Nicolaus Fest didn’t start his journalistic career confronting Germany’s postwar political taboos: that Germany can never be finished atoning for the sins of Hitler, that German politicians must only speak glowingly of supranationalism and their neighbor France, that any notion of a German culture must be accompanied by quotation marks as part of a bygone era that preceded the country’s pivot to enlightened multiculturalism. For most of his life he has voted for Germany’s liberal party—as in classical liberal. His father, Joachim Fest, was not only a highly regarded journalist and historian but a well-known Nazi resister, as documented in the latter’s 2006 memoir Ich nicht: Erinnerungen an eine Kindheit und Jugend (published in English as Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood in 2006). Fest (the son) himself held high-level editorial roles at two of Europe’s largest papers—Bild and Bild am Sonntag, each with circulations in the millions—from 2001 to 2014.
Fest’s own grandfather, Johannes Fest, was removed from his job as a school principal in 1933 for his refusal to embrace Nazism. His grandfather never wavered in his commitment to the Weimar Republic (despite its many flaws) and never signed for to the Nazi project, even when it accomplished things he approved of as a conservative. If Nicolaus Fest’s distinguished journalist-historian father inspired his career in letters, it was his widely esteemed grandfather who inspired Fest to enter politics—especially after being effectively canceled from a career in journalism for sounding the alarm about the creeping Islamization of Germany.
Fest’s own grandfather, Johannes Fest, was removed from his job as a school principal in 1933 for his refusal to embrace Nazism.
Fest is not a Nazi—and yet if you make any attempt to search online for information about his party, the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany or AfD), all you will come across in the English language press—and most of the German press, for that matter—is the phrase “far-right.” Thus, Fest’s party is written off by uncritical journalists, along with other nationalist-populist movements in Europe such as Law and Justice in Poland or Vox in Spain.
How long can Europe and the West’s mainstream media get away with labeling all opponents of extreme progressivism as far-right without once stopping to interrogate the meaning and parameters of the term? The better question might be: how long will voters buy into it?
“It’s ruthless defamation,” Fest tells me when I ask him why he is labeled far-right. “I don’t believe in the Führer-principle. I believe in one-man one-vote, and I am a liberal when it comes to political discussion. Anyone who says nationalism isn’t too bad is now labeled far-right. Anyone who says all this gender identity and diversity stuff is nonsense is labeled far-right. Everyone who says Islam is a threat to democracy is labeled far-right.”
Islam and immigration
Islam played a critical role in Fest’s transition from journalist to politician. “I never voted for the CDU,” Fest explains to me, referring to the center-right party founded in West Germany’s immediate postwar years and represented by Angela Merkel. “I mostly voted for liberals—except I did vote for Gerhard Schroeder once because I was so sick of Helmut Kohl.” Schroeder was from Germany’s center-left SPD. “I also didn’t want to identify with any party because, as a journalist at the time, I thought it was important to be able to criticize any party and maintain my autonomy,” he adds.
All that began to change in 2005. That year, a young German-Turkish woman was murdered in Berlin. She had wanted to study electrical engineering and make a career for herself, but her parents opposed her aspirations. So her brothers killed her and fled to Turkey, where they were not extradited but welcomed as heroes by cheering crowds. “That was when I started to read more about Islam and the fundamentalist groups we have here in Germany—and the ever-growing danger it poses to democracy.”
In Fest’s view, this event was not merely an isolated incident or one that could be explained as an isolated instance of fanaticism. Even if honor killings are relatively rare in Germany, the subordination of women is, in his view, a fundamental tenet of Islam. He elaborates:
We differentiate between Islam and political Islam; Islam and Islamists…. I think this is erroneous because fundamental rights are not granted to women even in the normal, non-political Islam. Muslims forbid their daughters to study without their consent, to date, to go out of the house without their brothers…. They can be married against their will…. This is the normal Islam; it has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram. For roughly 50% of the Muslim population in Germany, fundamental rights do not apply to them—and yet we don’t see this as the scandal that it is…. If it is ‘far-right’ to stand up for women’s rights, then I’m happy to be far-right.
