Alternative for Who? The Rise and Salience of the AfD
Photo: New Europe
The recent German elections captured headlines. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was ousted by the Social Democrats (SPD) and their leader Olaf Scholz. However, another story also emerged from this election. Alternative for Germany (AfD), formerly the third-largest party in the German parliament (the Bundestag) won around 10.3% of the national vote. Although this percentage is smaller compared to its 12.6% in 2017, the party had a particularly impressive performance in the states of former East Germany. While its numerical results may suggest the party’s irrelevance, one must view its political presence with a degree of concern.
This is a party that has cast doubt on the existence of the Holocaust and defies the country’s effort to reckon with its Nazi past. It is a party that has invoked anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric to bolster its political agenda. While not a sweeping electoral victory, the party's recent performance invokes Germany's not-too-distant past and thus deserves critical attention.
Graphic: Al Jazeera
The AfD was founded in 2013, but only got 4.7% of the national vote in that election cycle, falling short of crossing the 5% threshold needed to gain seats in the Bundestag. While the party initially campaigned on a Eurosceptic platform, it adopted an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant agenda in anticipation of the 2017 elections. This strategy earned them 12.6% of the vote, becoming the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since 1961. However, that success was by no means the result of a national consensus. The AfD’s base of power sits firmly in Germany’s Eastern region, where people are twice as likely to have a favorable opinion of the party compared to the West.
This division can be explained by Germany's post-war history and experience during the Cold War. After World War II, Germany was divided into occupation zones by the victorious powers later consolidated into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. In 1989, mass demonstrations against the GDR resulted in the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and by 1990 the two Germanys officially unified.
Even after reunification, the Eastern regions still experienced stagnant and limited economic growth compared to the Western states. This trend continues today across almost every indicator of economic health. Soviet mismanagement of the East German economy resulted in it having only around 70% of the output of the West at the time of reunification, a problem compounded by East to West migration. Both of these issues have been obstacles in the way of equalizing productivity between the two.
Graphic: Pew Research Center
These economic disparities offer some explanation for the AfD’s in the East. East German fears over economic insecurity have correlated with their support of right-wing parties and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The AfD explicitly ties its platform to the exclusion of immigrants, implicitly calling upon fears of replacement by new workers and taking advantage of the personal economic precarity experienced by the de-industrialized East.
Graphic: The Economist
30% of East Germans would not want a Muslim as a neighbor, as opposed to 16% of West Germans. The AfD rose to prominence on the heels of the 2016 European refugee crisis, allowing them to build off of heightened nativist sentiments to rail against the influx of refugees. Furthermore, the East historically hosts fewer immigrants, reducing the chance of positive interpersonal contact between citizens and migrants and heightening the likelihood of new immigrants being viewed as an existential economic threat. These factors have helped create fertile ground for this new wave of far-right populism and ethno-nationalism in Germany.
Although East Germany’s economic conditions help illuminate why the AfD’s anti-immigrant policies have worked surprisingly well in those areas, they are not the only reason. Nicole Doerr, a professor of sociology at the University of Copenhagen, studied how the AfD further capitalizes on these anti-immigrant attitudes through print and digital media campaigns. Through these campaigns, the party positions itself as a defense against the Muslim "other" in the name of Western Civilization. Specifically, the AfD uses gendered imagery in billboards and TV ads to portray white women as "under threat" from forces outside of Germany while simultaneously pushing hyper-traditionalist views of women’s roles. These kinds of tactics mobilize traditionalist sentiment or stir up nativist sentiment.
Beyond their inflammatory policy platform, the AfD has also promoted a culture of political violence. The Bundestag expelled a member of the AfD, the self-identified fascist Christian Lueth, for stating that migrants should be shot and gassed. The state of Wurttemberg also expelled Stefan Raepple from its parliament for advocating a violent overthrow of the government. In another case, former neo-Nazi politician Andreas Kalbitz also got suspended from the AfD for rupturing a colleague's spleen and sending them to the hospital during a disagreement. The AfD's encouraging this kind of violence in domestic political procedures invokes memories from the days of the Weimar Republic when far-right militant groups would attack their leftist counterparts outright in the streets of Berlin.
Yet, why do concerns remain if the AfD lost ground in the 2021 elections? Those results obscure a dangerous trend; the AfD had a relatively dominant performance in the former East German states. Although they lost ground nationally, the party gained 26% of the vote in Saxony alone. It is important to recognize the echoes of history at work. Although this is not the era of the Weimar Republic or Nazi Germany, the rise of the AfD and its violent and xenophobic actions suggest we might not be that far off. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party began as a localized fringe group in Bavaria with limited national electoral success. However, by 1930, they had taken advantage of economic grievances and fear of the foreigner to make themselves a dominant force in federal elections. Hitler rose through democracy, and while the AfD has nowhere near the influence the Nazis had at their zenith, the parallels between them are troubling and merit close attention.