Alternative for Germany

The Flip Side of Tolerance

berlin rally nov 6 afd source dpa
Members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party at a rally in Berlin on November 6. The party, which is polling at about 10 percent in Germany, is attracting voters unhappy with German chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door refugee policies.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Founded in 2012 by fiscal conservatives opposed to E.U. bailouts for member countries such as Greece, the Alternative for Germany has grown into a political force by exploiting fears generated by the refugee crisis.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • At a weekend rally, AfD co-chairwoman Frauke Petry called for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to step down.
    • According to pollsters, 7 percent to 10.5 percent of German voters support the AfD – up from 3 percent in the summer.
    • Some 200 mid-sized German companies are members of an AfD-affiliated business forum.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Exploiting the wave of fear surrounding German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door asylum policies, leaders of the country’s ascendant Alternative for Germany political party are growing more assertive, and more outrageous.

At a weekend rally in Hanover, the party’s co-chairwoman, Frauke Petry, blasted Ms. Merkel’s handling of Europe’s unprecedented refugee crisis, urging her to: “Step down. You can do it.”

The phrasing was aimed at Ms. Merkel, who when launching her open-door program toward war refugees, told the German public: “We can do it.”

Founded in 2012 by fiscal conservatives opposed to European Union bailouts for member countries such as Greece, the refugee crisis has lent enormous momentum to the party’s rightward political drift on asylum.

Following last month’s massacre in Paris, in which one attacker reportedly entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee, the party’s bid to reach the 5-percent threshold to send delegates to Germany’s Bundestag looks stronger than ever.

Germany will next hold federal elections in 2017.

Founded in 2013 by fiscal conservatives opposed to European Union bailouts for member countries such as Greece, the refugee crisis has lent enormous momentum to the party's rightward political drift on asylum.

According to pollsters, 7 percent to 10.5 percent of German voters now support the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD as the party is known by its German acronym – a jump from just 3 percent this summer.

With its political fortunes rising, AfD co-chairman Jörg Meuthen assured the nearly 600 delegates in Hanover that the party was prepared to assume responsibility for shaping German federal policies, rather than to act as a “protest party.”

But it remains to be seen just how far the AfD can go beyond its increasingly caustic xenophobic slogans. For people like Reiner Rohlje, a former AfD representative from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the party has lost its way.

 

afd frauke petry nov 21 demo mainz dpa
Frauke Petry, the co-chairwoman of the Alternative for Germany party, at a rally on November 21 in Mainz. Ms. Petry, a chemist, has attempted to put a moderate face on the splinter party, some of whose members are increasingly grabbing headlines for making racist comments. Source: DPA

 

“I climbed pretty high in the party,” said Mr. Rohlje, who co-founded an AfD-allied forum for mid-sized businesses like the one he runs in the Sauerland region of northwest Germany. Along with other fiscal conservatives, Mr. Rohlje broke ties with AfD after a party congress in the industrial city of Essen in July, after Ms. Petry won a power struggle with party chairman and co-founder, Bernd Lucke.

Mr. Rohlje’s final straw came when he was standing in line for a drink at the party congress in Essen and heard a fellow member say, “We are being bullied by the wogs.” Wogs is a derogatory term used by some in Britain and Australia to refer to people of Middle Eastern or Asian backgrounds. In the face of such blatant racism, Mr. Rohlje decided to leave the party.

The AfD, he said, has become too radical. But it has not become too radical for some German business owners. Just how many is difficult to say because the party does not keep track.

 

afd demonstration in erfurt_reuters
Demonstrators at an Alternative for Germany political rally in the city of Erfurt in October. Source: Reuters

 

Moreover, the business forum co-founded by Mr. Rohlje includes only mid-sized companies – albeit some 200 of them from the ranks of Germany’s most quintessential blue-collar industries and new-economy Internet entrepreneurs alike.

From its very beginnings under the leadership of Mr. Lucke and Joachim Starbatty, two economics professors-turned-politicians, AfD promised conservative fiscal management.

German business owners burdened by costly E.U. regulation embraced the party’s pro-business approach.

Owners were encouraged when the AfD received the backing of prominent German business figures such as Hans-Olaf Henkel. The former head of IBM’s operations in Europe, Middle East and Africa, who subsequently lead the Federation of German Industries trade group, Mr. Henkel represented the party in the European Parliament.

Renowned German business figure Hans Wall, an outdoor advertising magnate, and Heinrich Weiss, another former head of the trade federation, threw their support and made financial contributions to the party.

Mr. Rohlje’s final straw came when he was standing in line for a drink at the party congress in Essen and heard a fellow member say, “We are being bullied by the wogs.” Wogs is a derogatory term used by some in Britain and Australia to refer to people of Middle Eastern or Asian backgrounds. In the face of such blatant racism, Mr. Rohlje decided to leave the party.

Together, they appealed to voters disenchanted with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and pro-business Free Democrats, attracting entrepreneurs who think the euro is a costly mistake and the German federal government is run by distant bureaucrats.

Business groups cheered whenever Bernd Lucke, the party’s founder, took the stage. But they looked away when other, louder voices emerged, such Björn Höcke, who now sets the tone for the AfD.

The head of the AfD branch in the eastern state of Thuringia, Mr. Höcke’s rhetoric sometimes recalls Nazi party rallies.

In a recent television appearance with German talk show host Günther Jauch, Mr. Höcke rolled out a German flag and said refugees are a “social explosive.” Erfurt, the state capital of Thuringia, should remain “pleasantly German,” he added.

“Horrible,” said Reiner Rohlje, the former AfD member and business representative, who watched the program.

Hans Wall, who has also left the party, watched the Sunday evening show as well.

“If I had only known,” he said. “A respectable business owner shouldn’t even shake hands with someone like that.”

Hans-Olaf Henkel, who also saw Mr. Höcke’s televised performance, deadpanned: “disgusting.”

He added: “I guaranteed a no-interest loan of €1 million for the party, and now this guy is sitting there on television.”

It wasn’t so long ago, however, that Mr. Henkel was on the campaign trail with “this guy” – that is, with Björn Höcke. Just last year, in Erfurt, the two gave speeches ahead of state elections, helping the AfD secure more than 10 percent of the vote.

Well before the state elections, Mr. Höcke had openly warned voters of the “archaic culture” of the Turks and Arabs and the disappearance of German culture. But Mr. Henkel still acts as if he no longer recognizes the party.

Mr. Henkel now represents the Alliance for Progress and Renewal, or Alfas, in the E.U. parliament, an AfD splinter party that was formed by Mr. Lucke after he was ousted from the party’s leadership in Essen over the summer.

But the AfD hasn’t alienated all prominent German business personalities. Former trade federation chief Heinrich Weiss, for example, remains loyal. Even though he has never been a member of the party, Mr. Weiss participates in the AfD’s forum for mid-sized businesses.

Although he has not spoken at the business forum since its founding, Mr. Weiss confirmed he will speak at an event in Dresden. Home to the xenophobic movement known as Pegida, Dresden has become a center of xenophobia against refugees, where demonstrators have assaulted journalists and burned German politicians in effigy.

“If these are people who are interested in the social market economy, then I do not care where they come from,” Mr. Weiss said. “I have no reservations.”

But clearly AfD loyalists from the business sector have more than just economics in mind.

Hans-Jörg Müller, who now heads the AfD business forum, said the direction of the group under Mr. Lucke’s leadership was “nebulous.”

Now, however, the message is crystal clear, he said. “German interests first.”

 

This article originally appeared in German weekly Die Zeit. To contact the author: caterina.lobenstein@zeit.de

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