Far-Right Populism How the Alternative for Germany Has Transformed the Country

Cigdem Ucuncu/ Narphotos/ Laif

Part 2: A Colorful Party with a Brown Streak


One could say the AfD is a colorful party, but with a brown streak. It attracts classical conservatives and neoliberals as well as ethnonationalist "völkisch" ideologists, extremists and conspiracy theorists. A majority of party members may still dream of a more moderate-conservative Alternative for Germany, but at the fringe, especially in the east, the party is increasingly melding with extremist elements, and this process is in part being tolerated -- and at times promoted -- at the highest levels of the party.

Moderate members like Hamburg AfD chapter head Jörn Kruse, with an eye to the events in Chemnitz, may lament that it was a "serious mistake" that the party "was very openly doing things together with far-right extremist organizations." But what good does that do as long as AfD supporters in Hamburg, Kruse's hometown, regularly attend "Merkel Must Go" protests, where they mingle with members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) and the identitarian movement, as they did a few weeks back?

At the protest in the port city, Dennis Augustin, the head of the AfD's chapter in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, welcomed almost 200 demonstrators -- from right-wing conservatives to far-right extremists, by saying: "Where are the Nazis supposed to be that everybody's talking about?" Three men in the crowd raised their index fingers. "Here!" they shouted, laughing.

For the security authorities, the AfD's recent mingling creates a delicate problem. It's the job of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country's domestic intelligence agency, to investigate whether parties have exceeded the boundaries set in the German constitution and if they are seeking to overthrow the democratic system.

The question is: Does that apply to the AfD?

For the past three years, the same debate flares up after every scandalous statement made by an AfD official over whether the BfV should open an investigation into the party. For example, there was the time in 2015 when the then-head of the party's youth wing, Markus Frohnmaier, who now has a seat in the Bundestag, announced, "When we get elected, we're going to clean up, we're going to clean house, we're going to make politics about the people again, and only about the people." Or the time when AfD leader Gauland dismissed the Holocaust as speck of "bird shit."

'Anti-Democratic Aspirations'

In June 2017, at a meeting in Düsseldorf, representatives of five state-level offices for the protection of the constitution concluded that some AfD members "are increasingly adopting far-right extremist language." A BfV staffer of many years reports that the far-right extremist scene "is in constant contact" with AfD people. "What we've been hearing is pretty hardcore."

The security agencies are viewing the influence of the "Patriotic Platform" (PP), an alliance of far-right extremist forces inside the AfD, with concern. A paper from the North Rhine-Westphalia state Office for the Protection of the Constitution that is also being circulated among other state branches argues that the group should be placed under official observation by security agencies across Germany. The paper states that there are "strong indications of anti-democratic aspirations." It also states that well-known defectors from other far-right extremist organizations are members of the group's board. "The purpose of PP is to exert influence on the AfD with its far-right extremist agenda and to thus shape policies," the paper states.

But domestic intelligence officials agree, a few isolated comments aren't enough to place the entire AfD under official observation.

In March, the heads of Germany's state-level spy services decided to pass their findings on the AfD on to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The information will help decide whether to conduct monitoring nationally. A decisive meeting is scheduled for November.

Increasingly Inflammatory

Some agency heads feel that decision is taking too long. Earlier this month, the eastern state of Thuringia saw its BfV branch become the first in the country to begin a review of the party. The move was spurred by recent events in Chemnitz, where domestic intelligence agencies counted up to 2,500 far-right extremists at so-called "funeral march" protests organized by the AfD in the city after the murder of a 35-year-old resident. The two suspects in the case were migrants. But for agency head Stephan Kramer, the most important reason was the presence of the AfD's Thuringia state chapter leader, Björn Höcke, at the protests. Höcke is notorious for his ethnonationalist views and statements.

Observers say Höcke has grown increasingly inflammatory during public appearances, even calling on police officers to disobey orders -- otherwise, "the people" would hold them accountable after they take power. The review taking place in Thuringia is the preliminary stage before a full-on official observation by the domestic intelligence agency.

