On January 17, Björn Höcke of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany took the stage in the Ionic-columned ballroom of the glittering Watzke Brewery in Dresden. He was there at the invitation of the party’s youth wing, extended in the hopes that Höcke, a steely-eyed, baby-faced firebrand from the neighboring state of Thuringia, might kick off the election year with a bang. Even if most of the beer-sipping audience was far older than Höcke, the party got what it was hoping for. It was, if you will, the 2017 version of a beer hall speech.
“We will take Germany back piece by piece!” Höcke shouted from the podium. “The AfD is the last peaceful chance to do so.” These remarks would be the least contentious part of his fifty-minute jeremiad. The 44-year-old called for nothing less than a complete reinterpretation of Germany’s history. “We Germans are the only people that have planted a monument to shame in the heart of the capital,” he raged, referring to the sprawling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe just down the street from the Reichstag in Berlin. It is time, he said, to refocus German memory on the great writers and philosophers from the country’s prewar past and to turn away from Germany’s decades-long effort to come to terms with its Holocaust guilt. “We need nothing more than a 180-degree shift in our memory politics!”
To the uninitiated, such a sentiment might induce little more than a shrug. What, after all, is wrong with expressing a desire for your country to leave the past behind and move on? In the past few decades, though, Germany has deeply rooted its re-emergence as an economic power and leader of the European Union in an admirable and ongoing effort to confront its role in triggering a continent-wide inferno and slaughtering six million Jews. Höcke’s speech called all of that into question in a strident, raving cadence reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels.
The reaction was predictably apoplectic. Commentators at all major newspapers blasted away at the AfD, intimating that the party had finally shown its true extremist colors. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the speech had “struck at the core” of the country’s identity, adding that Germany’s confrontation with its World War II past had paved its way to becoming a “globally respected free democratic state.” Sigmar Gabriel, still head of the Social Democratic Party at the time, was harsher. The AfD, he said, had become a “receptacle for rightwing radical agitators” and called for the party to be monitored by the country’s domestic intelligence agency.
None of those responses, however, are likely to trouble the consciences of those who attended the speech. They cheered, chanted, and rollicked throughout and finished by granting Höcke a standing ovation—along with a chant for Merkel to be sent to Siberia. Indeed, for all of Höcke’s well-aimed efforts at historical revisionism, other elements of the speech are more helpful for understanding the potential threat right-wing populism poses in Germany, and its prospects in future elections: His scornful references to Germany’s established political parties as “old parties” and his direct attacks on Merkel herself. He even called for her to be led away in a straitjacket, the German version of Donald Trump’s “lock her up” chant.
Germany has long been something of an outlier in contemporary Europe. Even as strong right-wing populist parties have developed in all of its neighboring countries—most notably Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party in Austria, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands—Germany had until recently seemed immune. To be sure, it has experienced periodic eruptions of angst due to neo-Nazi violence, right-wing extremist parties landing seats in the parliaments of eastern German states, and even a murder spree perpetrated by the neo-Nazi terror cell National Socialist Underground, which came to a spectacular demise in November 2011. For the most part, though, a broad consensus in both the country’s politics and society has held that overt racism, nativism, nationalism, and, until the 2006 World Cup, even patriotism were unwanted, unspeakable, and repugnant. Political parties dabbling in such sentiments haven’t lasted.
The past few years, however, have seen that firewall put to the test. The reactions to Höcke’s speech, including opprobrium from within AfD itself, clearly show that historical revisionism remains beyond the pale in Germany, but the 2016 backlash against Merkel’s refugee policies, combined with growing disgust in the country with ongoing Eurozone bailouts, has propelled the AfD to unprecedented heights of popular support. It now has delegates in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments—capped by an astounding 24.3 percent result in Saxony-Anhalt in March 2016—and has excellent chances to send lawmakers to the federal parliament in the September 24 general election.
Over the past year the wave of anti-establishment disgust and political division that propelled the AfD to its crest last winter appears to have receded. Recent state elections have seen the party fall well short of 10 percent, and it has likewise slipped in nationwide polls—from a high of more than 13 percent last autumn to about 7 percent today. There is also evidence that Germans, horrified by Brexit and repulsed by Trump, are returning to Merkel’s camp, seeing her as a bastion of stability in a suddenly unstable world in which dalliances with the political fringes can quickly lead to disaster. A recent, protracted leadership battle within the AfD hasn’t helped the party either.
