Thomas Meaney, New Yorker, October 3, 2016
You can tell well in advance when Frauke Petry, the leader of Alternative für Deutschland, a burgeoning new right-wing party, is going to give a speech. AfD members put up posters all over a town’s main streets declaring, “Frauke Petry Is Coming.” As the appointed hour approaches, police assemble, and usually demonstrators, too, protesting against a woman known to her enemies as “Adolfina” and “die Führerin.” At bigger events, hundreds show up bearing placards with slogans like “Voting AfD is so 1933,” pelting Party leaders with cake. Occasionally, a few of them sneak into Petry’s talks.
Petry, who is forty-one, with a pixie haircut and a trim, athletic build, frequently arrives late. She travels continually, often without any immediate electoral aim–the next federal elections won’t be till the second half of 2017–but simply to publicize the Party and herself. Like most German politicians today, Petry observes the national moratorium on charisma, but her appearances have the feel of a celebrity tour. Her audiences seem awed, unsure whether it is appropriate to take photographs. But, once someone starts, the room fills with the soft clicks of phone cameras.
Petry sees the presence of protesters as an opportunity to score points. “We’re not the sort of people who shut voices out,” she tells her audiences. One evening in Landau an der Isar, a small town in Bavaria, she produced a flyer that had been distributed outside and read it aloud, in the tone of a teacher who has intercepted a note being passed around a classroom: “You believe women should return to the kitchen? You’re against the protection of the environment? You have homophobic, xenophobic, and extreme right-wing tendencies? Then you’ve come to the right place. Thank you for your vote!” Silence filled the hall, and Petry gave a tight smile. “That must have been written by some very gutsy and well-informed citizens,” she said. “Maybe they should come forward and tell us where they got these ideas.” The audience cheered.
A nervous-looking sixteen-year-old with a mop of blond hair shuffled toward the platform. The audience jeered, but Petry motioned for silence and said to the boy, “I’ll give you the microphone for a bit and you can explain to us how you got the idea that women should return to the kitchen.”
“But of course I don’t believe that,” the boy muttered in a deep Bavarian accent. “It’s your people here who do.”
“Now you’re repeating your hypothesis,” Petry said, leaning over him from the stage. “But how do you justify it?” He hesitated in confusion, and other protesters joined him. A teen-age girl began to speak from prepared notes, saying that the AfD denied climate change. “You have to hold the mike closer to your mouth,” Petry interrupted, and then rocked from foot to foot, marking the slow tempo of the girl’s speech. “Your party claims that CO₂ is not dangerous, but how do you explain all the people dying from air pollution in China?” the girl asked.
“I’m a chemist,” Petry said. “The problem is not CO₂–it’s the nitrogen and sulfur oxides that make the smog. So many people make this mistake.” She went on, “Let me ask you a question. If you dissolve CO₂ in water and the temperature rises, will you have more or less CO₂?” It was a trick question that Petry often uses.
“More,” the girl said, meaning CO₂ in the atmosphere.
“Exactly wrong,” Petry said, meaning in the water. She made a dismayed face to the audience. “There’s a huge amount of misinformation out there,” she said. “When you see what’s in their school textbooks, it’s no surprise they believe these things.”
For decades, the German far right has been a limited force, with easily recognizable supporters–nicotine-stained ex-Nazis in the sixties and seventies, leather-clad skinheads in the eighties and nineties. Petry is something different, a disarmingly wholesome figure–a former businesswoman with a Ph.D. in chemistry and four children from her marriage to a Lutheran pastor. During a month I spent with her this summer as she drove around Germany giving speeches, she drew connections between politics and laboratory science, sprinkled her speech with Latin phrases, and steered discussions about German culture toward the cantatas of Bach.
At the start of this year, Petry said that, in the face of the recent influx of refugees (many of them fleeing the war in Syria), the police might have to shoot people crossing the border illegally. In April, the Party said that head scarves should be banned in schools and universities, and minarets prohibited. Party members called for a referendum on whether to leave the euro; for the expulsion of Allied troops, who have been stationed in Germany since 1945; and for school curriculums that focus more on “positive, identity-uplifting” episodes in German history and less on Nazi crimes. Most contentious of all was the declaration “Islam does not belong in Germany.”
