Germany's Right-Wing Crusaders

Germany's Right-Wing Crusaders

There’s more than meets the eye to the upstart Alternative für Deutschland—and it’s not going away.

Like most political parties, the AfD leadership can be roughly divided between opportunists and ideologues. Petry and Pretzell pride themselves on their entrepreneurial instincts and wish they could run the party more like a business. Their faction of the party grasps the basics of Facebook and Twitter, has much of the youth wing behind it and is determined to get as many seats as possible in the Bundestag, with the eventual prospect of joining coalitions. They are neoliberal fellow travelers, admirers of Schröder’s political savvy, and were against Brexit until they were for it (rather touchingly, they first looked up to the Tories as experienced elders in the noble work of destroying the EU from within, until the Tories accidentally ejected themselves from Brussels altogether). Solemnity now replaces laughter when Trump’s name is mentioned. Petry and Pretzell differ from the opportunists in other alt-right parties, such as UKIP, in the quality of their desperation. Whereas the several UKIP leaders and high-level Tory sympathizers could gamble on a populist program, assured of comfortable lives regardless of the result, for Petry and Pretzell politics is an existential affair: failure means facing lawsuits (that their political office, under German law, currently protects them against), possible financial ruin and, all too likely, obscurity.

The ideologues of the AfD are known as the “Erfurt” faction, ever since they published a resolution in the Thuringian capital in March 2015 that sought to undo what they saw as the creeping normalization of the party. Centered around Höcke and Gauland, with Meuthen as their unassuming front man, the ideologues of the AfD reject any attempt to institutionalize distance between the AfD and openly extreme-right and Nazi parties, such as the National Democratic Party (NDP), as well as street movements, such as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the West). Typically, they justify these relations using 1968-style rhetoric, calling for openness, plurality, tolerance and deviance. In terms of the economy, Höcke and Gauland’s faction is hostile to free-market principles, as well as the European Union, however much it facilitates Germany’s regional economic dominance. Höcke calls for, in echt Nazi diction, “the organic economy.” It is not so much the implosion of the Third Reich that the Erfurters lament, but rather the terms imposed upon them by the Allies. For Höcke, 1945 was not very different from Versailles: a people forced to give up too much for what was essentially a bogus form of independence brokered and overseen by two superpowers. Unlike Petry’s faction, the Erfurt faction does not need to dog whistle in public; they just put their lips together and blow.

ON MY second day in Stuttgart, I found the spacious and well-stocked pressroom on the second floor of the Messe, where many of the reporters were watching the AfD proceedings through glass, at a comfortable distance. We were surprised to see that the anti-1968 appeals used to gin up the crowd got louder shouts of affirmation than the anti-Islam jeers. Nevertheless, it was difficult not to notice how Islamophobia was the glue that bound various factions together and kept the room on the same footing. Islam, as Mary McCarthy once said of anti-Semitism in America, also provides some AfDers with their only access to intellectual life. There were men all around the room eager to lecture about the secret network of imams (whose portraits they carried on index cards), or the plot by George Soros to retroactively avenge the Nazis who destroyed his childhood by overwhelming the continent with Muslims. But despite the occasional chuckles at absurdities proposed by the AfDers, there was little sense of how the mainstream German journalists themselves had contributed to the populist phenomenon below, in particular its anti-Muslim elements. In the 2000s, the mainstream Der Spiegel ran covers that mirror the arguments and iconography of the current far-right popular magazine, Compact.

AfDers can legitimately point to the fact that they are being scorned by the same press that pushed the same clash-of-civilizations mind-set until very recently, and still does in mildly more subtle forms. For party members in the East, where there are very few Muslim immigrants, many of the earliest and most enduring images of Islam that they carry in their heads came from the mainstream German press. Nevertheless, there is still widespread confidence in German media circles that the AfD can be crushed. “We—whoever we exactly are—we have the newspapers, the schools, the TV, the cultural institutions,” the Zeit writer Bernd Ulrich told me. He continued:

It’s not easy for my younger colleagues to understand, but we have been here before in the 1970s and 80s and we—feminists, gays, liberals—we won. Now we’re the “liberal hegemons” or whatever you want to call us. The question is: what does fighting mean today?

The most curious lapse in the German media’s coverage of the AfD concerns the story of its origins. It is almost universally acknowledged, even by the AfD’s own party leadership, that the Alternative für Deutschland started out as a “professors’ party,” founded in 2014 by Bernd Lucke, a mild-mannered economics professor at Hamburg. In his own telling, Lucke started the AfD with a group of like-minded academic and journalist colleagues who felt betrayed by Merkel’s second extension of debt relief to Greece in 2012, and her claim that no “alternative” was possible. The AfD initially presented itself as the party of fiscal sanity who feared the “structural majority” of debt-ridden countries in the eurozone, a threat rendered more real by the arrival of Macron in the Élysée. And yet, in addition to these concerns, the anti-immigrant, antirefugee seeds were there in the party from the beginning. Hans-Olaf Henkel, Lucke’s firmest and highest-profile supporter (he was the former president of the Federation of German Industry) and the personal funder of the initial AfD campaign, is a long-time Islamkritik and a supporter of Thilo Sarrazin. A former board member of the German Bundesbank, Sarrazin published the best-selling 2010 tract, Germany Abolishes Itself, which warned of Turkish immigrants’ innate mental deficiencies and called for safeguarding the German Volk from genetic contamination. When Petry and Pretzell wrested control of the party from Lucke and Henkel, it was more a change of party habitus than of party substance. The danger of the AfD for German politics comes less from the radical-right faction of Höcke and Gauland—who speak to the already converted—than from the burgherly imprimatur that Lucke and Henkel managed to stamp on the party, which has now been expanded by more skillful operatives like Petry and Weidel. Their first goal is not to make xenophobia into policy but to make xenophobia more salonfähig—publicly utterable and acceptable.

IT IS tempting to compare the AfD to the right-wing “flash” parties that flared across the German political landscape in the 1980s and 90s, and comforting to think it will peter out in the same fashion. But the party has several qualities that distinguish it from its postwar right-wing predecessors. Most critically, it has no former Nazis of 1940s vintage in the leadership, or even in its upper ranks. Also, while the AfD owes much of its strength to the former East, it is by no means a regional party. It has also appeared at a much more propitious time than its predecessors. The “grand coalition” between the SPD and CDU has anesthetized the bases of both parties, making them each at times vulnerable to attack on the right and left flanks. Merkel’s trademark strategy of adopting popular SPD policies as her own has had the effect of moving the CDU to the center, leaving it exposed on the right. “Never allow a democratically legitimate party right of the CSU,” warned Franz Josef Strauss thirty years ago—and with good reason. But Merkel has since swiftly corrected course, and adjusted her policies rightward in response to the AfD’s proposals. As long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not reopen the gates to refugees before September, and as long as there is no major terrorist attack on German soil, the AfD may require more imaginative maneuvers than fearmongering and cultural resentment if it wants to regain its political momentum.

But another unique characteristic of the AfD speaks to its staying power in German politics. The party has actively entered into the state, in ways unthinkable for far-right-wing parties of the past. AfD members already occupy minor and major bureaucratic and administrative positions across the land. The police spokesman for the state of Thuringia, Ringo Mühlmann, sits on the local AfD Board. The chief public prosecutor of Berlin, Roman Reusch, is an active member of the party. These men, invaluable for the pragmatic program of the party, give the impression that the AfD is more than a mere protest party and that is capable of administrative burdens. When I asked Petry what her model for the party strategy was, she pointed to the example of the Greens and then corrected herself: “But of course we don’t drag our heels like the Greens, and we’ll learn from their mistakes.”