A specter is haunting the era we live in – frequently described as a “world of post-truth politics”: populism. Old and new conspiracy beliefs spread virally. Weekly demonstrations in many European cities warn of – and propagate – a divide in society. The hunt is on for scapegoats to be blamed for the pandemic, for economic insecurities, for mass migration, for quickly changing governments. Threats of war, human rights violations, and diplomatic emergencies keep the world on its toes. Populist rhetoric, calling upon emotions such as fear and hatred, while paradoxically claiming to represent public opinions in a direct, immediate way, is no longer a marginal, extreme, phenomenon, but has arrived in the middle of society. In these turbulent times, is there anything academia can possibly add to the discussions about the global, political, informational, and humanitarian crises we face right now? Should not the historical humanities, for once, remain a harbor that is safe against current debates?
Quite the contrary, as the interdisciplinary workshop has demonstrated. Gathering various perspectives grounded in political theory, Slavic studies, sociology and social sciences, nationalism studies, rhetoric, comparative literature, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and contemporary history, the event invited experts, scholars, students, and interested listeners to a critical and nonhierarchical dialogue about the intersections of language and politics, of ideology and media performance, and about the populist instrumentalization of anxiety, enmity, and hatred.
In his opening talk, political scientist JONATHAN LEADER MAYNARD (London) presented a theoretical framework for the discussion of extremism in comparative perspective. Unlike many now canonized definitions of extreme ideologies which situate extremism on the outskirts of “our” society and system of values, Leader Maynard argued that extreme sentiments are not alien to conventional, moderate views, but rather dependent on very familiar strategic and moral ideas about security, self-defense, punishment, and duty, and, hence, present and effective among ordinary, even entirely apolitical people. Conceiving conspiracy beliefs, apocalyptic threats, utopian goals, or doomsday scenarios as radical versions of – rather than deviations from – familiar discourses does not only render these concepts better comprehensible but allows for a more differentiated understanding of the emergence and dissemination of extremism. The examples given by Leader Maynard included Leninist and Stalinist Soviet terror regimes, the 1980s’ mass killings in Guatemala, Al-Qaeda’s anti-Western propaganda from 1998, Islamist justifications of 9/11, and Anders Behring Breivik’s Islamophobic terror attacks in 2011. Diverse though they may be, the governing principles behind these acts of violence all built on conventional, yet militarized, arguments: the perpetrators framed the harm done as necessary to prevent suffering and extinction of a certain group, nation, religion, culture, or value system that had been under serious threat before. Donald Trump’s success also demonstrates that the demarcating line between “normal” and “extreme” is not clear-cut but blurry if politics is understood as warfare: discussions which started non-violently have become more and more militarized until a “war on terror” appears unavoidable and just. Leader Maynard concluded his findings with a case for asking hard questions and taking responsibility as a society: it might be convenient for governments to locate radical thoughts in the unconventional, the pathological, the irrational mindset, but we need to be aware that most often, extremism is not a sudden reversal of all common values but a process that is easy to gradually slip into when trust in politics is betrayed. Extremism needs to be demystified, radicalization can be tackled, and violent escalations are preventable, but we can no longer distance ourselves condescendingly from extreme ideologies as something strange and foreign.
One particularly persistent and harmful set of extreme opinions was central to linguist, historian, and sociologist RUTH WODAK (Vienna): preceding her meticulous observations about the revival of antisemitic conspiracy narratives in contemporary politics, Wodak mapped out the overarching characteristics of conspiracy myths: directing public attention and imagination towards inexistent dangers, conspiracy narratives obscure real threats and pretend to placate all insecurities. Wodak’s terminological choice of conspiracy “narrative” or “myth” was far from accidental: on the one hand, the more common term “conspiracy theory” could suggest that they, like other theories, are verifiable; on the other hand, the constructed narratives about secret conspiracies often operate like myths and fairy tales, as they feature certain plot elements and argumentative structures similar to those observed by folklorist Vladimir Propp. Recurring “plot elements” in conspiracy narratives are, for example, the Manichaean binary opposition of “good” versus “bad”, the construction of scapegoats and bogeymen, or the belief that everything is connected and happens for one certain reason. In the creation and evocation of conspiracy narratives, paranoic patterns of behavior are traceable: personal fears and anxieties are externalized, social and political problems are attributed to an arbitrary group of “others” who, then, must be delegitimized systematically. In antisemitic conspiracy narratives, the instrumentalized metaphors and tropes include those of satanic or demonic powers, fantasies of violent invasion or invisible penetration through parasites, and the abhorrence of and fascination for puppeteers governing people through invisible strings. Irrational and unenlightened as these plot elements might appear, they are, as Wodak argued, deeply rooted in the collective memory and, thus, still evoked whenever politicians need to pass the buck to a constructed enemy even more corrupt than themselves. Wodak presented several examples of this century-old “Judaeus ex machina” strategy from recent years: Austrian politicians involved in scandalous affairs – from the disclosure of President Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi-background in 1986 to the inglorious end of the coalition between the conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party in the aftermath of the so-called Ibiza-gate in 2019 – have frequently made use of antisemitic conspiracy myths: in their attempts to relocate blame and crime from themselves to the messengers, journalists, whistleblowers, and spin-doctors whose investigations contributed to the debunking and disempowerment of governments, a “Jewish world conspiracy” comes in handy. Nationalist leaders Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump have also used antisemitic conspiracy tropes for pre-election campaigning, claiming to save their countries from allegedly dangerous “Jewish lobbyists and millionaires”. Albeit the historic continuity and persistence of antisemitic conspiracy narratives is admittedly depressing, Wodak offered a somewhat positive outlook: today, the adoption of laws against the spreading of hatred, racism, or sexism online and publicly, a transnationalization of Holocaust remembrance, updated political education for multiethnic societies, and stricter prohibitions against the reproduction of Nazi-ideologies have been recognized as useful starting points and already partially implemented.