Recent history, though, has shown that right-wing populism thrives in environments characterized by a prolonged political status quo, providing neo-nationalist firebrands with a welcome target for their “system is broken” message. “Democracies are fueled by the possibility to vote for clear alternatives,” says Marcel Lewandowsky, a research fellow at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg:
Usually in democracies, you have two or more big parties that compete and formulate clear alternatives to each other. In Europe after the end of the Cold War, the main parties, at least in the public perception, have shown a certain degree of ideological congruence. In situations where those main parties govern together over a certain period of time, voters conclude that the main parties are more or less the same. They are presented as a cartel. That is what the AfD does.
The same phenomenon is visible elsewhere. In Austria, for example, a pairing of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has governed the country for 23 of the past thirty years, allowing the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) to blast away at “the establishment” at will. Not coincidentally, the FPÖ came within a whisker of winning the country’s presidential election this past December.
In Holland, the center-right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte has governed together with the center-left Labor Party for the past four years. While the parties received 26.6 and 24.8 percent of the vote respectively in 2012, they combined for just 26.9 percent in March elections this year. Populist Geert Wilders just missed out on surging into the lead.
Back in Germany, there is almost no possible scenario this autumn in which Angela Merkel would fail to win a fourth term in office as Chancellor. Her conservatives currently stand at 40 percent in the polls, and what looked initially to be a promising challenge from former European Parliament President Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats is fading fast. Indeed, the best the SPD can hope for, it would seem, is a run-back of the current “Grand Coalition,” pairing Merkel’s conservatives with the SPD. That cementing of the status quo, though—even if the AfD proves unable to tame the forces that are currently threatening to tear it apart—could ultimately set the stage for a comeback for right-wing populists in Germany, particularly if the refugee crisis or the euro predicament return to the headlines.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the country’s history—and Höcke’s speech notwithstanding—Germany’s AfD is not a case of an extreme party attempting to polish its image in an attempt to win over a larger share of the electorate. That well-worn path has been followed by several right-wing populist parties in Europe, most prominently the Front National in France and, by a more circuitous route, the Freedom Party in Austria.
The AfD, rather, stumbled seemingly unwittingly into the largely untapped potential on Germany’s non-extremist right wing, a seedling nurtured in the rich soil of frustration within Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) at the Chancellor’s support for the bailout of deeply indebted Eurozone member states. Officially, the party was founded on February 6, 2013, in Berlin with the semi-prominent economist Bernd Lucke, a long-time member of the CDU, as its driving force. His message: Get Germany out of the euro.
Despite being in direct opposition to Merkel’s and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s preferred strategy of wielding a big austerity stick and muddling through with ever-growing bailout packages for Greece and the rest of the PIGS (that is, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain), Lucke’s anti-bailout position was widely shared on the conservative wing of the CDU and among several prominent economists. And the reasoning for their skepticism is, if anything, frighteningly sound.
Essentially, the euro is a political project, pushed through by French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the early 1990s as a way of entwining a freshly reunited Germany even more securely within the European community of nations. Indeed, a raft of documents made public in 2010 made it clear that joining forces with France to introduce the euro was essentially the price Mitterrand was demanding for French approval of German reunification. “Nations with a common currency have never gone to war against each other,” Kohl said in an interview many years later. “A common currency is more than the money you pay with.”
In rushing the project, however, Germany abandoned what had long been a key demand in the preliminary discussions concerning the euro, namely that European political union must be established first before monetary union could be considered.
In the years immediately following the euro’s introduction, concerns over that omission were banished to the realm of academic naysayers as the European economy remained more or less stable. Countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal could suddenly borrow money on the international financial markets at roughly the rates that Germany could, and they embarked on debt-fueled — and ultimately unsustainable — booms. “The euro was a paradise of sorts,” Yiannos Papantoniou, who was Greek economic and finance minister from 1994 to 2001, admitted to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in 2011.
When that bubble burst in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis and developed into a full-blown crisis in 2010, Berlin’s response was draconian. It came in the form of brutal austerity policies imposed on several southern Eurozone member states in exchange for massive bailouts, to which Germany was the largest contributor. Some of those countries, Greece first and foremost, still haven’t recovered, with Athens still reporting GDP per capita in 2015 that was about 25 percent lower than before the crisis in 2007. And the Groundhog Day crisis has reemerged this summer, with an ongoing spat over whether Greece has passed sufficient reforms to be eligible for its next bailout tranche.
Just as important, however, it became apparent to Eurozone countries on the periphery that the rules, such as they were, emanated almost exclusively from Berlin, making a mockery of attempts in Brussels to inject more democracy into the European project. That perceived democratic deficit was manna from heaven for anti-EU populist parties across the Continent. In Germany, meanwhile, frustration grew rapidly at the amount of money being made available to bail out the (according to the narrative commonly encountered in the German tabloid press) profligate, irresponsible Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese.
