Whilst populist political movements have been growing all over Europe during the last years, Germany was luckily spared from that – up until last year. With the federal elections in 2013, a anti-European, nationalistic and populist party almost made it to the parliament. For me, being a educational activist focusing on political education for many years, it was time to do something. This is why we created jetztmalehrlich.eu After almost passing the threshold, the AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”, “Alternative for Germany”) didn’t necessarily disappeared. Contrary, a growing popularity was observable. Suddenly, being nationalistic and critical towards the EU became on vogue again. And instead of standing up against such a movement, the existing political structures wanted to kill them with silence – or even adapted to their tone and ideas, in the hope for collecting some more voters.
Fuelling the bullshit machine: Why populist nationalism is shit.
One might argue that Euro-scepticism had become very popular in Europe during recent years all over Europe, so that it might actually have a democratic legitimation. With the rise of Front National, Wilder’s Party for Freedom or the True Fins, a political will back towards more national politics can’t be neglected. And in the end, what united all of these parties was their criticism with the current design and policy of the European institutions – which was the bandwagon the AfD jumped on as well. Having being active in political youth education for over 10 years now, I’ve learned a lot about the institutional framework of the EU and gained an aware understanding of politics, despite not having studied political science or alike. Although I wouldn’t call myself an “EU fanboy”, I personally value the “European Dream” much. I have profited much from the freedoms and possibilities that are made possible by the European integration. But at the same time I do as well see the flaws of its construction, mainly in a lack of democracy, transparency and understanding. For me, a moving back towards nationalism is just not an option. Despite that I doubt that a reverse transaction is actually legally possible, it just doesn’t make much sense, taking globalisation, digitalisation and all developments of modern society into consideration. Today is just much too diverse, too connected and too liberal to coordinate life the artificial borders of national states, created 100-200 years ago. Yes, I believe we need to overcome the national state! But that is my personal vision and strategy. What actually bothered me with the whole nationalistic and anti-European movements were two things. Firstly, their explanations are very very simple. It is usually black and white, us against them – and this way they are trying to sell their politics. I, as a voter, feel fucked with. I know politics is complicated. Just because you would cut down the countries involved in your decision making doesn’t make decision making easier (because societies are diverse, get it?!). There is no wrong or right. There are personal opinions, and politics is not about parties, it is about creating platforms for bringing these diverse opinions together and finding rules and solutions that are best for most and don’t discriminate the others. Democracy, motherfucker! But for AfD and alike there is a truth. There is one way, and all the others are doing it wrong – and those criticising it are their enemies. This is obviously very tempting, because dealing with complexity and also insecurity can be fearful. So why not choosing an easy option if it is on the table? This brings me to the other problem I am having with the AfD. The picture of a society they are creating comes with a lot of implications that are not easily visible on first sight. Reducing the voting rights for less privileged, cutting loans for states in trouble and expel criminal foreigners provides a platform for people that not only undervalue solidarity and ambiguity tolerance; it also fuels hate and grievance. You are constructing enemies that either don’t exist or would be much smaller. You are raising scapegoats which builds a basis for racism and phobias. But I want a hate-free and open society; I don’t want xenophobia, homophobia and any other discriminating bullshit.
Doing the Don Quichote? How we tried to engage in political debates.
So what to do about it? As said, I’ve been active in youth education on European politics back since 2003. Ever since I’ve been telling the young people of Europe “Get interested in politics”, and also I admitted that joining a party might actually be the only vehicle to make an influence, sadly. And I have tried as well. I joined a party a while ago, but the structures and the format weren’t fitting – I didn’t feel I made a difference, but I guess this will be another blog entry at some point. What could I do to make my voice heard; to make people understand that giving space for such political developments isn’t a wise thing to do? Well, what did I have at hands? Over the years I grew a quite strong network of smart and talented people, and I consider the internet my second home (well, it might actually be number one if it could host me). So why not bringing that together? The idea grow to make a blog that would have a look at these populist debates going before the elections, and to have a look on how their arguments are built and to damask simplifications and to show that voting only makes sense if you understand what you are voting for. My point was: of course you can vote for AfD and alike, but be aware what bullshit this will produce.
Creating a war room: What infrastructure would we need?
What followed was an activation of my network. I first tried to find someone who would help me with the technical dimension of setting up such a platform, and who, at the same time, would understand my intentions behind the project. I was happy to find such a beautiful person in Matthias Andrasch, who I got to know in Magdeburg via private contacts during the last years and who is also active in youth and media education, besides being a trained programmer. We set up #jetztmalehrlich, which would translate to “Now, let’s be honest” or “honestly”. This way we not only wanted to mark us off all these other “Europe” campaigns, out of which most did a remarkable job, but were trapped in an interchangeable name and identity. This name would also allow us a nice playing with words, as we could integrate the name into sentences easily and also use this as a hashtag which allowed easier conversion and linkage across platforms. The set-up structure was rather simple. We installed a WordPress blog on a server were all the self-produced content would be hosted. Additionally we set-up a Facebook fanpage, which would link to these articles and thus create reach, but also allowed building a community, connecting with other initiatives and sharing interesting content besides our own. We also set up a Twitter account, but we didn’t use it intensively after all.
