The Extreme/Radical Right in Europe is one of my main research interests, and for many years, there had been no (successful) party in Germany to occupy this particular place in the political spectrum. This makes the AfD's rise particularly intriguing for me. Besides writing long-form articles on the party and their voters, I also blog (too much) about them. Here are my most recent posts.
Bonus track: German IR theory-building kit (thread)
German IR theory-building kit:
1. Define concepts, sub-(sub-) concepts & mechanisms. Quote Weber 2. Based on 1, draw model in Word. Use many arrows! 3. Illustrative case study (EU or UN) or descriptive statistics 4. Discuss normative implications from implicit liberal standpoint
I’m currently working on a paper that looks into the role that Germany’s eastern states (aka “the new Länder”, the ex-GDR …) played for the breakthrough and the consolidation of the “Alternative for Germany” party. This figure shows support for the AfD from 2013 to 2020.
The graph is a teeny-weeny bit busy, so here is the extended legend 👉 Circles are results from state (Länder elections), labelled with state codes. Squares are Bundestag, diamonds are European parliamentary elections. Filled symbols represent eastern Länder, or partial results for the eastern states only (Bundestag and EP elections). Hollow symbols represent the western states/partial western results. The blue line is the (locally smoothed) average over about 200 national elections polls from the Politbarometer (FGW) and Deutschlandtrend (Infratest-dimap) series. There are four main observations.
Source: official results; Politbarometer & Deutschlandtrend polls
The eastern vote share is consistently at least two times as high as the western vote share
Not exactly a new finding, but the AfD does much better in the east than in the west. In fact, so much better that some observers see the party as specifically eastern problem. This is not correct, but the difference is striking. Even in the 2013 Bundestag election (when the AfD campaigned as a soft-eurosceptic, “liberal-conservative” outfit), the party was clearly more popular in the east. Possible reasons: fewer partisans, lower levels of institutional trust, more xenophobia.
The AfD might not have survived 2015 without the eastern states
Almost exactly 5 years ago, the AfD was almost falling apart (also see just about every other of my blog posts from that period). Support for the party fell below 5 per cent (also see the section after the next), prominent members threatened to leave or simply went. The FAZ called them, in their professional journalistic assessment, “a laughing stock”. Radically transformed (see what I did here?), the party bounced back in 2016, but during this period, their only full-time politicians with access to funding and the media (apart from two remaining MEPs) were about 30 state-level MPs who had won seats in the 2014 series of elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia – incidentally on platforms that presaged the AfD’s trajectory towards the Radical Right.
What role did Germany's eastern states play for the breakthrough & consolidation of the #AfD? 4 observations: vote share consistently 2-3 times higher; party might not have survived 2015 w/o east, until 2017, eastern (state) MPs outnumbered western by large margin. pic.twitter.com/8Iv7BfoZf9
Eastern state MPs outnumbered their western counterparts until 2017
It’s not directly visible in the graph, but: the higher vote share in the east (combined with the electoral calendar, the relatively large number of eastern states, and the disproportionate size of small-state legislatures) meant that until the Bundestag election in September 2017, there were twice as many AfD (state) MPs in the east. Although the east has just over one fifth of the population and about the quarter of the AfD members, a large chunk of the party elite was recruited (though not necessarily born) in the east. Even after the 2017 election, about half of the MPs (state and federal) were eastern.
The AfD’s downward trend began long before Corona
Journalists love a good story, and they like to link the AfD’s current underwhelming performance in the polls to the fact that people are weary of populists in a crisis, and the AfD’s mixed messages on COVID. But it is also clear that the AfD’s support in national polls peaked in 2018. The declining salience of immigration and the revelations on right-wing extremists within and around the AfD have not exactly helped. Support for the party has ebbed and flowed before, and local polynomial regression by design tends to exaggerate trends at the margins of a plot, but it is clear that support began to fall months before Corona became the dominant issue in Germany and elsewhere.
Die Umfragewerte der AfD sind vergleichsweise schlecht, in der Corona-Krise ist die Partei kein relevanter Akteur. Die Gründe dafür sind nicht ganz neu. Mit dem Kurier aus Wien habe ich über die strukturellen Probleme der Partei gesprochen.
