Germany’s War Over a Word

A Pegida rally in Dresden, Germany, in 2015. The anti-immigrant movement uses the term “das Abendland” as a synonym for Western Europe and its values. Credit Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A Pegida rally in Dresden, Germany, in 2015. The anti-immigrant movement uses the term “das Abendland” as a synonym for Western Europe and its values. Credit Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Europe is being torn apart; divided by the aftershocks of the financial crisis, Europeans seem able to find common ground only in a common enemy. To hear Geert Wilders of the Netherlands or the U.K. Independence Party in Britain tell it, the crisis is not just about refugees: The influx of primarily Muslims is a threat to Western civilization itself, on par with the Arab invasions of the seventh century and the Ottoman invasions of the 16th.

It’s no coincidence that my country, Germany, has also seen a resurgence of a once-common, but more recently discarded, term: “das Abendland.” In English it is usually translated as “the Occident,” but its literal translation is quite poetic: “the Evening Land.” The far right uses it as a synonym for Western Europe and its values; the anti-immigrant movement that sprung up at the height of the refugee crisis, usually referred to by its acronym Pegida, is known in full as Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West”).

The term didn’t always have a sinister ring to it. Philosophy majors may recognize it from the German title of Oswald Spengler’s 1918-22 opus “Der Untergang des Abendlands,” usually translated, not quite accurately, as “The Decline of the West” (“Untergang” more accurately translates as “Downfall”).

Before that, “Abendland” was commonly used in the 19th century in connection with the rediscovery of the German past, specifically the music and architecture of the medieval period. The past and the homeland, “Heimat,” blurred together into the notion of a romantic Western European past, the Abendland, becoming a cultural and psychological bulwark against the disenfranchising anonymity of urban industrialization.
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The Nazis, playing on those same sentiments in the 1920s and ’30s, appropriated “Abendland” for their own dark purposes. As much as the Nazis tried to refashion German society, they also positioned themselves as defenders of a pure Western European past: Hitler was the heir to Charlemagne, and the Nazis claimed to be the only ones able to defend the West against Jews and Soviet Communism.

Today’s German far right makes a similar claim, vowing to undertake the “rescue of the Abendland,” though this time not from the Bolsheviks but from the Muslims. And a general declinist angst is found among more than just the far right: In a time when deindustrialization, globalization, automation and rapid technological change are having a jarring effect on European society, many Germans of all stripes are once again seeing the end of their world at hand.

It’s an odd sort of angst, since Germany has in fact done very well for itself over the last 15 years, and is one of the few countries in Europe to have benefited from globalization. Unemployment is near record lows. But angst doesn’t have to be rational, or empirical — indeed, polls show that people hostile to immigrants have typically done better than average financially, but also have above-average fears of what’s to come.

Likewise, dislike of Muslims is often strongest where immigrant populations are the smallest. Pegida’s base is Dresden, where the foreign population is slightly less than 2 percent. Surely, the rapid integration of a million immigrants would pose a great challenge to any society. But Muslims are despised more as a scapegoat, a vessel for society’s worries. The fear of the future is the same sort of irrational fear that made medieval Germans put sculptures of mythical creatures on the western facade of their cathedrals.

For all the talk about European integration over the last 50 years, the last two years have shown how ingrained certain instincts are in Western Europe. Blaming the other and putting up walls to enforce homogeneity drove Charlemagne’s vision to unite the German tribes under the new Christian religion; his creation was called the Holy Roman Empire for a reason. It is the same longing for homogeneity that drove whole countries to either remain Catholic or become Protestant in the Reformation; subjects had the choice to stick to their ruler’s religion or emigrate.

Today, of course, Europe is a largely secular place. But if faith doesn’t motivate, Christianity as a place holder for other Western values still does. It is part of Western Europe’s identity and a tool for identifying the other.

One could argue that Abendland as a term is forever poisoned. But its popularity on the far right also reveals the terms of the fight that has played out in the Brexit vote and the recent Dutch elections, and will recur in France and Germany later this year. It is not a fight to defend the West, but a fight over what the West means. Abendland doesn’t have to mean xenophobia and exclusion; it can mean openness and liberal tolerance. If Pegida and similar movements have taken hold of Abendland for the moment, that just means it’s time for their opponents to take it back.

Alexander Görlach is a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

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