The Hate Preachers Inside Germany's Dangerous New Populist Party
The Alternative for Germany was born as an anti-euro movement. But it has since positioned itself far to the populist right. Despite its efforts at maintaining respectability, the party's extremist flank is wide open.
The settling of accounts with Frauke Petry, head of Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was done by telephone early in the morning. The party's national leadership came together for a long-planned conference call at 7:30 a.m. last Tuesday, but before they began working through their agenda, talk turned to Petry's leadership.
"Everything you are doing at the moment is complete shit," hissed one board member. "How am I supposed to interpret that?" a dumbfounded Petry replied. "What about the word 'shit' is difficult to understand?" came the answer.
The tribunal lasted for half an hour and virtually every board member had something negative to say about the AfD leader. They complained of her frequent unwillingness to consult with other party leaders and of her chronic distrust. More than anything, though, they criticized "this incredible stupidity:" namely, Petry's comment in an interview with the newspaper Mannheimer Morgen that police should "use their firearms if necessary" to stop refugees at Germany's borders.
What, though, were they angry about? Was their concern analogous to media commentators across the political spectrum, for whom Petry's words were reminiscent of the mass shootings of World War II and of those who lost their lives trying to cross the East German wall? Were Petry's colleagues as upset as the so-called establishment parties, who doubted that the AfD, to quote Social Democratic Party (SPD) head Sigmar Gabriel, "remained committed to the country's free-democratic foundations?"
No, they weren't. Most of the board members were more concerned about Petry's tactical error: Both her disclosure of the AfD's true attitudes and the timing of that disclosure. Petry, after all, had violated the right-wing populist formula for success. Stoking fears, particularly against foreigners and newcomers is part of that formula. Insinuations that the West, or German-ness, is facing collapse are likewise perfectly acceptable. But one shouldn't be overly precise about how to confront the threat: The idea of shots fired at the border is not likely to find acceptance beyond a very narrow, extremist slice of the electorate. And there are just a few weeks to go before a trio of important state elections.
At the very least, Petry's comments were awkward. And negligent.
Yet after the wave of indignation rolled through Germany -- and after Petry's fellow AfD board member Beatrix von Storch added that, if necessary, even women and children should be fired at -- it quickly became clear that in these rancorous, abrasive times, the rules that once governed political dialogue in Germany no longer apply. The AfD, it seems, may even have benefited from Petry's comments: The ARD-Deutschlandtrend survey recently found that support for the right-wing populists has risen to 12 percent, making in the third strongest party in the county.
A Dangerous Party
Volker Kauder, parliamentary floor leader for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), commented that Petry's utterances exposed "the true face of the AfD leadership." But there are apparently many in Germany who find that true face appealing -- whether openly or not -- and are prepared to vote for people like Petry.
There are many conservative, upper middle-class voters -- most of them older, white males -- who had hoped that the AfD would provide them with a new political home reminiscent of the Helmut Kohl-era Christian Democrats. For these voters, Angela Merkel's CDU has become too liberal, too unprincipled, too un-Catholic and too multicultural. It is a natural pool of voters for a party to the right of the CDU.
Should the party's hardliners prevail, Germany's political landscape will change significantly, as will political debate in the country. Currently, Chancellor Angela Merkel is governing in a coalition together with the Social Democrats, Germany's large, center-left party. That means that those who disapprove of Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the refugee crisis don't have many choices when it comes to casting a protest vote, particularly given that the Greens are reliably pro-refugee. The AfD seems poised to be the beneficiary, despite Petry's apparent willingness to use deadly force against migrants.
Meanwhile, Germany's established parties are facing a dilemma. Years ago, the Left Party emerged on the far-left wing, but it has long been viewed with suspicion and never been seen as a viable option when assembling a governing coalition at the federal level. Now, the AfD threatens to play a similar role on the right wing. That would mean that so-called "grand coalitions," pairing the conservatives with the SPD, will become the rule rather than the exception.
