Germany’s tilt to the far-right is about more than the AfD

Yesterday’s election of the far-right, populist party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany or AfD) marks the first time a far-right party has entered the German parliament since the end of World War II. 

Now the third most popular party in Germany, the AfD earned 12.6% of the vote, winning 94 out of 709 seats at the Bundestag.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union, still came in first in the election, their numbers were down 8.5% since the 2013 elections, presumably due to the rising popularity of the AfD. The AfD’s success compromises Merkel’s ability to build a coalition, forcing her to look to new allies to build a majority in parliament. The CDU/CSU and the AfD have mutually declared they wouldn’t enter into a coalition with one another.

The AfD, first created in 2013, has been on the rise since its inception, with a presence in 13 of the 16 state parliaments as of May 2017. In the parliamentary elections in the eastern states of Mecklenburg-West and Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD obtained as much as 21.8% and 24.2% of the votes, respectively, making them a political force to be reckoned with. Yesterday’s election only confirms that the AfD is most popular in East Germany, where, according to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), only 19% of Germans live but where 29% of AfD’s supporters are based.

In surprising news, however, co-chair of the party Frauke Petry announced after the election that she would shift her status to independent, after being elected as an AfD member. Her leadership of the party was the subject of rising tensions. Distancing herself from the AfD is only the latest episode in a conflict that has pulled at the AfD’s heart since its inception: How far to the right should it go? How xenophobic should it become?

Riding the far-right wave

Formed in 2013 by economist Bernd Lucke, the AfD initially saw itself as a response to the Euro debt crisis, as anti-Euro but not anti-EU. It was nicknamed the “party of the professors” and came into the world through a manifesto co-signed by business leaders, journalists and economists. In 2014, it obtained 7% of votes at the European parliamentary elections, and was able to place seven deputies in the European parliament.

The party’s xenophobia came to light with the election of Frauke Petry over AfD founder Bernd Lucke as the party’s leader in July 2015. Under Petry’s leadership the party took a sharp turn toward anti-immigrant rhetoric, calling for border control and keeping out refugees with “firearms if necessary.” In protest of her election, most of the economic-focused leaders left the party, with five out of seven of AfD’s previously-elected European parliamentarians resigning, thus cementing the party’s place as Germany’s new, far-right populist party.

As her anti-immigrant stance gained popularity, Petry wrestled with even more extreme strands of the party. She attracted criticism from within party lines when she refused to defend its most hateful rhetoric, such as that coming from AfD’s head in eastern Thuringia, Björn Höcke, who called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame” and labeled refugee centers as breeding grounds for fundamentalism. She also did not support AfD deputy Wolfgang Gedeon who published a book, Der grüne Kommunismus und die Diktatur der Minderheiten (Green Communism and Minority Dictatorship) that described Judaism as the “interior enemy of the Christian West.” Finally, Petry criticized current co-chairman Alexander Gauland for his comment on being proud of German soldiers during both World Wars —including, of course, Nazi soldiers. Her proposal to make the party more presentable for a possible coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU was met with scorn from within party lines.

After having lost her status as top party candidate and after rising tensions at the head of the AfD, Petry’s switch to an independent status is not entirely a surprise. As Deutsche Welle reported, Petry commented, “the party had become ‘anarchical’ in the weeks leading up to the election and cannot offer the voter a credible platform for government.”

AfD’s radicalization was borne as much by its followers as much as its leaders. As Die Welt correspondent Alan Posener wrote in The Guardian, “The most worrying thing about the AfD is the way its rapid descent into nastiness has been accompanied by rising numbers at the polls.” As he describes, one of the AfD’s original talking-heads, former president of the federation of German Industries Hans-Olaf Henkel called the party he’d help form “as Frankenstein’s monster” — a creation now looming out of control.

As a study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung revealed, much of the support for the AfD is due to its anti-immigrant line: “In terms of mobilization, the typically highly populist Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) voters focus on one issue more than supporters of any other party,” says Vehrkamp. Calls to deport "a large number of refugees" result in a significant increase in support from AfD voters (plus 51 percentage points).

