This article was originally published on September 8, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.
Björn Höcke, a firebrand of the Alternative for Germany, abbreviated AfD in German, is a blond, blue-eyed Thuringian who strikes fear into mainstream Germans and foreigners alike. Appearing on a talk show on public television recently, he suddenly unfurled a German flag and kept it on his chair throughout the show. Earlier this year, he demanded an end to atoning for Hitler and the Holocaust. “We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” he said of the Berlin memorial to the millions of Jews murdered under the Nazis.
His speech sparked a national outcry and created a rift within the AfD between its merely populist and its far-right nationalist wings. But the party didn’t boot Mr. Höcke, thanks to co-founder Alexander Gauland, another firebrand on its far right. Mr. Gauland was himself in the headlines this summer when he said that Aydan Özoguz, Germany’s commissioner for integration, who has Turkish parents and a German passport, should be “disposed of” in Anatolia. He was responding to a statement by Ms. Özoguz that “a specifically German culture” is difficult to identify beyond the German language.
Controversial statements such as Mr. Höcke’s and Mr. Gauland’s are part of the AfD’s strategy of “targeted provocation” to garner media attention. Often, the AfD will then claim it was distorted by the deceitful mainstream media, which it calls Lügenpresse (“lying press”), a term the Nazis already used during their rise. Populist parties such as the AfD have been flourishing across Europe and the wider West in recent years, with some already in power in Hungary and Poland. But a far-right resurgence in the continent’s largest economy is especially alarming because it raises questions about whether Germany has truly learned the lessons of its Nazi past.
The AfD is not the first attempt to establish a far-right party in the political firmament of postwar Germany. Several such movements preceded it in West Germany, but none entered the Bundestag and all eventually withered away (East Germany was officially anti-fascist.) The AfD appears different. It was founded in 2013 by a group of economics professors. Its initial rallying cry was opposition to euro-zone bailouts and the single currency as such. The party’s leader at the time, the economist Bernd Lucke, described the AfD as a “new type of party that was neither right- nor left-wing.”
But whereas the initial group of leaders around Mr. Lucke may have kept within the political mainstream, their party soon gathered a following of Germans, and especially eastern Germans, who were more fundamentally frustrated with the establishment. Many of its supporters were and are former non-voters; others defected from the mainstream parties or, in what used to be East Germany, from the post-communist Left Party. After a string of electoral successes in regional elections, the AfD is now represented in 13 of 16 state parliaments.
Meanwhile, the tension between its conservatives, led by Mr. Lucke, and its nationalist extremists grew until, in the summer of 2015, he was forced out of the party and took his followers with him. What remained was a more overtly right-wing party, led by the likes of Mr. Gauland and Frauke Petry, a mother of four who left her husband, a pastor, for a fellow leader of the AfD. At the time, in mid-2015, the AfD was sagging in the polls and looked likely to follow previous right-wing parties into oblivion.
But then the refugee crisis crashed over Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a humanitarian gesture, allowed vast numbers of refugees – about 1.5 million since 2015, many of them young Muslim men – to enter Germany, and for months chaos reigned in the country’s administration. This led to a backlash to Ms. Merkel’s “welcome culture,” which the AfD exploited with rhetoric that grew increasingly xenophobic. At one point, Ms. Petry said police “should use their firearms if necessary” to stop refugees at Germany’s borders, and tried to revive the word völkisch, an adjective that historically connotes a racially defined German people, or Volk.
Today, the AfD is mainly an anti-immigration party. Its manifesto insists that “Islam is not part of Germany.” Its base overlaps with the followers of the explicitly anti-Islamic movement called Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident. The AfD wants to retain as many migrants as possible in holding camps, seal the EU’s borders and require identity checks along Germany’s national borders.
As for its other positions, the party wants to bring back conscription, seeks tax relief for those on low and middle incomes but insists on balanced budgets. It supports the traditional nuclear family and opposes abortion and alternative lifestyles. Like the Left Party, it tends to be anti-American and Russophilic.
The AfD has thus pushed aside The Left party (and the Greens before) as the country’s quintessential protest party. It is rife with contradictions: One of its leaders is Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old lesbian and economic liberal, who speaks fluent Chinese and is in a partnership with a Sri Lankan woman. But its base is predominately male (61 percent) and older than 30, according to a survey conducted by YouGov; it is strongest in the formerly communist East Germany.
In national polls, however, the AfD had lost steam since the height of the refugee crisis, but finished third in the federal election winning slightly over 13 percent of the votes, ahead of other small parties. It will enter the Bundestag, which is historic. But it is nowhere near gaining power, for no other political party will consider a coalition with it. In Germany’s political arithmetic, the AfD has a counterintuitive effect: It makes a majority of the three left parties unlikely, and thus helps Ms. Merkel win a fourth term. But its impact on German political culture will extend farther. As elsewhere in Europe, the rhetoric in parliament will become more nationalist and less politically correct.
Germany’s democracy is mature enough to absorb the AfD; but it appears to be the first party on the far right that is here to stay.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: [email protected]