Thus far, the AfD has said a lot, but has done all it can to avoid making that decision – yet it has apparently decided quietly nonetheless. It has tried to be two parties in one, and in doing so, it has pushed the boundaries far to the extreme right.
When AfD party leader Alexander Gauland threatens to "dispose of" Germany's federal commissioner of integration in Anatolia; when he refers to the Nazis as a "bird dropping on over 1,000 years of successful German history" and praises the Nazi-era military – these aren't slip-ups. They are calculated steps across the boundaries of acceptability set by our society's democratic consensus. And the scenes from Chemnitz leave a particularly bitter aftertaste in light of Gauland's announcement that "we will hunt you down," even if the statement was directed at the established political elite.
Ever since the federal election one year ago, the AfD has been drunk on the support it received. Far from becoming more moderate, it has actually grown more radical. The fact that the AfD is now exploiting the death of a Cuban-German – a man who opposed the party – is merely a bitter side note.
How, though, should the other political parties react to the excesses seen in Chemnitz and the role played by the AfD? Since the election, when the AfD entered parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote, the other parties have failed to come up with a coherent strategy. The new Social Democratic leadership believes that the answer might lie in the renaissance of the social welfare state, the most recent expression of which is a multibillion-euro pension pledge. The business-friendly Free Democrats are bouncing back and forth between nationalism and liberalism while Left Party floor leader Sahra Wagenknecht sees refugees as unwanted competition for German workers. And the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, has accelerated the widespread loss of trust in politics by launching a phantom debate on the reintroduction of border controls. At issue, as has become clear, is a mere handful of refugees – and yet the debate almost brought Merkel's government to its knees. Taken together, all of the proposals merely strengthen the impression that Germany's political leaders are helpless. As such, it is extremely likely that the AfD will once again find success in the upcoming October state elections in Bavaria and Hesse.
The success of the right-wing populists has a lot to do with changes that have occurred in Western societies, where a new class of disadvantaged has developed out of the erstwhile economic and political center – a new class which unabashedly took to the streets next to neo-Nazis in Chemnitz. The sociologist Andreas Reckwitz has described a "cultural devaluation and sense of rejection" felt by a section of the middle class that "believes it can no longer keep up" with the new avant-garde of hipsters and globalization's winners. The result is that the global competition for resources has produced a new class of disadvantaged, and their lives are defined by a feeling of powerlessness – emotions that are fueling the AfD's success. Other parties must find ways to address those feelings of impotency.
One solution could be found in a new concept of the modern state, which in the 1990s and 2000s was slimmed down to almost nothing in accordance with neoliberal obsessions. In the age of globalization and open borders, a strong, refurbished and functioning state that could fend off its enemies and protect its citizens would be a strong message that political leaders were regaining control. A state in which the courts could quickly decide who had the right to live in Germany and who did not; in which there were enough public prosecutors and police officers in addition to teachers and day care slots. Such a state must both demand more of the refugees who have come to Germany and provide them with more support, particularly when it comes to integration. And it must be prepared to impose penalties on them if, for example, they refuse to enroll in courses to learn the German language.
Such a state would be a comfort to its citizens and a warning to those wishing to weaken it. It would cost a lot of money, but it would be an excellent investment.
At the same time, though, it is also true that many AfD supporters vote for the party not despite its vulgar radicalism, but precisely because of it. All studies since World War II have shown that around 10 percent of Germans have a right-extremist worldview. The AfD is able to reach these people, whereas the other parties in the country cannot.
Showing leniency on this point – this is the lesson for the public debate in Germany – would be just as misguided as it was for the Chemnitz police to demonstrate forbearance, which looked a lot like the capitulation of the rule of law. No understanding should be shown to those who chase people through the streets just because they look different or to those who support the perpetrators with trite tweets. Such people must be completely ostracized by German society.
The breathless hyperbole employed by Gauland and his ilk doesn't just frequently ignore the facts, it trickles poison into our society – and it is also used by some media outlets, who have tuned their voice to match the sound of the right-wing populists and are constantly sounding the alarm. Those who yield to the AfD temptation of judging every crime through the lens of the perpetrator's nationality (as long as it's not a German) ultimately contribute to the mood that exploded in Chemnitz once rumors began to spread that the perpetrators came from Syria and Iraq. Daniel Hillig, the victim of the Chemnitz stabbing, urged in a Facebook posting to avoid judging people by their nationality, but by their behavior. Assholes, he wrote, will be assholes.
Translator: Charles Hawley