Another study conducted by the Social Democratic Friedrich-Ebert Foundation found that a fourth of Germans sympathize with “populist and extremist far-right ideas,” believe Islam will replace them and are opposed to the EU and to the establishment. This is the rising tide Petry and other party chairs so capitalized on. In fact, it might be the most significant reason why the AfD is so popular: As Cas Mudde, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia who focuses on extremism, argues in The Guardian, according to a recent poll “a stunning 60% of AfD voters voted against all other parties and only 34% voted out of conviction for AfD.” The irony, however, is that as the Financial Times showed, the AfD “made its biggest gains where immigration has been lowest” in yesterday’s elections, in the eastern states of Germany.

AfD’s catchphrase, repeated by AfD Member of the European Parliament Beatrix von Storch in an interview with Reveal, is that “we won’t let Germany get taken over by Islam,” or sharia which is “not compatible with our culture and our way of living.” Von Storch, who joined far-right party United Kingdom Independence Party in the European parliament, has in fact attracted controversy for recommending “shooting immigrants.”

Modernizing xenophobia

AfD’s anti-refugee, anti-Islam, anti-Euro and anti-Merkel sentiments have appealed to traditionalist and nativist beliefs, featuring campaign ads with bikini-clad women claiming “Burkas? We prefer bikinis,” or a pregnant woman with the line: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” The ads were designed by Texas-based Harris Media, a consultant that counts Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and UKIP among its past clients. (Google refused to run some of the AfD’s ads, notably those of a website attributing the German Christmas market attack to Angela Merkel. Google executives also refused to meet with AfD officials. Facebook officials, in contrast, met with AfD, and ended up with the money AfD was intending to spend with Google.) This attempt to glamorize old-school xenophobia and populism is a strategy that the AfD has embraced on many levels.

Currently, the AfD’s two leading candidates embody the duality between old-school xenophobia and a polished, acceptable exterior that is at the heart of the AfD post-Petry. The modern, comparatively moderate voice of the AfD is an unlikely candidate for an anti-establishment, traditionalist party. Former investment banker Alice Weidel is a 38-year-old lesbian mother of two, who lives in Switzerland with a partner of Sri-Lankan origin. As she declared to the Financial Times, "The fact that I was elected top candidate [of the party] shows how tolerant it is." (The AfD and Weidel support the traditional family, meaning heterosexual married couples with children, and pledged to challenge the legalization of gay marriage in July.)

Though Weidel couches her anti-immigrant and anti-refugee beliefs in occasionally acceptable rhetoric, calling the refugee crisis “a brain-drain” for the Middle East and investment in the region to prevent it, she has called Angela Merkel “insane” for her immigration policy and does not disavow the most far-right strands of the party. As revealed by Die Welt, in a 2013 email she deemed that “foreigners” like the Romas, Sinti and Arab foreigners were currently “flooding Germany” because of the destruction of civil society by a government of “pigs” who were “puppets of the allies” —  the winning powers during World War II.

Catering to a different constituency, the other leading candidate is the more openly abrasive and xenophobic Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old former member of Merkel’s party who has been courting scandal repeatedly since joining the AfD in 2012. He declared that though Germans supported soccer player Jerome Boateng, whose father is from Ghana, they "would not want to live next door to someone like him." He has called for a Muslim ban, said that Merkel’s minister of integration — born in Germany but of Turkish descent — should be sent to Turkey, and has called for being proud of German soldiers — including Nazi soldiers — during the two World Wars.

A resurgence in far-right extremism and violence

The rise in AfD’s support follows not only a rise in far-right movements in other parts of Europe and the U.S., it can also be contextualized as part of a rise in far-right extremism within Germany in past years. As the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimates in its latest report, right-wing extremism began gaining momentum once again in 2015, after years of decline.

The number of right-wing extremists in Germany increased to from 22,600 in 2015 to 23,100 in 2016 with 12,100 violence-oriented right-wing extremists (the AfD is not listed as an extremist far-right party in the study). Violent offences by right-wing extremists rose from 1,408 to 1,600 in the same time period. This right-wing violence is largely targeting refugees: 57% of far-right violent offenses in 2016 were directed at facilities for asylum seekers, with 65 arsons. The rise in attacks on asylum seekers led the head of Germany’s Criminal Police Office Bundeskriminalamt  Holger Münch, to express that he took the issue “very seriously”.

Germany has been wrestling with the resurgence of far-right movements, seemingly in reaction to the number of refugees that Merkel initially offered to accept — upward of 1 million in 2015 — a number that has been curtailed as the country has hardened its stance against refugees.

