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Checking in on “Woke Europe”

(Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, continental Europe would, therefore, do well to dial down the moralizing rhetoric associated with wokeness and return to the enlightened pragmatism, cultural liberalism, and scientific curiosity that gave us the modern world.”

In 2021, I wrote a piece for Merion West on Europe’s descent into wokeness. The United States’ racial reckoning, represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, had made its way across the pond in a tidal wave of regressive identity politics. But despite considerable backlash benefiting primarily the far right, those pushing woke ideology on the continent have only grown more vocal and influential over the past few years. This is especially noticeable when it comes to the topics of gender, diversity, and colonialism.

Gender and Diversity

Transgender ideology, in particular, has gained considerable steam here in Europe in the time since 2021. Visiting Vienna, where I used to live, during Pride Month this year, I saw that almost all of the rainbow flags had been replaced by what is known as the Progress Pride flag. This new flag, which features additional stripes for trans-identified individuals and people of color (and sometimes a yellow triangle with a purple circle representing the intersex “community”), was flying on Vienna’s public metro and city buildings.

What is wrong with that? For starters, public authorities ought to remain ideologically neutral, and the Progress Pride flag stands for a specific ideology that negates not only social reality but also basic biology. This is a movement that has shown itself intolerant of criticism while throwing vulnerable young people, many of them gay, under the gender-ideological bus. In contrast, the rainbow flag symbolizes a general attitude of tolerance toward sexual minorities in line with secular democratic values. Political equality, after all, requires neither gaslighting nor double mastectomies.

Since the colors of the rainbow flag do not each signify a particular identity group, the new additions also constitute a category error. This especially applies to the black and brown stripes. They not only reflect an inability to think symbolically, but they also ignore the fact that most black and brown people living in Central Europe today are recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East who are usually more socially conservative than the white majority. Some activists even refer to these groups as BIPoC (Black People, Indigenous People, and People of Color), oblivious to the irony that whites are the indigenous people of Europe.

As with race, the imported character of gender identity ideology is evident in the language used by its adherents—down to the word “gender.” The English has simply been adopted in its original form. Likewise, the term “queer,” which the American theorist David M. Halperin defined as “an identity without an essence…whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant,” has become something of a household word here. Its decidedly political meaning and the ideological assumptions underlying such terminology have thus been smuggled into the public discourse.

The concept of preferred pronouns, however, has proven difficult to import. In German-speaking countries, this may partly be because both “she” and “they” translate to sie, which would cause confusion. Native speakers of German also seem less willing to flout basic grammar rules in the name of progressivism. But this has not stopped German speakers from claiming they/them pronouns on social media, where English is the lingua franca, and demanding that their subjective self-image be validated by society.

While it is not particularly surprising to see wokeism take hold in certain social milieus (especially online), the ideological capture of mainstream institutions boggles the mind. After all, most people are not woke. This year, for instance, Europe’s largest automobile association, the ADAC, put up billboards outside its Munich headquarters advertising its commitment to “Diversity.” Even more bizarrely, I spotted a patent office in Vienna last year with a giant Progress Pride flag plastered across one of its front windows.

Austria now also has drag queen story hours. These events, in which men in full drag read to children, have been met with protests from far-right groups. This has made it easier for the organizers to paint their critics as hateful bigots. However, when a man who goes by the name of “Gloria Hole” reads to children while dressed as a caricature of a woman—as happened in my hometown of Graz—it is bound to raise some eyebrows. But since such events are held “to promote diversity and tolerance,” any concerns or objections raised can simply be brushed off as bigotry.


The 2023 drama film Measures of Men, which aims to “bring a debate about Germany’s colonial guilt into the center of society,” is testament to the country’s grapples with its colonial past. So, too, is the movement to repatriate colonial artifacts found in German museums to Africa. Charges of “cultural appropriation” in the arts often invoke the evils of colonialism.

However, to condemn German colonialism wholesale certainly does not do it justice. As the political scientist Bruce Gilley notes in his latest book, In Defense of German Colonialism

“A large amount of research has emerged to show that colonialism was both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate. Countries that were colonized more intensely and for longer periods had faster economic growth, higher standards of living, more democratic politics, better health, better education, better safeguarding of human rights, and better legal systems.”

This explains why, as Gilley points out, the colonized populations often did not want the Germans to leave: an inconvenient historical fact that flies in the face of the simplistic anti-colonial narrative pushed by woke activists today. 

Even “Germany’s other genocide” (as The New York Times has called it, relativizing the Holocaust) was a much more complex affair than Measures of Men makes it out to be. The film focuses on the fate of the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa. “The future Namibia was a dangerous place of cattle raiding, slave raiding, and war long before the Germans arrived,” Gilley writes.

He continues: “In particular the Herero and Nama, both of which had migrated to the area only a generation before the Germans, had tense and violent encounters…The Herero were part of the extensive Bantu expansion into southern Africa that displaced or wiped out most of the indigenous Khoisan groups, of which the Nama were one…Fighting for survival, the Nama massacred a fifth of the Herero population in a single day…Another Nama raid…resulted in the burning of the entire southern territory of the Herero in what can only be described as an attempt at genocide.”

According to Gilley, both tribes “became willing partners of the colonial project” as they “were objectively better off in the initial stages of German settlement, and as a result…viewed the new rulers as legitimate.” When rabble-rousing tribal leaders later declared all-out war on the colonial rulers, the Germans fought back, often with excessive force, killing thousands. However, “The Herero and Nama tragedy was neither a systematic nor a predictable result of German colonialism,” Gilley argues. In fact, it was “unplanned and inconsistent with German colonial policy.” This nuanced historical contextualization is, of course, lost on those bent on tarring Germany—and, by extension, the West—as inherently racist and evil. 

Woke ideologues and their enablers in industry, politics, and the media are increasingly driving ordinary people into the arms of Europe’s reinvigorated far right. Like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, continental Europe would, therefore, do well to dial down the moralizing rhetoric associated with wokeness and return to the enlightened pragmatism, cultural liberalism, and scientific curiosity that gave us the modern world.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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