“Whistle or scream?” Sandro Oschkinat’s men move through the crowd arming the gathered protesters for the coming battle. Those who say “whistle,” are handed one and Oschkinat himself is standing on a step that provides him with a view across the town square of Torgau in northern Saxony. He is holding a megaphone in his right hand.
Hours earlier, Oschkinat had begun distributing flyers in the headquarters of his group, called Spectrum of Upstanding Democrats. The flyers read: “Show Angela Merkel the red card.” Now he’s providing last-minute instructions through his megaphone. “When she comes, hold all the signs up and make a lot of noise!”
When the Chancellor finally does step on to the stage at 5:20 p.m., there is no holding back. “Get lost,” Oschkinat’s group screams. “Merkel must go! We are the people.”
At some point, the chancellor turns to address the hecklers: “We’re talking about your lives for the next four years — insofar as you’ll listen and not just scream.” But the people she is addressing don’t hear her over the din of the vuvuzelas and whistles.
It doesn’t take long before the first articles about her appearance are posted online. “Merkel Shouted Down in Torgau,” is one of the headlines. Oschkinat is satisfied. He runs a restaurant in the tiny town of Audenhain near Leipzig and this was the first time in his life that he had ever registered a protest. The 35-year-old is a member of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), though he says he is critical of the party. Actually, he describes himself as a “leftist patriot,” but he likes the AfD for the fact that you can be “critical of asylum.”
For the demonstration in Torgau, Oschkinat designed a flyer and had 2,000 of them printed in addition to promoting the event on Facebook, with the help of the chapters of the Islamophobic group PEGIDA in the states of Thuringia and Saxony. A local AfD chapter even rented a bus to bring demonstrators to Torgau from the surrounding villages. Oschkinat named the event: “Exit for the Chancellor of Pain.”
Anything But Boring
The whistling and shrieking on Torgau’s central square is the harbinger of the anger that could soon reach Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. It has become fashionable in Berlin’s government district these days to complain of the boring contest between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz. But outside of the capital, in places like Bitterfeld, Torgau or Annaberg-Buchholz, it quickly becomes clear that many voters find this campaign to be anything but boring. Tempers are flaring and nerves laid bare — particularly in the states that formerly belonged to East Germany.
Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Schulz, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), are the candidates of the democratic center. No matter which of the two emerges victorious, the country won’t experience dramatic shifts of the kind currently underway in the United States. They are both good Europeans who are united in their commitment to Germany’s social market economy. And both are convinced that it was the right thing to do to open up Germany’s borders in summer 2015 to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both are likewise opposed to seeing a repeat of that event.
Among the outcomes of Merkel’s 12-year stint in the Chancellery is a divided country in which a radical and extremely vocal minority no longer feels represented, neither by the chancellor nor by her SPD challenger. One way of seeing the televised debate between the two just over a week ago is as a civilized discussion between two committed democrats. But many voters apparently came away feeling that it proved that there is no longer a political opposition in the country.
The anger isn’t just a result of Merkel’s refugee policies, particularly given that she and her party have gone a long way toward reversing them in recent months. Rather, it has to do with a feeling of powerlessness, a sense felt by some that the political elite is no longer taking them seriously. And that elite doesn’t just include Merkel and the SPD, but also the Green Party and the entire news media. When AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel stormed out of a political talk show last Tuesday after another show participant demanded that she distance herself from the racist statements of her fellow lead candidate Alexander Gauland, she could be sure of her supporters’ backing. After all, the show was being broadcast by one of Germany’s public channels, which AfD supporters routinely accuse of being Merkel-controlled “state television.”
The AfD has become expert at inciting hatred against the so-called elite. It began as a relatively tame party of professors, united in their opposition to Merkel’s policy of bailing out countries mired in the euro crisis, believing such measures to be plainly illegal. But then it embarked on a long march to the right and is now shaped by people such as Gauland, who said recently that Aydan Özoguz, the Hamburg-born Turkish-German federal commissioner for integration, should be “disposed of” and sent to Anatolia. Islamophobia and racism have become key components of the AfD party platform.
Historic Turning Point
For 60 years, Germany has been able keep right-wing radical parties out of the national parliament. For decades, the country was able to avoid significant infection with the right-wing populist virus that was spreading throughout Europe and, as the election of Donald Trump demonstrates, in the U.S. It was considered taboo to publicly proclaim support for right-wing parties, which is one reason among many that the radical NPD and the Republikaner parties never managed to make much headway on the national stage.
