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Can Germany’s Far Right Be Stopped?

The question, and the answers, are more uncomfortable than you think

Jeremy Stern
March 19, 2024

In “The New German Question,” published in the May/June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, the historian Robert Kagan argued that German pacifism since 1945 is the result not of a permanent transformation in the country’s nature, but of the suppression of its immutable nationalist instincts by American power. By threatening to dissolve America’s traditional support for multilateral institutions, Kagan explained, Donald Trump was risking “the return of resentful nationalism and political instability” to Germany, and “the reemergence of the economic nationalism and bitter divisions of the past.”

Kagan’s suggestion that Trump was both a would-be Führer at home and enabling the rise of a new Führer in Europe created a stir at the American Embassy in Berlin—in part because he also accused the U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, whose office I worked in at the time, of “encouraging right-wing nationalism and the dissolution of pan-European institutions.” This was news to Grenell, who maintained a policy of nonengagement with the rising right-wing nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), even as officers in the embassy’s political section urged him to engage the pro-Putin, anti-NATO Left Party. But the point of Kagan’s article was not to paint a precise picture of what was happening in Germany; it was to use Germany as an object lesson in what you get when voters deviate too much from the traditional preferences of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. After his colleagues at the The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution had spent three years warning that Trump was summoning Nazis in America, Kagan was simply layering on the claim that Trump was also conjuring “literal Nazis” back from the dead.

Yet if Kagan’s ideological pre-commitments required him to insinuate that Trump was pushing Germany to rebuild the Wehrmacht and invade Poland, they also spoiled what would have been impeccable timing for a less preposterous warning about the direction Germany was actually headed—which was alarming enough.

On May 25, shortly after Kagan’s article came out, Felix Klein, then as now the government’s “Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism,” responded to a steep rise in antisemitic crimes in the country by recommending that German Jews no longer wear kippahs in public. The next day, Germany held European Parliament elections in which Angela Merkel’s centrist ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats suffered major losses, while the far-right AfD came in fourth and won 11 seats.

A week later, Walter Lübcke, a civil servant in Hesse who was vocal in welcoming thousands of mostly Muslim refugees to his state, was sitting on the front porch of his village home when a 45-year-old father of two with longstanding connections to neo-Nazi groups walked up to him at close range and shot him in the head. Three months after Lübcke’s murder, the first political assassination in Germany by a member of the far right since 1945, the AfD—considered by German domestic intelligence to be a “right-wing extremist organization,” “anti-constitutional,” and a “threat to democracy”—again made sweeping electoral gains, becoming the second-largest party in the state governments of Brandenburg and Saxony. On Sept. 5, a member of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany was elected mayor of Waldsiedlung, once home to the grandees of the East German Communist Party (SED).

On Yom Kippur, Oct. 9, 2019, a 27-year-old gunman livestreamed himself storming a synagogue in the Saxon city of Halle; after failing to breach the entrance by shooting the lock, he shot and killed a woman walking past the Jewish cemetery next door before driving to a nearby kebab shop and murdering a customer inside.

On Oct. 27, the Left Party, the direct descendant of the Marxist-Leninist SED—which ruled behind the Iron Curtain for 50 years and killed hundreds of people trying to escape over the Berlin Wall—became the largest party in the east German state of Thuringia. The AfD, in some ways a right-wing descendant of the SED (its platform includes leaving NATO and “dissolving” the EU) finished second.

The unnerving reality was that the deep social trust which has underpinned German society and kept it out of trouble for three generations was breaking down for reasons that had nothing to do with Donald Trump. If anything, the resurgence of populism, extremism, and even political violence in Germany was a consequence of the increasingly incoherent yet firmly anti-Trumpian policy consensus that ruled the Berlin establishment as much as it dominated Washington—a kind of open borders, Green New Deal, China-dependent mélange of politically correct ideas presented as high-minded answers to the crude populism of the unwashed.

It is no surprise, then, that four years after Kagan’s article and more than three years into the Biden administration, the AfD now polls as the largest political party in the east German states of Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In October 2023, it became the second-largest party in the western state of Hesse and the third-largest in Bavaria, making significant gains among young voters in particular. According to all nationwide surveys, it is polling between 18% and 20% across the entire country—higher than every party in the current German government.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2024, Sahra Wagenknecht—a former leader of the Left Party and one of the most charismatic and telegenic personalities in German politics—announced the formation of a new, far-left populist party aimed at poaching voters not only from the populist right, but from the Social Democrats, Left Party, and Greens. Polls have put support for the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW)—a cult of personality whose platform combines unfeigned communism with a hard stop to immigration and the green transition, sanctions on Russia, and aid to Ukraine—at 7%-9% of the electorate. Combined with the AfD, the potential of the “extremist” vote in the next federal elections is between a quarter and a third of all Germans. It may soon be impossible, in other words, to govern Germany—and therefore Europe and NATO—without them.

