Posted on September 24, 2018

How the Alternative for Germany Has Transformed the Country

Melanie Amann et al., Der Spiegel, September 21, 2018

For three hours every month, they set up shop right next to the flower stand. There are only four people, a table and an umbrella from which a blue T-shirt hangs. It’s emblazoned with the party’s logo and the words, “Nobody’s perfect, but Brandenburgers come pretty damn close.” Here, at the weekly farmers market in Woltersdorf, a 40-minute drive by car from Berlin, Kathi Muxel, the district chair of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party for the Oder-Spree region, says: “We’re the only ones who come here, even if there’s no upcoming election. People appreciate that.”

Several times a week, AfD adherents plant their umbrella somewhere in the area. Some take the day off from work, while others are self-employed and can set their own schedule. They wait for the people to show up — and they always do — and then they talk. They bring up their annoyance with expensive street lights in the town of Neuzelle, or the planned move of the recycling center in the Berlin suburb Erkner, or the “federal government’s dishonesty” when it spoke of a mob attack in Chemnitz. After all, they say, there were reports that no mob attacks actually took place at all.

Being ever-present, talking — and not to mention listening — was also part of the AfD strategy during federal elections last September. And it worked. The party scored 22.1 percent of the vote here in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, putting it only slightly behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It’s possible that Alexander Gauland, the candidate for the Oder-Spree electoral district, was responsible for some of that success. But what has been decisive is the proximity to ordinary voters that the AfD has cultivated. And it’s not only here that the far-right populists are firmly rooted, but in many other places around the country as well.

Political upheavals rarely happen overnight. {snip} Who would have thought that a retired senior government official, a conservative newspaper columnist and a numbers-loving economics professor would changed the face of German politics?

Unprecedented Success

And who would have thought that the AfD of Alexander Gauland, Konrad Adam and Bernd Lucke would become a big-tent party of its own — at least in parts of eastern Germany — within just a few years? Or that it would win almost a hundred seats in the federal parliament with its pledge to “hunt down” Chancellor Angela Merkel? Or that its party leaders would one day march through the streets of Chemnitz alongside far-right extremists, like they did on Sept. 1, 2018?

The AfD stands for an unprecedented political success, but also for a history of radicalization. Like any new party, breaking taboos is the AfD’s lifeblood, but its shift to the right has continued unabated. And anyone who has stood in the party’s way has gotten steamrolled. First it hit Lucke, the well-behaved co-founder and former party head; he was overthrown by the much more politically shrewd Frauke Petry.

When Petry herself became too powerful, Alexander Gauland pushed her aside. His tweed jackets may lend him an air of amiability and scholarship, but in reality he has few inhibitions about sealing pacts with far-right extremists. In that regard, it’s no coincidence that Gauland is the only person from that founding meeting in Oberursel who still holds sway over the party today.

No other party leader stands as much for the AfD’s split personality as Gauland. A former senior official in the state government in Hesse, in western Germany, Gauland lives in a dignified Potsdam neighborhood filled with mansions. He can speak intelligently about Prussian history — and then, without missing a beat, claim that the Nazi era was but a “speck of bird shit” on German history.

{snip} He wants to drive out anyone who played a role in what he calls the “Merkel System,” including people in the media, and he has called for a “peaceful revolution.”

But a revolution against what?

In January, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book titled, “How Democracies Die.” In it, they write that in the decades since the end of the Cold War, liberal systems haven’t been overthrown through force and military coups alone. More than anything else, democracy has been undermined non-violently through the election of anti-democratic politicians.

{snip} By the end of this year, the AfD is likely to hold seats in every state legislature in Germany. And it has already put forward one of its own — a conspiracy theorist who predicts the imminent collapse of the euro — to chair the budget committee in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, which oversees annual government spending of 350 billion euros ($411 billion).

A Turning Point

The AfD was the strongest party in the eastern state of Saxony in the last Bundestag elections, and across the east, it has now become such a force that the CDU has been compelled to express what would have been unfathomable not too long ago: the possibility of governing together with the far-left Left Party.