In the states of Bremen and Lower Saxony, the party's youth wing, the Young Alternative (JA) has recently been observed by authorities due to its links to Germany's identitarian movement, which is already the subject of surveillance. When police recently searched the apartment of Marvin Mergard, the vice president of JA's Bremen state chapter, they confiscated all kinds of identitarian propaganda.

Interior ministers at the state and federal level from Merkel's conservative party met on Friday, Sept. 7, to discuss the AfD. For now, officials in Bavaria want to refrain from monitoring the AfD or its subgroups, in part due to the legal risks of doing so. "We don't want to give members of the AfD a martyr role, but we do want to take a closer look," says Bavarian Governor Markus Söder. Authorities concede, however, that a number of AfD activists in the "low double-digits" are already being monitored in the state.

State intelligence officials likely feel compelled to push forward unilaterally because a coordinated approach with the federal government has been sluggish. Some state-level officials have even suspected the now-defunct chief of the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, of thwarting the AfD's possible observation. Maassen was ousted from that position earlier this week and reassigned to the Interior Ministry over controversial comments he made in the wake of the Chemnitz riots. Even when the decision was made to monitor the identitarian movement, there was a feeling that Maassen had to "be hounded," says one state intelligence head. Maassen has been accused of secretly harboring sympathies for the AfD. Colleagues who have known him for years dispute this.

It's possible these rumors were fueled by meetings between Maassen, in his capacity as acting head of Germany's domestic spy service, and Frauke Petry, a former leader of the AfD. Maassen, for his part, denies he advised the AfD in any way. Party leader Gauland, meanwhile, was enthused about Maassen's alleged support. Just a few months ago, rumors had begun to circulate that one of the AfD's members in parliament was a Russian spy. Maassen got involved -- a highly unusual move for an intelligence agency head, though not technically against the rules -- and gave the man the all-clear.

High Legal Hurdles

Despite the criticism, there are some entirely reasonable explanations for the deposed BfV president's reservations. The legal hurdles for placing a democratically elected party under official observation are extremely high, for one. There must be clear evidence that the party's "overall structure" runs counter to the constitutional order. Far-right extremists must also be proven to have "direct influence" over the party's trajectory.

Torsten Voss, the head of the city state of Hamburg's intelligence service, says he has perceived a shift within the party. "If we look at this on a national level, the AfD does appear to be rising toward the threshold for observation, but that hurdle hasn't been crossed yet."

The Path to the Top

The AfD's success is based a mixture of favorable circumstances, happenstance and clever strategy. Most AfD people joined their party without any political background -- and they didn't have any experience writing press releases or position papers, let alone giving interviews.

Media coverage of the party, which initially focused politically on its opposition to the EU common currency, the euro, has been critical from the beginning. This led the party to concentrate on social media and direct contact with its fan base. Facebook live streams and tweets are an integral part of every AfD campaign, and any speech given in parliament is promptly disseminated via YouTube. Any time an AfD parliamentarian grills or attacks a colleague from another party, the confrontations are often immediately posted on social media -- regardless of whether they were chided or applauded for their outburst. Many AfD members act civilized during parliamentary sessions, only to turn around and behave boorishly online. "Carefully planned provocations" are part of the party's strategy, according to a paper issued by the AfD board in 2017. "The more nervously and unfairly the old parties govern, the better."

The party's media department in parliament already has 15 employees, including a "research team" that is tasked with "factually preparing" sensitive political topics like the Chemnitz riots, explains Jürgen Braun, a parliamentary secretary in the Bundestag for the AfD. The party's supporters no longer believe the "mainstream media" are up to the task, making it easy for AfD politicians to dismiss critical reports as false or "inflammatory."

The AfD's rise also has to be viewed within the context of the European refugee crisis that unfolded in the fall of 2015. That summer, the AfD was still only polling at 5 percent nationally. The euro crisis that had once lent buoyancy to the party had died down and it seemed the party would become but a footnote in postwar German history, as had happened with the Pirate Party several years ago.

