When the far-right Alternative for Deutschland’s (AfD) Björn Höcke referred to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “memorial of shame” during a speech in Dresden in 2017, the former history teacher and state legislator was almost kicked out of his party.
But despite the fact that two-thirds of the AfD supported Höcke being expelled a 2018 tribunal ruled that he could remain. In September 2021, Höcke was back in Dresden, this time scheduled to speak at a rally by far-right organisation Pegida.
Also due to speak was Jens Maier, a Dresden native and AfD candidate in Sunday’s (September 26) general election.
Höcke and Maier were shouted down by anti-fascist protesters, which accompanied the march as it weaved through the streets. Dresden police said that one man in the Pegida crowd was arrested for performing a Nazi salute, forbidden under German law.
Neither Höcke nor Maier responded to requests for comment by Euronews.
It is not the first — nor, likely, the last time — that the AfD, and Höcke in particular, have been linked with that darkest of periods of German history, the Nazi era.
In one notable train wreck interview with Germany’s state broadcaster, Höcke was confronted with embarrassing video interviews of his AfD colleagues failing to distinguish between passages from his own book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Earlier this year, former AfD press officer Christian Lüth was sacked for suggesting that migrants should be gassed. Andre Poggenburg, a former AfD legislator in Saxony-Anhalt in 2017 echoed Nazi rhetoric when he said left-wing parliamentarians were a “rank growth on the German racial corpus.”
But more often than not, it is the failure to cut ties with the extreme wing of an already extreme political party that has attracted media attention when it comes to the AfD.
The party’s founder Alexander Gauland has regularly attracted criticism for his racist comments.
As recently as 2018, Gauland said that the Nazi era was “just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history.” He was 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 opinions of the party’s members during the 2017 Bundestag election regularly grabbed headlines, in 2021 the AfD has been something of a footnote as Europe waits to see who will win the race to replace the political giant of Angela Merkel on September 26.
The party is still polling at around 11% nationally and still has the capability to win big in local elections, particularly in eastern Germany, but it has failed to become a national political force.
Indeed, in the battle that has been raging between the so-called ‘moderates’ in the AfD and the zealots, like Höcke, it is undoubtedly — in 2021 — the zealots that have won. And the more extreme the AfD has become, the less successful it has been on the national political stage.
“There is a consensus in German history and German politics about the Nazi era,” said Marcel Dirsus, a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Security Policy in Hamburg.
“The only force that has ever really questioned that consensus is the AfD […]. I just don’t think it is working. It’s too radical […]. Aside from being indecent, electorally it just isn’t very smart.”
Founded in 2013, the AfD began as a classic Eurosceptic political party that capitalised on frustration in parts of western Europe about bailouts given to countries like Greece in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as about immigration from poorer states of Europe to Germany.
But it was the migrant crisis of 2015 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to refugees from Syria that gave the AfD the cause that it had so far lacked. As the tide of opinion turned from empathy to anger, voters flocked to the AfD in droves.
In 2013, the AfD had failed to reach the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag – in 2017 it won 94 seats and became the third-largest party in the German parliament. In the years since, the AfD has attracted millions of votes in regions such as Bavaria and Saxony, although in the last four elections that the party has contested at the state level in 2020 and 2021 it has lost seats.
The popularity of the AfD has waned as the number of migrants arriving in Germany from overseas has dwindled, both because of 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 failed to provoke the same anger as six years ago.
“The situation is vastly different now,” said Dirsus. “I mean, when the AfD was gaining strength you had a situation [where] people were essentially walking into Germany.”
Although AfD members have been critical of the arrivals from Afghanistan, most voters accept that those being brought to Germany in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul are those who directly aided German troops. Many also consider that the mess in Afghanistan is one of Europe and US’ own making, and it is only right that they do what they can to clean it up.
Meanwhile, although the COVID-19 pandemic has energised some sectors of the radical right elsewhere in Europe – and certainly in the US – the AfD wavered on whether to exploit anger amongst large sections of the populace first towards lockdown restrictions and then vaccines.
“Populist, radical right parties are usually defined by authoritarianism, and respect for law and order and rules has traditionally been something they’ve emphasised,” said Matthias Dilling, a lecturer at Oxford University.
“[The AfD] has lean[ed towards] saying yes, let’s support the government [and] these restrictions because this is the law and we need to respect the rules that are laid out.”
As the pandemic has rumbled on, the AfD has belatedly tried to amplify the sceptical, libertarian critique of the ongoing coronavirus restrictions, particularly with regards to vaccine passports, but remained unable to translate what is a noisy but relatively fringe movement into wide political appeal.
That said, even if the AfD does not improve on its electoral success compared to 2017, it remains a prominent force within the Bundestag that attracts the ballots of one-in-ten voters. Meanwhile, the AfD’s support has undoubtedly forced the CDU-CSU government to the right, something that could increase without the moderate Angela Merkel at the helm.
And while the AfD’s increasing radicalisation has seen it lose support in recent years, radical voices can be as dangerous outside government as they are within it.
“I honestly think that they might be taking themselves apart. I think there is a scenario where they just become more and more radical and that is dangerous in other ways,” said Dirsus.
“Because then, who knows? Maybe some of the rhetoric inspires people to commit violence.”
In the meantime, it is unlikely that a party led by individuals like Höcke, Gauland and Alice Weidel are going to attract disenfranchised CDU voters, even if — as expected — Merkel’s heir apparent Armin Laschet, loses the chancellery to the SDP for the first time since 2002.
The problem for any moderates left in the AfD is that once the radicals get hold of the reins, it is very difficult to dislodge them, and it is difficult for any party to appeal to both the neo-Nazi thugs in the streets and rural CDU voters worried that Merkel has taken their party too far to the left.
Only one German politician in modern history achieved that kind of political symbiosis, and Germany remembers how that story ended.
This is article is part of our special mini-series to help you understand the German election.