Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1)Go directly to second-level navigation (Alt 3)Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

The AfD and the German far right
The long shadow cast by the past

Europe has been transformed by the rise of anti-European right-wing parties in recent years. This shift in the traditional political structure has not left the Federal Republic of Germany unscathed, where a new political force on the right fringe has registered a rapid rise. 

By Volker Weiß

By Dr Volker Weiß

Founded in 2013, the Alternative for Germany (AfD, Alternative für Deutschland) succeeded in entering in all 16 German state parliaments with its core themes of EU scepticism and rejection of migration, the praise of conservative values and vehement agitation against the "liberal elites" and their alleged spirit of "1968," as well as in the Bundestag (federal parliament) in 2017 with 12.6% of the vote. Germany's political landscape has been shaken in ways not seen since the founding of the Green Party in 1980, but while the latter's rapid adaptation to the political establishment replaced the fundamental oppositional stance of its founding era, the AfD has become increasingly radicalised in the wake of its success. The latest indicator of this process was the decision of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) [Office for the Protection of the Constitution] in spring 2020 to classify an influential current of the AfD, the "wing" around Björn Höcke (AfD Thuringia) and Andreas Kalbitz (AfD Brandenburg), as "right-wing extremist." In April 2020, the "wing" nominally disbanded, but personnel and structures remain intact. In May 2020, the federal executive committee cancelled the party membership of Andreas Kalbitz.
Simmering internal party disputes flared up violently, possibly threatening the AfD with a similar path as other formations of the German far right that had preceded it. Both the NPD (founded in 1964) and the Republikaner (founded in 1983) had developed from nationalist but initially heterogeneous currents into extreme right-wing formations, some with neo-Nazi leanings.

This was not necessarily foreseeable for the AfD, which claimed to have nothing in common with the traditional German right. Instead, it presented itself as a modernised right-wing populist movement based on the Dutch or Scandinavian model. In so doing, however, it was exposed to a variety of influences. In the beginning, a number of national liberal and conservative economists and publicists gathered around them different circles who wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the course of the liberal-conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. The spectrum ranged from opponents of European monetary policy and dissatisfied members of the governing CDU to Christian fundamentalists and advocates of anti-Islamic positions on to supporters of an ethnic nationalist worldview. Defectors like the once liberal-conservative CDU civil servant Alexander Gauland and financial contributions from sympathising entrepreneurs ensured a functioning infrastructure. Whereas the monetary policy campaigns of the early days were only modestly successful, this changed when the AfD focused almost exclusively on the issue of migration and refugees. With aggressive campaigns on this issue, it managed to achieve a series of election results above 20%, especially as of 2016. It mobilised an immense voting potential not only, but especially in the parts of the former GDR.

Nevertheless, infighting has prevented the AfD from settling down. First its founder, the economist Bernd Lucke, and then his successor Frauke Petry had to give way to the increasingly dominant ethnic nationalist camp as board members. Furthermore, ever since the current executive Jörg Meuthen positioned himself against the "wing", his position is also considered uncertain. One of the biggest dividing lines within the party is between advocates of a strong, intervening state and those of a maximally deregulated market as the central element of order. This conflict caused party leader Jörg Meuthen to fail in his push for the privatisation of old-age pensions and continues to block the development of a social policy programme. Above all, the party has to bring very different circles with partly contrary ideas of society under its umbrella. Here, national conservative civil servants, who have to fear the consequences of being under secret service surveillance, meet radical opponents of the republic, and East German-style statists meet Western economic liberals. The image of bourgeois respectability has to be reconciled with the sometimes drastic outbursts and provocations again and again. The journalist Konrad Adam, himself a founding member of the party, coined a fitting image for the situation as to the dispute over the neo-Nazi past of wing politician Andreas Kalbitz: "While Gauland stood on the balcony and praised the amenities of English country life, Kalbitz looked after the dogs in the basement."

The party is not very stable in this constellation. Its dynamics and mobilisation power are best developed through crisis rhetoric, ahistorical comparisons of dictatorships and attacks against the "old parties". It is united in an agitation that is particularly focused on Islam and in the at times anti-Semitic call for a political clean break with past. According to their interpretation, the memory of German crimes during National Socialism serves foreign interests and has led to a loss of national identity. Variations of this motif were found in statements by several leading AfD politicians, well-known examples of which include Björn Höcke's call for a "180-degree turnaround in remembrance policy" and Gauland's trivialisation of National Socialism as a "bird's shit" of German history.

This attitude has led the party to the side of established extreme right structures. In recent years, for example, the party has established ties with the Institute for State Policy, a training ground for the so-called "new right", which sees itself in the tradition of the anti-democratic radical nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite official decisions of incompatibility, contacts with the German-Austrian Identitarian movement have also been revealed time and again. Ideologemes of dubious provenance, such as the talk of an elite-driven "Great Exchange" of Europe's autochthonous population by Muslims, found their way into the party. Moreover, like the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) [Freedom Party of Austria], the AfD became particularly attractive to members of nationalist student leagues ("Burschenschaften"). This development of the party shows that the German right has not yet managed to shed ethnic nationalist legacies from its weltanschauung. Instead, substantial segments of its personnel keep falling back into the ideological patterns of their 20th century predecessors. The AfD, which set out as a euro-critical amalgamation, today bears a striking resemblance to the traditional German far right. It has not yet succeeded in making a modernising connection to contemporary European right-wing populism. The German right continues to remain in the shadow of the past, the reflection of which it so doggedly refuses.