By Alexander Osang
As the head of the Alternative for Germany, Frauke Petry hopes to bring the right-wing populist party into the German parliament for the first time. How did an East German chemist and entrepreneur with a pastor for a husband turn into one of the country’s most-hated people?
The window to the courtyard is open. Frauke Petry wants to let in a bit of spring, she says, though her office at Saxony state parliament is still in the shade. It’s not easy for the sun to find its way to Petry, floor leader for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. She looks a bit pale and hardly slept at all the night before. She has a lot to lug around with her, she says, before putting her hands on her hips and laughing.
She is probably talking about the baby in her belly. But it’s hard to be sure.
There is a certain dread that comes with meeting Frauke Petry, particularly as a journalist. One thinks of that puzzling moment when she recently burst into tears on stage at a party convention. There is her warm smile and ebullient laugh, her somewhat turbulent personal life, her children. She plays organ and speaks fluent English and French. And all that makes her seem human — too human, one fears.
She has now placed her hands on her belly, but, when she speaks about the weight she is carrying, she could still be referring to the deep dissension within her party, or about the endless debates about the structure of AfD party leadership as the campaign for Germany’s upcoming general election heats up, or about the combative old men on the party’s nationalist-conservative wing. Then there are the party’s sliding poll numbers, the popularity of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate Martin Schulz, the debate over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Björn Höcke, the Thuringian AfD politician whose neo-Nazi tinged, headline hogging rhetoric is too extreme even for the party. The last time we met, Petry’s European ally Geert Wilders had just been handed a disappointing result in Dutch elections.
Nevertheless, the AfD is holding a convention in late April where she will likely be chosen as the party’s lead candidate for the national elections on September 24, making her the woman in charge of bringing right-wing nationalism back into German parliament.
She is, however, referring to her pregnancy, to her child with fellow AfD member Marcus Pretzell. If you ask her when she’s due, she’ll say: “After the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (in May) and before the national elections.”
Petry already has four children, an ex-husband and, now, a new husband, Pretzell, who likewise has four children from a previous relationship. She has a divided party to run and needs to face down Germany’s other political parties. How will she do it?
“I have had all of my children in the course of my career,” she says. “I had a small child when I got my Ph.D. and I had small children when I was building up my company. It’ll be fine. There are guidelines for what each state chapter has to make available for events in the summer and fall. We’ll just have to add a babysitter to the list. The old ladies are certainly interested and at that age, the child doesn’t particularly care who is pushing the buggy,” Petry says.
She once again bursts into loud laughter. Her wide-set eyes are reminiscent of Sid, the friendly sloth in “Ice Age.” A children’s bike helmet sits on a shelf in her state parliament office in Dresden. The walls are decorated with puzzles that she put together herself. She has the best haircut among top German politicians but unlike most party leaders in Saxony, drives around in a Seat van instead of a black sedan.
All of that contributes to her success, and is also part of her problem. She often doesn’t fit one’s expectations of the AfD. In fact, watching her in the past few months, Petry doesn’t even seem like what you’d expect from a politician.
But she is. She congratulated Wilders, a man who looks just as sinister as he is, on his election result. She also sent a telegram complimenting Donald Trump – whose looks and politics are likewise in perfect accord – on his election victory. Recently, in the Saxony state parliament, she held a speech on the 60th anniversary of the European Union’s Treaty of Rome in which she portrayed the European Parliament as a pack of apparatchiks and bureaucrats and called the bloc a money-wasting machine. She praised the glories of the nation-state as the spring sun glittered on the Elbe River outside. The inside of her office is decorated with children’s drawings, the outside with a portrait of Bismarck. She also speaks to crowds of people so riled up they would probably light the nearest mosque on fire if she gave the word.
She is difficult to figure out.
“The willingness to believe all manner of nonsense about my person, that is spread on social media, remains extremely pronounced, which leads to comical conjectures – that I could be a member of Bilderberg, that I am paid by Mossad, that I am a false flag. You only have to spread a lie long enough before it becomes the truth. This behavioral pattern is particularly widespread in my young party.”
