Since World War II, defining what it means to be German has been a taboo subject. Celebrating national identity is seen by many Germans as a step towards the type of nationalism that led to the rise of the Nazi regime. As a result, post-war Germany is characterised by pacifism and multilateralism. But in a world increasingly unstable and anarchic, Germans have been forced to re-evaluate their identity. The rise (and recent fall) of the AfD, Germany’s far-right party, is a manifestation of this identity crisis.
In 2015, Germany’s borders were opened up to over a million refugees. Although Germany has become more visibly diverse, migrants are still politically marginalised. In 2017, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, brought a mere 2.6% of politicians with a migrant background into parliament. The controversially generous “Open Door” policy towards refugees prompted growth in Far Right sentiment throughout the nation; Germany’s reconsideration of their identity has empowered the Alternative fur Deutschland party (AfD), Germany’s right-wing populist party.
When people lose their sense of control, which is what happened as a result of the refugee crisis, they seek a community with a clear identity and agenda. The AfD is the answer to their prayers. In 2013, the AfD had just been founded, and polled 4.7% of the votes, narrowly missing the 5% line required to gain representation in parliament. But three years ago, the right-wing party entered the national parliament for the first time, polling 12.7% of the votes. The galvanising force behind the AfD’s recent popularity is a collective opposition to the refugee situation in Germany brought about by Merkel. Indeed, the party’s name stems from Merkel’s famous remark that there were no alternatives to her policies when the government was faced with the height of the European financial crisis. While most political parties in Germany welcome the intake of refugees, the AfD is vocally opposed to it. It has also become increasingly islamophobic, attracting voters in the process. For example, an AfD election slogan is ‘Burkas: we’d prefer bikinis’.
The rise of the AfD, however, is more complicated than just anti-immigration frustration. Merkel has had growing influence within the EU, often demanding Europe-wide support on a number of issues, such as the opening of borders and an EU army. Many Germans disagree with such a patronising stance concerning EU relations, referring to it as ‘besserwisserei’ (know-it-all-ism). This aligns with what seems like a widespread movement towards isolationism. However, for a more realistic explanation of why the AfD has risen as a political contender, we should not look outwards to what Merkel does outside of Germany, but rather inwards, to how Germans feel about their own nation.
Germans are simply dissatisfied with the current state of their homeland, and indeed with their own personal situations. The AfD’s voters fall into two main categories: lower-middle-class (mostly) males, and well-educated high earners. These two groups may seem like polar opposites, but what unites them is fear for the future, a fear that other parties have neglected to address. In 2017, only 34% of AfD voters voted out of conviction for the right-wing party, whereas 60% voted for the AfD “against all other parties”. This echoes Trump’s successful populist rhetoric in 2016: “We will win”. The emphasis is on the ‘winning’. As Lilliana Mason writes in Uncivil Agreement How Politics Became Our Identity: , “a candidate who picks up the banner of us versus them and winning versus losing is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines”. The AfD managed to tap into the anti-mainstream sentiment felt by a voiceless group of Germans. Is this populism a threat to democracy? Merkel doesn’t think so.
Although it is clear that Germany’s political and social climate is undergoing great change, Merkel, and other politicians from the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, are confident that the rise of the AfD is no cause for concern. Their logic follows like so: 15% of seats in Parliament is less than 85%, so how much power can this upstart party really have? Well, recent history shows that the surge in popularity of the Far-Right is at least worrisome. Across Europe, populist parties like the AfD seldom gain a large foothold in the country’s political sphere, but their success has limited the influence mainstream parties have in their respective countries. For example, in 2012 and 2013 UKIP only polled between 10% and 15%, and although this was far from majority, it was enough to put pressure on the Conservatives. This, of course, led to the most significant event in British politics for decades: Brexit.
Many consider the rise of the AfD in Germany over the past couple of years as a seismic shock for the future of German democracy, but I personally believe that it is not as monumental as it seems. What has happened in Germany is a de-alignment from mainstream parties, as opposed to a realignment to the AfD. For the latter to happen, the AfD must form a coherent, stable political faction, and this does not look very likely given the internal turmoil faced by the party. In May, the AfD expelled its leader in the state of Brandenburg after concerns over his past membership of a Neo-Nazi group were made public. In September, the party expelled Christian Luth, a spokesman for the AfD over talk of shooting and gassing migrants. Meanwhile, Germany’s political mainstream has been strengthened by Merkel’s highly praised leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. In national polls ahead of the 2021 federal election, the AfD is polling between 9 and 12%, uniformly below the 12.6% gained in 2017. Even in stronghold states in the former communist east, a poll published on October 4th showed the nativist party falling from first to third place.