The unrest in Chemnitz in August marked a turning point for the AfD. There, the party joined a phalanx of agitators and neo-Nazis, with the AfD’s Thuringia state chapter leader Björn Höcke marching side-by-side with an activist from Pegida — the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant group — who has multiple criminal convictions on his record.

For years, politics in Germany had been shaped by the old polarity between left and right. But those days are over. The question of identity now seems to be more important, which seemingly scrambles the party system. Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party is creating a new movement called “Aufstehen,” German for “Stand Up,” that she hopes will be a magnet for voters who would like to see a bigger welfare state and fewer immigrants. The move places additional pressure on the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has fluctuated between a culture of welcoming refugees and warnings of a loss of control since the refugee crisis. The business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), meanwhile, has morphed into a law and order party. And the only thing still holding the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, together is the fear of losing power. The only parties that seem to be profiting from the new political complexities are the Greens and the AfD.

So, how to deal with a party that fulminates against the mainstream with such abandon while at the spreading its own tentacles further into the center of society, into government offices, the armed forces, the media and the cultural world?


The March Through the Institutions

One of the paradoxes of the AfD is that even though it rails against the establishment like no other party, its members are firmly anchored in that system. Many federal police officers, who felt the most tangible effects of the chaos during the refugee crisis in 2015, are likely to be receptive to the notion that Germany lost control of its borders at the time. Dieter Romann, the president of the Federal Police force, is one of the chancellor’s fiercest critics — and he makes no secret of his opinion.

Ten active and former police officers represent the AfD in various parliaments. One of those is former Chief Superintendent Martin Hess. He used to be responsible for training new officers in the town of Böblingen, just southwest of Stuttgart, and today represents the AfD on the Internal Affairs Committee in parliament. Another is Wilko Möller, a member of the federal police who once worked for the Federal Criminal Police Office and for the Chancellery. He is now in the leadership of the AfD’s state chapter in Brandenburg.

But perhaps the most prominent bridge-builder between the far-right and the police is Rainer Wendt, head of the 94,000-member German Police Union (DPolG), one of two prominent unions for German law-enforcement officers. Wendt isn’t just fond of giving interviews to the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit, but he also speaks regularly to the magazine Compact, which is even further out on the extremist fringe.

Another example will be seen at the “Border Protection Conference” to be held by Compact in Munich at the end of September. That event will see Martin Sellner, a leading figure of the far-right extremist Identitarian Movement, take the stage — along with Police Chief Richard Graupner, who is a candidate for the AfD in Bavarian state elections to be held on October 14.

Union leader Wendt has demonstrated no qualms about adopting the rhetoric and ideology of the right wing, saying things like, for example, the macho behavior of young Muslims “is almost one of the genetic cornerstones of this culture.” In 2016, he paid a visit to the AfD group in Saxony state parliament, with AfD lawmakers afterwards crowing: “The DPolG and the AfD are fighting for the same goals on many, many issues.”

The AfD may also be over-represented in the German military. There are no reliable statistics, since the Bundeswehr, as Germany’s armed forces are known, are not permitted to ask troops about their political leanings. But almost 90 percent of the troops are men, and a higher than average share of them come from eastern German states or are members of the German minority in Russia who have moved to Germany. The AfD does particularly well in all three of those groups.

Military Background

There is another indication for the far-right party’s influence in the Bundeswehr: More than 13 percent of the 219 male AfD lawmakers in state and federal parliaments have a military background. In federal parliament alone, it is almost 20 percent. Either they used to serve as career soldiers or they are reserve officers.


At the official commemoration for German war dead held in the Reichstag on Nov. 19, the country’s official day of mourning, four representatives of the Social Democrats showed up, five from Merkel’s conservatives, one each from the Greens and the Left Party — and 38 from the AfD.

It’s not surprising, then, that the AfD seeks to present itself as the party of the military, though its expertise on issues pertaining to the military is limited. In late May, for instance, the Defense Ministry invited Bundeswehr experts from the Budget Committee to a meeting. Martin Hohmann, who was thrown out of the Christian Democrats in 2004 after delivering a virulently anti-Semitic speech, attended the meeting for the AfD.

