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.
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).
The prosecutor for Berlin is investigating the AfD’s treasurer over support the party received from the association-for-whatnot (see #6 below). Printing and distributing newspapers that are essentially campaign material amounts to making a donation, the prosecutor thinks – a donation that the party failed to declare in two consecutive years. The services donated were worth a “low six-digit figure”.
Update April 16, 2019
The Bundestag’s central administration, which is charge of state funding for parties, has ordered the AfD to pay a fine of €402,900, i.e. three times the value of the services received by Meuthen (see point #3 below) and Reil (point #5). It is likely that the party will also be fined over the donations to Weidel. The AfD had set aside a million Euros to cover for fines.
What is the matter with Alternative for Germany’s finances?
Just in time for the upcoming European elections, new details on Alternative for Germany’s donation scandals emerge. Yes, scandals is in the plural, and the wailing sound in the background is the of “fake news!” from the party’s faithful. So what is the matter?
The AfD loves to talk about the “Altparteien” (the old parties, i.e. the establishment, the spent forces etc.). This is in itself a nice show of political mimicry: “Altparteien” is what the Greens used to call the trinity of Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Liberals, when they rose as a radical alternative to politics as usual in the 1990s.
Follow the money
In the 1980s and 1990s, the latter two parties executed bypassing rules on party financing to near-perfection. As a reaction to this, rules for transparency have been somewhat tightened, and more importantly, enforcement has become a bit stricter.
Now the “Alternative” has taken a whole bunch of leaves from the old parties’ playbook. For your edification and because I’m losing track, here is a list of the top-seven financial scandals in which the party is currently involved.
7 8 financial scandals in which Alternative for Germany is currently involved
Alice Weidel, the co-leader of the AfD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag, is under investigation for receiving 150,000 Euros in 18 neat tranches from a company in Switzerland, which would be illegal under German law. Extraordinarily, the company claims that they merely provided a facade for illegal cash flows originating in Germany. As you do. Both Swiss and German authorities are on the case.
Then there is the long-running story of an obscure “association for the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties”, which has spent big time on advertising for the “Alternative” but claims to be independent of the party. If co-ordination between the organisation can be proven, the AfD would be fined heavily. It goes without saying that the association is also connected to “Goal”.
Mit Gauland verlöre die AfD eine der letzten Persönlichkeiten, die nicht auf Grundlage ihrer Positionen, aber doch wenigstens auf Grund ihrer Biographie und ihres Habitus für Medien und Politik als satisfaktionsfähig gilt.
Last weekend, AfD leader Alexander Gauland gave a lecture at a “winter school” organised by the Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS). The IfS is a far-right think whose state aim it is to form the future elite of far-right leaders. If you think that leader of Germany’s biggest opposition party being part of such a thing is a big deal, you’re right. The story got little coverage in Germany and no coverage internationally, so I made a 90 second explainer video. If you like it, please share it.
Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, headlines a far-right "winter school"
What is the “winter school” for Germany’s New Right?
This weekend, Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, will give a lecture at the annual “winter school”, a weekend seminar that is organised by the “Institut für Staatspolitik” (IfS). The IfS is a Wannabe-Nouvelle-Droite think tank based in Schnellroda, a tiny village in Saxony-Anhalt. Its mastermind is Götz Kubitschek, a far-right publisher, author and self-styled “New Right” intellectual.
Götz Kubitschek Metropolico.org [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kubitschek believes in meta-politic: a conscious attempt to alter the meaning of words and establish new frames, to shift discourses and to form the minds of new generations, all in a bid to change the course of the nation. He and his associates borrowed this concept from the French Nouvelle Droite, who in turn got some ideas from the German “Konservative Revolution” of the 1920s and 1930s and mixed them, ironically, with a bit of Gramsci.
Their “winter school” is a crucial part of the meta-political strategy. It is run exclusively for people under the age of 35. Students pay just 60 € for two nights, including full board and access to all lectures. If they subscribe to “Sezession”, a highbrow right-wing magazine published by Kubitschek and the IfS, this is further discounted to 40 €. Getting to Schnellroda is definitively the most costly part of the weekend. But why is Gauland going to Schnellroda as a speaker?
