The troubling rise of Germany's far right

by Cathrin Schaer / 12 October, 2017
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A vandalised election campaign billboard featuring the Alternative fur Deutschland party. Photo/Getty Images

The success of the far right in the German elections is deeply disturbing, reports Cathrin Schaer from Berlin.

If Germany’s deputy leader, Sigmar Gabriel, is to be believed then his country now has Nazis in its Parliament. “I know there is a high chance that, when I return to Parliament, there will be genuine Nazis standing at the speaker’s podium … for the first time since 1945,” Gabriel told local media before federal elections in late September. His remarks made headlines: the “N” word is not used lightly here.

The outcome of the German elections was always a given: Chancellor Angela Merkel would be returned to power. The only uncertainty was which smaller party would be most popular. It turned out to be the “Nazis” Gabriel was talking about: the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or AfD) party, which almost trebled its share of the national vote, winning just under 13%.

On the night the results were announced, about 700 enraged locals, who thought the AfD’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was unacceptable, gathered in Berlin, near where the party faithful were celebrating. The party faithful themselves, sipping sparkling wine on a glassed-in terrace high above the mob, yelled out things like, “You lost, we won”, and gave protesters the finger, before disappearing indoors. Someone threw a bottle, the police were called and the party was over.

Since that night, the whole country has been in the grip of an existential hangover. Do 13% of Germans really have Nazi tendencies? Are they all racists? Why did voters in former East German states like the AfD almost twice as much as those in the former West? What was wrong with the Easterners? Maybe reunification had not worked out that well. Had everyone forgotten the war?

An interesting aside is that the AfD got double-digit support – between 10 and 15% – from every age group except the over-60s, where it remained under 10%. The old folk do not forget.

Reporters descended on Görlitz in the far east, a district where the AfD got almost 44% of the vote, to ask bakers, plumbers and local alcoholics what their problem was; nobody has an answer yet.

In one Berlin newsroom, a reader’s letter caused some consternation. We should not scorn AfD voters, the writer argued, but try to understand them. A lot of German politicians had already apologetically said something similar, lamenting the loss of their supporters to the far right. A discussion ensued among editors: do we really want to give a platform to people who repeat Nazi sentiments, threaten to shoot migrants at the border and want to “reclaim German history”?

The conversation was an uncomfortable echo of the one that many in the US had after Donald Trump was elected. There, they were also trying to understand why so many angry, white men voted for Trump – as they did here for the AfD.

Post-election polling shows about 60% of AfD supporters saw theirs as a protest vote: they chose the populists despite their racist policies, not because of them.

Analysts theorised that “cultural anxiety” was to blame. Or it may have been economics, education, feminism, too many liberals, too few liberals, German reunification or an irrational fear of strangers. Or all of the above.

Someone even blamed a lady-drought caused by the departure of many marriageable females from East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Whatever it was, there’s only one way to look at it now, and that’s from the bright side. As one commentator put it, even after admitting 1 million immigrants, 87.4% of Germans still didn’t vote for the Nazi-ish party. In 1930, it was only 82% who didn’t.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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