Alternative for Democracy The AfD's Ongoing Slide toward Right-Wing Extremism

In recent state elections, the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany won almost a quarter of the votes. It was primarily radical candidates from the right-wing fringe who emerged triumphant. The party is continuing its slide into extremism. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

Michael Hanko, a tile setter by trade, is a prime example. Several years ago, he set up the neo-Nazi meeting point known as "Bunker 38," where Adolf Hitler's birthday on April 20 was even celebrated on occasion. These days? Hanko is a newly elected representative in the state parliament of Brandenburg, elected with 35.8 percent of the votes. His party? Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Electrician Norbert Mayer is another one. He founded the "Liberal Patriotic Alternative," a group which even the AfD in 2017 deemed too radical. It ended up on the right-wing populist party's list of organizations it wasn't willing to cooperate with. Mayer says things like: "There was a reason Europe defended itself against the Turks in 1529 and 1683." He is now a state representative for the AfD in Saxony, with the party having won 32.3 percent in his electoral district.

And then there is the lawyer Lena Duggen. She used to be active in the Islamophobic party "Freedom," whose Bavarian state chapter was under observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence service. She has issued warnings about a generation of "beheader-children" and sees Germany as being in the "chokehold of young Muslim men." She now sits in the Brandenburg state parliament for the AfD, the party having won 18 percent in her district.

The trio represents just three lawmakers belonging to a party that claims to be b ürgerlich, a term that denotes both representation of the middle-class and adherence to democratic and social norms. It would, though, be hard to argue that the three fall into that category. Just as it would be difficult to argue that the trio of lawmakers represent some kind of exception within the party. Indeed, in the eastern German AfD of late-summer 2019, they are more the rule.

Most of the AfD politicians who were voted into the state parliaments of Brandenburg and Saxony on September 1 are adherents of the "Flügel," the extremist wing of the AfD that has attracted the attention of the BfV because of its ethnic racism and nationalism. And because the Flügel is considered to be potentially hostile to the German constitution. All of those traits are likewise prevalent among leaders of the AfD chapters in the two states.

In Saxony, the AfD is led by Jörg Urban, a man who, according to the BfV, once said: "We will bring down this regime, too, with the help of reasonable people." In Brandenburg, meanwhile, the party's leader is Andreas Kalbitz, a man who has spent over half of his life in right-wing extremist circles.

What Society Considers Normal

The party's electoral success in the Brandenburg and Saxony state elections on September 1 marked the end of a decades-long taboo which held that any party publicly associated with right-wing extremism could not be allowed to play a significant role in German parliamentary democracy. But in Saxony, the AfD received 27.5 percent of votes. In Brandenburg it was 23.7 percent. Only a few percentage points separated them from attaining their goal of being the biggest parties in their respective states.

It was a good sign for democracy that Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer, of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), and Brandenburg Governor Dietmar Woidke, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), were able to retain their positions. But it was a bad sign that a radicalized AfD won one quarter of all votes.

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What society considers normal and what it does not is the product of a constant negotiation. Now, after several years of that process, radical has become the new normal. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, the founding director of the Bielefeld Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence, spoke years ago of the emergence of a kind of civic coarseness -- the interplay of a respectable-looking façade with ruthless rhetoric and aggressively authoritarian tendencies. It is a process that has produced someone like Alexander Gauland, the AfD's national spokesman. In 2018, Gauland, whose appearance makes him look solidly bürgerlich, famously played down the Nazi era as being nothing but "a spot of bird shit on German history." He also argues, though, that the term bürgerlich "also stands for, among other things, the protection of property, the protection of personal freedoms and lifestyle, but also to the rejection of revolutionary upheaval." Gauland, of course, wasn't speaking of his own party, but was instead referring to what he calls the "eco-dictatorship" of the Green Party. The AfD, he said, was "self-evidently bürgerlich."

Other right-wing extremist parties have sent delegates to German state parliaments in the past, including such overtly neo-Nazi parties as the NPD and the Republicans. But never has there been a discussion as to whether they had roots in the center of Germany's civic society -- whether they were bürgerlich. Never before has one heard voices from the true center of German society calling for the inclusion of the radicals in a coalition government. These days, though, such voices exist -- rare, to be sure, but they must be taken seriously. They represent a challenge to German society to finally answer the question: How should the country deal with a party that is becoming ever bigger and more extreme, but which has also put down roots in the middle of the country's parliamentary democracy. And: How can the party's voters be won back?

Thorny Questions

On election night, the presenter on a public television station set off an intense debate when she described the AfD as bürgerlich. And it was a debate, still ongoing, that addresses several thorny questions. Given the party's growth, particularly in eastern Germany, is it time to treat it differently than before? Because of that success, is it time to accept the party as a legitimate voice in the shaping of German politics? Or should that possibility be excluded for a party that doesn't even try to hide its roots in the neo-Nazi scene?

It is August 21, just a few days before the election, and the central square in the town of Luckau is full. They are here to see Christoph Berndt, the AfD candidate for Brandenburg parliament in the district.

The audience is mixed, including lots of older men, not so many women and a couple of youths. Interspersed in the audience are also several muscular men with tattooed arms and T-shirts bearing words like: "Division Spreewald," "H8" (code for "Heil Hitler"), or "In grandpa's time things were still fine," accompanied by an image of Hitler's Nuremberg Rally of 1934. One man has a tattoo of the name "Jason," with the "s" written as it is in the SS logo.

They are all here to see Berndt, who has said that "the street and the parliament" cannot stand in opposition to one another when it comes the AfD. He is the founder of "Future Homeland," a group which acts as a kind of link to the right-wing extremists. The Brandenburg state offshoot of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution says the group has "organizational and personnel overlap" with the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement (IB). On September 1, Berndt won in his district with 28.9 percent of the vote.