Schnellroda: Götz Kubitschek, the IfS, and the AfD
Kubitschek lives the Altdeutsch dream. More specifically, he lives in the local manor house, together his wife Ellen Kositza (also a far-right author) and their many children, who bear traditional Germanic names. We know all this from the newspapers. Kubitschek’s elite brand of far-right politics has attracted an unhealthy interest from mainstream journalists, who are occasionally allowed to visit the couple in exchange for half-gushy, half-disgusted home stories. Scientists are similarly intrigued, and there is a lot of research (in German) about the “New Right” networks Kubitschek and his ilk form. I sometimes wonder if his influence and importance are seriously overestimated.
Helmut Kellershohn: Das Institut für Staatspolitik und das jungkonservative Hegemonieprojekt. In: Stephan Braun, Alexander Geisler, Martin Gerster (Hrsg.): Strategien der extremen Rechten: Hintergründe – Analysen – Antworten. 2. aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage, Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden 2015,
In the past, Kubitschek’s radicalism and elitism made for an uneasy relationship with the AfD. In 2015, when the party’s transformation from soft-eurosceptic to radical right came under way, he and Kositza applied for membership. They were initially accepted, but within days, the national executive, then still controlled by Bernd Lucke, intervened and rejected their applications. Nonetheless, Kubitschek is closely involved with the most radical Eastern circles in the party, whose members regularly attend events at Schnellroda. It was here, at an IfS meeting, that Höcke made his infamous speech about “Africans”, and it was Kubitschek who put a video of that speech online.
In his characteristically cringeworthy style, Höcke has praised the manor house as a sort of spiritual home for the AfD’s hardliners. In turn, Kubitschek and Kositza have attended conferences organised by the “Flügel”, the far-right network that is now under scrutiny by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), i.e. the secret service.
Leader of the opposition, leader of the AfD, keynote speaker at Schnellroda – all in a day’s work Original picture: Metropolico.org [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Kubitschek has also spoken at “Pegida” and “Legida” events. At the invitation of Matteo Salvini, he has attended a Lega conference, but he also has contacts to the neo-fascist Casa Pound and has even published a Casa-inspired book in translation. He is friends with Martin Sellner, one of the most prominent figures in the “Identitarian” movement, and works closely with Jürgen Elsässer, one of the most prominent figures of the German far-out-right. Kubitschek is no neo-Nazi – that would be far to vulgar. But he puts himself into the succession line of the “Konservative Revolution”, the young, revolutionary and above all anti-democratic movement that operated at the fringes of conservatism in the Weimar Republic and helped to pave the way for the real Nazis.
What is Gauland doing at the Schnellroda “Winter School”?
In short, the IfS’s “winter school” is a remarkable event for Gauland to attend, let alone to give a lecture. Gauland is by no means the first AfD politician to speak at Schnellroda, but as national co-leader and co-leader of the AfD’s caucus in the Bundestag, he is by far the most prominent one. Gauland has attended “Flügel” meetings in the past, and has repeatedly defended Höcke. But he is still widely seen as “bürgerlich”, because as a former high-ranking bureaucrat, CDU member and conservative journalist, he is a card-carrying member of the elite that has run this country for seven decades.
In a press conference this week, the BfV announced that they would put the Flügel under enhanced scrutiny, which can even include measures such as phone tapping. When a journalist asked whether this could also affect Gauland, the BfV’s president said that would depend on what kind of information they would come unearth in the coming weeks and months. In this situation, speaking at Schnellroda is either particularly brave or extraordinarily stupid. Either way, we have reached the point where, within a single week, we have learned that the leader of the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag a) may come under observation by the secret service and b) is the headline speaker at a notorious far-right gathering. What a time to be alive.