Germany has been unified for over 30 years, and yet its identity is still not. Although the AfD is unlikely to gain any significant political standing in next year’s federal election, the journey to overcome the past is not yet over. Overcoming the past, particularly the Nazi ideology that led to the Holocaust, has been a guiding force for German identity reconstruction. However, as protests against Coronavirus restrictions with substantial links to anti-Semitism plague German cities, it is clear that there is still a ways to go until Germany’s identity crisis ends. With such extreme divides in the electorate, can Germany ever be truly unified?
The AfD was the German embodiment of a global wave of right-wing nationalism inspired by trumpism in America. The Syrian Refugee Crisis and subsequent anti-immigration sentiment may have been the catalyst for the emergence of the AfD, just as then-candidate Donald Trump made the border wall with Mexico a hallmark of his 2016 presidential campaign, but I do not believe this is the end of right-wing extremism in Germany. While Angela Merkel’s CDU is a centrist conservative party, the Bundestag, being a proportional representative body, often features ruling coalitions that may depend on fringe parties such as the AfD in order to maintain overall control of the government. While the AfD may see a decline, a mere 5% threshold will ensure that other far right-wing groups have influence and a shared platform with other conservative parties in the future. Though successfully unified for three decades now, there still exists to this day, two very different Germany’s. Socioeconomically, the east and west remains divided, and as Germany becomes increasingly more ethnically and religiously diverse, I have no doubt there will be future parties that can appeal to the same electorate that feels alienated by Merkel’s CDU. The right-wing nationalism may have fell in neighboring Austria but it has taken hold in Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, both members of the European Union. Alternativ für Deutschland was a dysfunctional party, marred by controversy, but its cause remains for others to follow. It would be unwise then, to dismiss the emergence of the AfD as a temporary reaction to mainstream politics.
I found your article to be very well written and interesting as I also agree that while the rise of right-wing populist movements is concerning, it is often incorrectly portrayed by both the media in Germany and government. Dissatisfaction with what is considered to be mainstream or establishment politics has been a major backbone to the recent expansion of organizations that claim to represent the political outsiders and those who feel misrepresented by their current regime. It is likely that this recent increase will not be permanent as many of the concerns which their support is based off of are temporary issues rather than systematic issues allowing organizations to function as reactionary bodies for the socially unattached. With Chancellor Merkel stating her intentions to not seek a fifth term, it is highly likely that mainstream political parties will attempt to integrate the concerns of wider voting bases in order to secure wider margins of victory which could cut into the already low percentage of influence which AfD has in German parliament. With conflict in Syria also beginning to stabilize, it is likely that we may see temporary migrant populations begin to return and ease the concerns of those who are weary about non-German nationals that were formerly attracted to organizations who sought to reduce or increase control over refugees in the country. The divide in German politics that has been highlighted by the AfD and far-right organizations is far more obvious to German politicians who may take an opportunistic approach to gain more radical advocates.
Your article was extremely interesting! I had always thought that the AfD’s rise in Germany way due to just the refugee crisis, but how you framed it around a loss of identity was very interesting. As you mentioned, Germany has only been unified for 30 years, so the country is still remarkably new for one that has such influence in the world and European Union politics. I think similarities could be drawn from the AfD to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party. While the party has older roots than the AfD does, its prominence was renewed in the past two election cycles. Even more attention and prominence came to the party in the 2017 elections where Le Pen advanced to the second round of voting with Emmanuel Macron. Like you mention how the AfD grew around the time of the refugee crisis and an identity crisis in Germany, I think the same could be said about the renewed popularity and interest in the National Rally party around the same time. With increased immigration to France, the country was facing many identity problems. Chief among them was the country’s adherence to secularity. With recent violence by extremists, the country is facing a new wave of debate surrounding parties such as the National Rally. Only the next elections will see if they gain any support. As of right now, with COVID, it seems these concerns are not too preoccupying. However with the world increasingly close to a post-COVID society, do you think that these parties will regain popularity? If so, how can ruling and other non-extremist parties combat the rise of these parties? If there is no way to combat them, are extremist parties such as the AfD and National Rally the future of politics? Overall, I really enjoyed your article and how you framed it. Thank you!