Hohmann had only three questions. The first was why the European Union flag stood in the middle of the hall instead of the German flag. Fellow parliamentarian Tobias Lindner of the Green Party gave him a brief speech on the flag regulations applicable in public buildings in Germany. Then Hohmann criticized the practice of addressing soldiers as “Soldatinnen und Soldaten,” a German-language convention to include both women and men. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen responded: “Mr. Representative, you wouldn’t appreciate being addressed as Ms. Representative Hohmann, would you?”

Intentional Provocation?

Finally, the AfD member wanted to know if paratroopers were still based in Altenstadt since he had once served there. The answer: Yes, they’re still there.


Slowly but surely, the AfD is also advancing into areas that possess even more powerful weapons than the military: the media and the world of culture. As the third-largest group in German parliament, the AfD has access to a number of administrative bodies, from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Stasi Records Agency, which administers the vast number of files kept by the East German secret police on its own citizens. {snip}

Most important to the AfD, however, would appear to be access to the publicly funded media platforms. It is here, after all, that the party believes its greatest opponents are employed. AfD representatives already sit on the boards of four public broadcasters. They are also represented on six state media boards that monitor programming on private broadcasters.

But the party wants more, as party head Gauland noted last week in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Unfortunately, he told the paper, many “people in the media” support Merkel’s policies. “I would like to expel them from positions of responsibility.”

If you ask Gauland exactly how he plans to implement his plan, he becomes evasive. “I never said journalists should be completely expelled from Germany,” he protests. “And ‘expel’ doesn’t imply the use of violence.” But essentially, he wants to “finally change the imbalance in the media to our advantage” — such that newsrooms are populated by fewer AfD opponents and more Merkel critics.

The AfD’s Two Faces

The AfD had a dazzling character from the very beginning — and it never differentiated between the middle class and the radicals, which is precisely what made it so successful. During the recent protests in Chemnitz, the actual AfD spectrum was in full view for the first time. Members of parliament with the party and top officials led a group of marchers that included not only local Chemnitz residents, but the xenophobic splinter group Pro Chemnitz, as well as hooligans, neo-Nazis and members of the identitarian movement. Two days later, a concert aimed at countering those protests attracted 65,000 people.


One could say the AfD is a colorful party, but with a brown streak. It attracts classical conservatives and neoliberals as well as ethnonationalist “völkisch” ideologists, extremists and conspiracy theorists. A majority of party members may still dream of a more moderate-conservative Alternative for Germany, but at the fringe, especially in the east, the party is increasingly melding with extremist elements, and this process is in part being tolerated — and at times promoted — at the highest levels of the party.

Moderate members like Hamburg AfD chapter head Jörn Kruse, with an eye to the events in Chemnitz, may lament that it was a “serious mistake” that the party “was very openly doing things together with far-right extremist organizations.” But what good does that do as long as AfD supporters in Hamburg, Kruse’s hometown, regularly attend “Merkel Must Go” protests, where they mingle with members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) and the identitarian movement, as they did a few weeks back?


For the security authorities, the AfD’s recent mingling creates a delicate problem. It’s the job of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, to investigate whether parties have exceeded the boundaries set in the German constitution and if they are seeking to overthrow the democratic system.


For the past three years, the same debate flares up after every scandalous statement made by an AfD official over whether the BfV should open an investigation into the party. For example, there was the time in 2015 when the then-head of the party’s youth wing, Markus Frohnmaier, who now has a seat in the Bundestag, announced, “When we get elected, we’re going to clean up, we’re going to clean house, we’re going to make politics about the people again, and only about the people.” Or the time when AfD leader Gauland dismissed the Holocaust as speck of “bird shit.”