Kagan was right that Germany is the West’s canary in the coal mine, given its catastrophic 20th century and its enviable peace and prosperity since. But if there is a lesson for Americans in the resurgence of political extremism in Germany, it is something like the opposite of what Kagan warned. If centrists continue to respond to dissenting populists with outrage, legal action, and repression of reality for the sake of preserving dogma, they will turn a manageable problem into a genuinely menacing threat.

Anything could change before the eastern state elections in September, and federal elections the next fall. The Free Democrats could withdraw from the government, forcing a confidence vote that the deeply unpopular Chancellor Olaf Scholz would likely lose. A constructive vote of no-confidence could replace Scholz with Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition. Or Scholz could rebound on an “antiwar” platform, saving the Social Democrats from plummeting poll numbers by riding a wave of Ukraine fatigue and fear of Russian nuclear threats. The Greens could find common cause with the Christian Democrats over Ukraine. Or the latter could implode again like they did in 2021, as could the AfD—whose surge in popularity may prove illusory as card-carrying centrist voters balk at actually committing themselves to the party.

But for now, at least, each of these scenarios seems unlikely. Immigration has reached what German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, recently called a “breaking point.” Austerity is back, and the country is entering what could be a long recession. The costly and suddenly unpopular climate transition is splitting the political center. The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more it polarizes German voters. And for the AfD, the last year witnessed a run of firsts: an AfD regional president elected in Thuringia, an AfD local mayor elected in Saxony-Anhalt, an AfD governing mayor elected in the Saxon town of Pirna. In this summer’s elections for European Parliament, the AfD is polling second. In east German local elections in June, and for three eastern state governments in September, the AfD is in first.

Seventy-five years after the Federal Republic of Germany emerged from the ashes of the Third Reich, the German far right is on a roll.

The way to understand the reemergence of the far right in Germany is by way of Franz Josef Strauss, who led the Christian Social Union (CSU) and dominated Bavarian politics from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War. “No legitimate political party,” Strauss declared in 1956, “can be to the right of the CSU.”

Strauss’ more obvious point was that Germany can never again tolerate far-right extremism in its politics. His less obvious but more important point was that the center-right alliance of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) must do whatever it takes to absorb and temper the far right. The closest corollary to Strauss’ maxim in America’s two-party system might be Ronald Reagan’s big tent Republicanism: “The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20% traitor.”

Leading the Federal Republic for 57 of the last 74 years, the German center right has mostly had astonishing success creating conditions that leave the farther right little room to breathe. It was the CDU’s Ludwig Erhard who sired the Wirtschaftswunder, the “miracle on the Rhine,” which not only transformed Germany from one of the most thoroughly smashed societies in human history into an economic powerhouse in the matter of a few years. It also ushered in the idea of the “social market” (coined by the economist Alfred Müller-Armack, also of the CDU), in which the government’s voter-approved mandate is to harness the wealth-creating power of markets to redistribute resources in the name of social solidarity, or what today we’d call “a more equitable society.”

Critics underappreciate the breathtaking scale of Germany’s accomplishment since 1949 in creating a society with much to admire, even from a right-wing American perspective.

The American right has long enjoyed scoffing at the German-style social market as a species of polite communism. But critics underappreciate the breathtaking scale of Germany’s accomplishment since 1949 in creating a society with much to admire, even from a certain right-wing American perspective. The quintessential example of this is the Mittelstand, the midsize, family-owned businesses that have historically accounted for about 80% of German GDP and employ three-quarters of the country’s workforce. As John Kampfner writes in Why the Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country, two-thirds of successful global Mittelstand companies are based in German towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, where they sponsor local sports teams and social clubs and provide insurance. In the Mittelstand as well as Germany’s blue-chip companies, the practice of Mitbestimmung (co-determination) ensures that between a third and half of the seats of every company’s supervisory board are occupied by workers’ representatives.

For the most part, the result has been a country of highly skilled, high-wage industrial workers spread across hundreds of small towns with strong social capital and a deep sense of local community, and working identification with the independent family firms that employ them and look after their well-being over the course of their lifetimes. For most of the last several decades, large parts of German society have been less of a gray socialist nightmare than like television ads for the American dream circa 1959.

