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The Alternative for Germany: nazism or populism?

By Thomas Klikauer - posted Thursday, 6 September 2018

A few weeks ago, thousands of Neo-Nazis marched through the East-German city of Chemnitz. Since autumn 2017, German Neo-Nazis even have a new political party inside the federal parliament. Their party was elected with 12.6% of the popular vote – behind the centre-right conservative CDU (26.8%) and centre-left social-democratic SPD (20.5%). Behind both, Germany's third strongest party holds 92 federal seats. This new radical-right party is called AfD or Alternative for Germany. Some say, Alternative For the Dumb and AF***ing Disgrace. The AfD is in opposition. It is strong in many East-German states but so far has always been in opposition.

As a consequence, it doesn't have power when it comes to legislating new laws. The AfD's parliamentarian work is rather patchy. Its parliamentarians often appear unprepared and confused. Waiting for a take-over or Machtergreifung, the AfD sees itself as a staunch opposition set against what it calls "the system". Until the day of a take-over, the AfD lives from public provocations, insults and braking taboos. This gets the AfD into the media. Its actual power is rather limited apart from being a parliamentarian annoyance.

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a neoliberal, highly conservative and strongly anti-Europe party. The rising star inside the AfD is Björn Höcke. Höcke is the leader of the AfD in Thuringia (East-Germany). His "Erfurter Resolution" shifted the AfD away from neoliberalism and towards a hard-line anti-emigration, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim party. The "Erfurter Resolution" marked a seismic shift of the AfD towards crypto-Nazism. While German mainstream likes to present the AfD as a populist party, insiders like Franziska Schreiber paint a different picture.


Many say that behind the "official" leadership of Alxeander Gauland (ex-CDU) and Alice Weidel (ex-Goldman Sachs), it is Björn Höcke who holds real power inside the AfD. The former Neo-Nazi supporter Höcke has a strong base inside the AfD. Ideologically, Höcke and his men run the AfD. They have converted many AfD officials towards the Flügel or wing. Others like the AfD's former boss Frauke Petry have simply been eliminated. Franziska Schreiber's account of life inside the AfD starts with the daunting acknowledgement: "democracy has next to no value for the majority of party members". This is hardly a surprise for a party increasingly in the "hands of the radical-right". Today, the AfD includes:

  • the semi-fascist identity movement,
  • Dresden's street fighters called Pegida whose boss, Mr Bachmannlikes to dress up as Hitler,
  • The ultra-militant and well-armed Reichsbürger or sovereign citizens,
  • Right-wing student fraternities (recruiting place for AfD officials and staffer), and
  • Germany's more outspoken Neo-Nazi party, the NPD (converting in droves to the AfD).

As they increasingly took hold of the AfD, the party became a "racist, nationalistic, xenophobic, and Anti-Semitic" party, writes Schreiber. Björn Höcke is its informal leader. According to ex-Neo-Nazi Christian Ernst Weißgerber, Björn Höcke is one of the most powerful men inside the AfD.Schreiber notes, ".his speeches remind one of Joseph Goebbles". For his speeches, he regularly receives "ferocious adulations". The AfD has managed to make "verbal right-wing radicalism acceptable", says Schreiber.

More in the former East-Germany than in West-Germany, the AfD's right-wing populism has been successful. After Germany's unification (1990s), economic insecurity grew as "many people lost jobs while alcoholism rose sharply. Child poverty was no longer something seen on TV. Instead, it became a daily reality" after West-Germany's version of neoliberal capitalism held sway in East-Germany. Tricked by the false promises of rich western capitalism, East-Germans' rallying cry, "we are the people" meant "if the Deutschmark does not come to us – we will come to you". To prevent this, the then chancellor Helmut Kohl quickly introduced the Deutschmark and promised blooming industries, which never came. What came was a kind of Anschluss. East-Germany became a "docking station" for western capital. "Nobody ever asked the East-Germans: what do you want?"

Schreiber writes, to many of us, the rise of the AfD appeared to be a God's end. Suddenly, the AfD expressed our feelings.Its"leader – Bernd Lucke – was on TV and he was, like us," against the Euro. "Before we were able to get used to the Deutschmark, it was taken away from us. We got the Euro", a currency many call "Teuro" (i.e. expensive) as the prices of nearly everything rose. Franziska Schreiber joined the AfD, a party supported by local donations. Apart from dodgy money transfers from August-von-Finck's corporate empire – maker of Mövenpick ice cream – Germany's capital stays away from the AfD. Unlike in 1933, this time there is no big corporate money from Allianz Insurance, no free Mercedes-Benz to drive around SA tugs and no slick uniforms made by Hugo Boss. On the whole, German capital values neoliberalism and globalization – not nationalism and racism.Nonetheless, the AfD remains a party that lives on xenophobia, riding on the key messages of Sarrazin's 2010 book, a book about the immanent demise of Germany because of migration. Aligned to that, the AfD claimed Germany's population would be halved very soon.

Inside the AfD and perhaps even more so inside its youth organization JA, everyone wanting to hold political office is viewed with suspicion. They are accused of fattening their pockets. The media are also viewed with misgivings. The AfD's communication strategy often meant avoiding mainstream media. "Facebook became our battlefield", says Schreiber. There, "hatred, the hounding of opponents, bullying, spreading of rumors, attacks and betrayals are ripe". While officially claiming to be against political correctness, "the AfD has, in a relative short time, created its own codex of what can be said and what cannot". It is the AfD's version of political correctness. This defines "what to think, what to say and to write". Useful AfD-codewords are: "comrade, Fatherland, honor, loyalty, and blood, and words found in IB publications".


Not surprisingly, the AfD believes that the current politics of the government works hand in hand with Islamist terrorists. Merkels' government is, according to one of the AfD's prime conspiracy theories, accessory to murder. Much of those conspiracy hallucinations are simply invented as AfD supporters remain largely among themselves cocooned inside the bobble of fear. Their Facebook echo chambers mutually reinforce the feeling of being threatened by Islamist terrorism. Sensing this, former AfD boss Frauke Petry stays, "we need the fearful! Even when facts contradict them, maintaining an atmosphere of fear remains the life blood of the AfD".

One of the key imagined threats and conspiracy hallucinations is the Umvolkung. This is the exchange of Germans with other minor races, the Untermensch or sub-human. Real Germans are called Bio-Germans inside the AfD indicating racial belonging, not citizenship or third generation migrants. To be a true German always means blood and race. When the AfD talks of Umvolkung, "it uses a word only used by Nazis", says Schreiber. Such racist views are reinforced inside the AfD's echo chambers cooking up a hallucination of being part of a silent majority. Claiming to speak on behalf of the invented silent majority has become a game of competition inside the AfD.

Inside AfD leadership a hot contest rages on who can deliver the most polarizing speeches? Who gets the AfD into the mainstream press? The trick, according to Schreiber is, to attract Germany's "extreme right while simultaneously not losing moderate voters". This means conjuring up Nazi images while never saying the obvious. All too obvious Nazism carries hefty fines under Germany's anti-Nazi legislation and anti-hate-speech laws. Here is an example on how this works:

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Franziska Schreiber’s German-language book Inside the AfD is published by Europa Press.

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About the Author

Thomas Klikauer is a German academic who teaches in the MBA course at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of the forthcoming book The AfD to be published by Sussex University Press in early 2020.

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