The Alternative for Germany: from eurosceptic beginnings to far-right populism

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded as a eurosceptic party in 2013, has rapidly evolved into a far-right populist party, positioning itself as the voice of the people against the established elite. It has a powerful nationalist faction, and it has shaken up the political establishment with extremist statements, rejection of the post-war political consensus and provocative behaviour both inside and outside parliament.

After narrowly missing out on entering the Bundestag in the general election in 2013, the party swept into parliament in 2017 as third largest party, winning 94 seats nationally. It now has seats in all of Germany’s 16 state parliaments (although only narrowly retaining its seats in the February election in Hamburg, squeaking in with 5.3% of the votes, just 0.3% over the minimum needed).

Thirty years after unification, the rise of the AfD has exposed a continuing divide between the east and west of the country. While the party receives support from all regions, it is far stronger in the east, which is also the bastion of the extreme wing of the party. It won 21.9% of the vote in the eastern states in 2017, and came second in three state elections in the autumn of 2019, with between 23% and 27.5% of the vote.

The history of the AfD is a history of factionalism, splits and radicalisation. It has grown rapidly, and radicalised as it has grown. Two leaders, both of whom have subsequently set up their own parties, have been seen off by the right of the party, and the party has been permanently engaged in a public war between the extreme and moderate factions.

In the past year, the party has been fighting a weakened SPD for third place in the polls; however, support dipped by 4 -5% during the corona crisis as voters turned away from the party’s anti-government stance, and accelerating accusations of right-extremism caused further division in the party.

Accusations of right-extremism are nothing new. Shortly before the 2017 election, Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said, “If the AfD actually makes it into the Bundestag, Nazis will speak in the Reichstag for the first time in over 70 years.” In the summer of 2018, AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland provoked outrage with his comment that “Hitler and the Nazis are just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history … 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.” Two months later, AfD members of parliament and top officials marched with xenophobic groups, hooligans and neo-Nazis in street protests in the east German towns of Chemnitz and Köthen. Demonstrators chanted racist slogans, gave Nazi salutes and reportedly ‘hunted’ foreigners in the streets. In Chemnitz, AfD leaders publicly associated themselves with Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West – the thuggish anti-Islam, far-right movement) for the first time. 

The AfD’s problem with right-extremism came to head in March with a serious blow to the nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel: The head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) Thomas Haldenwang, announced that both Flügel leaders, Björn Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz, were right-extreme and that the Flügel had been put under observation. Following that announcement, a video of Höcke making a joke about Auschwitz emerged, a joke which caused cheers from his audience, followed by “Höcke, Höcke” calls. Mounting pressure from these two events led Höcke to pre-empt threatened party action and announce that the Flügel had been ‘historicised’.    One of the party’s national leaders, Jörg Meuthen, even initiated a discussion about splitting the party into two, but quickly rowed back from this suggestion after it became clear that he may have provoked civil war in the party. The extremist faction is still strong, and still there.

Eurosceptic beginnings

The party was founded in April 2013 by a group of economists and professors who were opposed to the eurozone bailout in the wake of the financial crisis in Greece. Bernd Lucke, who was one of the co-founders and first leaders of the party, described Chancellor Merkel’s policies as Alternativlos – ‘without alternative’ – because there was no eurosceptic representation in politics.  Lucke’s power was challenged early on by regional leaders Björn Höcke and André Poggenburg, who formed the Flügel in March 2015. The Flügel’s founding document, the ‘Erfurter Resolution’, questioned the moderate course of the party leadership and clearly established a radical agenda. It called on the AfD to be “a resistance movement against the further erosion of sovereignty and the identity of Germany.” 

Evolution into far-right populists under Petry

In the summer of 2015, with the support of the right of the party, Lucke was pushed out by Frauke Petry; under Petry, the party began its evolution into a far-right populist party. It increased its use of anti-establishment, nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric and started to promote direct democracy as a means of bypassing the political class. Floundering in the polls after a high point in 2014, the party made enormous gains by its exploitation of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany took in around 1.5 million asylum seekers.

Alexander Gauland
Photo: / CC BY-SA

Gloating that the influx of refugees had handed a “gift” to the AfD, Alexander Gauland, who went on to become of the AfD’s leaders, played a key part in the AfD’s 2015 campaign against Merkel’s refugee policy. This so-called ‘autumn offensive’ used inflammatory, xenophobic rhetoric, confirming the nationalistic direction of the party.

Tthe AfD insisted that Germany’s borders should be closed. Petry (who would later argue that asylum seekers whose applications were rejected should be housed on islands outside Europe) stated that German police should be able to shoot illegal migrants at the border “if necessary”. Her deputy at that time, Beatrix von Storch, agreed, in answer to a question in a Facebook chat, that she was in favour of the use of firearms against women refugees with children. After an outcry, she backed down, saying that it was a technical error and she had “slipped” with her mouse.