The problem in Germany—as in the U.S., U.K., and much of the Western world—is that this 20th-century social model has been gradually coming apart. After a relatively brief spell as the “sick man of Europe” following reunification, the Social Democratic government of Gerhard Schröder undertook welfare and labor market reforms that helped put Germany on a sounder footing. But the industrial strength which underwrote the German social market in the two decades since was also based on factors—ever-expanding export markets for manufactured goods, the integration of global supply chains, huge trade surpluses, and, most of all, the free flow of cheap Russian gas—which have since disintegrated.

Franz Josef Strauss, who led the Christian Social Union and dominated Bavarian politics from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War
Franz Josef Strauss, who led the Christian Social Union and dominated Bavarian politics from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War

Lehnartz/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Germany was already courting trouble with a 21st-century economy based on pre-digital industrial products like diesel engines, machine tools, and chemicals, and supply chains based in countries like China and Russia. At the same time, Germany has been culturally hostile to the self-employed, service sector workers, and risk-taking entrepreneurs, none of whom enjoy the higher status conferred on lifetime industrial workers. Confident it could sustain uninterrupted affluence with competitively priced, high-quality industrial exports, Germany missed the transition from an analog to an information economy, with Angela Merkel famously declaring the internet as late as 2013 to be “uncharted territory.” Today, the country’s only big software company remains SAP (founded in 1972), and its 40 largest companies are on average 146 years old.

As a result, many of Germany’s would-be tech founders, engineers, and scientists interested in large-scale commercial success left for America and the U.K. at exactly the moment the baby boomers approached retirement age—leaving behind below-replacement birth rates and a sclerotic system that has difficulty attracting high-skilled immigrants. The big debate today is not about cutting red tape or raising the status of entrepreneurs, but of transitioning to a four-day work week.

During the financial crash of 2008, moreover, Germany avoided the waves of unemployment that swept through other Western countries by suppressing wages. Accepting lower wages allowed Germans to keep their jobs throughout the financial crisis and helped keep German exports competitive at a time when memories of 1929 and the consequences of widespread unemployment were once again raw. But pay restraint has since created a public backlash, even as trade unions have expressed a willingness to accept less work over higher pay. Under Merkel, Germany also deepened its commitment to fiscal balance and fear of public debt by routinely cutting public sector investments in areas like education and infrastructure. Productivity growth began to sag, leaving even less room for investment spending, which in turn contributed to lower overall growth as the quality of German educational institutions, public transportation, and other services started to shed their older reputations for quality and efficiency.

All this provided the backdrop to the two simultaneous mass social experiments that would define the chancellorship of Angela Merkel, the standard bearer of Germany’s center right for 16 years. The first was the Energiewende, a centrally planned transition to a low-carbon, renewables-heavy, nuclear-free economy with a price tag in the hundreds of billions of euros. The second was Merkel’s decision—immortalized by her words Wir schaffen das (“We can manage it”)—to take in millions of low-skilled, mostly Muslim refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.

When a new far-right party emerged to fill the political vacuum left by Merkel’s CDU—which by then had started to abandon any pretense to being a tent big enough to accommodate Germany’s nationalist right—the CDU/CSU responded not by broadening its right flank, as Franz Josef Strauss had advised, but by joining with Germany’s center-left parties to rig the system, erecting a firewall around the AfD and refusing to enter coalitions with it at any level of government, regardless of its electoral victories. A cordon sanitaire was thus also drawn around any Germans who voted for the AfD, many of whom felt they had no other way to register their anger at the establishment’s management of the sputtering social market, the green agenda, and immigration. Observing how badly the firewall has since backfired, more than one German commentator has likened the political isolation of specialized industrial workers, cash-poor homeowners, farmers, and other AfD supporters—who now account for 1 in every 5 German voters—to consigning them to a “basket of deplorables.”

The AfD, which is often still crudely represented in Kaganesque fashion as a mere gang of neo-Nazis, was founded in 2013 by a group of economics professors with the relatively prosaic aim of leaving the eurozone and restoring the precious Deutschmark. It won seats in three eastern state parliaments before just as soon being torn apart by internal rifts between traditionally right-wing nationalists and far-right fantasists, including some genuine neo-Nazis who infiltrated the party. While it crossed the 5% threshold to sit in opposition in a handful of state and local legislatures, over the following two years it appeared to have hit a very low electoral ceiling.

