Not since the 1950s has a right-wing nationalist party sat in the German Bundestag. The utter devastation wreaked by World War II, as well as stringent laws against Holocaust denial and expressions of support for the defeated Nazi regime, placed a taboo on extreme right-wing politics in Germany. Six decades of political immunity to the far right came to an end yesterday, when the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) won over 13 percent in Germany’s federal election, making it the third largest party in the Bundestag. German politics just went from being reassuringly boring to ominously contentious.
Consider: For the past four years, Germany was governed by the country’s two largest parties, Angela Merkel’s center right Christian Democrats and the center left Social Democrats, in a “grand coalition.” On Sunday, both parties suffered their worst performances since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949 (as did the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union). The decline of the two “people’s parties” (Volksparteien) has coincided with a movement towards the extremes, with voters flocking to the AfD and post-communist Left Party.
What was once a stable and predictable political dispensation has now been overturned. The Social Democrats, rightly indignant that four years as Merkel’s second fiddle weakened their appeal, have ruled out another grand coalition and will enter opposition. This leaves Merkel with only one possible option to form a government: A coalition composed of her CDU/CSU alliance, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, known as “Jamaica” due to the parties’ colors (black, yellow, and, obviously, green). This will not be an easy partnership to assemble, what with the FDP and Greens sharing serious doctrinal and personal differences (both appeal to the same white collar, upper middle class, bourgeois constituency and share the sort of resentment that is natural between smaller parties). On top of this, the CSU will want to move further right in an effort to win back voters it lost to the AfD, a development that cannot portend well for a coalition with the Greens.
Which brings us back to the biggest news of yesterday’s election. Initially founded by a group of conservative economists wanting to pull Germany out of the Eurozone, the AfD didn’t even clear the five percent threshold required to enter the Bundestag at the last federal election in 2013. Its appeal broadened, however, in the wake of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, particularly after Merkel opened Germany’s borders to some 1 million mostly Muslim migrants. A series of highly-publicized crimes involving migrants, most notably a mass sexual assault in Cologne and a terrorist attack in Berlin last Christmas, led to a transformation of the AfD from a party mainly focused on bringing back the deutschemark into a volkisch, ethno-nationalist bloc.
American Jews tempted to look favorably upon the AfD for its tough stance on Islamism should be wary: While the AfD’s main scapegoats are Muslims, Jews aren’t far behind. This being Germany, however, AfD leaders must couch their anti-Semitism in ways that skillfully skirt the country’s stringent hate speech laws. Their anti-Semitism has thus taken the form of historical revisionism and attacks on Germany’s remembrance culture. The most fearsome example was a speech delivered by a regional party leader earlier this year, rather fittingly, in a Dresden beer hall. “They wanted to cut off our roots and with the re-education that began in 1945, they nearly managed,” Björn Höcke declared about the Allies who occupied postwar Germany. “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital” he said, referring to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which occupies an entire city block in central Berlin. Another AfD member set to enter parliament, Martin Hohmann, was expelled from the CDU in 2003 after delivering a speech wherein he disputed the notion that Germany is a “nation of perpetrators” by arguing that one could say the same about the Jews, who, after all, played a disproportionate role in the Bolshevik Revolution.
Earlier this month, party leader Alexander Gauland, another former CDU man, declared that “we have a right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” (He had previously suggested that the country’s Turkish-born Commissioner for Immigration, Refugees and Integration be “disposed of” in Anatolia). Last night, Gauland vowed to “hunt down” Merkel and her government, the German version of “Lock her up!” Throughout the campaign, supporters at AfD rallies cried that Merkel was a “traitor to the people,” a volksverräter, an elemental term of the Nazi “stab in the back” theory. To top it off, the party is anti-American, anti-NATO, and pro-Putin.
The emergence of a right-wing nationalist party into German federal politics (the AfD had won seats in a string of provincial elections over the three years leading up to yesterday’s vote) will have implications beyond Germany. The re-emergence of the fiscally hawkish FDP into government will make further Eurozone integration, a key project of French President Emanuel Macron, a more difficult task.
The success of the AFD also complicates a major assumption about right-wing populism: That it is driven by economic distress. Unlike neighboring France, where decades-long, structural unemployment of ten percent or higher has long provided a base of “left out” supporters for the National Front, Germany’s economy has been booming for years. When the AfD was an anti-Euro protest party, it barely registered. The drivers of its popularity are the twinned issues of immigration and national identity.
Finally, the rise of the AfD is in part a consequence of Merkel’s straddling the center. Over the course of three terms as Chancellor, Merkel skillfully stole issues from her opponents (like abandoning nuclear energy and ending military conscription) that had the effect of dampening their appeal base increasing her own (Merkel’s Social Democratic opponent Martin Schulz derided her as an “Idea hoover”). For 12 years this worked. But moving her party to the center, if not the center-left, and thereby leaving her right flank open, came with a cost, and the proverbial chickens have come home to roost in the form of a political force that will disrupt and disgrace the usually staid world of German politics.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.