Over the last decade, Germany has been the indisputable leader of Europe, with its strong economy, liberal democracy, close partnership with the United States, and in recent years, its dominant role in steering the continent through one catastrophe after another: first the euro crisis and the bailouts of Greece, Spain, Portugal and others, followed by the refugee crisis, which saw the largest wave of migration since the Holocaust.
However, as populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic gain ground, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) poses a threat to the liberal order in Germany. Founded in 2013 by Euro-skeptic but mostly liberal economists, the AfD went from being a marginal political party that couldn’t even cross the 5 percent threshold to enter national parliament when federal elections were last held in 2013, to what is now the third-most-popular party in Germany. The AfD skyrocketed to its current level of success by serving as the only political party to vigorously condemn Angela Merkel’s policies toward the refugee crisis. That position led the party’s original founder to quit in protest of “Islamic and xenophobic” elements within. Yet it attracted a large following of voters who had until then felt that there was no political home for opposition to accepting over a million mostly Muslim immigrants.
Frauke Petry has been the leader of the AfD since 2015. Under her stewardship, the party now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago. Federal elections will be held in September, and the latest polls predict that this time the party will have no trouble entering the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament. If polls are to be trusted, the party will win 12 percent to 15 percent of the vote, which will make it the third largest political party in Germany—and the first overtly nationalist party in the German government since the Third Reich.
The party’s focus on limiting immigrants and preserving German identity has led the AfD to become somewhat of a pariah in German society. And while its focus is predominantly on curtailing the influence of Islam in Germany, some party members have been linked to anti-Semitic groups and individuals, leading some politicians and journalists to label the AfD and its leaders as neo-Nazis. Germany’s larger parties have so far opposed the prospect of aligning themselves with the AfD in a coalition government. Still, the prominence of a nationalist movement in modern Germany is worrisome to many—especially to Jews.
I met with Frauke Petry last month at her office in Leipzig, both to hear her response to these concerns, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of the woman who has become the unlikely face of German nationalism. A pretty and petite 41-year-old mother of four, born and raised in East Germany, Petry is perhaps not what you would expect when you imagine a populist German leader. She wears her brown hair in a pixie cut and is pregnant with her fifth child. She is a champion of traditional family policies, yet she recently divorced her Lutheran pastor husband, and is now married to another AfD politician who serves in the European Parliament. A former scientist, Petry’s most recent job before entering politics was as an entrepreneur who founded a company that manufactures environmentally friendly polyurethanes. Unlike Donald Trump and leaders of other right-wing European parties, she rarely speaks in slogans or sound bites, answering questions with mini-lectures on history, the Bible, and science, often referencing studies and research reports.
She arrived at our interview unaccompanied, with car keys in hand, wearing jeans and a blazer. She was a bit out of breath, having come from dropping her children off at school. She offered me coffee and prepared her own cup.
The AfD is known in Germany for its antagonistic relationship with the press, but Petry was happy to speak with Tablet. She wished to allay the fears of the international Jewish community, which she believes should be more open toward the AfD. After all, she argued, it is the left wing in Germany and new Muslim immigrants who are leading her country’s anti-Israel movement. Insisting that her family had been against Hitler during the war, she said it feels “absolutely horrible” to be called a neo-Nazi. In her opinion, the people who label her that way “haven’t understood history.” She and others in her party, she said, have tried to speak with Jewish leaders and synagogues in Germany, but have been turned away.
Recalling her first and only trip to Israel, she said that she had problems entering the country because she had been banned. Her visit, she said, led her to believe that Europe should be learning more from Israel in its fight against terrorism. She also noted that her visit changed her perspective on settlements, which she had viewed critically before actually seeing one. She compared this experience to the way people perceive her party. “Suddenly the picture you get is somewhat different than what you got when you live far away. That’s the same reasoning I use when I say to Jews, ‘Please talk to us.’ Because you may find that the actual picture of AfD that you have seen before might not be the real one. That’s how human beings work, isn’t it?”
Do you think that being the mother of four children gives you a different perspective on what today’s policies mean for Germany’s future?
Well, I think irrespective of where you live, as a citizen or as a politician, having children widens your horizon. It makes you look beyond your own lifetime. It’s something natural that simply happens the moment you have children because you have to plan their life a least for some time as well as your own.
