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Populist politicisation of history and culture

Fatigue-Poprebel Seminar Series

Tuesday, 15 June 2021, 15:00 GMT

As demonstrated by the 2018 amendment to the Polish Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which imposes sanctions of up to three years imprisonment to anyone who attributes “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich”, populist politicians expend considerable effort on ensuring that their interpretation of the past promotes an exclusively positive image of the native community, while restricting interpretations which may cast a more critical light on the nation and state. The aim of this seminar – the latest in the FATIGUE-POPREBEL Seminar Series – is to present cutting-edge research on the various strategies used by populists to politicise history and culture from researchers from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network on ‘Delayed Transformational Fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the Rise of Illiberalism/Populism’ (FATIGUE) and the Horizon 2020-funded project ‘Populist rebellion against modernity in 21st-century Eastern Europe: neo-traditionalism and neo-feudalism’ (POPREBEL).

Chair: Richard Mole, UCL

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Sabine Volk (Jagiellonian University)

Resisting Leftist Dictatorship? Memory Politics in the Far-right Populist PEGIDA Movement

In this presentation, I investigate the political culture of the populist far right in post-socialist eastern Germany, focusing on how such actors manipulate the past in discourse. Specifically, I show how PEGIDA uses memory to construct the master frame of ‘democratic resistance against totalitarianism’, based on the populist antagonism between ‘the democratic people’ as an in-group and ‘the leftist-totalitarian elites’ as an out-group. I argue that PEGIDA’s use of the past and memory serves as the movement’s key resource, and ultimately explains its long-term survival – even during the COVID-19 pandemic – despite scarce resources. Finally, I spell out the notion of populism as a constructed collective action frame, refine the concept employing the notions of discursive construction of in-group and outgroup(s), and demonstrate how both notions are key to understanding far-right populist ideology in action. This research is based on original ethnographic data that I generated in demonstrations organized by far-right populist “PEGIDA” in the city of Dresden in 2019/2020 and online during “lockdown”. It will be published in the journal European Politics and Society as part of a special issue on “Far-right memory politics” in 2022/23.

Sabine Volk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and Early Stage Researcher in FATIGUE. Sabine’s work explores the political culture of far-right populist grassroots politics in post-socialist eastern Germany, especially focusing on the dimensions of ideology, politics of memory, and public protest. She has conducted several months of ethnographic fieldwork in the context of the Dresden-based “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA) movement, including online ethnography of virtual protest events. Sabine has published on German and European politics and populism in journals such as German PoliticsFrontiers in Political Science: Comparative Governanceand Politique européenneAs an active fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, she regularly blogs on openDemocracy, and LSE European Politics and Policy, amongst others.

Andrzej Sadecki (Charles University in Prague)

Politics of commemoration in the populist context: the case of the Trianon centenary in Orbán’s Hungary

The popularity of the right-wing Fidesz party in Hungary in the 2010s has been one of the most discussed political phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe. It has been explained by a variety of domestic and international, cultural and economic factors. This presentation explores the cultural factors, more precisely the politicization of collective memory. It seeks to illuminate how Orbán’s government exploits the turbulent national past: how it (re-)frames discourses about the past by navigating between the existing traditions, demands of its electorate and various actors within the ruling elite, adjusting its narratives to the current political agenda, and the domestic and international constraints. The analysis is based on the case of the round anniversary of the treaty of Trianon. The treaty sealed the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territory in the aftermath of the World War I and is considered by vast majority, according to polls, as the biggest tragedy in Hungary’s history. The presentation focuses on various manifestation of the official memory policies during the commemorative year of 2020, such as the official discourses, commemorative practices and cultural productions. It is based on both the fieldwork on the ground and the data collected online.

Andrzej Sadecki is a PhD candidate at the Charles University in Prague and a researcher of the FATIGUE Programme, exploring the politics of memory in the Hungarian context with the focus on the commemoration of the treaty of Trianon. He holds an MA in History from the Central European University in Budapest and an MA in European Studies from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he also studied Hungarian Philology. His experience includes working as an analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw and commenting on Central European affairs in a number of Polish and international media outlets. He tweets at @ASadecki.

Maria Alina Asavei  (Charles University in Prague)

Strategies of Cultural Resistance to Populism from an East-Central European Perspective

Over the last decade, populism – and especially right-wing populism – has been gaining momentum to a disquieting extent in both Eastern and Western Europe. There is a burgeoning record of academic literature on right-wing populist politics in both Western and East European countries. The  “emotional backlash” (Galston 2018) against elites, immigrants, sexual and ethnic minorities and everyone else who is not part of the “us” is also materialized in culture wars directed against those cultural and artistic productions that undermine and challenge national pride and hegemonic cultural nationalism.  Populism is understood as both an economic-political program and a “cultural mission,” and populist entrepreneurs thus aim to channel all artistic and cultural production towards a form of cultural essentialism and “autochthonism.” While Western Europe’s cultural resistance to populism is often highlighted in both the media and academic studies, resistance to populism through artistic and cultural production is very seldom addressed in the academic studies dedicated to Central and Eastern Europe. This does not mean that the cultural producers from the former East do not confront the surge of neo-populism in the region.  How do artists understand and figure out alternatives and resist right-wing populist politics and its culture in East-Central Europe? What are their strategies to react against “culturally popular” formats and ethnoreligious nationalist culture in an age of generalized anxiety?

Maria Alina Asavei  is Assistant Professor in the department of Russian and East European Studies, Institute of International Studies, Charles University in Prague. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the US at Fordham University (2018-2019) and Scientist in Charge for Charles University’s team participating in the ‘Horizon 2020’ research project ‘POPREBEL: Populist Rebellion against Modernity in 21st Century Eastern Europe: Neo-Traditionalism and Neo-Feudalism.’ Asavei is currently the Principal Investigator of a research project titled Towards Inclusive Mnemonic Communities: Re-Visiting Violent Pasts through the Lens of Artistic Memory in Eastern Europe, supported by theMinistry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (University of Bucharest, Romania). Her recent publications include the monographs Aesthetics, Disinterestedness and Effectiveness in Political Art (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Art, Religion and Resistance in (Post-)Communist Romania: Nostalgia for Paradise Lost (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).