Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

Germany’s far-Right might get public funding for a think tank

Is the Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, affiliated to the AfD party, about to get public funding to support its extremist, far-Right views?

Maik Fielitz
26 January 2022, 12.01am
Civil society organisations are alert and already campaigning against public funding of the DES
Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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In September 2021, the far-Right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) won seats in the Bundestag for the second time in a row, with 10.3% of the vote. While the party lost significantly in the country’s western states, it consolidated its position in the east, coming first in Saxony with 24.6%, for example. With its second set of seats in the national parliament, the AfD achieved another important milestone that might considerably improve its organisational capacities, ideological impact and public reputation. During the next legislative term, the AfD may be able to get public funding for a party-affiliated foundation.

The mission of party-affiliated foundations, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Social Democratic Party, SPD) and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Christian Democratic Union, CDU), is to influence public opinion and strengthen the civic education sector. The foundations use their generous budgets to organise workshops and seminars, build up expertise on specific policy issues and fund democratic engagement and international collaboration. They have offices in many countries across the world.

In 2019, the Bundestag gave a total of 660m euros to the six party-affiliated foundations. Currently, the distribution of tax revenue to the foundations is largely unregulated, which means that they barely have to account for how they spend their money. According to the NGO Frag den Staat, the AfD-affiliated Desiderius Erasmus Foundation (Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung, DES), will receive around 50–70m euros up to 2025.

Desiderius Erasmus Foundation

The AfD declared the DES “party-affiliated” at a party convention in 2018. Just a few weeks before, the former CDU hardliner Erika Steinbach had become head of this (until then) largely invisible organisation. Steinbach publicly expressed her wishes to build the DES as “the only conservative political foundation […] to lay the foundations for a political renewal of our country […] and to pass on our country's cultural identity with its value-conservative [wertkonservativ] roots to the next generations in intellectual openness through targeted support and a broad range of educational offerings.”

The DES has already hinted that it will finance and recruit (future) cadres of the far Right. Most prominently, publicist Karlheinz Weißmann has been asked to set up a study programme to hand out PhD scholarships, organise intellectual training and facilitate international exchange.

In 2000, along with leading New Right intellectual Götz Kubitschek, Weißmann co-founded the Institute for State Politics (Institut für Staatspolitik), a far-Right think tank. In early 2021, Germany’s domestic intelligence service (Verfassungsschutz) declared the institute a “proven right-wing extremist” organisation.

Ironically, the far-Right struggle against liberal democracy may well be financed by money from the very institutions it is attacking

The largely under-financed world of the New Right, summoned to significantly shape the work of a foundation with 921 staff, anticipates a gold-rush. This financial boost for political work will change the public profile and self-confidence of the far Right. Identitarians, alt-media entrepreneurs, New Right ideologues and political opportunists, attracted by this new flow of money, are likely to move closer to the AfD. The chance of permanent funding for educational activities, and the legal framework of the foundation, will increase the visibility – and the legitimacy – of far-Right voices.

A publicly funded far-Right think tank?

If the DES does receive public funding as a party-affiliated foundation, it will raise new questions about the positionality and neutrality of public education and academia in Germany. Ironically, the far-Right struggle against liberal democracy may well be financed by money from the very institutions it is attacking. Journalist Paul Middelhoff aptly described state funding of this highly anti-democratic sector as a “stimulus programme for the AfD-affiliated milieus”.

In fact, the DES has already announced that the money will help those who have been excluded from academia due to a supposedly Left-liberal regime that silences nationalist voices. It is likely that DES-funded initiatives and researchers will enter academic discourse to undermine academic freedoms. Scholars working on extremism, radicalisation and national identity, in particular, should be prepared for the reactionary, far-Right project to come.

Civil society organisations are alert and already campaigning against public funding of the DES. Initiatives fighting right-wing extremism and hate, in particular, would face opposition to their struggle against discrimination and racism. The new government is being pressured to find ways to ensure the budget for the next legislative term does not fund the DES. However, the largely unregulated distribution of tax revenue to the party-affiliated foundations makes this scenario – though politically opportune – difficult to sustain legally.

Either way, the handling of the DES case will be a severe test of the new government’s integrity. While a decision to allow funding may attract strong criticism from civil society, liberal politicians may defend the right of all party-affiliated foundations to receive public money. This argument, however, would undermine the fact that the DES will become one of the best funded far-Right think tanks in the world in full view of the public.

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