For decades, far-right parties in Germany, unlike their counterparts in neighbouring France or Austria, struggled to enter the political mainstream. However the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has finally broken that trend with its performance in Germany’s recent legislative elections, getting around 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats in the Bundestag.

It has succeeded where other far-right parties, such as the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD) had failed due to its modern image and clever mix of both conservative and liberal principles – coupled with a favourable domestic situation. Nevertheless, party unity has almost instantly broken down in the wake of the election and the party may now struggle to be little more than a mouthpiece for those who are unhappy with modern German life.

A young upstart party

The history of the AfD is very similar to that of Britain’s right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). Both were founded as single-issue political movements that were subsequently disowned by their founders as they became more right-wing. The AfD was originally founded in 2013 by economist Bernd Lucke and journalist Konrad Adam as a strictly Eurosceptic party opposed to the Euro and the German-led bailout of Southern Europe.

The party enjoyed moderate success before Lucke left in 2015, arguing that it had been taken over by a far-right pro-Russian faction under the leadership of Frauke Petry. This mirrors the history of UKIP, which was founded as a single issue anti-European party and was disowned by founder Alan Sked as it shifted further right. The parallels deepened as Petry stunned everyone by quitting the party after Sunday’s election, mirroring Nigel Farage’s actions in the wake of the 2015 British General Election.

As a youthful and rapidly evolving party, it is often difficult to understand what the AfD want or how to classify them. In 2015, the party began allying itself to the anti-refugee Pegida movement, created in protest at Germany’s open door policy towards migrants. This transformed the party from a technocratic Eurosceptic movement into a nationalist party vowing to save Germany from a perceived Islamic takeover. The party has positioned itself in opposition to the cosy coalition between the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (Christian Democratic Union of Germany, or CDU) and Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany, or SPD) that has governed the country over the past five years, making it a powerful anti-establishment force in German politics today.

Most successful far-right parties in Europe, such as the Front National in France or the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Austrian Freedom Party, or FPÖ), were founded in the 1970s by fascist apologists and collaborators and therefore are established nationalist forces within each country’s political culture. However, they often find themselves hamstrung by their toxic histories. The AfD does not have to worry about this, and the party feels free to mix-and-match various principles and policies to create a new form of far-right politics.

Frauke Petry giving a speech
Franke Petry was leader of the party until she made the surprising decision to quit on Sunday evening.

What does the AfD stand for?

This new politics has two overriding, but somewhat contradictory, themes. Firstly, there is a belief in an orientalist conflict between the civilised but decaying West and the backwards but scheming Muslim world which threatens to destroy modern Europe. The group argues for much reduced immigration, the expulsion of refugees and a clampdown on the building of Mosques. At the same time it presents itself as the peak of modern Western values in terms of gender equality and sexual freedom. It often highlights its female and gay leaders such as Alice Weidel, in much the same way as gay far-right anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn used to.

Secondly, the AFD has actively sought to resurrect the spectre of German nationalism and an idea of an ethnic German nation. Its leaders often refer to the German people using the term ‘volk’ a word used during Germany’s Nazi and Imperial eras to describe the ethnic nature of German citizenship and national identity. Also, in contradiction to its supposed championing of secularism and gender equality, the party argues that women should return to traditional roles and has sought an alliance with various churches and religious groups, most of whom have been allied to Merkel’s CDU since the end of World War Two.

While these two principles may seem contradictory, AFD politicians and party members have a very clear idea who their enemies are. The list is similar to that of the American Alt-Right, including mainstream politicians, international organisations, NGOs, feminists and intellectuals. For the AfD, these groups have played a part in the destruction of German identity and are using the refugee crisis as a tool to further their own dark agendas.

An AfD poster demanding “Stop Islamisation.” Photo credit: Joe Barnes/Jericho

Does the AfD pose a threat?

The rise of the AfD should not be met with shock and awe, as almost every European country now has a powerful anti-immigrant party. It should have been expected that Germany’s attitude towards refugees would provoke a pushback, especially in the more socially conservative and poorer former-East Germany. While it looks like Merkel will remain chancellor at the head of a ‘Jamaican’ coalition – therefore keeping the AfD out of power – the growing influence of the party in the Bundestag will be felt throughout the next parliamentary term.

The threat the party poses to the German establishment should not be underestimated, however. German politics at all levels is based on consensus and power sharing. AfD successes, especially at state level, risk the possibility of constricting mainstream parties and creating political stagnation as parties worry that discussion of controversial topics may embolden the AfD.

More significantly, the AfD threatens to irreparably damage the political consensus around 20th century German history. German political culture has long harboured repentant and apologetic attitudes toward the holocaust and Nazi crimes. Conservatives and liberals alike acknowledge that fascism in Germany was no accident, but instead was based on Prussian militarism, racism and anti-Semitism. This has led a belief that strict laws against holocaust denial and educational programs are needed to prevent its reappearance.

While this attitude has not been popular with sections of the population, there has never been a successful party that gives voice to this dissent. Bjorn Hocke, leader of the more extreme faction of the AfD has suggested that Germans “need to make a 180-degree turn in their politics of commemoration”, and described the holocaust memorial in Berlin as ‘memorial of shame’ that should be taken down.

Sustainable success?

The party is facing serious growing pains and is unusually (by German standards) fractious and factional. The night after their historic 2017 election victory, Petry quit the party arguing that it had become ungovernable and ‘could not offer a credible platform’. For now this means that Alice Wiedel’s pro-business faction are in charge, however they will almost immediately face attacks from the more extreme aspects of the party.

While it is not clear what sort of coalition will govern Germany, one of its key tasks will be to contain the AfD and its ideology, especially to alleviate the concerns of the 4.4 million Muslims in Germany. The AfD itself is not something to be feared; domestic political conditions are unlikely to be as favourable again, and the party lacks discipline and a coherent set of values. However, it is acting as a mouthpiece for a set of feelings and beliefs that Germany thought it had eradicated.

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