Heritage Populism: Using the past to polarise the society

Ayhan Kaya, ─░stanbul Bilgi University, ERC AdG PRIME Youth Project Principal Investigator

January 3, 2023

Heritage is an operational instrument of governmentality in the Foucauldian sense. It is also a cultural practice utilised by political actors to construct and regulate a range of values and understandings at the national level to regulate society. If it is shaped by state actors, then it can be termed ‘authorised heritage’ (Smith, 2006). Museums, national myths, and various other narratives were institutionalised as manifestations of national identity and cultural achievement in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is not only state actors but also some of the right-wing populist parties in Europe and elsewhere today that are engaged in mobilising their supporters through a particular sense of history, past, heritage, authenticity, and culture inscribed in their party programs and speeches (Aslanidis, 2020). Particular peripheral communities may use the same symbolic elements to define and constitute who they are and are not. This is what Smith (2006) calls ‘subversive heritage’, and it is formed by the centrifugal forces in remote peripheral places opposing the hegemony of ‘authorised heritage discourse’. The use of ‘subversive heritage’, or what Robertson and Webster (2017) call ‘heritage from below’, as a peripheral, communal, and local cultural practice is an act of convenience that our ERC Prime Youth research team often encountered in cities like Dresden. In this sense, one could argue that right-wing populist parties are more attentive than mainstream political parties to the ways in which local populations express their claims for ‘heritage from below’, which often results in the polarisation of society on the basis of the civilizational values (Robertson and Webster 2017).

Historically speaking, populisms often involved agrarian populations facing hostile socio-structural conditions in the context of a changing socioeconomic environment where industrialisation and modernisation imposed a power shift away from traditional rural communities. Hence, the American People’s Party of the 1880s and 1890s, the Russian Narodniki movement of the 1870s, the German Farmers League of the 1920s, the Polish Peasant Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union of the early 20th century would qualify for the populist family (Aslanidis, 2020; Finchelstein, 2019). Similar to the conditions of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe, the recent global financial crisis, the ‘refugee crisis’, and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused many changes in the everyday lives of individuals residing in remote and peripheral places in Europe. They exacerbate tendencies that existed before, e.g. the feelings of people in geographically and politically remote places that they are not only exposed to various forms of socioeconomic injustice but also to spatial and nostalgic deprivation (Rodrigues-Pose, 2018; Gest et al., 2017; Macmillan, 2017) that leads to a loss of status and even of personal dignity felt by the impoverished middle class as well as the precarious working class in the face of globalisation processes that delegitimise social positions built up over time. Social, spatial, and cultural frustrations make some local residents sensitive to political offers of populism that come from outside, mainly right-wing populists, as in the cases of former East German towns such as Dresden.

Heritage populism is built on material and cultural concerns prompted by economic globalisation, depopulation, and population aging. Its characteristic feature is a propensity to invest intangible heritage with a set of values, principles, and rules that supposedly are inhering from the European or Western way of life, such as individual freedoms, gender equality, and secularism (Reynié, 2016). Right-wing populist parties in Europe instrumentalise heritage as a cultural, political, and economic resource for the present. In this way, their strong emphasis on the past – be it colonial, republican, imperial, traumatic, dissonant, and/or dark – illustrates how heritage is being created, shaped, managed, and exploited by these political parties as well as by the ruling parties to meet the demands of the present and to come to terms with the challenges of contemporary global conditions. Nostalgia as a mythic vision of the nation’s golden past has become an essential element of heritage populism since the present and future do not offer bright prospects for many individuals across the world.

Among many other elements, such as socioeconomic deprivation resulting from neo-liberal forms of governance, deindustrialization, and the global financial and refugee crises, there is also what one could call ‘nostalgic deprivation’, which is likely to prompt some individuals to gravitate towards right-wing populist parties and movements. The link between nostalgic deprivation and support for right-wing populism is made clear by recent electoral slogans. Donald Trump came to power in 2016 after he successfully popularized his promise to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Another right-wing Populist Party in the US, the Tea Party, intentionally backed those politicians who pledged to ‘Take America Back.’ Similarly, the UKIP slogan demanded ‘We Want Our Country Back’, and the Vote Leave campaign urged voters to ‘Take Back Control’ through Britain’s departure from the European Union. As will be explained in detail, those right-wing populist parties constituting the main body of research for this book also used many references to the past in their electoral campaigns: Front National’s references to Jeanne d’Arc in France, AfD’s references to authenticity in Germany, PVV’s attributions to the Islam-free Netherlands, M5S’s references to the Roman Empire in Italy, Golden Dawn’s nostalgic references to  Ancient Greek civilization in Greece, and Justice and Development Party’s nostalgic attributions to the Ottoman Empire in Turkey are all different markers of the ways in which right-wing populist parties capitalize on the nostalgic deprivation of individuals who tend to find refuge in the past, heritage, authenticity, and nativity.

