The Victory of Rage AfD Sets its Sights on German Parliament

Anti-Merkel protesters at a campaign event in Torgau on Sept. 6.
Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

Anti-Merkel protesters at a campaign event in Torgau on Sept. 6.

Part 2: God. Family. Fatherland.


Gauland's story is also one of self-radicalization. He still dresses like minor English nobility, but when he is standing behind a microphone on a market square, he calls for resistance to the "dictator" Merkel. In spring 2016, he generated headlines for saying that "the people don't want a Boateng as a neighbor," a reference to the German national fotball team player Jérome Boateng, who is black.

When he takes his seat in the Bundestag following the Sept. 24 election, Gauland will be surrounded by a group of fortune seekers, racists and the indignant, all of whom are united by their fury at the chancellor. Some of them have extremely personal vendettas to settle.

It was "shoddy," says Martin Hohmann, the way CDU head Merkel shoved him aside back in Nov. 14, 2003, seeing to it that he was excluded from the conservatives' parliamentary caucus. Even today, Hohmann doesn't see anything wrong with the speech he held on the Day of German Unity in October 2003, a plenary address that was interwoven with deeply anti-Semitic sentiments. He says he was the victim of a "perfidious media campaign." In 2005, Hohmann tried to circumvent the party and get elected to the Bundestag on his own, and even managed 21.5 percent of the vote, but it wasn't enough to beat the establishment CDU candidate.

After that, Hohmann says, "I basically decided that my political career was over." But then along came the AfD. Initially, his application to join the party wasn't acted on for several months. Once the party's moderate founder Bernd Lucke was toppled, however, his application was quickly approved.

"God. Family. Fatherland." reads the black-red-gold lettering on Hohmann's flyers. AfD leadership recognized the possibility that the former CDU member might still be able to attract significant attention and when he spoke to his supporters near Fulda on Monday a little over a week ago, he was joined by party co-head Jörg Meuthen and his deputy Beatrix von Storch. They nodded energetically when Hohmann referred to the chancellor in his speech as a "complete failure" and said he wanted to "see her before a court." Merkel's CDU, Hohmann said, would rather have a Turkish-German as a candidate than a German mother.

It is this singular mélange of conspiracy theory, inferiority complex and bourgeoisie that can be found everywhere in the AfD. The party has radicalized in recent months, but it continues to draw in those who are opposed to Merkel's refugee policies, and no small number of them are women.

AfD lead candidates Alice Weidel (left) and Alexander Gauland together with Erika Steinbach, an erstwhile Christian Democrat parliamentarian who is now supporting the AfD.
Bert Bostelmann / DER SPIEGEL

AfD lead candidates Alice Weidel (left) and Alexander Gauland together with Erika Steinbach, an erstwhile Christian Democrat parliamentarian who is now supporting the AfD.

The AfD now has seats in 13 state parliaments and 30 percent of its voters are women. Frauke Petry is one of the party's co-leaders while Alice Weidel is a lead candidate in this campaign along with Gauland. Weidel lives together with her female partner, who is originally from Sri Lanka but has Swiss citizenship, and together they are raising two sons. It isn't terribly easy to see exactly what binds someone like Weidel to the AfD.

Issues Being Glossed Over

The same can be said of Marian Harder-Kühnel, who leads the list for the AfD state chapter in Hesse. She studied law and worked for eight years at a large business consulting firm. A mother of three, she started her own law firm two years ago together with colleagues.

Harder-Kühnel has nothing in common with the bigoted rhetoric of someone like Björn Höcke. Her appearance last Tuesday evening in the small Hessian town of Büdingen -- a rather peaceful place surrounded by gentle rolling hills -- seemed more like an informational event for a local health-insurance provider. Around 120 people had showed up and none of them seemed particularly interested in raising a ruckus.

But since the end of 2015, there has been a refugee hostel here too and many of them can regularly be seen out and about in the town. In her speech, Harder-Kühnel speaks of women who no longer feel safe on the streets because of the migrants. "We are gambling away all of the achievements for women that we have fought for in the last decades," she says.

Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration? "Recently, when I went out in a normal, Central European summer dress, a veiled woman spat on the street in front of me," Harder-Kühnel says the next day in a café in Frankfurt. "I laughed about it, but a 14-year-old girl might decide to wear pants the next time she goes out." She says she finds it aggravating that Germany's establishment parties don't address such issues at all.

The Chancellery had long hoped that the refugee issue wouldn't dominate the campaign and Merkel has indeed managed to settle the extended dispute she had with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU that is much more skeptical of migrants than Merkel is. But in the eyes of many voters, the issue is by no means resolved. "They feel like the things that are important to them aren't being discussed and that many things are being glossed over," says Stephan Grünewald, a psychologist who has closely followed German voting behaviors for years. "I have never before seen so much anger and hatred among test subjects."