East German Roots
Frauke Petry was born on June 1, 1975, in Dresden, making her the youngest politician of consequence in Germany. But she has collected more experience than most others. 1975 is an astoundingly long time ago. Back then, Petry’s last name was Marquardt, Gerald Ford was U.S. president, the Soviet Union had twice the number of tanks as the West and the United Nations had just named 1975 International Women’s Year. That February, West Germany’s highest court rejected amendments to the country’s strict anti-abortion laws. In East Germany, it was legal for women to have abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. There were 14 years to go until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Frauke Marquardt was born in a Dresden hospital, but her family lived in Schwarzheide, a chemical industry center along the autobahn to Berlin.
Even today, you can imagine what the place looked like back then. It smells better and the streets are now in decent shape, but otherwise not much has changed. Aging communist-era buildings, single-family homes and a strange tower in the middle: It is essentially a bedroom community for BASF, the German chemical conglomerate. There are no people on the streets and just the occasional car. The only shop in the town center is Schmidt’s Driving School. Schwarzheide-Wandelhof Elementary, however, is still there.
School is in session, but there are no children’s voices to be heard. A side door stands open, leading to a long hallway lined with coat-hooks and children’s jackets. It almost feels like something terrible happened here, but then an older woman appears, principal Elke Voigt. She has been here since 1985, but quickly says that she has no recollection of Frauke Marquardt. She only knows that her classroom was in a part of the school that has since been torn down, she says, seemingly relieved.
Why is it so quiet? “We maintain quiet and orderliness here,” says the principal. The school’s motto is displayed on the wall behind her. “If you want to climb a mountain, you must begin with a first step.”
Frauke Petry was 14 when she left this world. Her recollections seem black-and-white, a fairy-tale world populated by characters either good or bad. Her home, which was built by her father, stood at the edge of the forest and she could get everywhere by bike, she says. There are several fruit trees in the garden, planted by her grandfather. Petry says that a total of 26 spies from the East German secret police, the Stasi, kept an eye on her parents, many of them from their closest circle of friends, though she has never looked at her parent’s Stasi file. It wasn’t her life, she says. She has fond memories of her piano teacher and of her arts and crafts teacher, who harbored a similar antipathy to the East German regime as her father. When they fled the country, the teacher bought the family’s old Wartburg car from them.
For as long as she can remember, her father spoke of flight. He arrived as a child from Silesia, a previously German region that became part of Poland following World War II, and never felt completely at home here. In 1989, shortly before the fall of the Wall, he visited West Germany and decided not to return to Schwarzheide. His family followed in February 1990.
When her father’s family fled Silesia, Petry says, all they had with them was a stroller and a lard pot, but when they headed to West Germany, Petry was even allowed to take along her two cats. One of them ran away in a parking lot just before crossing the border. “He escaped while we were still in the East, the stupid thing,” Petry says.
It was February, but she says she can still remember the colors of the West – the lack of dust and coal soot. It smelled different.
In her speeches, Petry both defends and attacks eastern Germany. Sometimes she speaks of the unjust communist regime, of its total control over everyday life and the propaganda. At others, she raves about how hard-working eastern Germans are and about their sense of humor. History, she sometimes says, is not predestined; what happened in East Germany could just as easily have happened in the West.
West German Outsider
Her first genuine experience in West Germany was one of humiliation. “The principal of the Aplerbecker Gymnasium in Dortmund wanted to send me to the Realschule,” she says, referring to the lower tier of high schools in Germany. “He told my mother that top grades in the East aren’t worth anything.”
After half a year in Dortmund, the family moved to Bergkamen. “I went from the brown-coal region to the black-coal region,” Petry says. “Bergkamen was also founded as an industrial settlement. Neither town is particularly attractive.”
It is difficult to argue with that point. Bergkamen city hall looks as though it could have been donated by the city fathers of Schwarzheide. There is a boarded-up shopping center and the homes all look as though they were built between the 1950s and 1970s: Three or four stories with tiny windows. The people on the streets look like they are freezing.
The gymnasium, the university-prep high school, is on the edge of town. Its motto is: “School without Racism. School with Courage.”
