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

Founded only five years ago, the Alternative for Germany has grown from a marginal party to a game-changer in federal and state politics -- and become ever more radical. Is it a testament to the strength of German democracy, or a threat to it? By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Cigdem Ucuncu/ Narphotos/ Laif

For three hours every month, they set up shop right next to the flower stand. There are only four people, a table and an umbrella from which a blue T-shirt hangs. It's emblazoned with the party's logo and the words, "Nobody's perfect, but Brandenburgers come pretty damn close." Here, at the weekly farmers market in Woltersdorf, a 40-minute drive by car from Berlin, Kathi Muxel, the district chair of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party for the Oder-Spree region, says: "We're the only ones who come here, even if there's no upcoming election. People appreciate that."

Several times a week, AfD adherents plant their umbrella somewhere in the area. Some take the day off from work, while others are self-employed and can set their own schedule. They wait for the people to show up -- and they always do -- and then they talk. They bring up their annoyance with expensive street lights in the town of Neuzelle, or the planned move of the recycling center in the Berlin suburb Erkner, or the "federal government's dishonesty" when it spoke of a mob attack in Chemnitz. After all, they say, there were reports that no mob attacks actually took place at all.

Being ever-present, talking -- and not to mention listening -- was also part of the AfD strategy during federal elections last September. And it worked. The party scored 22.1 percent of the vote here in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, putting it only slightly behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It's possible that Alexander Gauland, the candidate for the Oder-Spree electoral district, was responsible for some of that success. But what has been decisive is the proximity to ordinary voters that the AfD has cultivated. And it's not only here that the far-right populists are firmly rooted, but in many other places around the country as well.

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Political upheavals rarely happen overnight. They begin slowly, and then one morning you wake up and find yourself in another country. The small group that gathered on the evening of Feb. 6, 2013, in a Protestant community center in the town of Oberursel near Frankfurt, had no idea that by founding a new political party called the Alternative for Germany they would trigger something bigger. Who would have thought that a retired senior government official, a conservative newspaper columnist and a numbers-loving economics professor would changed the face of German politics?

Unprecedented Success

And who would have thought that the AfD of Alexander Gauland, Konrad Adam and Bernd Lucke would become a big-tent party of its own -- at least in parts of eastern Germany -- within just a few years? Or that it would win almost a hundred seats in the federal parliament with its pledge to "hunt down" Chancellor Angela Merkel? Or that its party leaders would one day march through the streets of Chemnitz alongside far-right extremists, like they did on Sept. 1, 2018?

The AfD stands for an unprecedented political success, but also for a history of radicalization. Like any new party, breaking taboos is the AfD's lifeblood, but its shift to the right has continued unabated. And anyone who has stood in the party's way has gotten steamrolled. First it hit Lucke, the well-behaved co-founder and former party head; he was overthrown by the much more politically shrewd Frauke Petry.

When Petry herself became too powerful, Alexander Gauland pushed her aside. His tweed jackets may lend him an air of amiability and scholarship, but in reality he has few inhibitions about sealing pacts with far-right extremists. In that regard, it's no coincidence that Gauland is the only person from that founding meeting in Oberursel who still holds sway over the party today.

No other party leader stands as much for the AfD's split personality as Gauland. A former senior official in the state government in Hesse, in western Germany, Gauland lives in a dignified Potsdam neighborhood filled with mansions. He can speak intelligently about Prussian history -- and then, without missing a beat, claim that the Nazi era was but a "speck of bird shit" on German history.

"We're a thorn in the side of a political system that has become outdated," Gauland told the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung earlier this month. He wants to drive out anyone who played a role in what he calls the "Merkel System," including people in the media, and he has called for a "peaceful revolution."

But a revolution against what?

In January, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book titled, "How Democracies Die." In it, they write that in the decades since the end of the Cold War, liberal systems haven't been overthrown through force and military coups alone. More than anything else, democracy has been undermined non-violently through the election of anti-democratic politicians.