The AfD positioned itself perfectly to benefit. “It is part of the AfD’s DNA,” says Michael Bröning, an expert on right-wing populist movements at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin. “They were called the party of professors early on and seen as the so-called voice of reason in the euro crisis. When you look at populist movements in Europe, they are very different, but they all rally against the establishment.”
If the crisis of the flawed common currency was the immediate trigger for the formation of the AfD, its devolution into a bona fide right-wing populist party has in part been a consequence of Merkel’s leadership. “Mutti,” as she has long been fondly called, has been at the helm of Germany since the fall of 2005, and for eight of those almost 12 years in power, she has led a grand coalition with the SPD. Even during the four interim years between 2009 and 2013, when she governed with the business-friendly Free Democrats, it would be difficult to characterize the SPD as having been much of an opposition force. That legislative term included the most acute years of the euro crisis, and rather than provide a different vision for how to solve the deep problems with the common currency, the SPD meekly voted for bailout after bailout, often showing even more enthusiasm for the practice than Merkel’s own CDU.
But it hasn’t been just the bailouts. Merkel had learned during her near loss in the 2005 election that campaigning on a platform of austerity and tax hikes for Germany was not a recipe for a long political career. And early on in her tenure as Chancellor, she made the political calculation that there were more votes to be won in the political center than there were to lose on the far right.
So she shifted. In 2006, her government introduced generous maternal and paternal leave subsidies for new parents. In 2008, she convinced the European Union to make significant emissions reduction pledges ahead of the UN Climate Conference a year later in Copenhagen. In 2010, Merkel’s government jettisoned conscription. In 2011, she announced in the wake of the Fukushima disaster that Germany was shutting down all of its nuclear power plants and targeting a future of 100 percent renewable energies. And in June of this year, she suddenly cleared the way for the introduction of gay marriage.
The CDU’s move to the left under Merkel’s leadership was a significant departure. In 1986, Franz Josef Strauss of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, summed up the German center-right’s postwar political approach by saying: “No democratically legitimate party can be allowed to develop to the right” of the conservatives. And Merkel’s slow-motion revolution was consequently accompanied by significant grumbling on the conservative wing of her party and, more so, from the CSU. But they had little choice but to follow. Not only did the electorate broadly favor most of the changes, but Merkel single-handedly transformed the once-powerful SPD into a shadow of its former self, seemingly damning the party to life on the bleating fringe. Even as, in the words of Bröning, “Merkel basically laid an axe to the conservative policies that the party was famous for,” in the eyes of much of German society, Mutti could do no wrong.
But then, she did. Late in the night on September 4, 2015, Merkel made the controversial decision to accept thousands of refugees who had been stranded in Budapest’s Keleti train station and were marching toward the Austrian border. And she did so without a plan for how to stop the flood once it began.
As a result, the cracks that had already become apparent in the German firewall became deep, and dark, fissures.
Even before Merkel’s fateful decision, the well-established consensus within German society to avoid borrowing from the nationalist, far-right lexicon was eroding at the edges. Not all that long ago it was risky to admit a “fascination” with the history of Nazism due to the word’s positive connotations in the German language. Likewise, using the term “select” when choosing one group of people over another was seen as an unconscionable adoption of Nazi rhetoric due to the Holocaust practice of choosing (“Selektion,” in German) which Jews would live and which would be sent to the gas chambers on the Auschwitz train platform.
But as the number of refugees reaching Germany began to creep up throughout 2015, attendance at demonstrations against those arrivals likewise rose. And many of the signs and chants that could be heard and seen at such gatherings bespoke a silent agreement in some swaths of German society that it was time to throw off the chains of political correctness and call a spade a spade.
That sentiment was most obvious in the PEGIDA marches in Dresden. Begun in late 2014, the marches organized by the group—whose name itself (the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) led more historically minded Germans to shudder—increased in size and emotion throughout 2015. Signs began appearing such as “Germany for the Germans,” “Lying Press!” and “Too Many Foreigners Is Genocide.” On one well-publicized occasion, marchers carried mock gallows reserved for Chancellor Merkel.
At the same time, attacks on refugees and shelters began hitting the headlines with disturbing frequency. The attacks included arson, assaults on individual asylum seekers, and swastikas daubed on migrant hostels. In August 2015, the situation in the eastern German town of Heidenau escalated into running street battles over the course of an entire weekend between right-wing extremists and left-wing anti-fascists in front of a refugee hostel. When Merkel visited the site the following week, she was greeted with a chorus of boos as soon as she stepped out of her sedan. Chants of “traitor to your people” erupted as an apprehensive Merkel marched toward the entrance of the facility. One woman screamed: “You stupid whore!”
