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.
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.
Back in the distant past of 2016, the rise of the AfD in Germany’s eastern states and the fragmentation of the party system began to force the formation of awkward coalitions. In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD captured about a quarter of the vote and so brought together a ‘Kenya Coalition’ (CDU / SPD / Greens). As menages a trois go, it was not a happy arrangement, but somehow the coalition rumbled on. But the AfD remained a problem. Like in other eastern states, some in the CDU (mostly second and third tier politicians) would be much happier in a coalition with the radical right than with two left-ish parties. Many others and the federal CDU quite rightfully think that this would be political suicide. And so there was was the occasional wink-and-nod, and a lot of kerfuffle and shenanigans, but not much else.
A neo-Nazi in the local CDU
While we were all obsessing about the UK General election, a scandal broke in the eastern periphery. Robert Möritz, a young and relatively recent member of the CDU turned out to be a member of ‘Uniter’, an association of former soldiers, and special forces and police officers that has been linked to the right-wing extremist ‘prepper’ scene. On closer inspection, it also emerged that Möritz was a steward at a neo-Nazi march, is a fan of neo-Nazi bands and sports a massive ‘black sun’ tattoo (a combination of swastikas, infamously linked to the SS) (if you read German or know how to run Google translate, here are all the gory details) 👇
All of this undisputed. Möritz apparently removed some posts from his accounts, claimed youthful innocence and said he had moved on. His local association said they were happy with that.
Could a fourth-tier politician be the end of the coalition in Saxony-Anhalt?
Not all news are good news
As far as I can tell, Möritz is a member of some advisory assembly at the very local level. It strikes me as unlikely that he has any juice within the CDU, or that anyone would think he was worth wasting political capital on. On the other hand, the potential political fallout is massive. The normal reaction would have been to investigate the matter, with a view to chugging the guy out (legally complicated but doable).But when the story broke, the state-level CDU leadership did not pull the plug. They were happy with the way the local guys had dealt with it, period. Incredulous silence all around, then the Greens piped up and asked, quite literally, ‘How many MORE swastikas do you have in your ranks’. Excellent question. To which the state leadership responded by … 🥁 … demanding an apology and threatening to end the coalition.Cue emergency delivery of mil-grade tranquillisers to CDU HQ back in Berlin and head-scratching all around. What is this all about? Internal CDU power struggle? Testing the waters? The state CDU forcing early elections or a year of minority government to warm up for the campaign? I have no idea. But this is how we in Germany spend the weekend after the day after the night before.
In the JCMS paper, I also look at the trajectory of the Alternative for Germany. The AfD started out as a socially conservative/market radical “professors’ party”, then, within just two years, developed into a (mostly) bog-standard Western European radical right party. What sets the “Alternative” apart from similar parties in Western Europe, however, is its desperate flirt with traditional German right-wing extremism.
Back to the future?
The Front National (now the Rassemblement) recently expelled its founder and long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen because the old man would not stop talking about the Holocaust. The Sweden Democrats gave up the uniforms, then had a real purge of the old guard. Other parties like the PVV never had any connection to the old inter-war Extreme Right. And this looked like the way forward for the last couple of decades or so.
In the AfD, regional leader Björn Höcke can publicly trot out racist tropes, attack the culture of remembrance and use rhetoric and ideas straight from the 1930s playbook without getting as much as a slap on the wrist. Regional leader Andreas Kalbitz was a member of various right-wing extremist groups and the former “Republican” party. Kalbitz also attended a Greek Neo-Nazi rally in Athens and a festival for Fascists and Neo-Nazis in Belgium. Not a problem. National leader Alexander Gauland, who infamously called the rule of the Nazis “a spot of bird shit” in an otherwise glorious history, thinks that Höcke is “right in the middle” of the party, and that Kalbitz is a “good man”.
80 per cent of Germans are suspicious of the AfD
In the JCMS paper, I suggest that this trajectory, which is fueled by electoral successes in the East and intra-party outbidding for the most outrageous positions, could not just bring legal problems (the offices for the protection of the constitution seem to be set to heighten their scrutiny of the AfD) but also undermine its electoral appeal in the medium term. Lo and behold: in a (very rare) instance of not being completely out of touch with reality, I may have gauged the public mood just right. Today’s Politbarometer poll asked citizens how far right-wing extremist ideas have spread within the AfD. A cool 41 per cent said “far”, and further 39 per cent said “very far”. For comparison, 15 per cent thought these ideas have spread “not very far”, and just two (two!) per cent said that right-wing extremism within the party did not exist. In other words: 80 per cent see Alternative for Germany as a right-wing extremist party.
This dovetails neatly with slightly older polls which show that notwithstanding its national electoral support of 10 to 15 per cent, the AfD is by far the least popular party in Germany. About 80 per cent of voters would never consider voting for them. So far, the main result of the AfD’s ongoing radicalisation is not a collapse of its support, but rather a segmentation of the German party system. If you want to see the future of Germany, look to Flanders (minus the excellent fatty food, the quirky beers, and, well minus Belgium).
When former leader Frauke Petry left the AfD after the 2017 federal election, she kept her seats in the Bundestag and in Saxony’s regional parliament. These seats were meant to form the base for a new movement/party she quickly set up with friends and family.
Image source: Wikipedia
The “Blue Party” was supposed to become a sort of respectable radical right party: a potential coalition partner for the Christian Democrats and an alternative to the Alternative for Germany that was veering to the right. To put it in github terms: like her predecessor Lucke, whom she had de facto ousted, Petry tried to fork a previous iteration of the original AfD project.
And like Lucke (and Poggenburg), she failed. In the EP 2019 election (where they might have stood a chance because there was no electoral threshold) they could not run because they failed to collect the required number of supporting signatures. In Saxony (Petry’s home state), they won 0.4 per cent of the vote in the September election. Ten days ago, they won 0.1 per cent in the Thuringia election.
This weekend, the Blues have pulled the plug: they will shut down the party before the end of the year. Petry will continue to sit as an independent until 2021 and plans to end her political career there and then.
The bigger story here is of course that for the first time since the 1960s, the German radical/extreme right is electorally united. The NPD (which had gobbled up the DVU) is in tatters. The AfD breakaways are toast. Everything else are just sects. That is one scary perspective.