But Germany now finds itself faced with a historic turning point. On Sept. 24, it looks as though a party that has racist and nationalist tendencies will win seats in the Bundestag. The AfD is currently between 8 and 11 percent in public opinion polls. And the party won’t just change the face of the German parliament, but likely also its culture of political debate.
If the AfD ends up with around 10 percent of the vote, it will send 70 lawmakers to parliament. One of them will be Jens Maier, who is second on the AfD’s state list from Saxony. Maier wasn’t just present when Björn Höcke, floor leader for the AfD in the state of Thuringia, notoriously referred to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin as a “monument to shame” and called for a “180-degree shift in our memory politics” at a Dresden ballroom in January. He warmed up the crowd before Höcke’s tirade. In a brief introduction, he said that after World War II, the Germans were told that they were no longer worth anything: “I declare herewith this cult of guilt to finally be over!” Maier crowed. The crowd went wild.
“Cult of guilt” had long been a phrase used solely by the neo-Nazi NPD party, but it may soon be heard in the Bundestag. A judge at the Saxony state court in Dresden, Maier has achieved a certain amount of fame in Saxony and is seen by his supporters as someone with the courage to say what is on his mind. On that evening in Dresden, for example, he said that the “creation of racially impure peoples” in Germany “could not be tolerated.”
Maier’s worldview has evolved significantly over time. At his campaign stand in a Dresden train station, he talks about the SPD’s youth group, to which he belonged in Bremen back when he was 17. His parents had venerated Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the SPD and the Social Democrats, he says, were seen in Bremen as the party of the working class and enjoyed huge support in the city. But in 1982, Maier went to Tübingen for his university studies and he lost interest in the SPD.
Then came the euro crisis and the founding of the AfD. Maier began going to local party meetings at the pub and met academics who had a similar outlook to his own. At the time, the party was still led by founder Bernd Lucke, the rather drab economist who became politically active due to his vehement opposition to Merkel’s bailouts of Greece. Maier admired Lucke. But he also valued the climate of open discussion that characterized the AfD. “You could say anything.” It was the refugee crisis, though, that finally led Maier to become more deeply involved. “I had the feeling that it was time. Germany is crumbling.”
‘People Like Erdogan’
At the campaign stand, Maier plays the moderate. But on stage, he is often quite different. At an event in the Dresden city center in August, he called out to the cheering crowd: “I want to see Germany rise again.” Parliamentary elections are a “day of reckoning.” He said he wants “us to find our way back to self-respect so we don’t have to cower before people like Erdogan.”
AfD party head Frauke Petry wanted to throw Maier and Höcke out of the party following their January speeches in Dresden, but the party voted against taking action. Though she herself has since been marginalized despite being allowed to retain her title, Petry is taking another run at it — but the AfD has by now slid so far to the right that Maier has become part of its mainstream.
It seems almost quaint to look back at the debate that divided the party three years ago. Back then, the PEGIDA movement was just gathering steam — the name stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — and the group is predictably Islamophobic. At the time, though, the AfD wasn’t yet certain it wanted to form an alliance with the group due to its radical leanings. By now, though, the battle has long since been decided, which becomes evident when talking to people like Jürgen Pohl. Pohl is a close ally of Höcke’s and he is number two on the AfD’s candidate list in the state of Thuringia, meaning that he too will likely be moving to Berlin soon.
Pohl refers to himself as an “attorney for the people,” which makes him almost sound like he was a son of the 1968 movement. And that’s not an entirely inaccurate impression. He rails against those who push down wages and pension payments and he claims that he worked construction before becoming a lawyer. He sounds a bit like the early Green Party, which used to also campaign against the “system” parties and which helped to found the left-wing newspaper, the Tageszeitung or taz, because of its mistrust of the mainstream media.
Except that in Pohl’s world, the task of deporting “illegal foreigners” is a “Biblical challenge.”
It still isn’t clear who will lead the new AfD faction in the Bundestag, but the party’s most strident voice belongs without a doubt to Alexander Gauland. In his earlier life, Gauland belonged to the Christian Democrats and worked in state government in Hesse under then-Governor Walter Wallmann. But like so many from the party’s conservative wing, he left the CDU due to his disappointment with Merkel.
God. Family. Fatherland.
Gauland’s story is also one of self-radicalization. He still dresses like minor English nobility, but when he is standing behind a microphone on a market square, he calls for resistance to the “dictator” Merkel. In spring 2016, he generated headlines for saying that “the people don’t want a Boateng as a neighbor,” a reference to the German national fotball team player Jérome Boateng, who is black.
