Far-right shocks to the system

March 14, 2024

© IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Sachelle BabbarWhat exactly is right-wing extremism? We understand right-wing extremism as an ideology of inequality. Goetz: New phenomena associated with right-wing extremism are emerging constantly, adding new dimensions to the concept. Such “shocks to the system” can fundamentally change society’s perception of a problem in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. We see this time and again in politics: Such “shocks to the system” can fundamentally change society’s perception of a problem in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days.

The purpose of the new ForGeRex consortium (Research Network for Contemporary Analysis, Remembrance Practice and Strategies to Counter Right-Wing Extremism in Bavaria) is to provide an interdisciplinary and cross-institutional perspective on right-wing extremism in Bavaria. In this sharply focused subproject, Dr. Britta Schellenberg, Professor Klaus H. Goetz and doctoral student Paulina Seelmann of the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science at LMU are investigating how exceptionally serious violent crimes motivated by extreme right-wing views change political thought and actions.

The "For You" memorial commemorates the victims of the racist shooting at the "Olympia-Einkaufszentrum".

© IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Sachelle Babbar

What exactly is right-wing extremism? What does it look like?

Schellenberg: It’s actually not so easy to define. Even among political scientists, the question is hotly debated. We understand right-wing extremism as an ideology of inequality. Antisemitism and racism are key elements of this ideology, but so too is excessive nationalism. Moreover, right-wing extremists want to undermine or eliminate the democratic system. That said, right-wing extremism and the visible forms it takes change over time. In the context of our research consortium, we plan to take stock of the current situation and work out a clear definition of the term.

Goetz: New phenomena associated with right-wing extremism are emerging constantly, adding new dimensions to the concept. The Reichsbürger movement, for example, has grown in importance over the past decade, whereas 30 years ago the discussion was more about unreconstructed Nazis. Now, thanks to social media, right-wing extremists can disseminate their ideas via channels that did not exist in the past.

Seelmann: It comes as no great surprise to academics that such manifestations are constantly changing. In practice, however, this fact still poses a huge challenge to the political echelons. The job of the social sciences is to empirically record and explain these various manifestations of far-right extremism as accurately as possible. Without this knowledge, political actors cannot really get to grips with what is happening in far-right circles. But with it, they can design more effective measures. Right-wing extremism has been around for a long time. But the phenomenon as such, its symbolism and outward expressions are changing all the time. The political establishment often struggles to keep up.

Right-wing extremism has been around for a long time. But the phenomenon as such, its symbolism and outward expressions are changing all the time. The political establishment often struggles to keep up.
Paulina Seelmann

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What is the ForGeRex joint research project?

Schellenberg: If we want to understand right-wing extremism, we need to know the networks, the local players and the background to what they are doing and why. Regional and local research in Bavaria and other German states is still in relatively short supply. The joint research project will enable us to close this gap, but also to channel the insights we gain into national and international research and and have them discussed at these levels.

Seelmann: Eleven universities are working on a total of nine subprojects within the framework of the research consortium, and it is tremendously enriching to receive input from so many researchers representing different perspectives and disciplines. Our aim is to produce well-founded recommendations as a basis for policy advice, prevention and political education. Our specific subproject deals with framing and policymaking.

What is framing?

Goetz: Before discussing measures, you first have to understand what the actual problem is. What do we mean when we talk about right-wing extremism, terrorism or racism? This process is known as framing. It determines how society and political actors look at and respond to a topic. Ultimately, it’s about which interpretation of problems becomes accepted.

Schellenberg: Linguists maintain that words spark off chains of association in our heads. A frame determines the way in which language and communication convey a certain point of view, interpretation or perspective on a given topic or event. For example, it is of critical importance whether an act of right-wing extremism is described as a “terrorist act”, a “single individual’s personal issue” or a “form of protest”. Part of our project involves analyzing what people associate with the terms “right-wing extremism” and “racism” and how these associations change over time.

Such “shocks to the system” can fundamentally change society’s perception of a problem in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days.
Klaus H. Goetz

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How do such changes in perception come about?

Goetz: Certain events can quickly alter how problems are perceived – as shown by the Ukraine crisis, for example. In the space of a few weeks, the debate around national security policy in Germany was completely transformed. We see this time and again in politics: Such “shocks to the system” can fundamentally change society’s perception of a problem in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days.

Schellenberg: We start our analysis by looking at dramatic incidents of far-right violence, in particular the racist murders committed until the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was uncovered in 2011 and the mass shooting at the Olympia shopping mall (OEZ) in 2016. These exceptionally serious acts of violence have strong links with Bavaria: Half of the NSU murders took place in Bavaria, and the OEZ mass shooting was in Munich. There was also the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980, alongside further murders and antisemitic and racist acts of violence. This list alone highlights an urgent need for action that has not suddenly flared up, but that goes back decades. In our subproject, we are analyzing how the political establishment dealt with right-wing extremism and racism in Bavaria in the period from 2011 through 2023, especially in the aftermath of such extreme events.

The Bavarian government is very keen to learn more about the structures of right-wing extremism and the quality of current countermeasures – the aim being to address this threat more effectively.
Britta Schellenberg

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Can you say anything at this stage of what changes were triggered by these extreme acts of violence?

Goetz: Our working hypothesis is that the murders committed by the National Socialist Underground and the mass shooting in the Olympia shopping mall delivered shocks to the political system. They prompted at least some people to fundamentally question existing practices. One aspect is the basic realization that the danger of far-right terrorism is real and acute. Another concerns subsequent efforts to address this danger: preventive measures, the way police handle cases, surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, counter-terrorism and public educational campaigns.

Seelmann: We are investigating whether changes in the definition of this problem and the weighting given to it did indeed occur in Bavarian politics. We are also looking at whether such triggers tend to have more of a short-term effect or whether they reshape politics in the medium and long terms. We want to know what demands were acted on and which promised measures fell by the wayside. Rather than taking a political snapshot of a given point in time, we are thus studying long-term developments over the course of years and decades.

Schellenberg: The goal of our analysis is to highlight what specific institutions can do to influence policies and get them implemented in the struggle against right-wing extremism and racism. We are, if you like, drafting an initial sketch of those actors that are involved in the debate and that are implementing concrete measures. At the same time, we are analyzing the frames they use. It will be fascinating to see how these frames change over time. The key question is: What is the state of play regarding Bavaria’s efforts to deal with right-wing extremism and racism? The Bavarian government is very keen to learn more about the structures of right-wing extremism and the quality of current countermeasures – the aim being to address this threat more effectively.