The AfD is also the product of a surfeit of political acquiescence. Merkel's approach to Greece encountered no serious resistance in the Bundestag, with support for the bailouts coming from the SPD, the Greens, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the CSU. It was basically the same story when it came to her refugee policies, which the AfD believes weren't criticized nearly vehemently enough. The CSU was certainly critical, but most of that critique came from Bavaria and wasn't voiced in the federal parliament itself. Never before had a German chancellor claimed that it was impossible for the German nation-state to completely close its borders and maintain full control over migration. In the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people arrived, most of them fleeing the violence in the Balkans, the SPD joined German conservatives in amending the German constitution and thus considerably reducing the number of people entering the country. But in fall 2015, with increasing numbers of people flowing across the border, the AfD -- which had begun to fade after the euro crisis -- suddenly came back to life.

Diverse Backgrounds

It is popular to claim that the AfD is made up of those who have been left behind by society, those who have no work and limited education. That, though, does not reflect reality. AfD supporters are less interested in money than in the feeling that their opinions are no longer being respected. "When Martin Schulz enjoyed 30 percent support last spring" shortly after he announced his candidacy, "it was partly because of AfD sympathizers who had returned to the SPD. They had high hopes for the party's new leader," says Richard Hilmer, head of the Berlin consulting institute Policy Matters. Early this year, Hilmar produced an in-depth study on behalf of the Hans Böckler Foundation on the motivations and backgrounds of AfD supporters.

He believes that Schulz has thus far provided insufficient answers to the questions that these SPD defectors are asking. That includes the refugee and integration issues, Hilmer says. And that explains why the huge initial bump in public support for the SPD has completely evaporated.

Now, Schulz has decided to campaign decisively against the AfD. "It isn't an 'Alternative for Germany,' it is a disgrace for our country," he says in the stump speech he has delivered across the country.

AfD voters come from a variety of different backgrounds. Many members of the German working class support the AfD, but they represent just a small minority of the party's support. People from lower income classes and from the lower middle class are more likely to support the right-wing populists, but members of upper income classes who earn a net income of more than 4,000 euros per months likewise vote for the group. Analyses conducted between 2013 and 2016 even show that AfD supporters, when compared to those who vote for other parties, have incomes that are slightly higher than average.

"Love of your homeland isn't a crime" and "We've had enough!" An anti-Merkel protest in Finsterwalde in September.
Hermann Bredehorst / DER SPIEGEL

"Love of your homeland isn't a crime" and "We've had enough!" An anti-Merkel protest in Finsterwalde in September.

Broadly speaking, voters with lower level high-school diplomas are more likely to cast their ballots for the AfD, but around a quarter of the party's supporters have completed their "Abitur" -- as Germany's university-prep high-school diploma is called -- or have university degrees. The age group that shows the greatest affinity for the right-wing populists are the 35 to 44-year-olds. The typical AfD voter, in other words, is middle-aged, has a mid-level education and a mid-level income.

Kai Fegers, from the town of Grevenbroich in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently attended his first AfD meeting at a local bar. We found him sitting toward the back of the establishment called Gasthaus in Neuss sipping a cola. On the table next to him were his keys with a kubotan, a small stick for self-defense, hanging from the keychain. Fegers works for the supermarket chain Real in the pharmacy/cleaning supplies department. "You see a lot," he says. There are Germans, he says, who pack their carts full of discount products because it's the only thing they can afford. "And refugees who fill up their pockets and then run out without paying as though it were nothing."

Everything Is Getting Worse

In the last general election, Fegers voted for the Pirate Party. Before that it was the SPD and before that the FDP. But nothing made a difference, he says. "The grand coalition" -- the current pairing of Germany's two largest parties, the SPD and Merkel's conservatives -- "gives me the feeling that we aren't that far from becoming a dictatorship." Referring to a CDU campaign poster, he adds: "Sorry, but many here don't have good lives and don't enjoy living here either."

Many voters seem to have the feeling that everything is getting worse. Holger Lengfeld, a professor of sociology at the University of Leipzig, did a study to determine if AfD supporters were often left behind by modernization or felt that they had been. His conclusion: "People with lower levels of education, workers, those with low incomes and people who feel left behind by societal developments don't vote AfD any more often than others." Apparently, he says, the reasons people support the AfD "aren't economic in nature." Their rejection of Muslims and of immigration more broadly is a more important factor, he says, adding that they are concerned about Germany losing its national identity.

Where, though, does this desire for isolation come from, this latent and sometimes manifest xenophobia?

"Dissatisfaction with one's own life is the most important factor" that drives people to vote AfD, concludes the Böckler Foundation study. But one's real economic situation is less important than a feeling of "personal indignity." The study found that AfD voters see themselves as occupying a lower rung on the societal ladder and feel impotent. Their attitude to their own lives is summed up by the sentence: "What happens to me is decided elsewhere in the world."

