Berlin Cable

Jun 26, 2024

Germany’s Toxic Far Right

Scandals have only dented, but not eroded support for Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland. In September, the party could come close to political power at the regional level. The case for banning it is getting stronger.

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Alternative for Germany (AfD) party co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla react to results after the polls closed in the European Parliament elections, in Berlin, Germany, June 9, 2024.
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The lead candidate had defended the Waffen-SS, Nazi Germany’s most brutal troops involved in the Holocaust. His closest advisor was arrested as a Chinese spy. Another candidate was under suspicion for taking cash bribes from Russia for pushing Kremlin propaganda lines. Their party was seen as so toxic that French far-right leader Marine Le Pen threw it out of her parliamentary group in the European Parliament.

Against this background, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) still managed to win 15.9 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections—less than the 23 percent it had been polling nationwide around a year ago when dissatisfaction with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-way coalition government reached ever-greater highs, but still more than the 11 percent it managed in the last European election in 2019.

That was enough to allow party leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla to claim the party continued to be on a roll. And, indeed, it could get perilously close to power, albeit only at the regional level. On September 1, there are elections in the federal states of Saxony and Thuringia. On September 30, Brandenburg follows suit. In all three states, which were part of communist East Germany until reunification in 1990, the AfD has a reasonable chance of coming out on top. In the European Parliament elections, it has already become the strongest political force in all five “new” federal states (though voter behavior tends to differ in European and national elections). The AfD also managed to swoop up a number of council seats and mayoral posts in recent local elections.

Neck-and-Neck

In Saxony, the AfD is currently in a neck-and-neck race with the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), both polling at around 30 percent. The new party Bewegung Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), which mixes nationalistic populism with hard-left economic policies, is polling third with 13 percent and may well be needed by the CDU and its incumbent state premier to form a government. BSW is led by the party-name-giving Wagenknecht, a former icon of the far-left Die Linke, which is in danger of collapsing.

In Thuringia, the situation is even more dramatic. There, the AfD is in the lead with 28 percent, followed by the CDU (23 percent), BSW (21 percent), and the Left Party (11 percent). The parties in power in the federal government—Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP)—aren’t even playing a role in this fight: the SPD is at 7 percent, the Greens at 4 percent, the FDP does not even figure. In Brandenburg, the AfD is also strong, but the CDU and SPD there are both at 20 percent and are likely to be able to continue governing with the Greens.

In Saxony and Thuringia, however, an all-party effort may be required to keep the AfD from power. No other party wants to deal with it, certainly not at the national level, but also not at the regional one. Complicating things, the CDU, led by Friedrich Merz, insists that its “no-cooperation” stance still stands when it comes to Die Linke (the successor of the former Socialist Unity Party, or SED, whose dictatorship ran East Germany) its “no-cooperation” stance still stands. Its position vis-à-vis the BSW is less clear, though, and likely to offer an unsavory way out to keep the AfD at bay, at least for now. In the worst-case scenario for Germany’s democracy, the AfD will win an absolute majority of seats in Thuringia, installing the first state premier, likely Björn Höcke, the leader of its extreme-right, officially dissolved “wing” (“Flügel”) and the party’s dominant politician.

Ever-More Radical

The AfD’s trajectory, meanwhile, has only known one direction: further and further to the right. 

It started out as “a party of economic professors” unhappy with the bailouts during the eurozone crisis, hankering after a return to ordo-liberal policies and the deutschmark. Founded in 2013, it narrowly failed to enter the German parliament in elections that year. After this, it quickly began to wane, only to be “rescued” by the refugee crisis of 2015/16, when the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to keep the borders open and welcome more than a million Syrians and others who had been on the move across Europe via the Balkan route. The AfD became increasingly xenophobic and anti-immigration, with neo-Nazis starting to fill its ranks. The party did nothing to counteract this infiltration, and that proved a vote-winner. In 2017, the AfD entered the Bundestag, winning 12.6 percent of the vote. It repeated this feat in 2021, with a slightly lower 10.4 percent.

The AfD’s continued radicalization has attracted the attention of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service. In 2022, it launched an investigation into whether the AfD still adhered to Germany’s constitution, which the party fought in the courts but lost this May.  In Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt (another east German federal state), the BfV already considers the AfD as “indisputably far-right extremist” (“gesichert rechtsextrem”), aiming in effect at the overthrow of the constitutional order.

The Case for Outlawing

After the experience of the Nazi era, Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, allows for parties to be outlawed if they endanger the country’s democracy and liberal order. Alien to many other Western democracies, the clause makes a lot of sense when viewed through the prism of German history from the 1920s to the 1940s. While the consensus still says that it would be preferable to beat the AfD at the ballot box, the party has become so ingrained in East Germany in particular that it has started to undermine Germany’s democratic order locally and regionally.

“I argue from my real-life experience in Saxony,” Marco Wanderwitz, a CDU MP and the most prominent advocate for outlawing the AfD, told BERLIN CABLE last week. “The AfD is an extremely radicalized, extremely powerful party that may soon become part of a regional government in Germany.” In his home state, many AfD supporters are living in a “parallel universe,” according to Wanderwitz. “You cannot reach them anymore.” In his view, the AfD’s popularity, which is more pronounced in the east than in the west of the country, is explained, among other things, by difficult demographics and the fact that in the east, people lived under two dictatorships until 1990, the Nazi dictatorship and then that of the communist SED—a view that has proved controversial in the past.

Wanderwitz, who used to be the Federal Government Representative for East Germany during the final years of Merkel’s chancellorship (2020-21), says that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the AfD’s continued pro-Putin lines made him push for starting the process via Germany’s parliament in earnest. “The AfD is not only an internal danger, there’s this external factor as well.”

For the German public at large, it was another event, a secret meeting of far-right extremists, including AfD participants, plotting the mass deportation of migrants and German citizens of immigrant extraction. When the investigative CORRECTIV website revealed this, it lead to a wave of anti-AfD mass protests and demonstrations across the country earlier this year. It also reduced the party’s polling figures, but not significantly.

Courage Is Required

Wanderwitz has the support of the 37 fellow MPs he needs to start the process. Currently, it would be a hard task convincing a majority to outlaw the AfD, but this might change should the BfV conclude in the fall that the whole of the AfD is extremist and intent on undermining the constitution. This is becoming increasingly likely. “The longer you wait, the greater the courage that is required,” says Wanderwitz who points to the effects outlawing Germany’s far-right party would have: “There are hundreds of AfD parliamentarians and officials, with thousands of staff. To pull the plug on them would mean that they won’t be able to spread hatred 24/7 anymore.”

As Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution and others have argued, it would be preferable if Germany’s citizens were to stem the illiberal tide. But with France on the cusp of electing a far-right prime minister and extremist forces elsewhere in Europe emboldened, it may well be time to demonstrate that Germany’s open, liberal democracy, so hated by the AfD and the likes of Vladimir Putin, has punch, too—at home just as much as on the world stage.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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