Finding a news story in the international media about the Alternative for Germany (AfD) where the terms “far-right” or “extreme right-wing” are not applied to the party is a difficult task. Media outlets such as the BBC, CNN, ABC and CBC use these epithets and the same pattern can be found amongst newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian, to name but a few. Also, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state-owned international broadcaster, does so as well of course. Virtually every article about the AfD on its website describes it as “far-right” or “anti-immigrant”. The Left Party, the successor of the SED, the former East German Communist Party (1946-89), gets a free pass and is generally referred to simply by its name. Environmentalist groups or pro-open borders NGOs being described as “extreme” or “radical” by such news organisations would be a novelty indeed.
Violence and intimidation
AfD stands accused of stirring up hatred but, on closer inspection, the party is very often the victim of hatred and indeed violence itself. According to information acquired by Bundestag member Martin Hess from the German Federal Government and reported in Die Junge Freiheit, AfD was the main victim of political violence and intimidation in Germany in the third quarter of 2019. The period saw 52 attacks against the offices or facilities of political parties and 26 of these were carried out against AfD; of the 278 attacks on representatives and members of political parties 127 of them were carried out against AfD members, with 113 of them being classified as having an extreme left-wing political motivation; and of the 905 election posters damaged or destroyed 406 belonged to AfD. Behind the statistics lie some unsettling events: politicians attacked on the street, cars being smashed up and set on fire, threats, offices ransacked and a house daubed with paint and graffiti describing the owner as a “Nazi Pig”.
Parliamentary personae non-gratae
According to AfD Parliamentarian René Springer in an interview with the Swiss weekly newspaper Die Weltwoche in April 2019, AfD members are shunned in the Bundestag. When Parliamentary joint leader Alice Weidel sat down to eat in the Bundestag restaurant other parliamentarians at the adjacent table stood up and walked out whilst the Left Party and SPD members simply refuse to speak to their AfD counterparts. Social ostracism is accompanied by institutional mischief. According to parliamentary rules of procedure, each parliamentary group is entitled to a seat on the Praesidium of the Bundestag but has to gain a majority of votes for its candidate.
Since October 2017 four AfD candidates have been rejected by the members of the other parliamentary groups in an unprecedented campaign to block a party that gained almost 13% of the vote in the 2017 general election and is now represented in all 16 of Germany’s regional Parliaments.
A threat to the constitutional order?
The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has intervened in respect of the AfD question. It announced in January 2019 that the AfD would be treated as a “Prüffall” (“test case”), meaning that there were indications of extremism within its membership. Junge Alternative (Young Alternative), the party’s youth organisation and der Flügel (the Wing), a national-conservative group led by the controversial leader of the Thuringian party, Björn Höcke, would, however, be treated as “Verdachtsfälle”, a more serious measure meaning that intelligence can be used to gather information about the two groups.
The Administrative Court of Cologne did however subsequently hold that the BfV must not use the term “Prüffall” in public as it would unfairly stigmatise AfD. The BfV has itself been at the centre of controversy in recent years. The former head of the agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, publicly called into question media claims, backed by Merkel, that Germans had “hunted down” foreigners during the Chemnitz disturbances of 2018. Maaßen was subsequently moved to a different position and was eventually placed in early retirement after a controversial farewell speech.
Does the AfD deserve such vitriol? A sober and rational analysis of the party’s Political Programme, however, indicates a patriotic centre-right party seeking to protect German state sovereignty, promote direct democracy on the model of Switzerland, bolster federalism, streamline the state and remove party political influence in the arts and culture.
The Programme does call, inter alia, for the defence of the Judeo-Christian and humanist culture of the West, measures to reverse Germany’s demographic decline, the safeguarding of the traditional family, the prohibition of gender and ethnic quotas, stricter controls on mosques and Imams, and also opposes government energy policy and some of the claims of the environmentalist movement. What the AfD is trying to do is shift the Overton Window by raising the legitimate and reasonable concerns of sections of the population that want a wider choice of political options than has been on offer from the established political parties in recent years. Such proposals are not “fascist”, “Nazi” or totalitarian. The Programme makes no mention of the Führer principle, the abolition of elections and political parties, the destruction of trade unions, the gagging of the press, the need for Lebensraum in the East or Aryan racial supremacy. True, there have been some unsavoury comments by individuals. One member who described Claus von Stauffenberg, the army officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, as a “coward” and a “traitor” was thrown out of the party. The party leadership is also seeking to expel another member over alleged antisemitism.
The Saxon born journalist and historian, Alexander Gauland, had been a lifelong member of the CDU until in 2012 he and other conservative-minded members known as the Berlin Circle were told they had no future in the upper echelons of the party. This led them to set up the AfD in 2013. The CDU/CSU’s drift to the left opened up a gap on the right and they have filled it. In his book, Anleitung zum Konservativsein (Guide to Being Conservative) written some ten years earlier, Gauland bemoaned this leftwards shift. He argued that concepts such as Heimat (homeland), Leitkultur (leading or guiding culture) family, tradition and art had been discarded by the party. He lauded the English conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, as his model: a man of “moderation” and the “middle ground” who favoured organic and moderate reform to conserve what is worth conserving.
Gauland has himself admitted that AfD’s rise can in part be ascribed to the failings of the established parties, above all their unwillingness to address issues falling outside the narrow corridor of respectable opinion. AfD has on the other hand always been prepared to discuss openly and critically the difficulties of the Euro, the bailout of Greece, Merkel’s open-door migrant policy, migrant crime, Islam, multiculturalism, environmentalist hysteria and the threats to German identity posed by globalisation and globalism. The party brings a refreshing candour to political debate. This is surely the key to its rise.
The Brunswick party conference
Gauland has called AfD a “gäriger Haufen” (a group or a crowd in the process of fermentation) and, as we have seen, the party is not, as some would have us believe, a bunch of football hooligans brandishing the black, white and red flag of imperial Germany. At the federal party conference held in Brunswick in November 2019 co-chair Jörg Meuthen stated in his keynote speech that the party must now become “capable and willing to govern” and must be a “patriotic respectable middle-class party”. So far, of course, voices within the CDU/CSU calling for coalitions with AfD have been isolated but as the SPD swings to the left and the CDU/CSU runs adrift these voices may well begin to multiply.