Five days after Donald Trump became the next president of the United States, the south Munich chapter of Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), held its first meeting since the U.S. election. In a traditional Bavarian tavern on a quiet residential street, 50-some party members and supporters drank beer and celebrated the victory that they felt was, in many ways, their own.
The theme of the meeting was supposed to be the local elections in May, when the AfD is expected to pick up seats in several of Germany’s state parliaments. (The party currently holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five one year ago.) But instead of local elections, talk that night centered almost exclusively on Donald Trump.
Dirk Driesang, a member of AfD’s federal board, stood to address the packed restaurant, where party placards reading “AfD Loves Deutschland” adorned every table. He began with Trump’s roots in Germany. The president-elect’s grandfather Friedrich was born and raised in Kallstadt, a village in the southwest. Friedrich eventually was deported, Driesang smiled as he told the crowd, for evading his mandatory military service. But that was fine because his grandson had gone on to do in the U.S. what the AfD hopes to do in Germany.
“America First is coming to Deutschland,” boomed Driesang, his adaptation of Trump’s campaign slogan giving way to resounding applause.
Among all of Germany’s political parties, the AfD was alone in cheering Trump’s surprise victory. The cover of Der Spiegel on November 12 depicted Trump’s head as a fiery meteor on course to destroy Planet Earth. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first remarks on the U.S. election results included a lecture on the very definition of democracy. But the AfD, whose dramatic rise over the past two years has been fueled by much the same anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and anti-establishment elements that elevated Trump to power in the United States, saw the real estate mogul’s win as a good omen for their controversial movement to make nationalism popular in Germany again — for the first time since World War II.
“This election result gives courage for Germany and Europe,” read AfD Chairwoman Frauke Petry’s statement on November 9. “Just as the Americans did not believe the manipulations of their mainstream media, citizens in Germany also have the courage to make their decision in the election booth themselves and not to remain resigned at home.”
Now, the party is poised for a historic result in next year’s national elections, in which Merkel faces her stiffest challenge yet. After narrowly missing the 5 percent needed to enter national parliament in the 2013 elections, polls now suggest the AfD will receive 16 percent of the national vote in 2017, making it the third-largest political party in Germany, after Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), part of Merkel’s grand coalition. The terror attack that killed 12 people at a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday is expected to bolster the AfD even more, and in turn, lower support for Merkel, who has been criticized for welcoming nearly 1 million migrants in 2015 alone, without proper background checks.
That level of success for a far-right party in the country that gave rise to Adolf Hitler would represent a political earthquake for Europe — and a national trauma for Germans, who have sought to expunge and confront their history in the 70 years since World War II. The country’s politics have been solidly liberal since the reunification of Germany in 1990. But over the past two years, as Merkel has welcomed Muslim refugees and led the bailouts of struggling European economies such as Greece, populist sentiments have surged — and the AfD is now reaping the rewards.
The AfD’s platform is a collection of right-wing themes: EU reform, closed borders and a return to the Germany of yesteryear, before what many of its members and supporters refer to as the “Islamization” of Europe. The party seeks to ban large minarets and the call to prayer, and require Muslim preachers to undergo government vetting. “Islam does not belong in Germany,” the platform states.
The AfD’s rise has been stunning, accomplishing in just three years what took other populist European parties — like France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party — more than four decades to achieve. And it could have serious consequences. Unlike France and Austria, Germany, under Merkel’s leadership, has become the widely accepted leader of the liberal West. Now, the pillars of this leadership — from Merkel’s stewardship of the refugee crisis and the euro crisis — are under attack from the country’s increasingly popular populist party. That popularity has already led Merkel to veer to the right, hardening her stance on refugees and Islam in Germany.
“What they are managing right now is to make a very radical brand of right wing politics not exactly fashionable, but acceptable in Germany, and that’s new,” says Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz. “They should be taken very seriously, insofar as I think they will do pretty well in the upcoming election. Sixteen percent on the national level is a very strong showing by German standards.”
That is not to say that all Germans are comfortable with the AfD. It’s gaining popularity, but it’s still very controversial. Berlin is filled with anti-AfD stickers and graffiti, and at least one restaurant there has a sign on its window urging AfD supporters to keep out. In Munich, the local AfD chapter holds its meetings on that quiet residential street because no other restaurant in Munich will agree to host it. The mayor of Munich even sent a notice to local business owners, urging them not to rent space to “populist groups,” a clear reference to the AfD.
But it’s precisely this kind of blanket condemnation of the AfD’s populism that galvanizes the party, and has led so many Germans to run so quickly into its welcoming arms.
