This dragon emerged from its egg only four years ago, in February 2013, but has grown so quickly and mightily that its menace extends to the rest of Europe – not only because Germany is geographically and economically so large and very central but also because of the symbolism bound up with the bloody past.
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), formed from small, hardly known groups, seemed initially to be a project of very conservative but harmless professors and drop-outs from established parties, namely, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the big-biz Free Democratic Party (FDP). Its first stress was opposition not so much to the European Union as to its Euro currency, largely on a German nationalist basis.
Before long, two wings developed, one led by the more moderate (and allegedly mediocre) economist Bernd Lücke, 54, who was no rabble-rouser, and the younger, talented, often happily smiling chemist, Frauke Petry, 41, who was born in Saxony, now a notoriously xenophobic state, she had developed a new chemical product, formed a company with ten employees, gone bankrupt, and was working for a bigger firm when the chance for a new party emerged. She jumped at it, landing at just the right moment.
In July 2015, it came to a showdown. At a congress, Petry’s wing, with far stronger pinions, won 60% of the votes. Lücke, complaining that the party had ‘fallen irretrievably into the wrong hands’ with an ‘increase in anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner views’, quit, taking about 20% of the members with him to found a less virulent alliance which has all but disappeared. Lücke now has little left except for his seat in the European Parliament. Frauke Petry’s side suffered not a bit from the split and the AfD kept growing and growing.
The AfD has a programme, though its leaders stress a variety of individual aspects. Some attack abortions and same-gender marriage (or its adoption of children), some develop theories on fairer taxes, which always seem to help the very wealthy. Others sound off against climate controls. Most want to build the armed forces and promote armaments research ‘to make Germany great again’. This involves abandoning the euro to permit Germany’s ‘unfettered ‘ growth, but also resistance to US hegemony and, perhaps paradoxically, often support for better relations with Russia.
Some, especially the professors, try to maintain a ‘more correct’ position in hopes of an accepted, hitherto rejected position in the political landscape. When one of the newly-elected 29 delegates to the legislature of Baden-Wurttemberg was found to have written a book with anti-Semitic passages, there was a split about ejecting him, and Frau Petry had to be called in to arrange a dubious compromise.
In Saarland, the state AfD was proven by a national magazine to be so closely intertwined with overt pro-Nazis that the national leadership found it necessary to disband it. They are still quarreling. Actually, the whole AfD has countless ties to people from PEGIDA, the organization which has marched in Dresden almost every Monday for the past two years, with the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), the newly-emerging, extreme racist identitaire movement from France and almost any such group or gang of fascist thugs, as hangers-on, advisers or sometimes candidates.
But anti-Semitism plays a minor role. AfD’s main target is the largely Turkish population and the refugees who arrived in such numbers in 2015, mostly from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and northern Africa. Muslimophobia is the main weapon of the extreme right in Germany, as in all of Europe.
It was the supposedly more moderate, Professor Alexander Gauland, AfD leader and deputy in Brandenburg, who said, ‘Of course we can thank the immigrant crisis for our party’s new growth’. He gained fame – mostly negative – when, referring to Jerome Boateng, one of Germany’s best football-players, whose father was from Ghana but who was born and raised in Berlin, he said: ‘People consider him a good soccer player. But they don’t want Boateng as a neighbor’.
The former school teacher, Jörn Höcke, AfD head in Thuringia, is most blatantly racist. On a popular TV programme, he spoke of ‘the frightened dreams of blond women’. When the moderator mildly objected, he extended that to ‘brunettes and redheads’. It was Höcker who voiced a pseudo-scientific theory ‘that evolution led Africans towards an expansion policy based on great fertility while Europeans had a stay-put tendency with few children, and Africans must therefore be kept out – to save German culture’.
Höcke’s stress on ‘Germanity echoes the past even in its vocabulary. Hitler boasted of his ‘thousand year Reich‘. Höcke, a possible challenger to Frau Petry’s rule, said: ‘I want Germany to have not only a thousand-year past but once again a thousand-year future’. On another occasion, he demanded: ‘We must rediscover our masculinity. Only then can we become manly. And only when we become manly can we become resistant’.