A party tribunal in his home state of Thuringia has ruled that Björn Höcke has not violated the party’s fundamental principles in his so-called “Dresden speech“. In January 2017, Höcke had demanded a “U-turn” in German memory politics, which he deemed “stupid”. In the same speech, Höcke called the Berlin Holocaust memorial “a monument of shame” that Germans had installed in their capital. He later claimed that “shame” had been a reference to the Holocaust, not to the monument, although this interpretation would contradict everything else he said on this occasion.
The old party executive under Frauke Petry had asked for Höcke to be expelled on the grounds that his views were akin (“wesensverwandt”, a judicial term) to NationalSocialism, and that his behaviour had been harmful to the party. Even then, the motion was controversial and may have contributed to Petry’s downfall.
In theory, the national executive has four weeks to appeal the tribunal’s decision and take the case to the federal party court. In practice, this is not going to happen. Gauland, and Meuthen, the new party leaders, have come out to support Höcke in the past. The AfD’s hard right is well-represented in the new executive, and while his views may not (yet) be mainstream, Höcke’s ability to speak to the ultra right is widely seen as an asset. In all likelihood, the leadership will just keep shtum and let it lie. Both Lucke and Petry have tried and failed to oust Höcke, and Höcke was instrumental in bringing down both. The tribunal’s ruling formally confirms his ongoing role as an evil spiriteminence grise.
At today’s AfD conference, Jörg Meuthen has been reelected as one of the the two co-chairs of the party. Although there was no other candidate, he garnered only 72% “yes” votes. Meuthen was once promoted by Petry because of his convenient market liberal profile, but quickly became friendly with the more radical elements.
The election of the second co-chair was a more interesting affair. Apparently, the leadership had agreed that Georg Pazderski (leader of the Berlin chapter), an alleged moderate and pragmatist, should get the job. But at the conference, a surprise competitor emerged: Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein, party chair in Schleswig-Holstein, who had only joined the party when it began to radicalise after Lucke’s departure as leader and vehemently opposes any rapprochement with the powers that be. In two ballots, the vote was split almost equally between the two, but neither reached the 50% quorum.
After a break, both withdrew their candidacy, and Alexander Gauland, eminence grise and leader of the the AfD’s parliamentary Party emerged as the new and only candidate. He received a mere 68% “yes” votes. Gauland is an interesting figure. Once a long-term CDU member and career Beamter in Hesse, he became a conservative newspaper editor and then one of the founding members of the AfD.
Late in life (he is in his mid-70s), he turned out to be a populist who regularly toys with Islamophobia and racism. He has repeatedly used his considerable influence within the party to defend Höcke and his cronies. He has also repeatedly ruled out that he could become party leader, citing his poor health and advanced age. Now his double role makes him arguably the most powerful (co-) leader the AfD has ever had. While Pazderski’s defeat and the poor results for Meuthen and Gauland highlight the fault lines within the AfD, Gauland’s rise to the two top offices is further evidence for the growing influence of the party’s ultra right.
Seven months before the election, what’s up with the Alternative für Deutschland?
I’ve kept repeating this since the Alternative für Deutschland’s ascendancy in the polls began in late 2015: the AfD’s electoral popularity depends on a) steering away from open right-wing extremism, which has frustrated previous attempts to establish a right-wing populist party in Germany, and b) presenting a united front. With the beginning of the (long) campaign, the party is not doing too well on both counts. Let’s have a look at seven of my favourite conflicts within the party.
The AfD and Bruce Springsteen. You would have to ask @BDStanley what it means.
#1 Right-wing extremism in Saarland – not a problem, really
The Saarland (always with the article) is a small state in the West with an interesting history and a relatively lively right-wing scene. The AfD state party is so closely involved with said right-wing extremists that the Alternative’s national executive – not normally given to anti-fascist activism – voted to disband the state party back in March 2016. However, the national executive lost a legal battle with the state party leadership, and the state party could continue. The executive then asked the state party not to field any candidates in the upcoming 2017 federal election. The state party politely declined this request. Incidentally, the state party’s number three was caught on camera selling Nazi devotionalia in his shop.