In 2015, the refugee crisis rescued the AfD from near extinction. Merkel’s open-door policy welcomed in over a million asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries wracked by war in the first year alone. Almost immediately, hundreds of thousands of Germans volunteered and donated to the medical and employment facilities, tent cities, and other housing projects that sprang up to accommodate the desperate arrivals, rallying around Merkel’s conception of Germany’s new Willkommenskultur (“welcome culture”) as part of the country’s continued atonement for its past. But at the same time, equally visible anti-immigration demonstrations led by Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), an AfD-affiliated group, also attracted tens of thousands of protesters. In October 2015, the independent mayoral candidate for Cologne—the vocally pro-immigration Henriette Reker, who had managed the city’s refugee housing portfolio—went into a coma after being stabbed in the neck by a man shouting about an “influx of refugees.”

On New Year’s Eve 2015, things changed forever. At public celebrations across the country, some 1,200 women were sexually assaulted, many of them raped, predominately in Cologne but also in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and other cities. Victims and witnesses immediately described the perpetrators as “North African,” “Arab,” “dark-skinned,” and “foreign,” characterizations which the Federal Criminal Police Office later confirmed: In Cologne, two-thirds of the convicts were from Morocco and Algeria, 44% were asylum seekers, and 12% were in Germany illegally. Reker, who recovered from her coma and became mayor of Cologne, was fairly accused of victim-blaming, asserting after the mass sexual assaults that for German women “there’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length—that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship.”

Nevertheless, it was still hoped in this period that the AfD and associated splinter groups would be confined to the east German states of the former communist German Democratic Republic, declining industrial regions where white-collar jobs are few and reunification produced more grievance than rapture. The typical AfD voter in those years was seen as elderly, alienated, and susceptible to alleged nonsense, like the idea that immigration suppresses the wages of native-born workers. The prototypical AfD politician was perhaps Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD in the eastern state of Thuringia, not a populist or even an opportunist but an authentically fascistic ideologue so extreme that he and his allies would have to, it was assumed, drag the AfD down with them. In early 2017, after Höcke gave a speech decrying Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and demanded that Germany “make a 180-degree change in our [Holocaust] commemoration policy,” a majority of AfD leaders tried but failed to kick him out of the party.

Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD in Thuringia
Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD in Thuringia

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

And yet in state elections less than three months after the New Year’s sexual assaults, the AfD not only received 24% of the vote in the relatively poor eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, but also 15% in the affluent western state of Baden-Württemberg, 14% in Berlin, 13% in Rhineland-Palatinate, and 21% in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In each case, the AfD managed to pinch votes from every other party: the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens, Free Democrats, and the Left Party.

After Höcke survived a second attempt to oust him at the party congress in the spring of 2016, the AfD approved a platform calling for Germany to close its borders, deport migrants, end sanctions on Russia, and leave the European Union. It also called for a ban on Islamic symbols and practices in Germany. The leader of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt was later forced to resign after referring to Turkish Germans as “camel drivers” and immigrants with dual citizenship as a “homeless mob we no longer want to have.” In a speech to the party’s youth wing, then-leader of the AfD Alexander Gauland referred to the Nazi period as “a speck of bird shit in 1,000 years of successful German history.” When the Cologne Police Department later put out an Arabic-language New Year’s greeting, the AfD’s deputy party leader with the sinister Harry Potter-esque name of Beatrix von Storch responded, “What the hell is wrong with this country? Are they seeking to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men?” She was investigated for violating hate-speech laws and temporarily banned from Twitter and Facebook.

In the fall of 2017, the big bombshell exploded. In federal elections, Merkel won her fourth consecutive vote, making her the longest-serving chancellor in German history other than Helmut Kohl and Otto von Bismarck. But Merkel’s victory came at the price of ceding 12.6% of the national vote to the AfD, awarding it 94 seats in the Bundestag—more than the Greens and Free Democrats. When the CDU/CSU was forced to form another unhappy governing coalition with the Social Democrats as a result, the AfD became the largest opposition party in the country.

That Merkel was then being hailed abroad as the “leader of the free world” was less salient for Germans themselves than the fact that the far right had scaled heights in German electoral politics considered unthinkable not only a few years before, but at any other point in the previous seven decades.

Coming only nine months after the inauguration of Donald Trump, it was therefore tempting for Kagan and many other observers to reverse the actual timeline and interpret the AfD’s rise as a consequence of Trump himself. Trump was “emboldening” and “giving comfort” to far-right extremists and white supremacists everywhere, the thinking went, including to Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Law and Justice party in Poland—all of whose ascent had preceded Trump’s own. In Germany, at least, such analysis also betrayed a lack of appreciation for an abstruse weakness in the country’s parliamentary politics—especially of the centrist grand coalitions that gave rise to the AfD in the first place.

