Now the dust has settled after an extraordinary week in Germany, we can see that this country is setting a new and disturbing agenda. What other countries had nightmares about, Germany is doing. A bandwagon has begun to roll which could steamroller all Europe, in a disturbing echo of that country’s inglorious and deadly past.
The Federal Election of 24th September saw both Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the other traditional governing party, the social democrat SPD, perform very badly. Merkel’s union parties lost 65 seats, declining to 246, and the SPD lost 40, to leave it with 153, its worst total since World War Two.
These parties were previously united in a Grand Coalition, a confession of failure in itself. The SPD now says it will go into opposition due to its much-reduced mandate and Merkel is trying to patch together a coalition with the traditionally SPD-aligned Greens and the liberal, pro-business FDP, which has supported both the big guns in the past, to remain in power.
When a country has two big parties and they both decline in the same election, this is generally attributed to a protest vote. The FDP failed to make the 5% threshold for representation last time round, but now has 80 seats, having grabbed 10% support this time, almost regaining the historically high numbers it had after the 2009 election.
But the big winner was the AfD, the nearest thing Germany has had to a Nazi party since the original version. It came from 4.7% to gain 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats, making it the third largest party. By comparison, the Nazis came from 2.6% of the vote in 1928 to 18.25%, and second place, in 1930, before taking power three years later.
All over Europe, extreme right parties have become serious political forces. Like the AfD, they have an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and ultra-protectionist platform designed to “make their country great again”.
But Germany was thought, or rather hoped, to be immune from this trend, because Germans know better than anyone where such ideas lead. Post-war West Germany did everything it could to be the opposite of the pre-war Germany millions of its citizens had supported, and the reunified German state has been far more tolerant of former East German Communists, even those with Stasi links, than West Germany had been of former Nazis.
For this reason, the AfD rise had iconic significance to the far right across Europe. If even Germany is turning far right, who can resist the tide? But then came the bombshell.
AfD Chair Frauke Petry, who had sensationally been elected to the Bundestag by direct mandate in Saxony rather than the list system, announced at the party’s first press conference after the election that “after much thought” she was not going to sit with its parliamentary group. She hadn’t told anyone else on the platform of her intentions. She just made this statement, grabbed her handbag and walked out.
The election result had provided Petry with every justification for her actions. Although the AfD still contains many volatile factions which argue over split hairs, as do extreme parties everywhere, no one would have tried to remove its de facto leader after such a triumph. But Petry had decided that the majority of the party would not reform the way she wanted it to, and would therefore sit as an Independent AfD member. Two days later she was forced out of the party altogether, and will take her Bundestag seat as a pure Independent.
At first glance, this resignation was a major blow to the credibility of the AfD and the far right in general. Its own leader had decided the party wasn’t worth supporting any more. But it is now clear that the opposite is true. Even if Petry does harm the AfD itself, there is every chance that an even worse monster might rise in is place – which could gain the support of millions, as in the 1930s, even though it will inevitably lead its country, and the world, to the same hideous place.
Having too much to know
Far right parties have mushroomed in recent years for the same reasons they did between the two world wars. Many people consider themselves dispossessed and disenfranchised, both individually and as members of a nation or group. They see jobs and housing going to foreigners, new economic systems leaving them with little hope of material progress and politicians who see their problems, but still support the policies most people blame for those problems existing, when they are supposed to be representing the people.
Extreme ideologies of left and right are invariably based around “us and them” attitudes. “Class enemy” and “foreign domination” are ultimately the same message. It is easy to those who disagree with extremists to say that people should be tolerant and inclusive, but those who have adopted these views will say that the boot is on the other foot. Calling people intolerant gets you nowhere when the ones you are calling names think that it is you who are not prepared to tolerate them, and their views, ambitions and needs.
Despite all Germany has done to be a polite, good and well-intentioned friend of all, it has still created “us and them”. To some extent, this is due to economic thinking which has failed many people everywhere, but is spouted by a hugely intolerant and ego-ridden profession. But the other reason is because German governments have stooped to using an age-old trick, which is now rebounding on them big time.
When Germany was reunified in the 1990s it was thought that there would be problems assimilating former Communist areas into the Federal Republic. If the needs of those brought up in East Germany were not addressed, or those unfortunates were stigmatised, this could produce another “us and them” division, which Germany would not be equipped to deal with after decades of trying to be every “us” imaginable, internationally and at home.
As ever, the way to unite people is to create an external enemy. Germans couldn’t turn on the EU, as residents of some member states did, because Germany has benefited more than anyone else from its existence, or NATO, because that was the guarantor of its continued good behaviour. With no Communists left to blame, the only option was immigrants, and particularly asylum seekers, who can’t even progress to immigrant unless the country they are applying to says so.
Being modern Germans, they couldn’t attack domestic populations. Everything had to be the fault of other countries, like Turkey. Petry and the AfD have favoured shooting refugees on sight as they try to cross Germany’s borders and stopping Muslim girls wearing burqas in schools, but official Germany has done no better by repeatedly calling on non-EU members to stop assisting immigration to the EU.
