Normalization on the Extreme Right Alternative for Germany Party Gains Ground Ahead of Elections

The far-right Alternative for Germany party is polling better than it has in several years. With elections approaching next year in a trio of eastern German states, the AfD is seeking to find its way even closer to the political mainstream.
AfD party leader Tino Chrupalla at a New Year's reception with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Büdenbender

AfD party leader Tino Chrupalla at a New Year's reception with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Büdenbender


picture alliance / dpa

The world wars, says Tino Chrupalla, head of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), were "a catastrophe" for Germany and Europe. They "divided the continent and weakened it permanently."

Chrupalla speaks of Germany’s "defeats." He doesn’t, however, speak of the millions of dead, nor does he make mention of the Holocaust.

Instead, Chrupalla says that he finds it problematic "to always link remembrance with the question of guilt." Culpability issues should be "superseded by the question of the accomplishments of every civilization." That, he says, is a process the AfD would like to initiate. "Historical guilt should no longer determine the way we act."

Those who may still have been wondering where the AfD stands on the political spectrum and what to think of the party’s leader – who is fond of referring to himself as a mainstream conservative – such utterances should make it abundantly clear. The quotes come from an interview Chrupalla gave to the right-wing extremist blog "Sezession," which appeared two weeks ago – right around the time when the rest of Europe was observing Victory in Europe Day.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 21/2023 (May 20th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Chrupalla’s comments are reminiscent of the rather shocking claims of his predecessor Alexander Gauland, who is today honorary chairman of the AfD. In 2018, Gauland said that Germany had a "glorious history that is much longer than 12 years." And: "Dear friends, Hitler and the Nazis are but a spot of bird shit on German history."

Five years ago, Gauland’s statements triggered widespread indignation. Leading politicians from all of Germany’s democratic parties condemned his comments, the German government branded them as "shameful" and all major media outlets covered the story. There were even voices within the AfD itself demanding an apology, which Gauland then half-heartedly delivered. He regrets the impact they made, he said.

But following Chrupalla’s comments? Crickets. There were no objections worthy of note from his own party nor from other politicians – despite the fact that Chrupalla went even further than Gauland. Gauland at least mentioned the Nazis. Chrupalla, though, did not, nor did he say anything about their crimes.

Getting Used to the Party

The incident shows once again just how entrenched the AfD has become, how the party has become an accepted part of Germany’s political landscape. Ten years after its founding, so many have grown used to the party and its beliefs that not even historical revisionism is sufficient to trigger a debate. Instead, other parties have begun cooperating with the AfD time and again, particularly the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is part of Germany’s current governing coalition.

Despite being monitored by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, on suspicions of right-wing extremism, the AfD doesn’t just have representatives in almost all of Germany’s state parliaments and in the Bundestag, the federal parliament in Berlin. It is also polling higher in public opinion surveys than it has in five years. A broad feeling of uneasiness with the current situation could be feeding the rise, as could the fact that the number of refugees arriving in Europe has once again ticked upwards. But are such explanations sufficient?

Nationwide support for the AfD has been rising since last autumn and currently stands at between 16 and 18 percent. In eastern Germany, the party enjoys the support of roughly a quarter of voters, making it frequently the strongest party in the region. And that despite the AfD showing an increasing openness about its antipathy for democracy.

Or might that perhaps be the precise reason for its popularity?

Just over a week ago, the first AfD district administrator was almost installed in the state of Brandenburg, only barely losing out in the run-off election. But beyond the election results and survey successes, the AfD’s greatest success is likely the fact that it has managed to pull the political debate in Germany to the right. Their messages and methods are increasingly being adopted by conservative politicians and conservative media outlets – which also contributes to the normalization of the AfD’s message.

Where might this process lead?

It’s late April and Chrupalla’s co-leader Alice Weidel is onstage in Erfurt, telling her audience: "We are growing stronger." In the future, she said, it will no longer be possible for the government to ignore the AfD.

Her voice growing louder, she calls out: "Is that utopian?" No! her audience responds.

"Is that delusional?" No! comes the response.

"Is that unrealistic?” No!

