Breaking Germany’s Taboo

Demonstrators protest against the party congress of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Hannover, November 28, 2015.REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
Demonstrators protesting against the AFD in Hannover last November.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    For a long time, about 20 percent of Germans were seen as receptive to xenophobic, nationalistic and authoritarian offerings. But no party could turn this right-wing potential into political success — until now perhaps.

  • Facts


    • The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has captured a nationalistic mood in Germany.
    • A January poll shows it would win 12.5 percent of the vote in a general election, making it the third biggest party.
    • It presents itself as a euro-skeptic, right wing party but has stayed away from openly anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi policies.
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For more than six decades, modern Germany’s taboo against rising right-wing populism held strong. But now it is broken.

For all that time, no party to the right of the Christian Democrat Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, was able to establish itself in German politics. But the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, already represented in three state governments, may soon manage to enter the country’s parliament. Not because it is so much more forceful than all the previous failed attempts, but because the conditions for a right-wing populist movement have not been this favorable.

The upheaval that the German state faces in the current refugee crisis very possibly constitutes the most far-reaching change in its history.

On one hand, it has mobilized an unforeseen readiness by Germans to help the refugees, along with an unprejudiced openness to something new. At the same time, it has awakened fears about the future, in addition to uncertainty and aggression. Any party that takes up and exacerbates this mood will find a place in the political structure.

If it were simply a matter of the AfD, there might not be particular reason to worry. But not only in the streets and on the Internet, but all the way to editorial columns of the established media, a rising anger is being voiced against impositions brought by the crisis — and against the chancellor who is held responsible for them.

The fact that today one can be a right-wing populist without having to be an anti-Semite or revisionist has opened political space to the right of traditional conservatives.

The AfD is only the most visible symptom of an evolving change in social attitudes. Not even the modern historical taboo can assert itself against this mood. The increasing distance in time to National Socialism has contributed. Also, the fact that today one can be a right-wing populist without having to be an anti-Semite or revisionist has opened political space to the right of traditional conservatives.

The dissolving historical taboo along with a perfect opportunity has blunted traditional weapons of established German politics for dealing with right-wing populism.

Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, head of the center-right CSU, and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democrats, often take up populist slogans while simultaneously stigmatizing populists. But now that only makes the AfD stronger. The two leaders should give up their old tactic; otherwise, Germany could soon end up where France is already helplessly squirming — in the trap of modern right-wing populism.

If the AfD had been permitted to design a perfect start to the new year, it would have looked something like this: mass sexual assaults on women by migrants of Arab origin, an overwhelmed police force, aghast politicians hiding their helplessness with declarations of decisiveness, and a media that only belatedly reported on the attacks. Looking back someday on how right-wing populism was able to establish itself as a political force in modern Germany, the events at the beginning of 2016 will be seen as crucial.

The AfD is the only party that voiced an aggressive challenge to the new German policy on refugees right from the start. It wasn’t difficult. Deep-seated reservations regarding Islam, fantasies of sealing off the nation and enthusiasm for authoritarian shows of power belong to the party’s basic mental and political outlook.

The AfD is the only party that voiced an aggressive challenge to the new German policy on refugees right from the start. It wasn’t difficult.

The AfD sees migrants as a danger to German culture and prosperity, and considers the political protagonists to be an unscrupulous cartel. With this perspective, the party is not approved of by a majority of society. But in a growing segment of the population that rejects Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, nearly 10 percent are ready to join the right-wing populists.

Moreover, journalists grown reactionary with increasing age no longer retreat when they are accused of arguing exactly like the AfD. They, too, create a mental and moral ramp into the center of society for the populists.

All forecasts agree that in the March elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the AfD will surpass the five-percent threshold for representation, in Saxony-Anhalt in any case.

Already weeks ago, the deputy chairman of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, called the refugee crisis a “gift” for the party. One is normally pleased to receive gifts, and so it is in this case. The AfD’s loathing to the mass influx of migrants from a different culture and its tirades about failing government and almost-criminal politicians has played into its hands.

From its beginnings in 2012, the AfD has depended on crisis-ridden times — first the turbulence on financial markets, then the European currency crisis.

Back then, the AfD held southern Europeans responsible for mismanaging billions of euros in bailout aid, much of it from Germany.

Today, it’s the Arab crisis regions whose fleeing refugees are seen as a danger to German prosperity and lifestyles.

In 2013, the party lured its followers with calls to abandon the euro. Now it demands strict deportation and closing of borders.

afd demonstration in erfurt_reuters
The AfD has been able to attract huge crowds in eastern Germany. Source: Reuters


But during the 2013 federal elections, neither scaremongering nor contempt for the elite allowed the AfD to achieve a breakthrough. A great majority of Germans saw the financial and euro crises more as an abstract threat – as if in the cinema.

Today’s refugee crisis, on the other hand, hits Germans where they live — in communities, classrooms and soon also on the labor market. In Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s words, it is the “rendezvous of Germans with globalization.” No wonder not everyone is ready to accept this encounter. Germans’ longing for clear relationships, for sovereign decisions and national options has been co-opted by the AfD.

The fact that right-wing populists have so far not been able to establish themselves in German federal politics was also due to a mainstream party, which successfully integrated the political spectrum from the center to the right edge. But under Chancellor Merkel, the CDU-CSU gave up that right edge and opened space for competition from a right-wing populist party.

That was neither intention nor accident.

