Founded by a coterie of nationalist students against a prevailing ethos of left-liberalism on campuses, Junge Freiheit (Young Freedom) has been an instrumental outlet for the German Right for over 30 years. Occupying an intersection between the Conservative, Populist and Radical Right, the weekly newspaper has borne the brunt of not just communist violence but outright state harassment in the form of Germany’s onerous censorship laws.
The Burkean recently sat down with Junge Freiheit’s editor Dieter Stein about his life in journalism, lessons learnt as well as the trajectory of German politics in the coming post-Merkel era.
CB: Today JF has an important role within the German populist and conservative Right, could you provide an overview as to the genesis of the magazine and the cultural milieu on campuses of which it emerged from in the 1980s?
DS: I was already interested in making newspapers as a schoolboy. Originally a class newspaper, then the school newspaper JF was founded and published at our school. At the same time, I was only politically active in the Junge Union, the youth organization of the CDU, and in 1984 I joined the Republicans founded in 1983 by two members of the Bundestag who left the CSU.
It was a right-wing conservative new party. From these, in turn, a moderate group split off in 1985 under the name “Freedom People’s Party“. Their planned youth organization “Freedom Youth” should serve the JF as a newspaper. Hence the name “Junge Freiheit“! That was done with this party as early as 1987 and I’ve been non-party ever since.
A key experience for me, however, was the wall of ignorance that newly founded right-wing parties encounter – in contrast to left-wing parties – and how little their own media resonance space was. It was then that I realized that conservative politics and political change would not be possible without our own independent media.
So we just kept going – albeit with very modest means at first.
CB: With the issue of history looming large for a post-war right wing publication, which ideological traditions does JF draw from on the German Right?
DS: The most important topic for us in the 1980s was the “German Question”, the division of Germany and the demand for reunification. That the Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was reunified was incredibly fortunate!
In this context, we in Germany still argue about the question of whether the nation state is a good model or whether it is better if the nation-states are overcome.
Of course we defend the position that nations remain a permanent historical entity and that their dissolution in a European superstate would be an absurdly wrong path.
CB: Rather famously JF has faced repeated state and left wing harassment with a firebombing attack on your printer occuring 1994, how in your 35 years of journalism have you overcome these difficulties?-Is it easier or harder to be a right wing journalist in 2021 than the 1980s in Germany?
Mind you, I see myself as a conservative and not a right-wing. These terms have different connotations and meanings in German. It is still difficult in Germany to use critical journalism against the dominant left-liberal zeitgeist.
In the past, the attacks were more obvious, such as the attack on our print shop or my car, which was set on fire or in other times paving stones were thrown at. Today it is more subtle, for example through defamatory Internet campaigns against our newspaper or through warnings from ruling politicians about the JF.
We are going against it with all legal possibilities and are the defenders of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Germany. In a ten-year process up to the Federal Constitutional Court in 2005, we fought a so-called “Verfassungsschutz” (Court Order) in North Rhine-Westphalia to prevent the allegation that JF was a “right-wing extremist newspaper”.
CB: In Ireland we are on the verge of passing rather austere hate speech laws similar to those endured in Germany. As a German journalist how have these laws affected your work and how are they best combated?
DS: These laws have so far not affected JF’s journalism. But you are right, we all have to be very careful together that the freedom of expression and freedom of publication is not restricted under the guise of alleged “anti-hate laws”. The information and discussion opportunities that the Internet has created over the past 20 years are a thorn in the side of some politicians.
They try everything to limit and control this information and discussions. We all have to be very vigilant and defend our basic rights against new opinion censors! These laws put pressure above all on the operators of social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to censor even more. This is a big threat!
CB: With Chancellor Merkel on the cusp of retiring, where lies the future for German politics and the liberal centre in your eyes?
That is currently the big question that concerns many people inside and outside the CDU. Some believe that without Merkel, the CDU will wear itself out in internal struggles in the medium term and lose many members and voters to parties like the AfD.
It would then take the path of the SPD, which today only has around 15 percent of the vote because it first lost voters and members to the Greens and Die Linke, and in recent years many voters and members have migrated towards the AfD . Others believe that the CDU can hold around 30 percent of the vote and thus remain the last major people’s party. To do this, however, it would have to be able to permanently involve conservatives and market economists, which is currently doubtful. But the pressure of competition from the AfD forces the CDU to innovate.
CB: The past decade has seen significant success for the AfD party, what has contributed to these electoral successes and has JF played a role?
The CDU, which we just talked about, has moved more and more to the left since the turn of the millennium. You can ultimately fix this in the change of the CDU chairmanship from Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel. With Helmut Kohl a noticeable, albeit weak, conservative wing always held sway over the CDU, Angela Merkel increasingly wanted to win voters in the middle and left of the middle of the party spectrum. To do this, she moved with relentless severity against the remaining conservatives. She was temporarily successful and was able to hold on as Chancellor for a long time.
CB: Censorship is an increasing issue for right wing publications, has JF dealt with deplatforming and if so how does it as a publication try to mitigate it?
We have not yet been affected by deplatforming. Only individual videos have been blocked on YouTube – but we were able to successfully take action against these blockings. But it is correct that the leading politicians at EU and national level, together with companies such as Facebook and YouTube, are constantly working on new laws and regulations that are supposed to limit “hate” on the Internet, but are actually used frequently in order to restrict the conservative and even liberal opposition in their freedom of expression and freedom of publication.
Of course, we also feel that JF, although formally the second largest national political weekly newspaper in terms of circulation, is often ignored in the established media and, unlike the editors-in-chief of other newspapers, I am not invited to talk shows on public broadcasters. But that also tends to be the case with other conservative journalists and politicians. This is of course a scandal!
CB: Is it fair to say the German Right was radicalised after the migrant crisis of 2014/5?
The crisis of illegal immigration, which hit and damaged all of Europe and especially Germany from 2015 onwards, led to the political radicalisation of many people who actually belonged to the middle class of society. They did not radicalize themselves, they opposed the government, which then, with the support of the media, discriminated against them as “evil rights”. Nevertheless, there is a regrettable immanent radicalization on the right, which is provoked and reinforced under repressive external pressure. As the voice of reason, we always try to advocate a moderate course in politics. Therefore, by the way, I myself repeatedly criticize forces on the right wing of the AfD, who threaten to lead the AfD into a right-wing ghetto through escapades and radicalism.