At the end of her speech, Weidel asks those present to support the AfD in the coming election. "Give us your vote, give Björn Höcke your vote." Höcke then walks onto the stage, both of them beaming, arm in arm. It is Weidel’s first-ever solo appearance with Höcke, the figurehead for the right-wing extremists within the AfD. Several years ago, Weidel was part of an effort to get Höcke thrown out of the party for his extremism, but in 2018, the two of them forged a non-aggression pact, which has since evolved into mutual support. Höcke managed to get his way. And without his support, nobody in the AfD can find success.

And that goes far beyond a mere shift in public discourse. It marks the acceptance of right-wing extremism, at least within the AfD.

Leading AfD functionaries Alice Weidel and Björn Höcke at their first joint appearance in late April in Erfurt.

Leading AfD functionaries Alice Weidel and Björn Höcke at their first joint appearance in late April in Erfurt.

Foto: Karina Hessland-Wissel

But what about outside the party? During the initial years of the AfD, other parties insisted that the firewall was sturdy, even though cracks were showing even then. Is that firewall still holding up? The answer: It is, at the very least, eroding.

Leipzig-based political scientist Steven Hummel, who works for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Left Party, has identified fully 18 instances from 2019 to the end of 2022 in which the Saxony chapter of the CDU cooperated with the AfD on the municipal level. In most of those cases, the two parties worked together in making committee appointments, but sometimes also on individual issues. In December, for example, the CDU in the Bautzen regional council voted in favor of an AfD proposal to exclude a certain class of refugees – those who have not received asylum but who cannot currently be deported – from welfare support payments.

Normalization of the AfD "Has Definitely Progressed"

There have also been instances of cooperation in other German states as well – in some individual cases even with parties like the Greens, the Left Party and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Most frequently, however, it has been conservative parties working together with the AfD – and sometimes even at the state level. In Saxony-Anhalt, the CDU gave its support in 2017 to an AfD proposal in state parliament, and two years later, the two deputy heads of the CDU parliamentary group debated whether to form a coalition with the AfD. Most recently, the CDU passed a law and a proposal in Thuringia with AfD votes, with the FDP also supporting the law.

Anna-Sophie Heinze has published several papers about how other parties approach the AfD. The political scientist from the University of Trier has identified a gradual shift. "The normalization of the AfD has definitely progressed in recent years."

Heinze says that the AfD is still far from being treated as a normal party, but has stabilized as an organization. "The AfD has become extremely adept at breaking taboos," she says. "We are no longer seeing the same waves of outrage that we used to."

What role have conservatives from other parties played in that development?

Political scientist Vicente Valentim from the University of Oxford performed a rather intriguing experiment in an effort to answer that question. He presented study subjects with real statements made either by AfD functionaries or by German center-right politicians – statements that were virtually identical in content and tone. He didn’t provide the names of the politicians who made the statements, but did indicate the party they were from.

Some participants only received statements made by AfD politicians, others only those from center-right politicians. Some received both sets, and still others saw the anti-immigration statements from the AfD next to comments from center-right politicians in support of immigration. Afterwards, study participants were asked whether they would sign a petition opposing immigration from Afghanistan and where they thought public opinion stood on the issue – and whether the statements they had read made a difference in their choices.

The result: "Sometimes, who says something is just as important as what is said," Valentim says. When the extreme right voices its opposition to immigration, for example, it only had an influence on those who were already sympathetic to the extreme right. The statements from the center-right, by contrast, had an effect on broader swaths of society. "Politicians from mainstream parties play a decisive role when it comes to maintaining democratic norms," he says – or undermining those norms. "The study shows that it is dangerous when democratic parties adopt certain positions espoused by the extreme right."

A Loose Relationship with the Truth

Yet it happens all the time. CDU head Friedrich Merz, for example, last September accused Ukrainian refugees of "welfare tourism." In a recent talk show, CDU deputy floor leader Jens Spahn suggested that it was time to consider whether the Geneva Convention on refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights were still appropriate to our times.

Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for senior CDU politicians to utter such positions. Now, apparently, they are not only thinkable, but also sayable.

Leading politicians from the CDU, it’s Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the FDP are not under suspicion of harboring significant sympathy for the AfD, and cooperation at the federal level remains inconceivable. Yet prominent voices within the CDU, CSU and FDP do on occasion make use of the shrill tones and loose relationship with the truth that has fueled the AfD’s success.

