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A reflection on the far-right ideology of the past and now

by Richard Meckien - published Nov 14, 2018 10:30 AM - - last modified Dec 18, 2018 09:54 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Márcio Seligmann-Silva, Juliana Perez e Brigitte Weiffel - 8/11/18
A seminar with exhibitions and a debate marked the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht

The theoretical discussion about fascism, the pacific but life-threatening resistance to Nazism in Germany during World War II and the ideals of the far-right parties and right-wing populism that emerged in the last decades, especially in Europe, were addressed on November 8, in a seminar with the participation of political scientists and specialists in German studies.

Organized by IEA's Research Group on Quality of Democracy Quality and the Martius Chair of German and European Studies, the meeting "Memory, Democracy and Resistance: Reflections on Nazi-fascism in Germany" marked the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, occurred between November 9 and 10, 1938, when Nazi paramilitary militias and other sympathizers of the regime murdered dozens of Jews, depreagating synagogues, houses and shops of the Jewish community in various parts of Germany.

Márcio Seligmann-Silva, from the Institute of Language Studies at UNICAMP and a member of IEA's Research Group on Human Rights, Democracy, Politics and Memory, started the discussion on the main theories about fascism, especially from the psychoanalytic point of view. The peaceful resistance of German groups against Nazism was the theme of Juliana Perez, from USP's Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH). German political scientist Brigitte Weiffen, head of the Martius Chair, moderated the meeting and also commented on the presentation by her colleague Barbara Laubenthal, from the University of Texas.

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According to Seligmann-Silva, some theories about fascism have been "originated from the historical experience of Nazi-fascism, and their ideas are surprisingly current." He took the analysis by Sigmund Freud in the essay "Group Psychology and The Analysis of The Ego," of 1921, as an initial reference. For him, Freud appropriated the thesis expressed by Gustave Le Bon in the book "Mass Psychology", of 1895, to disassemble it. "Le Bon's work was praised by Mussolini and Hitler. If he was concerned about how one can tame the blind and manipulative masses, Freud on the other hand would show that there was an authoritarian thought behind this political conception," said Seligmann-Silva.

For the speaker, Freud's text is a treatise on the 20th-century totalitarianism "even before one could glimpse that these regimes would change the face of the century." The essay "also helps us think critically about the current rise of fascism here and in the world," he added.

Another aspect of Le Bon's analysis that interested Freud has been the prestige that is projected on a leader, either by a magnetic charm or based on a name, goods and reputation, explained the exhibitor. "Freud also made a critical analysis of the ideas of William MacDougall and his book "The Group Mind," of 1920. For him, the mass would come from the 'principle of direct induction of emotion through the primitive sympathetic response'."

Márcio Seligmann-Silva - 8/11/18
Márcio Seligmann-Silva: "All fascist dictators stem from the milieu of the little reactionary man."

Seligmann-Silva said that Freud saw a false explanation of the mass phenomenon based on a misleading notion of suggestion in both Le Bon and MacDougall. Freud posits the hypothesis that behind the collective soul there are the love relations: "As for Plato, for Freud it is love, Eros, who keeps the mass together." But outsiders, strangers "are not worthy of love or compassion." He cites Freud, for whom the "social feeling rests [...] in the reversal of a hostile feeling in a positive tone loop," and such inversion "seems to occur under the influence of an affectionate bond common to a person who is outside of the mass": the leader.

According to the speaker, Freud resumed his thesis of primeval horde that he had developed in "Totem and Taboo" in his essay. The almighty father of this horde would be an absolutely narcissistic figure, who only loved himself, said Seligmann-Silva. "On the other hand, the children who lived in sexual abstinence by imposition of the father created bonds with each other. The mass psychology, or the affective ties that linked these brothers, originated in the sexual jealousy."

Ten years after the essay by the founder of psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich published the essay "The Mass Psychology of Fascism." Seligmann-Silva commented that for Freud's "rebellious disciple," fascism is nothing more than the politically organized expression of the character structure of the average man. The regime is, in Reich's words, "the basic emotional attitude of the man oppressed by the machine's authoritarian civilization, with its mystical and mechanistic way of facing life."

Another point highlighted by the presenter is that for Reich the racial theory is not a product of fascism: on the contrary, fascism is a product of racial hatred and its politically organized expression.

Seligmann-Silva also quoted from Reich's 1942 text: "Fascist mentality is the mentality of the subjugated 'little man' who craves authority and rebels against it at the same time. It is not by accident that all fascist dictators stem from the milieu of the little reactionary man."

He explained that Reich associates the need for sexual repression to class divisions and the emergence of patriarchy. "Sexual policies respond to the interests of a minority by instituting the patriarchal family and marriage. The reproduction of society is associated with its socioeconomic and sexual structure. The family is the core of this construct. Hence in fascism we always witness this obsession with the family. It is the microstate. It is the basis of all ideology."