But Merkel then decided to keep the borders open for refugees and justified her decision with a moral imperative for which she hadn't really been known up until that point. In western Germany, people initially greeted Merkel's refugee policies and responded with what came to be known as a "welcoming culture," in which people turned out en masse to volunteer and participate in relief efforts. But in the eastern parts of the country, Merkel encountered fierce resistance to her policies from the very beginning. In that sense, the AfD's rise was no accident -- and while it may be painful to say, it's also a manifestation of a vibrant democracy. The Green Party rose in the 1980s to become a mainstream party in part because the conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats had ignored the environmental destruction that was happening for too long. And the AfD rose because Merkel swept aside the desire of many for control over Germany's borders.

At the moment, much is being written about the electoral motives of eastern Germans, but most interpretations are based on psychological rather than political criteria. References are often made to the fact that life in the former East had been cut off from the outside world. It is also often pointed out that there is seeming resentment about developments in the east following reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, there's also another possible interpretation: Could it be that many eastern Germans are actually voting rationally?

A History of Discomfort

The history of the discomfort with eastern German voting habits can be traced back to the first free vote that took place there in 1990. Polls at the time suggested a win for the Social Democrats. The West German SPD chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt had been extremely popular, and many East German citizens had benefited from their Ostpolitik policies, which promoted detente with East Germany.

But a clear majority of East Germans first voted for the Alliance for Germany in 1990, which was largely comprised of conservative Christian Democrats. Later, they would vote for Helmut Kohl. This caused people on the left of the political spectrum to feel angry and insulted. People haven't forgotten how, when asked about the reasons for the election results, SPD politician Otto Schily held a banana up to the camera -- a disparaging reference to East Germans, who didn't often get access to exotic fruits during communist times.

At the same time, if you strip away the emotional factor, it was a totally reasonable result. The people of East Germany wanted the deutsche mark as their currency and they wanted German unity. Kohl promised both -- and kept his word.

But then the problems with the reconstruction and restructuring of the east began. Unemployment skyrocketed and Kohl soon became a figure of hate.

During the 1998 federal election campaign, Gerhard Schröder recognized his opportunity to win over a large number of voters in the east. His promise to make reconstruction of the east his top priority helped deliver the decisive votes he needed. As did his commitment to creating a foreign policy that had peace as its goal -- a nod to the eastern Germans' pacifist inclinations.

Since then, the SPD has been experiencing a dramatic decline in the east. The enormous voter migrations are usually accompanied by a kind of emotional buildup. The AfD's clear position on a single issue is what makes it so attractive: Some East Germans see the party as a guarantor against Germany becoming a multicultural society. That's all they expect from the AfD.

So, what can be done? The degree of helplessness the established parties are having in dealing with the AfD is illustrated by the fact that the various defense strategies they have adopted so far -- everything from ignoring the party to co-opting its issues to attacking it -- have failed.

The business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party have had an easier time of it. The former succeeded in re-entering the Bundestag with its moderately-toned critique of Germany's asylum policies. And the latter are so far removed ideologically from the AfD that they have no need to fear any political competition from the party.

Catch-All Parties at a Loss

The situation is far more difficult for the Social Democrats.

Ex-SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel famously called right-wing demonstrators a "pack," but at the same time tried to engage in a dialogue with Pegida supporters "as private individuals." Pegida is the acronym for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, an Islamophobic group that holds protests regularly in Dresden. Gabriel criticized the AfD as a party of the disenfranchised and he warned against underestimating people's longing for identity and a political home in a 2017 interview with DER SPIEGEL.

The conservative Christian Democrats have taken a similar zigzag course -- one in which even the basic question of whether the AfD is an opponent or an opportunity has not yet been clarified. The CDU's own pollster, Matthias Jung, argued the latter case three years ago in an essay. Compared to the AfD, he wrote, Merkel's CDU can present itself more credibly as a centrist power that is keen to implement political reforms.

