Dahrendorf on Populists, Populists on Dahrendorf

Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, the namesake of this project, died 10 years ago. Postdoctoral Fellow Josefin Graef reflects on how politicians use his name as a rhetorical tool to legitimise their own ideas – giving (unintentional) support to many of Dahrendorf’s theses on the nature of modern politics in the process.

Multiple crises – financial, institutional, and otherwise – have haunted the European Union in recent years. The basic rules of European cooperation and the organisation of European societies, it seems, have (again) become the object of political competition. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Lord Ralf Dahrendorf’s death, on 17 June 2019, former colleagues, friends, and commentators agreed that his voice was sorely missing from current political debates that are often caught between identifying enemies among the political right and adhering to utopias among the political left. At the same time, the fundamental ideas on societal progress, conflict, and the meaning of liberalism associated with his name have resurfaced in the public sphere – especially in his native country, Germany.

In April 2019, the newly elected General Secretary of the Liberal-Democratic Party (FDP) Linda Teuteberg earned applause for conjuring her party’s self-image as a strong political force by introducing her speech as follows:

“Thirty-five years ago, Ralf Dahrendorf observed at the Twelfth Night meeting [in Stuttgart] that in times of great change, because convincing solutions are lacking, it is difficult to resist the temptation to make the proper administration of the status quo the task of politics. He added, “this is commendable, but it is not enough, especially not for liberals.” And this is still true today, dear friends.”

There is a certain irony in the fact that Dahrendorf – following a career as a Member of Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary of State, and member of the FDP’s executive board – had left the party in 1987 because of its lack of ideas and willingness to shape Germany’s political future. His fellow party members were unable or unwilling to listen to him then; today, his name is a symbol of innovation, courage, and trust in liberal democracy in the face of rapid political, economic, and technological change.

Dahrendorf and the AfD

Attempts to use Dahrendorf’s reputation as a doer to win support for a political programme are not limited to his former party. In a speech in the eastern state of Brandenburg in June 2016, the leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), Alexander Gauland, claimed that, according to Dahrendorf, “the self-determination of a people can only be realised within the nation state, and nowhere else”. Consequently, the AfD would be tasked with preventing the parties represented in the federal parliament from “taking away our nation state”, because this would be tantamount to “taking away our right to self-determination, our future, our source of life”.

After the AfD entered the parliament in September the following year, Gauland reiterated his claim during a plenary debate on the introduction of immigration controls at the German border. “Self-determination and democracy”, he said, “unfold themselves in the nation state protected by borders, as the great liberal Lord Dahrendorf once observed, and not in the cloudy dream of the United States of Europe.“

In her speech at an AfD party convention a few months later, competing for a place in the party’s leadership, Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein also emphasised the role of the nation state in “keeping democracy alive”. On the same day, Gauland defended her statement in an interview with the ZDF, one of Germany’s major television networks. An interesting exchange between Gauland and the moderator Claus Kleber ensued, which illustrates the AfD leader’s intentionally selective interpretation of Dahrendorf’s work:

Kleber: “For instance, Ms Sayn-Wittgenstein said that democracy can only exist in the nation state. That was a dig at the European Union. Would you subscribe to this view?”

Gauland: “That sentence was actually coined by Mr Dahrendorf, and he was a liberal, who said the same…”

Kleber: “But in an entirely different context!”

Gauland: “…that democracy can only be realised in the nation state…”

Kleber: “No, he certainly did not say that European integration is necessarily undemocratic.”

Gauland: “That’s not what this was about, only that the nation state is indeed the container of democracy, and that is what she expressed. Nothing at all was said about European integration and what it should look like, and the Europe of Fatherlands.

Gauland uses Dahrendorf’s standing as a democratic intellectual to legitimise his party’s anti-EU position as a liberal position. In actual fact, he unwittingly lends support to Dahrendorf’s argument that (right-wing) populism, as exhibited by the AfD, poses a potential threat to liberal democracy through oversimplification (instead of clear communication) and anti-institutionalism (rather than genuine popular sovereignty).

Dahrendorf: A cautious Europeanist

Throughout his career, Dahrendorf saw himself as an Europeanist, albeit a cautious and perhaps even sceptical one. As a liberal, Dahrendorf considered both technocratic governance as embodied by the EU and authoritarian governance promoted by national(ist) political leaders a threat to individual freedom and a lively democratic culture. Both deny that struggle, conflict, and change are at the heart of any democracy worthy of the name, not temporary challenges that need to be overcome. Conflict, he insisted, needs to be managed, not eradicated.

For Dahrendorf, the European Union’s task was to contribute to the expansion of individual freedoms by institutionalising the rule of law on the supranational level and preserving peace – adding economic and political strength to, not overcoming the nation state by creating a ‘United States of Europe’. In fact, Dahrendorf was one of the first ones to call for the creation of a ‘European Union’ in 1973, while serving as a Commissioner of the European Economic Community in Brussels.

However, as a pragmatist and a believer in progress through conflict and debate, he was also highly critical of the organisation’s inefficiency, lack of transparency and politicisation, and stressed the importance of the principle of subsidiarity. Consequently, he campaigned for making the EU as democratic as possible, e.g. by limiting the terms of office, providing judicial reviews and audits of accounts, strengthening the role of the European Parliament and national parliaments, and making Council meetings public. Many of these measures have since been put in place.

A Liberal State of Mind

Dahrendorf realised that democratic principles derived from the national context were difficult to transfer to the EU. He considered popular sovereignty the biggest challenge in this regard, because the EU would not have sufficient mechanisms to create a ‘European people’ that can express its will, and for Europeans to have their voices heard. To this day, the European Union continues to struggle with this problem, despite the introduction of progressive measures such as the European Citizens’ Initiative and the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system (already pronounced dead by some) designed to give Europeans the opportunity to ‘shape Europe’.

Despite his pragmatism, Dahrendorf, too, was unable to offer a workable solution. His recipe for an authentic liberal democracy, however, remains an important guideline for continuing the quest: engaging actively with political conflict, celebrating transformation, taking political opponents seriously, and collaborating with others to achieve something for the benefit of all. Only together can these ingredients create a liberal state of mind á la Dahrendorf. Playing the nation state against inter- and supranational cooperation and adhering to a preconceived ‘will of the (national) people’, which national populists promote, are decidedly not part of his legacy.


Josefin Graef is Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum based in Berlin.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.