How Germany’s far-right gained, even as it lost
On the face of it, Germany’s main far-right party should be licking its wounds. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, dropped about 2 percentage points in last month’s elections from its showing in 2017, when it entered the country’s parliament for the first time and won the status of being the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag. With just about 10 percent of the vote, it has lost seats and will almost certainly no longer occupy the role of main opposition party as other more mainstream parties wrangle over the shape of the next government.
On the campaign trail, AfD politicians peddled the same anti-immigration, Islamophobic agenda that energized their movement a half decade ago — scaremongering over an influx of Afghan refugees as they had grandstanded over the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the previous election cycle. They pandered to German skeptics of coronavirus vaccines and opponents of pandemic-provoked lockdowns, while railing against the eco-politics of the left. But the election results seemed to suggest the party, still viewed by many Germans as espousing politics that are beyond the pale, had hit a ceiling.
Voter concerns over the economy, the pandemic and climate change meant the AfD’s angry nativism remained a somewhat fringe position. “Despite AfD rhetoric and media coverage to the contrary, most voters in Germany — and perhaps elsewhere — don’t find harsh anti-immigrant positions appealing,” political scientist Rafaela Dancygier wrote. “Instead, a centrist stance on immigration combined with center-left economics turned out to be a winning strategy.”
The AfD now finds itself once again a pariah within the halls of power, as Germany’s other parties in parliament refuse to partner with a faction linked to far-right extremism. Their place in German politics is “not a danger for democracy,” Hajo Funke, a German academic who focuses on right-wing extremism, told my colleagues. “They will remain completely isolated.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Both of Germany’s two traditional political mainstays — the center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats — won less than 30 percent of the vote. The AfD can gain a stronger foothold in a context of deepening fragmentation in German politics. In the states that once comprised Communist-ruled East Germany, the AfD is solidifying its position as a major regional force. It is particularly popular among younger cohorts of voters, and the party could be in a position to dominate in future state elections in Saxony and Thuringia.
“I’m confident that sooner or later there is no way without the AfD,” Tino Chrupalla, one of the AfD’s co-leaders, told reporters last month. “It will certainly start on the state level.”
Before the election, my colleagues attended a rally Chrupalla threw in the town of Görlitz in Saxony. “We can count like this: one, two, AfD,” Jan Kessens, a local man sitting on a park bench, told The Washington Post. “It’s every third person here in this city.”
“The AfD is here to stay,” Matthias Quent, professor of sociology at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences, told the New York Times. “There was the widespread and naive hope that this was a short-lived protest phenomenon. The reality is that the far right has become entrenched in the German political landscape.”
Nor does it seem the AfD has much interest in moderating its position. Last week, AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen announced he would not run for reelection at the party’s conference in December. His decision followed deteriorating relations with Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, another hard-line AfD leader. Meuthen had hoped to better pitch the AfD toward centrist voters and revise the party’s anti-European Union platform.
Even though it lost vote share, the AfD gets a boost in taxpayer funding. As it returns to parliament for the second time, the party is now entitled to receive millions of euros in state funding for its affiliated political foundation, the Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung. “If the forces of xenophobia will have less influence in the Bundestag this go round, the AfD’s education, recruitment and brand-polishing arm will have far more — paid for by the state,” wrote investigative journalist Annelie Naumann in an essay for The Washington Post.
The injection of tens of millions of euros in taxpayer cash, Naumann suggested, would help the AfD popularize far-right politics in German universities and bolster its pipeline of recruits. She delved into the beliefs and rhetoric of figures like DES Chairwoman Erika Steinbach, who “claims that there is no place for ‘radical, racist and extremist ideas’ in her foundation, but various unions and organizations, including the Central Council of Jews in Germany, accuse her and other DES board members of ‘relativizing’ the Holocaust, or minimizing it by comparing it to lesser events, and having ties to extremist groups.”
For decades, German politics has been defined by what’s sometimes referred to as the country’s “memory culture” — its collective recognition of the sins of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. But figures within the German far right, including AfD politicians, have bemoaned the need for constant atonement and the permanent memorializing of national defeat. That political impulse has led observers to voice concerns about the risk of mounting antisemitism, among other xenophobic views.
“We are seeing a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish language,” Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, told Today’s WorldView, after participating in a State Department-backed trip through parts of Germany earlier this month that was focused on countering antisemitism.
“It’s causing a lot of fear in the broader German public about what is under the surface” in German society, Rubin added. “The fear is now that the AfD has a platform with federal money and is getting a real geographic base in the east.”