CDU lawmaker Tilman Kuban, for example, criticized a day-care center in early May for allegedly not paying sufficient heed to Mother’s Day, an allegation that was off the mark. When the broadcasting rights for the popular Native American-based series "Winnetou" changed hands from ARD to ZDF, both of which are public broadcasters in Germany, many conservative politicians and others from the FDP complained about the "cancel culture" in the ARD. CSU head Markus Söder, meanwhile, complained vocally about "gendering mandates" – though there is no law on the books in Germany requiring gendered speech. Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) expressed outrage that the sexist party song "Layla" had been "officially" banned – which never happened.

And for an entire week, CDU leader Merz said nothing about the nationwide police raids in January targeting the virulently nationalist Reichsbürger network behind Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, a group which stands accused of having planned to overthrow  the German government. He then broke his silence to praise public officials for "displaying severity" in their response to the network, but quickly added that it didn’t represent a danger to German democracy – before then immediately "explicitly" welcoming the searches conducted of homes of climate activists, since they, Merz said, "have also committed serious crimes."

Already six years ago, the right-wing extremist publisher and Höcke confidant Götz Kubitschek spoke at an AfD strategy meeting about how to shift the public debate in Germany to the right. His concept adhered closely to the idea of the so-called Overton window, which involves spreading radical statements until they are acceptable, and acceptable statements until they are popular. It’s a tactical game, in which backbenchers utter specific sentiments to see of they still trigger outrage.

CSU politicians and Armin Petschner-Multari (second from left) with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

CSU politicians and Armin Petschner-Multari (second from left) with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Foto: Twitter

Recently, a number of CSU politicians – Florian Hahn, Dorothee Bär and Andreas Scheuer – made a visit to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican. DeSantis has backed a slew of recent hard-right laws in his state, including banning certain books from the state’s libraries and criminalizing most abortions after the 15th week, even in cases of rape. He has also lowered hurdles to the death penalty. After the visit, Scheuer says he "shares" DeSantis’ viewpoints.

Among the members of the delegation was Armin Petschner-Multari, a fellow at a Washington, D.C., foundation that belongs to a Republican-allied network and which aims to reduce the role of the state to an absolute minimum. Last year, Petschner-Multari made headlines for organizing an event in conjunction with the foundation at which CDU leader Merz was to meet with Lindsey Graham, who supports Donald Trump. When it became known that the guestlist also included a lawyer who had spent years representing the AfD, Merz cancelled his participation at the last minute.

Otherwise, Petschner-Multari focuses on a different pet project called "The Republic." The outlet produces shrill social network posts in opposition to the climate policies of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, immigration, the public broadcasting network in Germany and "woke imbecility." Friedrich Merz said in 2021 that he has followed the project’s development "with interest and, from the perspective of diversity of opinion, wishes all the best to the initiators."

Still, rhetoric that emulates the AfD isn’t particularly helpful to the CDU or FDP, and instead gives the right-wing populist party a boost. That isn’t just clear from public opinion polls, but also from the fact that only the AfD’s potential currently seems to be rising. Data from the public opinion researchers at INSA shows that very clearly. The institution regularly seeks to identify the share of the population that could not imagine voting for the AfD under any circumstances. In the last two years, that share has dropped from 70 percent to its current level of 56 percent. INSA is also regularly commissioned by the AfD, which means the numbers should be approached with a certain degree of caution. But the trend appears to be clear.

In addition, the right-wing party profits from the constant crises that have beset Germany and from the poor communication skills of the current government. First there was the coronavirus, then the Russian invasion of Ukraine, then the energy crisis and inflation. Now, Germany finds itself consumed by a rancorous debate about home heating and by rising migration numbers. Uncertainty among many has been the result.

Becoming More Radical

The political scientist Denis Cohen, who works for the Mannheim Center for European Social Research, has completed studies showing that economic uncertainty tends to help parties like the AfD. After all, he says, it’s not so much the unemployed and suffering who turn to such parties, but those who still have something to lose. "Fears of losing status or social descent drive people to radical right-wing parties.”

The interesting thing about the AfD, though, he says, is that its rise has not followed the pattern of right-wing extremist parties in other countries. Elsewhere, he says, it has frequently been the case that they have managed to become part of governing coalitions "after professionalizing themselves and moderating a bit," says Cohen. That makes it easier for center-right parties to form alliances with the far right. "We’re not seeing that with the AfD. They are becoming more professional, but also more radical." That makes potential alliances at the state level "particularly sensitive, especially for the CDU."