In the hyperpolarized two-party system of the United States, the term “grand coalition” carries a misleading connotation of bipartisanship, cooperation, and constructive compromise. In Germany, the term comes from the coalition of Social Democrats, the Catholic Center Party, the Democratic Party, and the People’s Party that governed the Weimar Republic until 1930. In the German context, a “grand coalition” is typically what happens when weak and conflictual parties band together to maintain a cordon sanitaire around extremists. In Weimar Germany, the grand coalition that sought to keep the Nazis and Communists from power fed the growth of both extremist parties, which proceeded to fight pitched street battles with each other across Germany’s major cities. 

The historical failure of Germany’s grand coalitions to accomplish their aims is hardly an accident. As Wolfgang Münchau and a minority of other German commentators have been warning for the last several years, the problem with the grand coalition strategy is that it forces the major parties to huddle in the political center—for example, by pushing the Social Democrats to the right and the Christian Democrats to the left—thereby creating vacuums on their ideological flanks.

During the 16 years of Merkel, the CDU spent 12 years in grand coalitions, during which the party all but lost its ability to commune with its traditionally conservative base, which has always included voters on the normally (as opposed to ferociously) nationalist right. As the CDU/CSU gradually lost its political profile on immigration, the green agenda, and the economy, it opened up a hatchery for the far right. A similar story could be told of the Social Democratic Party, which during the Merkel years became less responsive to its traditionally working-class base, who share with AfD supporters a growing distrust of the centrists’ management of immigration, the Energiewende, and the social market. As in America, German elites in media, academia, trade unions, and other areas of life largely followed the most powerful parties in their drift away from their traditional voters, helping consolidate a sense of ideological conformity in the country and the impression, however inaccurate, that the elites are conspiring against the people.

In the U.S., a well-known meme shows the political right remaining the same or moving only slightly right while the left moves way off to the progressive left, leaving a static person on the center left in 2008 accused of being a right-wing bigot by 2021. Another meme, “​​Am I really a Nazi fascist extremist or am I just a normal person from 15 years ago,” captures the same mood. For many supporters of the AfD, they too haven’t changed so much as their old parties have abandoned them. By prioritizing climate policies that redistribute from rural homeowners and workers to bicycling urban apartment-renters, for example, the major parties helped turn normal concerns about such resource transfers into a foothold for extremists.

The legacy of the grand coalition compromises of the Merkel years was to fudge each of these challenges and punt them into the future, thereby making them worse.

Such a dynamic might even be sustainable if it were also capable of delivering electrifying policy victories, but another problem with Germany’s grand coalitions is that they have been unable to do much beyond muddle through. It was clear before 2020 that Germany was excessively bureaucratic, in technological and educational decline, losing its industrial base to foreign competition, overinvested in China, underinvested in its own defense, shackled to Russian gas pipelines, and unable to afford or adequately compensate the losers of the green transition—which increasingly presented itself to many ordinary citizens as a well-meaning boondoggle. But the legacy of the grand coalition compromises of the Merkel years was to fudge each of these challenges and punt them into the future, thereby making them worse.

In the meantime, the firewall around the AfD—the refusal of all other parties to cooperate with it at the federal, state, regional, or local level—only strengthened its profile as the address for voters frustrated by the grand coalitions to vent their anger, leading many elite analysts to dismiss the complaints of AfD voters. The economic historian Adam Tooze has suggested that while this “politics of protest,” in which some voters are “aligning themselves with a party in which neo-Nazis and the far right is a powerful presence” might be regrettable, “it is hard to see why this should be a cause for panic or any exaggerated concern about elitism.” “The real concern,” Tooze wrote in August 2023, “is presumably that substantial slices of the CDU are actually minded to join the far right in this populist discourse.”

Yet it is hard to see how that could be the case when the more the CDU and other parties lose votes, the more support the AfD gets, the more the options narrow for anything other than more grand coalitions—which in turn have little to offer but the kinds of centrist compromise politics that push even more voters to the far right. In a system of proportional representation, centrist parties that continuously form ham-fisted grand coalitions struggle to avoid ruining themselves in the process—which is one reason the Weimar Republic crashed and burned. 