Are you worried about your children’s future in Germany?
I think as a parent you’re always worried—and as a mother, especially. But I see it as our responsibility to guarantee our children a country that has a future. And what shocked me so much at the end of 2015 was three phrases Angela Merkel used to describe the current situation back then. In November she said it’s not in our hands, it’s not in our power to control who enters our country. That’s the first thing. Second thing, she said we are not in charge or not in power of deciding who is going to be living in Germany, who is going to make up the people of Germany. And thirdly, she said basically, we cannot guarantee that people will stick to our laws and regulations. And that’s something said by a German chancellor who is in charge and has the power to decide all of that. To not punish those who don’t stick to the laws or regulations is basically giving up your own country.
In any case, she gave up a proper idea—a conservative idea—of how the country should work, and went toward, let’s say, a utopian idea. Coming from a socialist country, I’m very sensitive when it comes to utopias.
By denying that borders are necessary, that rules are necessary, you are also starting to discriminate against your own people in a way that, for example, illegal migrants are allowed to behave in our country as if it were theirs, or as if we guaranteed them exile from disastrous living conditions in their home country. So, yes, I think if we continue the way Merkel and also previous governments have, we might experience that this free Europe, this free Western society might disappear. And that’s something that I don’t want to experience. That’s something I don’t want my children to experience.
Why do you think so many Germans disagree with the AfD’s stance on refugees?
There’s a number of reasons. First of all, many Germans do not read newspapers anymore. There’s a growing number of people getting a large portion of their information from the internet. The majority still get their information from ARD and ZDF, those are the two biggest TV channels they get their information from. And we find especially with these public channels that they don’t always report, let’s say, authentically. They leave out details.
I also think that many Germans for a long time have become completely indifferent when it comes to political issues. Talking to families and groups of friends in Germany, politics was something you didn’t talk about. That was something I didn’t experience in East Germany because, since the pressure was so high not to criticize the government in public, you would have the urge to speak about it in private groups. For example, churches in East Germany played a very important role because it was normally where you could speak up freely. So it was completely different from the role of the church in a free country of course, due to the public pressure.
I’ve got this one phrase I normally use because that was my feeling when I came to the West. To me, if felt as if citizens had degraded themselves to consumers. They would allow themselves lots of time to consider the details of their new mobile contract or their new gas contract because in the 1990s things started to privatize, and suddenly people needed lots of time to decide which contract to choose because it would mean you would save lots of money. So becoming degraded from a citizen to a consumer is something that happened over, let’s say, years when the economy was going well and no one seemed to have any concerns over where Germany went. In fact, after the fall of the Iron Curtain in ’89 and ’90, the preparations, let’s say, the perspectives of where the EU would go politically were already being determined: giving up your currency, harmonizing everything across Europe, and that was something that the east of Germany and eastern Europe never expected—and as you can see now, didn’t really want. But it was already on its way.
So I think that these things, together with the nature of many Germans being rather patient over a long period of time, leads to the fact that it takes a while to initiate a political discussion. And then there’s the one aspect of human beings which is universal for mankind, which is, to sell someone bad news, to persuade someone that something is happening that will have dangerous risks, is something people don’t like believing, is it?
No. People tend to believe that everything will work out in some way. Especially when it means you will have to become active yourself. So the belief in a more positive future is much easier than to sell someone on the belief that something has to be done.
A lot of the AfD voters I’ve spoken to say one thing in response to that question of why most Germans support Merkel’s refugee policy. They say that Germans feel the need, because of their history, to give back, and to help people in need.
That comes on top of that. But I explained all the other aspects because I think that to reduce it to the national guilt, which is still being discussed strongly at schools, wouldn’t show the whole picture.
Do you think this guilt has led Germany to neglect its own people?
It’s more a problem of politicians of the established parties than of normal people. I was asked a couple of weeks ago by a French magazine about the discrepancy between rational analysis as a scientist, which I am, and to address the gut feelings of people. And I don’t always think there has to be a discrepancy. I think the gut feeling of people all over the world is that people—be it Americans or Germans or Chinese or whoever it is in the world—they’re all human beings, they’re all a part of mankind, in the way they all behave similarly. Of course, there are differences in society, but human beings, we all in a way are similar to each other. So I don’t think there’s a people in the world who are better than any other. Yes, there are historic—there are societies and countries with their own specific history, and there are always dark ages and light ages in those histories.