The controversy surrounding his editorial led—in a pattern that is all too familiar in modern journalism—to Fest leaving the paper. After a brief stint as a magazine manager in Southeast Asia, Fest decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a politician. His grandfather had been part of a center-right Catholic Party called Zentrum before the war and had then joined the center-right CDU after West Germany was established. But the CDU is the party to which Merkel, who has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005 belongs. And at the height of the refugee crisis, she famously allowed over one million Muslim refugees to seek asylum in Germany. This act was celebrated by the chattering classes as ‘atonement’ for German sins (and, by extension, those of the West writ large).
By forgetting about Germany’s national interest—at least in the strictest understanding of putting the interests of German citizens first—and accepting millions of refugees, Germany’s leaders had expiated the country’s Nazi-era sins of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism.
To some, this was a laudable, near-perfect transformation of Germany from aggressor state in two world wars to post-national multiculturalist utopia. But not all German voters agreed. Just as America had Trump and Britain had Brexit—both of which exposed not just frictions between left and right but also fissures within conservatism itself—the rise of the AfD shook up German politics. Much like Trump and Brexit, the AfD was not written off by voters as easily as it was by the media.
In 2017, the AfD became Germany’s third-largest political party and in 2019 Fest won a seat to represent Berlin in the European Parliament. It is undoubtedly a stick-in-the-eye to German’s ‘enlightened’ political establishment that someone from a ‘far-right’ party could find a base of support in the country’s most cosmopolitan city, right under their noses.
“Have you ever had an interview with a German journalist where you could actually dispute the ‘far-right’ label by discussing policy?” I ask Fest. “No,” he responds instantly. “The journalists won’t even do interviews with us, nor are we invited to the talk shows.” How ironic for a lifelong journalist—a man of ideas—that he is shut out of his own former industry, in many cases by people who have known him for decades.
Even if Fest’s election is a sign that the party is breaking through the media firewall, he concedes that the ‘far-right’ tagline inflicts damage. “Voters hear ‘far-right’ over and over again, and they say: ‘Hmmm, that’s bad. I don’t want to vote for that.’”
If journalists in Germany won’t give Fest a fair hearing, maybe at least the pages of this publication can. On Islam and immigration, as mentioned earlier, his stance is clear: discourage mass migration from outside of Europe but also enforce existing German immigration law already on the books:
At least 300,000 people’s asylum applications were rejected, but the German states [who are responsible for deporting the rejected asylum seekers] are not sending them back. [In any case] asylum should be temporary, not a permanent ticket for migration. They should go back once the conditions for asylum no longer apply. The Danish government, led by the Social Democrats, recently declared large parts of Syria safe for return. But here it’s considered an atrocity to say people should go home and build up their country again.
The largely left-leaning international media—including the New Yorker magazine, which profiled former AfD leader Frauke Petry—has adopted the narrative that AfD began as a moderate party that then opportunistically exploited the issue of mass Islamic migration to gain more votes. But within the framework of a nationalist party looking out for the German nation’s best interest, the issue of the euro currency and the 2015 Refugee Crisis are hardly unrelated. In both cases, Brussels bureaucrats have adopted the supranational viewpoint that Germany must subsidize other member states—whether by accepting the lion’s share of migrants or spending more than any other country to bail out indebted nations and thus save the euro.
The role of the euro
One could argue that Germany’s ‘leadership’ role in accepting migrants and granting recovery funds to indebted EU member nations ultimately benefits a German-led European order. When I point out to Fest that Germany has profited from the euro in so far as its weakness, relative to the old Deutsche Mark, makes German exports more competitive, Fest calls the devalued currency a “venomous gift” which has benefitted the upper crust of the German business class—but not the average citizen. When the Deutsche Mark was a strong currency, Fest explains, German companies could not simply coast along on devaluation. They were forced to innovate and increase productivity. German products had to be superior for the consumer to accept the higher price.
