The German-speaking discussion about right wing populism is constantly referring to the Weimar Republic. It often serves as historical background, against which the current rise of populist right-wing parties and movements as well as their possible effects are discussed. What can social-science based theories of populism contribute to clarifying this reference to the conditions in Weimar Germany and the right-wing extremism of the inter-war period? What do they have to say about, whether or not and to what extent we are dealing with a (modernized) return of something of the past? Conceptualizing the rise of the right wing as a modernization of authoritarianism, I will argue, that contemporary theories of populism are poorly equipped to grasp this development. To support this argument, I will address some shortcomings of those theories: Irrespective of whether they conceptualize populism as an ideology, a normal dimension of political action, or as a result of social inequalities, they spend too little work on highlighting the similarities and differences of populist and other right-wing movements – such as the movements of the Weimar Republic, but also contemporary ones.
Because they often conceive populism as a historically relatively new and independent phenomenon, they overlook continuities and disruptions. This becomes evident, when we look
at applications of the contemporary concept of populism to the Weimar Republic and the German National Socialism. Approaches of democratic theory on the one hand and social theory on the other hand are largely unrelated. Therefore, the investigations of the relation of the populist right to present-day liberal democracy are mostly detached from those of their relation to contemporary capitalism. Lacking their necessary counterpart, both approaches overlook, that what we discuss as “populism” takes place in the context of a changing relationship between liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism.