Germany’s right-wing populists push boundaries in a polarized society

COTTBUS, Germany — The conversation started out civil, at least, which made it fascinating to watch how quickly things devolved.

I was standing in a square in this city of around 100,000 people in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, speaking to a middle-aged man in a blue hat emblazoned with “AfD,” the initials of the populist far-right Alternative for Germany party. It was a grey, unusually chilly spring afternoon. He and his friend had happily stopped to talk to me on their way to a party demonstration nearby.

“The AfD is the result of the old parties’ politics,” he told me, explaining that Germany wasn’t equipped to handle an influx of refugees that came here in 2015 and 2016. He was bothered by the fact that rather than fully integrating into German society, those refugees often sought out “their own people” and formed groups in large cities.

Two younger people, a man and woman clearly there for an anti-AfD counterprotest starting just a few hundred yards away, approached us. “We don’t want any Nazis here,” they said.

“Do you see what I mean about freedom of speech?” the man with the AfD hat told me, shaking his head, implying AfD voters aren’t free to speak their minds. As the young man kept on telling the two men their views weren’t welcome there, he moved even closer, disgust visible on his face. It was also written on the AfD supporters’ faces.

The man with the AfD hat announced he was leaving to find the police while his friend and the young man continued to face off. As the counterprotester stepped closer, getting uncomfortably near the AfD supporter, the older man used his elbow to push him away, his previously friendly demeanor slipping. “I just need to say something: I don’t want any Muslims here,” he exclaimed. “When they flee [their countries], they should leave their beliefs behind too. I don’t need these Muslims here in Germany!” With that, the two AfD supporters walked away.

The situation unfolded too quickly for me to catch everyone’s names. It also seemed highly symbolic. As I begin my ICWA fellowship, focusing for the next two years on the rise of right-wing populism and the ways in which Germany and its Central European neighbors are undergoing fundamental political and societal change, the exchange felt like an encapsulation of the sometimes seemingly unbridgeable divide between the AfD and the rest of the political spectrum here.

 

 

Given the amount of attention the rise of right-wing populism has received since Britain voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected to the White House two years ago, my ICWA topic hardly needs an introduction: from Europe to the United States and Latin America, right-wing populist leaders have made significant gains at the ballot box and even begun taking over some of their countries’ governments.

In some cases, like Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland under the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), those leaders have already taken significant steps to weaken democratic institutions, including the free press, judicial independence and fair electoral systems. In others, such as Austria, the far right joined the government and holds an outsized influence over policy in migration and other crucial areas (although the coalition fell apart last weekend after a scandal involving the far-right Freedom Party’s top leader—more on Austria next month). Even in countries where the far right isn’t in power—including here in Germany—its rise has forced other mainstream parties to shift their policies and rhetoric significantly to the right.

My own experience with Germany and German politics has in some ways coincided with the AfD’s rise. I first came here in 2013 on a two-month reporting fellowship, when I covered that year’s federal elections; the AfD, founded only months before as a party opposed to the euro currency, fell just short of the 5 percent of support necessary to enter parliament, the Bundestag.

Politics sometimes seems to have lost all sense of nuance: Either you’re a refugee-loving liberal or you’re a Nazi. For the vast majority of Germans, of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I returned to Germany for a longer term in 2017 just in time to watch the AfD—which by then had capitalized on the 2015-16 refugee crisis to morph into an anti-immigration force—win 12.6 percent of the vote and take up its first-ever seats in the Bundestag. Since then, I’ve traveled around Europe covering right-wing populist parties in nine countries, seeking to draw parallels and find connections in a way that might shed some light on the broader phenomenon. I’ve also watched the AfD move even further right over the years, constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s considered politically acceptable.

Those lines have much to do with perceptions of history. After World War II, Germany built its democracy with an eye toward preventing the rise of another Nazi regime. Its domestic intelligence agency has the ability to surveil extremist political movements and parties, for example; it is a crime to deny the Holocaust or display Nazi imagery; restrictions on hate speech are stronger here than in many other Western countries. The AfD, in many cases, has taken on those topics and protections directly. Its co-leader Alexander Gauland famously referred to the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s otherwise long and proud history and declared that Germans should be proud of their WWII soldiers. Earlier this year, the domestic intelligence service announced it would put parts of the AfD, including its youth organization and its far-right “Wing,” under surveillance and was considering doing the same for the entire party.

Given the ingrained protections and recent political developments that have tested them, Germany felt like the perfect base for my ICWA fellowship: In addition to being Europe’s economic and political leader, it’s also the place that, given its history, many long assumed was immune to such forces. What is it, then, about the times we’re living in that a far-right party can get elected to the Bundestag for the first time since the Nazis?

