“These bodies are filled with fear” Interview with Klaus Theweleit about violence in Germany

This article was originally published in German by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

In recent weeks, Germany has been disturbed by images of men chasing people they perceived to be refugees through the streets of a German town. We asked Professor Klaus Theweleit, an expert on violence and male fantasies in the context of fascist ideology, for a psychological profile of these men.

These images have given rise to debates in the media about whether fascism is on the rise again in Germany and needs to be combatted. Furthermore, people are asking themselves what drives these men to act with such violence towards anyone who looks even remotely foreign, to chant degrading slogans and to openly use Nazi symbols. In the 1970s, Professor Klaus Theweleit studied violence and male fantasies in the context of fascist ideology. In his latest analysis of laughter in those who engage in excessive violence, he has addressed this subject once again.

“Right-wing extremist mobs want to kill, all over the world”

Professor Theweleit, in your research and in many of your books you have studied the violence perpetrated by men–from the terror of the Freikorps paramilitary groups (German volunteer mercenary units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries) in your widely acclaimed two-volume work Male Fantasies to Anders Breivik’s killing spree in your latest monograph entitled Das Lachen der Täter (i.e. The Laughter of Perpetrators). In your work, you explore the motives that drive these men to spread fear and terror. When looking at the latest images of violent incidents–especially the way people were hounded through the streets of Chemnitz–do you see parallels with the men who you studied and discussed in the aforementioned books?

The reasons why people are hounded are similar the world over. The “justification” may differ considerably from an ideological perspective–and may be for political, religious or local reasons.  “Reasons” can always be “found” for all kinds of acts all over the world; that is the problem with so-called “rationality”. Yet things that might actually be “genuine” justifications tend to be cited only rarely. In other words, justifications are as a rule arbitrary. The perpetrators in question may not always be aware of this, though some are. They have a clearer idea of what motivates them: namely the urge to kill. There are people–in all kinds of different cultures–who are designed to violently eliminate others from their environment. I have described how this type of person functions in Male Fantasies and other books. There are local variants; and doubtless there were specific factors particular to the men in Chemnitz, for example the fact that for years a Nazi network in Chemnitz provided cover for the NSU (National Socialist Underground, a far-right German neo-Nazi terrorist group) murderers. In principle, however, such perpetrators exhibit similar characteristics. The hate-filled mob that took to the streets of Koethen on Sunday, September 10, was to be seen applauding and cheering an agitator who was loudly shouting: “Do you want to remain the bleating sheep or do you want to become wolves and tear them apart?” He called upon the mob to confront their political opponents at home and “to wait for them on their doorsteps”. Taken together, this is tantamount to an incitement to murder. Right-wing extremist mobs want to kill, all over the world.

“There is no such thing as ‘professional’ causal research”

Even before any causal research can be undertaken professionally, numerous explanations can already be found in the media as to why neo-Nazis chase people through the streets who do not look the way they believe they should. Among the explanations typically put forward are that such people are the “losers of modernization”, “a lower middle class that has been left behind”, “incorrigible Nazis”, have “a fear of being swamped by foreigners” or are the “typical legacy of the prescribed anti-fascism of the GDR”, et cetera. Do you find any of these explanations convincing?

There is no such thing as “professional” causal research. It is always a case of speculating on a more or less well-founded basis. And sometimes it is nothing but pure imagination. The closest one comes to identifying the “causes” of violent acts is when one studies the bodies of the perpetrators in question.

“The desire to kill is driven by worse bodily states”

In your book Das Lachen der Täter (i.e. The Laughter of Perpetrators), you illustrate that the reasons why a person has a propensity for violence with the intention of injuring or even killing another person can be found in the earliest years of their life and have to do with the formation of their ego. One key factor in this context is a person’s negative or “unresolved” symbiotic relationship with their mother. What is meant by this?

Neither historians nor sociologists, ethnologists or psychoanalysts are willing (even with reservations) to recognize or to admit that the basis for an adult body is the child’s body, out of which the specific violent perpetrator in question is produced. Violence in adults, whether carried out for reasons of enjoyment or not, stems from bodies that in earlier years–to put it in very general terms–were subjected to certain types of damage. This damage may come in all kinds of different forms, such as physical beatings; psychophysical damage due to an entire arsenal of different threats, including the threat of being swallowed up in a negative symbiosis by a superior and dominant adult body (this need not necessarily be that of the “mother”). These threats result in people with a “fragmented body”. Bodies that feel torn apart. Bodies that are unable to develop a stable sense of themselves; a state of equilibrium in which they feel safe; an “ego” that is capable of incorporating external realities into its own psyche without collapsing under the strain of this “burden”. These bodies–and this is the crucial point–are filled with fear. The fear of breaking apart, the fear of becoming destabilized, the fear of being devoured by (potentially) everything around them and everything that approaches them without their having any idea about how to handle it.

