifically on the individual forms of inequality that can be found. To this end, right-wing extremism researchers (in addition to the specific notions of inequality xenophobia and anti-Semitism) also include other abstract (partial) ideologies such as chauvinism or social Darwinism as well as political agendas such as the glorification of National Socialism and the advocacy of right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (or attitudes towards them). The approach of classical research on authoritarianism, in turn, is characterized by the effort to understand the emergence of political attitudes as a social process.

Each current of science therefore has a special focus - and thus its own strengths and weaknesses in the direction of knowledge: If one wants to examine right-wing extremist political attitudes and also include anti-democratic resentment in the consideration, the approach of right-wing extremism research is recommended. It has the advantage that it can be combined with different theoretical explanatory models. In addition, learning about and appreciating democracy and pluralism is also very important in the field of political education. If the focus is more on a more precise investigation of the manifestations of notions of inequality than devaluation of "others", the GMF approach offers a more differentiated research design that also integrates the devaluation of groups that are not considered separately in right-wing extremism research. In the work against prejudice, this approach may then be more suitable.Research on authoritarianism, in turn, enables the social conditions that are in the background of attitudes to be criticized.

Unresolved debates and a limited consensus

The research on authoritarianism, GMF as well as ethnocentrism and right-wing extremist attitudes are not only in competition, despite different empirical and theoretical approaches. Rather, the use of the different terms and concepts shows how diverse the subject of investigation, political attitudes themselves, is. It is true that the various approaches to the emergence of political attitudes or the different views on the relationship between the individual and society cannot be combined into an overall concept for researching the phenomenon of right-wing extremism. But the different theoretical attempts at explanation help at least to understand one area of ​​the problem.

But one looks in vain for a consensus on what exactly belongs to the right-wing extremist attitude. People like to stick to their own concepts and, on a second level, their own tried and tested methodical procedures. Of course, this also opens up different perspectives, which sometimes bring one aspect into the limelight. At least the following can be said for the breadth of research: that the central element of right-wing extremist attitudes is the ideology of inequality.