But as the French publication Mediapart discussed in a comprehensive investigation in the German far-right published in June 2017, extremism never really disappeared. The German nation wrestled with this realization in 2011, as it was revealed that a spate of murders targeting various minorities in Germany could be attributed to a neo-Nazi terrorist cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

NSU’s violent front consisted of a trio of attackers, Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos. Suspected of a spate of bomb attacks in immigrant neighborhoods as well as bank robberies, they killed eight Turkish and one Greek immigrant, as well as one police officer between 1998 and 2011. Despite NSU’s utter lack of care in concealing their murderous tracks — they even sent an odd Pink Panther video to police claiming responsibility for the murders — it took police 13 years to bring charges against them. After the suicide of Bönhhardt and Mundlows in 2011, Zschäpe was arrested, tried and eventually condemned to life in prison this September.

Zschäpe’s drawn-out trial led much of the German public to realize their ignorance of  just how deep far-right extremism had penetrated German society. During the crime spree, police insisted the Turkish mafia was the culprit, leading Merkel herself to apologize for their short-sightedness. As French researcher Bénédicte Laumond, who works at the Centre Marc Bloch, a research center for the social sciences told Mediapart, “here, we say more simply that some police officers are blind with their right eye.” The crimes were repeatedly labeled “the kebab murders” (Döner Morde) in the press, and it took a zealous investigator to draw the police away from the Turkish mafia theory.

Running parallel to Zschäpe’s trial, a symbolic trial was put on by civilians in Cologne, calling themselves the Tribunal. They decided to investigate how this violence had become possible. The far-reach of the NSU, they alleged, was in part due to ministerial policies. According to them and to Mediapart, even young Angela Merkel could be held responsible for the NSU’s long impunity. During Merkel’s tenure as Minister of Family and Youth, neo-Nazi groups likely received grants from the government as part of a program funding youth groups with little oversight. As The Guardian mentioned, the German intelligence service’s overreliance on paid informants might also have sustained far-right networks by “providing them with a level of funding they would not have been able to obtain from their genuine followers,” while German federalism’s fragmented police system hindered proper collaboration. The NSU trio’s long survival also hints that they had broader networks of support than many would like to acknowledge.

The scandal in part was responsible for a law passed on June 23, 2017, in the Bundestag to prevent violent far-right parties who oppose the “democratic order” from accessing public funds. This was in large part directed at the NPD, a marginal, extreme and not politically savvy party, which never came close to entering the Bundestag. The AfD is not deemed to be in this category, however, for they are not as openly violent. Still, despite Petry’s independent status, the party may find itself the leader of the opposition depending on how Angela Merkel’s coalition develops.

The AfD feeds off German society’s rightward tilt. There is a likely crossover between its voters and members of the far-right, xenophobic and islamophobic populist movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). According to data gathered by pro-immigrant group PRO ASYL and mentioned in The Atlantic, the birthplace of PEGIDA, Saxony, saw the highest number of xenophobic incidents per capita — it is also the region where the AfD won three constituencies at yesterday’s elections.

As Deutsche Welle reported in January 2016, so significant was the connection between the two groups that the head of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, offered to create a local party for PEGIDA that would ally itself with AfD, an idea that AfD leader Frauke Petry said she had no interest in. In September 2017, Pegida and AfD held “separate-but-joint demonstrations in Dresden,” in the words of Deutsche Welle. There is crossover between their anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric, despite a difference in tones. Bachmann was fined by a court in Dresden for incitement to violence after referring to refugees as “garbage”, “criminal invaders” or “cattle.” AfD leaders pledged, after yesterday’s victory, to fight “an invasion of foreigners.”

The rise of the AfD has not been met without resistance. Much of Germany is currently rallying under the slogan “we are the 87%,” vowing to fight against hate and reminding the world that a significant majority of the party did not fall for the AfD’s xenophobic rhetoric.

As Cas Mudde told the SPLC: “The AfD is much more the consequence of growing nativism, authoritarian and populism in German society than the cause of it. Hence, when AfD implodes, and it will, these attitudes won’t change. However, there is a fair chance that the next time around immigration and terrorism won’t be such dominant issues in the election campaign, which will make it harder for populist radical right parties to mobilize its voters.”

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images