For a brief moment, it looked as if the government that came to power in 2021 might finally buck the trend. With Merkel gone, and the internally chaotic AfD losing 11 seats in the Bundestag, the government of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats began with an agenda to modernize Germany, including plans to invest in green technologies, digitize the country’s pre-internet public services and administration, rebuild decaying infrastructure, wind down its dependence on China, and meet its NATO obligation to spend 2% of GDP on defense. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a Zeitenwende, a change of era in German history in which the country would spend the money and rally public support to play a world role worthy of its size and stature.

It didn’t happen. For one, Scholz reached the chancellery not on the basis of his own popularity but because unpopular CDU and Green candidates each collapsed, with the CDU/CSU as a whole failing to reach an unprecedentedly low 25% of the national vote. The ever-divided AfD likewise lost 2.2% from the election four years earlier. But Scholz’s Social Democrats came to power with support from less than 26% of the country. With the center-left Greens and center-right Free Democrats, the coalition as a whole received only 51.8% of the vote.

As for Scholz himself, he suffers from his own version of a “credibility gap”—preferring not to speak much, and then frequently appearing to break his promises when he does. The word Scholzing was coined in 2022 when he guaranteed and then stifled weapons deliveries to Ukraine; Friedrich Merz, the leader of the opposition, famously compared the chancellor’s tendency to narrow his eyes and grin to a Smurf. After nearly 20 years of the frank and dignified Merkel, it has been an unsightly picture, with Scholz increasingly seen as a likely one-term chancellor—Germany’s first since the 1960s.

‘What the hell is wrong with this country? Are they seeking to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men?’ Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD
‘What the hell is wrong with this country? Are they seeking to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men?’ Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD

Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Second, and more importantly, Scholz’s government was swept into power on a set of apparently favorable conditions that made a modernization program at least conceivable. Inflation was low, interest rates were at zero, exports to China were growing, and Russian gas was plentiful. The debt brake (a Merkel-era fiscal rule that caps the budget deficit at 0.35% of GDP) was suspended to allow the country to cover the costs of the pandemic. The government’s first big move in December 2021 was to reallocate 60 billion euros of unused debt from the pandemic program to pay for its Climate and Transformation Fund.

With the invasion of Ukraine, however, the cheap Russian energy that extended Germany’s 20th-century industrial strength into the second decade of the 21st disappeared overnight. Full-year inflation in 2022 hit 7.9%, the highest in 70 years. Trade with China peaked as German exports began to fall and German firms started losing market share to Chinese competition. With energy costs rising, and orders for German industrial products plummeting, German companies quickly shuttered plants, and “deindustrialization” became the watchword in the Western country that resisted economic diversification longer than any other—with the Politico reporter Matthew Karnitschnig memorably naming Germany the “Rust Belt on the Rhine.”

It was at precisely this moment that Germany pulled the plug on its last remaining nuclear reactors—increasing its dependence on coal-fired energy even as it pays higher energy costs than most other countries in Europe. In a further suicide run, the Green Party’s Robert Habeck, vice chancellor and minister for economic affairs and climate action, introduced a bill forcing the replacement of all domestic oil and gas heaters with heat pumps. The cost of replacing the heating systems in poorer regions of Germany, according to Eurointelligence, would amount to half the price of most homes—cutting the value of many lower-middle-class people’s assets in half.

As the bill for the green agenda finally came due, the government’s green policies—all of which Merkel had agreed to, at least in spirit—caused a predictable, head-spinning backlash, polarizing the center and splitting the left. The Free Democrats, the Greens’ partner in government, sided with the Christian Democratic opposition to gut the heating bill—while making industrial energy subsidies and saving the diesel auto industry its core planks. The compromises the Greens have had to accept have bled the party of support among frustrated environmentalists; at the same time, its few legislative victories have made it appear to many suburban and rural voters, along with the Social Democrats, as a party of metropolitan elites who don’t have to bear the brunt of their own climate policies. In a coup de grâce, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the pillaging of pandemic funds to pay for the coalition’s climate fund was illegal, blowing a multi-billion-euro hole in the government’s finances and forcing the finance ministry to propose further spending cuts to transportation and technological upgrades.

As the only party that has always opposed the climate agenda, the AfD had already started polling nationwide above an unprecedented 20% when Merz, leader of the Christian Democrats, began capitalizing on the government’s popular implosion by going into open revolt against all things green—declaring the Green Party at one point to be the CDU’s chief political opponent (while the AfD remains its “main enemy”). The trouble is that a coalition of the CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens (which right now polls below 50%) would likely have been the last viable bulwark against another grand coalition with the SPD. The CDU/CSU and Greens remain aligned against the SPD on support for Ukraine, but with the center right moving toward an aggressively anti-green agenda, such an alliance now appears farfetched. 

