Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘…We know nothing good can come of this’: the challenge of the German far right

The rise of the Alternative for Germany is laying bare the fragility of Germany’s social democratic consensus, writes Penny Bochum

In her speech at the SPD leadership conference in April, newly-elected leader Andrea Nahles addressed one of the key challenges faced by social democracy: rightwing populism in Europe and the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) at home. She warned, ‘Watch out…..We know nothing good can come of this.’

The AfD celebrated its fifth birthday in April. Since its birth, it has evolved from a Eurosceptic party to a far right one, and despite constant factionalism, infighting and splits, in its short life it has been spectacularly successful.

It has seats in 14 state governments and in Germany’s September elections swept into parliament for the first time. It is now the largest opposition party to Angela Merkel’s  coalition government with the SPD, having won 12.6 per cent of the vote and 94 seats.

The SPD, in its worst performance in modern history, won only 20.5 per cent of the vote and 153 seats. In east Germany, the SPD’s position is catastrophic: it took only 13.9 per cent of the vote, and came fourth place in four of the five east German states – behind the AfD, CDU, and Left party. Its worst performance was in Saxony, where it slid to 10.5 per cent; the AfD took the largest vote share with 27 per cent.

The AfD’s success comes from turning out non-voters as well as drawing them away from others parties. In September it turned out nearly one and half million voters who had never voted before, as well as taking one million votes from the CDU and half a million from the SPD.

📖 Clearing the debris: can Andrea Nahles renew Germany’s social democrats?

The AfD portrays itself as the party of the people fighting against a corrupt establishment. The manifesto highlights the existence of a ‘small and powerful elite’ in the established parties, which is ‘secretly in charge and responsible for the misguided development of past decades’. It advocates restoring power to the people based on a system of referenda similar to the Swiss model.

The AfD’s popularity grows even despite the extremist nature of its manifesto and the views expressed by its leadership. The AfD election manifesto, for example, clearly states that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany,’ and that the spread of ‘conflict-laden and multiple minority communities erodes social solidarity, mutual trust and public safety.’ Leader Alexander Gauland regularly makes headlines, amid reports that he has employed far right extremists from banned groups in his Bundestag office, and once called for a Turkish-German government integration commissioner to be ‘disposed of’ in Anatolia, (using a word, ‘entsorgen’, associated with the Nazi-era). His co-leader in parliament, Alice Weidl, called German politicians ‘puppets of the second world war allies’ and also used language with Nazi connotations when she wrote about Germany being overrun by foreigners. The leader of the party in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, has opposed the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a ‘monument of shame’ and said that Germany should stop atoning for its past.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all these statements by the leadership are supported by party members, and is there a more significant divided between the ‘far right’ and ‘moderate’ wings of the party than might be expected. In fact, the AfD was initially formed in 2013 by a group of economists and professors opposed to the eurozone bailout and the single currency. But by 2015 it had deposed its founder, and installed a new leader, Frauke Petry, who began to take it down a path paved with jingoism and anti-immigrant discourse.

Gauland himself describes Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to one and a half million refugees as a ‘gift’. Unease amongst the population over this decision was exploited by the party’s xenophobic rhetoric and its growth accelerated. This includes statements such as that made by Frauke Petry in 2016 that stated that German police should shoot refugees entering the country illegally ‘if necessary’.

Since then the lurch to the right has continued. Petry resigned just after the election in September, having been forced out in what Deutsche Welle described as an extremist rightwing putsch by Gauland and Weidl. Yet the party remains divided. There is a ‘moderate’ grouping in the party, the ‘Alternative Middle’, trying to position the AfD as a party of government.

Underlying AfD support is what a recent report by the Hans-Böckler Foundation described as a pervasive fear of social decline across all social classes. A report by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) found that the AfD is more likely to get its support from areas where there are fewer secure jobs, fewer big companies and less industry. In the west of Germany, the AfD was most successful in areas where people either earn less or work in industry – territory which could be described as the traditional SPD base. The AfD vote can also be characterized as being predominantly male and middle aged.

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So what will the SPD do to counter the appeal of the AfD?

The party is now embarking on the SPD renewal process, a major review which reports to party conference at the end of 2019. It aims not only to modernise the party, but to give the it a new programme and clear identity. The policy review will focus on four themes:  growth and prosperity, the future of work, the welfare state and Germany’s role in the world.

This is vital because, over the last decade, the SPD has struggled to establish a clear identity. Coalition government has blurred the lines between the SPD and the CDU, which under Merkel has moved towards the centre ground. The SPD suffered a split in 2004 over Gerhard Schröder’s third way agenda, a split which indirectly led to the formation of the Left party (which took 9.2 per cent of the vote in 2017). The debate about Schröder’s welfare reforms is still alive and still unresolved.

In her speech, Nahles spoke about the need to fight the populist appeal with the social democratic values of freedom, justice and solidarity, focussing on solidarity as the most needed value in this ‘globalised, neo-liberal, turbo-digitalised world’. Key to this is a market economy based on solidarity, in which everyone profits from economic growth.

Nahles only received 66 per cent of the leadership vote against a little-known outsider, offering a left-wing alternative. This showed that many party members did not trust her to provide a clear enough identity to face the challenges ahead, especially since the party is once again in coalition with Merkel.

Nahles is shouldering a heavy responsibility. The success of the renewal process is critical not only for the SPD’s future, but also for the fight against the far right in 21st century Germany.


Penny Bochum is a Progress member. She tweets @PennyBochum


Photo: By Olaf Kosinsky [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Penny Bochum

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