Repudiation of Merkel
The AfD is far from being a single-dimensional party. A young party that does not yet have a clearly established identity, it is home to many different currents and voices. Not every sentence is openly xenophobic and its missteps are sometimes the product of inexperience rather than iniquity. Since its split last year, the party hasn't had a true platform or an established set of values that would clearly keep the extremists at bay. The AfD leadership is a collection of radical-Christian ideologues, arch-conservative military veterans, buttoned-up business professors and disillusioned business owners. It is an odd collection -- and one that has proven vulnerable to radical temptations, as demonstrated by Petry and Storch.
What unites this camp is the rejection of all competing political movements and, in particular, the repudiation of Merkel's refugee policies, which AfD deputy head Alexander Gauland described last year as a "gift" to his party. But there are two approaches to politics: The one involves finding alternative answers to political questions that are still consistent with human dignity and the constitution. The other is that of calling the state as such into question and threatening its structures. Right now, it doesn't look as though AfD leadership is poised to make the correct choice. In recent months, it has become all too clear that the AfD leadership prefers to surf the wave of anger among its followers. And the party doesn't always have control over that wave.
That was all too apparent two Thursdays ago in Mannheim. Frauke Petry had yet to make her controversial comment about the use of firearms against incoming refugees when she stepped up to the podium at a restaurant in the city. Some 400 AfD followers had come to see her speak while outside, police were trying to keep a left-wing, anti-AfD demonstration under control. For a solid hour, Petry decried all that was going wrong in Germany: the refugee crisis, problems with the education system, the "premature sexualization of children." The audience listened intently and applauded occasionally. Then, during the question-and-answer session, tempers flared. A man asked how the AfD planned to prevent German schoolchildren from "being beaten and extorted by the foreigners."
Petry was clearly surprised by the question. She said that in such instances the parents' association must get involved, as should teachers and school directors. "Democracy is slow," she said. "Those who make such claims have to prove they are real." The hall erupted, with furious shouts piercing the air. The man who asked the question yelled: "Our country is facing an emergency! Millions are coming to us! It's crazy what is happening!"
Amid the applause, Petry tried to regain the crowd's attention. "Let me just ..." But she was ignored. "You can't just beat around the bush and sugarcoat the problem," the man called out. "We want concrete proposals. How can we get black Africans to stay in their home countries?"
A Wave of the Hand
Slowly, Petry regained control of the situation. She said she understood the anger and dissatisfaction. But even the AfD, she added, couldn't "solve the problem of illegal immigration with a wave of the hand."
It was a rare moment of honesty. For months, right-wing populists from the AfD have been suggesting that there were simple solutions to the refugee crisis: the introduction of upper limits; closing national borders; suspending the Schengen border-free travel regime; suspending the right to asylum. Petry's suggestion a few days after the Mannheim incident that firearms be used to defend the German border was of the same ilk. But what they don't like to talk about is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis who have a right to asylum are already in Germany and must be integrated, even if the country were to seal off its borders tomorrow. But the party has no answers for how to do that.
It is a problem that has dogged the party from the very beginning. The AfD was originally founded in opposition to the euro and, particularly, to Angela Merkel's handling of the euro crisis. But even then, under the leadership of economist Bernd Lucke, the AfD was unable to convincingly explain how its approach would be an improvement on Merkel's. The party initially urged Germany to withdraw from the euro zone before shifting to demands that Greece be thrown out. Then it began promoting a smaller, northern European euro zone. More than anything, though, the party's message was a populist one: We'll end the bailout insanity.
That kind of simplistic approach quickly became the party's calling card -- and the strategy worked, even if Lucke is no longer among the party's leaders. The problem, however, is that the questions the party is addressing have become more sensitive and social harmony is at stake. Asylum hostels are being set on fire, refugees and journalists are being attacked, the xenophobic PEGIDA movement is marching through eastern German cities and Facebook has become a platform of hate.
Nevertheless, the AfD leadership continues to hint to their followers that simple solutions are available -- that one could simply stop the "asylum chaos" or back out of NATO. One leader of a state AfD chapter in eastern Germany has taken to chanting: "Those who don't love Germany, should leave Germany," and "Hop, hop, hop, asylum stop!" And just like during the euro crisis," few AfD supporters are asking for policy details.
