Professor refuses to taint traditionalists as right-wing extremists

Theme Week "Shift to the Right in Germany" - What Our Society Needs Now (1)

Strengthening of the AfD: Is history repeating itself, Professor Großbölting?

How dangerous is the shift to the right in Germany? In a theme week, gets to the bottom of this - for example with Thomas Großbölting, Professor of Modern History at the University of Hamburg.Photo: Michael Bönte

The rise of the AfD and with it radical right-wing, racist and anti-democratic positions in Germany is worrying. How serious is the situation? How resilient is society? What can the church do? In a theme week, asks clever minds for their assessment. Every day. Today: Thomas Großbölting, historian and expert on the 20th century, Hamburg.

Current polls put the AfD at 21 per cent and in second place among the parties in the Bundestag. At the same time, President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution Thomas Haldenwang clearly sees extreme right-wing and anti-constitutional positions in the AfD. How dangerous is this situation?

The situation is alarming, but I don't think it poses a fundamental threat to our political system. What I find alarming is how blatantly anti-constitutional larger and larger sections of the right-wing populists are appearing - and how little there is a consistent reaction to this with a consistent demarcation from the AfD. Politically, one must remain in dialogue with the voters of the party, but not with its functionaries.

Some people speak of an exhausted society: Corona, war and climate, refugee movements and the economic slump are all taking their toll on people. An ideal breeding ground for a creeping radicalisation of society?

Exhaustion? Creeping radicalisation? I am sceptical about both diagnoses, but I see another context as problematic: fewer and fewer citizens experience themselves as part of a whole that is capable of acting politically and shaping society. Instead, many look to the state as a problem-solver and then observe its weakness or even failure. Democracy thrives on both, the intelligent policies of those in power at the various levels as well as on the cooperation of the many citizens.

What does the historian say: Is German history repeating itself?

No, on the one hand, history does not repeat itself in principle, and on the other hand, we are a long way from the "Weimar conditions" that are repeatedly invoked.

Germany's history should make it particularly sensitive to anti-democratic developments. How resilient do you see society?

I think our society is more resilient and intact than it is currently portrayed in the media. Many images of the current situation are based on a clear distortion. Even in the federal states where right-wing populism is gaining particularly strong results in elections, four out of five voters are nevertheless moving on the ground of the constitution. With this remark, I do not want to gloss over the situation, but on the contrary, I want to call for a more resolute confrontation with the right from a self-confident position of strength in democratic culture.

In the Catholic Church, too, there are clear restorationist tendencies with a tendency towards a clearly conservative, delimiting profile; here, too, experts speak of a shift to the right. What overlaps do you see between this conservative Catholic clientele and AfD positions?

The AfD has not gained a foothold in mainstream Catholicism - and is unlikely to do so in the future. The systematic devaluation of people and the extreme nationalist slogans contradict the idea of charity so strongly that there is or should be no common ground. Even the growing ultra-conservative part of Catholicism has a pre- or anti-democratic orientation, but is less völkisch or nationalistic in the sense of the AfD.

Cathcon: The irony is that one of the sources for the modern liturgical movement was the völkisch movement in pre-war Germany to which people turned after the collapse of the monarchy, a seam also mined by the Nazis.   Everything was done in the name of the people including liturgy.  Just because truth in Catholicism cannot be determined by voting, traditionalists are tainted with being anti-democratic. 

Nevertheless, in the Münsterland region, which is dominated by Westphalian Catholicism, the AfD still cannot get a foothold; in the most recent NRW state election in 2022, the party received just 2.2 per cent in the City of Münster. How do you explain that?

A lively civil society that has its roots both in the Catholic milieu and beyond, a lively university city with a lot of culture and movement, a policy that in some respects transcends party lines, for example in the integration of refugees, and all of this combined with an urban self-confidence that is (mostly) not narrow-minded but inclusive - hats off to Münster!

In view of its loss of relevance in this question, what impact does the Catholic Church still have on society as a whole?

In any case, it is dwindling, as evidenced by a rapid loss of reputation and the massive wave of people leaving the church! And yet it is true that the two mainstream Christian churches are still the institutions that bring many people to their feet every Sunday, who think beyond their own horizons and seek to positively shape their own community and the world. I still see a lot of potential not so much in the hierarchy, but above all at the grassroots level.

What is your advice to those responsible and committed in the Church in this situation?

It is not so long ago that the Catholic Church placed itself unreservedly on the ground of human rights and democracy. Based on this, there are still many building sites in the church to make itself "honest": Equalising women and men, not discriminating against queer people, democratising internal decision-making processes and some more. And then to reflect on the unity of love of God and love of neighbour: Church is not an end in itself, but above all there for others who are on the margins of society.

Thomas Großbölting comes from Dingden near Hamminkeln, grew up in Bocholt and studied history, Catholic theology and German studies in Cologne, Bonn, Rome and Münster. From 2009 to 2020 he was Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Münster. He led the study commissioned by the Diocese of Münster on coming to terms with sexual abuse by clergy and the handling of abuse by those responsible in the Diocese of Münster, which was presented in 2022. Großbölting has been teaching at the University of Hamburg since 2021 and has been director of the Academy of World Religions there since 2022. One of his research areas is the history of the 20th century and religious change in post-war Germany.