Under Petry, the party resurrected a Nazi-era term: the Lügenpresse, or ‘lying press’. In fact, the party, which counts journalists among its key figures, uses the mainstream media very effectively. Since the AfD is different, loud and taboo-breaking, media coverage is guaranteed. A leaked AfD media strategy paper from 2016 confirmed this taboo-breaking strategy. It called on the party to be deliberately and repeatedly politically incorrect, arguing that, “The more nervously and unfairly the old parties react to provocation, the better. The more they try to stigmatise the AfD because of provocative words or actions, the more positive it is for the profile of the AfD. No one gives the AfD more credibility than its political opponents.”

Further radicalisation: the ‘extremist putsch’ against Petry

In the spring of 2017, Frauke Petry herself was defeated after her vision for the party’s future was rejected at a party conference. As a pragmatist who wanted to position the party as ready to join a coalition government, Petry had been an obstacle to the nationalist right – being a coalition partner would have meant reining in the more extremist elements.  Gauland and Alice Weidel won the joint leadership candidature for the general election in what was described by Hajo Funke, a leading researcher of the far-right, as an extremist “putsch” and set the party off on a radically right-wing, nationalistic direction.

The lead-up to Petry’s defeat involved a series of power struggles between the moderates and the extremists. In early 2017, Petry had refused to support key right-wingers who had publicly broken the post-war consensus on Germany’s obligation to atone for the Holocaust, most notably in the case of Thuringian leader and Flügel founder Björn Höcke, who in January 2017, gave an infamous speech to the party’s youth wing. He said that a “180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance” was needed and, referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, that Germans are “the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.” Although Höcke subsequently sought to play down his comments, he was widely criticised and denounced as a “right-wing extremist, nationalist demagogue” by the Chair of the SDP parliamentary group. 

Following Höcke’s January speech, Petry initiated moves to expel him from the party. He was referred to a party arbitration court, which decided the following year that he should not be expelled.

The 2017 manifesto

The 2017 election manifesto, which was taken to the people by Gauland and Weidel, was obsessive in its focus: it linked terror and criminality to immigration and argued that the welfare state, pensions and the health system were all under threat from large numbers of immigrants. It called for Germany’s borders to be shut, stated that “Islam does not belong to Germany” and claimed that Islam is incompatible with Germany’s liberal-democratic constitution: “In the spread of Islam and the presence of more than five million Muslims, whose numbers are constantly growing, the AfD sees a great danger to our state, our society and our value system.” 

It goes on to declare that, in Germany, “a small, powerful political oligarchy has developed in existing political parties”, which has taken “unjustified and unconstitutional decisions” regarding migration policy”. It asserted the sovereignty of the German people, claiming that they can “end this illegal state of affairs”: to achieve this, it advocated a system of referenda, among other things.

Family policy was placed under the headline ‘Welcome Culture for Children’, mocking the ‘welcome culture’ for immigrants. The modern “misconceived view of feminism, which favours women with a career above mothers and housewives” was rejected. Women were encouraged, with the support of tax breaks, to remain at home to bring up children, and it was argued that the rights of unborn children are often “subordinated to self-fulfilment or fear of the future”.

German Leitkultur (leading culture) was firmly asserted and multiculturalism rejected as promoting “the emergence of parallel societies which very often lead to domestic political conflicts and can ultimately even bring about the collapse of a state.”   Instead, “The AfD is committed to German leading culture. This is based on the values of Christianity, antiquity, humanism and the Enlightenment. As well as the German language, it also includes our customs and traditions, [our] intellectual and cultural history.” This is an enduring theme for the party. The AfD academic and politician from Saxony-Anhalt Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, for example – who has written extensively on Islam and has close contacts with the far-right Identitarian movement – has spoken against the cultural “anti-German swamp” which “must be dried out.”

Gauland’s partner as lead candidate for the elections, Weidel, has also caused her fair share of controversy. At first, Weidel was presented as a moderate figure appealing to a broader vote. But shortly before the election, an email that Weidl had written in 2013 was leaked. The email cast serious doubt on her positioning as a moderate. She described German politicians as “pigs” and “puppets of the World War Two allies”, as well as using right-extremist language (such as Überfremdung, or ‘foreign infiltration’) to describe the country as being overrun by “culturally foreign people”. Additionally, Die Zeit reported that she had illegally employed a Syrian refugee as a cleaner; Weidl responded that the Syrian had been staying at her house as a guest. 

Mounting accusations of right-extremism

Shortly after the 2017 election, Perry resigned from the AfD to set up her own party, expressing concerns that the AfD was heading off into an extremist direction. These concerns were supported in 2019 by former leader Lucke, who asked the party why it was giving a home to right-extremists.

