The Face of AfD Frauke Petry's Turbulent Path to the Right

As the head of the Alternative for Germany, Frauke Petry hopes to bring the right-wing populist party into the German parliament for the first time. How did an East German chemist and entrepreneur with a pastor for a husband turn into one of the country's most-hated people?

Sven Doering/ DER SPIEGEL

By Alexander Osang


The window to the courtyard is open. Frauke Petry wants to let in a bit of spring, she says, though her office at Saxony state parliament is still in the shade. It's not easy for the sun to find its way to Petry, floor leader for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. She looks a bit pale and hardly slept at all the night before. She has a lot to lug around with her, she says, before putting her hands on her hips and laughing.

She is probably talking about the baby in her belly. But it's hard to be sure.

There is a certain dread that comes with meeting Frauke Petry, particularly as a journalist. One thinks of that puzzling moment when she recently burst into tears on stage at a party convention. There is her warm smile and ebullient laugh, her somewhat turbulent personal life, her children. She plays organ and speaks fluent English and French. And all that makes her seem human -- too human, one fears.

She has now placed her hands on her belly, but, when she speaks about the weight she is carrying, she could still be referring to the deep dissension within her party, or about the endless debates about the structure of AfD party leadership as the campaign for Germany's upcoming general election heats up, or about the combative old men on the party's nationalist-conservative wing. Then there are the party's sliding poll numbers, the popularity of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate Martin Schulz, the debate over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Björn Höcke, the Thuringian AfD politician whose neo-Nazi tinged, headline hogging rhetoric is too extreme even for the party. The last time we met, Petry's European ally Geert Wilders had just been handed a disappointing result in Dutch elections.

Nevertheless, the AfD is holding a convention in late April where she will likely be chosen as the party's lead candidate for the national elections on September 24, making her the woman in charge of bringing right-wing nationalism back into German parliament.

She is, however, referring to her pregnancy, to her child with fellow AfD member Marcus Pretzell. If you ask her when she's due, she'll say: "After the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (in May) and before the national elections."

Petry already has four children, an ex-husband and, now, a new husband, Pretzell, who likewise has four children from a previous relationship. She has a divided party to run and needs to face down Germany's other political parties. How will she do it?

"I have had all of my children in the course of my career," she says. "I had a small child when I got my Ph.D. and I had small children when I was building up my company. It'll be fine. There are guidelines for what each state chapter has to make available for events in the summer and fall. We'll just have to add a babysitter to the list. The old ladies are certainly interested and at that age, the child doesn't particularly care who is pushing the buggy," Petry says.

She once again bursts into loud laughter. Her wide-set eyes are reminiscent of Sid, the friendly sloth in "Ice Age." A children's bike helmet sits on a shelf in her state parliament office in Dresden. The walls are decorated with puzzles that she put together herself. She has the best haircut among top German politicians but unlike most party leaders in Saxony, drives around in a Seat van instead of a black sedan.

All of that contributes to her success, and is also part of her problem. She often doesn't fit one's expectations of the AfD. In fact, watching her in the past few months, Petry doesn't even seem like what you'd expect from a politician.

But she is. She congratulated Wilders, a man who looks just as sinister as he is, on his election result. She also sent a telegram complimenting Donald Trump - whose looks and politics are likewise in perfect accord - on his election victory. Recently, in the Saxony state parliament, she held a speech on the 60th anniversary of the European Union's Treaty of Rome in which she portrayed the European Parliament as a pack of apparatchiks and bureaucrats and called the bloc a money-wasting machine. She praised the glories of the nation-state as the spring sun glittered on the Elbe River outside. The inside of her office is decorated with children's drawings, the outside with a portrait of Bismarck. She also speaks to crowds of people so riled up they would probably light the nearest mosque on fire if she gave the word.

She is difficult to figure out.

"The willingness to believe all manner of nonsense about my person, that is spread on social media, remains extremely pronounced, which leads to comical conjectures - that I could be a member of Bilderberg, that I am paid by Mossad, that I am a false flag. You only have to spread a lie long enough before it becomes the truth. This behavioral pattern is particularly widespread in my young party."

East German Roots

Frauke Petry was born on June 1, 1975, in Dresden, making her the youngest politician of consequence in Germany. But she has collected more experience than most others. 1975 is an astoundingly long time ago. Back then, Petry's last name was Marquardt, Gerald Ford was U.S. president, the Soviet Union had twice the number of tanks as the West and the United Nations had just named 1975 International Women's Year. That February, West Germany's highest court rejected amendments to the country's strict anti-abortion laws. In East Germany, it was legal for women to have abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. There were 14 years to go until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Frauke Marquardt was born in a Dresden hospital, but her family lived in Schwarzheide, a chemical industry center along the autobahn to Berlin.

Even today, you can imagine what the place looked like back then. It smells better and the streets are now in decent shape, but otherwise not much has changed. Aging communist-era buildings, single-family homes and a strange tower in the middle: It is essentially a bedroom community for BASF, the German chemical conglomerate. There are no people on the streets and just the occasional car. The only shop in the town center is Schmidt's Driving School. Schwarzheide-Wandelhof Elementary, however, is still there.

