By Ann-Judith Rabenschlag
Berlin, fall 2017. I am standing in front of the Library of Conservatism (Bibliothek des Konservatismus), a conservative think tank founded in 2012 and located in Fasanenstraße, one of the finest addresses in former West-Berlin. In order to get inside I need to ring a bell. The door opens, a young woman welcomes me politely, asks for my name and the reason I am coming for.
Quickly she hands me a paper. Maybe I would like to sign up for a membership in order to support the library financially? I get out of the slightly awkward situation by stating that I was just visiting from Stockholm for a couple of days. However, I had heard a lot about the library, so maybe I could just have a short look…? The woman nods and comes back with the head of the library, a man in his forties dressed like a member of a fraternity. A friendly handshake – so very nice that even researchers from abroad are interested in the ideas of German conservatism.
Would I like to see any specific part of the collection? Anything related to the concept of the West, I respond. We start our tour along the bookshelves. There is a lot on military history. But also plenty of books by and on Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck – key figures of Germany’s Conservative Revolution during the 1920s and 1930s.
– How is the library financed? I ask.
– Exclusively by private donations. Luckily there are enough people who have realized how important it is that German conservative thoughts are not forgotten.
– Does the library have any political affiliations?
– No, we are politically neutral. I know there are people considering us to be part of Germany’s New Right. But we are only making the writings of conservative intellectuals accessible.
We continue the tour. Eventually we stop and the chief librarian points at a couple of books. “Those might be interesting for you”, he states. “They all deal with the Abendland.”
Here it is again – the antique concept Abendland, roughly to be translated with Occident. Oswald Spengler published his bestseller Untergang des Abendlandes about a century ago. In the English translation the book received the title The Decline of the West. The conservative-catholic Abendländische Bewegung (Occidential Movement) influenced public discourse in West Germany during the 1950s. After that, the term Abendland disappeared from public debates until it was revived only a couple of years ago.
In 2014, the xenophobic and islamophobic movement PEGIDA was founded in Dresden, claiming to represent “Patriotic Europeans fighting against the Islamisation of the Occident” (Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung Des Abendlandes). Also the right wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), since 2017 represented in Germany’s national Parliament, uses the term Abendland as a synonym for the West. In its party program AfD talks about “the struggle of cultures between Occident and Islam already taking place in Europe.” It furthermore expresses the ambition to preserve “our occidental Christian culture”. (AfD-Party program 2017). Leading AfD-politicians have called Muslim immigration to be a threat to “our Western values” and to “our liberal Western system of values.”
So, is it “all quiet on the Western Front”? No, it is not. Germany’s New Right is trying to take over the concept of the West and to fill it with new meaning. At the beginning of the 20th century, German right wing intellectuals considered the West to be the enemy, presented by France, Great Britain and the detested ideas of 1789. Today right wing populists present themselves as defenders of the West – and as defenders of the Abendland, standing in clear opposition to foreign cultural influences, above all to Islam.
The author is a researcher and lecturer at the history department of the University of Stockholm, Sweden. She is currently conducting research on the concept of the West in postwar German debate.