One of the psychophysical or physical possibilities open to them is to react with violence to all kinds of “external” threats.

Historians, sociologists, philosophers, ethnologists, economists, politicians, psychoanalysts: none of them acknowledges the existence of fragmented bodies that are bent on violence despite their being one of the fundamental elements that actually exist in human societies around the world. They talk and fantasize instead about the individual, or even about an autonomous subject–about an “ego” or “responsible person” who has to take responsibility for their existence and the way they are. This “subject” hardly occurs at all in the real world. They talk of phantoms when speaking (or writing) about the people acting in real-life societies.

And they do so without understanding–or considering–just how many people (not only those in Chemnitz) are living on the brink. Not only on the brink in the sense of “losers of modernization” or a “lower middle class that has been left behind”. True, these are also examples of a brink, yet ones that can be resolved with comparative ease, such as by providing people with long-term unemployment benefits or other government subsidies or aid programs, or if those affected receive help from friends, partners, neighbors, parents or associations. This kind of help can also have the desired result with some people, though with many it does not. Despite the help they receive, such people can find themselves falling into the infamous “black hole”. However, this by no means “explains” the dire situation that prompts people to gather in public places, waving their flags and declaring that they have to “hunt” other people and eliminate them, murder them. Reaching that stage requires something more than not having enough cash to afford a reasonable quality of life and a place to live. The people who voted for the Nazis in the 1930s were in some cases also people who had become “left behind” in socioeconomic terms. That is no reason to commit murder. The key problem was (is) that some Germans appear to feel no shame nor see anything should prevent them voting for election candidates who promote such concepts.

The desire to kill that I have noticed and described in so many of the murders committed by right-wing extremists around the world is driven by inferior bodily states: the fragmented body’s fear of disaster, of being devoured by the realities that surround it.

The void (the brink!) from which the sound of yelling–the hatred and the desire to kill–reaches us is a lonely void that is filled with fear. Physical action is needed to fill this void. A nebulous state that I refer to as “hallucinatory perception conglomerates” prevails in the heads of those affected.

“The press should admit its own partiality”

Do you see these bodily sensations as the reason or as one of the reasons for the accusation that the press are “liars” that is continually leveled at the German media?

One of the reasons, certainly. After all, in the opinion of those who live for the most part in states of hallucinatory fear, these devouring realities are simply denied by others who believe, for example, that they inhabit one of the best worlds possible. It is not simply the case that the publishing houses of this kind of person (who always calls the shots in society) are unjustifiably decried as the “lying press”. All of those who are in some way “better off”, whose lives are or appear to be comfortable and who perceive their existence as something to be enjoyed, naturally spread lies about the situation of those who are not so well off, who perceive the world around them as threatening but see no opportunity of bringing about any kind of change–or at least not by any civil means.

In my opinion, one fundamental error made by the liberal “bourgeois” press was (and still is) its failure to take the “lying press” accusation really seriously, that they do not give it any serious consideration. Rather than saying–truthfully–that we are biased, we represent certain interests and we can justify this: for example, the interest that the so-called market economy has in highly-technicized democratic societies. We can justify why this includes the interest of political argument in certain forms: in the German parliament, in the state-level and local government bodies, in kindergartens, schools, companies and associations. We can justify why this includes accepting the state’s monopoly on the use of force, and accepting the so-called “separation of powers” and independence of the justice system. And, indeed, the right to civic initiatives and civic resistance, et cetera–though not the right to local “vigilante groups”, especially not armed ones, to name just one example.

In other words, the press should freely admit: “We are a self-interested bourgeois press with very specific values; and as such are quite naturally a lying press in the eyes of those who reject and fight against these values. Thanks for the compliment!”–this is roughly how an appropriate response should be, rather than inviting the openly criminal elements from the AfD (Alternative for Germany, a far-right political party in Germany party) and the like to so-called talk shows so as to prove to them there that the press is all about objective journalism, and is not a lying press; thereby perpetuating this central lie of the “bourgeois press”. The press should admit its own partiality: “Yes, that is how we are; and we are opposed to you. And we are happy to say that out loud without needing to have you there to discuss it.” Because: “You are declared enemies of the democratic system whose tenets we represent in this discussion. And of which you are no part”.

Yet we perpetuate the fairy-tale of “objective journalism” instead. I (like millions of others) should really be entitled to claim compensation for the suffering and secondhand embarrassment inflicted upon us by talk show hosts such as Maischberger, Will, Illner, Jauch and Plasberg in their pious “attempts at conversation” with the openly criminal types, male and female, from the so-called Alternative for Germany party.