But Frauke Petry is not to be outdone. Noted for calls to ban minarets, she also said German police should use firearms ‘as a last resort’ to prevent illegal border-crossings. Her deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch (grand-daughter of a top Nazi cabinet minister), wrote on the internet: ‘People coming out of Austria have no right of asylum. And those on duty at the border may use their firearms … against people who resist repeated orders to halt by trying to flee’.
When a journalist asked if this applied to women and children she wrote approvingly, ‘Ja‘. This shocked so many that Frau von Storch claimed that her finger had slipped on the mouse; she hadn’t really meant it. But Storch and Petry had, indeed, quoted a West German law of 1961. Sarcasm went viral about the troubles of a Storch (German for stork) with a mouse, but also about the years of reproach against GDR border guards for invoking a related law.
The AfD attack on foreigners, above all Muslims, was the basis for success. It catered to wide-spread feelings of insecurity. Uncertainty about having employment the next day, not forced into some short-term, part-time, underpaid job, about being able to pay the rent and raise a family, led to a disbelief in all the old parties, which promised so much and delivered so little.
AfD voter composition varied; it was often less working class or jobless people than middle-class groups. But everywhere the old tried-and-true solution was applied, only marginally against Jews but, as in most of Europe and increasingly in the USA, primarily against ‘Islamification’. Paradoxically, these feelings and votes for the AfD were strongest in eastern Germany where the number of people of non-German background was by far the lowest, fewer than 3%. But these areas were worst hit economically and most unsettled by systemic change.
Hate-foreigner feelings, fostered by sensational media reports on terrorists or felonies large and small, often by jobless young North Africans, and far less on violent attacks against immigrants, including the torching of their buildings, occupied or not, enflamed chauvinist minds and successes grew accordingly.
In 2013, the AfD barely missed the 5% hurdle needed to get into the Bundestag; after 2014 it got double-digit results everywhere but in Hamburg and Bremen, and celebrated frightening East German successes: 20.8% in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and in Saxony-Anhalt 24.4%, making it second strongest party. Its strong showing of 14.2% in Berlin in September gave it 25 seats in the 160-seat legislature. It currently stands in national polls at about 14%, ahead of the Greens and De Linke (The Left). Its successes mean financial subsidies from the government and a far louder presence in a media never hesitant in giving telegenic Frau Petry a hearing.
What about the De Linke? Of course, it opposes the AfD in every way for the two are implacable foes. But the media again try to equate ‘far right ‘ with ‘far left ‘, most visibly during a joint TV appearance by Petry with Sahra Wagenknecht, a main De Linke theoretician and co-chair of its caucus in the Bundestag. Perhaps the idea was a mistake, some in De Linke criticized Wagenknecht for the debate; the moderator, and later the media, stressed that both opposed the euro, the CETA and TTIP trade treaties with the USA and criticised Merkel’s immigration policies. Of course, their reasons were antagonistic, with Wagenknecht stressing the need to eliminate the causes of refugee immigration and never nearing Petry’s nationalist argumentation.
One criticism regarding De Linke is harder to dismiss. Widespread distrust of the old parties too often includes it, and many protest voters now check the AfD on election ballots. Especially in eastern Germany, De Linke rarely succeeds in responding sufficiently, with aiming at coalitions with Greens and Social Democrats, already achieved in two states and probably Berlin, miserably unsuccessfully in two others, and not with vigorous campaigns in the streets, in front of or inside factories and at job application centers, proving that it fights for people’s needs and rights – and for a better society. Far too respectable, it rarely shows the courage and determination which won huge audiences for Bernie and Jeremy. Where de Linke does not present convincing alternatives the AfD wins out, and its successes push most other parties rightward.
Last spring, on the top of the border, the 3000-metre high Zugspitze, Frau Petry met Heinz-Christian Stracke, leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which may soon win the presidency. This media photo-op aimed at strengthening Petry‘s inner-party status but also symbolized ties or parallels with parties in France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, perhaps with UKIP, and with governments in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. With the economy stumbling even in Germany, déjà vu feelings are unavoidable, and the necessity for an offensive by all forces of the left, and workers’ organisations in particular, is becoming almost desperately urgent.
Victor Grossman, long-time USA ex-pat in Berlin – an ancient exile from the McCarthy Era. The only person in the world with a diploma from both Harvard and Karl Marx University in Leipzig and author of ‘Crossing the River, A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany ‘ (University of Massachusetts Press) and a monthly bulletin about Germany, to be had from firstname.lastname@example.org