‘Anti-Democratic Aspirations’


The security agencies are viewing the influence of the “Patriotic Platform” (PP), an alliance of far-right extremist forces inside the AfD, with concern. A paper from the North Rhine-Westphalia state Office for the Protection of the Constitution that is also being circulated among other state branches argues that the group should be placed under official observation by security agencies across Germany. The paper states that there are “strong indications of anti-democratic aspirations.” It also states that well-known defectors from other far-right extremist organizations are members of the group’s board. “The purpose of PP is to exert influence on the AfD with its far-right extremist agenda and to thus shape policies,” the paper states.

But domestic intelligence officials agree, a few isolated comments aren’t enough to place the entire AfD under official observation.


Increasingly Inflammatory

Some agency heads feel that decision is taking too long. Earlier this month, the eastern state of Thuringia saw its BfV branch become the first in the country to begin a review of the party. The move was spurred by recent events in Chemnitz, where domestic intelligence agencies counted up to 2,500 far-right extremists at so-called “funeral march” protests organized by the AfD in the city after the murder of a 35-year-old resident. The two suspects in the case were migrants. But for agency head Stephan Kramer, the most important reason was the presence of the AfD’s Thuringia state chapter leader, Björn Höcke, at the protests. Höcke is notorious for his ethnonationalist views and statements.

Observers say Höcke has grown increasingly inflammatory during public appearances, even calling on police officers to disobey orders — otherwise, “the people” would hold them accountable after they take power. The review taking place in Thuringia is the preliminary stage before a full-on official observation by the domestic intelligence agency.

In the states of Bremen and Lower Saxony, the party’s youth wing, the Young Alternative (JA) has recently been observed by authorities due to its links to Germany’s identitarian movement, which is already the subject of surveillance. {snip}

Interior ministers at the state and federal level from Merkel’s conservative party met on Friday, Sept. 7, to discuss the AfD. For now, officials in Bavaria want to refrain from monitoring the AfD or its subgroups, in part due to the legal risks of doing so. {snip}

State intelligence officials likely feel compelled to push forward unilaterally because a coordinated approach with the federal government has been sluggish. Some state-level officials have even suspected the now-defunct chief of the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, of {snip} secretly harboring sympathies for the AfD. Colleagues who have known him for years dispute this.


High Legal Hurdles

{snip} The legal hurdles for placing a democratically elected party under official observation are extremely high, for one. There must be clear evidence that the party’s “overall structure” runs counter to the constitutional order. Far-right extremists must also be proven to have “direct influence” over the party’s trajectory.

Torsten Voss, the head of the city state of Hamburg’s intelligence service, says he has perceived a shift within the party. “If we look at this on a national level, the AfD does appear to be rising toward the threshold for observation, but that hurdle hasn’t been crossed yet.”

The Path to the Top

The AfD’s success is based a mixture of favorable circumstances, happenstance and clever strategy. {snip}

Media coverage of the party, which initially focused politically on its opposition to the EU common currency, the euro, has been critical from the beginning. This led the party to concentrate on social media and direct contact with its fan base. Facebook live streams and tweets are an integral part of every AfD campaign, and any speech given in parliament is promptly disseminated via YouTube. Any time an AfD parliamentarian grills or attacks a colleague from another party, the confrontations are often immediately posted on social media — regardless of whether they were chided or applauded for their outburst. Many AfD members act civilized during parliamentary sessions, only to turn around and behave boorishly online. “Carefully planned provocations” are part of the party’s strategy, according to a paper issued by the AfD board in 2017. “The more nervously and unfairly the old parties govern, the better.”

The party’s media department in parliament already has 15 employees, including a “research team” that is tasked with “factually preparing” sensitive political topics like the Chemnitz riots, explains Jürgen Braun, a parliamentary secretary in the Bundestag for the AfD. {snip}

The AfD’s rise also has to be viewed within the context of the European refugee crisis that unfolded in the fall of 2015. That summer, the AfD was still only polling at 5 percent nationally. The euro crisis that had once lent buoyancy to the party had died down and it seemed the party would become but a footnote in postwar German history, as had happened with the Pirate Party several years ago.