This applies not only to television and to the serious quality press such as Die Welt (a German national daily newspaper), Die Zeit (a German national weekly newspaper), et cetera, but also to the media that see themselves as more “left-wing”, such as the  newspaper Die Tageszeitung. Full-page interviews with the openly fascist Alice Weidel, just a few days before an election! Ms. Bettina Gaus as the upholder of objective balance. Just how dumb do they think people are? Not even the Gaulands and Weidels are that dumb. (Send them to prison! For proven death threats and sedition). Should they enter into a discussion with them? No! Absolutely not. But not because they are dishonestly claiming to be the objective ones.

And then they even buy into the bargain that they are superior to those people and that their arguments could be refuted in a discussion! That really takes the cake! Anyone who engages in a genuine discussion can only lose against people who (quite intentionally) use counterfactual arguments (be it someone like Weidel, Gauland or Trump) because such types simply wipe their asses with any “argument” that is put forward, countering with claims that they couldn’t care less whether they are actually “true” or can even be “substantiated”. Any semi-reasonable person would refuse to engage in any discussion with such people.

“Talking to ‘semi-reasonable people’”

What can be done to combat them?

They can be combatted by talking to any other “semi-reasonable people” who can be reached. And who are prepared to listen, who can expect to be listened to when they have something to say themselves–the emphasis being on talking, not shouting. Then, a discussion can take place. The “right-wing extremists” who shout their views in the street do not talk to one another; together they bellow out murderous slogans directed at others.

Any true kind of conversation requires that those talking to one another also listen to–and acknowledge the value of–what the other person is saying. This must be a reciprocal process. Where this is not possible, give such individuals a wide berth. And do not hesitate to take legal steps against criminal threats; take such socio-political action as to ensure that such people remain isolated to the greatest extent possible and that their influence is limited.

“Violent tendencies that are acted upon are (almost) always an exclusively male phenomenon”

To what degree can the excessive violence that we have seen in Chemnitz and similar incidents in the recent past be described as an exclusively male phenomenon? Is such violence primarily masculine in its origins or coding, or does it apply to both genders these days? What is the role and function of women in this constellation? Are women in this context merely victims, or the imagined victims?

Violent tendencies that are acted upon are (almost) always an exclusively male phenomenon. The cultural and historical reasons for this are similar the world over; first and foremost, the fact that male bodies have a traditionally much greater tendency to physically act out their internal psychological problems. It is not necessarily the case that women will speak with less hatred of foreigners, for example. They are just as involved in the sedition–they help organize, are present when murders are committed and applaud. Yet they are less involved in the actual beatings–this gender difference remains. Producing the desired “bloody mess” in the destroyed and broken bodies of the murder victims is still largely the male domain. This is not only the case with the NSU (National Socialist Underground, a far-right German neo-Nazi terrorist group); Zschäpe did not commit the murders single-handedly. The regular attacks on refugee shelters and their residents–roughly 250 in 2017 alone–were also committed by men as far as we know.

“Liberal journalists exaggerate a fascist threat”

Many of the commentaries about the effects of events such as those in Chemnitz express concerns about a revival of fascism in Germany. Do you believe such concerns to be justified? Or is this simply a question of a relatively small incidence of fascist tendencies? And what about the so-called “concerned citizens” who stand on the fringes of demonstrations and applaud when people, with refugees in mind, chant slogans such as “Drown!”?

I have stressed on many occasions that “concerned citizens” will not become fascists; they will not form a mob and chase people down the streets. And they will not chant “Drown”. The term “concerned” is not appropriate here. What we are dealing with is, as you say, a “relatively small incidence of fascist tendencies”, though these are by no means harmless. Yet where does this strange tendency in “our” media to intentionally exaggerate the threats posed by this phenomenon come from? A “victory of right-wing populists” in the Swedish parliamentary elections was proclaimed in news ticker and teletext reports on the evening of Sunday, September 10, 2018, and in some parts of Monday’s press, too. Then came the correction on Tuesday: 17.6%, making them only the third-strongest party and giving them no chance to participate in the government formation. (Much the same happened some time ago when the alleged threat posed by Marine Le Pen in France was talked about nationwide). Liberal journalists exaggerate a fascist threat they (probably) do not even believe in themselves. What a bizarre indulgence. The cover of the September 8 edition of Spiegel magazine shows the AfD (Alternative for Germany, a far-right political party in Germany party) leadership rocketing skywards. What’s the point of such garbage? Neither Europe nor Germany is in any way at risk of being dominated by right-wing populism. It’s all just bullshit!