Heinrich Peuckmann used to be a teacher at the school, a vivacious man typical of western Germany’s mining region, who is happy to share his lunch when a guest shows up. You shouldn’t talk about former students, he says, much less say anything bad about them. But when Petry spoke of the “ethnicization of violence” and said that parts of Bergkamen were no-go areas into which even the police were afraid to venture, he blew his top. “Frauke Petry is perhaps intelligent, but she isn’t wise,” Peuckmann wrote on Facebook. “Because morality is a component of wisdom.” In response, he was hit with such a wave of online abuse that he resolved to never again say anything about Frauke Petry.
But staying quiet isn’t easy. Many feel the need to distance themselves from the AfD leader. Indeed, when you follow the trail of Petry’s past, it sometimes feels like you are digging into the history of a violent criminal. She didn’t get it from us, everyone says.
Chemistry teacher Harald Sparringa, though, speaks of Frauke Petry as though he were a spurned lover. He has set up a file on his computer that bears her name: The Frauke File. He has saved a few newspaper articles, from both local and national publications, in which he has criticized his once-favorite student and he also asked former classmates of hers via Facebook to share their memories of her. One woman wrote about how surprised they all were when Frauke Marquardt won over Sven Petry, one of the most popular kids in the school. Marquardt, the woman wrote, was something of an outsider, in part due to the strange clothes she wore. East German clothes. Sparringa smiles sadly.
The Frauke File also includes a photo of Marquardt as a high-school student, showing her in a doorframe in soft light. It is an almost lyrical photo.
She went on to become a chemist in part because she loved Sparringa’s classes. She would cry when he gave her less than top marks, but that didn’t happen very often. She came to visit him even after she graduated, before going to England, and then again prior to studying in Göttingen, where she earned her Ph.D. She came with Sven, then her husband, and later brought her children for a visit. She was part of the family. But once she became involved in politics, it all changed.
Today, when he sees her on television, it comes as a shock, Sparringa says. “Her expression, her gestures; her imperious, patronizing style, it has nothing to do with the endearing person I once knew,” he says.
But he can’t completely free himself from her. In almost all newspaper articles that include comment from the chemistry teacher, his last message to Frauke Petry makes an appearance. “Frauke, I’m concerned about you.”
Petry said she can’t recall having received the text message. “In politics, I’m involved in so many battles that I don’t want to continue the fight in my private life,” she said. “Of course I’m sorry about the relationship with my chemistry teacher. He was an important friend. If he holds me in such high regard, why does he take his problems to the newspapers? I don’t understand it. It was part of a public repudiation.”
‘What’s Wrong With People?’
Her comments were made during a conversation in December of last year. She was sitting in the foyer of the parliament building in Dresden during two days of debate over the Saxony state budget. In his opening speech, Saxony Governor Stanislaw Tillich spoke extensively about populists, about how they cannot be allowed to establish the terms of debate. Trump hds just been elected and everyone seemed alarmed and wanted to do something. But because America is so far away, they focused their ire on the AfD instead. It almost seemed as though Tillich was holding his important budget speech exclusively for Frauke Petry, whose seat at the front of her party group was closest to the speaker’s podium. Most of the time, she just smiled at his broadsides, an artificial, bewildered smile.
During the budget debate, the AfD introduced 220 amendments, none of which received even a single vote from the other parties. Most parliamentarians from the established parties don’t even greet AfD members when they run into them in the halls.
It was shortly before 11 p.m. that December evening and Petry seemed tired. She was supposed to drive her children to the swimming pool the next morning in Leipzig, but the debate was scheduled to go until midnight and would resume the next day at 9 a.m. So she decided to sleep in Dresden. Rumors were beginning to swirl that she was pregnant. In two days, a press conference was planned in Berlin about the May state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, where her future husband Marcus Pretzell was a candidate for the AfD, but many expected her to announce her pregnancy there. Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Düsseldorf: There were fires to be put out everywhere. The entire world was against her. She told a story that she had just read in the newspaper about a plane that had to make an unplanned stop in Newfoundland because a passenger had suffered a stroke. German passengers protested the landing and a fight had almost broken out.
