Playing with fire

Germany’s main opposition party is talking just as Hitler did

AfD-Demonstration am Hamburger Bahnhof
The AfD marches by. Source: DPA

The far-right Alternative for Germany party is using Nazi-era vocabulary to foment hatred of minorities, especially Muslims, according to new research.

Joachim Scharloth, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Dresden, analyzed the language the party known as the AfD uses in its campaign manifestos, press statements and websites, and found terms and references from the days of Hitler.

Those words include “Journaille,” a pejorative term that refers to the press that was frequently used by Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. It is not in common use today.

“It was a Nazi combat term,” Mr. Scharloth said. Another loaded word frequently used by the AfD is “Zersetzung,” which can be loosely translated as “corrosion.” It was used by the Nazis for political opponents they accused of undermining the war effort – a crime punishable by death.

“Words that marginalize and vilify lead to hate, and hate is a breeding ground for violence.”

Volker Ulrich, CSU spokesperson on domestic politics

Employed by the AfD, these words have what is known as a dog whistle effect; they allow the party to signal its implicit proximity to far-right ideology while at the same time they can deny any such thing.

Another AfD favorite with Nazi heritage is “Lügenpresse,” “lying press.” It is similar to the way that US President Donald Trump lashes out at mainstream media he dislikes.

And then there is the word “Volksverräter” – or “betrayer of the people” – that AfD supporters like to hurl at opponents, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The words form part of an incendiary rhetoric that is alarming politicians and members of the security services who say it is spurring people who may be so inclined anyway, to violence. It makes these words more acceptable.

“I think these and similar vilifying comments are problematic because people could regard them as an inner justification to commit assaults,” Sebastian Fiedler, the deputy chief of Germany’s police federation, said.

Politicians from across the spectrum echoed that warning. Ralf Stegner, a deputy leader of the center-left Social Democrats, accused the AfD of making intolerance and prejudice its “core business” and being partly responsible for physical assaults on immigrants and anyone else the populists opposed.

“If you keep on committing arson with words, don’t be surprised if at some point buildings burn and people are threatened and injured,” the president of the regional intelligence agency for the state of Thuringia, Stephan Kramer, said. “If you sew hatred, you will reap hatred, that should be clear to everyone in politics.”

The other problem is that media coverage of AfD speeches and statements has increased sharply since it swept into the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, in the September election. It won 12.6 percent by riding a wave of protest against Ms. Merkel’s decision to keep the borders open during the 2015 refugee crisis.

Politischer Aschermittwoch in Sachsen – Afd
Senior AfD member Bjorn Hoecke thinks Germany has atoned enough for its past. Source: DPA

The AfD is now the third-strongest party in Germany and the biggest opposition party. As such, it gets certain parliamentary privileges such as the largest opposition’s right of reply. This increased visibility is further popularizing the language the AfD uses.

In a speech to the Bundestag last week, AfD co-parliamentary leader Alice Weidel railed against immigrants again, saying: “Burqas, girls in headscarves, knife-wielding men on government benefits and other good-for-nothing people are not going to ensure our prosperity, our economic growth and our social welfare system.” She ended her speech with the words: “This country is being governed by idiots.”

“Words that marginalize and vilify lead to hate, and hate is a breeding ground for violence,” Volker Ulrich, the spokesperson for domestic political affairs for the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Ms. Merkel’s CDU, told Handelsblatt; this is despite the fact that his party has also had strong words to say on immigration and German culture. “This is a dangerous game that the AfD is playing.”

The AfD could not immediately be reached for comment on the accusations.

Dietmar Neuerer is the politics correspondent for Handelsblatt Online. To contact the author: neuerer@handelsblatt.com

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