The far-right Alternative for Germany party is vying to win dozens of seats in the German election on Sunday, but even before the vote is counted, it has already succeeded in bringing once taboo views back into the country’s politics.
The AfD is currently polling around 10 percent, which puts it in contention to become the third-largest party in the German parliament and potentially the main opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. Even if the AfD underperforms in the election, it’s still likely to pass the 5 percent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag, which would make it the first far-right party to do so since World War II.
This marks a major shift in Germany, where the legacy of Nazism still looms and far-right parties have been shunned for decades. But since the AfD’s founding in 2013, it has gained in popularity even as it has increasingly espoused radical ideology.
Much like other European right-wing populist parties, such as France’s National Front, the AfD has managed to enter the mainstream in part by packaging its extreme views in ways that make them more publicly acceptable. Rather than offering overt racist statements, the party couches many of its anti-Islam and anti-immigrant claims as appeals to preserving national identity.
″[The AfD] is very careful in its interviews and its advertising to try and present its attack on multicultural Germany or the Islamization of Germany not in terms of racism or Aryanism, but in terms of culture,” said Roger Griffin, an expert on fascism and modern history at Oxford Brookes University.
“It wants Germany for the Germans,” Griffin told HuffPost, “and the subtext of that is it wants a liberal democratic Germany for ethnic Germans.”
The AfD’s message can appear benign to more moderate voters while serving as a dog whistle to those further to the right. For instance, the party’s candidates often talk about a need to reclaim national identity and argue that Germans need no longer atone for the past, but they have not explicitly defended Nazism.
One of the AfD’s lead candidates, Alexander Gauland, said last week that Germany has a right to be proud of its soldiers’ achievements in both world wars. When later pressed on his statement, Gauland insisted he was referring to the individual efforts of common soldiers that had nothing to do with the crimes of leadership.
“There are two ways to reading all the messaging of the AfD. One is a populist way of reading them, but one is a New Right/neo-Nazi way of reading them,” said Griffin.
The ambivalence in AfD statements has allowed its backers to see in the party what they want to see, Griffin argues. Unlike other German far-right parties that have been rejected by voters or even banned for their obvious ties to anti-Semitism and extremism, the AfD has managed to attract a spectrum of supporters ranging from conservative euroskeptics to outright neo-Nazis.
The language of the AfD is similar to that of other growing right-wing parties in Europe, which have long been trying to shift public perception that they are too extreme to enter governments. Many such parties left behind naked racism and anything that would evoke the trauma of fascism following World War II. In its place, they began speaking more in euphemisms and veiled ethno-nationalism.
“What they’ve done is create this extraordinary newspeak where all of their positions are justified in terms of liberal arguments about right to an identity, right to a separate culture ― arguments about how far a Western culture can absorb a non-Western culture,” Griffin said.
“You get racists upholding difference and attacking multiculturalism in the name of the right to have a culture,” he said. “It’s a very careful hijacking of liberal discourse.”
The AfD was founded in 2013 as a conservative anti-eurozone party. Within a few years, it underwent a change in leadership and began to focus on opposition to immigration and Islam amid the political turmoil of Europe’s refugee crisis.
The party is running two lead candidates in this year’s election, allowing it to rather literally present one face that appeals to more moderate supporters and another that stirs up the nationalist base. (A lead candidate is essentially the person the party would nominate for chancellor if it were to form a government. In the case of the smaller parties, that designation may be largely symbolic.)
One of those lead candidates is Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old openly gay economist who calls herself a “classic liberal” and has opposed some of the extreme nationalist sentiments within the AfD. The other, Gauland, is a 76-year-old former member of the ruling Christian Democratic Union who has become a frequent voice for nationalist, anti-Islam and anti-immigration views.
In recent weeks, however, both candidates have pushed the limits of the party’s far-right views and faced backlash for their comments. Gauland suggested that Germany’s integration minister, Aydan Özoğuz, should be “dumped in Anatolia” ― meaning Turkey, from where Özoğuz’s parents came to Germany in the 1950s. Merkel called the comment racist in a rare direct rebuke of the AfD.
Weidel has also engaged in extremist criticism of immigration and Islam during the campaign. She claimed that the perpetrators of attacks against gay people in Germany were “always” Muslims or individuals of Arab descent, and joined Gauland in a press conference contending that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion. German newspaper Die Zeit reported that in a leaked email from 2013, Weidel called the ruling government a puppet of the nations that won World War II and said the country was “overrun” by Arabs and other minorities.
Sunday’s election is a chance for German citizens to indicate how they feel about the extremist discourse that has entered their politics, and polls suggest the vast majority of voters will reject the AfD. But its radical right views have become popular enough that the party will likely gain dozens of seats in parliament and bring the far-right back from the fringe.