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Alternative for Germany Strikes Fear in the Hearts of Germans

After Sunday's elections, a far-right populist party will be in Parliament for the first time since the 1960s.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The German election is only days away, but in Berlin, you could be forgiven for not realizing that anything important was happening at all. The lead-up to the election has been characterized by tediousness and ennui over the inevitability of a fourth Merkel chancellorship. Several newspapers don’t even mention the vote on the front page. There’s a strong sense that, whatever the result of the election, Germans will simply get politics as usual. One poster from Merkel’s CDU/CSU party shows a woman, lying eyes closed in the grass with the slogan, “Enjoy summer now and make the right decision in the fall,” as if the best policy would simply be to nap through the whole thing.

Yet the German election this Sunday will also bring something worrisome to the country: An extremist, populist party will very likely be elected into the German parliament for the first time since the 1960s.

Recent polls indicate that Germany’s far right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) will likely get 8-12 percent of the vote, potentially enough to come in third place. Other parties are preparing for the possibility of working alongside the radical group, whose party platform includes climate change denial and sealing the EU’s borders to prevent “Islamification.” As their ad campaign puts it: “Burqas? We prefer bikinis.”  

To Americans, 8-12 percent of the vote may not seem like much, especially compared to Germany’s neighbors, France and the Netherlands, where far right parties have commanded bigger swaths of the electorate. But such numbers would give the AfD, founded in 2013, a far greater platform than it has had up until now, threatening to push the entire political system further toward the right.

 Several political scientists I talked to stressed that by entering parliament, the AFD will have far more resources at its disposal. Once it’s in the Bundestag, the party will have money for staff, access to official rooms and offices, and the ability to ask for parliamentary inquiries to issues at the center of their platform. Such resources, “will set them up for a better stance for the future,” says Dr. Carl Berning, a political scientist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. Further, depending on the coalitions formed after the election, the AfD could be the strongest party in the opposition, making their response to the government position especially visible. Certain important positions also belong to the largest opposition party, such as the head of the budget committee. “There hasn’t been a major far-right force in the national parliament,” since WWII, says Berning. “Now the other parties, the established parties, have to learn how to deal with them.”

Other German parties have said that they will not cooperate with the AfD. And there have already been attempts to isolate them before they arrive. Small procedural rules have been changed in anticipation of the AfD. For instance, the eldest member of parliament is traditionally the first to speak at the opening of the new political season. But since the eldest parliamentary member will likely be a 77 year old from the AfD (whose candidates tend to skew old and male), existing lawmakers altered that rule this spring. The opening speaker will now be the longest-serving. According to Bild, a German tabloid, establishment parties are also trying to bend rules in order to ensure that the AfD cannot chair the budget committee. The presence of the AfD may further alter the coalitions in parliament, as different parties attempt to arrange themselves in such a way as to minimize their voice. It won’t be the first time. In 2013, AfD members were elected to 13 out of 16 state parliaments. According to Alexander Hensel, a researcher at the University of Göttingen who has studied the behavior of AfD members in state parliaments, some members of establishment parties made a show of excluding them in the beginning, for example by refusing to shake hands. Procedural rules were also altered to try to reduce the visibility of AfD and exclude them from positions of power.

But this kind of tinkering may have the opposite effect. In some ways, their isolation has even helped the AfD promote its message, according to Wolfgang Shroeder, a professor at the University of Kassel who has also studied the behavior of the AfD in state parliaments. “One of the aims of the AfD was to establish themselves as a victim of the other parties,” he says. By touting their exclusion, they are able reinforce their connection to their voters, to cast themselves as mocked and ignored derided—but righteous. 

As Dr. Timo Lochocki, a policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund, told me by phone, AfD has carefully provoked the media with statements that straddle the border between far-right conservatism and Nazism. A few days ago, Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s two leaders, told supporters that Germans should be proud of their accomplishments in the two world wars. This, of course, provoked an outcry. “Then the entire media says, ‘they’re all Nazis,’” explains Dr. Lochocki. But right-wing voters might well watch this outcry and decide it is an overreaction. After all, Gauland never explicitly said that the Germans should be proud of Nazism itself, but something far vaguer that might encompass other ideas that mainstream voters agree with, like the valor of individual soldiers. It’s classic dog whistling, and it allows the the AfD to play the victim.

Like the American far-right, the AfD is interested in bringing their ideas to the mainstream, and in gaining respectability for white nationalism. By introducing bigoted positions, especially about migration, into the discussion, they are able to push the conversation. Hensel agrees. Once the AfD introduces a radical proposal, for example an attempt to ban the burqa in public spaces, this “position is now part of the parliamentary debate and part of the public debate about the parliament, too.” 

And while politicians say they would never collaborate with the AfD, there are already signs that this may not remain the case forever. Already this year, CDU politicians in the region of Sachsen-Anhalt attempted to support an AfD inquiry into left-wing violence. They faced sharp reprimands by Merkel.

Political commentators often point to Germany’s Nazi past as a reason why far right populism hasn’t grown as much here as in other countries. The shame, horror, and destruction of the war are thought to have engendered a cultural aversion to far-right ideologies and leant a severity to the anti-Semitism taboo that other Western countries don’t have. There is some truth to this. The German political system, which emphasizes consensus building and a balance of powers, is explicitly designed to avoid another Hitler, and there has been little controversy among Germans at attempts to alter Parliamentary rules to disfavor the far-right. It’s significant, then, that prominent members of the other parties have openly called the AfD “Nazis,” even as they come to the brink of power: The ascendancy of such a group is no longer supposed to be possible.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the AfD was the most far-right party to be elected to the German parliament since the Nazis. It is instead the most far-right party to be elected to that body since the 1960s.