But to put it specifically to Germans—Germans as a people and Germany as a people—is not worse than any other people in the world. And that is something that is sometimes, let’s say, expressed differently by the different political parties. Take the Greens, for example, in Germany. Their followers openly admit that they would like the German nation to disappear within a European nation, which, in my view, will not exist in my lifetime, at least because there are so many different countries with so many different traditions and languages. So yes, I think the guilt complex is something that plays into the whole picture.
But do you think Germany needs to get over that guilt—do you think that it’s time to move on?
I think as long as you take apart guilt and responsibility, I’m fine with that opinion of our members and also of our voters.
I had a lot of interesting conversations in Israel when I went there for the first time on a private trip. I asked young and middle-aged Israeli citizens what they thought about this special relationship between Germany and Israel, which is very special in the way that we feel responsible and have to feel responsible for what happened to the Jews because it was committed by Germans. But, on the other hand, that the relationship should, in my view, be a positive one. And we discussed the hypothesis that relationships—be it between states or private people—work in a positive way. And we came to the same conclusion in the end that those relationships can only work when they’re based on the same values, such as a free and democratic society; for example, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, everything.
You cannot base your relationship simply on guilt. And that is something that I think is too strongly stressed by many politicians in Germany, and this is something that gives people in Germany, especially our voters, a very uneasy feeling. Because on a private basis, you would say that if a friendship, if a love story, is based on a guilt complex, it’s doomed to fail, isn’t it?
I think it’s just a historical process. And, yes, it needs courageous citizens and politicians to come up with a sensible subject, but also we carry responsibility for how we argue our case, because what sometimes happens, and what definitely happened to other political parties in Germany in the past, was that they tried to completely, let’s say, turn their view of history upside down. Like, for example, I have to admit, what my party colleague Höcke has just done when he asked for a 180-degree turn in how we look at our history. That, I think, won’t happen, because a 180-degree turn means a complete reversal of the way history is looked at.
Patriotism is based on having a healthy sort of attitude toward your own country and your own history. But I’m not very much in favor of—and the AfD in a vast majority thinks the same way—simply reversing the way we look at our history. That is not going to work.
Were either of your grandfathers involved in the war? What did they do during the war?
I’m fortunate in the way that my grandparents—one of my grandfathers was born in 1899 and as a soldier he had to go to two wars—the First World War and then they tried to get him to go to the Second World War as well, but, fortunately, he only had to go for a very short period of time and could come back because he was already too old. My father’s father died in the Second World War, so we never got to know him. My father’s family lost his home in what’s now Poland, so, yes, we were touched by the war.
What was his role as a soldier during the war?
He was just a simple soldier—he had to fight in Russia, and as many German soldiers, he got killed somewhere in the battlefields. My grandmother didn’t even find out, even years after the war had ended, whether he was killed during the battle or whether he was imprisoned by the Russians. We never found out. We never got any news about him again. So as with millions of German families, yes, we were touched by the war. But from what I know about my family, my grandparents were very critical of Hitler in the first place.
Both sides? They were both critical?
As far as I know, yes. We have a very good relationship with a family in France because my father’s family took in prisoners of war. My father’s family housed a French prisoner who had to work for them in the fields. And our family treated him very well, obviously, because he was just a prisoner of war and he hadn’t done anything. From that a very good relationship developed and after the war ended, parts of my family, my uncle tried to find him in France because after the war he returned, and my uncle found him and now we’re in close contact with the family. His grandchildren are my age and they have children as we have children. So we sort of worked up our own history during the war together with them. And it feels like family now.
I’m lucky, in a way, that I don’t have ancestors—not that I know of, anyway—who were in favor of the Hitler regime. My parents and my grandparents taught us to be critical when, let’s say, conditions of suppressing free opinions or expressing your own views develop in your country. I think that’s why my parents were very critical of the socialist system right from the very start. My parents were both born in 1940 and they taught us to be critical. And being a scientist makes you very critical, anyway, because you have to analyze everything.
You mentioned that you took a trip to Israel, where you discussed with people there the relationship between Israel and Germany. How would this relationship change if the AfD were to enter the government?