For the AfD of today and its supporters, the party's split amid the 2015 departure of Bernd Lucke -- and his accusation that the party has become a "right-wing swamp" -- is ancient history. Voters tend to know little about the AfD candidates on state party lists. But they don't really care either. Mostly, they want to register their protest against the establishment parties. According to the recent ARD-Deutschlandtend survey, 81 percent of respondents believe that Merkel's government doesn't have the refugee crisis under control. Fewer than half are satisfied with the job the chancellor is doing.
Disappointed by Life in the West
Indeed, the weakness of Merkel's CDU and her coalition partners from the SPD is AfD's primary strength, with the refugee crisis having given the party a boost. But instead of looking for a conservative political solution to the problem, the AfD has succumbed to the temptation of shrill populism. Most recently, that has been particularly evident in the pro-firearm comments emanating from Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch.
Petry spent her early childhood in communist East Germany and only moved to the West at the age of 14 once the Berlin Wall fell. There, she joined her father, who had earlier fled East Germany. Petry once told the German weekly Stern that she had been disappointed by life in the West. East Germany, she said, felt too constrained, but the West felt too arbitrary. In the interview, she sounded like a lost soul, like a woman without roots.
Petry has undergone many political shifts. As a young businesswoman, she was in favor of gender quotas, but is now opposed to the idea. A chemist by training, she was able to start her own business with the help of state subsidies, although she now says that the state should keep out of the business sector. The mother of four children, Petry initially sought to make family policy a foundation of her political career and insisted that German mothers should have many children. But since she made public the fact that she left her husband for fellow party member Marcus Pretzell, family policy has become something of a taboo subject for her.
Although she may be flexible when it comes to policy, her leadership style is anything but. For the last several months, the Saxony state parliament has been pursuing an inquiry into why the AfD in Saxony, where Petry is chapter leader, suddenly removed a candidate from its list shortly before elections there. The man in question says he was punished because he refused to make a campaign loan to the party. Petry has angrily dismissed the accusation. But in testimony before parliament, she and a fellow party member repeatedly contradicted each other -- and both were under oath. "We strongly believe that state prosecutors will file charges," Petry's general secretary wrote in an email to grassroots supporters. He added, however, that he is convinced that "the charges will not be substantiated." Still: "a bit" will "stick to us." Should Petry be found guilty of perjury, she faces a minimum penalty of one year in prison.
Petry has not shied away from identifying AfD with other right-wing populist parties in Europe and is planning a joint appearance with Heinz-Christian Strache of the Austrian Freedom Party on Friday in Düsseldorf. Indeed, observers in Berlin and in the rest of Germany are growing increasingly concerned about the party's path, and not just because of Petry and the AfD's climbing survey results. In contrast to earlier right-wing populist parties from Germany, the rise of the AfD is firmly rooted in a broad European trend whereby right-wing political groups and movements are gaining support. In France, Front National even came out on top in the first round of December regional elections.
Angry White Men
It is a pattern seen across all Western democracies: anger, frustration and resentments are increasingly finding expression on the political extremes. And it tends to be the same demographic that joins such rage-driven movements: middle-aged, white men.
The pattern is the product of changing demographic and political realities. It used to be that all influential positions in politics and industry were occupied by a man in a suit. And even in the case of political or professional clashes and disagreements, one's adversary was also a white man in a suit. No matter how bitter the debate, a chat about football over a drink was often enough to smooth even the most ruffled of feathers.
Those who feel threatened often feel that violence, or at least outbursts of rage, are justifiable. Self-defense! It is this approach that is the bread-and-butter of right-wing populist movements -- and Frauke Petry knows, or senses, as much.
In truth, it seems likely that most people realize that recent trends in our globalized world cannot be reversed. But it is not a realization that makes the situation any simpler. We are, after all, also experiencing a crisis of faith in present-day political and social institutions -- one that has been fueled by a series of recent crises. The century began with the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 in the United States. The West responded with Iraq and Guantanamo, crimes that seriously damaged its claim of moral superiority. Furthermore, surveillance programs undermined our fundamental rights. Thus far, not a single Western policymaker has been held accountable for these missteps.
