Opinion |

The German Far Right Has Committed Political Suicide

The next leader for the radicalizing far right Alternative for Germany is likely to be a Third Reich revisionist whom German intelligence considers a threat to national security. That’s good news for Germany

Thomas O. Falk
Thomas O. Falk
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The far right Alternative for Germany may be about to elect as leader Björn Höcke (pictured), a Third Reich revisionist whom German intelligence considers a threat to national security
The far right Alternative for Germany may be about to elect as leader Björn Höcke (featured on posters), a Third Reich revisionist whom German intelligence considers a threat to national securityCredit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
Thomas O. Falk
Thomas O. Falk

The Alternative for Germany is known today as a party of populists, where nativism and fascism are both rampant and ubiquitous. But the party has undergone a transformation since its formation in 2013, from what was initially a commitment to economic liberalism, Euroscepticism, and conservatism. The price that the now clearly far right, xenophobic AfD will pay is electoral oblivion.

Last week marked yet another Groundhog Day moment for the AfD. Party co-chair Jörg Meuthen quit over the party's political direction and its radicalization. Before Meuthen, his predecessors Bernd Lucke and Frauke Petry had also left. Meuthen gave a baldly explicit reason for his decision: Parts of the party don’t share common ground regarding "the free foundational democratic order."

Meuthen seems to have met his own red line when confronted with too many AfD members’ weak dedication to democracy. But his statement seems like an overdue protest: for years, the party has pursued a populist escalation strategy that has driven even mainstream political discourse within Germany, on refugees, immigrants and Islam, even further to the right.

Meuthen had been at odds over the party's direction for a while. Over the past two years, he repeatedly and unequivocally advocated a more moderate course. Back in July 2016, he was calling for the expulsion of AfD members who backed Holocaust denial and antisemitism.

The AfD’s far right character, and the serial exposure of neo-Nazi connections and xenophobic behavior of party officials, mean that no mainstream German party has ever agreed to cooperate, let alone go into coalition, with it.

Joerg MeuthenCredit: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

Meuthuen was cognizant that only a tamed and indeed purged AfD could ever evolve into a party entrusted with government responsibility. After all, traditionally, the shelf life of populist nationalist parties, particularly in post-war Germany or the UK, has been rather negligible.

However, Meuthen’s attempt to pivot encountered strong opposition, particularly in the militantly far-right 'Flügel' (The Wing) faction, estimated to include around 40 percent of all AfD members, and which is based around the influential Thuringian state party chair Björn Höcke. The latter has become a symbol of the party's radicalization.

At the federal level, in the Bundestag, the AfD parliamentary group consists primarily of right-wing populist MPs whose performative politics are reminiscent of Republicans in Congress; they appear to have no profound interest either in opposition work nor in supporting the government. But at the local level, the situation is quite different.

In the eastern German states, since reunification the regions that are most susceptible to political extremism, the AfD is more than a mere nuisance to parliamentary work. It boasts a strong base and it functions as a safe haven for neo-Nazis and other radicals, characterized by antisemitism and the celebration of Germany’s Nazi past.

Björn Höcke, for example, has slammed Germany’s "culture of remembering Nazi crimes," calling the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame" and, under a pseudonym, publicized Third Reich revisionism in well-known neo-Nazi circles. Since the beginning of 2020, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which identified Höcke as a threat to public safety, has put him under surveillance.

Another prominent example is Andreas Kalbitz, who was forced to resign from his role as leader of the AfD parliamentary group in Brandenburg due to his membership in a neo-Nazi group. The list of disturbing, inciteful statements made by AfD politicians, whether in relation to Germany's WWII past or to refugees is extensive.

Andreas Kalbitz, AfD chief in the eastern state of Brandenburg before he was kicked out of the party for failing to disclose links to neo-Nazi movementsCredit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

The AfD’s pumped up, radicalized messages have, so far, worked. During the 2021 general election, the AfD obtained 10.2 percent of the vote, a solid result. However, only 8.2 percent of West Germans voted for them; 19.1 percent did so in the East. State elections have yielded similar results for the party. The AfD is already essentially a regional party, albeit with a skeleton presence in the west of the republic.

It is also interesting to look at the party's electorate. According to a recent study, 29 percent of AfD voters hold a "manifestly right-wing extremist" attitude, and another 27 percent represent a "latent right-wing extremism." Fifteen percent would support a right-wing dictatorship, 13 percent downplay Hitler’s National Socialism, 13 percent endorse antisemitism and 65 percent xenophobia.

Meanwhile, with Meuthen's departure, co-chair Tino Chrupalla is aiming to capture the leadership, but he won’t be enjoying unanimous support either. There are plenty of skeptics who don’t think Chrupalla has the charisma to lead the AfD – he has a rather suboptimal deficit of rhetorical talent – and think he lacks the strategic skill to better the party’s fortunes.

The party leadership is due to be re-elected in the summer. It is not inconceivable that, with Meuthen gone, Höcke himself will seize the moment – and power.

A demonstrator carries a flag reading "Islam: No thanks" during a rally of nationalist Alternative for Germany against the planned building of a mosque in Erfurt, eastern GermanyCredit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer

But regardless of who will lead the AfD next, with its Nein to moderation, the party has definitively said goodbye to the idea of becoming a responsible actor in the German party system.

With that in mind, the party will radicalize even further, and without having anything to lose, the floodgates will likely open even further. Hence one ought to expect even more outrageous obstructionism, an unprecedented shifting of the Overton window and the breaking of taboos on WWII, antisemitism, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant speech, as the party's primary modus operandi – on the federal and the state level.

However, the good news is that populism and extremism alone will not overcome the AfD’s utter lack of solid politics and a coherent agenda for Germany.

Granted, the AfD's recipe worked during the financial and refugee crises. However, its strategy has stopped working its magic. That was already evident during the COVID pandemic. Ignoring the virus and its fatal effects and embracing anti-vaxxers did not lead to the hoped-for increase in votes in the federal election but to a loss of votes instead.

The AfD has a failed business model. Its extremism precludes any option for holding genuine power, which is why the party will ultimately shrink to become an East German regional party and thus descend into irrelevance – precisely the scenario Meuthen sought to prevent.

Thomas O. Falk is a journalist and political commentator. He has covered politics for The Spectator, The Diplomat, GB News, Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post and others. He is currently pursuing a PhD in politics and lives in London. Twitter: @topfalk

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