Germany Has a Problem

BERLIN — In the heat of debate about Germany sending tanks to Ukraine, it’s easy to forget that just two months ago, the authorities arrested 25 people for planning a radical right-wing coup to overthrow the German government.

The would-be insurgents — followers of the antisemitic Reichsbürger (“citizens of the Reich”) movement, which claims that every German state since World War I has been illegitimate — included soldiers, police officers, army reservists, an aristocratic “prince” ringleader and, notably, a number of members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, including a former representative of the German parliament.

The group’s ideas are bizarre and the plot had no serious chance of success. And yet one might think that the unearthing of a heavily armed movement aiming at the elimination of the state would set off an intense discussion around nationalism and far-right violence. Germany, after all, is celebrated for reckoning with its fascist past. But that did not happen. After some lukewarm speculation about a potential ban of Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, the issue has almost completely disappeared from public debate.

This development — or more precisely, the lack of development — is symptomatic of a disquieting fact: Germany has a problem with right-wing extremism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of the AfD, which effectively functions as the parliamentary arm of the broader far-right movement. The party, which commands around 15 percent of the vote nationwide and is the largest electoral force in some regions, was founded only in 2013. Yet in a decade, it has conclusively shifted the country’s politics to the right.

Now known for its aggressive anti-migrant stance, the party wasn’t primarily focused on immigration in its early days. The priority, initially, was economic. The 18 men — among them several economists, a former conservative journalist and businessmen — who founded the party in February 2013 had one main aim: for Germany to leave the European Union’s currency union, or abolish it altogether. This was, of course, at root a nationalist position.

Two years later, when over one million people chiefly from Syria and Afghanistan fled toward Europe, the party was primed to take advantage. Alexander Gauland, a leading AfD figure, described the crisis as a “gift” for the party. Through its ceaseless agitation against immigration and a supposed “Islamization” of Germany, the AfD shifted the mood and caused tensions, particularly in the conservative camp. The government soon began to withdraw from its initially welcoming response, instead tightening asylum laws and increasing deportations.

An anti-immigration demonstration in 2020.Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times

The AfD, meanwhile, consolidated its position on the political scene. In 2017, it became the third-largest party in the parliament, leading the opposition. While its electoral fortunes waxed and waned — it lost votes in the most recent election in 2021, for example — the party, with its anti-migrant calls for law and order, wielded considerable mainstream influence. Far from moderating the party, success radicalized it. The AfD has developed into an ever more extremist and anti-democratic force. Today it is dominated by people like Björn Höcke, a party leader who, according to a court ruling, can be legally described as a “fascist.”

The party has its strongholds in eastern states like Thuringia and Saxony, regions where unemployment is higher than in the west, public infrastructure has been dismantled, and young people move away when they get the chance. The economic abandonment that hit eastern Germany after the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic in 1990 — so different from the “flourishing landscapes” promised by the former chancellor Helmut Kohl — is a major factor in the AfD’s popularity.

But the party is not, as is sometimes assumed, merely an eastern German phenomenon. The AfD gets double-digit results in some west German states, such as Bavaria. In the state election in Lower Saxony at the end of 2022, for example, the party almost doubled its vote from five years ago to 11 percent. According to a recent study, 23 percent of western Germans say they believe the country is being “swamped with foreigners.” (The figure in eastern Germany is 40 percent.)

Behind this general support is widespread racism and what the sociologist Oliver Nachtwey calls a “society of decline.” The postwar era’s promise of upward mobility has long since disappeared. Nearly one in five German employees now work in the low-wage sector, and poverty has increased by 40 percent since 2010. In this setting, where the state appears to have failed in its duty to provide a social safety net and sense of solidarity, the AfD’s opposition to supposed state overreach — notably around Covid measures and vaccines — finds ready adherents.

The results are plain to see. In a decade, the AfD has become a major Pan-German political force. Although blue-collar workers and the unemployed are disproportionately represented among the party’s voters, a large part of its electorate is white-collar workers, civil servants and the self-employed. It’s important to note that all of Germany’s other political parties have lost voters to the AfD in recent years.

Crucially, the AfD’s rise has taken place alongside a general emboldening of the radical right. In the past few years, radical right-wing networks have been uncovered in the police force and the military. Violence has hit the streets. In February 2020, a white supremacist killed nine people of color in the city of Hanau. In the first three quarters of 2022, there were 65 attacks on refugee facilities — more than one per week. The AfD has no direct role in these attacks. But it has undeniably helped to create a political atmosphere in which deadly violence is more likely. In the case of the killing of a pro-migrant politician in 2019, the perpetrator, a neo-Nazi, was an active supporter of the party.

Yet despite these dangers, other parties and institutions have failed to build a firewall around the AfD. On a local level, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals have worked with the party numerous times, when it suited them. Even the left is not immune to the AfD’s influence: Sahra Wagenknecht, the most prominent figure of the Left Party, has adopted many far-right talking points, railing against “bizarre minorities,” spreading conspiracy theories about Covid and taking up Russian narratives around the war in Ukraine.

In some cases, the adoption of AfD positions may come from a genuine belief that it is a way to win back voters. In other cases, it looks more like the mainstream parties use the AfD’s presence as an alibi to act on their own convictions. Either way, the strategy is unlikely to pay off. Studies have shown that accommodating the far right does little to limit its growth.

Germany has generally been praised for keeping the far right at bay. While it’s true that the AfD is not as powerful as the nationalist parties of France, Italy or Hungary, Germany has nonetheless failed to confine extremist forces to the political margins. Even if the AfD retains between 10 percent and 15 percent of the vote, we should question what kind of normality we are getting accustomed to.

The Reichsbürger raid and the AfD’s 10th anniversary should prompt a major moment of reflection: A reckoning with the reasons for the party’s success is long overdue. Beyond that, it’s time to develop a new antifascist “Haltung” — a set of clear positions. No more accommodating, no more normalizing and no more collaborating.

Lukas Hermsmeier (@lukashermsmeier) is a journalist based in New York and Berlin who writes for Zeit Online, Die Tageszeitung and The Nation.

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