In a constitutional democracy, that is a problem -- and that too is a feeling that right-wing populists have been able to exploit. The feeling that something isn't quite right, that there is no fairness anymore. And that it is up to us -- it is our right -- to reestablish fairness. Populists are adept at painting a picture of a world that is out of control.
Then came the global economic crisis, triggered by the finance industry. The crisis was managed in a manner that many people found to be profoundly unfair: Debts were nationalized and the finance industry was allowed to continue with business as usual. The consequences remain with us today: slow growth, high unemployment, particularly in southern European countries, and faith in the state, in the judiciary and in politics has vanished -- in Germany too. The state, which was granted the monopoly on the use of force at the outset of modernity, has proven itself to be too weak to confront such crises in a manner that is consistent with Western values.
An Eloquent Right-Wing Ideologue
Those who perceive this dual crisis do not automatically drift to the right. But they certainly don't develop a passion for the status quo. Who, after all, takes to the streets to demonstrate in favor of the chancellor? That's why the streets and digital forums belong to those who espouse hatred at the moment.
It is hardly to be expected that Beatrix von Storch will be the one to stop AfD's drift toward the extremist fringe. An eloquent right-wing ideologue from an old noble family, she could ultimately become even more powerful than Petry. Born Duchess Beatrix Amelie Ehrengard Eilika of Oldenburg, she has engaged in several conservative battles in her past. In law school, she fought for the return of eastern estates lost in the wake of World War II. She also joined marches in opposition to abortion and collected plaintiffs for legal challenges to the European Central Bank. As a member of the European Parliament with the AfD, she has joined the fight against gender mainstreaming.
Via her husband Sven von Storch, she also maintains a far-flung network that extends as far as the German exile community in southern Chile. Germans there dream of the good old days under the last German Kaiser, pay homage to the German fatherland and pursue a Christian-fundamentalist lifestyle. When Beatrix von Storch spoke on a primetime talk show of rumors that Angela Merkel could soon seek exile in Chile because of the refugee crisis, she didn't necessarily mean it as an insult. For Storch, Chile is a dream destination.
In contrast to Frauke Petry, Storch is an excellent networker. Together with her husband, she established the Zivile Koalition, or Civil Coalition, a digital campaign collective of right-wing conservative blogs and email distribution lists that the couple uses to spread its ideology and to ask for donations. The Storchs are less communicative about how, exactly, they spend those donations.
One of their strengths is also that of performing a timely and orderly retreat should the situation call for it. Whereas Petry continued the next day to defend her comments about using firearms to fend off refugees from Germany's borders, Storch unequivocally admitted to having "screwed up," say fellow party members. Still, it was Storch's Facebook comment indicating that women and children could also be shot at which triggered the most intense outrage. She said that she had "only wanted to help" Petry, and that she was terribly sorry. She said that the Facebook post was a "technical error" and that she had "slipped" with her mouse.
Currently, even as it continues drifting to the right, the AfD is suffering from a power vacuum at the top. Nevertheless, when voters go to the polls on March 13 in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, the party will in all likelihood end up with representatives in all three state parliaments.
Soldiers of Fortune
Essentially, though, the AfD is suffering from the same malady that has affected all of its right-wing populist predecessors in Germany. Similar to the (now banned) Republikaner, or the Hamburg-based Schill Partei, the AfD has become entangled in internal intrigues and infighting. Furthermore, it has attracted the same collection of careerists, soldiers of fortune and failures that has doomed many previous political movements in Germany.
People like André Poggenburg, for example. Poggenburg is leader of the Saxony-Anhalt chapter of AfD and the party's leading candidate ahead of elections there next month. He is fond of speaking about credibility and the importance of maintaining close contact with voters -- and of accusing politicians from establishment parties that they would be welfare recipients were they to lose their seats in state parliament.
AfD supporters seem unconcerned. They even cheered him on during a recent appearance in the state capital of Magdeburg as he spoke about the ups and downs of his business life and admitted "certain lapses in the proper keeping of the books." Were he a bank, Poggenburg complained, the state would likely have handed over "a half million."