Svetlana Boym (2001) distinguishes between ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia. While the former hopes to restore a golden past as in the time of Augustus II the Strong in Dresden in the early 18th century, the latter draws on the past for a critical re-evaluation and active changing of the present. Restorative nostalgia has become a prevalent aspect of the right-wing populist parties’ political campaigns in Europe. For instance, during the campaigns of 2019, the AfD emphasised a regional identity in Saxony. The poster “Courage for Saxony” (Mut zu Sachsen) included an image of a famous monument of Augustus the Strong, former Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland (1670-1733), in Dresden (Weisskircher, 2022). Such a nostalgic element of cultural identity is not only visible in Saxony, but also common to the other East German provinces. For instance, the AfD Brandenburg frames Brandenburg as the heartland of Prussia, and therefore Germany as a whole:

Beyond the borders of the German cultural space, Brandenburg-Prussia is known for a number of secondary virtues such as modesty, discipline, progressiveness, punctuality and thrift. Character traits that those who direct the fortunes of our Heimat sadly lack. Politics in the state of Brandenburg must return to those virtues that once led to the blossoming of our entire body politic. Today our Prussian virtues are still admired and often carried over to the whole of Germany. They are an important part of our national identity.[i] 

The AfD Brandenburg State Election Program 2019 continues by referring to further historical elements of national identity by emphasising important geographical locations, historical dates, buildings and monuments, pictures, emblems and symbols, works of literature such as songs and poetry, but also common traditions and festivals peculiar to Brandenburg (Ibid.: 39). 

Our young interlocutors have shown that they are inclined to use both forms of nostalgia in Dresden. In this sense, restorative nostalgia may become prevalent when individuals are in search of attempts to reinstate a particular vision of a neglected and forgotten glorious past, while the reflective form of nostalgia may play an important role for disenchanted individuals to renegotiate the tension between the charming and familiar tenets of the past and the ills of the present such as the loss of work, deindustrialisation, diversity, transnationalism, anomy, insecurity and ambiguity (Boym, 2001; Smith and Campbell, 2017; Orr, 2017). While restorative justice discourse is more a matter of choice among the right-wing populist political circles such as the AfD, both restorative and reflective forms of nostalgia become prevalent at the societal level among young supporters of the party whom we interviewed. However, one should not immediately associate such a constant state of nostalgia with only a strong sense of loss; at the same time, it should also be associated with ‘a strong sense of hope or longing for a better future’ (Smith and Campbell, 2017: 616).

Heritage is intangible and is all about the present-day use of the past that gives meaning to traditions (Aronsson, 2015). Heritage is a social practice, enacted by groups of people to redefine the boundaries between in-groups and out-groups. The debates about an Islam-free Europe are all manifestations of a Manichean world dividing between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘civilised’ and ‘barbarian’, or rather between ‘us’ and ‘Muslims’. Since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in the summer of 2015, the boundaries that are reconstituted by right-wing populist parties and their supporters are not necessarily meant to exclude refugees in need, but rather Muslim-origin immigrants and their descendants, who have become more competitive, visible and outspoken over time with their social, political, economic and cultural demands. To a great extent, heritage populism has become very civilizational in the sense that those exploiting it recently have been bluntly reproducing the existing boundaries between the west and Islam, or the west and the rest, in order to polarise their societies.


Aronsson, P. (2015) ‘Shaping lives: negotiating and narrating memories,’ Etnográfica, 19(3): 571-591

Aslanidis, P. (2020) ‘Major Directions in Populism Studies: Is there room for culture?,’ Partecipazione e Conflitto, The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies, Issue 13(1): 59-82

Boym, S. (2001) The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Finchelstein, F. (2019) From Fascism to Populism in History. University of California Press.

Gest, J., Reny, T. and Mayer, J. (2017) ‘Roots of the Radical Right: Nostalgic Deprivation in the United States and Britain,’ Comparative Political Studies, 1-26, https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414017720705

Macmillan, M. (2017) ‘The New Year and the New Populism,’ Project Syndicate (17 June),  https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/the-new-year-and-the-new-populism-by-margaret-macmillan-2017-01

Orr, R. (2017) ‘The nostalgic native? The politics and terms of heritage and remembrance in two communities,’ International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23, No.7: 643-653.

Reynié, D. (2016) ‘The Spectre Haunting Europe: ‘Heritage Populism’ and France’s National Front,’ Journal of Democracy, Vol. 27, No. 4: 47-57.

Robertson, I.J. and Webster, D.R. (2017) ‘People of the croft: Visualising land, heritage and identity,’ Cultural Geographies, 24 (2): 311-318.

Rodrigues-Pose, A. (2018) ‘The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it),’ Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 11: 189–209.

Smith, L. (2006) Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. and Campbell, L. (2017) ‘Nostalgia for the future’: memory, nostalgia and the politics of class,’ International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23, No. 7: 612-627.

Weisskircher, M. (2022) ‘In Germany. The Importance of Being Eastern German. The Multiple Heartlands of Germany’s Far Right’, In N. Mörner (ed.) The Many Faces of the Far Right in the Post-Communist Space. Stockholm: Södertörn University: 91-99.


[i] AfD Brandenburg, “Landtagswahlprogramm für Brandenburg 2019”, p. 4, https://afd-brandenburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Wahlprogramm_Brandenburg_2019_ohne_kapitelbilder_kommentare_acc2144-01-06-19-final.pdf last accessed 2 January 2023.


Published: Jan. 2, 2023, 7:24 p.m.
Edited: Jan. 2, 2023, 7:24 p.m.