“There’s a wide section of the German population that hasn’t felt represented by the political establishment and were simply waiting for a party like the AfD to provide an organization around which they could crystallize their anger and their hopes for alternative policymaking,” says Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University of Dresden.
“I don’t think that because of these 12 black years of [Nazi] history I should always have my head under the table” — AfD member Uli Henkel
According to analysts, the majority of AfD voters previously supported Merkel, and voted for parties in the chancellor’s ruling coalition. But, says Arzheimer, one-third of AfD voters are formerly non-voters, people who were so disillusioned by the established parties that they simply didn’t vote. Some, he says, even voted for socialist left-wing parties in the past.
All of these voters have one thing in common: They are tired of apologizing for their national history. “We have this problem in Germany where you’re not allowed to love your country because if you do you’re considered a Nazi,” says Sarah Leins, a 30-year-old AfD supporter. “We have to overcome this.”
Uli Henkel prides himself on the fact that he has couch-surfed in 61 countries, the same number of years he has been alive. When I meet him, he tells me proudly that he is one of Germany’s infamous “Sixty-Eighters.” He giddily shows me a picture of himself as a long-haired teenage hippy, when he took part in student protests against the political establishment in the late 1960s.
Today, Henkel is devoted to a new rebellion against the establishment. He takes great pride in being German and feels that it’s time for Germans to be allowed to be proud of their country, just like all the people he meets in his world travels.
“This is a normal thing in all countries of the world, but it’s not normal in Germany because in Germany, we always look to what will the rest of the world think? How can we heal the world? We are neglecting the needs of our own people.” Henkel continues, “We fought against the old Nazi Germany. And we overcame it. And I don’t think that because of these 12 black years of history I should always have my head under the table. It cannot mean that three generations later, we don’t have the right to demonstrate against things, to have another opinion than the mainstream opinion.”
The AfD was founded in 2013 by economists who demanded EU reform, and opposed the bailouts that led Germany to pay billions of euros to help fledgling economies like Greece and Spain.
Henkel describes this mainstream opinion as follows: “If you’re not in favor of the refugees, if you’re not going to the stations saying, ‘Refugees Welcome,’ if you don’t think that millions of young male Muslim men are good for this country, then you’re racist, then you’re a Nazi.”
After supporting Merkel for many years, Henkel is now a member of the AfD. He says he felt that she turned her back on Germans by letting in so many migrants and giving them so many benefits. The money being spent on asylum seekers and refugees, he says, should be going to German citizens.
As a well-off, well-traveled business consultant, Henkel epitomizes the fact that AfD voters, like Trump voters, cannot be pinned down by the simple labels that have been popular with the German media, which tends to depict AfD supporters as uneducated racists who resent being left behind by globalization.
In fact, many AfD voters are young and well-educated. While thorough party data won’t become available until the national election in 2017, analysts have gained some insight into the average AfD voter from local elections. Based on that data, these analysts say, most AfD supporters are younger than 65. Older voters, they say, tend to show more loyalty to traditional parties, like Merkel’s CDU. According to Jörg Sobolewski, the AfD’s Berlin regional manager, the second-largest faction of AfD voters are under 30. Their biggest contingent, said Sobolewski — who is himself 27 years old — are people aged 30 to 65, who make up 25 percent of AfD voters. As for education and professional background, that too defies stereotypes.
“There is not much difference between them and voters of the CDU or SPD (parties in Merkel’s government),” says Patzelt, the political scientist. “It’s not just the so-called blue collar workers, but classic middle class as well.”
The AfD, after all, was not born as an overtly nationalist party. It was founded in 2013 by economists who demanded European Union reform, and opposed the bailouts that led Germany to pay billions of euros to help fledgling economies like Greece and Spain. When the 2015 refugee crisis hit Germany like a tsunami, sending nearly 1 million asylum seekers into Germany that year alone, the party took a hard-right turn, making anti-immigration and the anti-Islamization of Europe its primary focus. That shift led AfD’s founder, economist Bernd Lucke, and other party leaders, to leave what Lucke said was becoming an “Islamophobic and xenophobic” party.
The AfD quickly became the only political voice in Germany to criticize Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, a humanitarian stance that earned her praise from the domestic and international media, but scorn from many of her former supporters. The AfD largely benefited from that scorn.
“Many of the refugees are of Muslim background, and they came to Germany at a time when there were many Islamic attacks in Europe,” says Patzelt. “Since none of the established parties gave expression to these fears, people felt liberated when they saw that the AfD would give expression to their views and would generate significant policy changes in the government.”