The book was written in light of Donald Trump's victory in the U.S., but Germany, too, seems to be on the verge of a turning point. By the end of this year, the AfD is likely to hold seats in every state legislature in Germany. And it has already put forward one of its own -- a conspiracy theorist who predicts the imminent collapse of the euro -- to chair the budget committee in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, which oversees annual government spending of 350 billion euros ($411 billion).

A Turning Point

The AfD was the strongest party in the eastern state of Saxony in the last Bundestag elections, and across the east, it has now become such a force that the CDU has been compelled to express what would have been unfathomable not too long ago: the possibility of governing together with the far-left Left Party.

The unrest in Chemnitz in August marked a turning point for the AfD. There, the party joined a phalanx of agitators and neo-Nazis, with the AfD's Thuringia state chapter leader Björn Höcke marching side-by-side with an activist from Pegida -- the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant group -- who has multiple criminal convictions on his record.

For years, politics in Germany had been shaped by the old polarity between left and right. But those days are over. The question of identity now seems to be more important, which seemingly scrambles the party system. Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party is creating a new movement called "Aufstehen," German for "Stand Up," that she hopes will be a magnet for voters who would like to see a bigger welfare state and fewer immigrants. The move places additional pressure on the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has fluctuated between a culture of welcoming refugees and warnings of a loss of control since the refugee crisis. The business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), meanwhile, has morphed into a law and order party. And the only thing still holding the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, together is the fear of losing power. The only parties that seem to be profiting from the new political complexities are the Greens and the AfD.

So, how to deal with a party that fulminates against the mainstream with such abandon while at the spreading its own tentacles further into the center of society, into government offices, the armed forces, the media and the cultural world?

Should the party be fought as a threat to democracy? Or is the AfD merely indicative of the very vitality of the German political system?

The March Through the Institutions

One of the paradoxes of the AfD is that even though it rails against the establishment like no other party, its members are firmly anchored in that system. Many federal police officers, who felt the most tangible effects of the chaos during the refugee crisis in 2015, are likely to be receptive to the notion that Germany lost control of its borders at the time. Dieter Romann, the president of the Federal Police force, is one of the chancellor's fiercest critics -- and he makes no secret of his opinion.

Ten active and former police officers represent the AfD in various parliaments. One of those is former Chief Superintendent Martin Hess. He used to be responsible for training new officers in the town of Böblingen, just southwest of Stuttgart, and today represents the AfD on the Internal Affairs Committee in parliament. Another is Wilko Möller, a member of the federal police who once worked for the Federal Criminal Police Office and for the Chancellery. He is now in the leadership of the AfD's state chapter in Brandenburg.

But perhaps the most prominent bridge-builder between the far-right and the police is Rainer Wendt, head of the 94,000-member German Police Union (DPolG), one of two prominent unions for German law-enforcement officers. Wendt isn't just fond of giving interviews to the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit, but he also speaks regularly to the magazine Compact, which is even further out on the extremist fringe.

Another example will be seen at the "Border Protection Conference" to be held by Compact in Munich at the end of September. That event will see Martin Sellner, a leading figure of the far-right extremist Identitarian Movement, take the stage -- along with Police Chief Richard Graupner, who is a candidate for the AfD in Bavarian state elections to be held on October 14.

Union leader Wendt has demonstrated no qualms about adopting the rhetoric and ideology of the right wing, saying things like, for example, the macho behavior of young Muslims "is almost one of the genetic cornerstones of this culture." In 2016, he paid a visit to the AfD group in Saxony state parliament, with AfD lawmakers afterwards crowing: "The DPolG and the AfD are fighting for the same goals on many, many issues."

The AfD may also be over-represented in the German military. There are no reliable statistics, since the Bundeswehr, as Germany's armed forces are known, are not permitted to ask troops about their political leanings. But almost 90 percent of the troops are men, and a higher than average share of them come from eastern German states or are members of the German minority in Russia who have moved to Germany. The AfD does particularly well in all three of those groups.