Anything could happen before the next elections. As his opening campaign gambit, Scholz has recently taken a more explicit stand against providing Ukraine the kind of military assistance, like long-range Taurus missiles, that might actually improve its battlefield prospects—an “antiwar” position that only grows more popular in Germany as Vladimir Putin rattles his nuclear saber. But on the whole, the tide is not in favor of a miracle recovery for the center left. Unless the FDP tanks the current government, the current coalition will likely stagger on till 2025, at which point the CDU/CSU—polling in first place at only 30%—will be left with a binary choice: It could lead another miserable three- or even four-party grand coalition of the center, helping complete the metamorphosis of the AfD into Germany’s de facto party of the right. Or it can break the firewall keeping the AfD from power.

There are three ways the CDU/CSU could be spared such a decision.

The first would be to replace Merz as head of the CDU with someone like the centrist, Merkel-admiring Hendrik Wüst, state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, who unlike Merz could credibly lead an alliance with the Greens. But an even more centrist CDU would mean ceding even more votes to the AfD, and also risk an intraparty squabble that could cause a collapse like the one in 2021.

Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW)
Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW)

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The second is Sahra Wagenknecht. A former leader of the Left Party and wife of Oskar Lafontaine, himself a former leader of both the Left and Social Democrats, Wagenknecht has staked a claim to much of the AfD’s platform—but from the communist left. Like the AfD, Wagenknecht promises to save Germany Inc. Unlike the AfD, her party has a maverick leader who is also an attractive media presence and speechmaker. And unlike the AfD, there is no firewall preventing her party from entering coalitions.

The hope is that Wagenknecht will cannibalize support for the AfD, making herself a more palatable partner, however marginally, for the other parties. It is just as likely, however, that she will also steal voters from the Left and Social Democrats—Germans who oppose the mainstream parties’ management of migration, the climate, the economy, and relations with Russia, but detest the racialist obsessions of the far right. 

The third way to avoid having to choose between a nightmare mega-coalition and breaking the firewall is to ban the AfD. The constitutional hurdles to such a ban are exceptionally high, and so far the party has been careful to avoid meeting the criteria that would allow the federal government to submit a plausible case to the Constitutional Court. But that hasn’t stopped influential figures from trying.

In 2021, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, concluded the AfD met the criteria to be considered an “anti-constitutional extremist group,” allowing the spy service to place AfD members under surveillance. In April 2023, the BfV also began surveilling the AfD’s youth organization. In the fall of 2023, the federal domestic spy chief Thomas Haldenwang publicly warned voters against supporting the AfD before state-level intelligence authorities classified the party’s branches in Thuringia, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt as extremist groups, allowing unrestricted surveillance over members of the party, including the right to covert infiltration. In Thuringia, authorities revoked AfD’s members’ gun licenses. In a speech to the BfV last August, President Steinmeier warned that “we all have it in our hands to put those who despise our democracy in their place.” An editorial in Der Spiegel argued to “Ban the enemies of the constitution!”

After four members of the AfD were recently caught attending a meeting of neo-Nazis in Potsdam to discuss a ludicrously illegal plan for the forced expulsion of any German with a migrant background—including German citizens—Scholz stated that the opponents of German democracy will be investigated by the BfV. The Christian Democratic minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein announced “great sympathy for a ban procedure to be initiated, carefully prepared by the federal government.” Saskia Esken, co-leader of the Social Democrats, announced support for discussing a ban, if only to “shake voters” out of their complacency. On March 16, 2024, the Social Democrats passed a resolution declaring a ban to be a “clear option.”

Few people think the Federal Constitutional Court would rule in favor of banning a major political party acting within the law—a move Germans rightly associate with Bismarck, Hitler, and the GDR. But discussing a ban has become increasingly popular in the mainstream press and among centrist politicians, to say nothing of domestic intelligence officials. While it may be easy to sympathize with their concerns, it is also not hard to see where such talk could lead. Throughout January and February, over 2 million people gathered in Germany to march against the AfD. In the wake of the protests’ euphoria, a 16-year-old girl in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was taken out of her classroom by police last week for posting a TikTok video comparing the popularity of the AfD to the Smurfs; after the story went viral, the state’s Social Democratic interior minister boasted that in apprehending the girl, “proportionality was preserved.” In spite of all that, the AfD’s national support has remained steady.

