Tackling the challenge of Germany’s far right

By Ed Turner | 13 May 2024

Full disclosure: I’m a Germanophile Brit. In my day job, I conduct research on German politics. I speak German with my kids, travel extensively around Germany, enjoy a German beer and get excited about German football. I first started learning German in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and took the opportunity to travel extensively around eastern Germany on my bike, captivated by the legacies of communism and the recent history of the region, making some lifelong friendships along the way.

For a time, many of us Germanophiles dared hope Germany would not see a strong far right establish itself politically, as the country would be just too attuned to the legacies of Nazism and adhere to the motto ‘Never again’. Perhaps this was never realistic, and throughout the history of post-war western Germany, far right parties bubbled up, sometimes then being banned under the terms of the country’s constitution. In the years following reunification, the far-right seemed particularly able to thrive in the formerly communist east: to some a puzzle, since although much of its pitch was based on xenophobia, eastern Germany tends to have fewer migrants than the rest of the country.

Since 2013, support for the far right has stepped up a gear. The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) started off principally as a protest against Eurozone bailouts, and was led by a liberal economist. This saw it elected to the European Parliament in 2014 (having narrowly missed out on getting representation in Germany’s federal parliament the previous year); since then, it has consistently travelled in two directions. First, it has steadily gained support, represented now in all but two of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. Secondly, it has become steadily more extreme. Its founding economist is long departed, and in 2017, just days after leading the AfD into the German parliament for the first time, its leader Frauke Petry resigned, complaining at the party’s positioning and alienation of potential moderate conservative voters.

In recent times, its positioning has been crass: parroting pro-Russian propaganda while questioning Germany’s democratic values, criticising the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, describing German armed forces as a ‘genderised multicultural troop serving the USA’, with Islamophobia and xenophobia at its heart. Much of the party is under surveillance by Germany’s secret services. It is noteworthy that some of the most extreme figures hail from Germany’s east, notably Björn Höcke, the influential leader in Thuringia (‘current immigration policy is nothing less than the abolition of the German people’). To be clear, this means it is a different creature to the right-wing parties of Giorgia Meloni or even Marine Le Pen.

Why has the east proven such fertile ground for the AfD, where it polls well across ages and sections of the population? In some areas, this will be linked to historic nationalist tendencies, but it also shows the perils of a region feeling left behind, economically and socially. Even 34 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, male life expectancy is lower, household incomes are around 11% lower in the east than the west, unemployment is higher, easterners are drastically under-represented in leadership positions in public and private sectors, and the area has suffered from depopulation, with around four million easterners heading west between 1991 and 2021. When I was researching education policy in the east in the mid-2000s, around a third of primary schools in one state were having to close due to falling population, and of course, typically for such a ‘brain drain’, those with higher skill levels were more likely to leave. The AfD has offered a classic, populist appeal of the ‘you’ve all been let down by those out of touch politicians and we are on your side’ variety, and has found rather fertile ground. It is a powerful illustration of what can happen if regional inequalities are allowed to fester.

We can also now see what happens when a far-right party like the AfD holds elected office. In federal and state parliaments, it has tended to provoke confrontation and, in turn, show itself to be a victim of an establishment conspiracy, heckle other speakers, and table endless questions with the intention of making political points rather than eliciting information. German political contacts tell me this has led to a far nastier edge to politics being felt by all involved. There has tended to be a lot of ‘coming and going’ from AfD political groups, as members are unmasked as having extremist links or have been otherwise associated with criminal activity, but, contrary to the hopes of mainstream parties, this does not seem to do their support too much harm. Even January’s revelations of a gathering in Potsdam where participants including AfD members forged plans for the mass deportation of ‘non-assimilated’ Germans, which led to nationwide anti-far right demonstrations, have only led to a modest drop in the party’s poll ratings.

On a local level, too, the AfD has made its presence felt, winning its first full-time mayor of Raguhn-Jeßnitz, a small town in the east. Observers there report the mayor’s focus on getting small things done, downplaying his party affiliation in favour of presenting himself as the champion of everyday concerns, and quietly shelving undeliverable pledges, while barely making any effort to distance himself from more obviously extreme party colleagues. A similar picture emerges from Sonneberg County (also in the east), where an AfD representative was elected as full-time district administrator: he somewhat downplays AfD links (except at party rallies) and seeks to create some impression of competence, leaving more polemical activity to the AfD’s council group, although he did attempt to cut funding to a local democracy-promotion project. But in both places, the far right has reportedly become more normalised and emboldened by the presence of their full-time elected politicians.

All this presents a curveball for mainstream political parties. Academic experts differ over whether giving some ground to far-right voters’ concerns about such topics as immigration is helpful or counter-productive; in September, the position of Germany’s centre right CDU/CSU that it will keep a ‘firewall’ between itself and the AfD, with a total ban on co-operation, is likely to come under strain as the latter is polling ahead in three eastern states with elections taking place.

There are no easy answers here. We can be sure that the tide has not been turned by demonstrations against the AfD, nor the exposure of extremists in its ranks. We can also be sure that local successes can embolden and strengthen the party. Hopes that it will very visibly fail at local leadership and then be voted out are, at best, uncertain. Certainly, the sad tale of the AfD in eastern Germany shows the potential fallout of failures in ‘levelling up’, and the imperative of mainstream politicians staying approachable and in touch with their voters’ concerns: if they don’t, others stand ready to fill the void.

Ed Turner is co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University, acting chair of the International Association for the Study of German Politics and is also deputy leader and cabinet member for finance at Oxford City Council

X – @Aston_ACE

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