Very current debates were taken up by RICCARDO NICOLOSI (Munich). On the occasion of Russian troops being moved closer to the Ukrainian borders, Nicolosi, expert in Slavic literatures, analyzed Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric in his speeches concerning Russia’s claims for the annexation of Ukraine. Putin, however, is not a populist, anti-intellectual agitator in cahoots with the masses, as Nicolosi made clear, but a highly sophisticated orator with intellectual aspirations: his persuasive speeches demonstrate an expert level of rhetorical accomplishment and can be studied with philosophical stances on rhetoric from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. Putin’s public performance comprises various roles and stylistic registers: he acts as a historian who educates the citizens about the injustice done to the Russian empire when Ukraine and Belarus were declared independent from their “big brother” Russia. Another time, the Russian president fashions himself as a stone-cold technocrat, while occasionally tilting towards the vulgar, thus feigning closeness to his enraged people. The public staging of dialogue and accessibility culminated in the pretended reception of supplicants whose petitions Putin graciously granted. In his public discourse on Ukraine, Putin particularly favors the historian’s persona – not an academic historian, however, but rather a nostalgic who longs for the lost imperial greatness –, mixed with an emotional appeal to patriotism and national pride. Since the 1990s, “the West” allegedly propagated “Russophobia”, repeatedly insulted Russia “out of collective envy” and “forbade” the Russian language in favor of “dialects”, such as Ukrainian which Putin does not recognize as an autonomous language. Anti-Russian conspiracy narratives can be found in Putin’s speech about the Majdan revolution in 2014. Putin’s politics of aggression, therefore, is framed as a wounded victim’s well-deserved act in self-defense.
Drawing on social studies and psychoanalysis, comparatist JULIANE PRADE-WEISS (Munich) focused on the staging of emotion in theater, theory, and the public scene of contemporary politics. Taking Elfriede Jelinek’s “Schwarzwasser. Am Königsweg” (2020), a play written in response to Donald Trump’s election in 2016, as a starting point for discussion, Prade-Weiss analyzed the instrumentalization of rage, shame, and hostility in the White House and in the German Bundestag where the AfD party frequently spurns heated debates. If democracy is perceived as dysfunctional, populisms seem to offer easy solutions: they construct a collective, a “we” that gathers all the voices which do not feel represented by a dominant group. Enmity and hostility become programmatic and unifying elements and guarantee attention and public interest: the breaking of taboos is exciting. Passionately mocking, insulting, or attacking an Other – be it the elite, the left, migrants, the EU, or researchers suggesting precaution measures in respect of pandemics – not only gradually pushes the boundaries of what can be said and thought, but maintains the public spotlight for the demagogues. Accusations of shamelessness are expectable, yet they often fire back to the accusers as they complicate dialogue and discussion and deepen the rift between the elite concerned with shame and decency and the populist “we” that substitutes shame with bitterness, rage, and hatred. It is against this backdrop that Jelinek and Prade-Weiss read Trump’s success: consciously utilizing the emotion of shame, he promised his supporters nothing less than the freedom of feeling ashamed for being white, male, angry, uneducated, sexist, or racist. Jelinek’s polyphonous theatrical text does not stop accusing the “king”, Donald Trump in disguise, but also exposes the audience’s supposed certainty of moral superiority. The public stage and audience outside the theater, however, is no less corrupt: it is here we, the audience, the citizens, can strive to escape the vicious circle consisting of destructive resentments and repetitive “us versus them” patterns. Disidentification from collective “we”-roles, Prade-Weiss suggested with reference to psychological trauma and memory studies, might enable us to engage in a respectful, responsible, democratic dialogue.
As broad and diverse as the talks and discussions might have been, all the panelists agreed that populist discourses of enmity best be negotiated in transdisciplinary exchange, diachronic comparison, and transcultural collaboration, the latter having recently become easily practicable due to online/hybrid conference tools. The workshop showed that language, rhetoric, history, communicative strategies, and psychological dynamics become powerful instruments in the hands of politicians and populist leaders. To untangle contemporary narratives of conspiracies, scapegoating, political imperatives, and demonstrations of power, the social and political sciences might want to consult literary theory, philosophy, or psychoanalysis in the future, while the humanities gain important insights from history, genocide studies and trauma studies. Further, it became clear that casting off blinkers requires asking inconvenient questions – tackling them with joint forces, rather than isolated within one culture, language, epoch, or discipline, might be a feasible way to face our democratic responsibility in a globalized and quickly evolving world.
Juliane Prade-Weiss (Munich): Populismen, Verschwörung, Verhetzung
Jonathan Leader Maynard (London): Rethinking Extremism in Comparative Perspective: Narrative, Enmity and Political War
Ruth Wodak (Vienna): “Rothschild, Soros, Silberstein” – das Revival von antisemitischen Weltverschwörungsnarrativen
Riccardo Nicolosi (Munich): Vladimir Putins Ukraine-Rhetorik
Juliane Prade-Weiss (Munich): Wut, Schamlosigkeit, Bühne. Feindschaft aufführen
 The two most prominent studies of extremism which Leader Maynard’s model differs from are Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, London 1994, and Theodor W. Adorno, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, Cambridge, UK, and Medford, MA, 2020 (original lecture given in 1967).
 Elke Horn, Group Phenomena in Working Through the Past, in: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (ed.), History, Trauma and Shame: Engaging the Past through Second Generation Dialogue, London 2020. pp. 149–186, esp. p. 181.