MUNICH - Six days after the U.S. election, members of Germany’s leading right-wing party gathered at a traditional Bavarian restaurant in Munich. It was supposed to be a typical weekly meeting for the Alternative for Deutschland party, or AfD, the kind the chapter in south Munich holds every Monday night. Yet instead of discussing their own country’s federal elections coming up in September, the AfD members focused their conversation almost exclusively on one man: Donald Trump.
Dirk Driesang, a party official from Berlin, stood up and addressed the room, heralding the dawning of a new era. “Trump says America first, and we say Germany first!” he announced to cheers from the crowd of about 50 people — most of them men, all of them white.
It’s the kind of statement that would have been unheard of in this country ten, even five, years ago. Nationalism remains extremely controversial here, and no other mainstream party speaks in these terms. The AfD sees itself as a party that can bring back pride to German identity, which has been saddled with guilt since the atrocities of the Holocaust.
For many in the AfD, Trump’s victory brings hope, and could even represent a sign of things to come in Germany.
“Of course it helps us because a lot of people are not so afraid anymore of doing something unusual,” said Uli Henkel, a 61-year-old former business consultant who is an AfD member and aspiring member of parliament from Munich. “A lot of people say, ‘If the Americans can do it, we can do it too.’ The result might be that more people are not afraid anymore to vote for us.”
Germany is facing a populist insurgency similar to the one that brought Trump to the White House. Yet the surge in nationalism is deeply complex here, as Germans understand the dangers of populism. “Never again” is a lesson that German society has taken very seriously after the horrors of the Holocaust. The fact that populism is lifting its head out of the sand here, illustrates just how powerful the message of nationalism and isolationism has become across the West.
The AfD has been an anti-establishment voice in politics since 2013, when it was founded as a Eurosceptic party, opposed to the expensive bailouts of other European countries. Yet its platform has become more nationalist over time. When the refugee crisis hit Europe in 2015, the party took a strong stance against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border policy, which resulted in nearly 1 million migrants and refugees entering the country that year alone. Although many Germans welcomed refugees with open arms, a smaller portion of the population felt betrayed. The AfD’s anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform attracted many voters who feared that the influx of more than a million mostly Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers would increase crime and terrorism, and alter their way of life.
The AfD has risen to become Germany’s most successful nationalist party since the Nazis rose to power, due to the growing opposition to immigration and multiculturalism. While the party does not hold seats in the German parliament, it is expected to win approximately 12 percent of votes when federal elections are held in September. That percentage may seem trivial, but it would make the AfD the third-largest political party in Germany.
“This is very significant by German standards,” said Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz.
The AfD has accomplished in just four years what it took its counterparts in France and Austria more than four decades to achieve. Most of its success has come in just the last year, when it swept nearly a dozen state elections. German politicians and the press were particularly shocked when the AfD beat Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, or CDU, in her home state. The AfD now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five just one year ago.
The AfD’s rapid rise is explained by the fact that voters with very conservative views didn’t have a political home, according to German political scientist Werner Patzelt.
“There’s a wide section of the German population that hasn’t felt represented by the political establishment, and were simply waiting for a party like the AfD to provide an organization around which they could crystallize their anger and their hopes for alternative policy making,” he said.
It’s a phenomenon that echoes the anti-establishment forces that led to Trump’s victory.
Similar to how many Trump voters had previously voted for President Barack Obama and other Democrats, many who voted for the AfD are former CDU voters. Many are also well-educated. Approximately one-third are former non-voters, Arzheimer said.
Henkel, the AfD member in Munich, was once a reliable CDU voter and Merkel supporter. Then, along came the Euro crisis, and the bailouts of Greece, Spain and other countries. Henkel’s support began to wane. When Merkel opened Germany’s doors to asylum seekers, Henkel felt he could no longer trust her to “put Germans first.”
“What [Merkel] has done, without asking us, cannot be changed back easily, and maybe never,” Henkel said. “These people are here now and they have already changed our daily lives, and not for the better. Because of that she is not holding the lantern of liberalism, but of mistreatment of her own people, of their own race, of their own culture.”
Henkel also resents the way the press has portrayed his party and the refugees now living in his country.
“If you’re not in favor of the refugees, if you’re not going to the stations saying, ‘Refugees welcome,’ if you don’t think that millions of young male Muslim men are good for this country,” he said, “then you’re racist, then you’re a Nazi, and you are an anti-Semite. And as soon as you are an anti-Semite, you are burned, you have no voice anymore.”
As soon as you are an anti-Semite, you are burned, you have no voice anymore.
AfD members and supporters want to move on from Germany’s Nazi past, to shake the guilt they feel they are unfairly forced to carry and to bring back pride in German identity, they told The WorldPost at the Munich meeting and on other occasions. Young people account for the second-largest group of AfD voters, according to Jörg Sobolewski, the AfD’s 27-year-old Berlin regional manager. The largest group is between the ages of 30 and 65, he said.
“If you base your national history on the notion of collective guilt, then you need psychological advice,” Sobolewski said. “No one can live with the concept of fear and guilt for something he or she had no responsibility for. We do need to learn that things like [the Holocaust] can never happen again,” but, he said, Germany has gone overboard.
Although those sentiments are common within the AfD, they are extremely controversial in mainstream German society. Last month, one party leader, Bjorn Hoecke, caused a national uproar. Some politicians labeled him a Nazi ― even members of his own party rebuked him — after he told a gathering of young AfD supporters that Germans need a “180-degree turnaround” in the way they perceive their history.
“We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” he said, referring to the memorial in Berlin that commemorates the slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
But Henkel, the AfD member from Munich, wasn’t turned off by Hoecke’s comments. He’s still a fierce believer in the party’s platform and mission.
“After 40 or 50 years of brainwashing, and always telling us how bad we were during the 12 years of the Nazi Reich, a lot of people in this country don’t know what it means anymore to be proud of one’s own country, to love your own country, your own people,” he said. “I don’t want to see my country being sacrificed on the altar of [political correctness] and see our culture being buried under the religious influence of an absolutely intolerant religion.”
We have this problem in Germany where you’re not allowed to love your country, because if you do, you’re considered a Nazi.
Sarah Leins, a 30-year-old from Berlin, is another former CDU voter who now supports the AfD. She knows many Germans detest her party. Last year, when she was handing out AfD flyers in Berlin, someone spat on her, she said.
“We have this problem in Germany where you’re not allowed to love your country, because if you do, you’re considered a Nazi,” she said. “We have to overcome this.”