My research over the next two years will focus on answering that question not just in Germany, but neighboring countries as well. Among other things, I’ll speak with supporters of right-wing populist parties in an effort to understand the growth of their movements at the source. I’m getting started on this issue at an important time, both within Germany and Europe as a whole: To start, right-wing populist forces are expected to win a record number of seats in this month’s European Parliament elections. Under Italy’s Matteo Salvini, head of the country’s far-right League Party, a group of like-minded parties (including the AfD) has teamed up across country borders with the intent to gut the EU from within. If they do as well as expected this month, they’ll have new influence on the Europe-wide political discussion. And later this year, three former East German states—where the AfD is especially strong—will go to the polls as the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      Stephan Weil speaks in Berlin at the Progressive Governance Symposium in April. He addressed the topic of how progressives can counter populist rhetoric in upcoming elections

In late April, a month before voters in 28 European countries head to the polls, several hundred journalists, policy experts and political actors gathered at Berlin’s Kalkscheune, a factory-turned-event space in the city’s central Mitte neighborhood. The day-long event, organized by left-of-center groups such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Das Progressive Zentrum and the Progressive Policy Institute, sought to discuss strategies for progressive politics in a time of rising populism. How could politicians, especially in Europe’s ailing center-left parties, effectively respond to populist parties like the AfD?

Throughout the many interesting conversations that day, one comment in particular stayed with me: In the evening, Stephan Weil, premier of the state of Lower Saxony and a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), spoke about his own experience governing a state in which populism is markedly on the rise. It’s good to have these conversations, Weil said, but the fact remains that the people in the audience on this balmy April evening were not the ones it’s necessary to reach.

“We are primarily cosmopolitan academics and probably hold more or less the same views,” he said of the attendees. “The unheard people we are talking about are certainly not here. In political reality, this is perhaps not even the exception but the rule.”

Weil’s point is precisely the problem with the way we often talk or write about populism, and why I am so interested in exploring the topic for my ICWA project. I’ve spent plenty of time in conference halls, at workshops and on panels talking about the phenomenon and what can be done to combat it—but far less talking to the people who actively support (0r even just quietly sympathize with) populist far-right parties. As an ICWA fellow, I’m excited to get closer to the ground on those issues, talking to ordinary people and voters about the way their countries are changing and why they make the political decisions they do.

        A campaign poster from the AfD announcing its demonstration in Cottbus. It reads “Social Without Becoming Red,” a reference to the party’s attempts to win over working-class voters while differentiating itself from the center-left Social Democrats and the left-wing Left Party

Which brings me back to Cottbus and to why, a few days after hearing Weil’s comments, I found myself surrounded by several hundred AfD supporters outside a shopping center here. With European elections on the horizon, I wanted to come to an AfD stronghold to better understand the party’s appeal. A train ride from Berlin takes less than 90 minutes, but politically it couldn’t be more different than the capital city. In 2017, the AfD won 12.6 percent of the vote nationally; here in Cottbus, it won double that. Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel, the AfD’s parliamentary candidate in the district that includes Cottbus, came in a close second with 25.3 percent of the vote.

As a local activist named Christoph Polster explained to me, Cottbus is at the nexus of so many of the big societal and economic changes gripping Germany: It’s a medium-sized city in the former East Germany, which still lags significantly behind the West economically. Its residents have heavily depended on the coal and nuclear energy industries, both of which are being phased out as Germany seeks to meet its ambitious emissions goals for 2020 and beyond. And far-right extremist groups like Generation Identity have singled out Cottbus as an ideal base for their activities, making the city a hotbed of neo-Nazi activity.

Cottbus has seen “a lot of upheaval over the last 30 years,” said Polster, head of Cottbusser Aufbruch, a federation of local community groups dedicated to combating violence and promoting social cohesion. As we spoke, rain dripping onto my notebook from the edges of his group’s tent on one town square, he said those factors have contributed to the AfD’s particular strength here.

“It’s happening rapidly before our eyes: the people are losing their Heimat,” he told me, using a German word that roughly translates to “home” or “homeland” but also evokes a deeper sense of comfort and belonging (and which has often been misappropriated by far-right forces). “And the problem is that over many decades… the state government of Brandenburg has left people alone with this situation. The pressure is growing and the people see that, so the feelings of insecurity have also grown.”

        Cottbus’s city hall, where I met AfD politician Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel

To understand the particular appeal of the AfD in Cottbus and East Germany more broadly, I sat down with Spring-Räumschüssel, leader of the party’s local chapter and the woman whom Cottbus nearly sent to the Bundestag in 2017. At a conference table in the AfD’s small city hall offices, which we had to ourselves late on a Tuesday afternoon, Spring-Räumschüssel explained her own personal journey to joining the party.

She has been around nearly since the start: Upset over the handling of the euro crisis, Spring-Räumschüssel joined in early 2013, when the euro was still the AfD’s driving issue. Although she’d voted consistently for the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), 2013 was a turning point for her. “There were two possibilities: either I submitted a blank ballot in the next election because I couldn’t give anyone my trust, or something new came along,” she said. “And then came that something new.”

The 72-year-old, who sports short, black-reddish hair, praised AfD founder Bernd Lucke, the anti-euro politician who has since left the party over its sharp rightward turn. Spring-Räumschüssel, however, seems to have tracked at least somewhat along with the party’s shift: She named “national security” as one of the top issues facing the country, criticizing the “macho” Muslim refugees whose way of life and view toward women is, in her view, incompatible with German values.

When the conversation turned to Europe, Spring-Räumschüssel echoed the sentiments of many top party leaders: She focused her criticism on what she deemed Brussels’s excessive bureaucracy, saying individual member states have ceded too much decision-making power to the EU. “The people don’t want to constantly be treated like children by Brussels,” she said. “They also don’t want a United States of Europe: We want what we were promised, a Europe of the fatherlands.”

Still, she sees leaving the EU as an “absolute last resort,” preferring to reform it from within. The AfD’s membership voted in January to include a possible exit from the EU, or “Dexit,” in its platform for the European elections: If the bloc doesn’t accede to its demands for  significant reforms, including dissolving the European Parliament, the AfD would support leaving it entirely. Party leaders don’t seem eager to run on that platform, however, recognizing “Dexit” rhetoric is not especially helpful in a country where the EU still enjoys very high favorability. The AfD is currently polling between 10 and 13 percent for the European elections, putting it on track with or slightly below its result in 2017.

It was hard to get Spring-Räumschüssel to acknowledge the extremism present within her own party; she said journalists get it wrong when they call the party “right-extreme” or even “right-wing populist.” (Spring-Räumschüssel, by contrast, describes it as “very conservative” with a focus on Heimat, that German word for “homeland.”) But when I asked her about the party’s far-right “Wing,” under surveillance by the domestic intelligence service, she said she’s worked hard to ensure that extremism (in the form of former members of the neo-Nazi NPD Party or ties to Generation Identity, for example) stays far from her chapter of the party. “We have a good reputation, this image which we’ve built up for years in Cottbus,” she told me. “When someone steps out of line, I take care of it… we’ve also rejected people. For us, former membership in the NPD definitely isn’t okay, and Generation Identity definitely isn’t okay.”

Spring-Räumschüssel’s path struck me as representative of the shifts the AfD has undergone since its founding in 2013—and the compromises that come with remaining in a party that at least tacitly encourages far-right extremism on its fringes. Although she’s clearly one of the people who came to the AfD for its original anti-euro purpose, based on our conversation about migration, she seems to be on board with the party’s rightward shift and targeting of immigration. Still, focusing discussion on local party membership and her own work in the city government appeared to make it easier to avoid acknowledging the extremism the party encourages.

        Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel in the party’s city hall offices

Despite the friendly reception I’d received from Spring-Räumschüssel the day before, walking up to the AfD rally with recorder and notebook in hand I felt uneasy, as if I noticeably stood out. One attendee held up a sign emblazoned with the word Lügenpresse, or “lying press,” a term used by the Nazis and again popularized by the AfD. Other signs were equally stark: “Invasion Disguised as Migration: Germany Says NO,” one read, while another declared, “Islam Doesn’t Belong to Europe.”

Still, most of the dozen or so attendees I approached were willing to speak with me—although not all of them gave their full names. I met people who had come to the AfD after voting for the Left Party or the center-right Christian Democrats; others had voted for the FDP, like Spring-Räumschüssel, or hadn’t voted before at all. They directed their frustration primarily at the German government and Chancellor Angela Merkel, rather than Brussels. Far more were more concerned about local elections in Cottbus than the EU elections (both to be held the same day). In many cases, their frustrations were vague; they spoke about reaching a breaking point or feeling as if they or their country had lost something. Most spoke about being disappointed by the Altparteien, or “old parties”; many equated supporting the AfD with their identity as East Germans who had lived under the communist regime here.

Benno Bzdok, a 68-year-old candidate for the AfD in Cottbus’s local elections, told me as he handed out party leaflets at the information stand that he and others in the eastern German states see the AfD as a continuation of the struggle they began under the former East Germany, the GDR. “In 1989, we went out in the streets as GDR citizens to change something,” he told me. “And what we wanted to change we’re seeing again today. So I needed to find an alternative to change what I wanted to do then.”