Last weekend, thousands of Germans took to the streets to protest against the anti-Corona policies. The scenes were quite extraordinary and were widely reported in German and in international media, not least because the rallies were attended by far-right actors and conspiracy theorists.
“What do you make of the ”new“ disaffection with the government’s COVID-19 policies and the anti-lockdown protests?”
First, a degree of disaffection is perfectly understandable. Also, critiquing the government is part of returning to normality. However, if you look a bit closer, many of the actors involved in the recent protests are part of the radical right or even belong to outright right-wing extremist groups. Like they did with the 2014 “vigils for peace” movement, far right groups are trying to build an alliance with their opponents at the opposite end of political spectrum, not least by appealing to the legacy of the peaceful revolution in the GDR. Well-known merchants of conspiracy theories and esoterics are also part of the package.
“Will the AfD [the major radical right party in Germany] benefit from this? Is this the beginning of a new political movement, comparable to the 2014/15 vigils or the anti-asylum demonstration in 2015/16?”
The 2014/15 cross-spectrum alliance never really took off in terms of popular support. The 2015 anti-asylum protests, on the other hand, were part of the bigger far right movement that had existed for decades. The AfD has been building bridges to this movement since 2015 and, insofar, is already benefiting from it. At the moment, I don’t think that there is much additional potential that they could tap into.
“What is the implication of this for the wider German society, and how should politicians respond?”
It was always clear that the rally ’round the flag effect would not last for ever. A return of dissent and (partisan) conflict over the right strategy and measures was to be expected, and is also necessary for a liberal democracy.
But these demonstrations are only a small and by no means the most significant part of this conflict. For various reasons, they attract a lot of media attention: people openly break the rules on social distancing, there is not much else to report about, and some of the claims and slogans are really out of this world. But actors within parties, civil society, and the media should think long and hard if these demonstrators are really suitable allies for them, and whether they should be paid much attention at all.
Das Handelsblatt hat mit Politikern und Politikwissenschaftlern darüber gesprochen, was hinter den Corona-Demonstrationen vom letzten Wochenende steckt und ob die AfD davon profitieren kann (tl;dr: vermutlich eher nicht).
On May the 8th 1945, the Wehrmacht surrendered, bringing the war in Europe and the terror reign of the Nazis to an end.1 40 years later, then-president Richard von Weizsäcker, himself a former officer of the Wehrmacht and a scion of the same Prussian gentry that for centuries has supplied the army with cadets, kicked a hornets’ nest by calling it “a day of liberation”.2 While the “liberation” angle seems rather obvious, it was revolutionary at the time, especially coming from a (liberal-minded) member of the CDU.
Since then, the debate in Germany’s editorials has never fully stopped. While “liberation” has been the dominant narrative for a while, there are still conservative holdouts that point to the military defeat and ensuing loss of territory.
An initiative to make May 8 a national holiday on its 75th anniversary has come to naught. In a statement that resonates with Trumpian “good people on both sides”, Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s godfather, pointed out that May 8 “is ambivalent. It was a day of liberation for the inmates of concentration camps. But it was also a day of utter defeat …”. Think about this, and the implications, for a second.
Survey data (infratest dimap) on Germans’ views of the end of the war in Europe
Somewhat surprisingly, the general public has moved on from this stale debate a while ago. A survey by infratest dimap shows that like in 2005, more than 75 per cent of the population see May 8 as liberation, while a mere 5 per cent think of defeat, with the rest being ambivalent or not willing/able to answer the question.
The breakdown by party supporters is striking, but not really surprising: more than 30 per cent of the AfD’s supporters see the end of the war as a defeat, for all other parties, this number is in the low single figures. I leave the fact that the FDP has by far the highest number of ambivalents as an exercise for the reader.
1Incidentally, it is also our wedding anniversary, but that is probably besides the point.
2Were it not inappropriate, you might even say he caught a lot of flack.
Looks like we are indeed getting an option 1+2 outcome: Höcke & Kalbitz say they cannot shred the membership list b/c there is none, but tell members to refrain from political activity under the “wing” brand. Obviously, they will otherwise remain very active within the party.