This approach has made Germans think, as it was intended to, that they are still as tolerant as anyone else but these “these people” are the problem. Rather than contradicting modern Germany’s values, attacking immigrants has become an extension of those values, as it is natural to think that people from countries Germany doesn’t much want to impress have lesser values than Germans. Tolerance has been used to create an inverted racism dressed up as respect for tolerance – another “us and them”, but a much more respectable one than a crude domestic division such as those which have fuelled the far right in places like Hungary and Poland.
It was only a matter of time before those who believe they are being harmed by the foreign presence, because they have been told so often enough, started to blame the German political class for this. Merkel and co. have talked so much about problems that they haven’t had time to find solutions. But because Germany has been so tolerant for so long, it is not one class of people above all who feel dispossessed.
Postwar Germany’s reconstruction was supposed to ensure that extreme ideologies never again took root in the population. As they haven’t until now, we might conclude that the AfD’s 12.6% is indeed an anomaly, an unrepeatable high watermark like UKIP’s 12.6% in the UK General Election of 2015.
But what happens if the likes of Frauke Petry retain their views, but leave the extreme parties behind? When they abandon “us and them” but become part of the mainstream which rejects that approach?
Petry’s problem with the AfD was exactly this. She wanted it to become acceptable enough to form part of coalition governments, and thus influence policies in the way it liked.
Those who advocate “us and them”, and get votes from it, are not fans of coalition governments. It is them or nothing, as we saw in the post-war “coalitions” in places like Czechoslovakia which resulted in one party control.
Entryism is a common tactic of extreme parties. If they can’t gain popular support they push their sympathisers into mainstream parties at their end of the spectrum, without them adopting more mainstream views.
One such example was Tom Finnegan, who almost won a seat in the UK parliament in 1983. He had been adopted as Conservative candidate for Stockton South without telling anyone he had been a senior National Front organiser in Birmingham only a few years before. The ruse would probably have worked if this information hadn’t leaked out during the campaign, as he only lost by 102 votes, to the sitting MP who had a personal following.
Finnegan was expelled from the Conservative Party as a result of this stunt, and it conducted an enquiry which rooted out a few more. But Petry isn’t an entryist because she was elected as an AfD member. She won’t be vilified by the public for pretending to be something she is not if she gathers around herself other people who have the same extreme views, but regard them as mainstream, with general appeal, rather than a manifestation of the “us and them” the public won’t accept for long.
The AfD has in the past sought, or actually formed, alliances with parties all across the right, thereby signalling to voters that they can support the AfD without being seen as intolerant extremists. In the European Parliament they sat with the British Conservatives and Poland’s Law and Justice Party rather than the far right ENF grouping, only to be expelled from it for allying with the Austrian Freedom Party, which is part of the latter.
The Freedom Party was famously part of a coalition government in Austria in the early 2000s. The EU regarded it as a threat to democracy due to its own “us and them” orientation, and thus imposed sanctions on Austria, but then lifted those sanctions as it was behaving like a mainstream party. This is exactly the direction Petry wanted the AfD to take, and the public knows that.
Many people who support extreme parties are not actually attracted by the extremism. If those who feel dispossessed feel no one else is articulating their concerns, they will hold their noses and put up with some of the more extreme solutions these parties offer. But their appeal to activist and voter alike is easy answers. Every problem and solution are presented in simplistic terms which form part of an unbending dogmatic system. As long as you follow these rules you are always right, and thus have a refuge from a world you don’t like, where things aren’t as simple as that.
The touchy-feely politics of postwar Germany were bound to suffer from exhaustion one day. But the bedrock of opinion behind them is likely to be energised, rather than overturned, by a new political force which offers the easy answers we all want, but presents them as the natural extension of what people have grown up with, rather than what they all reject.
Certainly not the end
It remains to be seen whether the AfD will realign into “mainstreamers” and “antagonists”. The party has been fighting that battle internally since its foundation. But now one side of that argument no longer has to be seen as extreme, whatever its members say or do, because they have jettisoned the elements of the AfD which most Germans will have problems with.
Hitler got as far as he did because he know how to play the populist card. His invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia were couched in terms still familiar today – he maintained that the principle of self-determination should not be set aside simply because “merely Germans” were involved. It would prove very easy for Petry and any fellow travellers to now say that everything they stand for must be acceptable because they are not the AfD, and must therefore be the same as mainstream Germans, and their views with them.
Frauke Petry is an educated businesswoman who speaks fluent English. She is not the bombastic, ignorant redneck far rightists stereotypically are. Like David Duke when he was Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, she makes an impression for this very reason, her outward respectability making the most unreasonable attitudes seem reasonable.
Frauke Petry’s pubic resignation from the triumphant AfD has done more for the far right cause than the election itself did. Now it can follow the same path within a framework most Germans find acceptable, if it wants to. Indeed, if the AfD now loses support its sympathisers will have little choice but to continue within the mainstream, now Petry has made their views part of it.
If you are worried about Kim Jong-Un firing rockets over Japan, just think what a justified Germany, at the heart of Europe, is likely to do to satisfy its population if Petry gains followers. We haven’t heard the last of this once internationally-obscure figure, but may soon wish we had.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.