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Welcome back. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is recovering from a relatively poor 2021 Bundestag election result and, according to some polls, is now Germany’s second most popular political party. What accounts for AfD’s resurgence, and why is its support highest in the former communist eastern Germany? I’m at [email protected].
In late June, AfD captured international headlines when, for the first time since the party’s formation in 2013, one of its politicians was elected to the post of Landrat, or local council leader. This breakthrough occurred in Sonneberg, a town of 56,000 people in the eastern state of Thuringia — Guy Chazan, the FT’s Berlin bureau chief, was on the ground to capture it all.
The victorious AfD candidate was a local lawyer called Robert Sesselmann, of whom Guy wrote:
Sesselmann’s campaign slogans were typical AfD: close the borders, protect women from Islam, lift sanctions against Russia. He railed against wind turbines and backed diesel and cheap Russian gas.
For some reason, a second AfD breakthrough a week later received far less attention outside Germany. In the small town of Raguhn-Jessnitz in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Hannes Loth became AfD’s first elected Bürgermeister, or mayor, in Germany.
In this report (in German) by MDR, a public broadcaster in eastern Germany, we read that Loth is well known for having organised protests against the government’s Covid policies during the pandemic, and also for advocating the shooting of wolves.
Wolf packs and the far right
Wolves? Absolutely. When we consider the factors driving up public support for AfD, the re-emergence of wolf packs in eastern Germany under the state’s protection should be put high up the list. The definitive study is The Wolves Are Coming Back: The Politics of Fear in Eastern Germany, a 2021 book authored by Rebecca Pates and Julia Leser.
Under German law, killing a wolf without permission is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. For AfD supporters, however, the reappearance of wolves is an abomination, a policy typical of mainstream liberal western politicians who ignore the concerns of rural and small-town voters in the east.
Pates and Leser write:
The wolf is protected, they feel, by the establishment, by Brussels, by Berlin and, in particular, by those Greens who are also in favour of other types of dangerous immigrants threatening our way of life . . .
For them, the wolf, like the refugees centrally allocated to cities, towns and villages all over Germany, has been a problem and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.
Ups and downs on the right
In its turbulent 10-year existence, AfD has had its highs and lows. In the 2017 Bundestag election, the party took 12.6 per cent of the vote and emerged as the third largest party in the national legislature.
Thanks to former chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence on forming yet another grand coalition between her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats (three of her four governments between 2005 and 2021 were grand coalitions), AfD basked in the glory of being the main opposition party in the Bundestag.
The party fell back in the 2021 election, finishing in fifth place with 10.3 per cent of the vote. However, as we see in the map below from election night, AfD remained the most popular party in certain regions of eastern Germany.
Now AfD has edged into second place behind the Christian Democrats in national opinion polls, with about 20 per cent support. That puts AfD ahead of all three parties in Germany’s ruling coalition — the SPD, Greens and Free Democrats.
However, these figures disguise the fact that AfD commands significantly more public support in the east. Three eastern states are due to hold elections next year — Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. AfD seems sure to do well in all of them. In Thuringia, a poll this week estimated AfD’s support at 34 per cent, putting it in pole position to win the election.
Nazism, communism and eastern discontent
Why is AfD so popular in the east?
Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of the powerful Axel Springer media group, caused an uproar earlier this year with an inflammatory remark to the effect that easterners were either fascists or communists.
He was alluding to the fact that, whereas western Germany returned to democracy after 1945, the east was under either Nazi or communist rule for more than six decades between 1933 and 1989.
It is indeed noteworthy and somewhat ironic that the extreme right is strongest in the former German Democratic Republic, a communist state that regarded anti-fascism as central to its identity, legitimacy and purpose.
In this authoritative paper on the radical right in both halves of Germany since 1945, Klaus Ziemer of Warsaw’s Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University writes:
An extreme right skinhead milieu . . . developed in the GDR, which became visible in an attack of skinheads against a punk group and the audience in the Protestant Zion’s church in East Berlin in October 1987.