One of the best-known faces of the radical wing of the AfD is Andreas Kalbitz, head of the Brandenburg branch of the party. They call him "little Himmler," which might also have to do with the fact that he spent half his life in the extremist right-wing scene, including membership in a group that has since been banned. He also used to write for an extremist publication and he once worked on two screenplays that glorified both Hitler and the 1st Mountain Division, a unit of the Wehrmacht in World War II that was involved in numerous large-scale war crimes.

All of that was before he joined the AfD, which he did just a few weeks after it was founded in 2013. Two years later, he took over the chairmanship of an association on whose board were a number of members of the neo-Nazi NPD party. Kalbitz never spoke about such ties of his own free will and only admitted them after journalists dug into his past and he was left with no other option.

Kalbitz spent the election campaign driving around in a BMW X5 and was always accompanied by bodyguards, impressing his listeners with rustic diatribes. He described anti-climate change activist Greta Thunberg as a "small, moon-faced girl" and was similarly contemptuous of those who participated in Fridays for Future protests.

Kalbitz continues to maintain contact with the far-right today, including the Identitarian Movement. Some of his staff come directly or tangentially from the movement and he has close ties to the ethnocentric icon of the New Right, Götz Kubitschek. On election night, he thanked the Identitarian Movement's financing association for supporting him during the campaign.

Good Enough for Gauland

So far, Kalbitz hasn't been hurt by his right-wing extremist connections. Before the election, journalists discovered that he had participated in a neo-Nazi march in Athens in 2007 along with 13 German right-wing extremists, including the head of the NPD at the time and other functionaries. On the night of that demonstration, the group hung a swastika flag from their hotel balcony, according to a dispatch by the German Embassy in Athens. Kalbitz has confirmed that he was present at the march in Athens but claims not to have been on the balcony. He said that he later concluded that he didn't like the event and said that he has never been a member of the NPD and had no personal connections with it.

Kalbitz's explanation was enough for Gauland. Indeed, after the election, Gauland said that the AfD was the "largest bürgerlich opposition party" and Kalbitz was "just as bürgerlich as I am."

Gauland is granting himself the bürgerlich seal-of-approval just as the concept seems to be growing obsolete. The postwar political constellation, a time when the CDU, the SPD and the pro-business FDP were the pillars of West Germany's three-party system, later gave way to a four-party fields. After reunification, it morphed into a collection of five, or even six parties. That shift, in fact, is one key reason for the AfD's success.

These days, the concept of a big-tent party is little more than an artefact of a seemingly sensible postwar idea. Following the Nazi dictatorship, West Germany sought to ensure that its politics would take place within the framework of a liberal-democratic order. Voters on the right-wing fringe felt themselves to be well represented by the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, while the SPD was able to tether the radical left wing. Although there were occasional extreme outliers on the far left and far right, they remained -- in contrast to today -- largely irrelevant.

The parties themselves defined the democratic spectrum, which theoretically remains the case today.

It's reminiscent of an analogy conceived by German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger about immigration. He described a railway compartment where the most recent arrivals are consistently eyed with suspicion -- until they themselves are no longer the newcomer. Will the same hold true for the AfD? Or can new movements only be integrated if they come from the left side of the spectrum?

When the Greens began sending delegates to the first state parliaments in the 1980s, they were depicted by the SPD, the CDU and several media outlets as chaotic political incompetents who posed a threat to Western culture. Later, the Left Party was also smeared for its (partial) roots in the East German communist party.

Every system seeks to defend itself when called into question. But the German system has some peculiarities: When the attack comes from the left, it is mostly the parties on the right of the political spectrum that react angrily. But if the attack comes from the right, as is the case with the AfD, the broadest possible coalition, from the left to relatively far on the right, pushes back.

Stagnation

As a result the AfD -- especially the extremist, völkisch wing -- is forcing the other parties into assembling unusual coalitions that neither the parties nor the voters actually want. An example of that can be seen in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the CDU, SPD and Greens have been governing together for the last three years. The constellation is known in Germany as a "Kenya coalition," because the colors associated with the parties recall the Kenyan flag. And nobody is particularly excited by it.

Because the parties rarely agree, everything must be carefully written down in the coalition agreement -- and there is little room for projects not included in that agreement. Stagnation is the result.

The Kenya alliance in the state, says Sebastian Streigel, the Green Party spokesman in Saxony-Anhalt, is purely an "alliance of stewardship that rests on the shared belief that a right-wing, völkisch party should not be allowed to participate in power."

Indeed, the consensus that the AfD should under no circumstances be allowed to be part of a government is a broad one. Berlin historian Per Leo, author of a book called "Mit Rechten Reden" (Talking to Right-Wingers), sees this as the core of the debate about whether the AfD is bürgerlich or not. "What is being discussed when we talk about this term is whether the AfD should be included in a coalition or not." Bürgerlich, Leo says, means non-extremist, it stands for centrism, moderation and the ability to compromise. For this reason, he argues, the AfD should not be described as "bürgerlich," just as they shouldn't be described as "conservative."

When it was founded in 2013 by Bernd Lucke, of course, the AfD did have solid centrist roots. It was essentially a group of economist eggheads (hence the early nickname "party of professors") who wanted Germany out of the single currency. But on March 13 of that year, in the first month of the new party's existence, Götz Kubitschek wrote a blog post that is helpful for understanding how the right-wing extremist, völkisch members of the AfD have successfully built up a solid power base in the party.

Kubitschek wrote that the most important thing is that the early AfD found a "door-opening issue" with the euro. He then wrote: "Our issues (identity, resistance and the criticism of gender, parties and ideology) can rush in as well if we quickly and consequently put our foot in the door."

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