‘Everyone hates Nazis’ reads a placard at a protest against the AfD in Berlin on Jan. 14, 2024
‘Everyone hates Nazis’ reads a placard at a protest against the AfD in Berlin on Jan. 14, 2024

Maryam Majd/Getty Images

Germany is not the only Western country where attempts to cordon off unsavory populists are at odds with the democratic system that a governing establishment claims to be defending. After the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, Donald Trump’s continuing fixation on the 2020 election and the poor quality of his handpicked congressional candidates helped the Democrats stifle a widely anticipated “red wave,” only narrowly losing control of the House, expanding their majority in the Senate, and flipping gubernatorial and legislative control of five states. Fox News, which supposedly had the power to “program” the MAGA base, went all in on the message that Trump would be unelectable in 2024. Attempts to use the judiciary to bankrupt, disqualify, and imprison him went into hyperdrive.

Hundreds of felony counts for racketeering, fraud, sexual abuse, falsifying business records, and violating the Espionage Act, and two attempted ballot disqualifications later, Trump has not only consolidated his hold over the GOP but leads President Joe Biden in national polls, including in seven battleground states. A critical mass of voters who have never supported Trump and intensely dislike him appear to also resent his opponents’ attempt to silence him through the legal system—a tactic that smacks more of Putinist authoritarianism than of constitutional democracy. The centrist media’s proud rallying cry to “Be truthful, not neutral” exacerbates the feeling that what is being stolen is a voter’s right to choose—especially when Trump is often seen as more “truthful” about issues like immigration than anyone in power. Like Trump, the AfD’s ability to “tell the truth” on similar issues is seen by its supporters as indivisible from the qualities that also make it repellent.

Migrants are identified as disproportionately responsible for a recent spate of antisemitic incidents, especially since October 7.

A similar story could be told in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral success was also in inverse proportion to the rising tenor of elite opposition and the attempt to use the criminal justice system to bludgeon him into leaving political life. In February 2019, two months before elections, Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on three counts of bribery. Three centrist parties united to bring him down while the country’s mainstream press predicted the end of Israeli democracy if Bibi were reelected. Likud went on to win more seats than at any time in the previous 16 years. As The Wall Street Journal noted, “Before the criminal proceedings began, Mr. Netanyahu’s party had never secured a million votes in a general election. Likud has since crossed that threshold five times.” The EU’s efforts to hound populist governments in Poland and Hungary through its “rule of law mechanism” has a similar record of backfiring.

The attempt to cow the populist right through means other than the ballot box has more examples in Germany itself. In wealthy and traditionalist Bavaria, where support for the AfD has been rising, the CSU has been sharing power with the local right-wing Free Voters since 2018, keeping the AfD at bay. In the run-up to state elections in October 2023, it was revealed that as a high school student four decades earlier, the deputy minister-president of Bavaria, the Free Voters’ Hubert Aiwanger, was caught carrying a viciously antisemitic drawing in his backpack. Germany’s centrist press went ballistic, running stories on the 17-year-old Aiwanger’s bigoted drawing nonstop. Scholz intervened to demand the CSU fire him. But the CSU depends on the Free Voters for its majority, which in turn keeps the AfD out of power, and predictably refused—instead asking Aiwanger for an apology. He issued a simple one after some delays, and quickly became the hero of the Oktoberfest beer tents—the perceived victim-survivor of a center-left mob. In the end, the Free Voters gained 10 seats in the Bavarian parliament—as did the AfD.

We can therefore expect the various efforts to wish away the AfD to fail, and for the next German government to be a grand coalition with Merz at the helm. In the meantime, immigration continues to rise. Germany is now receiving half the number of migrants America does, despite having only a quarter of the population and being roughly the size of Montana. On the whole, the migrants will not provide a quick solution to Germany’s aging workforce or shortage of skilled labor. Instead, they are increasingly identified as disproportionately responsible for a recent spate of antisemitic incidents, especially since Oct. 7, as well as a marked rise in violent crime—including an escalating crisis of rapes and sexual assaults. In other words, it is hard to imagine a political configuration more favorable to the AfD. Unless the CDU can find a way to both govern and win elections from the right, the firewall will eventually crumble, and the AfD will take power in Germany.

It was Robert Kagan who first suggested in 2019 that we look to Germany’s past for a glimpse of its future if Americans failed to stop Trump at home. Five years on, if there is a lesson in Germany for Americans, it seems quite different from what he thought. If you really want to stop people from voting for the extreme populist right in your country, you might start by moderating your outrage at their attempts, however manic, to dissent from your leadership—and start taking them seriously.

Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.