When he takes his seat in the Bundestag following the Sept. 24 election, Gauland will be surrounded by a group of fortune seekers, racists and the indignant, all of whom are united by their fury at the chancellor. Some of them have extremely personal vendettas to settle.
It was “shoddy,” says Martin Hohmann, the way CDU head Merkel shoved him aside back in Nov. 14, 2003, seeing to it that he was excluded from the conservatives’ parliamentary caucus. Even today, Hohmann doesn’t see anything wrong with the speech he held on the Day of German Unity in October 2003, a plenary address that was interwoven with deeply anti-Semitic sentiments. He says he was the victim of a “perfidious media campaign.” In 2005, Hohmann tried to circumvent the party and get elected to the Bundestag on his own, and even managed 21.5 percent of the vote, but it wasn’t enough to beat the establishment CDU candidate.
After that, Hohmann says, “I basically decided that my political career was over.” But then along came the AfD. Initially, his application to join the party wasn’t acted on for several months. Once the party’s moderate founder Bernd Lucke was toppled, however, his application was quickly approved.
“God. Family. Fatherland.” reads the black-red-gold lettering on Hohmann’s flyers. AfD leadership recognized the possibility that the former CDU member might still be able to attract significant attention and when he spoke to his supporters near Fulda on Monday a little over a week ago, he was joined by party co-head Jörg Meuthen and his deputy Beatrix von Storch. They nodded energetically when Hohmann referred to the chancellor in his speech as a “complete failure” and said he wanted to “see her before a court.” Merkel’s CDU, Hohmann said, would rather have a Turkish-German as a candidate than a German mother.
It is this singular mélange of conspiracy theory, inferiority complex and bourgeoisie that can be found everywhere in the AfD. The party has radicalized in recent months, but it continues to draw in those who are opposed to Merkel’s refugee policies, and no small number of them are women.
The AfD now has seats in 13 state parliaments and 30 percent of its voters are women. Frauke Petry is one of the party’s co-leaders while Alice Weidel is a lead candidate in this campaign along with Gauland. Weidel lives together with her female partner, who is originally from Sri Lanka but has Swiss citizenship, and together they are raising two sons. It isn’t terribly easy to see exactly what binds someone like Weidel to the AfD.
Issues Being Glossed Over
The same can be said of Marian Harder-Kühnel, who leads the list for the AfD state chapter in Hesse. She studied law and worked for eight years at a large business consulting firm. A mother of three, she started her own law firm two years ago together with colleagues.
Harder-Kühnel has nothing in common with the bigoted rhetoric of someone like Björn Höcke. Her appearance last Tuesday evening in the small Hessian town of Büdingen — a rather peaceful place surrounded by gentle rolling hills — seemed more like an informational event for a local health-insurance provider. Around 120 people had showed up and none of them seemed particularly interested in raising a ruckus.
But since the end of 2015, there has been a refugee hostel here too and many of them can regularly be seen out and about in the town. In her speech, Harder-Kühnel speaks of women who no longer feel safe on the streets because of the migrants. “We are gambling away all of the achievements for women that we have fought for in the last decades,” she says.
Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? “Recently, when I went out in a normal, Central European summer dress, a veiled woman spat on the street in front of me,” Harder-Kühnel says the next day in a café in Frankfurt. “I laughed about it, but a 14-year-old girl might decide to wear pants the next time she goes out.” She says she finds it aggravating that Germany’s establishment parties don’t address such issues at all.
The Chancellery had long hoped that the refugee issue wouldn’t dominate the campaign and Merkel has indeed managed to settle the extended dispute she had with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU that is much more skeptical of migrants than Merkel is. But in the eyes of many voters, the issue is by no means resolved. “They feel like the things that are important to them aren’t being discussed and that many things are being glossed over,” says Stephan Grünewald, a psychologist who has closely followed German voting behaviors for years. “I have never before seen so much anger and hatred among test subjects.”
The AfD is also the product of a surfeit of political acquiescence. Merkel’s approach to Greece encountered no serious resistance in the Bundestag, with support for the bailouts coming from the SPD, the Greens, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the CSU. It was basically the same story when it came to her refugee policies, which the AfD believes weren’t criticized nearly vehemently enough. The CSU was certainly critical, but most of that critique came from Bavaria and wasn’t voiced in the federal parliament itself. Never before had a German chancellor claimed that it was impossible for the German nation-state to completely close its borders and maintain full control over migration. In the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people arrived, most of them fleeing the violence in the Balkans, the SPD joined German conservatives in amending the German constitution and thus considerably reducing the number of people entering the country. But in fall 2015, with increasing numbers of people flowing across the border, the AfD — which had begun to fade after the euro crisis — suddenly came back to life.
