Interview with the Author of Against the Nation

German nationalist festival participant

Against the Nation presents the emergence of the anti-national Left in Germany in the early 1990s, and conveys its relevance for social movements both in Germany and elsewhere today. It shows how the movement erupted, its discourse on nationalism, nationhood and the nation-state, and what kind of actions it applied.

Robert Ogman has written the first book on this subject in English. In this interview he describes the origins and main tenets of the movements, reflects upon its strength and weaknesses and draws some lessons for the international Left.

How would you describe the main characteristics of the anti-national movement in Germany? Why did this movement arise? What were they responding to?

No one had expected the rapid “unification” of the two German states in 1989/1990, nor the nationalist resurgence that accompanied it. The growth of the neo-Nazi movement in the 1980s was answered by the Left with the autonomous anti-fascist movement. But following “reunification”, nationalism became a society-wide phenomenon, sweeping the country and being pushed by the political mainstream. Racist assaults spiked. And this shift was also seen in policy changes, including sharpened border and migration controls, as well as ethnic citizenship laws. It also came to define the state's aggressive geopolitical agenda after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

The book describes how an anti-national critique emerged as a response to these rapid changes in the early 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I show how these events pushed some sections of the radical Left to frame new political questions in order to address the new social and political developments of the time, resulting in a deep transformation of political perspectives and the Left. In the end, this meant breaking with the Left's traditional stance on the question of nationalism, coming to fundamentally reject not only nationalism, but also the nation and nation-state.

My book looks closely at how the radical Left engaged with these new challenges. I rely on primary materials produced by the movement itself, to convey what political actors were thinking and doing at the time. Digging up the roots of this movement in their concrete activities revealed some surprises. Whereas some today reduce German anti-nationalism to a mere psychological over-compensation for the Nazi crimes of the participants' ancestors, my research found the movement strikingly focused on the political developments of the early 1990s, making rather few references to National Socialism. What comes out of this study is also an understanding of how and why anti-racist and anti-fascist positions were both incorporated yet transcended in the formation of an anti-national critique.

What did the anti-national Left stand for? Can you sum up their criticism of nationalism and the nation, and what did they mean by the slogan “Something better than the Nation”?

For the Left, nationalism has usually been something to oppose. Yet, this rarely involved challenging the concept of the nation as such and the nation-state from which nationalism springs forth. In opposition to nationalism, the Left typically supported internationalism, based on the affirmation of “nations” in cooperation with one another, however these groups were defined.

Beginning with the revolts of 1968 -- largely provoked by the continuity of German fascists in governmental posts and in civil society -- the radical Left began to strongly distance itself from anything that resembled German nationalism. Yet this was not a fundamental rejection of the nation in any principled or political sense. That only developed in the early 1990s when the ghosts of the Nazi past re-emerged in the animosity of “ordinary Germans” towards asylum seekers, Roma and Sinti, Vietnamese “guest workers”, and Jews -- and as the new national consensus took hold across the country, and the state increased its role on the international terrain.

“Something better than the nation” was the slogan used in the early 1990s by a group of West German leftists, intellectuals, artists and musicians who organized a caravan to the former East Germany, hoping to build opposition in civil society to public racist violence and the rightward drift which was especially pronounced there. 

The anti-national movement never produced a clear alternative to the “nation.” They did not suggest a more inclusive or a post-national identity, as other leftists had done. They did not focus on collectivities at all. First and foremost, they wanted to build resistance to nationalism and confront concrete developments of the time. That was the alternative, a social force that could intervene and stop the worst from happening, and to counter the structure of nationalism: as they saw it, capitalism and the nation-state.

What, in your mind, were the strengths of this movement, and what were its shortcomings?

I think the primary strength of the movement was first and foremost that it in fact mobilized against the nationalist resurgence. Not enough people were doing this. They were in some sense the vanguard, breaking into new territory when much of the Left, like society more generally, was overwhelmed by these developments. They established new categories for thinking about these developments and new frames for intervening in public discourse.

At its best, the movement asked new and difficult questions about these social and political developments and challenged dogmas. It provided no immediate or simple answers. It saw its task being an intervention to impact public discourse, state policy, historical narratives, identity, and power dynamics within civil society. The other strength of the movement was that it framed new political questions and forced an important debate about the topic of nationalism.

The major weakness of the anti-national tendency -- like in all other political tendencies -- was the establishment of new political dogmas and identities out of an originally critical inquiry. In some cases, the issue of nationalism came to be the “central contradiction” to which all else was reducible to. This led to various distortions and oversimplifications, for example the wholesale rejection by some anti-nationalists of the alter-globalization movement, and today, of the Occupy, Indignados and other current movements, as if they were reactionary populist mobs reminiscent of National Socialism.

