Workers of Germany, Unite: The New Siren Call of the Far Right

Katrin Bennhold, New York Times, February 5, 2018

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The AfD shocked Germany in the fall when it became the first far-right party to enter Parliament since World War II. But that breakthrough {snip} has also enormously complicated the task of forming a new governing coalition, leaving Germany and all of Europe in months of limbo.

Ms. Merkel and her conservative alliance are negotiating a coalition deal with their former governing partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats. If they do, the AfD will be Germany’s primary opposition party, leaving a wide opening for it to pick up even more traditionally left-leaning voters who fear the Social Democrats have been co-opted.

Many fear that the AfD, as the leading voice of the opposition, would have a perfect perch to turn the protest vote it received in national elections in September — it finished third with 13 percent of the vote — into a loyal and sustained following.

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{snip} The AfD has already overtaken the Social Democrats as the second-biggest party in state elections across much of what was formerly East Germany. In Bavaria, it is not far behind.

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The Ruhr has produced coal since the 16th century, and it shaped modern Germany in the process. It powered the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the postwar economic miracle and even European integration: The coal and steel community was the seedling of the European Union.

But today, Bottrop and surrounding cities are in decline.

Mr. Reil [Guido Reil, a coal miner and legislator] has worked in six mines, five of which have closed. Along with some 2,500 others, he will take early retirement, at 48, after the last mine ceases production in December.

With the mines, most bars have closed, too, as has a whole social and cultural scene that once kept the area alive.

The AfD’s “pro-worker” platform (“pro-coal, pro-diesel and anti-immigration,” as Mr. Reil puts it) resonates in Bottrop as well as on the factory floors of Germany’s iconic carmakers in the former east and the wealthy south of the country.

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One of Mr. Reil’s allies, Oliver Hilburger, a mechanic at a Daimler plant near Stuttgart, founded an alternative union called Zentrum Automobil in 2009, four years before the AfD even existed.

Mr. Hilburger, who has been at the company for 28 years, is not a member of the AfD but he votes for it. He thinks the party and his union are a natural fit.

When it emerged that he had once played for a band associated with neo-Nazis, the news media reported the fact widely. But that did not stop his colleagues from giving his union 10 percent of their votes and electing him as one of their representatives.

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“There is a feeling among workers that the old unions collude with the bosses and the government,” Mr. Hilburger said.

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The strategic focus on the working class speaks to the challenge of turning protest voters into a loyal base, said Oskar Niedermayer, a professor of political science at the Free University in Berlin.

“Breaking into the union milieu is key to that strategy,” Mr. Niedermayer said.

He warned that the reflex to ostracize the AfD could backfire. Some unions are advising members to shun anyone in the AfD. Some soccer clubs are planning to outright bar them. And as Mr. Niedermayer pointed out, lawmakers from other parties have systematically blocked every AfD candidate for senior parliamentary posts.

“It confirms them in their role as victims of the elites,” he said. “Workers who see themselves as victims of the elites will only identify with them more.”

As the AfD appeals to Germany’s left-behinds, it is also trying to tie them to other parts of the party’s agenda, like its hard line on immigration.

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“If you want social justice, you need to manage who is coming into your country,” Mr. Hansel said. “Open borders and welfare state don’t go together.”

It is the kind of rhetoric that sets the AfD apart from the traditional left, even as it goes fishing for voters in Social Democratic waters.

For the AfD, it is not just those at the bottom against those at the top, Mr. Niedermayer said. It is insiders against outsiders. Social justice, yes, but only for Germans.

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Residents complain about some refugees being prescribed “therapeutic horseback-riding” and courses in flirtation, courtesy of taxpayers, while public schools are in decline.

“They get the renovated social housing, while Germans wait for years,” said Linda Emde, the manager of one of the few remaining bars. “But when you speak up against migration, they call you a racist.”

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“What do a miner, a princess and a professor have in common?” [Reil] jokes. “They are all in the AfD.”

 

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