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Germany: Right-wing hostility toward democracy growing

September 21, 2023

What makes mainstream German society tick? The Friedrich Ebert Foundation regularly takes a closer look at this question with its long-term study. Its latest findings have raised alarm.

Protesters against COVID restrictions on the steps to the Reichstag in Berlin waving Reichsbürger flags on 29 08 2020 in Berlin
The attempted storming of the Berlin Reichstag building during a protest in August 2020 showed how democracy could be at riskImage: JeanMW/imago images

One out of every 12 people in Germany has a right-wing extremist worldview. This is the result of a study by a team at Bielefeld University commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is politically aligned with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party.

The representative study of German society has been conducted every two years since it was launched in 2002. About 2,000 people aged between 18 and 90 took part in the most recent survey in January and February 2023. According to the researchers, 8% of respondents this time held a clear right-wing extremist orientation. In earlier studies, it was only between 2–3%.

Increasing numbers of Germans want a dictatorship

Currently, across all age groups, between 5-7% of those surveyed support a dictatorship with a single strong party and leader for Germany. This result is double the long-term average. 

Germans pessimistic about country's economic slump

The study was published with the title "The distanced mainstream" (Die distanzierte Mitte) by a trio of researchers led by Andreas Zick, the head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University. Zick pointed out that the less money people earned, the more widespread their right-wing extremist attitude.

"The country is increasingly perceived to be gripped by national crises. And these affect people more harshly when they are less affluent," he said. "Among those surveyed who were on low incomes, almost every second person, 48%, viewed themselves as being personally affected by crises, in contrast to 27.5% of middle-income earners and only 14.5% of high-income earners."

Germans' trust in government sinking

This finding is clearly accompanied by a falling level of trust in government institutions and in the functioning of democracy, despite a significant majority continuing to support this form of government.

However, at least 38% hold positions that are aligned with belief in conspiracy theories, 33% hold populist views and 29% have attitudes along ethnonationalist-authoritarian-rebellious lines.

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That is an average increase of about a third, compared to surveys conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic in the years 2020 and 2021. Skepticism toward — or rejection of — traditional media has also increased: 32% of those surveyed believed the media was colluding with politicians, compared with 24% two years ago.

Is democracy in danger?

Many people are racking their brains over how these developments can be stopped and turned around — including researcher Zick, who pointed out that we live in times in which appeals or improved welfare policies are only partially able to placate conflicts, dissatisfaction and protests.

"Times of crisis are times in which people become active politically and take on new positions. And these positions can skew from the center to the right," he said, highlighting a specific concern. "When people in the mainstream or center, who do not consider themselves right-wing extremist or organize as such, adopt attitudes from the right-wing-extremist fringes of society, then democracy is in danger."

COVID-19 triggered conspiracies, anti-democratic groups

Zick described how difficult this phenomenon is to evaluate by referring to the so-called authoritarianism study from the University of Leipzig in 2022. According to this study, right-wing extremist attitudes decreased in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, dissatisfaction with democracy was high despite this and many misanthropic prejudices were widely shared.

"Today we know how many right-wing extremists sought to join forces with other right-wing radical, conspiracy-oriented and anti-democratic groups," Zick said, recalling a development that began at that time, when many became more closely aligned with the Reichsbürgerscene.

The Reichsbürger movement, a group of Germans whose name translates to Citizens of the Reich, believe that the borders of the German Empire dating back to 1871 are still in effect, and reject the current German state and its democratic structure. They have even formed terror cells.

Far-right parties on the rise across Europe

'National Socialism came from the middle of society'

It's against this backdrop that Zick sees the study as a part of the culture of remembrance in Germany, directly referencing the Nazi dictatorship of 1933 – 1945:

"National Socialism came from the middle of society and was supported by it, even if the ideology and implementation of the fascist society including propaganda, agitation and state-sponsored terrorism was developed and enforced by a Nazi organization," he said.

The current study also asked how society should tackle the many crises it is facing. The answer: 53% favored returning to more nationally oriented policies. They called for isolation from the outside world and considered supposedly German values, virtues and duties to be essential to dealing with the crises.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.