Update #2 March 21:
The wing (who exactly?) has chosen option number 1 (see below), probably in a really, really ghastly WhatsApp group chat. The message they sent out on twitter is telling: while the wing is no more, their beliefs and values are unchanged, and they remain a “part of this great party project”. In other words, the wing shall henceforth be known as “AfD”.
The wing disbands. Problem solved. Simples.
Update #1 March 21:
The meeting of the wing has been postponed because of the Covid19 crisis. Apparently, it’s not fake news when your own life is on the line. The national leadership said that the April 30 deadline applies, regardless.
On March 12 2020, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (aka the spooks) stated that the AfD’s “Flügel (“wing”) faction is right-wing extremist and will be put under surveillance. This also applies to the faction’s most prominent members, its head honchos Höcke & Kalbitz. This has far-reaching consequences. Surveillance up to the use of informers aside, the official “extremist” label will make the party less attractive/acceptable for some of its voters. Members of the “wing” who are public servants may well lose their jobs and their pensions. Most importantly perhaps, the move against the “wing” suggests that the party as a whole might come under observation next.The wing emerged almost exactly five years ago as an informal group of rebels who signed a declaration against the (relatively moderate) course of the party’s then-leader Bernd Lucke. Within days, the manifesto attracted hundreds of signatories. The formation of the Flügel presaged the 2015 split and subsequent radicalisation of the party (read everything about this trajectory in my recent paper on this topic (ungated)). Over the following years, the group has held annual meetings in a spot where right-wing extremist have gathered since the days of the empire. These were often attended by prominent members of the national leadership. Over time, the wing has replaced another faction (the “Patriotic Platform”), and its influence has grown, especially in the eastern states. However, it was never recognised by the party as an official group and never sought an official status. What the wing really wanted to be was an influential network of like-minded ultra-radicals, with ties to openly extremist elements outside the party proper.
Bernd Höcke. Based on work by Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0Treating the wing as an organisation that represents the party’s extremism problem and could be removed in principle is therefore slightly misleading. But this is exactly what the party, the media, and the authorities are doing at the moment. Today, the party’s national executive has called upon the wing to dissolve by the end of April. It is the latest in a string of appeals for moderation, and considerably more low-key than the previous (failed) attempts to expel Höcke from the party.Today’s meeting was prompted by two stories that were all over the media before COVID-19 drowned out everything else. First, it emerged that Kalbitz and his family had been members of the HDJ for several years, something that he had always denied, although it was already known that the he had attended one of their meetings. The HDJ was a right-wing organisation (now disbanded) whose stated aim was to indoctrinate children with Nazi ideology. Only a couple of days later, a video of a wing meeting was leaked. In the video Höcke made an awkward pun about sending his enemies within the party to a concentration camp.Höcke and Kalbitz are the leaders of the AfD in their respective states. Most MPs for the AfD in these state’s belong to the wing. Think about that for a minute.COVID or not, the wing will have a meeting of its own on this weekend. I can see three ways in which this could go.
The wing complies and dissolves. That could be acceptable for them. The exec did not vote to kick out Höcke, Kalbitz, or anyone else. This would be a win-win: the network networks on (perhaps under a different name), the AfD can claim that they stopped extremism in its tracks.
The wing tells everyone that you cannot formally disband informal structures. They don’t have a membership list, because they are not a proper organisation – just a long list of names under the original resolution and chaps sending emails to other chaps. Nothing to be done about. The standoff continues in a cold-war like scenario.
Full-on conflict. The party splits: easterners trying to kick out the westerners and vice versa, perhaps even splits within state chapters. This would probably be the end of the AfD as we know it. Germany being Germany, it would probably also result in lengthy battles in court over who may use the old name.
In my view, 3) is the wing’s first inclination, but also the least rational solution. The wing is strong (allegedly it has some 5,000 members) but hardly strong enough to go it alone. It is also unnecessary: while there are people left in the party who call themselves moderates, the party as a whole has become very radical over the last five years. Disagreement with the wing is mostly over style (many dislike the Höcke cult), over keeping up appearances, and over dealing strategically with the legal pressure the party is under. In many ways, the wing is seen as a naughty child that needlessly provokes the authorities. Then again, this brand of naughtiness is a vote getter in the east and strongly motivates some members. So 1), or a mixture of 1) and 2) looks like the most likely outcome to me. I shall keep you posted.