For more than six decades, modern Germany’s taboo against rising right-wing populism held strong. But now it is broken.
For all that time, no party to the right of the Christian Democrats and their Christian Social Union allies was able to establish itself in German politics. But the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, soon will manage to enter the country’s parliaments. Not because it is so much more forceful than all the previous failed attempts, but because the conditions for a right-wing populist movement have not been this favorable.
The upheaval that the German republic faces in the current refugee crisis very possibly constitutes the most far-reaching change in its history.
On one hand it has mobilized an unforeseen readiness by Germans to help the refugees, along with an unprejudiced openness to something new. At the same time is has awakened fears about the future, in addition to uncertainty and aggression. Any party that takes up and exacerbates this mood will find a place in the political structure.
If it were simply a matter of the AfD, there might not be particular reason to worry. But not only in the streets and on the Internet, but all the way to editorial columns of the established media, a rising anger is being voiced against impositions brought by the crisis — and against the chancellor who is held responsible for them.
The AfD is only the most visible symptom of an evolving social atmosphere. Not even the modern historical taboo can assert itself against this mood. The increasing distance in time to National Socialism has contributed. Also, the fact that today one can be a right-wing populist without having to be an anti-Semite or revisionist has opened political space to the right of traditional conservatives.
The dissolving historical taboo along with a perfect opportunity have blunted traditional weapons of established German politics for dealing with right-wing populism.
Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, head of the center-right CSU, and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democrats, often take up populist slogans while simultaneously stigmatizing populists. But now that only makes the AfD stronger. The two leaders should give up their old tactic, otherwise Germany could soon end up there where France is already helplessly squirming — in the trap of modern right-wing populism.
If the AfD had been permitted to design a perfect start to the new year, it would have looked something like this: mass sexual assaults on women by migrants of Arab origin, an overwhelmed police force, aghast politicians hiding their helplessness with declarations of decisiveness, and a media that only belatedly reported on the attacks. Looking back someday on how right-wing populism was able to establish itself as a political force in modern Germany, the events at the beginning of 2016 will be seen as crucial.
The AfD is the only party that voiced an aggressive challenge to the new German policy on refugees right from the start. It wasn’t difficult. Deep-seated reservations regarding Islam, fantasies of sealing off the nation and enthusiasm for authoritarian shows of power belong to the party’s basic mental and political outlook.
The AfD sees migrants as a danger to German culture and prosperity, and considers the political protagonists to be an unscrupulous cartel. With this perspective, the party is not approved of by a majority of society. But in a growing segment of the population that rejects Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, nearly 10 percent are ready to join the right-wing populists.
Moreover, journalists grown reactionary with increasing age no longer retreat when they are accused of arguing exactly like the AfD. They too create a mental and moral ramp into the center of society for the populists.
All forecasts agree that in the March elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the AfD will surpass the five-percent threshold for representation, in Saxony-Anhalt in any case.
Already weeks ago, the deputy chairman of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, called the refugee crisis a "gift" for the party. One is normally pleased to receive gifts, and so it is in this case. Because in the AfD’s loathing to the mass influx of migrants from a different culture, in its tirades about failing government and almost-criminal politicians, there also elation about circumstances that playing into its hands.
From its beginnings, the AfD has depended on crisis-ridden times — first the turbulence on financial markets, then the European currency crisis.
Back then, the AfD held southern Europeans responsible for mismanaging billions of euros in bailout aid, much of it from Germany.
Today it’s the Arab crisis regions, whose fleeing refugees are seen as a danger to German prosperity and lifestyles.
In 2013 the party lured its followers with calls to abandon the euro. Today it demands strict deportation and closing of borders.
But during the 2013 federal elections, neither scaremongering nor contempt for the elite allowed the AfD to achieve a breakthrough. A great majority of Germans saw the financial and euro crises more as an abstract threat – as if in the cinema.
Today’s refugee crisis, on the other hand, hits Germans where they live — in communities, classrooms and soon also on the labor market. In Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s words, it is the "rendezvous of Germans with globalization." No wonder not everyone is ready to accept this encounter. Germans’ longing for clear relationships, for sovereign decisions and national options have been co-opted by the AfD.
The fact that right-wing populists have so far not been able to establish themselves in German federal politics was also due to a mainstream party, which successfully integrated the political spectrum from the center to the right edge. But under Chancellor Merkel, the CDU-CSU gave up that right edge and opened space for competition from a right-wing populist party.
That was neither intention nor accident.
Always when Ms. Merkel was faced with a choice between maintaining tradition and governmental pragmatism, she voted soberly and non-ideologically against the conservatives — and her chancellorship descended into a series of political humiliations. Suddenly her CDU-CSU stood for equal rights for homosexuals, an end to compulsory military service, an exit from nuclear power and unconditional rescue of the euro.
Ms. Merkel didn’t push aside the traditionalists because she had something against them, but because she couldn’t govern successfully in a modernizing society. on the basis of their cherished formulas and emotions.
But the convictions and cultural imprints that grew outdated during the Merkel era have not simply disappeared. Instead the refugee crisis is revitalizing them. The AfD is the radicalized, ugly return of a kind of conservatism that, in the decades gone by, lost its political moorings. It is a collection of all those persons for whom Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship embodies the demise of good old Germany.