#2 Anti-Semitism in Baden-Württemberg
Shortly after the March 2016 state election in Baden-Württemberg, it emerged that Wolfgang Gedeon, one of the freshly minted MPs for the Alternative für Deutschland is an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist. Jörg Meuthen – party leader in Baden-Württemberg, head of the parliamentary party in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament and one of the party’s two national “speakers” – , who is usually typecast as one of the remaining economic liberal/socially conservative characters in the AfD, unsuccessfully tried to expel Gedeon from the parliamentary party. As a result, the parliamentary party split in two in July. Legal and political chaos ensued. Meuthen’s co-leader Frauke Petry arrived on the scene, allegedly trying to make peace, but most observers agreed that this intervention was part of the ongoing power struggle between Petry and Meuthen. Finally, after three months of strife, the two factions re-united under Meuthen’s leadership.
#3 Candidate selection in NRW
With roughly the same population as the Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is the most populous federal state in Germany. In German Politics, NRW and its politicians are heavy-weights. The state will go to the polls in May 2017, and the result will be read as a bellwether for the federal election September. The AfD state party is lead by Marcus Pretzell, one of the two remaining MEPs for the AfD. Pretzell is controversial within “his” party. In November, he and his inner circle were accused of using undue methods to orchestrate the selection of candidates for the upcoming state election. In January, the state’s returning officer decided that although there had been irregularities, the process was deemed legal so that he would provisionally accept the list of candidates. The final decision will be made in May. While it looks unlikely at the moment, in theory the party could be barred from taking part in the election.
#4 Litigation in Schleswig-Holstein
The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein is also going to the polls in May. Thomas Tomsen, the former (until May 2016) leader of the state party has tried to sue his successor, Jörg Nobis. Tomsen claims that scores of his supporters were not invited to the assembly that elected Nobis. In January, Tomsen lost a court case on formal grounds: The judges ruled that Tomsen has to go through the internal system of party courts before he can appeal to a regular, public court. And so the former and the present leader will spend at least a part of the election campaign in court(s). The lawyer for the current leadership has defended NPD politicians in the past and is himself a well-known right-winger.
Pretzell is a member of the ENF group in the European Parliament. Although the AfD’s official policy is to keep their distance from other right-wing populist parties in Europe, Pretzell organised a (highly publicised) ENF meeting in the German city of Koblenz on January 21. Amongst the attendees were Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini and (drumroll) Frauke Petry, who had not sought a consensus with other members of the executive. At least the German public perceived the conference as an AfD event. There were not too many happy faces seen on the executive board.
It’s not (just) about extremism. It is (also) about The Leader and her Lover vs The Rest
As a relatively young party, the AfD has many leaders and leaderlings, and since Lucke’s departure the public tends to perceive the party through the lenses of their respective personas (how is that for a mixed and convoluted metaphor?). Much of the ongoing conflict within the AfD is about ideology, or rather about the party’s general public image as “conservative-liberal”, “national-consersavtive”, right-wing populist or even right-wing extremist. But personalities, personal ambitions, and personal animosities are at least as important.
Petry was perceived as more radical than Lucke, yet representing something like a centrist position within the Lucke-less AfD. However, one important reason for ascendancy was that she seemed more willing to accept a modicum of collective leadership than Lucke – a perception that has now faded. Petry frequently tries to bypass the party structures. The party base, in turn, has denied her her wish to become the party’s sole “Spitzenkandidat” for the federal election.
Petry’s key ally is Pretzell, whom she married in December. Both are on record saying that refugees could be shot at the German border, which is not exactly the hallmark of a moderate. Pretzell was quick to blame the Berlin terror attack on refugees and Merkel, and Petry suggested that the word “völkisch” – the traditional self-description of German nationalists – should be seen as a positive term “again”. The last time this word had a positive connotation was during the Nazi era. Meuthen, who likes to give the impression that he is more liberal than Petry, failed to vet Gedeon before he was selected as a candidate. Meuthen also suggested that AfD MPs should not automatically vote against any proposal drafted by NPD in state parliaments, and voted against the motion to expel Höcke, whom he has supported on other occasions, too.