The Victory of Rage AfD Sets its Sights on German Parliament

Even as Chancellor Angela Merkel seems set to win her fourth term, the German campaign has been characterized in some towns by rage and hatred. The right-wing populist AfD is also expecting Election Day success, and it will change German political debate. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

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.


"Whistle or scream?" Sandro Oschkinat's men move through the crowd arming the gathered protesters for the coming battle. Those who say "whistle," are handed one and Oschkinat himself is standing on a step that provides him with a view across the town square of Torgau in northern Saxony. He is holding a megaphone in his right hand.

Hours earlier, Oschkinat had begun distributing flyers in the headquarters of his group, called Spectrum of Upstanding Democrats. The flyers read: "Show Angela Merkel the red card." Now he's providing last-minute instructions through his megaphone. "When she comes, hold all the signs up and make a lot of noise!"

When the Chancellor finally does step on to the stage at 5:20 p.m., there is no holding back. "Get lost," Oschkinat's group screams. "Merkel must go! We are the people."

At some point, the chancellor turns to address the hecklers: "We're talking about your lives for the next four years -- insofar as you'll listen and not just scream." But the people she is addressing don't hear her over the din of the vuvuzelas and whistles.

It doesn't take long before the first articles about her appearance are posted online. "Merkel Shouted Down in Torgau," is one of the headlines. Oschkinat is satisfied. He runs a restaurant in the tiny town of Audenhain near Leipzig and this was the first time in his life that he had ever registered a protest. The 35-year-old is a member of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), though he says he is critical of the party. Actually, he describes himself as a "leftist patriot," but he likes the AfD for the fact that you can be "critical of asylum."

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For the demonstration in Torgau, Oschkinat designed a flyer and had 2,000 of them printed in addition to promoting the event on Facebook, with the help of the chapters of the Islamophobic group PEGIDA in the states of Thuringia and Saxony. A local AfD chapter even rented a bus to bring demonstrators to Torgau from the surrounding villages. Oschkinat named the event: "Exit for the Chancellor of Pain."

Anything But Boring

The whistling and shrieking on Torgau's central square is the harbinger of the anger that could soon reach Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. It has become fashionable in Berlin's government district these days to complain of the boring contest between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz. But outside of the capital, in places like Bitterfeld, Torgau or Annaberg-Buchholz, it quickly becomes clear that many voters find this campaign to be anything but boring. Tempers are flaring and nerves laid bare -- particularly in the states that formerly belonged to East Germany.

Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Schulz, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), are the candidates of the democratic center. No matter which of the two emerges victorious, the country won't experience dramatic shifts of the kind currently underway in the United States. They are both good Europeans who are united in their commitment to Germany's social market economy. And both are convinced that it was the right thing to do to open up Germany's borders in summer 2015 to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both are likewise opposed to seeing a repeat of that event.

Among the outcomes of Merkel's 12-year stint in the Chancellery is a divided country in which a radical and extremely vocal minority no longer feels represented, neither by the chancellor nor by her SPD challenger. One way of seeing the televised debate between the two just over a week ago is as a civilized discussion between two committed democrats. But many voters apparently came away feeling that it proved that there is no longer a political opposition in the country.

A vandalized campaign poster for SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz: An extremely vocal minority feels neither represented by Merkel nor Schulz.
Getty Images

A vandalized campaign poster for SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz: An extremely vocal minority feels neither represented by Merkel nor Schulz.

The anger isn't just a result of Merkel's refugee policies, particularly given that she and her party have gone a long way toward reversing them in recent months. Rather, it has to do with a feeling of powerlessness, a sense felt by some that the political elite is no longer taking them seriously. And that elite doesn't just include Merkel and the SPD, but also the Green Party and the entire news media. When AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel stormed out of a political talk show last Tuesday after another show participant demanded that she distance herself from the racist statements of her fellow lead candidate Alexander Gauland, she could be sure of her supporters' backing. After all, the show was being broadcast by one of Germany's public channels, which AfD supporters routinely accuse of being Merkel-controlled "state television."

The AfD has become expert at inciting hatred against the so-called elite. It began as a relatively tame party of professors, united in their opposition to Merkel's policy of bailing out countries mired in the euro crisis, believing such measures to be plainly illegal. But then it embarked on a long march to the right and is now shaped by people such as Gauland, who said recently that Aydan Özoguz, the Hamburg-born Turkish-German federal commissioner for integration, should be "disposed of" and sent to Anatolia. Islamophobia and racism have become key components of the AfD party platform.

