This is the first article of a three-part profile on the German party Alternative für Deutschland.
For years, Germany seemed to be one of the few European countries immune to the populist wave rolling across the continent. In 2016, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) pushed Britain towards its fateful vote to leave the European Union, and, the following year, right-wing populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders took significant portions of the vote in their respective elections. Populist parties and movements existed in Germany as well, but for years, in contrast to their French, Dutch, or Hungarian counterparts, they did not arouse significant concern among foreign observers and commentators.
The same cannot be said today. What started as a small Eurosceptic party in the wake of the Eurozone Crisis has grown into a formidable force in German politics, decimating the traditional big-tent parties in national and local elections, especially in the constituent states of former East Germany. Since its foundation in 2013 the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany—AfD) has been the object of substantial scrutiny due to controversial statements of its leading figures and its possible links to right-wing extremist and Neo-Nazi organizations. The rise of the AfD has struck a sensitive nerve in Germany, where the consequences of unchecked right-wing extremism remain fresh in the national consciousness.
The Alternative for Germany emerged against the backdrop of the 2009 European Debt Crisis. Several Eurozone member states—such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, among others—failed to restructure or pay off their sovereign debt, necessitating an emergency bailout through the European Central Bank and more financially stable members of the monetary union—above all Germany. Germany’s intervention hoped to prevent a Greek exit from the Eurozone, which could have triggered a “domino effect” of deeply indebted member states leaving the monetary union. This would severely undermine the credibility of the euro both economically and as an instrument of European integration, one of the core tenants of Germany’s foreign policy since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949.
Germany’s role in the bailout of struggling southern European economies provoked a strong backlash among well-organized fiscal conservatives. Drawing on networks of small Eurosceptic parties and neoliberal organizations, such as the Bund Freier Bürger and the Friedrich Hayek Gesellschaft, a new opposition party came onto the scene in 2013 ahead of the federal elections, advocating for a controlled dissolution of the euro and a halt to further European integration—it called itself the Electoral Alternative 2013 (Wahlalternative 2013), later becoming the Alternative for Germany. Dissatisfaction with the mainstream conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the leading libertarian party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), provided a boon in membership to the AfD; for example, the early leaders of the party, Hamburg economist Bernd Lucke and Hessen-based politician Alexander Gauland, were formerly members of the CDU.
While the young party’s platform centered on criticism of the EU and the Eurozone, domestic social issues played a nontrivial role in its early days. Among the networks from which the AfD drew support was the fundamentalist Christian “Zivile Koalition,” founded by future party deputy leader Beatrix von Storch. The CDU’s shift to the center under Angela Merkel’s chancellorship on issues such as same-sex marriage, migration, and gender quotas in businesses’ boardrooms also pushed social conservatives towards the AfD. Political scientist Frank Decker of the Rheinisch Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, however, highlights in particular the role of the 2010 “Sarrazin debate” in opening space in German public discourse for the right-wing populist ideas that would come to epitomize the AfD.
In 2010, former Bundesbank executive and member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) Thilo Sarrazin unleashed a torrent of heated discussion with the publication of his book, Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany abolishes itself”). Sarrazin’s book argues that Germany’s “self-abolition” lies in its low birthrate and high rate of immigration from Muslim countries, primarily from Turkey and the Arab world. Criticism of Muslim immigrants abounds in the book, as Sarrazin accuses them of an unwillingness to integrate into German society and overdependence on Germany’s generous social welfare system. Perhaps most controversial is Sarrazin’s insinuation that inherited unintelligence may play a role in the alleged failures of migrant communities. Sarrazin’s fears of a Germany in which “the call of the Muezzin determines the daily rhythm” would also find expression in the AfD: as early as the 2013 federal elections, migration policy was cited as a criticism of Germany’s relationship with the EU and as a reason for voting for the AfD.
Despite a swift increase in membership, the AfD just barely failed to receive at least 5 percent of the vote in the 2013 election and consequently could not enter the Bundestag. However, successes in the 2014 European Parliament elections and those of various state legislatures in eastern Germany have dispelled doubts about the party’s durability. Further, at this time the party’s tone began to undergo a dramatic shift. This was especially the case in the constituent states of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), where a strong focus on questions of national identity and anti-establishment rhetoric proved a winning combination.
In terms of party leadership, the increasing tension between the AfD’s moderate heads and increasingly populist base culminated in early 2015 at its party convention in Essen, where Frauke Petry, leader of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony, defeated Bernd Lucke to become the new head of the party. The conference in Essen marked a watershed moment in the party’s development, with commentators declaring Petry’s election a victory for the right-wing populist flank over the more moderate conservative strands—Jens Schneider of the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung argues that at this moment the AfD became the “Party of Pegida,” referring to a far-right anti-Islam movement originating in Dresden. Lucke himself, who left the party shortly thereafter, accused Petry of seeking ties to the movement in an interview with die Tagesschau, one of Germany’s major televised news programs. Some commentators, however, claim that he was at least passively complicit in the party’s rightward shift—in the same interview Lucke praises Thilo Sarrazin for saying “many correct things … on the issues of immigration, education policy, demographics, and political correctness.”
Since the 2015 leadership change, the AfD has continued to gain traction in German politics. In the 2017 Bundestag election the party received 12.6 percent of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in the German parliament after Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, which following months of unusually difficult negotiations entered into a governing coalition and allowed the AfD to become the largest opposition party. With Merkel’s recent announcement that she will not seek another term as Chancellor, the growing influence of the AfD has taken on new significance as Germany searches for her successor.
Part Two of this series will take a closer look at the AfD’s ideology and party platform, the reasons for its strong support in formerly communist East Germany, and some of its major controversies since 2015.
The photo featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law.
Dave Marques is a fourth-year political science major interested in American and European politics. He spent his third year studying in Berlin, Germany, where he worked as a translator for a local history app and a communications intern for the European Council on Foreign Relations . In his free time he enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.