The grassroots clapped, but others in the party are critical of Poggenburg. People such as Jörg Meuthen, AfD lead candidate in Baden-Württemberg and Petry's co-leader at the top of the party. An economics professor, Meuthen was once a faithful follower of party founder Bernd Lucke and is now one of those who would like to see the party focus on national issues without becoming nationalist. He is in favor of conservatism, but rejects right-wing extremism.
Last Wednesday, he spoke at a party event in Kirchberg an der Murr, a small town just northeast of Stuttgart. The parking lot was full of expensive cars and, with the venue having quickly filled up, many visitors were turned away at the door. The crowd outside bulged into the street.
In the wake of the controversial statements from Petry and Storch, Meuthen used the opportunity to present himself as a member of the party's reasonable wing. He admitted to having "Muslims in my circle of friends" with whom he "gets along excellently." The AfD, he said, is "not a xenophobic party," rather it demands a "clever approach to migration." But it also became clear that he was disinclined to clearly distance himself from Petry's comments.
'Attack on the German People'
That is typical of Meuthen. He is fond of presenting himself as an adversary of right-wingers like Storch and Gauland, but when he is confronted with radical comments from within his own state chapter, he plays the indulgent party leader. Meuthen, for example, declined to say anything critical about Freiburg-based attorney and AfD politician Dubravko Mandic, who recently posted a video on Facebook showing soldiers shooting at civilians behind a fence. The title: "Border Protection in Practice."
Meuthen also had nothing to say about Stuttgart AfD politician Heinrich Fiechtner who, in reference to the refugee crisis, spoke of an "attack on the German people." Nor did he say anything about fellow AfD member Markus Frohnmeier, head of the party's youth wing Young Alternative. Frohnmeier was quoted on a television report about the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne as saying: "In my opinion, people like (senior Green Party member) Claudia Roth indirectly participated in the rapes." After the events, Roth had warned against taking advantage of the situation in order to stir up public sentiment against refugees.
Amid such surroundings, Petry is likely facing tough times. Ever since she drew attention to the party's rightward drift with her blather about defending the border with gunfire, her authority is being called into question. Indeed, many of those who helped her last summer during her putsch against Lucke are now beginning to doubt her leadership.
It is unlikely that Petry will be ousted before federal elections in 2017. "More likely is that her freedom will be limited by way of party resolutions," says one member of the party's national board. That could include rules forbidding her from traveling or giving interviews without first consulting party leadership, in addition to limits on her political solo acts together with her partner Pretzell, whose reliability many AfD leaders already question. Meuthen, meanwhile, as head of the Baden-Württemberg chapter of the AfD, will likely gain influence, particularly after what promises to be a successful election result in March.
"What we have to return to in the party," Petry said during her appearance in Mannheim, "is the willingness to acknowledge mistakes." Meuthen said recently that the AfD is not made up of "political professionals who are polished to the point of flatness. Sometimes, a sentence or two slips out of people who have never before worked in politics."
If only that were sufficient explanation. In actuality, though, AfD leaders -- who one might assume have a fair amount of control over their words -- are among those who incite. Uwe Junge, head of the Rhineland-Palatinate chapter of AfD, is a lieutenant colonel in the Bundeswehr, Germany's military. In the "Center of Operative Communication" in the small town of Mayen, he trains political agitation experts who focus their efforts on target groups via radio shows or the Internet. Junge presents himself as a middle-class conservative. In his application for a position in the AfD state leadership committee, he wrote that he left the Christian Democratic Union in 2009 "in disappointment" after more than 30 years of membership. What he didn't write, however, is that he initially joined the Islamophobic party Die Freiheit after leaving the CDU. Die Freiheit is under observation by the Bavarian state intelligence agency.
The calm tone Junge uses in his speeches stands in marked contrast to the at-times brutal message they convey. At a party event in Bad Kreuznach in mid-January, he accused his commander-in-chief, Chancellor Merkel, of "treason" committed against the "fatherland." He blasted state interior ministers and governors as a "dishonorable gang of cowards." He also said that all those in power "should be held accountable" because of their asylum policies. As his audience applauded, Junge hastily added that such accountability should come in the form of elections.