Petry and her colleagues have mastered the art of dominating the news cycle, to the point where a visitor to Germany listening to the radio or reading the newspapers could be forgiven for thinking that the AfD is the party in power.
Two years ago, the AfD won its first seats in regional parliaments. (Petry was elected to the parliament of Saxony, one of Germany’s sixteen federal states.) Earlier this year, support for the AfD reached fifteen per cent in national polls, three times more than for any previous right-wing party, and well beyond the five-per-cent threshold required to enter the Bundestag after next year’s national elections. In a recent election in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has her constituency, the AfD got more than twenty per cent of the vote, edging Merkel’s party–the center-right Christian Democratic Union–into third place. A week ago, the AfD won its first seats in the state parliament of Berlin, traditionally a social-democratic stronghold, in an election that brought the C.D.U.’s worst ever result in the city.
I first met Petry in April at her offices in the Saxony State Parliament, a gray modernist building, in the center of Dresden, which incorporates the ruins of a government office destroyed in the Allied bombing raid of 1945. She was in her pressroom, preparing for the AfD’s annual convention and dictating posts for its Facebook page to two assistants. Behind her was a shelf of binders decorated with stickers that said, “Merkel Must Go.” Petry took me to her office, where a biography of Merkel that she’d been reading lay on the floor. “Like me, she’s from the East and trained as a scientist, so I can relate with her to some extent,” Petry said. “You get the sense that she’s a woman who just fell into things. When Merkel was young, she had no passions.”
When conversation turned to the AfD’s rise, Petry said, “You could say we are Merkel’s children.” She meant that the AfD owed its popularity to Merkel’s announcement, in August, 2015, that Germany would take in anyone who was a refugee. (Last year, 1.1 million refugees arrived.) Merkel argued that Germany’s history gave it a moral obligation to respond to the humanitarian crisis. “We can do this,” she said–a call for national solidarity that achieved the opposite. The phrase electrified the German right, which accused the Chancellor of selling out the country in order to burnish her cosmopolitan image abroad. Voters began to flock to the AfD, many of them from Merkel’s own party.
Several events this year have exacerbated this rightward turn. On New Year’s Eve, in Cologne, roving groups of Middle Eastern and North African men sexually assaulted and robbed hundreds of women as they celebrated in the city center. The German Federal Criminal Police Office drew an analogy with cases of group sexual harassment in the Arab world–the ones that occurred during the Tahrir Square protests are the most famous instance–and the crimes were quickly established in the public imagination as a specifically Islamic phenomenon. In July, there was a weeklong spate of violent attacks, unconnected with one another but involving perpetrators of Muslim heritage: a teen-age Afghan refugee pledging loyalty to ISIS wounded four people with an axe on a train near Würzburg; an Iranian-German gunman killed nine people at a shopping center in Munich; in Reutlingen, a small town near Stuttgart, a machete-wielding Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman at the kebab shop where they both worked; and a Syrian asylum seeker blew himself up outside a night club in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, injuring fifteen people.
I asked Petry if she had ever met a refugee, and she told me about an official visit she had made to an asylum shelter. “It’s true the quality of their rooms was not very good,” she said. “But I saw food on the walls, excrement as well–I saw how they behaved. And I thought, This is not going to work.” Most of the refugees, she said, were a threat to contemporary German values, such as the separation of church and state and the freedom of the media. Sometimes she justified her views with long discourses on the history of Islam and the European Enlightenment. At other times, she cited Muslim clerics who she claimed agreed with her, or opted for statistics about the failures of integration. But generally she hewed to a kind of populist folklore. “Asylum seekers must appear for appointments in order to have their status reviewed, but they are often late by one or two hours,” she told me matter-of-factly. “If you’re German and you’re fifteen minutes late to a court date, that’s it, it’s over!” When I asked whether Germany wouldn’t need younger workers to service its rapidly aging population–a common argument for a liberal immigration policy–she laughed and said, “To be frank, I don’t see young Muslim men wiping the asses of old German pensioners.”
