Maybe one day our grandchildren will ask us: what did you do when a Nazi party returned to the German parliament? A modified question of this version was asked by my generation to their grandparents and parents: what did you do when ‘Auschwitz’ happened, ‘Auschwitz’ having become the metaphor for the barbarity of the ‘Third Reich’, including not only the extermination of the Jewish and other populations but also the extermination war in the East and much else.
Hopefully it will not get that far, and the ‘Nazi-party’ will disappear again before future grandchildren are born, but the result of the recent German general election, where it came third in the overall popular vote, even if not unexpected, still came as a seismic shock to many. Those who ever went to an rally by the Alternative für Deutschland, the Alternative for Germany or AfD, saw the writing on the wall. And those who went to a pre-election rally by chancellor Angela Merkel saw it even more: Bussed in cohorts of AfD supporters voiced their hate and anger, demanding Merkel be put into jail or into a mental asylum for destroying the German race – not least through the brief period of open-door refugee policy in the summer of 2015, when otherwise a humanitarian crisis would have unfolded on Germany’s borders. The fact that since then, German asylum policy has actually become much more restrictive, that it did a deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and that Germany is a strong advocate for EU policies that destroy the boats of people smugglers, securitize the Mediterranean and support questionable regimes on the African continent to keep refugees there does not feature.
But the AfD is not a party concerned with evidence, nor does it actually want to be in a position of power and having to take responsibility. It already sits in a number of regional parliaments, and little is seen from its engagement in day-to-day politics. But that is precisely what makes it so dangerous: It gets its adrenalin from demagogy and hatred – and thus appeals to all those who have some axe to grind. And it blames all that is wrong with Germany on the fact that it has lost its racial character – ‘we want our nation back’ (Volk in the original, a term with very specific race-based connotations in the German language).
While the party claims to be a perfectly normal political party that is incorrectly put into the far-right corner and ‘insulted’ as being a ‘Nazi-party’, a look behind the scenes provides ample evidence of its racial ideology and its longing for re-evaluation of German history – in some ways a version of Trump’s ‘Make America great again’, even if such a choice of words would not be acceptable in Germany precisely because of its history – not yet, anyway. No, the AfD is more subtle than that. One of its leading members simply calls for stopping to atone for Germany’s past – while in the same breath praising the Wehrmacht (Hitler’s army) for its bravery. Berlin’s holocaust memorial he calls a national monument of shame that no other nation would allow – and combines this with a promise to re-write German history books if the AfD came to power. But coming to power is not what the AfD is about, at least at present – it is, rather more dangerously, trying to dilute a political consensus that has served Germany and the whole of Europe (and the world) so well since the end of WWII.
The AfD is not simply made up of older, white men with reactionary understandings of the past. One of the lead candidates of the AfD in this election was a 38 year old Lesbian woman who formerly was a member of the Liberal party FDP. She can express her views eloquently and in perfect English – having in the past for example worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs, and uses the fact that she raises two children with her female partner as proof of the tolerance of the AfD to different lifestyles. She thus appears to be one of the respectable faces of the AfD, far removed from the hatred shouting crowds on the streets. But underneath her views are as full of contempt as those of her colleagues. She has referred to the German government under Angela Merkel as ‘pigs’ who were nothing more than puppets of the allied powers, aimed at destroying the German race through Überfremdung, a term from the Nazi era that roughly translates as foreign infiltration. She and others like her, in particular some of the high profile women in the AfD, repeat again and again that they are not right wing or a ‘Nazi-party’, but simply formulating common sense – and the more this mantra is being repeated, the more it becomes part of normal political discourse – and here is where the real danger lies.
Already in Saxony, the AfD became the biggest party with about one third of the vote. Of course, not all people who voted for it, in Saxony or elsewhere, are Nazis or subscribe to Nazi-ideology, and we are not in the 1930s again. But to make the discourse of racial politics that is built on the exclusion of everything non-German become mainstream is an ominous sign.
It remains to be seen how the AfD will take up its role in the federal German parliament. After the first exit polls came in, one of its main candidates, to the roaring applause of AfD supporters, proclaimed that the AfD will chase and hunt down the new government, however it may look (likely to be a coalition made up of three parties under the leadership of Angela Merkel). This proved too much for one of the AfDs important members Frauke Petry, who won a direct mandate in her own right and not through the party list. The day after the election she made it known that she would sit in parliament not as a member of the AfD parliamentary group but an independent, because she wanted to make politics and not engage in insulting rhetoric. But then this is the same person who, together with another of the female and on the face of it more ‘respectable’ party colleagues, not so long ago said if needed, the German army should shot at refugees, including children, at the German border, rather than simply let them in. What a ‘moderate’ AfD politican may be is thus open to question.