Historic Turning Point

For 60 years, Germany has been able keep right-wing radical parties out of the national parliament. For decades, the country was able to avoid significant infection with the right-wing populist virus that was spreading throughout Europe and, as the election of Donald Trump demonstrates, in the U.S. It was considered taboo to publicly proclaim support for right-wing parties, which is one reason among many that the radical NPD and the Republikaner parties never managed to make much headway on the national stage.

Sandro Oschkinat speaking into his megaphone on the central square of Torgau. He says it was the first protest he ever registered in his life.
Hermann Bredehorst / DER SPIEGEL

Sandro Oschkinat speaking into his megaphone on the central square of Torgau. He says it was the first protest he ever registered in his life.

But Germany now finds itself faced with a historic turning point. On Sept. 24, it looks as though a party that has racist and nationalist tendencies will win seats in the Bundestag. The AfD is currently between 8 and 11 percent in public opinion polls. And the party won't just change the face of the German parliament, but likely also its culture of political debate.

If the AfD ends up with around 10 percent of the vote, it will send 70 lawmakers to parliament. One of them will be Jens Maier, who is second on the AfD's state list from Saxony. Maier wasn't just present when Björn Höcke, floor leader for the AfD in the state of Thuringia, notoriously referred to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin as a "monument to shame" and called for a "180-degree shift in our memory politics" at a Dresden ballroom in January. He warmed up the crowd before Höcke's tirade. In a brief introduction, he said that after World War II, the Germans were told that they were no longer worth anything: "I declare herewith this cult of guilt to finally be over!" Maier crowed. The crowd went wild.

"Cult of guilt" had long been a phrase used solely by the neo-Nazi NPD party, but it may soon be heard in the Bundestag. A judge at the Saxony state court in Dresden, Maier has achieved a certain amount of fame in Saxony and is seen by his supporters as someone with the courage to say what is on his mind. On that evening in Dresden, for example, he said that the "creation of racially impure peoples" in Germany "could not be tolerated."

Maier's worldview has evolved significantly over time. At his campaign stand in a Dresden train station, he talks about the SPD's youth group, to which he belonged in Bremen back when he was 17. His parents had venerated Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the SPD and the Social Democrats, he says, were seen in Bremen as the party of the working class and enjoyed huge support in the city. But in 1982, Maier went to Tübingen for his university studies and he lost interest in the SPD.

Then came the euro crisis and the founding of the AfD. Maier began going to local party meetings at the pub and met academics who had a similar outlook to his own. At the time, the party was still led by founder Bernd Lucke, the rather drab economist who became politically active due to his vehement opposition to Merkel's bailouts of Greece. Maier admired Lucke. But he also valued the climate of open discussion that characterized the AfD. "You could say anything." It was the refugee crisis, though, that finally led Maier to become more deeply involved. "I had the feeling that it was time. Germany is crumbling."

'People Like Erdogan'

At the campaign stand, Maier plays the moderate. But on stage, he is often quite different. At an event in the Dresden city center in August, he called out to the cheering crowd: "I want to see Germany rise again." Parliamentary elections are a "day of reckoning." He said he wants "us to find our way back to self-respect so we don't have to cower before people like Erdogan."

AfD party head Frauke Petry wanted to throw Maier and Höcke out of the party following their January speeches in Dresden, but the party voted against taking action. Though she herself has since been marginalized despite being allowed to retain her title, Petry is taking another run at it -- but the AfD has by now slid so far to the right that Maier has become part of its mainstream.

It seems almost quaint to look back at the debate that divided the party three years ago. Back then, the PEGIDA movement was just gathering steam -- the name stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West -- and the group is predictably Islamophobic. At the time, though, the AfD wasn't yet certain it wanted to form an alliance with the group due to its radical leanings. By now, though, the battle has long since been decided, which becomes evident when talking to people like Jürgen Pohl. Pohl is a close ally of Höcke's and he is number two on the AfD's candidate list in the state of Thuringia, meaning that he too will likely be moving to Berlin soon.

Pohl refers to himself as an "attorney for the people," which makes him almost sound like he was a son of the 1968 movement. And that's not an entirely inaccurate impression. He rails against those who push down wages and pension payments and he claims that he worked construction before becoming a lawyer. He sounds a bit like the early Green Party, which used to also campaign against the "system" parties and which helped to found the left-wing newspaper, the Tageszeitung or taz, because of its mistrust of the mainstream media.

Except that in Pohl's world, the task of deporting "illegal foreigners" is a "Biblical challenge."

It still isn't clear who will lead the new AfD faction in the Bundestag, but the party's most strident voice belongs without a doubt to Alexander Gauland. In his earlier life, Gauland belonged to the Christian Democrats and worked in state government in Hesse under then-Governor Walter Wallmann. But like so many from the party's conservative wing, he left the CDU due to his disappointment with Merkel.

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