It is true that some political content of this movement is motivated by liberal nationalist assumptions, for example, when the “99%” is conceived of as a homogenous community whose grievance is with a supposedly external, parasitic, cosmopolitan elite. Yes, this conception is overly simplistic and problematic, and it could drift towards the Right. I address this in my book and I argue, in the spirit of the best aspects of the anti-national movement of the early 1990s, that you have to look at concrete societal developments, in order to make judgments about this.

I was in fact originally concerned about Occupy's political framework – that it would be open to nationalists – but it is clear now that the movement has developed in a progressive-Left direction, countered neoliberal austerity, advanced a politics of redistribution and popular empowerment, and supported class struggles at the community and labor levels. But for some who have built their entire worldview around the categories of a rigid anti-national position, the ideological and other aspects of the Occupy movement that defy these anti-nationalists' assumptions are simply ignored. It is much easier to hold onto a simple ideological framework than it is to face these contradictions and therefore, new challenges.

It seems to me that the phenomenon is little understood outside of a German context. Do you agree, and why do you think that is so? What do you think is unique about the German experience? 

I think you are right, and that's why I wrote this book. The knowledge about this tendency is extremely limited. If anything is known at all, it is usually a caricature of the most extreme positions: that there is an Israeli-flag waving German Left supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While this tendency does exist, there is a much broader and sharply conflicted field of anti-national politics, from which one can learn from. Part of the reason why there is so little knowledge of this very, differentiated milieu is because there is almost nothing written about it in English.

But that is not the only reason. It is my impression that to blind out the more interesting aspects of the movement presents difficult challenges for the Left. It forces us to grapple with our own romanticized views of the masses and of the nation onto which we project our hopes for emancipatory change. And of course, laughing about the IDF-T-shirt wearing leftists in the German milieu helps block a self-critical discussion about antisemitism on the Left.

Yet, in the last few years there have been some leftists in the UK, the U.S. And elswhere who are taking interest in the anti-national critique, and are developing new projects based on it. So, I hope this book nurtures that process.

Why is this relevant to people outside of Germany? And what lessons do you think can be drawn for an international audience?

I think the movement has some insights that are generalizable for other contexts. If you look today at responses to the economic crisis for example, there are many cases in which a nationalist framework is deployed to tie people to an austerity agenda – against their material interests – with arguments about how we all need to make sacrifices “for the country.” I think an analysis of nationalism can help break open this fallacy.

You also see responses to the crisis coming in the form of nationalism. Take for example the Tea Party movement. This is a particular response to the crisis. Yet, the common approach on the Left is to criticize the racism in this movement. Yes, it needs to be opposed. But such an analysis fails to grasp, for example, how healthcare reform became branded as socialist, and thus as foreign, as “un-American.” An analysis of nationalism provides a way of understanding how this happens, and also a way of responding to that movement.

An anti-national critique also helps expose false solutions to societal conflicts. For example, it helps combat the Left's apologia for reactionary movements that present themselves as counter-hegemonic. This was very much missing at the height of the anti-war movement, when some on the Left thought the way forward was to align with nationalist movements against U.S. military invasions abroad (for example, with Hezbollah, Hamas, Ahmadinejad, etc.). They saw this as a way forward, rather than as the nationalist trap that it is.

Why did you catch an interest in the anti-national tendencies in Germany in the reunification period in the early 1990s?

I first learned of this development like much of the non-German speaking Left did, through photographs of black blocs carrying U.S. and Israeli flags. These photos were often shot at demonstrations against black clad neo-Nazis wearing Kaffiyas. It appeared as one great circus to an outside viewer, all so absurd and unintelligible, that I simply laughed it off at first.

Yet, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I became increasingly concerned with the growing support, apologia, or acceptance within sections of the U.S. Left, for nationalist and antisemitic positions of Islamic fundamentalist movements, and even overlap with the conservative nationalist Right in the U.S. (There was also openness to  9/11 conspiracy propaganda and that kind of thing). And I became interested in left approaches to these topics.

In my research and personal encounters with people in the anti-national milieu, I found it to be made up of many different tendencies. It was a stark contrast to those other portrayals. I found instead a rich, complex, and contradictory development that has occurred over the last two decades and which has had a significant impact upon wide sections of the Left in Germany. It was with this observation that I decided to dig deeper into the origins of the movement, and became convinced that an anti-national critique also has international relevance. Thankfully, there have already been some signs of positive reception for an anti-national critique in other contexts.

Who do you hope will pick up your book?

Mainly, people who are involved in social movements and are seeking ways to deal with the recurring dilemma of nationalism, and to understand how it seeps into political projects, even against one's best intentions. I hope it can help movement actors transcend national thinking and frameworks while building emancipatory movements to achieve “something better than the nation.”

Editorial Comment

Find out where to buy Against the Nation here.