Military Background

There is another indication for the far-right party's influence in the Bundeswehr: More than 13 percent of the 219 male AfD lawmakers in state and federal parliaments have a military background. In federal parliament alone, it is almost 20 percent. Either they used to serve as career soldiers or they are reserve officers.

AfD deputy head Georg Pazderski is a retired colonel in the General Staff while the AfD floor leaders in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Rhineland-Palatinate are all former soldiers.

At the official commemoration for German war dead held in the Reichstag on Nov. 19, the country's official day of mourning, four representatives of the Social Democrats showed up, five from Merkel's conservatives, one each from the Greens and the Left Party - and 38 from the AfD.

It's not surprising, then, that the AfD seeks to present itself as the party of the military, though its expertise on issues pertaining to the military is limited. In late May, for instance, the Defense Ministry invited Bundeswehr experts from the Budget Committee to a meeting. Martin Hohmann, who was thrown out of the Christian Democrats in 2004 after delivering a virulently anti-Semitic speech, attended the meeting for the AfD.

Hohmann had only three questions. The first was why the European Union flag stood in the middle of the hall instead of the German flag. Fellow parliamentarian Tobias Lindner of the Green Party gave him a brief speech on the flag regulations applicable in public buildings in Germany. Then Hohmann criticized the practice of addressing soldiers as "Soldatinnen und Soldaten," a German-language convention to include both women and men. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen responded: "Mr. Representative, you wouldn't appreciate being addressed as Ms. Representative Hohmann, would you?"

Intentional Provocation?

Finally, the AfD member wanted to know if paratroopers were still based in Altenstadt since he had once served there. The answer: Yes, they're still there.

After that, Hohmann had no further questions.

Slowly but surely, the AfD is also advancing into areas that possess even more powerful weapons than the military: the media and the world of culture. As the third-largest group in German parliament, the AfD has access to a number of administrative bodies, from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Stasi Records Agency, which administers the vast number of files kept by the East German secret police on its own citizens. When it comes to choosing its representatives for such bodies, the AfD sometimes seems to be intentionally trying to provoke. For example, for the board of the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, which fights for gay rights, the AfD chose Nicole Höchst, who believes that homosexuals have an abnormal inclination to pedophilia.

Most important to the AfD, however, would appear to be access to the publicly funded media platforms. It is here, after all, that the party believes its greatest opponents are employed. AfD representatives already sit on the boards of four public broadcasters. They are also represented on six state media boards that monitor programming on private broadcasters.

But the party wants more, as party head Gauland noted last week in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Unfortunately, he told the paper, many "people in the media" support Merkel's policies. "I would like to expel them from positions of responsibility."

If you ask Gauland exactly how he plans to implement his plan, he becomes evasive. "I never said journalists should be completely expelled from Germany," he protests. "And 'expel' doesn't imply the use of violence." But essentially, he wants to "finally change the imbalance in the media to our advantage" -- such that newsrooms are populated by fewer AfD opponents and more Merkel critics.

The AfD's Two Faces

The AfD had a dazzling character from the very beginning -- and it never differentiated between the middle class and the radicals, which is precisely what made it so successful. During the recent protests in Chemnitz, the actual AfD spectrum was in full view for the first time. Members of parliament with the party and top officials led a group of marchers that included not only local Chemnitz residents, but the xenophobic splinter group Pro Chemnitz, as well as hooligans, neo-Nazis and members of the identitarian movement. Two days later, a concert aimed at countering those protests attracted 65,000 people.

"We don't want extremists and violent criminals within our ranks," Thuringia AfD leader Höcke had previously posted on Facebook. But they came anyway, and they were even tolerated and assimilated. A repeat offender with multiple convictions was allowed to march right at the front. Meanwhile, Höcke gave a warm welcome to Lutz Bachmann, the frontman for the xenophobic Pegida marches in Dresden, whose logo had also adorned the AfD's invitation to the rally.

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