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School is in session, but there are no children's voices to be heard. A side door stands open, leading to a long hallway lined with coat-hooks and children's jackets. It almost feels like something terrible happened here, but then an older woman appears, principal Elke Voigt. She has been here since 1985, but quickly says that she has no recollection of Frauke Marquardt. She only knows that her classroom was in a part of the school that has since been torn down, she says, seemingly relieved.

Why is it so quiet? "We maintain quiet and orderliness here," says the principal. The school's motto is displayed on the wall behind her. "If you want to climb a mountain, you must begin with a first step."

Frauke Petry was 14 when she left this world. Her recollections seem black-and-white, a fairy-tale world populated by characters either good or bad. Her home, which was built by her father, stood at the edge of the forest and she could get everywhere by bike, she says. There are several fruit trees in the garden, planted by her grandfather. Petry says that a total of 26 spies from the East German secret police, the Stasi, kept an eye on her parents, many of them from their closest circle of friends, though she has never looked at her parent's Stasi file. It wasn't her life, she says. She has fond memories of her piano teacher and of her arts and crafts teacher, who harbored a similar antipathy to the East German regime as her father. When they fled the country, the teacher bought the family's old Wartburg car from them.

For as long as she can remember, her father spoke of flight. He arrived as a child from Silesia, a previously German region that became part of Poland following World War II, and never felt completely at home here. In 1989, shortly before the fall of the Wall, he visited West Germany and decided not to return to Schwarzheide. His family followed in February 1990.

When her father's family fled Silesia, Petry says, all they had with them was a stroller and a lard pot, but when they headed to West Germany, Petry was even allowed to take along her two cats. One of them ran away in a parking lot just before crossing the border. "He escaped while we were still in the East, the stupid thing," Petry says.

It was February, but she says she can still remember the colors of the West - the lack of dust and coal soot. It smelled different.

In her speeches, Petry both defends and attacks eastern Germany. Sometimes she speaks of the unjust communist regime, of its total control over everyday life and the propaganda. At others, she raves about how hard-working eastern Germans are and about their sense of humor. History, she sometimes says, is not predestined; what happened in East Germany could just as easily have happened in the West.

West German Outsider

Her first genuine experience in West Germany was one of humiliation. "The principal of the Aplerbecker Gymnasium in Dortmund wanted to send me to the Realschule," she says, referring to the lower tier of high schools in Germany. "He told my mother that top grades in the East aren't worth anything."

After half a year in Dortmund, the family moved to Bergkamen. "I went from the brown-coal region to the black-coal region," Petry says. "Bergkamen was also founded as an industrial settlement. Neither town is particularly attractive."

It is difficult to argue with that point. Bergkamen city hall looks as though it could have been donated by the city fathers of Schwarzheide. There is a boarded-up shopping center and the homes all look as though they were built between the 1950s and 1970s: Three or four stories with tiny windows. The people on the streets look like they are freezing.

The gymnasium, the university-prep high school, is on the edge of town. Its motto is: "School without Racism. School with Courage."

Heinrich Peuckmann used to be a teacher at the school, a vivacious man typical of western Germany's mining region, who is happy to share his lunch when a guest shows up. You shouldn't talk about former students, he says, much less say anything bad about them. But when Petry spoke of the "ethnicization of violence" and said that parts of Bergkamen were no-go areas into which even the police were afraid to venture, he blew his top. "Frauke Petry is perhaps intelligent, but she isn't wise," Peuckmann wrote on Facebook. "Because morality is a component of wisdom." In response, he was hit with such a wave of online abuse that he resolved to never again say anything about Frauke Petry.

But staying quiet isn't easy. Many feel the need to distance themselves from the AfD leader. Indeed, when you follow the trail of Petry's past, it sometimes feels like you are digging into the history of a violent criminal. She didn't get it from us, everyone says.

Chemistry teacher Harald Sparringa, though, speaks of Frauke Petry as though he were a spurned lover. He has set up a file on his computer that bears her name: The Frauke File. He has saved a few newspaper articles, from both local and national publications, in which he has criticized his once-favorite student and he also asked former classmates of hers via Facebook to share their memories of her. One woman wrote about how surprised they all were when Frauke Marquardt won over Sven Petry, one of the most popular kids in the school. Marquardt, the woman wrote, was something of an outsider, in part due to the strange clothes she wore. East German clothes. Sparringa smiles sadly.

The Frauke File also includes a photo of Marquardt as a high-school student, showing her in a doorframe in soft light. It is an almost lyrical photo.

She went on to become a chemist in part because she loved Sparringa's classes. She would cry when he gave her less than top marks, but that didn't happen very often. She came to visit him even after she graduated, before going to England, and then again prior to studying in Göttingen, where she earned her Ph.D. She came with Sven, then her husband, and later brought her children for a visit. She was part of the family. But once she became involved in politics, it all changed.

Today, when he sees her on television, it comes as a shock, Sparringa says. "Her expression, her gestures; her imperious, patronizing style, it has nothing to do with the endearing person I once knew," he says.

