Isaac Kfir, Member of the Advisory Board of the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
The role of Romanticism in facilitating, supporting and encouraging the growth of contemporary far-right extremism is often missed, although intellectual giants such as Isaiah Berlin and Carl Schmitt spoke of political romanticism in their studies of nationalism.
A close reading of many of the manifestos of right-wing terrorists such as Anders Behring Breivik, Brenton Tarrant, Dylan Roof and Robert Bowers emphasize a desire to return to an imagined past based on their romantic readings of battles and communities, which is why Romanticism serves as a useful tool in understanding not only the rise of contemporary far-right extremism, but what drives the movement.
The eighteenth-century German poet and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel referred to romantic as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form”. In their understanding of the romantic movement, Schlegel and others emphasized a connection to the myths and mysticism of the Middle Ages. These elicited and conjured stories were either elusive of historicity or embellish real events in the most phenomenal eidetic manner just as Edward Gibbon had done with Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours.
The clearest examples of romantic nationalism are found in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Austen, and others. They constructed political fiction — be it about Gothic, Teutons, or the Anglo-Saxons — that came to define contemporary western culture and has continued to feed an ahistorical view of what Europe was like in early times.
Over time, their Romantic evocations led to the invention of tradition that defined nations, cultures and heritages. This was because the writing sought to inspire individuals to commit to the budding nation state, many of which were just developing. (The first Treaty of Westphalia gave credence to the idea of sovereign nation states, whereas the nineteenth century saw the rooting of nationalism).
The works of these European Romantics concocted bonds — be it of language, dolmens or mythologies — aimed at constructing a glorified past of an imagined community. A classic example of such an invention is the Scottish kilt — presented by Romantics as emblematically Scottish. However, the Scottish kilt was in fact invented by an Englishman in 1707. Another such example is the role played by Sir Walter Scott in organizing King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh Castle in 1822. During the visit the king wore a tartan dress popularized by Sir David Wilkie’s paintings, aimed at appeasing a populace that was essentially hostile to a foreign king. By wearing a traditional garb, the intention was to show that the foreign king was respectful of Scottish identity.
Interestingly, for centuries Romanticism carried derogatory connotations. In the Middle Ages it referred to a new vernacular that stood in direct contrast to Latin — the language of learning and education. By the seventeenth century, as Europe was moving away from the Holy Roman Empire — which at its pinnacle covered the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, and Italy — towards the setting up of smaller nation states, Romanticism was increasingly understood as a genre of writing that was fanciful, chimerical and representative of a violent Mother Nature. This new genre gave momentum to von Humboldt’s notion of language as a dialectic between person and culture whilst rejecting John Wilkins’s Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language Universal Character or attempts by French revolutionaries to engage in pasigraphy.
ROMANTICISM VS. MODERNITY
In political science terms, Romanticism stands in stark contrast to modernity — a process in which the individual asserts and acquires autonomy in terms of status and geographical mobility. These developments facilitate the societal transition from agrarianism to industrialization leading to segmentation and social subsystems. Romantic nationalism was, therefore, the antidote as it served as a tool to bind individuals and communities together.
Two examples highlight the link between Romanticism and far-right extremism. The first is Adolf Hitler and Nazism, with its focus on the need for a national re-birth as a way to cleanse German society of impurities. The second is the more subtle and yet racialist opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials, presented as a desire to maintain a distinctive cultural heritage.
Arguably, Nazi Germany’s antisemitism and hyper-nationalism had its roots in Romanticism as National Socialism draws on a sanitized, imagined past, constructed through literary, violent expositions that glorify ‘blood and soil’. Through such a construction, the Nazis were able to ignore the genius politicking of the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who crafted the German State through diplomacy. The Nazis wanted to masculinize the creation of Germany, basing it as a historical, deterministic process for a biological Volk (German for people, understood through an ethnocratic lens). In imagining their Volkslied, the Nazis applied a form of Romanticism that gave them the tools to construct their theory of racial superiority that, on the one hand, rejected modernity as it meant that boundaries were placed on the individual or more importantly the ethnocratic State, whilst at the same time, they emphasized the importance of technology in furthering the manifest destiny of the Volk and their racial superiority due to their technological advancement.
The debate over the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials highlights another example of how an imagined, sanitized romanticism feeds movements such as the alt-right and far-right extremism. Many of the monuments were erected in the early part of the twentieth century. Opponents of these monuments see them as racist and glorifying a manifestly evil institution (slavery). Supporters maintain that they are historically important and reflective of their cultural heritage. They argue that the monuments should not have to be politically correct or considered as a reminder of past evil.
The issue with this narrative is that it ignores the overarching message that such symbols carry. It also romanticizes and sanitizes the Confederacy, leading to attempts to normalize or defend the indefensible. In 2019, a joint survey conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that 53% of ordinary Republicans favor Donald Trump over Abraham Lincoln.
The growth in personal grievances and the presence of an industry that feeds the populace a diet of an imagined, nostalgic past has facilitated the growth of far-right extremism. This movement feeds people counter-cultural, post-modern and reflexive explanations as to why their lives are hard, while also offering the promise that, by supporting them, one could restore the idyllic, ethnocratic society in which everyone knew their place and purpose and order was supreme.
Romanticism has an important place in our society, but not if it is used by the far right to create an imagined, ethnocratic community that excludes the ‘other’ and rejects fact-based historical analysis.