“What is wrong with people?” Petry asked.
She seemed almost distraught, weak and vulnerable. Her public image faded into the background. But by the next morning, she was back to being Frauke Petry.
Schwarzheide and Bergkamen are places that you really just want to escape from. Reading, where she lived in England, is a university town, she said, and not particularly beautiful either. More than anything, she said, she learned there how to be proud of her country. Germans’ uneasiness about their nationality is something the English don’t understand at all, she said.
Göttingen, Petry noted, was the first place she herself chose to live, and she and Sven were there from 1998 to 2007. It is where their first children were born and where they both received their Ph.Ds. Frauke Petry’s life lay before her and all she knew was that she didn’t want to work for one of the large chemical companies like Bayer or BASF, where she actually had decent connections. She found the companies’ static structures and hierarchies repellent.
At some point, she came up with the idea of turning a patent belonging to her mother, who was also a chemist, into a business. The product was a polyurethane tire-filling and the young couple began looking for funding to start the company – and found it in Saxony, to which Petry had never wanted to return. But the family moved to Leipzig in 2007 and her husband Sven, who had studied theology, found a job at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony. He became a vicar in Leipzig before receiving a rectorate in 2009 in Tautenhain, a small town south of Leipzig.
The Story of a German Marriage
“I never found Saxony to be a culture shock,” Sven Petry said. “I am from Westphalia, where our natural adversaries are people from the Rhineland.”
He was sitting in his office in the parsonage; it was dark outside and the children were with his ex-wife, with whom he shares parenting duties to the extent possible. At the time of our conversation, the children were five, seven, 11 and 14. In one corner, there were a few new Lutheran Bibles and the walls were decorated with puzzles, a family hobby apparently. Right at the beginning of our conversation over filter coffee and seltzer water, Sven Petry said he didn’t want to talk about his ex-wife – and proceeded to speak for four-and-a-half hours.
Calm, sober and without bitterness, he told the story of a German marriage.
They got to know each other in high school, where they were both good, curious students. But Frauke was better, he said, and she received by far the best grades on her graduation exams. She gave 120 percent, he adds, while he only gave 95 percent. For him, a two on Germany’s one-to-six scale was a good grade. For her, a two was a failure – the result of her East German upbringing, he posited. Frauke played organ in his father’s church and in other churches as well. She did it mostly for money, he said, it made her more independent. Both of their fathers died early, Frauke’s in 1999 and his in 2000.
Politically, the two tended to agree, with her approach being more conservative than Social Democratic. They also liked Angela Merkel before she infamously began claiming that there was no alternative to her policies in the euro crisis. They were also incredulous about Merkel’s sudden decision to turn from nuclear power to renewable energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, in particular because there was hardly any public debate over the sudden shift. It was simply ordered from above. But what really made them angry were the eurozone bailouts, Sven Petry said. “Those who expressed doubt were publicly rebuked. Those who doubted whether a common currency was fundamentally a good thing were accused of being reactionary. That triggered something in her. It reminded Frauke of her childhood, when there were always two truths, the public one and the private one,” he said.
In 2012, her mother brought an event by a group called Wahlalternative 2013, or “Election Alternative 2013,” a precursor to the AfD, to her attention. She was instantly excited. “People immediately paid attention to her,” says Sven Petry. “A good-looking young woman who could speak well and who was ready to take on responsibility.” Why didn’t he go along as well? “Someone had to take care of the kids.”
Petry’s mother declined requests for an interview, but it’s not difficult to find out what Renate Marquardt thinks about Germany. In 2004, she self-published a thin volume of satirical poems called “ausgetrickst & ausgeschmiert” (Outsmarted and Conned). In it, she complains that German society is being subverted by idiots, ideologues and bureaucrats; she laments the lack of credence given to the spirit and strength of women in the country; she describes how little influence normal people have over all manner of things from unemployment to home construction to company bankruptcies. And she grumbles about West Germany’s arrogant approach to the East.