Last week, Merkel publicly admitted that her original decision to let in so many immigrants had been a mistake. “If I could, I would rewind time by many, many years so that I could better prepare myself and the whole government,” she said. She now believes that her “We can do this” slogan was “almost an empty formula,” and sees that she gravely underestimated the challenges involved. This was the climax of months of backpedalling in response to the AfD’s electoral momentum and to criticism within her own party. After the sexual assaults in Cologne, she expedited the deportation of refugees who commit crimes and cut a deal with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to reduce the number of Syrians crossing into Europe. After the recent attacks, Merkel’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, called for a ban on burkas in a wide range of public contexts–an appropriation of the AfD’s party line. The government also announced a new Integration Law, which gives the state the power to determine where refugees can live and requires them to learn German and to take classes on the country’s history and culture. The underlying assumption–that immigrants don’t want to learn the language–is a widespread belief in the AfD, and the C.D.U.’s embrace of it represents an about-face: such programs have been underfunded for years.
So far, this tack to the right has done nothing to halt the AfD’s rise, and politicians in other parties have been alarmed at how much power the AfD now has to shape government policy.
In 2009, Petry won a competition for entrepreneurs and invested the prize money in a chemicals company she had just started with her mother. The company didn’t grow fast enough to repay its debts, and after five years Petry declared personal bankruptcy–which is far more uncommon in Germany than it is in the United States. She was sued by creditors of the business; the case was eventually settled, but journalists still delight in speculating about the state of her finances.
While the company was struggling, Petry’s mother read on the Internet about a new political party called Electoral Alternative 2013. “It was about the euro, family policies, and energy, and it demanded more direct democracy,” Petry recalled. The Party, which soon changed its name to Alternative für Deutschland, had been founded by a group of economists and journalists who felt betrayed when Merkel broke a promise not to bail out Greece. Petry contacted the founders and helped set up an office in Leipzig. The Party’s leader, Bernd Lucke, was a mild-mannered free-market economist, whose agenda was based on a conviction that the euro was unsustainable as a currency. Other Party founders, however, wanted stronger restrictions on immigration, and soon more people were joining for anti-refugee reasons than for euro-related ones. Petry felt that Lucke was failing to adapt to the concerns of the membership, and at last year’s Party conference she seized control.
The last time I met Petry was in August, back at the Saxony State Parliament. When I arrived, she was standing in a glass atrium, speaking sternly to a group of advisers–all men, all much taller than she was, and most at least a decade older.
Afterward, in her office, we talked about the AfD’s connections to other populist movements. She has established close ties with Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, and has also met with Geert Wilders, the star of the Dutch far right. She told me that a colleague had recently met with Marine Le Pen, of France’s Front National, and that over the summer she had spoken to various American Republicans, including the Iowa congressman Steve King, who has compared immigrants to dogs and suggested building an electric fence on the U.S. border with Mexico. When I asked her what she thought of Donald Trump, she said, “My impression is that Trump may become the American President, because the alternative to him, Hillary Clinton, is just so unconvincing. She is almost like a copy of someone like Merkel–someone who just keeps on with the same policies that led to the trouble in the first place.” She admired the American willingness to take risks: “It might not be better under Trump, but at least with him there is the chance to change.”
She thought that German politics was more weighed down by liberal pieties. “It’s so moral to allow these attacks to happen,” she said sarcastically. “It’s so moral to promise to people around the world that they can come to Germany and find paradise.” She found this outlook anti-democratic, disdainful of the views of ordinary Germans. “I myself am not morally good,” she said. “I’m just a human being. I try to stick to the rules. And I think there is a majority of Germans who agree with me. So, reducing the entire Enlightenment and all of the successes of European history down to this need to be morally good: I find that extremely dangerous. There’s this saying of Nietzsche”–she took out her phone and pulled up the quote almost instantly. “Here it is, in ‘Zarathustra’: ‘The good have always been the beginning of the end.’ ”