Think differently

2019/2020

12 November

Speech by Prof. Dr. Lothar Ungerer, Mayor of Meerane, at the awards ceremony for the 2019 Saxon Democracy Prize

The municipalities, ladies and gentlemen, are the foundation of democratic political culture and in
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12/11/2019

Speech by Prof. Dr. Lothar Ungerer, Mayor of Meerane, at the awards ceremony for the 2019 Saxon Democracy Prize

The municipalities, ladies and gentlemen, are the foundation of democratic political culture and in the midst of explosive interparty competition and the AfD party’s pretensions to power following the state parliamentary elections. I would like to thank Dr. Pia Gerber of the Freudenberg Foundation and Dr. Eva Sturm of the Cellex Foundation for today’s invitation to give this municipal speech of welcome at the awards ceremony for the Saxon Democracy Prize.
I have, ladies and gentlemen, selected three topics: language, right-wing extremism, and the election results. I shall conclude with some recommendations for action.

First topic: language.

The elections have shown how susceptible our society is to propaganda, lies and manipulation in ""social media".

"By their language ye shall know them", was the admonition back in the 1920s of the great Viennese language and culture critic Karl Kraus, who with this sentence wished primarily to warn about the mendacity of the press, which he called "the journaille". He said language is the mother of thought, not its servant, and he stepped up wherever people were playing fast and loose with language, meaning where lies were being disseminated through inadmissible deployment of language. For the Nazi era, the works of Dolf Sternberger and the analysis of Victor Klemperer in 1947 are fundamental. They evidence the insidious influencing of thought through language and communication.

For the AfD party, the language, the choice of words, has a special dimension, it is a psychological state. Language and choice of words function not only as symbols, but as an event that unfurls its toxic effect. Linguistic disinhibition favors the growth of preparation for real violence. The AfD party is monopolizing the “We”: WE and not THEM. The WE suggests affiliation. The WE is intended to mobilize an ethnically nationalist mass of voters: "Trust yourself Saxony." Freely elected parliaments, office-holders are defined as "enemies of the people". The AfD party has adopted the heritage of 1989: “We are the people.” And is denouncing the Federal Republic of Germany as a communistic GDR state.

That right-wing-extremist parties and politicians conduct their election campaigns aggressively with dirty tricks, hate-fuelled messages, threats of violence, provocations and wanton mendacity is nothing new. What is new is that they are linked in technological networks with an unquantifiable number of users. When Facebook declares (as happened only recently) that it respects the democratic process, then in Facebook’s world that means that provocations and lies are permitted, since they enable huge sums of money to be shamelessly accumulated. This abuse of the term ""freedom of expression" threatens to destroy free and fair elections. Democratic processes – i.e. the rules of the game – have to be underpinned by sturdier systems.

Which is why, ladies and gentlemen, populism as a concept is not unimportant.

But – and here I arrive at my second topic – the excessive use of the term "populism" is not appropriate.

For semantically precise political analyses, we need a broader vocabulary; specific phenomena have to be identified with the requisite terminological exactitude. It has never been properly explained why nationalist, authoritarian, right-wing-extremist or neo-Fascist tendencies should not be designated as nationalist, authoritarian, right-wing-extremist or neo-Fascist, but as populist. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that concepts like "demagogy" or "demagogue" seem to be sinking into oblivion. When persons seek to woo voters by pandering to people’s wishes and prejudices and eschew rational argumentation, they are demagogues.

It is accordingly appropriate to speak of right-wing-extremist parties instead of populism. It is accurate to say that the populist hard right in the shape of right-wing-extremist parties has never been as popular as nowadays in Europe, including the European Union.

I know that this right-wing extremism is not ideologically homogenous. An aggressive nationalism, the wish for an ethnically pure community, a xenophobia directed against the principle of equality and the continual defamation of democratic institutions and their representatives, however, can be discerned among all right-wing extremists. With its interpretation and use of the term "ethnic", the AfD party makes it clear that it is primarily concerned with exclusion, with defining those who are deemed unworthy to be numbered among the "people". The AfD party is another example for the continuity and the mutability of racism in Germany. It continues the tradition of the now-defunct hard-right parties DVU or the Republicans.

Result: the participation of hard-right parties and politicians who despise this state is not a viable state of affairs. The AfD party is not an alternative in the system, but sees itself as an alternative to the system.

Third topic: the election result is what it is.

In our town as well. The AfD won 13.9 % of the votes at the town council election, and 26 % at the state election. There are many reasons for the AfD’s success. The bandwidth of its voters ranges from a hard-right core to disappointed voters, frequently alienated citizens all the way through to a middle class that perceives its status as under threat.
In brief: people voted AfD out of protest, dissatisfaction (embitterment, frustration), conviction (hard-right mindset).

At this point I should like to cite a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation from 2017, entitled "What separates the Germans, what do they have in common?". Irrespective of social status, the survey found, we see a tripartite division of society into satisfied, unsettled and disappointed groupings. The latter with the following salient characteristics:
– feelings of powerlessness, frustration and disappointment increase.
– emotions replace content, thus enabling people who comprehend (know) nothing of the subject-matter involved to take part in the debate.
– susceptible to ideology through propaganda, i.e. mindsets are formed, perceptions manipulated, behaviors controlled.

Now for a brief look behind these findings, based on my own everyday professional experience.

We have long since known that skepticism towards democracy and xenophobic attitudes tend to emerge when a region’s economic situation is precarious. Now, problematic demographic developments appear to be having the same effect. Citizens in predominantly rural regions characterized by mass drift to the cities and severe aging feel disadvantaged and are frightened of being relegated to the status of losers in life – irrespective of the specific economic situation. They are particularly affected by the burden of demographic change. With its demagogy, the AfD party taps into their feelings of being left behind, of being disadvantaged, of uncertainty regarding their social status.

What are my answers?

First answer: self-confidence.
Not the image of a defensive Saxony, but self-confidence and awakening. No fear of changes.
The demographic change necessitates adjustments. Its specifics are complicated. The right balance between freedom and individual responsibility on the one hand, and social security and regulation on the other, is being continually renegotiated on the spot. The conflicts must not be permitted to escalate so severely that compromises become impossible.

Second answer: communication.
A credible offer for the citizenry: bring losers back into the fold, provide prospects for the disappointed, allay fears of threats, regulate immigration.

Third answer: responsibility.
Max Weber says in his publication entitled "Politics as a Profession": "Anyone going into politics is aiming for power."
Echoing Carl Schmitt, I would add: "Anyone having power owes us a vision and a strategy."
From the systemic theory involved, I derive four pragmatic success-boosting factors:
– responding to changing external conditions
– defining and pursuing goals
– establishing and maintaining solidarity (cohesion) and participation (inclusion/integration)
– maintaining fundamental structures and value matrices

Fourth answer: democratic values.Our town’s society is nowadays underpinned by the commitment of its citizens with the aim of embracing the principle of human dignity. Proactive respect for life’s diversity and the inviolability of everyone’s dignity are their answer to hate and violence.

The prizewinners for 2019 are being honored for this. Congratulations to all of you. Thank you very much.