Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded in Berlin in 2013 by long-standing members of the Christlich-Demokratische Union (CDU), Alexander Gauland, Konrad Adam, Bernd Lucke and Gerd Robanus. Gauland, a journalist and historian and Adam, a publicist, had become involved in the so-called Berlin Circle of conservative party members concerned by what they saw as Merkel’s leftwards drift and abandonment of conservative ideals.
Gauland recalls in an interview with the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche that the upper echelons of the party had already told him in 2007 that conservatives would be excluded from institutional roles in the CDU at national level and should go and work for their local parties. What proved the breaking point for Gauland, however, was the “shamelessness” with which Merkel reneged on her promise not to bail out Greece during the Euro debt crisis. In an article for the same magazine Adam describes Merkel’s flip-flop as his “road to Damascus moment.”
The party’s third co-founder, Bernd Lucke, an Economics Professor at Hamburg University, was a Eurosceptic but also a pro-business economic liberal. His defeat in the leadership contest of 2015 and subsequent resignation from the AfD marked a turning point for the party which now shifted away from its national-liberal roots towards a more national-conservative position, focusing less on socioeconomic matters and more on socio-cultural issues such as the role of Islam in Germany, immigration, gender relations and the cult of environmentalism.
In 2013 the AfD narrowly failed to win seats in the Bundestag but it gained over 7% in the European elections of 2014 and entered the regional parliaments of Saxony, Saxon-Anhalt and Thuringia in the same year. It was, however, the events of 2015 that proved to be the watershed in the history of the party. In the autumn of that year Merkel opened up Germany’s borders to over a million asylum seekers who had flooded into the Balkans from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Attitudes towards the asylum seekers hardened after the behavior of some of the migrants came to light. On New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne a mob of young men largely from North African and Arab countries sexually assaulted, mugged and insulted over a thousand German women. The police initially failed to make mention of the attacks whilst mainstream media stood accused of running a “cartel of silence” as it took them several days to report the events in full even though the matter had been under discussion on social media since January 1. Similar events in towns and cities all over Germany subsequently emerged. Public anger over the reaction of the authorities and the liberal media was widespread, fueling support for groups such as Pegida that had taken to the streets of eastern Germany and elsewhere to protest against Islamification and ultra-liberalism.
The AfD holds seats in all of the country’s regional parliaments but has proven most successful in eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, garnering over 20% of the vote in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt in 2016 and becoming the second largest party in Saxony and Thuringia in 2019. The AfD’s strongholds are not, however confined to the east. In the 2017 Bundestag elections it scored well in rural areas of central and southern Germany, picking up 18% of the vote in Fulda in Hessen and 17% in Deggendorf in Bavaria. The party also did well in some towns in Germany’s old industrial heartland, the Ruhr, where in Gelsenkirchen it obtained a vote share of 17%.
The party obtained 12.6% of the crucial “second votes” in the 2017 Bundestag elections and according to statistics gathered by Stern magazine from major pollsters the party fared best amongst 30-44 year olds with a 15% vote share and worst with the over 70s where it gained a mere 10%. The party gained significantly more votes from men (16%) than women (9%). It enjoyed support across a wide spectrum of society but scored best with manual workers (20%) and least well amongst government employees (10%). Only 7% of graduates cast their votes for the party. Interestingly, though, according to one study published by the Institute of the German Economy and published in Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in 2017 the educational level of the average AfD voter is on par with the national average and he/she actually earns slightly more than the average national salary. As regards voter mobility, the party has been particularly successful at gaining the support of habitual non-voters and disaffected CDU/CSU supporters.
The AfD’s program states that it supports rule of law, the division of powers and, controversially, wishes to introduce citizens’ initiatives and referenda on the Swiss model. Germany’s Basic Law of 1949 largely excludes plebiscites and referenda as they had been tainted by their use under the National Socialist regime. The AfD argues that referenda would increase popular participation in the political process. For the AfD the people have lost sovereignty in the state and power is held by a small group of professional politicians; they are the “secret sovereign”. The head of state should be elected directly by the people. The state meanwhile should also be streamlined and focus on the core activities of maintaining law and order, defense, justice, taxation and foreign policy.