The AfD's rightward drift can be seen across Germany, but nowhere is it as clear as in the country's eastern states. Supporters of eastern German AfD chapters are not looking for a conservative alternative on the political spectrum. They are interested in opposing and resisting the established political system.
In the wake of AfD's success in state elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg one-and-a-half years ago, pollsters from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen wanted to know what AfD voters expected from their party. "A solution to concrete political problems" was not among the reasons given, the pollsters found.
In eastern Germany, this protest role was long occupied by the far-left Left Party, which grew out of the East German communist party. Those who felt uncomfortable with the western German party system, were unemployed or yearned for former East German Communist leader Erich Honecker's return voted for the Left Party. Such protest votes hardly counted, as everyone knew, but at least they annoyed everyone else.
Those days are now over. Twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Left Party is now seen as being part of the political establishment and the disillusioned have moved on. Most of the votes received by the AfD in the three 2014 state elections in eastern Germany came from former Left Party supporters, often because they were perceived as being the only ones "who talked about the problems," as the pollsters discovered. In Saxony, 15,000 voters switched allegiances, in Thuringia it was 16,000 and in Brandenburg, 20,000 defected. In the latter state, AfD party head Alexander Gauland even approached Left Party supporters with targeted mailings.
Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt sees the shift as a systematic protest of the kind experienced in Germany in the mid-2000s after tough welfare reform laws were passed by then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The opposition is no longer a political opposition but a systemic opposition. Back then it was fed by the Left Party, today it is agitators like Björn Höcke, head of the AfD state chapter in Thuringia. Höcke has developed a dubious reputation for having waded particularly deep into the nationalist swamp. In western Germany, even the most ardent AfD supporters shake their heads when Höcke, in his speeches, adopts the demagogic tone often used in in the latter years of the Weimar Republic. But in eastern Germany, they celebrate even his most racist utterances because no one else is willing to break with Western political conventions to such a degree.
Indeed, that is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the AfD's rise. It makes extremism acceptable and polarizes societal debate. It promotes xenophobia and feeds a societal climate wherein it becomes acceptable to offer resistance to presumed legal breaches committed by the country's political leaders.
The result is a radicalization of thought -- and, with some, of action -- which could ultimately follow patterns seen previously by left-wing extremist movements: The more radical the arguments of the movement's intellectual leaders, the more radical the street protests, and vice versa.
It still hasn't become clear how far to the right the AfD as a whole will ultimately drift. It isn't even clear whether the party will, in contrast to its many predecessors, manage to become a lasting fixture within the country's political spectrum. Part of the answer to that question will ultimately be provided by the party's political adversaries -- establishment parties from the CDU to the Greens -- and how they choose to deal with the AfD. Conservative floor leader Volker Kauder has suggested simply ignoring the party. Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party, for his part, has sought to avoid televised political debates with AfD leaders. And Social Democratic head Sigmar Gabriel has called for the party to be placed under surveillance by German domestic intelligence officials.
Pulling the Rug Out
Not even security officials, though, believe that Gabriel's proposal is expedient, or even legal. And Kretschmann's attempt to keep AfD candidates out of the television debates was likewise conter-productive. Matthias Jung from the pollster group Forschungsgruppe Wahlen said it looked as though establishment politicians were trying to use formalities in order to avoid substantial political debate.
Decades of experience with other right-wing populist parties in Germany suggest a different approach: One must confront the AfD with rational argument and policy. Establishment parties have to put forth solutions to the large problems that are driving support for the AfD. If the government succeeds in reducing the number of refugees coming to Germany and comes up with a convincing plan for the integration of those migrants who are already here, it could manage to pull the rug out from beneath the AfD.
Refugees will continue coming, cultures and religions will continue to mix, German families will look different than they did 40 or 50 years ago, love is many-sided and stubborn -- the German reality will become more complicated, and why not? Most people have no problem with that. Our lives today are freer, safer, healthier and, in most western and eastern German cities, better than they were 30 years ago.
But those who reject all that, fight with the courage of desperation. And it wouldn't be the first time in Europe that the advance of freedom was forced by a radical minority to take an extended, years-long detour.
By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Jan Friedmann, Nils Minkmar, Michael Sauga and Steffen Winter