Sarah Leins is one of those young voters who, like Henkel, supported Merkel before the chancellor decided to shoulder the burden of Europe’s refugee influx, with no limit to the number of asylum seekers Germany would shelter. There are now 1.4 million asylum seekers in Germany, more than any other European nation. The German government provides them with an array of social benefits, including free shelter, food (if they are living in government shelters), medical services, approximately €216 to cover basic needs and an additional €143 a month in pocket money. The government has budgeted €98 billion to assist asylum seekers over the next five years.
Leins, 30, lives in hip, liberal Berlin, where September state elections shocked analysts by giving the AfD 14 percent of the vote, the highest share for a far-right party in Berlin since World War II. Merkel’s CDU suffered its worst results in the German capital, winning just 17.5 percent, echoing poor results in other state elections.
“Not only do I feel betrayed, but many people feel betrayed by Chancellor Merkel,” says Leins. After the terrorist attack in her city this week, her feelings of betrayal have only intensified.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to help refugees, Leins says. “But the help we can offer to real refugees is less because we are helping everybody. I think they are encouraged to come and this encouragement is wrong. It shouldn’t be our policy to encourage them to come.”
While Leins says she sympathizes with refugees, she and other AfD supporters say that because most refugees arrive in Turkey, Greece and Italy before coming to Germany, it is proof that they are drawn to Germany specifically because of the financial benefits that await them.
Before the election in Berlin, Leins volunteered to hand out AfD flyers in the streets. Several people called her a Nazi and a slut as they walked by. Leins has lost several friends because of her support for the AfD.
“It’s very hard to be proud of Germany because we have this historical guilt,” she says. “To say you’re proud to be German is to say you’re proud of Hitler and that is absolutely not true.”
Owing to this general perception, despite the AfD’s growing support, it was not treated as a serious threat to Merkel’s leadership — much like Trump wasn’t considered a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. That is, not until recently, now that the swelling support for the party has become impossible to ignore.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Merkel’s own recent shift to the right. Earlier this month came the latest example, with her proposal to ban full-face veils “wherever it is legally possible.” The ban on the niqab and the burqa was first proposed by the AfD in 2014, earning it accusations of Islamophobia. The party platform rejects the Islamization of Germany because, it claims, many Muslim beliefs — for example the treatment of women — go against Germany’s “free, democratic social foundation, our laws and the Judaeo-Christian and humanistic bases of our culture.”
Merkel’s backing of the burqa ban was an obvious appeal to right-wing voters. Yet it was also a symbolic one, as the burqa is almost nowhere to be found in German society. In fact, much of the so-called Islamization of German society that is feared by AfD supporters is largely overstated, says Arzheimer, the professor of politics. Muslims account for about 5 percent of the German population, he noted, adding that many of them are not religiously observant.
But for many German voters, statistics matter less than what they see in their cities and streets; and they, like many Trump supporters, blame immigrants for many of the changes they don’t like.
Joel Bussman, a 22-year-old AfD supporter, laments Germany’s increasing multiculturalism, particularly its impact on his hometown in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia — where German police are now on a manhunt for the suspect in Monday’s attack in Berlin.
“By inviting the whole world here, not everything will be better. More like everything will get worse,” says Bussman, a university student in Berlin. “The place I’m from used to be the heart of German mining and steel production, much like Pennsylvania in the USA. Today there’s no industry left, no jobs left. It’s pretty much a multicultural melting pot with almost no Germans left. When you walk the streets there you see mostly foreign people. There are almost no German shops anymore, which I find quite disturbing.”
Merkel’s other rightward shifts have been less headline-grabbing, but arguably more significant. Over the past year, Germany has, for instance, increased border patrol, decreased social benefits for refugees, deported asylum seekers and facilitated a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees arriving in Europe.
Could policies like these help Merkel and the CDU win back some moderate AfD supporters? Perhaps, but it’s probably too late for her to reverse most of her losses. Until her recent concessions, says Patzelt, Merkel reacted to the threat of the AfD mainly by saying, “‘Well if populism is growing, then exactly because of this, in the political center we have to oppose all right-wing policies.’ This is the course she has taken and it is a course that has proved so unsuccessful,” he says, adding that this solution has done more to strengthen the AfD than weaken it.
This means that, for now, the pressure on Merkel’s right flank isn’t going away. There is almost no doubt among the political analysts I spoke with that Merkel will win reelection in 2017. But the AfD could end up being the strongest party in the opposition, which would give it a powerful voice in Germany’s parliamentary politics for the next four years.
It also means that Merkel will have to decide: Move right to stop bleeding political support, or continue to live up to her reputation as an icon of Western liberalism. Just after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. elections, the New York Times suggested Merkel might be “The liberal West’s last defender.” But with the far Right on the rise again in Germany, it’s hard to see how that reputation will last.
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