The AfD rejects the supra-nationalism of the EU and advocates a loose network of European nations that does not fundamentally restrict the sovereignty of the member states. The growth in the competences of the EU has been accompanied by creeping de-democratization and if this cannot be reversed then Germany should simply withdraw from the European Union. The party’s goal is a sovereign Germany.
The party demands an end to the Euro experiment and its orderly dissolution. Should the Federal German Parliament fail to meet this demand then the question of continued membership should be put to a popular vote.
Due to its geographical position, history and population Germany — the AfD argues — is not a classic land of immigrants. Further, the entire question of asylum and immigration has become dominated by the ideology of political correctness. The right to exile has been abused and no distinction is made between genuine refugees and mere economic migrants. The Refugee Convention of 1951 should be revised to reflect current day realities. There must be greater transparency in relation to the costs of immigration and asylum and immigrant crime should not be concealed or disguised by the authorities.
AfD’s platform opposes Islamic practices directed against the liberal constitutional order and the Judeo-Christian foundation of Germany’s culture. The party views the growth of Islam as a danger to German society and its values and demands the prohibition of foreign funding for the building of mosques, the dissolution of Koran schools and a ban on the full face veil. Criticism of Islam does not constitute Islamophobia and is not derogatory.
German culture must remain the predominant culture of Germany. This culture has three main sources: Christianity, the scientific and humanistic heritage, renewed through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and Roman law. It is argued that the ideology of multiculturalism is blind to history and places imported cultures on a par with indigenous culture, thereby degrading the latter.
The AfD sees marriage and the traditional family as the nucleus of civil society. It argues that there should be incentives to marry, raise children and spend time with them and rejects the social and cultural stigmatization of traditional gender roles. The solution to Germany’s demographic crisis cannot be mass immigration from the Muslim world which undermines social trust, increases social conflict and leads to the development of parallel communities.
The party rejects what it sees as political fallacies underpinning much of modern German energy policy. It argues climate change has occurred for as long as the world has existed and government policy is based on unproven climate models. The Renewable Energy Law has produced a massive transfer of wealth from the general population to the receivers of subsidies and must be repealed. The decision to scrap nuclear energy has been economically damaging and plants still in operation should be granted a lifelong extension.
Since its foundation the AfD has been a regular target of inflammatory language, insults and violence and the nadir of the campaign of vilification was arguably reached in the aftermath of the Hanau terrorist attack of February, 2020 when the party stood accused by its opponents of creating an atmosphere in which such acts could be committed. The party is, according to such critics, Nazi-friendly, xenophobic and racist.
A sober and rational analysis reveals otherwise. The AfD is national-conservative with “populist” aspects. It is true that there have been comments by individual party members that are provocative and offensive but the program of the party definitely does not advocate the Führer principle, Aryan racial supremacy, anti-semitism, the destruction of democracy, the gagging of the press, the crushing of the trade unions or the construction of a racial state.
In March 2020 the Bundesamt für Verfassungsshutz (BfV), the German domestic intelligence service, placed a largely east German network in the party called “Der Flügel” (the Wing) under observation, deeming it extreme right-wing and seeking to undermine Germany’s democratic order. The leading figure in the network, Thuringian AfD leader Bjorn Höcke, agreed to dissolve the grouping for the good of the party although Wing supporters continue to hold AfD membership. It is submitted that Höcke and the Wing could be described as romantic nationalist and vehemently opposed to the liberal establishment but that such an outlook does not amount to neo-Nazism.
A cursory glance at some of the writings and speeches by founding members, Alexander Gauland and Konrad Adam, reveals, if anything, an interest in English conservatism. In an interview with Die Weltwoche Gauland cites Edmund Burke, author of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) as one of his great heroes, also referencing him in his inaugural speech before the Brandenburg regional Parliament in 2014. In an article for the same magazine Adam recalls Burke’s view that members of Parliament should familiarize themselves with the living conditions and circumstances of their constituents. By 2013 Germany’s political establishment were singularly failing to heed Burke’s advice.
The rise of the AfD reflects a very real need in Germany for the bounds of public discourse in Germany to be widened so that there can be a wider range of “respectable” opinions. If certain matters are of importance to the electorate and the respectable established parties ignore those concerns then inevitably the people will eventually turn to somebody who will address their concerns. According to Gauland widening the bounds of political discourse in Germany is AfD’s “greatest achievement.”