Normalising hate politics, a guide by the AfD

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The AfD "yesterday, today and tomorrow". Carnival parade, March 2016. [Ewais / Shutterstock]

Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has risen in popularity but for certain branches of the movement parliamentary politics don’t actually matter, as they want to bring down the establishment, not join it, explains Paul Simon.

Paul Simon is pursuing a master’s degree in North American Studies at the University of Leipzig, and is a regular contributor to Souciant, in which this article first appeared.

On 24 September, federal elections will be held in Germany. The right-wing party AfD, which in recent months has been polling consistently well above 10%, will almost certainly enter federal parliament. Merkel will in all likelihood remain in power but the rise of the far-right has already shaken Germany’s politics.

About a month ago, a “strategy paper“, adopted by the national leadership of the AfD was leaked to the press, providing us with an insight into what to expect in the coming months. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung summed it up: “The more the AfD will be stigmatised, ‘the more positive the image of the party will be’”, the paper says.

In order to push the boundaries of political discourse, the AfD wants to rely on provocation. Statements must be carefully calculated, with two different audiences in mind: the media and general public must be outraged by the shrieking dog-whistle provocation.

But for sympathisers it must be possible to decode the message as innocent, normal even, so that the media’s reaction will in turn appear hysterical and irrational – an oppressive establishment’s attempt to shut down a critical voice.

All this is done to polarise society more and the end goal is to normalise reactionary and hateful politics.

In order to play this game effectively, it helps to be an opportunist, a demagogue with neither scruples nor strong personal convictions – which may be the reason that the ex-liberal Donald Trump excelled at it.

It is also a strategy that reflects the ambiguity at the heart of the success of the AfD, a party that harbours its fair share of extremists but still finds support among many “ordinary” conservatives outside of radical milieus.

It seems clear by now that Björn Höcke’s recent speech, in which he called for “a 180° degree turn in our politics of memory” may have been similarly designed as a provocation. All too early and well-prepared were the follow-up explanations he offered, in which he began to relativise his statements.

Höcke was “surprised” by the reactions, he wrote. “In my speech, I merely wanted to question the way in which we Germans look back on our history, and how our history can create a sense of identity in the 21st century.”

Alas, this time it didn’t work. With great relish, even some of his rivals stuck in the knife, declaring him a “liability” for the party. The first and most vocal was MEP Marcus Pretzell, the husband of party leader and Höcke-rival, Frauke Petry.

But even supporters shook their heads over Höcke’s clumsiness, worrying about how this might impact election chances. Only his closest allies stood by him.

The party itself is not really divided, but its leaders clearly are. Höcke is the charismatic figurehead of the ultranationalist wing, which dominates the eastern states and is closely connected to anti-immigrant street movements.

Frauke Petry, on the other hand, has gained control over the party but is by no means powerful enough to marginalise her opponents.

Höcke, after all, is popular with the base, and often holds rallies drawing a few thousand people. The two factions don’t disagree about the (vague and contradictory) program of the party, but they do have different conceptions of their historical role.

Petry and her allies are seeking to establish a modern far-right party following the model of the Austrian FPÖ or the Front National in France, which have become “normal” parties competing for power.

Höcke and his allies in the “New Right”, however, have loftier, almost revolutionary goals. To them, the nation is in existential crisis. Only a radical break, an “absolute victory”, as Höcke put it in his speech, can save it. Their ideology and style is harkening back to older political traditions, most importantly the national-revolutionary and anti-liberal politics of the Weimar Republic.

In Höcke’s words, their party constitutes “the last evolutionary and peaceful chance for Germany” and he has always demanded that the party must position itself “in fundamental opposition” and remain a “movement party” connected to other forms of resistance. He implores it not to be corrupted by the moderating forces of day-to-day politics.

His decision not to stand for federal election can be read as a victory of his nemesis Petry – but it may also reflect the conviction by Höcke and his allies that parliamentary politics ultimately are secondary.

What counts is to agitate, to bring down and discredit the establishment and the government, and ultimately to transform the political culture. The change must be fundamental.

The new nationalists want to leave the past behind, they say, and found a new, confident patriotism but they remain obsessed with the German defeat and its subsequent status of submission to the West.

To remember national crimes, but not national glory, is to Höcke only another sign of this. Instead, he wants Germans to think of themselves as victims: “With the bombardment of Dresden and other German cities, they wanted nothing short of robbing us of our collective identity. They wanted to destroy us root and branch, they wanted to rip out our roots. And combined with the systematic re-education begun in 1945, they almost achieved it.”

This is a reading of history generally reserved for neo-Nazi revanchist. Smart rightwing politicians know that, if they want to build a majority for xenophobia in Germany, their best bet is to stay away from history, and instead present themselves as a modern, forward-looking movement, at peace with the constitution and the post-war order.

But to the wounded nationalism espoused by Höcke and his allies, this post-war order itself is precisely the problem. The rot, they believe, has set in a long time before Merkel came to power.

In his speech, Höcke likened Angela Merkel to Erich Honecker, and his own movement to the resistance that brought down the communist state of East Germany.

Like the fascists of the 1920s, Höcke painted an apocalyptic picture of a nation in grave danger, surrounded by enemies and ruled by traitors, claiming “this is the terrible state of our nation, this is the terrible state of our people in the year 2017. I have always insisted, I have preached again and again, and I will do it again tonight, because it is so important: The AfD is the last evolutionary, it is the last peaceful chance that our fatherland has.”

Subscribe to our newsletters