I don’t think it would change so much, because I think German governments in the past have proven that the relationship to Israel is very important. But I think there is a lot more to learn from Israel than this government and previous governments have done. We just had this conference in Koblenz last weekend, and my husband, who’s also an AfD politician in the European Parliament, said something about Israel. He said that Israel, in a way, has experienced what Europe just started to experience right now in terms of illegal migration, in terms of terrorism, and we don’t seem to have learned anything from Israel’s experience so far. That was something we discussed back in Israel as well.
Israel is very small, but it’s a democratic country, just on the outskirts of Europe. And it’s surrounded by nondemocratic countries. It had a difficult history and it had to defend its own people, its own country, its democracy. And that is something—this recognition of what Israel had to do over the past decades—that isn’t really recognized by many Europeans, even Germans. We see that public EU funding goes into subsidizing Gaza, and that also subsidizes, in a way, terrorists attacking Israel in the first place. If you think of this ban on Judea and Samaria program, which I’m totally against, BDS—that is something we’d like to change. That’s something that shouldn’t be supported by Germany.
That’s why I said that basing your relationship on common values—if we recognize that Israel is a democratic country, with, in the end, lots of European roots—immigrants to Israel also come from all sorts of places but have come from Europe for a very long time—we should try to stand together. And that is something that is not so much discussed in German politics anymore. That also highlights the fact that German parties have moved to the left.
If you look at where most of the anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel in Europe has its roots, it comes in many cases, not only, but it comes in many ways, from the left of the political spectrum. So that is something we’d like to push forward. I’m quite confident that in this case, there is not much of a difference between Merkel’s own private views on Israel and my own, although I disagree with her in many other ways. But her practical policy in allowing migration, which allows anti-Semitism coming to Germany again with so many Muslim immigrants, doesn’t reflect this view.
In my view, it doesn’t help to say this sentence that she said, that Israel’s safety is the raison d’être of Germany. That is very true. But if you don’t back it with practical policy, it isn’t worth so much, is it?
As you know, the AfD has been labeled—
—as a party for neo-Nazis. The new Nazi party of Germany.
And that scares a lot of Jews around the world.
What do you say to Jews who are afraid of your party?
First of all, I’d like to show the real AfD to them. And having set up the party with so many, let’s say, helpers and members myself, I know the majority of the party and its structure and how the subsidiaries work quite well. I would like them to look into our program to see how we try to preserve a democratic Germany.
And, yes, we have to admit that in Europe over a very long period of time, there was always a percentage of people across the political spectrum who have behaved in an anti-Semitic manner. That is true. We can’t neglect that fact. That’s a problem of all parties, all over the place. We have to watch this problem. We have singular members who have a very queer view on Israel, and we have dealt with them as soon as that was recognized. And as a party, you have to stick to democratic rules. It’s not so easy to get such a member out of the party.
And maybe Jews understand that, first of all, AfD is a threat to established parties in Germany because we, of course, would like to gain power to change things in Germany. But I think many Jews realize, especially when they live in Germany, what happens through the actual government in terms of migration and in terms of many other questions, in terms of how Israeli policies are actually carried out within the European Union—and how we criticize that. They should also see that outside of headlines, there may be a truth that looks a bit different, and I would like to invite them to talk to us.
We tried in many cases to get invitations to Jewish congregations, parishes in Germany, and it’s very difficult because many of them don’t even want to talk to us. And I think talking to each other should be something that comes before judging.
I know that’s very human to have your prejudices. That happens to almost everyone. I don’t exclude myself from that. But I’d like to get in contact, and I know many of our subsidiaries would like to do that as well. And I apologize if also, let’s say, sayings of, let’s say, some of my party colleagues—and I know that Björn Höcke is, unfortunately, a very well-known example for that—conveys the idea of the AfD being anti-Semitic in any way. It is not. I’m really convinced of that, and this is why I speak so openly and publicly about what I think the relationship with Jews and Israel should be like.
Some liberal Jews worry that maybe it’s not quite anti-Semitism or a hatred of Jews, but that this statement in the party’s platform—“Islam does not belong in Germany”—reminds them of what happened to Jews. It’s a different people now, but it’s the same kind of behavior.