It is popular to claim that the AfD is made up of those who have been left behind by society, those who have no work and limited education. That, though, does not reflect reality. AfD supporters are less interested in money than in the feeling that their opinions are no longer being respected. “When Martin Schulz enjoyed 30 percent support last spring” shortly after he announced his candidacy, “it was partly because of AfD sympathizers who had returned to the SPD. They had high hopes for the party’s new leader,” says Richard Hilmer, head of the Berlin consulting institute Policy Matters. Early this year, Hilmar produced an in-depth study on behalf of the Hans Böckler Foundation on the motivations and backgrounds of AfD supporters.
He believes that Schulz has thus far provided insufficient answers to the questions that these SPD defectors are asking. That includes the refugee and integration issues, Hilmer says. And that explains why the huge initial bump in public support for the SPD has completely evaporated.
Now, Schulz has decided to campaign decisively against the AfD. “It isn’t an ‘Alternative for Germany,’ it is a disgrace for our country,” he says in the stump speech he has delivered across the country.
AfD voters come from a variety of different backgrounds. Many members of the German working class support the AfD, but they represent just a small minority of the party’s support. People from lower income classes and from the lower middle class are more likely to support the right-wing populists, but members of upper income classes who earn a net income of more than 4,000 euros per months likewise vote for the group. Analyses conducted between 2013 and 2016 even show that AfD supporters, when compared to those who vote for other parties, have incomes that are slightly higher than average.
Broadly speaking, voters with lower level high-school diplomas are more likely to cast their ballots for the AfD, but around a quarter of the party’s supporters have completed their “Abitur” — as Germany’s university-prep high-school diploma is called — or have university degrees. The age group that shows the greatest affinity for the right-wing populists are the 35 to 44-year-olds. The typical AfD voter, in other words, is middle-aged, has a mid-level education and a mid-level income.
Kai Fegers, from the town of Grevenbroich in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently attended his first AfD meeting at a local bar. We found him sitting toward the back of the establishment called Gasthaus in Neuss sipping a cola. On the table next to him were his keys with a kubotan, a small stick for self-defense, hanging from the keychain. Fegers works for the supermarket chain Real in the pharmacy/cleaning supplies department. “You see a lot,” he says. There are Germans, he says, who pack their carts full of discount products because it’s the only thing they can afford. “And refugees who fill up their pockets and then run out without paying as though it were nothing.”
Everything Is Getting Worse
In the last general election, Fegers voted for the Pirate Party. Before that it was the SPD and before that the FDP. But nothing made a difference, he says. “The grand coalition” — the current pairing of Germany’s two largest parties, the SPD and Merkel’s conservatives — “gives me the feeling that we aren’t that far from becoming a dictatorship.” Referring to a CDU campaign poster, he adds: “Sorry, but many here don’t have good lives and don’t enjoy living here either.”
Many voters seem to have the feeling that everything is getting worse. Holger Lengfeld, a professor of sociology at the University of Leipzig, did a study to determine if AfD supporters were often left behind by modernization or felt that they had been. His conclusion: “People with lower levels of education, workers, those with low incomes and people who feel left behind by societal developments don’t vote AfD any more often than others.” Apparently, he says, the reasons people support the AfD “aren’t economic in nature.” Their rejection of Muslims and of immigration more broadly is a more important factor, he says, adding that they are concerned about Germany losing its national identity.
Where, though, does this desire for isolation come from, this latent and sometimes manifest xenophobia?
“Dissatisfaction with one’s own life is the most important factor” that drives people to vote AfD, concludes the Böckler Foundation study. But one’s real economic situation is less important than a feeling of “personal indignity.” The study found that AfD voters see themselves as occupying a lower rung on the societal ladder and feel impotent. Their attitude to their own lives is summed up by the sentence: “What happens to me is decided elsewhere in the world.”
Miaka, a 39-year-old elderly care nurse, is one of those who came to the anti-Merkel demonstration in Torgau. Why did she and her boyfriend turn up? “We finally want to be heard and to be taken seriously,” she says. She is carrying an AfD poster reading: “A woman’s freedom cannot be negotiated.” She actually lives together with her boyfriend and two teenage children in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, but she is currently visiting family in Saxony, where she grew up.
