Protests against the AfD: the end for the German far right?


Germany has recently been swept with a wave of protest against the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) following revelations of a secretive meeting published in Correctiv. High-ranking politicians from the AfD had met with neo-Nazis and sympathetic businesspeople to discuss a plan for the forced deportations of millions of people currently living in Germany. In response, hundreds of thousands of German citizens took to the streets to demonstrate in 100 locations across the country.  

The “masterplan” discussed at this secret meeting in Potsdam proposed a policy of “remigration”. Three groups were earmarked for “reversed settlement”: asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights and “non-assimilated” German citizens. Its mastermind, neo-Nazi Martin Sellner, also recommended the use of a “model state” in North Africa to resettle these people. To ensure compliance with the policy, a “high level of pressure” would be exerted on people via “customised laws”. There are striking parallels with the Nazi’s 1940 plan to deport four million Jews to the island of Madagascar. Notable attendees include Roland Hartwig, a close aide to the co-leader of AfD, Alice Weidel.  

High-ranking politicians from the AfD had met with Neo-Nazis and sympathetic businesspeople to discuss a plan for the forced deportations of millions of people

So, who are the AfD, and how have they risen from relative obscurity to dominate political discourse in Germany? The AfD was founded in 2013 by comparatively liberal economists in response to the Eurozone crisis, dissatisfied with the financial cost paid by Germany for Greek bailouts. As 1.2mn refugees arrived in Germany from 2015 to 2016, the AfD hardened its attitude against immigration and positioned itself as the voice of outrage in response to the European migrant crisis. The pivotal moment for the party came in 2017 when key figure Björn Höcke called for the party to stop the traditional commemoration of the Holocaust and denounced the “culture of guilt” felt by the German people. Höcke was not expelled for these statements, illustrating the party’s embrace of the far-right. The AfD has since mobilised disenfranchised Germans who feel threatened by mass immigration.  

[The AfD’s] claim to defend ordinary people from the German political elite and the threat posed by mass immigration has given the party a new lease of life

They performed poorly in the 2021 German election, winning 10.3% of the vote (down by 2.3% from 2017). Since then, however, they have capitalised on uncertainty created by the Russo-Ukrainian War and increased cost of living. Their claim to defend ordinary people from the German political elite and the threat posed by mass immigration has given the party a new lease of life.

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition headed by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) has lurched from crisis to crisis, the most severe of which involved the German constitutional courts striking down their budget plans. The resulting €60bn funding gap has reduced faith in the current leaders. The SPD currently polls at 14% of the electorate. The AfD has mobilised resentment towards the political elite within Germany, particularly in the East, described by incumbent Prime Minister Olaf Scholz as “hoovering up a sense of disgruntlement that has been building for a long time”.  

Any sense of relief among democrats at the protests is misguided. Despite major turnouts at these protests nationwide, the AfD is still polling strongly, remaining second to the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and significantly ahead of other parties. However, the hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric that Correctiv exposed could dissuade undecided voters, pushing them away from the fringe toward the CDU and other mainstream parties. The AfD has since distanced itself from these plans, maintaining that it supports the right of all German citizens to remain in the country. Alice Weidel has also fired her aide, Mr Hartwig, who attended the secret meeting.  

Germany’s post-war democracy has arguably never faced a greater test

Germany’s chequered history with the far-right does have an important implication for the AfD. Within the country’s constitution, there is a provision for banning a political party that “seeks to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order”, put in place following the fall of the Third Reich. Some political leaders, particularly from the SPD, have called for a ban since the revelation of the “masterplan”. The German state-level intelligence authorities have labelled local AfD branches in the East as “secured extremists”, strengthening legal arguments for a ban.  

An attempt to ban the party could backfire. The AfD might claim it undermines the democratic will of the German people: banning a party the mainstream cannot beat. Political leaders in Germany must not make such a call lightly. They need only look to the US, where President Trump’s weaponization of the legal action taken against him by the Justice Department is proving successful in building support for his presidential campaign. Ms Weidel has already begun to build a similar rhetoric, stating that the calls “for the AfD to be banned are completely absurd and…anti-democratic”.  

Germany’s post-war democracy has arguably never faced a greater test. The political mainstream remains divided over how to respond. Despite widespread liberal protest, support for the AfD remains strong. This year, the European and state elections could be a significant show of strength for the AfD, particularly in their Eastern heartlands. The deciding factor as to whether the AfD gets a hand in governance at the next German elections is the strength of the “cordon sanitaire” that has typically kept them out of power. If the CDU enters into a coalition with them, the political landscape of the former Nazi power could be very different.  

Image: Martin Heinlein via Wikimedia Commons

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