Of particular concern, many of those joining the PEGIDA marches in Dresden and similar marches in cities across the country—and, indeed, many of those venting their rage on the refugees themselves—were not dyed-in-the-wool members of the swastika-tattooed, skinhead crowd. Rather, as a 2015 study conducted by Hans Vorländer from the University of Dresden found, “the ‘typical’ PEGIDA demonstrator is from the middle class, is well educated, employed, has a slightly higher net income than average for the state of Saxony (the state in which Dresden is located), is 48 years old, male, and does not belong to a religious confession.”
Furthermore, Islam and immigration were not even their main concerns. “The primary motivation for participation in PEGIDA demonstrations,” Vorländer wrote, “is a general dissatisfaction with the country’s political direction.” The second-most-often-named incentive among the study’s 1,200 respondents was dissatisfaction with the media and with society. In other words, a not insignificant segment of the electorate was suddenly content to vent its rage alongside people carrying signs reading “Rapefugees Not Welcome!” and waving the “Wirmer flag,” a proposed post-World War II flag for Germany that has been co-opted by the extremist right.
The PEGIDA marches, though, were not the first indication that Germany’s historical inoculation against rightwing extremism was wearing off. Many political analysts in the country point to an event in 2010 as a key moment when racist rhetoric began seeping into the public dialogue. On August 30 of that year, Thilo Sarrazin published a book called Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab, which can perhaps best be translated as “Germany is destroying itself.” The book’s central thesis is that immigration, in combination with the country’s low birth rate, was making Germany “dumber” because Muslim immigrants are genetically inferior:
The cultural foreignness of Muslim immigrants could be moderated if these immigrants showed signs of special qualifications or intellectual potential. But that isn’t discernible…. There are, rather, indications to the contrary, and it is by no means certain that this is exclusively tied to their invariable lack of education. Genetic liabilities—caused by the region’s common practice of marrying relatives—play a significant role among immigrants from the Middle East.
Thilo Sarrazin wasn’t a nobody. A Social Democrat, he spent seven years in the 2000s as Finance Minister of the city-state of Berlin and was also a member of the executive board of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. And his book was a runaway bestseller; more than 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves. A certain sector of the German population seemed to be thinking that somebody was finally “telling it like it is.”
“Sarrazin paved the way for the AfD,” says Lewandowsky, the Hamburg professor. “His book on Islam was a kind of taboo breaker, not by bringing up something that nobody dared speak about, but by doing so in a language that the liberal media and public thought had been abandoned by Germany since World War II. This language shaped the discourse, and once it is in the discourse it becomes legitimate to use it again to address migration.”
Like all self-respecting right-wing populist parties, the AfD strongly denies having racist or extremist tendencies. But it had begun pivoting toward explicit Islamophobia well before the refugee crisis reached is apex in fall 2015. In late 2014, some in the party leadership began flirting with PEGIDA. Embattled current party co-head Frauke Petry met with the movement’s leadership, and former CDU-member-turned-AfD-deputy-head Alexander Gauland famously said that PEGIDA supporters were “natural allies” to the AfD. In summer 2015, founder Bernd Lucke left the party after losing a bitter power struggle with the party’s right wing. “We had come so far,” Lucke said ruefully in his resignation speech. “But now, the party has irrevocably fallen into the wrong hands.”
Since then, the AfD has followed a path more typical of European right-wing populist parties. Beyond positioning itself as staunchly opposed to Merkel’s decision to admit tens of thousands of Muslim refugees in late 2015, Petry has also sought to integrate the AfD within the community of established Islamophobic political movements on the Continent. In June 2016, for example, she met with Strache from Austria’s FPÖ for a photogenic get-together on the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain. In January of this year, she invited Geert Wilders from the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen from France, and Matteo Salvini from Italy’s Lega Nord to Koblenz to help her kick off the campaign year in style. And in February, Petry made a pilgrimage to Moscow—a trip that has become de rigueur for European populists—for talks with senior members of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was also among those she met.
Beyond that, the AfD has mastered the populist playbook. It complains frequently of political correctness, it piggy-backs on right-wing media reports of refugee violence and crimes, whether true or not, and it fiercely attacks the “Lügenpresse.” The AfD has also made it party policy to introduce “carefully planned provocations” so as to lure establishment parties into launching indignant attacks on its functionaries. “The more the AfD is stigmatized by them, the better it is for the party’s profile,” a December 2016 strategy paper reads.