In two weeks, she plans to cast her ballot for the AfD. Why? She no longer wants to accept a situation whereby “night after night, black Africans” come across the border. She says that ever since so many refugees are in the country, she no longer feels safe. She also no longer goes home alone at night out of fear of being insulted as a “German whore” — something she says actually happened to her once in the Saxon town where she comes from.
And in southwestern Germany, where she now lives, two people were recently robbed, Maika says. When asked if the perpetrators had been caught, she responds in the negative. Could they then perhaps have been German? Maika grins derisively. “Yeah sure. In theory.”
A Diffuse Feeling of Fear
The fear of criminality is higher among AfD supporters than among voters of any other party. They are afraid of terrorism, crime and immigrants, concerns that often become lumped together in a diffuse feeling of fear. In general, they are much more pessimistic about the future than other voters.
Perhaps that also helps explain the anger harbored by AfD supporters. Surveys show that rarely have there been so many people in Germany who were so satisfied with their personal situation than today, both from an economic point of view and in general. The status quo campaign being run by Merkel’s CDU reflects that satisfaction. But the AfD clientele has a completely opposite feeling. They seem to feel that Germany is currently rushing toward the abyss.
The Böckler Foundation study also found a deep mistrust of democracy. Around 70 percent of respondents to their survey agreed with the statement: “Political and media leaders live in their own world.”
It seems that AfD supporters feel that they are at the mercy of dark powers. On Aug. 12, the AfD caucus in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament held a Russia Congress where part of the discussion centered around the question as to how one could prevent the CIA and Wall Street bankers from continuing to steer refugees toward Germany. Another topic of debate focused on when the AfD would finally address the question as to whether Germany was actually a real state or merely a corporation. Then, they went off to a barbecue. AfD members can always agree that Merkel is the root of all evil. She is to blame for the refugees, for Germany’s poor relations with Russia and perhaps even for the current rainy summer.
At the recent campaign event in Fulda, Klaus Peege clapped every time a speaker said that Merkel was pursuing politics “in opposition to her own people.” It is something they say a lot. Peege is sitting at a table in the middle of the hall, not far from the stage. The 70-year-old says he was a member of the CDU until 2014 and had spent 20 years in the SPD before that. If people like former chancellor Helmut Schmidt still led the Social Democrats, Peege says, he probably would have remained an SPD member. But he has now joined the AfD, a decision, he says, that he made primarily because of Merkel.
Peege used to be a self-employed builder. He is wearing a red-plaid shirt and reading glasses around his neck; his hair is slicked back. On the table in front of him lies an issue of Junge Freiheit, the right-wing publication that is popular on Germany’s far right. They were distributed at the entrance to the event. He was once even a municipal representative for the CDU, but his membership in the party came to an end in 2014: “I made a list of 15 things that I didn’t like about Merkel,” he says. The list included items such as the abandonment of traditional values, Merkel’s sudden about-face on nuclear energy and her leftward drift. “Then the refugee story came along,” Peege says.
He considers the CDU representative of his electoral district to be a “wet noodle” and has now thrown his support behind Martin Hohmann. Peege has even become a municipal representative again, only this time for the AfD. The 120 AfD members in and around Fulda are almost all “completely normal people,” he says, meaning middle class and Catholic — essentially the profile of the classic CDU voter. But they are all disappointed with Merkel. “She is responsible for the fact that the AfD is on the way to becoming a large party here.”
There isn’t much evidence for the theory that the AfD is a product of a broader German shift toward the right. A survey conducted by the pollster Infratest dimap in conjunction with Berlin’s Free University found that every fourth AfD supporter has the potential for right-wing extremism, more than within other larger parties. But between 2008 and 2016, the total share of people in Germany with right-wing extremist attitudes sank slightly, from 10 percent to 9 percent of the population.
That would indicate that the party offers a platform to those with right-wing views and that the internet echo chamber encourages them to express their views ever more vocally.
Political rhetoric has become particularly unhinged in eastern Germany, where PEGIDA held its 124th event last week. At the demonstration, a young woman from the Identitarian Movement warns that “when you start worrying about your wife and children every day, when the street dictates your daily life, when you are afraid of attending summer parties,” then it is already too late for the fight. But in Dresden, they have been fighting for quite some time. As he always does, PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann riles up the crowd and rants about the “pseudo-debate” between Merkel and Schulz. If 32 percent are in favor of Merkel, he rages, and 29 percent are for Schulz, “then 39 percent are for us!” The crowd begins chanting “AfD! AfD! AfD!”
