Alexander Gauland: pushing the boundaries ever rightwards

Alexander Gauland is the joint leader of the parliamentary group of the far-right populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).  Until November 2019, when he stepped down in favour of Tino Chrupulla,  he was also joint leader of the national party. He has had a seat in the Bundestag since 2017, the year the AfD entered the national parliament for the first time. 

Alexander Gauland
Photo: / CC BY-SA

Gauland courts controversy and has made headlines with a series of taboo-breaking statements.   In 2018, for example, he dismissed the Nazi era as, “just bird shit in an otherwise successful  thousand years of German history,”  saying, “yes, we accept our responsibility for the 12 years … [but] we have a glorious history — and that, dear friends, lasted longer than the damn 12 years.”  There was outcry about this trivialisation of the Nazi time.   This statement went much further than his previous statements about the Nazi time. In 2016 in an interview with Die Zeit, for example, he said that the Nazi time  affected the German ability to feel comfortable expressing  national pride: “Hitler destroyed much more than cities and people, he broke the backbone of the German people.”

Gauland  has also generated extensive media coverage with statements such as that people would not want national footballer Jermone Boateng as a neighbour; and that the SPD politician  Aydan Özoğuz, should be ‘disposed of’ in Anatolia (using the word ‘entsorgen’, which has Nazi connotations)

Gauland was born in 1941 in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, the scene of anti-foreigner riots in the summer of 2018.   He left the east German republic to study political science and law in the west German town of Marburg in 1959,  when he was 18.  When  large numbers of displaced people sought asylum in Germany in 2015 and 2016, Gauland rejected the idea that he had also been a refugee, saying, “That is something else: I’m German.   And I went from Germany to  Germany. It’s quite different when someone comes from Eritrea or Sudan.”

In 1972 he started work at the Federal Press Office in Bonn and in 1975 moved to Edinburgh to work as press officer at the consulate.   When he retuned to Germany, he started to work for the CDU’s Walter Wallmann, who was then mayor of Frankfurt in the state of Hesse and he became known as a conservative thinker for the CDU.  In 1991, following the fall of the CDU government in Hesse, Gauland  became editor of a regional newspaper in Potsdam, the Märkische Allgemeine, a position he held until 2005, when he became a freelance journalist.

In 1991, Gauland wrote a pamphlet asking “What is conservative?” He warned that society could drift off into the irrational and that radical parties could find a foothold if  unrestrained progress was allowed to continue. He wrote about  the loss of stable values, of the overburdening of individuals and of growing social disorientation.  Die Zeit commented that his later founding of the AfD represented a break with everything Gauland was politically and culturally then: from measure and center, responsibility, rationality and pragmatism to dogmatism, emotionality, protesting, resentment.

In his best-known book published a decade later, ‘Instructions on Being Conservative’ (2002), Gauland’s shift to the right can be seen.  He wrote about the loss of Heimat and German culture, and argued that the ‘moral law of the people’ must be defended.   

The ‘Merkelisation’ of the CDU under Angela Merkel, which took the party in a more liberal direction, repelled many conservatives, including Gauland.  He nevertheless remained a CDU member until 2012, when he became involved in the Berliner Kreis (“Berlin circle”), an organisation of politicians aiming to push the CDU in a more conservative direction.

In September of 2012, Gauland, together with economist Bernd Lucke and journalist Konrad Adam, founded the precursor to the AfD, a group called the Wahlalternative 2013 (Electoral Alternative) in protest at the eurozone bailout.  In April 2013, this grouping founded the AfD in a meeting in Berlin, when Frauke Petry was elected as leader together with Lucke and Adam.  Gauland was elected as one of the deputy leaders.

Gauland has been instrumental in pushing the party rightwards.   Angela Merkel’s 2015  decision to open Germany’s borders to one and a half million refugees was described by Gauland, as a ‘gift’.  The party exploited unease in the country with xenophobic rhetoric and its growth accelerated.  

In October 2018, Gauland caused outrage with an article about populism published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a conservative newspaper.  He explained  modern populism as a response to globalization. He  argued that globalisation has formed a new elite of people from the business, politics, entertainment and cultural industries; people working in international companies, the media and NGOs;   people who are at home everywhere and enjoy privileges,  while the middle class and those on lower incomes suffer from international competition and immigration. Populism, he stated, means being against the establishment.   

Gauland’s article  provoked a strong reaction because it was deemed to echo a speech by Hitler in Siemensstadt in Berlin in which Hitler described a rootless, international clique that was at home nowhere and anywhere.  This provoked historians to describe Gauland’s speech as a modern version of this speech  – “not so much plagiarism as paraphrasing”,  as a Handelsblatt article argued.

In the article Gauland wrote that, “The rain that falls in their home countries does not make them wet”, prompting the Spiegel to comment “Suddenly you realise that he is writing about the lives of these people with a peculiar poetry that does not speak of contempt or incomprehension, but almost a sad nostalgia.”  

Accusations of far-right extremism dog the AfD and  are never far from Gauland. For example in January 2019, a report from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution about the AfD, which did not find the party as a whole to be anti-constitutional,  held  Gauland and  co-leader Jörg Meuthen responsible for the actions of the right-wing party platform “Flügel” (which is led by Thuringian state leader Björn Höcke, known to be one of the party’s more extreme members).   For example, in their speeches at the “Flügel” annual meeting at the Kyffhususer monument in Thuringia, Meuthen used “aggressive xenophobic rhetoric” and Gauland, “nationalistic images of society.”

Further trouble for Gauland came in March 2019: it was reported that Gauland was being investigated for irregularities in his personal tax affairs.   Taken together with the financial scandal that his joint parliamentary leader Alice Weidl was also embroiled in, the narrative of a party which claims to be on a higher level than the ‘corrupt establishment’ looked shaky.

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