But a lot has changed since that strategy paper was issued. For one, the ongoing Brexit horror show, combined with growing fears about what, exactly, Donald Trump might mean for long-term Transatlantic relations, seems to have focused European minds. A survey released in June by the European affiliate of the Pew Research Center shows that approval of the EU has rocketed upward by 18 percentage points in both Germany and France since last year, by 15 points in Spain, and 13 in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, perhaps partially due to her strong pushback against Trump thus far, favorability ratings for Merkel and her party have returned to the high levels scored before the refugee crisis.
That is bad news for German right-wing populists. A confidential AfD strategy paper leaked to the press in early February confidently claimed: “In 2013, Angela Merkel was still a great advantage for (conservatives). Now, though, a significant portion of the population has grown tired of Merkel. She embodies the arrogance, the abuse of power, the incompetence and the detachment from reality that characterizes the established parties…. The AfD would be well advised to transform the 2017 election into a ‘plebiscite against Angela Merkel.’” That focus now seems misguided.
But that’s not all. When Petry emerged to shove Lucke aside in 2015, the party was ecstatic to have a young, attractive former businesswoman as its leader. It has been all downhill from there, though. Indeed, the primary reason for the party’s slide in the polls likely has less to do with the Anglo-American political meltdown and more to do with the AfD’s ongoing conflict about where exactly on the far right spectrum it stands. At a party convention in late April, Petry was essentially sidelined as a new duo was chosen to lead the AfD in the parliamentary election campaign: Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, both well-versed in strident Islamophobia. But the latter, who lives with her lesbian partner and two children, is hardly a bastion of AfD traditional family policy. The bickering hasn’t stopped there, and neither has the party’s sliding poll numbers.
“I think there is a solid core of populist radical right voters…but they are not necessarily wedded to the AfD,” says Cas Mudde, associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and author of several books and papers on European right-wing extremism. ”The biggest threat to the AfD is the AfD itself. They have a solid breeding ground, but their internal politics are putting many Germans off.”
Perhaps equally problematic from the AfD perspective, however, is that Merkel’s CDU is now doing to the right wing what it once did to the SPD: co-opting its issues.
At the Christian Democrat party convention in the western German city of Essen this past December, delegates adopted several planks for the 2017 campaign that read like a repudiation of Merkel’s third term in office. First and foremost, the party decided to do a U-turn on dual citizenship for children of foreign parents. Introduced at the end of 2014 as part of its coalition deal with the SPD, the CDU now wants to return to the old policy of forcing such children, once they have reached adulthood, to decide which passport they would like to keep.
Additionally, the new platform places a greater emphasis on deporting economic migrants and calls for banning the burqa, despite the fact that such coverings are rarely seen outside of the expensive boutiques in Munich during visits by Saudi sheikhs and their families. Merkel may be continuing to reject demands from the CSU in Bavaria to introduce a hard cap on migration, but the message from her party is clear: It is time to go back to the CDU basics.
“It is a simple strategic evaluation,” says Philipp Lengsfeld, a CDU member of parliament in Berlin and part of the party’s conservative wing:
Can we be the better Green Party? No way. Can we be the better Left Party? Absolutely not. Can we be the better Social Democrats? I don’t think so. Whatever they’ve been thinking in the past, the current position is that we as conservatives are in the political center and that’s where we belong and that is where we are going to fight.
The recent history of right-wing populism’s success, however, suggests that it will be more complicated than that. Even if Merkel is bolstering her popularity in part by standing up to Trump and playing hardball on Brexit, she remains a contentious figure on the conservative right. And the conditions that led to the AfD’s rise have not gone away. Indeed, when it comes to the euro, the next crisis could be just around the corner. At the end of June, Italy dipped into public funds to bail out two failing banks, underlining the persistent threat to the currency union that has been emanating from the country for years. Its sovereign debt is up to 130 percent of GDP, its economy has been stagnant for years, and its banking sector problems go far beyond the institutions that were just recently saved from collapse. More worryingly, with a January Eurobarometer survey finding support for the euro in Italy at just 41 percent, the popular Five Star Movement is calling for a national referendum on the country’s Eurozone membership.
For all Europe’s talk about securing its borders and preventing a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, a stable solution to migration hasn’t been found either. This spring saw a 30 percent uptick in the number of migrants reaching Italy from across the Mediterranean over the same period last year. Just short of 40,000 people reached Italy from North Africa from January 1 to April 19 of this year, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, and reports have suggested that millions more could be preparing to risk the trip.
That threat, combined with the distinct possibility of another terror attack similar to the one just before Christmas last year in Berlin, means that Germany’s right-wing populists could once again find themselves back in business. The table may have tipped away from the AfD this spring, but it might not take much to tip it back by this fall, or soon thereafter.