Running the machine: How did we create content?
In the beginning there was only me and Matthias, with the latter helping with the concept and maintaining the platform but too much caught up in his uni stuff for actually producing content. So it was quite clear that this project would die a quick death if we wouldn’t manage to get more people aboard. So with the official launch of the pages, I also wrote a manifesto, storytelling my disappointment with the political development and my believe in the necessity of de-constructing populist and nationalistic debates. During the first days it was all up to me producing content for the blog an maintaining the page. But luckily at some point my manifesto paid off and indeed people wrote me because they wanted to join the team of contributors. And what surprised me the most: most of them weren’t even close acquaintances. In fact, till today I hardly know half of the final team in person. Wonders of the internet! Once someone would contact me, I would usually give them a call and explain the project more thoroughly. As next step a Facebook group helped the contributors with the coordination of content, getting in touch personally, etc. We also set up a Google Drive where we would store an editorial sheet, just like a calendar, that would help us to do some planning. Well, about the planning: it didn’t really work out. Yes, there was a schedule, but not only was it filled rather non-binding, topics were also allocated and spotted spontaneously. In the end, we mostly were happy if we had some piece of content every 2-3 days, no matter what.
So, what did we write about?
We had three major projects. On the one side we tried to deliver some canny piece on a current European debate regularly, every day in the beginning, later on every 2-3 days. In the beginning these were mainly focusing on the aforementioned AfD and other parties and how they would use populist rhetoric and how their inner structure and behaviour would contradict their outside promises. But we would also do some more sophisticated EU-education, demystifying the cucumber-regulation, explaining the problem of TTIP, Eurobonds, etc. Our focus was to show that even though the EU and its institutions are easily bashed in public debates, truth is usually more complex. Some of major problems projected onto the EU are actually caused by bad governance on national levels. Another level we provided was an insight into other nationalistic political movements around Europe, like the UKIP in the UK and Front National in France. We felt that usually they weren’t present in everyday German media (which luckily changed the closer the elections came). Here we wanted to highlight that one might be able to observe a tendency towards re-nationalisation all over Europe, but at the same time how hypocritical their argumentations are and that their “truth” is mainly built upon lies and racist argumentation. Besides the blog articles we also created fact check for the two most EU-critical parties in Germany, which took quite an effort but we believe was worth it. We were hoping to bridge the online-offline gap with this, but I guess we might came a bit late for this. But still, quite an ambitious and good element of the project.
And what did we learn?
For me, #jetztmalehrlich was quite a huge experiment. I haven’t been publishing regularly before. And in the beginning, I put myself under quite some pressure. I wanted a good article everyday, which meant that I would need to produce it myself. Soon I obviously realised that this wasn’t feasible – either I go for quality or quantity. Writing, and in particular the research behind, took more time than I expected – which made me move towards publishing every 2-3 days in the end. The biggest risk we took was hoping for a team. As described, we started as two – hoping for people willingly joining us. Producing content for us. In their free time. For free. Motivated only by a vision we created. Ridiculous, right? Well, it worked out, which still surprises me and makes me so thankful. It is not only that this topic, which meant so much to me, means much to other people too. Also were we able to create a vision and idea that would motivate other people to sacrifice so much. I want to thank all those who walked with us. I still can’t believe that worked out. Another learning point was concerning the building of a community. The content backbone was the blog, yet most communication went through the Facebook page – something that is a basis for so many projects I am handling. Whilst I consider Facebook an essential tool of my everyday communication, I’m still turn apart in terms of the management of Facebook pages. It is a great tool to reach out to people, yet the algorithm to actually achieve that reach is quite perverted. It is very fluctuant, and you get the feeling that true reach is only achieved by buying it from Facebook. Also, text doesn’t sell, period. Composing a successful post is quite some business. In that field I don’t believe practice makes perfect, but I definitely learnt some bits.
So, thanks for reading this, if you did. At this point I want to thank all the people who joined me on this ride. First of all the authors team with Sebastian, Martin, Marleen, Arne, Laila and Jon, who contributed from the UK although not knowing what we were actually doing otherwise. Carlo and Wiebke for cleaning up the language mess. Matthias for all this support, both technically and conceptual. And also Kerstin at the iChange Europe/Schwarzkopf-Stiftung and Julia at Planet EUrope/EuroSec for the cooperation.