How an Extremist Party's Election Campaign Has Shifted Germany to the Right

The Alternative for Germany started out focusing on economic issues, but over the past year it has gradually changed what is appropriate to say in parliament, in the media and on the streets

Members of the Alternative for Germany party display placards reading, "Burkas? We prefer prefer bikinis" as Angela Merkel arrived for a rally in Binz, September 16, 2017.
Members of the Alternative for Germany party display placards reading, "Burkas? We prefer prefer bikinis" as Angela Merkel arrived for a rally in Binz, September 16, 2017. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

MUNICH – Andreas Winiarski had only stepped a few meters from his office on Munich’s posh Maximilian Street when he had a rude awakening: 200 supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany party at a campaign rally shouting slurs against Angela Merkel and refugees.

“There was nothing but rage, hatred and polemics coming from that group,” says the 39-year-old startup investor and member of the chancellor’s Christian Democrat Union.

Two days later, just a few days before Sunday’s general election that Merkel’s party is expected to win easily, Winiarski was still shaken – and disgusted.

“These AfD supporters were middle-class, educated Germans in suits,” he says. “It made me speechless that they felt comfortable enough to yell out their aversion to Muslims and foreigners in the middle of the afternoon in Munich’s city center. They merely smiled when I called them neo-Nazis.”

Only a year ago, Winiarski was among the more vocal Christian Democrats who demanded greater dialogue with the AfD, perhaps cooperation in a government at some point.

“I had good friends who left the CDU to become AfD members; I respected some of their leaders,” he says. “But this kind of völkische, nationalist ideology that I’ve just heard again and that I’ve been hearing for months during the election campaign makes me feel sick.”

Alternative for Germany and Christian Democrat posters on a streetlamp, Berlin, September 7, 2017.
Michael Sohn / AP

Indeed, with the AfD expected to enter the lower house of parliament after the election, many of its legislators will bring a mindset far to the right of even the most conservative voices in Merkel’s party. All the parties in the running have vowed to shun the AfD in negotiations to form a new coalition government.

The extreme far right within the AfD is large, so this strong presence in the next parliament will be a power base to broaden its influence and media presence.

Granted, not every AfD candidate is a far-right supporter or conspiracy theorist. But if the party wins at least 5 percent of the vote – and it’s expected to top 10 percent and perhaps be the third largest party in the lower house, the Bundestag – its representatives will include one Wilhelm von Gottberg.

In an essay, the 77-year-old called the Holocaust “a most effective instrument to criminalize the German people and their history.” He promotes the idea that a number of countries want the “Holocaust to remain a myth, a dogma that is removed from all free historical research.”

Conspiracy theories

Another potential AfD parliamentarian, Dubravko Mandic, 37, considers helping refugees a “modern Reichsarbeitsdienst” – the Nazis’ state labor service. He calls "traitors" people who reject the slogan “Germany only belongs to Germans,” and he has repeatedly called Barack Obama a “token black” president. Thomas Seitz, 50, a public prosecutor in southern Germany, where the AfD is particularly strong, calls refugees “migrassors” on Facebook – a play on migrants and aggressors.

And these three aren’t even the AfD’s most extreme voices. Other candidates indulge in conspiracy theories such as believing in a secret global society of elites who seek a new world order.

The party’s move to the nationalist far right was actually an unexpected development for the AfD. Several months ago, most of these far-rightists would probably not have been on the ballot, but now the AfD’s original political agenda has been largely replaced by nationalist topics.

The party had started as a movement against the euro and Merkel’s economic policies during the Greek debt crisis. It was founded in 2013 by economists and gained traction with many Germans who thought Merkel’s policies were sinking southern Europe into poverty.

Then the refugee crisis hit. The largely euroskeptic AfD soon aspired to be the only party that offered a home to Germans who felt threatened by the influx of refugees, most of them Muslims. The ousting of founder and party leader Bernd Lucke in 2015 is considered a first step by the AfD toward the far right. Frauke Petry, who replaced him, opened the party to a middle-class, nationalist following and made the refugee crisis the AfD’s dominant issue.

Shocking even the leader

But even Petry distanced herself from her own party this week, and in an interview with the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung she said she was shocked at the headlines her party was producing. She said these were headlines “that make me ask myself every time, ‘can this be true?’ and then, if it’s really true, this is a scandal.”

A founder of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, said this month that Germans had “the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” In a leaked email published by the daily Die Welt, Alice Weidel, a candidate who is supposed to appeal to middle-class voters who feel uncomfortable with the AfD’s nationalist wing, called Merkel and her government “pigs and puppets of World War II’s victorious powers.”

Alice Weidel, left, and Alexander Gauland, top candidates of the Alternative for Germany party, Berlin, September 18, 2017.
Markus Schreiber / AP

Every time an AfD candidate crosses a line like that, the uproar in the media and the established parties is huge. But still, over the past 12 months, the party has managed to gradually change what is appropriate to say in state and local parliaments, in the media and on the streets.

Just a few days ago, German-Jewish activist Benjamin Fischer, 26, realized once again that something had changed.

“I gave a seminar for teenagers on countering racism last weekend, and suddenly a participant explained to me very earnestly that the Rothschild family secretly rules the world,” Fischer says. “I thought it was a joke at first. These were really nice teenagers from middle-class families. But unfortunately it wasn’t a joke.”

Fischer still finds himself laughing a bit; he found the comment so ridiculous. But it wasn’t the first time in recent months that the political science major from Hamburg’s Bucerius Law School has encountered conspiracy theories from the far right. Sometimes it’s openly anti-Semitic, sometimes just silly, he says. Mostly he laughs them off. But he says “nobody would have openly said something like that a year or two ago.”

When it comes to comments against Muslims or refugees, Fischer finds it much harder to ignore them. ”What really hurts is that I’m suddenly finding this even among my friends, people I’ve known for a very long time. And then they suddenly say something like ‘all Muslims are terrorists.’”

Something else that Fischer finds hard to accept is that the AfD is openly angling for the German-Jewish vote. At least two AfD state parliamentarians are Jewish, and Petry has several times called her party the “guarantee for Jewish life” in Germany. She and her husband have more than once declared that the party sees Israel as its role model for a “fortress against Islam.”

“They are using the current climate of insecurity and fear,” Fischer says. “It’s human to feel attracted by that, but they should know that the vast majority of the Jewish community in Germany rejects the AfD’s political goals and will not vote for them.”

Historian Ronen Steinke sees another reason for the AfD’s interest in the German Jewish vote. “Every time AfD leader Petry or [her husband Marcus] Pretzell emphasize their respect for Jewish people, it is actually a signal to the German middle class. They want to reassure them that they are domesticated,’” he wrote in an article this month for the German weekly Jüdische Allgemeine.

At least with Winiarski, the startup investor, this signal goes wrong. His encounter with the Munich AfD rally has made him determined to fight the AfD over the next four years in parliament, and if necessary for much longer.

“This isn’t a legitimate political trend for our country,” he says. “So I will fight against it with every drop of energy I have in me.”