Every time Ms. Merkel was faced with a choice between maintaining tradition and governmental pragmatism, she voted soberly and non-ideologically against the conservatives in her own party — and her chancellorship descended into a series of political humiliations for them. Suddenly, her CDU-CSU stood for equal rights for homosexuals, an end to compulsory military service, an exit from nuclear power and unconditional rescue of the euro.

Ms. Merkel didn’t push aside the traditionalists because she had something against them, but because she couldn’t govern successfully in a modernising society on the basis of their cherished formulas and emotions.

But the convictions and cultural imprints that grew outdated during the Merkel era have not simply disappeared. Instead, the refugee crisis is revitalizing them. The AfD is the radicalized, ugly return of a kind of conservatism that, in the decades gone by, lost its political moorings. It is a collection of all those persons for whom Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship embodies, the demise of good old Germany.

Without the political and social eruption occasioned by the refugee crisis, this vanquished conservatism might have come to terms with its defeat and ensconced itself in the Merkel Republic. But now it’s clear that the modernizing steps of recent years have in no way brought an end to the impositions. In light of the refugee crisis, they instead seem like only the beginning. The actual transformation is now on its way.

For an already tired conservatism, this is a shock that revives all the pains of change suffered in the recent past. It finds discharge in nostalgic aggression against gender madness, apostles of climate change, vegans and do-gooders – and in a boundless yearning for a land in which men are still men, women are still women, cars are still cars and Germans are still Germans.

afd frauke petry nov 21 demo mainz dpa
Frauke Petry is one of the more outspoken AfD leaders. Source: DPA


Right-wing conservatism has shifted its basic mood from depression to aggression, from preservation to revolt.

From the perspective of the AfD, Germany’s new welcoming culture is nothing more than a crime against the German people. AfD politicians whip their followers into a veritable ecstasy with the prospect of someday bringing to trial the politicians responsible for this perceived outrage.

For a long time, about 20 percent of Germans were seen as receptive to xenophobic, nationalistic and authoritarian offerings. What was lacking for turning this right-wing potential into a successful party was a charismatic leader – at least that was the long-accepted thesis. Now the AfD seems to be achieving this without a charismatic figure. The historical taboo seems to have lost impact precisely through its decades of effectiveness.

But after 60 years of successful democracy, the republic should be confident that it can cope with a party like Alternative for Germany. Especially since in the ranks of the AfD, political correctness is so widespread that openly anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi protagonists are excluded. It was precisely with such a purification that Marine Le Pen managed to legitimize the right-wing populist National Front in France.

The presumed long-term entry of German right-wing populists into the country’s parliaments will be a break with the past. But whether they are actually able to alter the political culture as they would like depends less on the actions of the AfD than on the attitude of the political establishment.

After the tactic of ignoring hasn’t helped, it would be a good idea for the political class to avoid succumbing to hysteria. Of course, it will be a displeasing development for the political establishment when, in an extremely tense situation, right-wing populists vent their anger in parliaments. But it will not be the end of the world.

Whoever shares the view of most political protagonists — that the AfD’s propaganda is unsavory, its world view bigoted and its proposals unsuitable — should be confident about opposing the party in a sober-minded, decisive manner.

Stirring up panic is the way of the populists. What suits everyone else is uncompromising composure. As an aggressive party of protest, the AfD profits from the agitation it creates in the established environment. Other parties should not do it this favor.

The actual gateway for the ideology of the AfD is the political establishment itself — because the dividing line between responsible democrats and unscrupulous populists is not as distinct as it sometimes seems. The necessity to fight for democratic assent to one’s own position has always fostered an inclination to seduce the people. Thus, particularly with regard to the refugee crisis, there is a growing readiness by government leaders to contradict their own policies with statements that play to the supposed mood of society.

For months now, Mr. Seehofer has presented himself as the critic of policies for which he shares responsibility as leader of the center-right CSU.

Internally, he justifies his sharp-tongued interventions by saying he must put a stop to the game of the “rabble-rousers.” But as the most prominent naysayer to the “refugee chancellor,” he has not been able to prevent the AfD from achieving the same stable degree of approbation as everywhere else in the republic.

The head of the center-left SPD, Mr. Gabriel, likewise demonstrates that the AfD is not the first party to bring populism into German politics. He is accustomed to keeping his audience in line with acrimonious statements.

For a good while, he has rightly been concerned that politics no longer reaches simple people. He reacted to the violence in Cologne with the question: “Why should German taxpayers pay for the prison terms of foreign criminals.” But with such words, the SPD chairman could cut a good figure at any AfD event.

It is a superstition to believe that populism can be exorcised through populism. That might have worked in earlier times. But when the stigmatization no longer functions, the populism of democrats then becomes problematic: It strengthens exactly what it is fighting against.

Ten years ago, then-French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to flush out urban youths marauding on the impoverished outskirts of Paris “with a high-pressure cleaner.” The conditions there haven’t improved, and now have given birth to terror.

In the meantime, all of France stares in paralysis at the right-wing populist National Front, like a rabbit facing a deadly snake. The party is far from having a majority, but it has the country in its grip.

In fall 2014, after the first three AfD electoral successes in eastern Germany, Ms. Merkel was asked what her strategy would be toward the new competition. She answered with demonstrative equanimity that she would continue to focus on “good governance” and solving the problems at hand.

That sounded like nothing more than clichés. But from today’s perspective, the only effective response to the right-wing challenge lies in an unerring determination by the political establishment to master the upheaval that the refugee crisis is bringing to Germany.

Populism thrives on dire times. The rest of the political spectrum succeeds when it adapts to them.


This article first appeared in German for Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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