Old Alternatives: The Return of Nationalism to German Politics

By Marc Camanag
Staff Writer

Six years after a seemingly innocuous entrance into the political sphere, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has grown into a nationalist powerhouse that holds the third-largest share in the country’s federal parliament. Echoing similar movements across Europe, the AfD’s platform has tapped into deep-rooted, populist fears to launch itself on a trajectory that no party has ever pulled off in such short time. As the first far-right party to set foot in the Bundestag in nearly sixty years, the AfD raises the question: Why has nationalism returned to German politics, and why now? 


Keeping true to its name, the AfD provides just that: an alternative to Germany’s two most prominent and historic parties — the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Alternative for Germany made considerable strides in elections earlier this year, achieving its strongest results in the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony, second only to the aforementioned major parties. The AfD’s place as the third-largest party has the potential to upset and permanently redefine the dynamics of the German political system, which relies on either grand coalitions — in which the CDU and SPD control parliament — or other configurations of coalition government to hold power. Ultimately, the AfD’s rise and ability to surpass other long-established parties can be attributed to geopolitical grounds and its focal shift to anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse. 

Since its inception, the nationalist rhetoric of the AfD has found its strongest support in the former East Germany. These states, still overwhelmingly working-class and economically lagging behind their Western counterparts, are especially telling of the complex geopolitical relationships that have developed in the thirty years since reunification. In its annual report, the German government found that fifty-seven percent of East Germans felt like second-class citizens, and that the average salary in East Germany is around eighty-four percent of that in the west — both conditions that provide an eager homecoming to nationalist ideology. Into today, the AfD engages in an especially commanding use of social media and visual propaganda, one that has been described as a “dictatorship of the loud”. In their efforts to capitalize on this geopolitical split, the AfD has also embarked on a nostalgia campaign of sorts, evoking the feel of 1989 to coax East Germans into the party’s take on political change. This movement toward nationalism, which preys on economic downturn and feelings of abandonment by the capital, is not an explicitly German phenomena; however, its effect has been amplified by the fact that Germany was bilaterally divided until 1990. 

With the next federal election in 2021 and the knowledge that Angela Merkel is stepping down, it is up to German voters on both sides of the country to decide just how deep this fracture runs.

The rise of the AfD is also closely linked to immigration politics, and it’s wholly possible that the party would never have achieved its current popularity without it. Since Merkel’s welcoming of almost one million migrants and refugees in 2015, the AfD has taken a particularly hardline stance towards immigration that has drawn voters away from nearly every other modern party. Originally founded on a platform of Euroscepticism, the AfD — intentionally or not — is now defined by its intense (and arguably extremist) anti-immigration and anti-Islam views. In particular, the party seeks to immediately deport rejected applicants and remove individual rights in the asylum process. For Germans in the east and west, this sentiment is the common link; influxes of migrants into their states lead to xenophobic concerns and thereafter a vote for the AfD. Even in states like Brandenburg, where only two percent of migrants have settled, immigration has been the driving force for the party’s rising influence. For nearly three decades, Brandenburg was ruled and dominated by the Social Democratic Party — yet in the last state election following Merkel’s hotly-contested immigration policy, it only survived by single percentage points against the Alternative for Germany. 

In tandem with this rhetoric, the party has also established itself as the country’s defense against Islamization. Rather remarkably, the AfD does not employ the use of dog whistle politics to express its feelings; in fact, its manifesto explicitly describes Islam as a significant threat to the German way of life. As the only mainstream party that actively endorses these viewpoints, the AfD has become a quasi-catch-all for German citizens that share in this ideology and find comfort in regression to ethnocentric nationalism. Fueled by racism and discrimination, the advancement of the AfD is a stark reflection of the conditions that gave way to Hitler’s Nazi regime — and proof of just how dangerous such alternatives can be.    

Despite all this, the upward trajectory of the AfD is neither absolute nor inevitable. In the wake of tragedy in the Eastern German town of Halle inspired by anti-Semitism and right-wing beliefs, Germans have been inclined to look deeper into the practices and beliefs of the nationalist party. The synagogue attack, perpetrated on Yom Kippur, has led to widespread condemnation of the AfD, with many citing similarities in motive and method to the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. Along with a drop in approval ratings, broadcaster polling found that ninety-percent of non-AfD voters agreed with the statement that “as a result of their positions and choice of words, the AfD paves the way for right-wing extremist acts of violence”. Such inflammatory rhetoric has been a consistent staple of the party, but its active translation into an act of violence sheds new light onto the place of nationalism in German politics. 

The future of Germany and the AfD is completely in the hands of its people — nationalism may have come home, but it doesn’t have to stay. 

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