Bzdok wasn’t active in politics and had never voted before joining the AfD and being chosen as one of its candidates this year. But three years ago, he said, he had reached a breaking point because the current economic situation in the east is “no longer bearable”: He’s watched his taxes rise while wages remained stagnant and significantly lower than in the West. “I have three kids, and they have children of their own, and at some point things needs to be bearable for them,” he said.

Roswitha Koepke and Klaus-Peter Gimpel, a couple wearing yellow vests and “Merkel Must Go” stickers who’d driven to the event from Berlin, also told me things had reached a breaking point—albeit because of the influx of refugees, they said, rather than economic factors. “Before 2015, we all lived peacefully together in Germany,” Koepke told me. “Then they opened the doors and now anyone can come in without identification, without papers, without anything. As a German you feel, plainly put, ripped off.” Gimpel was stronger in his condemnation of Merkel’s decisions in 2015 and 2016: “This is the downfall of Germany,” he said, adding that the Islam he’d seen “isn’t peaceful.” “We know that, and other people who have also woken up know that—but unfortunately too many people in Germany are still asleep.”

Michael, a 62-year-old longtime Cottbusser who declined to give his last name, said he used to vote for the Left Party; he switched to the AfD in 2015 and 2016 amid the refugee crisis because he felt there was “no longer any other alternative.” But he, like others I talked to, was quick to issue a disclaimer that he wasn’t an extremist just because he had voted for the AfD. “People hear ‘AfD’ and think, ‘Oh, they’re Nazis,” he told me. “I’m not a Nazi.”

      AfD supporters during a demonstration in Cottbus. Attendees said they had joined or started supporting the party because they felt let down by mainstream political parties

That conversation with Michael, and his and others’ knee-jerk insistence that they weren’t Nazis, hearkened back to my experience on the square earlier that day and the seemingly reductive back-and-forth about Nazis and Muslims that had occurred there. In Germany, like in the United States, politics sometimes seems to have lost all sense of nuance: Either you’re a refugee-loving liberal or you’re a Nazi. For the vast majority of Germans, of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Is the AfD a racist party? Are all those who support it essentially neo-Nazis, or at least neo-Nazi supporters? It’s objectively true to say that the party as a whole often looks the other way when a member or politician—whether on a local or national level—says something clearly racist or historically revisionist. Björn Höcke, the leader of the party’s far-right “Wing,” called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame” and has defended Holocaust deniers; ex-party leader Frauke Petry once said Germany should be able to stop refugees from entering the country illegally by shooting them at the border. Neither was penalized for such comments, and continued to hold positions of power.

But it’s more complicated than that among the party’s supporters, of course: People are attracted for many reasons, as I experienced in Cottbus. Melanie Amann, a journalist with the news magazine Der Spiegel who covered the AfD’s first five years of existence, writes in her 2017 book that the party is in its own way a Volkspartei, the term typically reserved for a country’s big-tent, centrist ruling parties: “[I]t can gather supporters who share neither a common ideology or a common habitus, neither the same education level nor similar economic interests,” she says. “What unites its supporters, regardless of gender, age, background or ability, is the rejection of certain conditions that, within the party, cause a sense of discomfort and anxiety.”

My experience in Cottbus bears out her assessment. The AfD groups together the people who took to the streets in Chemnitz to chase down migrants last August with the intellectuals who joined the party because they felt the euro crisis was handled unfairly at Germany’s expense (at least those who haven’t left already). It pairs those who openly spout hatred against Muslims with those afraid they’ll lose the financial security they’ve spent their lives working hard to build.

Those contradictions are apparent not even just in the party as a whole, but often within its individual supporters themselves. Sometimes a couple in yellow vests and “Merkel Must Go” stickers who tell you in Cottbus that the refugee crisis will be Germany’s undoing are also the ones who warmly offer to give you a ride back to Berlin after the demonstration. Sometimes the local AfD politician, who nearly won a seat in the Bundestag for a party that largely promotes traditional family roles, is the one with whom you have a fascinating conversation about feminism in the former East Germany and how important it was for her to work while raising her son.

Those are the contradictions and nuances I aim to explore during my two years as an ICWA fellow, in the hope that such an exploration can shed light on the major political changes taking place. Stay tuned!

 

About the Author

Emily Schultheis is based in Berlin, focusing on the rise of right-wing populism. Her research focuses primarily on Germany, but also explores parallels with populist parties in neighboring countries including Austria, Hungary and Poland. Prior to receiving an ICWA fellowship, Emily worked as a freelance journalist in Berlin covering German politics and the rise of populist parties in more than a dozen countries. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, CBS News, The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, World Politics Review, BBC Online, Spiegel Online International, Deutsche Welle and Der Tagesspiegel, among other outlets. Emily is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and received her B.A. in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania.