Over the last decade we have seen a rise in support for populist parties across Europe. These populist movements represent a very real threat because of their general lack of commitment to democratic values and their desire to restrict the rights of those who they oppose. Often these parties’ push forward anti-immigrant agendas, appose social justice movements, fight climate change legislation, and advocate for anti-feminist policies; these values without democratic restraints can represent a very real threat to basic human rights. Yet, in the recent 2021 federal elections the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the populist right-wing arm of the German Bundestag, lost seats. However prominent the AfD may still be, I believe this represents a shift away from right-wing populism back towards the more democratically consistent parties of Germany, of which should not go unnoticed. Why have right-wing nationalist and populist agendas in neighboring Europe been successful in gaining support, while the AfD has lost it? I believe the answer lies in the right-wing history of Germany, and more importantly how the German people have dealt with their past. In this blog I will investigate what could be the cause of this, while also exploring what can be learned from their example.
The Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD), main grievances lie with immigration and the European Union (E.U.). AfD leaders argue Germany is becoming “Islamified” (Chase & Goldenberg, 2019). They blame economic, and political hardships on Muslim immigrants, and use xenophobia to perpetuate their right-wing agendas often times going against established Holocaust remembrance norms. Fortunately after the recent 2021 elections it seems the AfD is losing support. Their vote share fell from 12.6% of the vote in 2017 to 10.3% 2021. More importantly the AfD fell from the 3rd largest opposition party in Germany to the 5th, losing out to the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party (Schultheis, 2021).
In comparison I will briefly examine another right-wing populist party in Europe, Spain’s Vox party. Among their policy proposals are bans on certain Masques, bans on gender change medical procedures and abortion, and repeal a law which aims to protect women from gender-based violence. Founded in 2013, Vox’s support has been steadily growing (Laudette, 2019). After the last election of November of 2019, Vox holds 52 seats in parliament. Today Vox the third largest party in Spanish parliament and appear to be steadily gaining momentum.
When Spain democratized in 1975, they chose a strategy of forced amnesia, passing the 1977 Amnesty Act. This bill all but guaranteed those responsible for the hundreds of thousands of human rights violations committed during the Franco regime would not be prosecuted (Escudero, 2014). The newly democratic Spanish parliament felt it would be best for the nation not to dwell on their past and move forward into their newly democratic future. The 1977 Amnesty Act has directly manifested itself today in Vox and their nostalgic view of the Franco regime (Jones, 2021). In contrast the closing of World War II brought about the polar opposite strategy in Germany. The judicial system, and investigative journalists worked determinedly to clarify, and bring to justice, all who were responsible for the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. The public was spared no detail a fact that has created a wholly different situation in Germany than in Spain. German memorials are a daily reminder of the cruel acts of evil committed. Germany’s effort to bring about Transitional Justice has led to a congruent understanding of German history, among all reasonable Germen citizens. This can explain why as the AfD becomes more nationalist the German people are distancing themselves from them.
To argue this point we must examine this history of the AfD. When first established in 2013 the AfD positioned themselves as an economic alternative to the robust left wing of German politics, campaigning on a more fiscally conservative narrative. However, after a series of splits in 2015 and 2016 the AfD shifted their focus to more cultural issues in an attempt to appeal to individuals who felt alienated by a changing Germany. It is at this point AfD leaders began to violate norms in regards to discussion of the Holocaust and German history, as well as presenting more Right-wing nationalist viewpoints. This realization of the intentions of the AfD by the German people is further compounded by recent attacks on Muslim community members by AfD supporters, and accusations of criminal campaign finance violations. (Deutsche Welle , 2019) The results of the 2017 election I think represented the need for a more right leaning economic party. However, it appears that after having 4 years to recognize the AfD’s ideological shift citizens have grown tired of their message. This I believe shows that as the AfD moved towards a more nationalist and right-wing agenda Germans began to distance themselves. When faced with a choice of AfD values or their well understood national history, it seems some Germans have chosen to respect their history and move away from the AfD. Germany is struggling with the same stresses plaguing other nations, economic inequality, climate irregularities, global pandemic, ect. Without this understanding of where the ideals perpetuated by the AfD, the anti-immigration xenophobic viewpoints could lead, their policies could very easily be seen as a more reasonable position as Vox is in Spain.
There is a lesson to be learned for all countries battling anti-democratic populism and nationalism from this example. As political agendas shift from an economic left and right spectrum to more social issue-based alignment, any misunderstood and miss represented national history can be a point to which populist leaders can drive a wedge into furthering polarization. This is a danger faced not just in Europe but all over the globe. Here in the United States, we saw on January 6, 2021, the battle flag of the Confederacy flying as so called “American patriots” breached the capital building to halt democratic processes. How does a flag created by those who wished to destroy the United States become flown by self-described American patriots? They would argue that flag represents their heritage, their history. I would agree. However, the difference lies in our understanding, or misunderstanding of our history. Germans are taught the truth about their past, in all its shame and regret, while we are sheltered from ours. They live with somber reminders of that darkness in form of memorials, and lesson plans, while we are gifted nostalgic monuments of dead generals, and fight to block critical history from being taught. In this lies an opportunity for populist leaders to continue to ignore the structural imbalances of this nation and use resentment to divide us.
The recent elections in Germany have not shown complete regression from nationalist/ populists’ agendas. In the Bundesland of Saxony the AfD is still the leading party. The AfD still holds 82 seats in the Bundestag. There is still much work to be done before the treat of right-wing populism is not existent for Germany, however the recent elections has renewed a sense of admiration for German democracy, and given clues on how populism can be fought through the accurate representation of national history. Whether it is in Poland, Spain, the United States, or the many other countries for which populist leaders aim to divide citizens; we need to stop heritage from becoming a weapon and start to accept history as to not repeat it.
Chase, J., & Goldenberg, R. (2019, oct 28). AfD: What you need to know about Germany’s far-right party. Retrieved from Deutsche Welle : https://www.dw.com/en/afd-what-you-need-to-know-about-germanys-far-right-party/a-37208199
Deutsche Welle . (2019, April 16). Germany’s AfD party fined over €400,000 for illegal campaign financing. Retrieved from Deutsche welle : https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-afd-party-fined-over-400000-for-illegal-campaign-financing/a-48356587
Escudero, R. “. (2014, jan). “Road to impunity: the absence of transitional justice programs in Spain.”. Humans Rights quarterly 36, p. 123.
Jones, S. (2021, oct 9). Old wounds are exposed as Spain finally brings up the bodies of Franco’s victims. Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/09/spain-bodies-franco-victims-dictator-mass-graves
Laudette, C.-L. (2019, nov 10). Factbox: The rise of Spain’s far-right – Vox becomes third-biggest party. Retrieved from www.reuters.com: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-election-vox-factbox/factbox-the-rise-of-spains-far-right-vox-becomes-third-biggest-party-idUSKBN1XK0L2
Schultheis, E. (2021, sep 8). Germany’s far-right AfD loses nationally, but wins in the East. Retrieved from Politico : https://www.politico.eu/article/german-election-far-right-afd-loses-nationally-but-wins-in-east/
Wildman, S. (2017, aug 3). https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/31/16234008/germany-afd-ad-campaign-far-right. Retrieved from Vox: https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/31/16234008/germany-afd-ad-campaign-far-right