How Germany’s Far Right Could Go Mainstream

We live under the impression that the extreme right in Germany is weak. While it is less visible than equivalents in France or the Netherlands, there is a rich undercurrent of rightist dissent that could rise to the surface to enter the mainstream of German politics.

The channel is Alternative für Deutschland, a party that barely existed two years ago but that today holds an increasingly important role in Germany’s political system. Formed in 2013 and initially focused on resistance against the bailout for Greece, it has quickly succeeded in mobilising voters in European, national and state elections. On the surface, the party is moderate, operates within the law and its leadership is cautious to not appear radical.

AfD blends conservative, mildly-eurosceptic, and market-liberal ideas and shuns more traditional forms of German right-wing populism, avoiding references to post-war borders, the holocaust, or many of the other terms associated with Germany’s traditional extreme right. This is a very unusual and significant development for parties on the far right in Germany.

Despite this, analysis of past manifesto pledges and regular tracking of the party’s online presence puts it firmly on the far right of the country’s political spectrum. Its nationalism, its resistance to state support for sexual diversity and gender mainstreaming or its free-market liberalism leave little doubt of where its values lie.

The party’s influence is significant and has every chance of growing. It has won about 2 million votes in each of the last federal, state and European elections and this solid electoral support makes the AfD a player in with considerable power to shape the existing German party system.

Most obviously, it could do this by replacing the declining Free Democratic Party and by weakening Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union.

AfD appears conflicted about its future direction

While Merkel has ruled out a coalition with the AfD, the FDP’s demise may push her into the arms of the left at a time when the AfD’s success has begun fuelling an internal backlash from conservatives against her socially liberal policies. The AfD could soon be influencing policy domestic policy, immigration issues and European integration policy.

That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be enough to cause a realignment in German politics. But increasingly the party — whose electoral support appears to have reached a plateau — appears conflicted about its future direction. Parts of the leadership want to keep the focus on family values and orthodox economics, while others want to steer it towards a more anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant agenda. That would be the real vote-winner and many are intent on transforming the AfD into a right-wing populist party along the lines of UKIP in Britain.

So far, the moderates have dominated. The party's leader, Bernd Lucke, has committed the AfD to civic nationalism, financial prudence, and soft euro-scepticism. Meanwhile other heavyweights such as Alexander Gauland and Konrad Adam have catered for the more “liberal-conservative” audience left behind by Merkel’s move to the centre. In 2014, Lucke’s party had more in common with British Conservatives than UKIP, let alone the Front National of France or Austria’s Freedom Party.

Become “dangerous citizens”

But Lucke’s grip over the party seems to be weakening. His plans to replace the joint leadership structure with a more traditional sole-leader role have been rejected and met with criticism from his colleagues. State and district party chapters are struggling to keep right-wing extremists out. Emboldened by electoral success, MEPs such as Beatrix von Storch and Marcus Pretzell, who represent less savoury brands of the right, may prove more attractive to voters than Lucke’s polite exercises in political positioning. It’s not clear how long the party will be able to resist the temptation to seek the broader electoral support by moving further and more explicitly to the right.

interactions with party members via social media reveal a much darker side

Already, there are signs that beneath the careful tone and calibrated message of the party’s manifestos, lies a more radical underbelly. A speech delivered by Adam in 2013 encouraged party members to become “dangerous citizens” (“gefährliche Bürger”) that dare take on elites. He portrayed politicians of other parties as greedy, lazy, and incompetent predators who are only after the money of ordinary taxpayers and who will sell out the national interest to the EU.

But it’s the grassroots that shows how the party could shift and it is best observed online. A look under the surface of the party’s main website, interactions with party members via social media reveal a much darker side. As of July 2014, the official AfD Facebook fanpage had almost 122,000 “likes,” nearly twice as many as the SPD or the CDU.

While many of the 79,000 user-generated posts are on message, plenty strike a tone that is markedly different from the party’s carefully crafted statements. Resentment and nationalism colour many posts. Complaints about ungrateful immigrants, privileged homosexuals, and greedy politicians are frequent. Links to obscure right-wing sites abound.

It’s worth remembering that fanpages are not run by fans but remain under the control of the party. The AfD has created a space for its supporters where this kind of talk is tolerated, even though racist slurs and common expletives are rare.

To understand this undercurrent, it is essential to look at the past. Over decades, Germany’s laws on immigration and naturalisation were centred around the principle of "ius sanguinis": to be German, one has to have German ancestors — preferably on the paternal side. This was expedient because it depoliticised the integration of millions of ethnic Germans that left East Germany. But at the same time, it excluded millions of immigrants from Turkey and other Mediterranean countries as well as their children and grandchildren who were born in Germany, but were legally foreigners without political rights.

Successive German governments have tried to maintain the illusion that apart from the repatriation of ethnic Germans from the East, there was no permanent immigration, and that the “guest workers” who had arrived in the 1960s as well as their offspring born in the 1970s and 1980s would “go home” one day. Only in the late 1990s did politicians begin changing the rules for naturalisation and immigration. It remains an ongoing, protracted and highly controversial project.

Germany’s far right is mild on the surface and darker sentiments have in recent decades been kept subdued. But the rise of the AfD could change that and, with it, the face of German politics.

Kai Arzheimer is professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz and Visiting Fellow at the Department of Government, University of Essex

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