Protesters in Berlin march with a banner reading: "Merkel must go!"
Getty Images

Protesters in Berlin march with a banner reading: "Merkel must go!"

Miaka, a 39-year-old elderly care nurse, is one of those who came to the anti-Merkel demonstration in Torgau. Why did she and her boyfriend turn up? "We finally want to be heard and to be taken seriously," she says. She is carrying an AfD poster reading: "A woman's freedom cannot be negotiated." She actually lives together with her boyfriend and two teenage children in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, but she is currently visiting family in Saxony, where she grew up.

In two weeks, she plans to cast her ballot for the AfD. Why? She no longer wants to accept a situation whereby "night after night, black Africans" come across the border. She says that ever since so many refugees are in the country, she no longer feels safe. She also no longer goes home alone at night out of fear of being insulted as a "German whore" -- something she says actually happened to her once in the Saxon town where she comes from.

And in southwestern Germany, where she now lives, two people were recently robbed, Maika says. When asked if the perpetrators had been caught, she responds in the negative. Could they then perhaps have been German? Maika grins derisively. "Yeah sure. In theory."

A Diffuse Feeling of Fear

The fear of criminality is higher among AfD supporters than among voters of any other party. They are afraid of terrorism, crime and immigrants, concerns that often become lumped together in a diffuse feeling of fear. In general, they are much more pessimistic about the future than other voters.

Perhaps that also helps explain the anger harbored by AfD supporters. Surveys show that rarely have there been so many people in Germany who were so satisfied with their personal situation than today, both from an economic point of view and in general. The status quo campaign being run by Merkel's CDU reflects that satisfaction. But the AfD clientele has a completely opposite feeling. They seem to feel that Germany is currently rushing toward the abyss.

The Böckler Foundation study also found a deep mistrust of democracy. Around 70 percent of respondents to their survey agreed with the statement: "Political and media leaders live in their own world."

It seems that AfD supporters feel that they are at the mercy of dark powers. On Aug. 12, the AfD caucus in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament held a Russia Congress where part of the discussion centered around the question as to how one could prevent the CIA and Wall Street bankers from continuing to steer refugees toward Germany. Another topic of debate focused on when the AfD would finally address the question as to whether Germany was actually a real state or merely a corporation. Then, they went off to a barbecue. AfD members can always agree that Merkel is the root of all evil. She is to blame for the refugees, for Germany's poor relations with Russia and perhaps even for the current rainy summer.

At the recent campaign event in Fulda, Klaus Peege clapped every time a speaker said that Merkel was pursuing politics "in opposition to her own people." It is something they say a lot. Peege is sitting at a table in the middle of the hall, not far from the stage. The 70-year-old says he was a member of the CDU until 2014 and had spent 20 years in the SPD before that. If people like former chancellor Helmut Schmidt still led the Social Democrats, Peege says, he probably would have remained an SPD member. But he has now joined the AfD, a decision, he says, that he made primarily because of Merkel.

Peege used to be a self-employed builder. He is wearing a red-plaid shirt and reading glasses around his neck; his hair is slicked back. On the table in front of him lies an issue of Junge Freiheit, the right-wing publication that is popular on Germany's far right. They were distributed at the entrance to the event. He was once even a municipal representative for the CDU, but his membership in the party came to an end in 2014: "I made a list of 15 things that I didn't like about Merkel," he says. The list included items such as the abandonment of traditional values, Merkel's sudden about-face on nuclear energy and her leftward drift. "Then the refugee story came along," Peege says.

He considers the CDU representative of his electoral district to be a "wet noodle" and has now thrown his support behind Martin Hohmann. Peege has even become a municipal representative again, only this time for the AfD. The 120 AfD members in and around Fulda are almost all "completely normal people," he says, meaning middle class and Catholic -- essentially the profile of the classic CDU voter. But they are all disappointed with Merkel. "She is responsible for the fact that the AfD is on the way to becoming a large party here."

Particularly Unhinged

There isn't much evidence for the theory that the AfD is a product of a broader German shift toward the right. A survey conducted by the pollster Infratest dimap in conjunction with Berlin's Free University found that every fourth AfD supporter has the potential for right-wing extremism, more than within other larger parties. But between 2008 and 2016, the total share of people in Germany with right-wing extremist attitudes sank slightly, from 10 percent to 9 percent of the population.

That would indicate that the party offers a platform to those with right-wing views and that the internet echo chamber encourages them to express their views ever more vocally.