The poem “Germany Must Be Jerked Awake” reads like the AfD party platform in rhyme, although it was written at least 10 years before the party was founded. Lying press, gender hysteria, political elite, bureaucracy, dumbing-down, eastern Germany bashing: All of it makes an appearance – as does Germany’s lack of national pride.
As such, it’s hardly surprising that Renate Marquardt sent her daughter to a meeting of the Wahlalternative 2013, which led a few months later to Frauke Petry’s first appearances on the German stage.
Rising in Politics, Failing in Business
It was a momentous time in her life. On the one hand, she found rapid success within the new party, quickly rising to become head of the Saxony state chapter. Meanwhile, her company PURinvent slid into insolvency. The first didn’t come as a surprise to her; the second did. Up to that point, she had never experienced failure and she hates losing. For a time, she fought on all fronts, trying to assuage her investors, who had become nervous because there were problems with the product. They had jumped into the market too quickly, largely due to impatience – both Petry’s own and that of her investors. The tire industry, it turns out, is not an easy one, but neither is politics. When she finished her business duties for the day, Petry would head out at night to put up posters or would call supporters on the telephone. Her husband or her mother took care of the children.
Sven Petry said that during this phase, his wife became intimately acquainted with the egotism of older men, both in the business world and in politics. When she won a national award for young entrepreneurs in 2012, her investors also wanted their spot in the limelight, but when it came time to take responsibility for the company’s failures, they disappeared. It was similar with the AfD, said Sven Petry. “(AfD party founder) Bernd Lucke preferred going on the talkshows, but they put Frauke on the campaign posters reading ‘Immigration Needs Rules.’ Today, of course, everyone agrees, but at the time it was considered reactionary and xenophobic.”
He said he told her: “Do you really want to take the lead on that issue? Why not do family policy? A young woman with a successful career and four children.” Her answer, he said, was: “No, it’s an important issue. Plus, no one else wants to do it.” At the time, she and Sven were still talking about such things.
In 2013, PURinvent filed for bankruptcy. That same year, Frauke Petry dragged her husband unexpectedly onto the stage at a party event, along with the children. He felt taken advantage of, like a political prop – probably not unlike politicians’ wives often feel. He began wondering what life would be like as the husband of a top German politician. And her fame kept growing with every new problem facing Germany. Her name, his name, became a brand: Some hated it, others loved it, everybody knew it. Bernd Lucke, the biggest star of the AfD, left the party and no longer wants to talk about it, so as to avoid becoming a footnote in Frauke Petry’s astonishing political career.
“We used to hold frequent discussions, and they were sometimes contentious,” Sven Petry said. “At some point, it just didn’t work anymore. If I had a different opinion, she lumped me in with her political opponents. That is the AfD’s biggest shortcoming: They belittle opposing opinions as being wrong. It’s a short step from there to ideology. It changed her.”
Frauke Petry increasingly withdrew from her marriage and from her old circle of friends. She chose her new acquaintances based on their worldview. One of those was Michael Klonovsky, her personal assistant.
Klonovsky is the son of an East Berlin functionary and says he spent the period before the fall of the Wall drinking. Ultimately, he became a copy editor for Der Morgen, a newspaper belonging to East Germany’s Liberal Democratic Party of Germany, where he later became an editor. In the 1990s, he switched to the newsmagazine Focus, for which he wrote an essay about what it means to be conservative. “The text is essentially the AfD’s platform,” Klonovsky says. “It’s really my party.”
But he wasn’t particularly interested in the real work involved in a political party. He isn’t a member of the AfD and he says he was looking for someone to implement his ideas. Frauke Petry was perfect.
“She is a good political animal,” Klonovsky says. “She has the right talent and the right appearance. I don’t. Plus, I like to work for women. Frauke Petry is the epitome of an emancipated woman. In the Green Party, they think they are emancipated if they join politics after completing a few semesters of cultural studies.”
For a while, it was possible to peer into Petry’s thoughts by reading Klonovsky’s blog or having a glass of wine with him. But since Marcus Pretzell has entered her life, even Klonovsky has trouble knowing what is going on in his boss’ mind.