The consequences of a weakened currency are mostly felt by German workers, pensioners, vacationers, and others. Before the euro was created, Germans could travel to Italy or Spain and enjoy relatively cheap vacations because of the Deutsche Mark’s strength. Now, because of the weakness of the euro, gas and oil prices have also gone up. The transition from the Deutsche Mark to the euro also devalued the savings of Germans instantly—a fact that is beyond dispute.
Why would Germans—or Germany’s leadership class—accept such a “venomous gift”? Fest’s explanation goes where almost no ‘mainstream’ politician would, and he attacks the axiomatic underpinning of the whole EU Project: perfect comity and cooperation between France and Germany (the two richest nations in the EU, and the two primary antagonists in the two World Wars), without which both the euro and the EU itself would fail.
The transition from the Deutsche Mark to the euro also devalued the savings of Germans instantly.
I ask Fest if it is true, as Hans Kundnani and other historians of Germany have suggested, that German adoption of the euro was a quid pro quo for French assent to German reunification. “There are witnesses who say that French President Mitterand told Kohl that if he allowed reunification, then he wanted the euro, too … The French always wanted to break the economic might of Germany, the tool to do so was the euro. From the French point of view, this was a fully understandable demand. But giving in was a failure.”
These words would not go over well in polite circles in Brussels or Berlin. But does that make them untrue? Are Fest’s words eerily reminiscent of ‘ultra-nationalism’—as AfD’s detractors, both foreign and domestic, would contend—or is he simply an unwelcome truth-teller?
Fest’s biting, even acerbic, realism when it comes to the follies of EU supranationalism, extends to NATO and German foreign policy as well. While he does not believe that “German freedoms” were being protected in Afghanistan, as Peter Struck, then German Defense Minister said at the time, he likewise does not fault former President Trump for pointing the finger at Germany on defense spending. “Trump was right,” Fest asserts. “He said that Germany needs to spend 2% of GDP on defense—and we haven’t.”
Fest is also a realist when it comes to Russia. On the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would transport LNG under the Baltic Sea from Russia directly to Germany—thereby increasing European energy reliance on an authoritarian state—Fest points out that the AfD did not sign that deal. “That was Schroeder’s deal, and Merkel executed it,” he says. “You can debate whether Germany should have made the deal in the first place … but now it’s in the German national interest [to have a secure source of energy].”
As far as Russia’s exploits in Ukraine go, Fest states that: “If we neglect our military power, we shouldn’t wonder that Russia is using its military power to shape history anew—in the real world, there are no areas free of political dominance, one way or the other.”
We all believe in the sovereignty of nation-states.
Is this a call for a bigger German military footprint to curb Russia—and if so, is that sound policy? Lech Walesa, the famous Polish anti-Communist dissident and former President of Poland has said that he believes German inaction on the European stage is a greater danger to Europe than the obverse. (Much has been written on the topic of Germany as a ‘reluctant hegemon.’) Furthermore, Fest here seems to point out what none of the idealistic EU avatars of ‘soft power’—those economic and diplomatic tools often used in lieu of a credible threat of force—will frankly acknowledge: that in a continent increasingly shaped by a return to balance of power and sphere of influence politics, Germany’s self-positioning on the world stage as a giant Switzerland has consequences—both in Europe and beyond.
I ask Fest if the AfD shares common roots with other national conservatism movements, such as Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary, or Vox in Spain. “Definitely, yes. We all believe in the sovereignty of nation-states. We all believe that the nation-state is the only possible fundament of democracy.” In Fest’s view, one of the fundamental problems with the EU is that it functions within a neo-imperial framework. Empires “are run by one remote superpower,” he says, pointing out that “Reich is the translation of empire, not the translation of nation-state.”
Fest gets up from his desk and walks away from his computer. “I need to show you this,” he says. He brings back a newspaper and starts reading retirement statistics. “In the U.S., you all belong to the same country and you know the importance of unity,” he says. Then he turns to the statistics from his newspaper:
In Italy, you can apply for a pension after 32 years of work and you get 92% of your last salary. In France, you can apply for a pension after 35 years and you get 73% of your last income … In Spain, you apply for a pension after 34 years and you get 83% of your last salary … [But] in Germany, you must work 39 years and one month and you only get 52% of your last salary. They are talking about raising that to 43 years. Germans get the impression that they are subsidizing the retirements of others … and they’re absolutely right.