Lucke was referring to the fact that a leaked Office for the Protection of the Constitution report had found “factual indications” there is an extremist movement within the AfD (although the AfD as a whole was not categorised as a right-extremist party). The report detailed that Gauland had used “nationalistic images of society” and that co-leader Meuthen used “aggressive xenophobic rhetoric” in speeches at Flügel meetings. It also found that Höcke had previously written for the neo-Nazi NPD under the name Landolf Ladig.

Hajo Funke warned before the elections in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg in the autumn of 2019, that all the lead candidates in these regions were “right wing extremists, partly neo-Nazi, and [aiming] for a destruction of the whole system.” Not only did a judge rule that Höcke could be called a fascist, but reports surfaced of the extremist past of Brandenburg’s lead candidate, Andreas Kalbitz. It emerged that he had been on a neo-Nazi march in Athens in 2007 and that he had also had contact with the far-right ‘Heimattreuen German Youth’ organisation. Additionally, in an investigation into the victorious AfD candidates in Brandenburg and Saxony, Der Spiegel found that one of the new AfD members in Brandenburg’s parliament had set up a neo-Nazi meeting point called Bunker 38, while one of the new members in Saxony had founded the ‘Liberal Patriotic Alternative’, which was too right wing for even the AfD. 

The moderates take on the Flügel

In late 2018, tensions between the Flügel and the Alternative Mitte, a set of regional groupings set up in opposition to the Flügel, exploded in a series of bitter, publicly fought contests, which culminated in the summer of 2019. Following a speech in which Höcke criticised the party executive and seemed to imply that, as leader of the Flügel, he was the leader of the party, more than a hundred high-ranking AfD officials issued a joint statement declaring that “the AfD is not and will not be a Björn Höcke Party” and rebuffing his leadership ambitions with the rejection of “the excessively displayed personality cult of Björn Höcke”. This accusation, commented Die Welt, “weighs particularly heavily, since personality [cults are] usually only attributed to dictatorships.” 

The election of a new co-leader in November 2019, Tino Chrupalla, has not resolved the splits in the party. Chrupalla appealed to the party to take a more moderate path and rein in the ‘drastic language’ in order to gain more mainstream voters, and more female support, seemingly positioning himself as a pragmatic moderate. However, Chrupalla won the election with the support of the Flügel (although he was not a member), and as commentators have pointed out, the right is in the ascendancy on the newly elected executive.  Despite the recent dissolution of the Flügel, there are serious doubts that anything will change. As the Tagesspiegel commented, “Höcke and Kalbitz  are not thinking of moderating themselves…..The two front men of the Flügel are die-hard right-wing extremists and racists; neither their right-wing histories nor their crusade against refugees and Muslims raise any doubts.” CSU General Secretary Markus Blume said that, “Höcke remains, right-wing extremism remains – in the future they will be at the centre of the AfD and not a wing anymore.” In addition, Thuringia’s head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Stephan Kramer, argued  that the dissolution of the wing  is  “a chess move.”

Non-cooperation with the AfD?

So far, all the other parties have reached the consensus that they will not enter into coalitions with the AfD in national and state parliaments, nor will they cooperate in other ways. This is a thorny issue. If the established parties exclude the AfD, it supports the party’s identity as a victim denied representation by the corrupt establishments. In addition, a ‘cordon sanitaire’ could further alienate voters who tend to distrust the political system (and are most likely to be attracted to the AfD). 

The Thuringia election is a case in point here. The Left Party, Die Linke, came first with 31%, while the centre party vote shrank (with the CDU winning under 22% and the SPD vote collapsing to 8%). Since the AfD came in second place with 23%, it had a claim to be a coalition partner. The eventual solution – a minority coalition made up of the Left Party, the SPD and the Greens – was scuppered by a breakaway by Thuringian CDU politicians, who voted with the AfD for an FDP Minister President. The fall-out from this caused a political crisis with national repercussions.

However, there seems to be little alternative to continuing to refuse cooperation with the AfD. If the other parties do cooperate with the party, they risk normalising far-right populism in power and potentially giving right-extremists a place in governments. Instead, the established parties must make it clear that the AfD provides no alternative and no solutions; its reduction of all issues to immigration can only exacerbate the problems it has identified. By remaining united in the face of the populist challenge and by addressing the root causes of populist success, the established parties must take the agenda back and contain the AfD. 

The rise of the AfD has disturbed the political balance, challenged the way Germans have thought about their history and shaken faith in the system; but democracy in Germany is still far stronger than populism, as is support for progressive ideals. 12.6% might have voted AfD in 2017, but over 87% did not.

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