Pretzell is a member of European Parliament for the AfD, but he seems more like an actor portraying a politician than a man with deep convictions. He belongs to a student fraternity, has driven both a real estate company and a legal consulting firm into bankruptcy, has four children, an ex-wife, and for a time did not have a registered address, as is required by German law. He enjoys playing poker and is fond of blustering and of writing provocative tweets. Pretzell seemed like an odd choice for Petry, the scientist from East Germany, but perhaps it makes sense. Pretzell, after all, is the exact opposite of Sven Petry.
After the terrorist attack on the Christmas market in Berlin last December, Pretzell tweeted, “Merkel’s dead.” Sven Petry, meanwhile, posts Bible verses on his Facebook page. “For the spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Sven Petry has joined the center-right Christian Democrats as a way of distancing himself from the AfD, but no matter how long you sit in his church services, you won’t hear him comment on politics.
Sven Petry can tell you the moment he and his wife stopped being able to engage in open-ended arguments, as he calls it, right down to the week. It was the period when she met Pretzell, in late January 2015. He didn’t see it as having lost his wife to another man. He believed he lost her to politics. The public eye. The fight. The presumed higher calling.
“We couldn’t have done it together,” he said. “With Pretzell, she can.”
The Petrys are respectful when they speak about each other, but these days it’s hard to picture Frauke Petry in the Tautenhain parsonage. She says she was never the classic pastor’s wife, though she did play the organ when the organist couldn’t attend and she tended to the parsonage garden. Working in the garden, she says, calmed her. The vegetable garden was her form of meditation.
Doesn’t she miss it?
“Oh, I don’t really miss the parsonage,” she says. “If I have a longing, it is for an anonymous, unburdened, unthreatened life. I can’t rent an apartment on my own. Landlords are concerned about their property and about the neighbors. A waiter in Leipzig told me: I don’t want a tip from you. I think about whether I can take my children with me to the supermarket around the corner because I aggravate people. But it is adversity that I chose myself. To change things in a country where political debate has stagnated, commitment is necessary. I am extremely lucky to have someone like Marcus who is just as strong on that point.”
At the end of last year, the two tied the knot. When they make joint appearances, they look like a royal couple, especially compared to other AfD representatives. On October 3, the AfD celebrated the Day of German Unity in the Kursaal restaurant in Stuttgart. Outside there were police on horseback and hundreds of demonstrators, inside was the agitated petite bourgeoisie. A couple of local party representatives were the first to take the stage, including a one-armed man in a bow tie and Markus Frohnmaier from the party’s youth branch, who has both the appearance and mentality of a cannon ball. The team on the stage was reminiscent of the “Addams Family.”
Pretzell asked Frohnmaier to come back up onto the stage to say the word “Deutschland” again, saying that nobody can articulate it quite like he can. Frohnmaier returned and roared: “Deutschland!”
After this opening act, Petry and Pretzell seemed like the Magi from the West: level-headed, worldly and experienced. In the ensuing question-and-answer session, which is always part of AfD events, they warned the overheated crowd against lofty expectations. The supporters at the celebration wanted to take power as soon as possible, already following the September general election. Pretzell, though, said: We don’t have the people yet, we have to grow. If we had entered parliament following the last general election, he said, we’d be dead already.
Frauke Petry stood at his side, looking at him and rocking slightly back-and-forth. She looked satisfied, like a teacher. Or like an animal tamer.
A Celebrity for the Scorned
Half an hour later, people surrounded them wanting to touch them and take selfies. Petry brushed the groping hands of men from her shoulder without breaking her television smile.
She is a pop-star for the fearful. Lampposts in small towns bear posters reading “Frauke Petry Is Coming!”, as though a famous DJ was going to make an appearance. In Bitterfeld, the middle class crowded into the civic center as though it were an evening at the theater. Married couples showed up, clearly having put thought into their outfits. In Eberswalde, the audience waited three-and-a-half hours for their star to appear, drinking beer and patiently listening to the speeches of local notables, who sounded not unlike the weird uncle who grabs the floor during a family birthday party. First, the audience was told that Petry had been held up during the recording of a television talk show, then it was said that she was having trouble getting into the event due to protesters outside.
