Gennaio 3, 2022

Nationalism beyond Borders: Populism and the Politics of Anxiety in the 21st century

By James Wang (PhD)



Since the end of the Cold War, the European project has been characterized by three major developments. Economically, the introduction of the common currency, the formation of the European Central Bank, and other similar measures heralded the increasing economic integration among Europe’s major economies. Politically, the collapse of the USSR and the coming down of the Berlin Wall inaugurated a rapid expansion of the European Union eastwards, incorporating states formerly in the Soviet Eastern Bloc. Economic integration and the EU’s geopolitical expansion further buttressed the third major trend of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000’s, namely the de-emphasizing of the traditional nation-state in Europe. Indeed, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the virtual removal of border controls between the core EU states, the general acceptance of the common currency, and the creation of supra-national political organizations such as the European Court and the European Parliament all seemed to suggest that national sovereignty in Europe had entered a period of profound transformation. Yet two decades later and in the aftermath of prolonged economic recession, financial austerity, and an ongoing migration crisis, Europe has seen a continent-wide resurgence in populist-nationalist politics unseen since the Second World War.


What then explains this nationalist backlash? As the relatively recent discourse surrounding Brexit suggest, the issue of borders (and their perceived disappearance) offers an easy fault-line for nationalist politicians to rally around. Iterations of this argument have become rather commonplace in the past several years in Europe and America but largely break down when confronted with the complexity of post-socialist East-Central Europe. There, the free movement of peoples across national borders since the coming down of the Berlin Wall similarly reinforced nationalist sentiments, albeit in manner which denies a simple relationality between borders and national sovereignty. Rather, human mobility in Europe since 1989 resulted in a disillusionment with Western “liberal” institutions and ideologies across the former socialist bloc, and, in conjunction with wider economic anxieties since 2008, reinforced the national idea as a pillar of stability.


As Ivan Krastev has recently stressed, Eastern Europe pursued a ‘politics of imitation’ vis-à-vis the West after 1989 that was predicated on the idea that Western Europe possessed the viable path towards economic prosperity and lasting political stability (Ivan Krastev, After Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). The western counterpart to this triumphalist narrative of liberal universalism hinges on America and western Europe continuing to see themselves as representing the ‘normative path’ of political-economic development. The central promise of the European project since 1991 —that the division between impoverished post-socialist east and prosperous liberal-capitalist west could be eradicated altogether—was thus predicated on two interdependent conceptions of the European future. Firstly, the peoples of former socialist states had to believe that the path of liberal democracy and the free market was desirable (or even the only viable alternative). Secondly, the west must continue to see itself in normative terms as the logical endpoint of political-economic development. In other words, the political project of bridging eastern and western Europe inaugurated in the 1990s could only ever have been the voluntary absorption of the east by the west.


In this regard, German reunification is a telling microcosm for the disillusionment of both sides with the narrative of western ‘normativity’ and eastern ‘deviance’ and suggests an explanation for the recent resurgence of nativist sentiment across East-Central Europe. Notably, the emergence of the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the former East Germany raises the spectre that German reunification has already ended in failure. As Claus Leggewie has very recently noted, the populist ire directed by many in the East against ‘Brussels’ and the EU has elements of ‘post-colonial aversion’.  This so-called Kränkungsthese in German sociological literature stresses the destructive and quasi-colonial takeover of former East German state industries by West Germany after 1991. The Treuhandanstalt founded and headed by West German economists, businessmen, and politicians after reunification effectively assumed control of the most significant segments of the former East German economy, notably mining, steel, and key manufacturing sectors with the proclaimed goal of ‘promoting competitiveness’ (see, Michael Juergs, Die Treuhaender, Pantheon Verlag, 1997). By the late 1990s, however, such ‘trustee economics’ in East Germany had effectively liquidated mining and steel (previously two of the largest employment sectors in the GDR) and privatized the largest remaining manufacturing firms, often subsuming them under their more competitive West German counterparts (see Wolfgang Seibel, Verwaltete Illusionen: Die Privatisierung der DDR Wirtschaft durch die Treuhandanstalt und ihre Nachfolger, Campus Verlag, 2005).


It is difficult to overstate the human impact of this merger process. In ways that mirrored the de-industrialization of northern England under Thatcher, virtually an entire generation of East Germans found themselves excluded from a new world of market capitalism in which their professional skills were rendered obsolete by economic reunification. The subsequent internal migration of hundreds of thousands of predominantly young and/or educated East Germans westwards further exacerbated such anxieties that reunification had, in fact, ushered in a new age which rendered a significant proportion of the former GDR’s population economically superfluous. More than the recent anxieties over Europe’s borders and the influx of culturally other migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, it is this economic shift which paved the way for the new language of populist-nationalist outrage.


From East Germany, parallels can be drawn across Europe and America, with automation and outsourcing displacing comparable demographic groups in Italy, France, the UK, and America. The political articulations of such pervasive economic anxieties over human obsolescence may occur under the rubric of Brexit, the gilets jaunes in France, the Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega in Italy, AfD in Germany, or Trump’s vision of ‘America First.’ In this regard, it is intriguing to consider that, in the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the West was not only unable to fully integrate Eastern Europe, but rather eastern anxieties about economic obsolescence have actually been subsumed by the west. These anxieties have, in turn, been rearticulated via the political vocabulary of Islamophobia or ‘nativism’ into a new pattern of grassroots political mobilisation directed against notions of western liberalism.




James Wang received his PhD in Modern European History from Brown University. His interests and research focus on the political and economic history of Central and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, war and society, and nationalism. Dr. Wang is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Brown University. 

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