But Merkel then decided to keep the borders open for refugees and justified her decision with a moral imperative for which she hadn’t really been known up until that point. In western Germany, people initially greeted Merkel’s refugee policies and responded with what came to be known as a “welcoming culture,” in which people turned out en masse to volunteer and participate in relief efforts. But in the eastern parts of the country, Merkel encountered fierce resistance to her policies from the very beginning. In that sense, the AfD’s rise was no accident — and while it may be painful to say, it’s also a manifestation of a vibrant democracy. {snip} And the AfD rose because Merkel swept aside the desire of many for control over Germany’s borders.


A History of Discomfort


{snip} The AfD’s clear position on a single issue is what makes it so attractive: Some East Germans see the party as a guarantor against Germany becoming a multicultural society. That’s all they expect from the AfD.


Catch-All Parties at a Loss


Ex-SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel famously called right-wing demonstrators a “pack,” but at the same time tried to engage in a dialogue with Pegida supporters “as private individuals.” Pegida is the acronym for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, an Islamophobic group that holds protests regularly in Dresden. Gabriel criticized the AfD as a party of the disenfranchised and he warned against underestimating people’s longing for identity and a political home in a 2017 interview with DER SPIEGEL.

The conservative Christian Democrats have taken a similar zigzag course — one in which even the basic question of whether the AfD is an opponent or an opportunity has not yet been clarified. {snip}

But the Christian Democrats’ Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) has always viewed the AfD’s rise as a threat to its single-party rule in that state. Most recently, CSU parliamentary group leader Alexander Dobrindt had the idea of moving his party so far to the right rhetorically that the AfD could no longer outdo it without losing the mainstream, middle class wing of the party. But that plan got lost in the shuffle during the turmoil caused by the asylum dispute between the CSU and the CDU that nearly destroyed their political partnership at the national level.

Now, a general sense of bewilderment is prevailing.

The decisive question in dealing with the AfD is that of whether it will adhere to the rules of democracy in the longer term. {snip}

A Threat to Democracy?

Harvard professors Levitsky and Ziblatt have developed a set of indicators they use to identify parties that will run for election, but then seek to disband the democratic order. One indicator is when a party “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” which is a clear feature of the AfD. No other party in parliament demonizes its opponents as aggressively as the AfD. Members of the party seem to have few inhibitions when it comes to their outrageous statements: Angela Merkel is a “dictator” who belongs in a “straitjacket” and wants to “swap out” the ethnic German population with foreigners.

Many examples can also be found in the AfD for the second criterion set by the Harvard researchers: A “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” AfD chair Gauland’s interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is only the most recent example here. AfD people are also notorious for their admonitions that journalists must behave “fairly” or risk being “dragged out into the streets” as has happened in other “revolutions we have known.”

But open incitement of violence, the third criterion set by the Harvard researchers, is absent. Instead, AfD members tend to portray themselves as the victims of brute violence from the left. And when the AfD makes its own threats, it often uses convoluted wording, like Gauland’s recent demand that a German-Turkish SPD politician ought to be “disposed of in Anatolia.”

But the fourth indicator is the hardest to fulfill: “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.” After all, like other parties, the AfD was elected into federal and state parliaments and is even regarded by many of its supporters as the savior of democracy. One can say the AfD disregards the soft rules of democracy, including fairness in dealing with its opponents, truthfulness in argumentation and tolerance of other views and lifestyles.


But the means available to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution do not go far enough to fully safeguard democracy. Especially given that “no profound revelations can be expected” from the BfV, as former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert put it in his interview with DER SPIEGEL. It’s crucial that people in their everyday lives oppose far-right extremists when they shout their epithets. But established political parties must also be willing to accommodate the entire spectrum of opinion in a democracy. Merkel’s refugee policies offended many voters. And because the SPD simply went along with her, the AfD enjoyed increasing levels of support. Indeed, these two establishment parties have made things easy for the AfD.

In the regional election in October, Rainer Rahn wants to get elected to the state parliament in Hesse. {snip}

“Voter sentiment is on our side,” says Rahn. “We don’t even really need to run an election campaign.”