But he can't completely free himself from her. In almost all newspaper articles that include comment from the chemistry teacher, his last message to Frauke Petry makes an appearance. "Frauke, I'm concerned about you."

Petry said she can't recall having received the text message. "In politics, I'm involved in so many battles that I don't want to continue the fight in my private life," she said. "Of course I'm sorry about the relationship with my chemistry teacher. He was an important friend. If he holds me in such high regard, why does he take his problems to the newspapers? I don't understand it. It was part of a public repudiation."

'What's Wrong With People?'

Her comments were made during a conversation in December of last year. She was sitting in the foyer of the parliament building in Dresden during two days of debate over the Saxony state budget. In his opening speech, Saxony Governor Stanislaw Tillich spoke extensively about populists, about how they cannot be allowed to establish the terms of debate. Trump hds just been elected and everyone seemed alarmed and wanted to do something. But because America is so far away, they focused their ire on the AfD instead. It almost seemed as though Tillich was holding his important budget speech exclusively for Frauke Petry, whose seat at the front of her party group was closest to the speaker's podium. Most of the time, she just smiled at his broadsides, an artificial, bewildered smile.

During the budget debate, the AfD introduced 220 amendments, none of which received even a single vote from the other parties. Most parliamentarians from the established parties don't even greet AfD members when they run into them in the halls.

It was shortly before 11 p.m. that December evening and Petry seemed tired. She was supposed to drive her children to the swimming pool the next morning in Leipzig, but the debate was scheduled to go until midnight and would resume the next day at 9 a.m. So she decided to sleep in Dresden. Rumors were beginning to swirl that she was pregnant. In two days, a press conference was planned in Berlin about the May state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, where her future husband Marcus Pretzell was a candidate for the AfD, but many expected her to announce her pregnancy there. Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Düsseldorf: There were fires to be put out everywhere. The entire world was against her. She told a story that she had just read in the newspaper about a plane that had to make an unplanned stop in Newfoundland because a passenger had suffered a stroke. German passengers protested the landing and a fight had almost broken out.

"What is wrong with people?" Petry asked.

She seemed almost distraught, weak and vulnerable. Her public image faded into the background. But by the next morning, she was back to being Frauke Petry.

Schwarzheide and Bergkamen are places that you really just want to escape from. Reading, where she lived in England, is a university town, she said, and not particularly beautiful either. More than anything, she said, she learned there how to be proud of her country. Germans' uneasiness about their nationality is something the English don't understand at all, she said.

Göttingen, Petry noted, was the first place she herself chose to live, and she and Sven were there from 1998 to 2007. It is where their first children were born and where they both received their Ph.Ds. Frauke Petry's life lay before her and all she knew was that she didn't want to work for one of the large chemical companies like Bayer or BASF, where she actually had decent connections. She found the companies' static structures and hierarchies repellent.

At some point, she came up with the idea of turning a patent belonging to her mother, who was also a chemist, into a business. The product was a polyurethane tire-filling and the young couple began looking for funding to start the company - and found it in Saxony, to which Petry had never wanted to return. But the family moved to Leipzig in 2007 and her husband Sven, who had studied theology, found a job at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony. He became a vicar in Leipzig before receiving a rectorate in 2009 in Tautenhain, a small town south of Leipzig.

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Inglenda2 04/13/2017
1. Hate induced by the powers that be and state media?
One must not be an AFD supporter to notice the hypocritical and often absurd arguments against this party and its leaders. However this is not unusual, when established political parties, in Germany, are frightened of losing their long held privileges and financial benefits to a new party. The Greens, the Lefts and the Pirates were all considered to be a danger to parliamentary Democracy and the written Constitution, after it was obvious, that the electorate might give them a real chance to challenge the self-important and self-service type of politicians who now run the country.
distrak 04/15/2017
2. Real hack job. Pure slander and fake news.
Thank you for the solid information on Frauke Petry. You arrogantly tried to slander the AfD and ANY party that is challenging the Social Democrats. Very disgusting journalism..."Wilders, a man who looks just as sinister as he is" and "Trump - whose looks and politics are likewise in perfect accord" I suppose the author thinks this type of sleazy criticism is clever. I have a clue for him...any German who looks twice at your savior Martin Schulz will see a high-school dropout, a drunk, a failed businessman and mayor. The only thing Schulz has succeeded at is living on tax money as an EU parasite. On the other hand, Frau Petry has born and raised 5 children, gotten a PhD, started and run a high-tech bioindustry, AND is running a political campaign. I like her--she has accomplished more than Schulz has ever dreamed of. And take a look at Shulz--beautiful? I would rather look at Wilders. Frau Petry knows why AfD is important...she wants to "To change things in a country where political debate has stagnated, commitment is necessary." Political debate has stagnated--thanks to your cheap journalism. I remember reading a "hack job" like this in the New York Times. It was about Trump, what a sad little man he had become on the verge of his loss...well, guess what? Trumps's laughing now. and dishonest lying journalists like you are crying. And maybe Germans will laugh too when this loser Schulz gets sent packing by German voters. I hope I see it.
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