An AfD demonstration in Berlin in October

An AfD demonstration in Berlin in October

Foto: Hans Christian Plambeck / laif

Which makes the behavior of the CDU and FDP all the more important should the AfD continue to experience election day success. Elections will be held in three eastern German states in 2024 where the AfD is particularly strong: Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia.

Will the firewall hold?

"There will be no form of cooperation with the AfD," says Mario Czaja, general secretary of the CDU's national executive. "That is true of the entire CDU, whether in the east, west, north or south.

Jan Redmann, the freshly elected head of the CDU’s state chapter in Brandenburg, says: "There can be no question of any kind of cooperation with the AfD for the sole reason that this party actually wants to ruin the country." The party, he says, is "unpatriotic, because it first wants to destroy so that it can then take power."

His advice for his CDU counterparts in other states: "To gain support in the east, the CDU must clearly delineate itself from the Greens, but that can only work if it energetically rejects the AfD."

The head of the CDU in Saxony and state governor, Michael Kretschmer, says that the AfD and its leadership are "evil," with the party representing "a very real danger to our democracy." The CDU, he says, must draw a clear line in the sand. Parliamentary alliances or joining forces to pass laws and initiatives is "not OK."

But Kretschmer also says that at the municipal level, when it comes to things like schools or bicycle paths, only the content matters. Joining forces at that level is fine, apparently.

Marco Wanderwitz, also of the CDU, takes a different view. From the Erzgebirge mountains, Wanderwitz was once the federal government’s commissioner for issues pertaining to eastern Germany. The "constant breakthroughs" of the AfD firewall at the municipal level are appalling, he says. "The party leadership in Saxony does nothing about it, which harms our credibility."

Wanderwitz says that numerous CDU party allies are yearning for a time when they can cooperate with the AfD or there is "at least a toleration" of the party. There are also, he says, internal voices saying that a firewall is not God-given and that the AfD could also become more moderate. For Wanderwitz, such hopes are misguided. The AfD, he says, is a right-wing extremist party that wants a different Germany. The Christian Democrat believes that banning the party is the only path forward.

AfD Involvement Might Be Inevitable

"What are we actually waiting for?" Wanderwitz asks. "Taking that step is mandatory and the only solution."

And what about the CDU in Thuringia, the state where Höcke is the AfD leader? There, the center-right is sending mixed signals.

Mario Voigt, the Thuringia party head and CDU floor leader in the state parliament says: "No cooperation with the AfD. They're the enemies of the future." The people of Thuringia, he says, don’t want a "right-wing extremist Höcke AfD." But Voigt also says that it may be inevitable that some legislation can only passed with votes from the AfD to secure a majority.

Prior to Voight’s time as CDU head in the state, there was the infamous incident in Erfurt. In 2020, the head of the FDP in the state, Thomas Kemmerich, was voted in as governor with support from both the CDU and the AfD. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel got involved in the ensuing kerfuffle, while Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was leader of the CDU at the time, announced her resignation a short time later.

Kemmerich, who again wants to run as his party’s lead candidate in next year’s state elections, has insisted that he learned his lesson and points to the most recent FDP party resolution which "excludes any kind of cooperation with the AfD." He says he doesn’t shake hands with Björn Höcke in the state parliament and that there is no contact whatsoever.

And what about shared votes? "We pursue a liberal political agenda, which informs our proposals. In doing so, we don’t keep track of who votes for them." He says, though, that the FDP will not join proposals introduced by the AfD.

Within the AfD, considerations are underway for how to force the hands of conservative parties. One option being looked at: Following state elections next year, Höcke could offer to pull back and decline to take a position in the new government, thus clearing the way for a possible AfD coalition with the CDU and FDP. Some figure that such an alliance should be possible without Höcke as an excuse.

Still, there aren’t many in the AfD who really believe that the FDP and CDU would accept such a poisoned offer. But they do hope that it would force members of the two parties into a position where they would have to explain their decision to certain elements of their electorate.

And there is also another option under consideration in the AfD: After the election, the AfD could repeatedly offer to support a minority coalition of the two parties. Again, the right-wingers believe that rejecting such an offer would heap pressure on the CDU and FDP.

Which would be the next step toward the normalization of the AfD.

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