Political rhetoric has become particularly unhinged in eastern Germany, where PEGIDA held its 124th event last week. At the demonstration, a young woman from the Identitarian Movement warns that "when you start worrying about your wife and children every day, when the street dictates your daily life, when you are afraid of attending summer parties," then it is already too late for the fight. But in Dresden, they have been fighting for quite some time. As he always does, PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann riles up the crowd and rants about the "pseudo-debate" between Merkel and Schulz. If 32 percent are in favor of Merkel, he rages, and 29 percent are for Schulz, "then 39 percent are for us!" The crowd begins chanting "AfD! AfD! AfD!"

Much of what happens around the globe is bent to conform with their own view of the world. Some AfD supporters, for example, say that AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel had been ganged up on in the television talk show last week and that is why she stormed out of the studio. "That is why I came here," says Thomas Hechinger, 57, a mathematics teacher. "I am allergic to the Nazi club," he says, using a term frequently deployed by the extreme right to denounce German taboos against far-right rhetoric. Politically, he says, he is actually conservative or economically liberal, but now he will likely vote for the AfD, even if he doesn't like the party's affinity for Russia.

Hechinger's companion Johannes Heindl, who teaches German, history and social studies at a Bavarian high school, presents similar arguments. He used to be on the political left, he says, and still has a DER SPIEGEL subscription that he signed up for back then. But he says he is frequently bothered by the way the magazine reports on the AfD, such as what he saw as the hostile questions asked of Frauke Petry in an interview.

Only 38 percent of AfD voters believe that there is such a thing as freedom of opinion in Germany -- although that doesn't seem to prevent them from becoming belligerent when they hear views that are contrary to their own.

But the AfD isn't solely to blame for the polarization of German society either, writes Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University. He believes that "many of the 'reputable people'" were also guilty because of their tendency to equate "every critical comment on the refugee question, even those that were later revealed to have been justified, with right-wing extremism."

A Beer with the AfD

What, then, should be done about the anger felt by many voters and about the party that represents them?

On the evening of the televised debate between Merkel and Schulz, Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier walked up to the bar at the television studio where the debate was taking place to grab a beer. Two friendly gentlemen in elegant suits were standing in his way and they offered to get his beer for him. "Of course, very nice of you," Altmaier said, before realizing who they were: Georg Pazderski and Christian Liath, two senior AfD members. Altmaier quickly shifted gears and said: "No thank you, I'd rather get the beer myself."

It was a preview of what will soon become the new normal in the German parliament. Bundestag members will soon begin running into their new AfD colleagues and their staff everywhere: in the Reichstag cafeteria, at committee meetings, in the plenary hall and at the many parties held in Berlin's government quarter.

Simply ignoring the party will no longer work, and the politicians will realize that the AfD world isn't only black and white. Along with the nationalist-chauvinist Gauland, the "attorney for the people" Jürgen Pohl and the historical revisionist Jens Maier, there will be some lawmakers who will actually be able to contribute ideas to tax reform or infrastructure debates.

Simply excluding them as right-wing radicals could ultimately push even more people to vote for the AfD in the future. It would feed the party's victim myth, reinforce their complaints about the lack of freedom of opinion and buttress their gripes that the country is turning into a dictatorship. It would strengthen conspiracy theories and intensify the hatred of elites.

The Bundestag faces a tough task. Parliamentarians will have to make clear to moderate AfD lawmakers that they bear some responsibility for the incitement and baiting of their more radical fellow party members. Claims that racist and xenophobic statements just slipped out by accident cannot be tolerated. Tepid condemnations won't be enough.

In the most recent U.S. presidential campaign, former first lady Michelle Obama demonstrated one way of dealing with right-wing populists. In a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, she said that she and her husband continuously told their daughters not to stoop to the level of the bullies. "Our motto is: When they go low, we go high."

The AfD will remain part of the political system for the foreseeable future. Those who think that the party will disappear once the euro bailouts are finally a thing of the past, once the inflow of refugees has ceased and once all our schools have been renovated are likely to be mistaken. The party's success is an expression of discomfort with representative democracy, of a fear of the future and a frantic yearning to be heard. Even if all of the problems were to disappear, which would be a major achievement, that wouldn't mean that these feelings would disappear as well.

Some of these voters can no longer be reached with rational argument because they live in their own reality. The others can only be won back over the long term, if at all -- with a clear stance against racist slogans but without aggressively sweeping judgments, with a willingness to listen and to engage in spirited debates on the issues.

Chancellery Chief of Staff Altmaier made a first step in the television studio bar on the night of the debate. He pushed past the AfD men to get his beer. And then he returned with his beverage to chat with them for a bit.

By Melanie Amann, Laura Backes, Matthias Bartsch, Lukas Eberle, Jan Friedmann, Anna-Sophia Lang, Cordula Meyer, Lars-Thorben Niggehoff, René Pfister, Fidelius Schmid and Steffen Winter

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