But the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) has always viewed the AfD's rise as a threat to its single-party rule in that state. Most recently, CSU parliamentary group leader Alexander Dobrindt had the idea of moving his party so far to the right rhetorically that the AfD could no longer outdo it without losing the mainstream, middle class wing of the party. But that plan got lost in the shuffle during the turmoil caused by the asylum dispute between the CSU and the CDU that nearly destroyed their political partnership at the national level.

Now, a general sense of bewilderment is prevailing.

The decisive question in dealing with the AfD is that of whether it will adhere to the rules of democracy in the longer term. The mere fact that the party represents unpleasant competition for the CDU, CSU and SPD does not, on its own, make it inherently detrimental to democracy.

A Threat to Democracy?

Harvard professors Levitsky and Ziblatt have developed a set of indicators they use to identify parties that will run for election, but then seek to disband the democratic order. One indicator is when a party "denies the legitimacy of opponents," which is a clear feature of the AfD. No other party in parliament demonizes its opponents as aggressively as the AfD. Members of the party seem to have few inhibitions when it comes to their outrageous statements: Angela Merkel is a "dictator" who belongs in a "straitjacket" and wants to "swap out" the ethnic German population with foreigners.

Many examples can also be found in the AfD for the second criterion set by the Harvard researchers: A "readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media." AfD chair Gauland's interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is only the most recent example here. AfD people are also notorious for their admonitions that journalists must behave "fairly" or risk being "dragged out into the streets" as has happened in other "revolutions we have known."

But open incitement of violence, the third criterion set by the Harvard researchers, is absent. Instead, AfD members tend to portray themselves as the victims of brute violence from the left. And when the AfD makes its own threats, it often uses convoluted wording, like Gauland's recent demand that a German-Turkish SPD politician ought to be "disposed of in Anatolia."

But the fourth indicator is the hardest to fulfill: "Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game." After all, like other parties, the AfD was elected into federal and state parliaments and is even regarded by many of its supporters as the savior of democracy. One can say the AfD disregards the soft rules of democracy, including fairness in dealing with its opponents, truthfulness in argumentation and tolerance of other views and lifestyles.

So, what's the verdict?

Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude in their book that autocrats are most successful when proponents of democracy and the democratic institutions don't defend themselves rigorously enough. The Federal Republic of Germany was conceived as a democracy that should be capable of defending itself -- in no small part because of its own difficult history. If the AfD continues to radicalize, it must be placed under official observation and ultimately banned.

But the means available to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution do not go far enough to fully safeguard democracy. Especially given that "no profound revelations can be expected" from the BfV, as former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert put it in his interview with DER SPIEGEL. It's crucial that people in their everyday lives oppose far-right extremists when they shout their epithets. But established political parties must also be willing to accommodate the entire spectrum of opinion in a democracy. Merkel's refugee policies offended many voters. And because the SPD simply went along with her, the AfD enjoyed increasing levels of support. Indeed, these two establishment parties have made things easy for the AfD.

In the regional election in October, Rainer Rahn wants to get elected to the state parliament in Hesse. He's a conservative, retired, gray-haired physician who has nothing in common with demagogues like Höcke. His political path led Rahn from a voter initiative opposing aircraft noise at Germany's biggest airport to the FDP party in Frankfurt to the AfD, which he joined back when economics professor Bernd Lucke was still formulating thoughtful critiques of the euro. Rahn isn't a firebrand speaker, either, but he doesn't need to be one.

"Voter sentiment is on our side," says Rahn. "We don't even really need to run an election campaign."

By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Stefan Berg, Jan Friedmann, Annette Großbongardt, Hubert Gude, David Gutensohn, Martin Knobbe, Veit Medick, Katharina Meyer zu Eppendorf, René Pfister, Max Polonyi, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Ulrich, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter

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