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Is Germany’s Far Right Getting Less Racist—or More Strategic?

The Alternative für Deutschland party has stopped calling for "Dexit," but shown interest in a transnational right-wing alliance.

Alexander Gauland (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Alexander Gauland is a one-man Godwin’s Law. He has warned of an “invasion of foreigners,” argued a German minister should be “disposed of” in Turkey, and echoed an address Hitler gave in 1933 by writing a column attacking members of the “globalized class,” or “rootless, international clique.”

He is also the moderate face of the Alternative for Germany (AfD)–the country’s anti-migrant right and, since 2017, its largest opposition party in parliament. Since its 2013 founding, the party has struggled to move past the Sieg Heil crowd and simple xenophobia that tends to accrue to its official euroskeptic platform. Last month, at the party’s conference in Riesa, Saxony, co-leader Gauland went a step further, discarding even the most recent party manifesto’s calls for “Dexit” (a German Brexit). The result, however, has been a schism, the more rabid party members splitting to form a more reliably extremist corps. At a moment when the party seeks to build a transnational right-wing alliance ahead of European Parliament elections in May, these internal politics could have an outsized effect on the trajectory of Europe’s resurgent right.

Gauland distilled the AfD’s new tone into a 20-minute speech in Riesa last month, where sporting his signature tweed, he delivered a typical takedown of Brussels “paternalism.” The bloc’s 28 nations are “squeezed into a corset,” Gauland said, meandering through nationalist references to Nietzsche, Franz Josef Strauss, and Otto von Bismarck. He compared the EU to Hitler—a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, in short, from a party whose foundation was predicated on the abolishment of the Euro. But in a new move, Gauland also questioned the party manifesto’s call for an exit from the bloc altogether by 2024, should its immigration demands be ignored. “Whoever plays with the idea of Dexit must ask,” he said: “Isn’t that a Utopia? And shouldn’t we be realistic?”

Germans are overwhelmingly pro-EU: a May 2018 poll found 79 percent would vote to remain in the bloc if given a British-style referendum. Even in Saxony, the AfD’s former-East German stronghold, a huge majority would oppose Dexit. But Gauland’s speech reflected more than political pragmatism. It marked an apex in a growing fight for control of the AfD, between Gauland’s so-called moderates and a more radical wing of the party, led by Björn Höcke, a Thuringian statesman who has publicly denounced Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” and has advocated for a “180-degree turn” in attitudes to the Second World War. In 2016, Höcke came under fire for a speech in the city of Erfurt, in which he demanded Angela Merkel be “removed from the Chancellory in a straitjacket” for her open-door policy on immigration.

The day after Gauland’s speech, André Poggenburg, a close Höcke ally, quit the AfD to form his own Aufbruch der Deutschen Patrioten (Awakening of German Patriots). Right-wing schisms are a staple of conservatism: There are the libertarian, hands-off-my-money types, and then there are the cultural right-wingers, tired of watering down their racism to win votes. Poggenburg seems to be the latter. His new party takes for its emblem the blue cornflower, a symbol of 1930s Austrian Nazism—and as political choices go, less of a dog whistle than a foghorn. Soon after this news broke, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency announced it would be monitoring AfD activities—with special attention to the more radical elements including Höcke’s wing, commonly called Der Flügel (“The Wing”)—for potential breaches of the German constitution.

Höcke and Poggenburg’s extremism could stymie the AfD’s electoral progress altogether. Even by splitting the vote a little they would stand to forfeit a fair chunk of the AfD’s 12.6 percent share won at the last federal race in 2017, pushing the far-right parties numerically closer to more established parties like the center-right FDP (10.7 percent), democratic socialist The Left (9.2 percent) and even the resurgent leftwing Greens (8.9 percent), whose euro-friendly tone has struck a chord with young voters dismayed at rightward turns across the continent.

But the main branch of the AfD seems disinclined to win the extremists back. On February 2, Gauland’s co-chair Alice Weidel addressed a crowd in historic Karlsruhe, doubling down on the party’s new, more living-room friendly message. Weidel, an economist who has come under fire for receiving election funds from Switzerland, and in 2013 sent an email in which she denounced the takeover of Germany by “Arabs, Sinti and Roma,” this time stood behind a poster saying “Rethinking Europe,” and justified her party’s opposition to Brussels in terms of margins and bottom lines, rather than the race-based screeds that have accompanied the AfD’s rise thus far. Weidel even paraphrased Wilhelm Röpke, a famous anti-Nazi protester and architect of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder, or “Economic Miracle,” when slamming Europe’s “centrist betrayal.”

The new moderation seems to be a change in focus, rather than ideology itself. As calling for a German EU exit looks ever more politically suicidal–especially given the economic and political turmoil consuming Britain ahead of its presumed EU curtain call this year—AfD leaders seem to be seeking another way to advance the euroskeptic cause. Fellow right-wingers across Europe, who want to reform the bloc under Marine Le Pen’s “Europe of Nations” alliance, offer one solution. Another AfD co-chair, Jörg Meuthen, has echoed the “Europe of nations” language in recent weeks, and Gauland called the crowd before him in Riesa “good Europeans … heirs of millennia of the European spirit.”

If the AfD wins big in May, expect the party to play kingmaker in a new axis of euroskepticism, alongside populists in Poland, Hungary, France, Italy, Austria and elsewhere. For all its more moderate rhetoric, this new transnationalism is of a narrow sort, aimed at banding together within Europe to give supporters what they’ve wanted all along: closed borders and minimal immigration, particularly from non-European countries. Whether the cornflower-wearing, racist underbelly of the AfD balks at such a strategic move and sabotages it in the name of ideological purity remains to be seen.