According to a (secret) research group of sociologists and police detectives established after that incident, there were some 6,000 persons known to be neo-Nazis, some 1,000 of whom were considered to be prone to violence.
Naturally, we should keep in mind that small far-right parties were active in West Germany, too — and sometimes gained seats in regional legislatures.
As for the east, the writer Katja Hoyer, a native easterner and author of “Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990”, observes:
The first free elections East Germans had in 1990 saw the vast majority of them vote for centrist parties. It wasn’t their “dictatorship experience” that caused many to turn their back on these parties but what came after.
In a University of Leipzig survey published last month, we see that one of the main causes of eastern discontent since Germany’s reunification in 1990 is the feeling that the region is denied its fair share of political influence at national level.
As Wolfgang Münchau writes for the New Statesman, the AfD skilfully exploits eastern resentment at government policies on immigration, climate change and support for Ukraine against Russia (Wolfgang could have mentioned wolves, as well).
Hostility to Islam and antisemitism
Still, the University of Leipzig survey of eastern German voters highlights some disturbing trends. As Hans Pfeifer, a Deutsche Welle reporter who specialises in the far right, notes:
The results are politically explosive. Half of those surveyed called for an immigration ban on Muslims. Almost 70 per cent supported the xenophobic statement that foreigners only come to Germany to exploit the welfare state. Antisemitism is also widespread: almost one in three respondents say that the influence of Jews is too great.
Pfeifer is right to highlight antisemitism. It doesn’t receive much attention in news reports and analyses of AfD, doubtless because the party portrays itself as a friend of Germany’s small Jewish community and of Israel.
But there are numerous examples of antisemitic statements by AfD activists and members. The best study of AfD and antisemitism is this article (in German) by Lars Rensmann, professor of European politics and society at the Rijksuniversitiet Groningen in the Netherlands.
He writes that some 59 per cent of AfD voters hold the view that Jews “take advantage for themselves of German guilt for the Holocaust”.
AfD and Russian-born Germans
No survey of AfD’s electoral support is complete without a look at the nation’s large community of Russia-born Germans — and at the way that propaganda originating in Moscow influences their political views.
Germany is home to more than 3mn migrants from the former Soviet Union, or about 3.8 per cent of the population. A majority of these migrants are Russian-speaking ethnic Germans.
It’s wide of the mark to say that most vote for AfD, but many do — about 15 per cent of them in the 2017 Bundestag elections.
In that contest, AfD was the only German party to produce campaign materials in the Russian language, as the British specialist John Lough writes in his first-rate book, Germany’s Russia Problem.
Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin connects with Russia-born Germans through state television programmes available to watch in Germany. “The Kremlin propaganda is not primitive, it does not urge the audience to vote for AfD, but it sends off the same messages as AfD and the far right, consciously stirring up xenophobic, neoconservative . . . homophobic, anti-liberal attitudes,” says Igor Eidman, a Germany-based Russian sociologist.
A breakthrough into national government?
The big question is whether, as has already happened with hard-right parties in Austria, Italy, Sweden and other countries, AfD might one day either enter government at national level as a coalition partner of the moderate right, or supply crucial parliamentary support from outside the government.
At the moment, no mainstream parties are contemplating formal collaboration with AfD in national politics. The taboos against such a step are stronger in Germany than in any other European country. Yet to me it no longer looks quite so inconceivable as it did at the time of AfD’s national breakthrough six years ago.
The economics of AfD expansion — a commentary for the American-German Institute by Paul JJ Welfens of the European Institute for International Economic Relations
Tony’s picks of the week
Anti-government protests that erupted in Iran last September are in retreat, but the gulf between the Islamic Republic’s ageing leaders and a young society tired of repression points to more social unrest in the future, Kim Ghattas, author of Black Wave, writes for the FT
The entry of the rightwing nationalist Finns party into Finland’s new coalition government will lead to tougher policies on migrants and refugees, but will not disrupt Finland’s support for Ukraine, Veronika Jóźwiak says in a commentary for the Polish Institute of International Affairs
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