Much of what happens around the globe is bent to conform with their own view of the world. Some AfD supporters, for example, say that AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel had been ganged up on in the television talk show last week and that is why she stormed out of the studio. “That is why I came here,” says Thomas Hechinger, 57, a mathematics teacher. “I am allergic to the Nazi club,” he says, using a term frequently deployed by the extreme right to denounce German taboos against far-right rhetoric. Politically, he says, he is actually conservative or economically liberal, but now he will likely vote for the AfD, even if he doesn’t like the party’s affinity for Russia.
Hechinger’s companion Johannes Heindl, who teaches German, history and social studies at a Bavarian high school, presents similar arguments. He used to be on the political left, he says, and still has a DER SPIEGEL subscription that he signed up for back then. But he says he is frequently bothered by the way the magazine reports on the AfD, such as what he saw as the hostile questions asked of Frauke Petry in an interview.
Only 38 percent of AfD voters believe that there is such a thing as freedom of opinion in Germany — although that doesn’t seem to prevent them from becoming belligerent when they hear views that are contrary to their own.
But the AfD isn’t solely to blame for the polarization of German society either, writes Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University. He believes that “many of the ‘reputable people'” were also guilty because of their tendency to equate “every critical comment on the refugee question, even those that were later revealed to have been justified, with right-wing extremism.”
A Beer with the AfD
What, then, should be done about the anger felt by many voters and about the party that represents them?
On the evening of the televised debate between Merkel and Schulz, Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier walked up to the bar at the television studio where the debate was taking place to grab a beer. Two friendly gentlemen in elegant suits were standing in his way and they offered to get his beer for him. “Of course, very nice of you,” Altmaier said, before realizing who they were: Georg Pazderski and Christian Liath, two senior AfD members. Altmaier quickly shifted gears and said: “No thank you, I’d rather get the beer myself.”
It was a preview of what will soon become the new normal in the German parliament. Bundestag members will soon begin running into their new AfD colleagues and their staff everywhere: in the Reichstag cafeteria, at committee meetings, in the plenary hall and at the many parties held in Berlin’s government quarter.
Simply ignoring the party will no longer work, and the politicians will realize that the AfD world isn’t only black and white. Along with the nationalist-chauvinist Gauland, the “attorney for the people” Jürgen Pohl and the historical revisionist Jens Maier, there will be some lawmakers who will actually be able to contribute ideas to tax reform or infrastructure debates.
Simply excluding them as right-wing radicals could ultimately push even more people to vote for the AfD in the future. It would feed the party’s victim myth, reinforce their complaints about the lack of freedom of opinion and buttress their gripes that the country is turning into a dictatorship. It would strengthen conspiracy theories and intensify the hatred of elites.
The Bundestag faces a tough task. Parliamentarians will have to make clear to moderate AfD lawmakers that they bear some responsibility for the incitement and baiting of their more radical fellow party members. Claims that racist and xenophobic statements just slipped out by accident cannot be tolerated. Tepid condemnations won’t be enough.
In the most recent U.S. presidential campaign, former first lady Michelle Obama demonstrated one way of dealing with right-wing populists. In a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, she said that she and her husband continuously told their daughters not to stoop to the level of the bullies. “Our motto is: When they go low, we go high.”
The AfD will remain part of the political system for the foreseeable future. Those who think that the party will disappear once the euro bailouts are finally a thing of the past, once the inflow of refugees has ceased and once all our schools have been renovated are likely to be mistaken. The party’s success is an expression of discomfort with representative democracy, of a fear of the future and a frantic yearning to be heard. Even if all of the problems were to disappear, which would be a major achievement, that wouldn’t mean that these feelings would disappear as well.
Some of these voters can no longer be reached with rational argument because they live in their own reality. The others can only be won back over the long term, if at all — with a clear stance against racist slogans but without aggressively sweeping judgments, with a willingness to listen and to engage in spirited debates on the issues.
Chancellery Chief of Staff Altmaier made a first step in the television studio bar on the night of the debate. He pushed past the AfD men to get his beer. And then he returned with his beverage to chat with them for a bit.
By Melanie Amann, Laura Backes, Matthias Bartsch, Lukas Eberle, Jan Friedmann, Anna-Sophia Lang, Cordula Meyer, Lars-Thorben Niggehoff, René Pfister, Fidelius Schmid and Steffen Winter