For Reich, the church only gives continuity to the work of the family, "hence its additional importance in the fascist states," added Seligmann-Silva.

The Geman middle class began to be studied by leftists after the crisis of 1929-32 and the 1933 elections, he commented. "National Socialism is nothing more than a middle-class movement, and its reactionary conservatism is hardly open to a policy of opposition."

In his effort to differentiate himself from the worker, the middle-class man can only rely on his family and sexual life, according to the Austrian psychoanalyst. "Their economic deprivation has to be compensated by sexual moralism," Reich wrote.

Seligmann-Silva added: "Moralism, a product of control biopolitics that makes the bodies docile, acts both in the material compensation of the middle class, which is empowered by an authoritarian moralism, and as a technique of dispersion of the opposition to the political and economic maneuvers."

Juliana Pasquarelli Perez - 8/11/18
Juliana Perez: "The full awareness of the White Rose members that their life was at risk precludes any banalization of the movement"


However, anyone who imagines that there was no contest of Nazism among the Germans during the regime's very existence is misleading. In her exposition, Perez recalled some of the main resistance movements. She detailed the performance of the White Rose, mainly made up of students from the University of Munich.

Perez has coordinated the translation of the book "The White Rose: Munich, 1942-1943", by Inge Scholl, with Tinka Heichmann, also a professor at FFLCH-USP. The release in Brazil was in 2013. The book presents letters, excerpts from the diaries and photographs of her brothers Hans and Sophia, members of the movement, as well as transcripts of the pamphlets produced by the group and reports on the trial and execution of the main activists.

The work on the translation led Perez "to think about the meaning of resisting and how this was possible in the Nazi context." She recalled that British historian Ian Kershaw, a specialist in Nazism, uses the term "dissent" to designate the least spectacular forms of resistance, but points out that "even actions that, from the current point of view, would not be characterized as resistance, were fought as such by the Gestapo, in a growing radicalization of violence."

Juliana said that it is important not to idealize the participants of the various resistance movements that emerged during the Nazi regime. "They included conciliators, heirs to the Weimar Republic principles, members of the military elite and people who today would be considered conservative." There are even references to a patriotic ideology similar to that of the National Socialist Party."

In the case of the White Rose, the participants were around 24 years old and had the "ingenuity in betting on the human freedom and the subjectivity of the human being". The core of the group, executed in February 1943, was constituted by four students and a professor of philosophy.

The group published seven pamphlets between June 1942 and January 1943, all of them with criticism of the Nazi regime and appeals to the moral conscience of the Germans. The language of the publications was determined by three factors: multiple authorship, recipients, and external circumstances. The seventh pamphlet was not even distributed and was used as proof for the death sentence of the movement's core.

"These students took full and complete responsibility for their actions and for their parents. It was a path of years of reflection, strong emotional bonds, and determining experiences, like the boys on the Russian front and Sophia as a nurse. The much they were risking their own life precludes any banalization of their movement."

Brigitte Weiffen
Brigitte Weiffen: "It is not always easy to define the border between populism and extremism"

Current reality

The theme of Barbara Laubenthal's presentation, exposed by Weiffen with added personal comments, was "Right-wing populism after the Holocaust. The Alternative für Deutschland and the role of the past in German asylum policies."

According to the two researchers, right-wing populism has three main characteristics:

  • anti-elitism: "political class" (considered as corrupt), "elite" or "establishment" versus "the people," whose only true voice is the populist movement / leader;
  • antipluralism: populist actors claim to be the genuine representatives of a non-institutionalized, homogeneous, authentic, and (above all) moral population;
  • building of the image of the enemy: identity and interests of the culturally homogeneous "people" versus the "others," usually minorities and immigrants, who would be favored by "corrupt" elites.


According to them, the assertion of these principles is based on the following strategies:

  • breaking of taboos in discourse, calculated provocations, disregard of formal and informal rules (targeting the "politically correct") and personal insults;
  • emotional appeals and exaggerations, alarmism;
  • conspiracy theories;
  • biologism or violent metaphors;
  • use of rigid generalizations, distinction between "us" and "them";
  • simplifications;
  • demand for radical solutions.


Weiffen emphasized, however, that a distinction between populism and extremism must be made: "Certain populist positions fit into democratic freedoms, but when there is a devaluation of minorities and immigrants, when there is a call to violence, then the discourse is clearly crossed by extremism. It is not always easy to define the border between populism and extremism.

The presentation also discussed the presence of right-wing populism in the parliaments and governments of several European countries, and the profile of extreme right-wing parties on the continent, with an emphasis on the Alternative for Germany (AfD). According to Weiffen and Laubenthal, they use a reinterpretation of the Nazi period and distortions on national socialist actions to promote anti-immigration and Islamophobic ideas.

Photos: Leonor Calasans / IEA-USP