When she finally did make it inside, she was greeted by the adoring masses like a television star who had fought her way through crowds of enemies to be with them. It was shortly after 11 p.m. and the beer was having its effect. Compared to the thuggish-looking man and the frumpy teacher on the podium, Frauke Petry looked extremely good.
People find her speeches inspirational, they sound precise, competent and confident, but when you examine the manuscript later, they seem strangely plain. At an event in Hambach Castle near Heidelberg, Petry spoke for several minutes about the meaning and beauty of the word “Volk.” At some point, it was no longer clear what the subject was, but the audience was glowing. Following her one-hour speech, it was time for a German folk song and Petry’s voice quickly soared above the crowd. People felt like they had been part of something special.
Yet all she had brought along was a plaid-covered notebook in which she had jotted down a few words while the previous speaker was on stage. “I have blocks of ideas that I mix together,” she says. “The reservoir of issues is limited, after all.”
It is a theatrical production, but one reason it partly works is because of the media and established parties’ rejection of Petry. On talk shows, she often finds herself facing multiple opponents at once, which leads her to speak extremely fast, as though she is afraid of drowning. Statements she makes in interviews are pulled out of context and misrepresented. In a January 2016 interview with the Mannheimer Morgen newspaper, for example, she spoke of using firearms on the German border to prevent refugees from entering the country. Public, and press, outrage was significant, but a closer reading of the interview makes it seem less shocking. In her speeches, Petry often speaks about the press and how journalists allegedly misrepresent what she says. She often goes into detail, speaking of interview authorization mistakes made by the weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and of an erroneous description of a swimming scene in the profile of her that ran in The New Yorker. But her listeners understand what she is trying to say.
Sometimes it seems as though Petry is paying too high a price for her political success. She has difficulties finding an apartment, her family van was set on fire last September and her children are bullied in school. In advance of the meeting of European right-wing populists in January, she couldn’t find a hotel to accept her reservation until one did, on the condition that she wouldn’t enter through the lobby. She had to arrive through the subterranean garage, like a Colombian drug kingpin.
How does she deal with all the love? And with all the hate?
“It doesn’t really have anything to do with me. I feel like I am a citizen in the center of society. I am pushed to the periphery by others,” she says.
The puzzles in her office are pictures of the sea. One is of Brittany, where she has friends, and the other is of a lighthouse on the small Baltic Sea island of Ummanz, where she spent every summer as a child and where she learned to swim and fish. But if you ask her where she calls home, she first says “Saxony” and then “Leipzig,” and then, after a short pause, “Mitteldeutschland,” a historical name dating to the era when Saxony was roughly in the center of the German Empire. She says it as though it was a region in “The Lord of the Rings.” But it is a political answer, it seems. She doesn’t really have a home.
What about Berlin? “I will deal with that question once we’ve made it into the Bundestag,” she says, referring to Germany’s federal parliament.
And her children? “They will have to be even braver than they already are,” Petry says. “They are living under the kind of pressure that I didn’t experience as a child. It was a different kind of pressure in East Germany, but it wasn’t the kind they now have. We’ll see if they ultimately hold it against me. But I don’t think anybody has a so-called carefree childhood. I live according to the maxim: humans can withstand a lot. Having no burdens, no pressure, isn’t necessarily better for human development.”
It’s quite a statement.
Frauke Petry has politicized her biography — her life, her children, her husbands, her tears, her childhood, her successes and her failures. Her astoundingly short career reflects the era we live in. They are five years in which the world, Europe and Germany have changed dramatically – and neither politics nor media have always been able to keep pace. They are years during which the fears and uncertainty – and anger – felt by many have grown more intense. Five years during which a highly intelligent, ambitious, if not wildly successful, entrepreneur; a woman who used to be a pastor’s wife, who would take care of the trees in the churchyard, drive her children to piano lessons and make sure they studied foreign languages, including Arabic, because the world is so big and full of possibility; a woman who sang in a choir in Leipzig, who played organ in her husband’s church, and who was nevertheless able to drive the forklift at her company, became the lonely leader of a right-wing conservative political party.
You could consider it a success story. Or a tragedy.