When the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Björn Höcke called the Berlin Holocaust memorial a “memorial of shame” during a speech in Dresden in 2017, the former professor of history and state legislator was almost expelled from his party.
But despite the fact that two-thirds of the AfD supported Höcke’s expulsion, a 2018 court ruled he could stay. In September 2021, Höcke was back in Dresden, this time scheduled to speak at a rally of the far-right organization Pegida.
Jens Maier, originally from Dresden and AfD candidate in the general elections on Sunday (September 26) was also due to speak.
Höcke and Maier were yelled at by anti-fascist protesters, who accompanied the march as it weaved through the streets. Dresden police say a man in the Pegida crowd was arrested for performing a Nazi salute, which is prohibited by German law.
Neither Höcke nor Maier responded to Euronews requests for comment.
This is not the first – and probably the last time – that the AfD, and Höcke in particular, have been linked to this darkest period in German history, the Nazi era.
In a notable train wreck interview with German public broadcaster, Höcke was faced with embarrassing video interviews from his AfD colleagues failing to distinguish between passages from his own book and Mein Hitler’s Kampf.
Earlier this year, former AfD press secretary Christian Lüth was fired for suggesting that migrants should be gassed. Andre Poggenburg, a former AfD lawmaker in Saxony-Anhalt in 2017 echoed Nazi rhetoric when he said left-wing parliamentarians were “rank growth on the German racial corpus.”
But more often it is the failure to cut ties with the extreme wing of an already extreme political party that has captured media attention when it comes to the AfD.
Party founder Alexander Gauland has regularly been criticized for his racist comments.
As recently as 2018, Gauland declared that the Nazi era was “just a grain of bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.” He has been accused of downplaying the importance of the Third Reich, although his supporters countered that his comments were taken out of context.
But while the extreme views of party members in the 2017 Bundestag elections regularly made headlines, in 2021 the AfD was sort of a footnote as Europe waits to see who will win the race to replace Angela Merkel’s political giant on September 26.
The party is still in the polls at around 11% nationally and still has the capacity to win big in local elections, especially in East Germany, but has failed to become a national political force.
Indeed, in the battle which rages between the so-called “moderates” of the AfD and the zealots, like Höcke, it is undoubtedly – in 2021 – the zealots who won. And the more extreme the AfD has become, the less successful it has been on the national political scene.
“There is a consensus in German history and politics about the Nazi era,” said Marcel Dirsus, a non-resident researcher at the Hamburg Institute for Security Policy.
“The only force that has ever really questioned this consensus is the AfD […]. I just don’t think it works. it’s too radical […]. Besides being indecent, electorally, it’s just not very smart.
Founded in 2013, the AfD started out as a classic Eurosceptic political party that capitalized on frustration in parts of Western Europe over bailouts given to countries like Greece in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as on immigration from the poorest states in Europe to Germany.
But it was the 2015 migrant crisis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy to refugees from Syria that gave the AfD the cause it had so far lacked. As the mainstream shifted from empathy to anger, voters flocked to the AfD.
In 2013, the AfD had not reached the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag – in 2017 it won 94 seats and became the third party in the German parliament. In the years that followed, the AfD garnered millions of votes in regions such as Bavaria and Saxony, though in the last four elections the party participated in at state level in 2020 and 2021, it lost seats.
The popularity of the AfD has waned as the number of migrants arriving in Germany from abroad has declined, both due to international circumstances and the fact that immigration policies have been tightened by Merkel’s government. since 2015. Meanwhile, the new influx of refugees from Afghanistan has not provoked the same anger as six years ago.
“The situation is very different now,” said Dirsus. “I mean, when the AfD was gaining strength, you found yourself in a situation [where] people mostly walked in Germany.
Although AfD members criticized the arrivals from Afghanistan, most voters admit that those brought to Germany following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul are those who directly aided German troops. Many also consider the mess in Afghanistan to be one of Europe and the United States, and it is right that they do what they can to clean it up.
Meanwhile, although the COVID-19 pandemic has energized parts of the radical right elsewhere in Europe – and certainly in the United States – the AfD has hesitated on whether to harness the anger of much. of the population first against the lockdown restrictions, then vaccines.
“Populist and radical right-wing parties are generally defined by authoritarianism, and respect for law, order and rules has always been something they emphasized,” said Matthias Dilling, professor at the ‘University of Oxford.
“[The AfD] lean[ed towards] say yes, support the government [and] these restrictions because it’s the law and we have to follow the rules that are set out.
As the pandemic boomed, the AfD belatedly attempted to amplify skeptical and libertarian criticism of current restrictions on coronaviruses, particularly with regard to vaccine passports, but remained unable to translate what is a loud but but relatively marginal in a broad political appeal.
That said, even if the AfD does not improve its electoral success compared to 2017, it remains a leading force within the Bundestag which attracts the ballots of one in ten voters. Meanwhile, AfD support has undoubtedly pushed the CDU-CSU government to the right, which could increase without moderate Angela Merkel at the helm.
And while the growing radicalization of the AfD has caused it to lose its support in recent years, radical voices can be as dangerous outside government as they are within it.
“I honestly think they could go their separate ways. I think there is a scenario where they get more and more radical and that’s dangerous in other ways, ”Dirsus said.
– Because then, who knows? Maybe part of the rhetoric inspires people to commit violence.
In the meantime, a party led by individuals like Höcke, Gauland and Alice Weidel is unlikely to attract disenfranchised CDU voters, even if – as expected – Merkel’s alleged heir Armin Laschet loses. the Chancellery for the benefit of the SDP for the first time since 2002.
The problem for all AfD moderates is that once the radicals take the reins it is very difficult to dislodge them, and it is difficult for a party to appeal to both neo-Nazi thugs in the streets and the rural CDU. voters feared Merkel had pushed their party too far to the left.
Only one German politician in modern history has achieved this kind of political symbiosis, and Germany remembers the end of this story.
This article is part of our special mini-series to help you understand the German elections.