Before I can ask Fest what kind of EU the AfD would accept, he continues with the equanimity and conviction of a nationalist: “Why should we pay for the Spanish, French, or Italians to retire? I think this system is doomed to fail. Sooner or later the people will wake up…. It’s not fair. They are plundering Germany.”
Of course, to argue that postwar Germany is being “plundered”—that it is being taken advantage of—is a ‘dangerous invocation’ (at least according to the consensus of liberal historians) of the post-WWI grievances of the interwar years, something which Hitler so skillfully exploited.
But how can a nation culpable for not just one but two world wars ever finish atoning? Any perception of ‘punishment’ is merely an overdue repayment for the suffering Germany has inflicted on others, even if it occurred three-quarters of a century ago and was instigated by people who are mostly dead and gone.
Such considerations are not openly stated, but a review of the media coverage on Germany—whether the fawning over Merkel’s reception of a million migrants or well-received books like Learning from the Germans—suggests that ‘guilt’ is deemed healthy and a guiding principle of German foreign policy. As German Green Party politician Joschka Fisher put it: “Only German responsibility for Auschwitz can be the essence of West German raison d’état … everything else comes afterwards.” According to establishment consensus, then, Germany—and increasingly, the West as a whole—must remain forever beholden to its guilt.
Fest’s view on the subject breaks with this secular covenant of unending guilt. “I’ve never understood this fixation by my colleagues,” Fest explains. The job of politicians is to “formulate the future,” he says, not fixate on the past. The latter is the historian’s task. But, after a certain point, even critical reflection by historians can be exhausted: “Some Russians probably think that Stalin was more evil than Hitler. In Cambodia they probably think Pol Pot was worse. And for many of the Chinese it’s Mao. I just don’t think there’s any sense in such rankings.”
A referendum on supranationalism
As we near the end of the interview, Fest concedes that the EU should preserve its free trade within the bloc because, by and large, trade promotes prosperity. He also argues that trade with China should continue, but that the “playing field is not level” for German goods and services. When it comes to the “free movement of peoples” within EU member states—part of the Schengen Agreement—Fest points out the policy’s unintended consequences: Eastern European truck drivers, who are paid far less than in Western Europe, are supposed to ‘return’ to their country of origin within 48 hours of leaving, as a way to discourage competition with higher salaried Western Europeans. The EU bureaucrats dreamed up this gas-wasting absurdity because “they can’t admit that their policies have failed.”
The EU should preserve its free trade within the bloc.
Fest also points out that rural Bulgarians have dangerously reduced access to healthcare because the Bulgarian doctors and nurses who served them have migrated to higher-paying countries in Western Europe. Likewise, he points to the fact that Bulgaria has to fly in Filipino guest workers to harvest Bulgarian crops because so many of the able-bodied Bulgarians have left for other parts of Europe. “This is absolute lunacy,” Fest proclaims. “People don’t want to become nomads. They want to live with their friends, live where they were born, have a life with their family. They don’t want this. But the globalists of the EU think of them as pawns in a chess game. They [European bureaucrats] always stay in Brussels, but you guys [Eastern Europeans] can go to Spain or from there to another country and look for work.”
This double standard—one of many—has resulted in today’s nationalist-populism. So are Fest—and by extension, the AfD—‘far-right’? Or are they misunderstood exponents of principled nationalism in defense of Western values and the nation-state? Germans will answer these questions when they head to the polls on 26 September to replace Chancellor Merkel. The results—like those of Brexit or the rise of the Tories in former Labour strongholds in the UK—will not only be a referendum on European supranationalism; it could very well be another bellwether of nationalist-populist politics growing stronger across the West.
Kurt Hofer writes from Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Golden Age literature.