I think that if you look at the religion and how it developed, there are significant differences between how Christianity and Judaism developed over time, and especially Christianity went through a very difficult phase but in the end accepted that there must be religion on the one side and, let’s say, the fundamentals of modern society on the other side. And this is why we separate religion from the state very much in Europe—in France even more than in Germany, for example. And that is one development we agree on, I think, that Islam has not gone through yet. If you look at the Middle East, you even see a rollback to an even more conservative model of society where religion basically dominates public life. And that is something we seriously criticize, because we see that many of the migrants and asylum seekers coming to Germany import this sort of model of society to Germany, and are not even asked by the German government—that’s what we criticize the most—to accept that they have to adapt and assimilate if they want to stay in Germany for a period of time.
So, in a way, it’s too easy to compare what happened to Jews in Germany now with our criticism of Islam. Because we also say that integrated Muslims—and we have many of them—who have lived here for a long time and who accept that their own religion has problems, especially when it comes to the political goals of conservative Islam, we say that they, of course, belong to Germany. And looking back on what happened to the Jews, we do not talk about integrated German Muslims. We talk about people coming from Africa, coming from the Middle East, who do not even want to become Germans. They want to bring their culture and don’t expect to have to integrate or assimilate in any way.
What happened with the Jews in Europe over centuries was that people of your own nationality, people of your own ethnic origin, who happened to be Jews, were systematically killed. That is so inhuman what happened, and it happened, unfortunately, in a deadly systematic manner with the Germans during the Second World War. It’s still something completely different than to say that this religion in its whole layout does not fit into a democratic context.
What are immigrants from the Middle East doing here that is wrong?
Well, you just have to … there is a very interesting survey you might have heard of—the Koopman study. He’s a Dutch scientist that works with many places, including the German government, and he made a study of I think 9,000 participants all over Europe and asked Muslim immigrants for their views on whether Sharia law or national legislation dominated how they behave toward ethnic and religious minorities. And the outcome was I think two-thirds said that Sharia was more important to them than national legislation. They also revealed very little tolerance, for example, of the Jews. I think it was half of them who were basically anti-Semitic. So it’s not so much a question of actually doing something wrong immediately. But they arrive in Europe and in Germany with attitudes that are so way out of our sort of common behavior and European attitudes that we have to admit that there is a problem.
If people come to Germany who are not willing to integrate and who are not asked to integrate—because that’s the big mistake the German government basically made—I don’t have to be surprised if then these immigrants reveal that they are not willing to. Because if I immigrate to America, I know that in order to be accepted into society, I have to want to be American, which is what immigrants normally want when they emigrate, for example, to the States or to Canada.
Scientists have found that in many ways Islam has not been modernized in any way. It got stuck in the Middle Ages, basically. And society in the Middle Ages looked a lot different than it does today. We have to accept that many of these views do not fit into a democratic context. I’m sure many Jews know that, especially those in Israel, who are faced with this problem in everyday life. And that’s why I think they don’t have to be afraid at all of AfD. And then taking away what happens with us in public life, how we are—by public media and also by political opponents, we are simply called Nazis. Because it’s so easy to put someone into the far-right corner in Germany, because the issue of nationality and patriotism and all this guilt complex is so difficult to explain in a simplistic manner.
And because for so long it was unacceptable…
Yes, because for so long it was basically a topic that wasn’t to be talked about. I just hope that for many Jews it—
So do you think Jews should see the AfD as a welcome development?
Yes, I think they should. Jews in Germany, coming from Germany or other parts of Europe, also Russia, I think they should be courageous enough to find out for themselves, rather than simply believing what the main media say. But I completely understand the higher degree of sensitivity in the Jewish community compared to other parts of society when it comes to those questions.
How does it make you feel when you’re called a Nazi?
It feels horrible. Absolutely horrible. Of course, you realize that people saying that in many ways haven’t understood history or when it’s pronounced by political opponents it’s only a way to kill you in a political way. But I find, because I speak to so many people, that once you speak to people personally, once they have the opportunity to present their view and you can reply to them, many of the prejudices simply disappear.
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Yardena Schwartz is an award-winning freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. Her reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The New York Review of Books, and The Economist, among other publications. She is writing a book about the 1929 Hebron massacre and its reverberations today, under contract with Union Square & Co., a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble.