Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

What is Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on about?

The opportunities and temptations of a newcomer among Germany’s political parties.

Alternative for Germany supporters march in Berlin. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.When the decision was taken to furnish all countries of the European Union with the Euro as the only currency--at least those not explicitly insisting on retaining their monetary independence--in the 1990s, this was a momentous choice for Germany.

In political terms the Federal Republic of Germany was not a fully sovereign state after its foundation in 1949. Foreign troops remained on German soil, no longer as an official army of occupation, but still enjoying many privileges. As the Second World War had not officially ended in a peace treaty, the status of Germany among the other European states remained somewhat ambivalent. In particular it remained unclear in which way the allied powers of 1945 would use their authority and influence should the chance ever arise for a reunification of the two German states.

When this chance emerged in 1989, reunification came about surprisingly swiftly, despite Mrs. Thatcher’s furious protests and Mitterand’s secret misgivings about such a portentous change in the European balance of power. However, the man presiding over Germany’s fate at this time, Helmut Kohl, decided at the very moment of the rebirth of the German nation state to scrap the Deutschmark in favour of the Euro, thereby undermining the power of one of post-war Germany’s most important institutions, the Bundesbank, and destroying Germany’s monetary autonomy.

This is not the place to discuss the reasons for this decision in detail. But Kohl clearly felt that the Germans were not really capable of governing themselves as citizens of a fully independent nation state. They needed to be supervised and controlled by other countries as they had been up till 1989, otherwise they would again lose their way as they had done in the first half of the twentieth century and would once again become the hated odd man out, as the largest and potentially most powerful nation in Europe. Resentment against Germany stretched back through two world wars and beyond, and still formed a strong undercurrent in public opinion. (Ironically, of course, Germany is now more isolated and unpopular in Europe than ever since the end of the Second World War - for that very reason, that it appears to dominate the Eurozone and impose a harsh austerity policy on other countries – or so people say).

French pressure also played a role (Paris saw the capacity of the Bundesbank to dictate French interest rates within the monetary system replaced later by the Euro as a perpetual source of humiliation and were keen for the DM to be abolished), but Kohl’s hope was central - to create thereby a European economic system which would be the German Marktwirtschaft writ large. One should also bear in mind the fact that the great German industrial companies focused on exporting their goods saw clear advantages in a common and stable European currency which would pose a serious challenge to their competitors in Italy and France.

What however remains remarkable to this day is that there has never been any real discussion about the Euro in Germany. True to say, a number of prominent economists--perhaps the majority of the leading economists in Germany-- opposed the Euro in the 1990s. But the public at large accepted the decision to abandon the Deutschemark with supine acquiescence. They were of course, assured and repeatedly reassured for years on end that there would never, ever be any kind of bail out of other Euro-countries and that the European central bank would be guided by the same principles and ideals which had made the Bundesbank famous for its monetary rectitude. Still, questions could have been asked about the hazardous experiment of creating a common European currency without at the same time creating a European central state upholding this currency. But they remained unasked, at least in parliament and in the wider political debate.

German political culture after the war--matters are different since the advent of Merkel--was by no means always alien to acrimonious debates and conflicts. But if there was one subject which was taboo and a no go-area for political strife, it was Europe. Until 2014 there was never a European election in Germany in which the political parties asked the voters to choose between different versions of policy on Europe. Even in 2014 the new AfD was almost the only party to do so with the partial exception of Die Linke (the former communists).

Essentially, domestic German issues always dominated the European elections. As far as Brussels was concerned all parties agreed that ever more institutional power should gradually be given to the European Commission and the European parliament, as along as the power of the purse remained with the Bundestag, the federal diet. This sort of policy was of course a contradiction in terms, but as one was not really allowed to discuss these issues, this was ignored.

Europe repressed

Even at the height of the Euro-crisis during the federal election of 2013, the parties dominating German politics managed to keep all issues connected to the rescue of the Euro out of the election campaign, supported in this noble endeavour by the majority of journalists working for television or the more important national newspapers and news magazines. The economics pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the weekly journal Wirtschaftswoche (which however is now being brought into line by a new editor in chief, a self- acclaimed passionate supporter of the Euro) fought a lone battle against this strange complicity in silence, but such publications are not widely read as most readers find articles on economic questions too difficult to digest.

In this world of complacent consensus the Alternative für Deutschland, founded in February 2013, is the great fly in the ointment, the heretic who dares to say the unsayable, and to question the ideal of an ever closer union of European states and the Euro itself.

Protest movement

One has to admit that the AfD is at the moment still more of a protest movement uniting men and women holding quite different and sometimes contradictory convictions than a homogenous political party, but then the other minor or major parties are not that homogenous either. The advantage they have, to be sure, is that they have found ways and means to isolate the oddballs and eccentrics within their own ranks and contain conflicts through a calculated mixture of fudged compromise and patronage politics.

The AfD still has to learn how to contain internal conflicts effectively and isolate those within its own ranks who are rather too wild eyed and enthusiastic, not to mention the ‘fruitcakes’ who frequent the rank and file of UKIP supporters in Britain, for example, and are not entirely absent among AFD supporters either. Some progress has certainly been made in this regard, but a lot still needs to be done. However, there is still a danger that the party will remain a sort of institutionalised ‘Speaker’s Corner’, a place for everybody who does not belong to the political Left, but nevertheless has a grievance against the establishment and wishes to vent his or (more rarely) her anger, as the conservative and ‘patriotic’ daily Junge Freiheit has pointed out.

The years to come will show whether the party is capable of building on its initial success--it now has members of parliament in four regional diets (Brandenburg, Sachsen, Thüringen and Hamburg)--and become a force in German politics that the other parties really do have to reckon with on a daily basis.

What then do supporters of the AfD have in common? They, or most of them are convinced that the present German political class--and large sections of the media in alliance with this class--can no longer be trusted, no more really than the political nomenclatura which until recently governed Greece. Essentially, German voters were never told the truth about the Euro and the enormous risk it would pose both to the German taxpayer (and those depending for their income on the German welfare state of course) and the small savers unable to buy real estate or to play the stock market to make a profit. The majority of people in Germany do not belong to the upper middle class or live in the countryside, but dwell in rented accommodation, in great contrast to the situation in Italy or Britain, which partly explains the widespread German fear of inflation. They were not told about the risks in the 1990s when the ‘frivolous experiment’  (Wolfgang Streeck) of creating this artificial currency first got off the ground and are not told now about them, when men such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the minister of finance, still pretend that the loans granted to countries such as Greece will be paid back in due course without any losses to the German taxpayer, a proposition that nobody who has ever given any thought to this problem can believe for a single moment.  

If distrust of the entire political class constitutes ‘populism’, the AfD may well be a populist party. But then democracies from time to time do need tribunes of the people, in a manner of speaking, in particular when professional politicians have forgotten the principle that, ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time’ (Lincoln).    

Populism’ and nationhood

Supporters of the AfD also share the fact that they believe in one way or another in the nation state, and that of course constitutes a major revolution in Germany. In the Federal Republic the idea of patriotism and even more so, outright nationalism, were largely discredited after 1945. Most Germans in the West (in the East attitudes were and are clearly different) would until recently have very readily accepted the idea that Germany as a state of its own should in the long run disappear and be replaced by a European federation in which Germany would be no more than one of many self-governing provinces. Many Germans still think along those lines, although in the past they used to assume that a United Europe, when it came to the rule of law or the way the economy and the welfare state was run, would somehow be quite similar to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Now, they begin to realise, albeit slowly, that this is a pipe dream and that a United Europe, should it ever come about, will in all likelihood be more a sort of giant Italy than a greater Germany. Not an attractive prospect for everybody, despite the undeniable fact that Italians are more elegant, less, shall we say, dour people than Germans, and make better espresso.

Supporters of the AfD, however, have little time for the idea of a United States of Europe anyhow. Most of them would not deny that the EU as such has a legitimate part to play in politics. Clearly in matters of foreign policy (although here the European governments rarely speak with one voice, unfortunately) or in trade negotiations with the US, to give just one example, the individual nation states in Europe have very little clout. They need to cooperate to exert any real pressure. Moreover the single European market has undoubtedly benefited Germany greatly (although exports to the Eurozone as a percentage of all trade have declined considerably over the last 15 years and do not any longer constitute more than about 36% of all German exports, as opposed to 44 % in 2001, a very significant change that shows the impact both of the European crisis and of globalisation).

But the idea of an ever closer union of European states is widely rejected by AfD supporters. They believe that political cultures (and in fact economic cultures) are far too diverse in Europe for such a superstate to function effectively. Moreover the EU has been constructed so far very much as a post-democratic political system. In a union of different states--some of them quite small--simple majority decisions are just not possible. Minorities must retain a strong right to veto decisions, unless they are to feel that they can never make their voices heard. Furthermore the European parliament is not a normal parliamentary body. There is, apart from the strange and undemocratic electoral system and the total absence of any real European as opposed to merely national parties, no interplay between opposition and government as in most national parliaments. In fact any open opposition against the process of European unification as such is seen as heretical and illegitimate and many members of the great political alliances dominating politics in Brussels would clearly like to ban such critics altogether from the floor of the house.

Finally the European Commission, although it exercises ever more considerable governmental powers--being far more than just an administrative body these days--is essentially still a body whose members are nominated by the member states of the EU as if they were mere civil servants. If democracy is about being able to kick the bums out (to bring down a government in an election) this is impossible in Brussels and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

That a man like the egregious Mr. Juncker who has presided for years on end over a taxpayers’ paradise which allowed companies from other countries to avoid paying any realistic amount of taxation at all and has governed a country which is totally dominated by the financial industry which did so much to create the crisis of 2008/09 now embodies the noble European idea is a supreme irony. Only a philosopher as completely bien pensant as Habermas could hail Juncker’s election as president of the commission in Brussels as a victory for democracy.

Our welfare in Europe

The real problem for the EU is that both the welfare state and democracy are so far closely linked to the nation state. Should there ever be a European welfare state--and it does not look very likely that this will come about any time soon--it will be much more like the very basic American system of providing limited benefits to the poor and the needy than the present much more generous system which exists in countries such as France or Germany, not to mention Scandinavia. Friedrich August von Hayek pointed out as early as 1939 in a paper entitled ‘The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism’ that in a federation of nation states the welfare state would need to be scaled down because different national governments would otherwise be unable to agree on how to finance any system of welfare at all. Hayek for this very reason welcomed interstate federalism: and some authors such as the well known sociologist Wolfgang Streeck have seen the EU and the Euro with its political and financial constraints as an attempt to put his neo-liberal ideas into practice through the back door (Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain would certainly agree with this way of looking at things).

One need not subscribe fully to such an interpretation, which does have some plausibility however, for it to be clear that the Euro has become a serious threat to democracy in Europe, because national parliaments can no longer control their own national budgets. The renewed crisis in Greece is caused inter alia by a revolt against this undemocratic regime. Germans have not yet realised what it will mean when large chunks of the annual budget of the federal government will in future have to be diverted to give support to other European countries. But the hour of truth may come sooner than people expect.

7833Konrad Adam, Bernd Lucke and Alexander Garland at the founding conference, April 2013. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.

The AfD and the CDU

European unification, via the Euro, has created such terrible chaos, while imposing enormous suffering on millions of people in Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Greece but also, to a lesser degree in the form of high unemployment in Italy and elsewhere, that it poses a serious threat to democracy itself. Thus any rational judgement would come to the conclusion that the AfD’s opposition against a process of European unification should at least be given a fair hearing. But is such an opposition against the destruction of the nation state and against the Euro enough to keep a political party going?

That has been the crucial question facing the AfD right from the beginning. Bernd Lucke, the most prominent among the three official leaders of the AfD and the other leading politicians of the party such as Konrad Adam, Frauke Petry and even more so Alexander Gauland in Brandenburg, have therefore tried to tap into the undercurrent of conservative opinion which is dissatisfied with the sea changes German politics have undergone over the last fifteen or twenty years.

In the past, the CDU (the equivalent of the Conservative Party in Germany) although it was never classically conservative like Britain’s Tory Party, always had an influential conservative wing which saw the battle against the Labour Party and the Greens as a true ideological contest. This wing has almost disappeared during Merkel’s ascendancy. As a consequence, the CDU no longer dares even to challenge the language regimes which left-leaning parties and large sections of the media try to impose on political discussion. Words such as ‘assimilation’ (in the context of debates on immigration) have been banned and if a CDU politician these days said openly that a family consisting of father, mother and children is somehow more ‘normal’ than one consisting of two fathers or two mothers and adopted children (or offspring that has been produced artifically) he would be likely to run into trouble within his own party as a homophobe. Equally the CDU is now supporting a policy of widescale affirmative action in favour of women (and very soon probably also in favour of ethnic minorities) which it would have passionately rejected fifteen or twenty years ago, while Merkel officially endorses the gospel of a multicultural society (whatever that may mean in practice) which she rejected in living memory equally vociferously.

It is easy to understand that this transformation of the CDU into a party which is more (mildly) left of centre than right of centre has left high and dry conservative voters who reject such policies, as they no longer have a party which voices their concerns. Merkel’s hope that such voters would just disappear into thin air has so far not been fulfilled.

Moreover there are voters in Germany who are similar in outlook to the ‘left behinds’ in Britain (culturally conservative lower middle class and working class voters, often middle aged or elderly men rather than women, who frequently supported the Labour party in the past) or the ‘petits blancs’ in France who abandoned the less leafy suburban housing estates of the great urban conglomerations when they came to be dominated by immigrants who do not always display much sympathy for the dwindling indigenous population, as the geographer Christophe Guilluy, for example, has chronicled.

There is undoubtedly mileage in taking up the grievances of such voters and some AfD politicians, Gauland in particular, see the main support of the AfD coming in future from these strata of the population, not from the more affluent and more open-minded middle classes.

The question of immigration and the danger of xenophobia

But there is also a high risk involved. The German version of ‘white van man’ is not necessarily a more pleasant or more rational person than his British counterpart and the step from justified concerns about unregulated mass immigration and rising religious and ethnic tensions to open xenophobia can be a very small one. German Jews have recently been advised by their own community leaders to avoid wearing insignia or clothes betraying their Jewish identity in public, on the grounds that this would endanger their safety in the presence of Muslims. So such tensions clearly are on the rise, but still there is no easy answer to the question of how best to contain them.

The language games of the Left which attempt to stifle debate in the name of political correctness are too much inspired by the spirit of a new enlightened absolutism designed to educate the backward mass of the population. They view them rather as the benighted peasants of rural Europe in the eighteenth century might once have been viewed by the enlightened officeholders and intellectuals at the time. But there are issues, and immigration is definitely one of those issues, where one should choose one’s words very carefully if one does not want to make matters even worse than they already are. It is not a good idea to light a fire next to a powder keg.

Going that extra distance

So the task the AfD faces is a difficult one. It can only be successful if it manages to offer something substantial to voters subscribing to conservative values in matters concerning education, the family and immigration, beyond a principled opposition to a centralised European state.

Some supporters of the AfD also feel that it is high time to take a critical look at the ‘friendship’ between the US and Germany, given the fact that American presidents tend to see European countries as mere pawns in a worldwide great game for power and supremacy, and no recent president more so than Barack Obama.

However, if the AfD promotes an ideal of society which owes more to the values of the 1950s than to the realities of the twenty-first century (and there are, one has to admit, small but highly active groups within the AfD which favour such a course) it can still for the time being constitute a successful protest movement. But it will fail to have any real impact on practical politics, and this is something which Bernd Lucke and other more liberal politicians within the AfD understand only too well.

At the same time an exit from the Euro system is as difficult for Germany as it is for any southern European country. In the same way in which the cheap credit which the Euro provided has acted as a drug for countries such as Spain or Greece before 2010--a drug these countries became addicted to--the chance to export almost unlimited quantities of German goods at artificially debased prices may not have a beneficial effect on the German economy in the long run, but it does give a stimulus to the export industry. Withdraw this stimulus, this drug, too suddenly instead of gradually, it must be admitted, and you may well produce a cold turkey which will kill your patient, the German economy, altogether. It is not easy to find a solution for this problem.

So instead the AfD’s task may rather be to develop a vision of European co-operation for The Day After, for the time when the next—inevitable--implosion of the international financial system brings the Euro system crashing down and the EU has to be reconstructed on very different foundations from the present ones.

Of course the future of the German political system itself is uncertain at best. What will happen when people who as we speak still trust “Mutti” Merkel almost blindly, discover that their pension schemes and their savings have become worthless because of the policy the ECB pursues and that what remains of the German welfare state has to be radically dismantled because of the cost of defending the Euro? Will they vote for the AfD or will they take to the streets in peaceful or not so peaceful protests, as so many did recently in Dresden and Leipzig (the ‘Pegida-movement’) to the great surprise of the political class which promptly threw a tantrum, shocked by these amorphous and admittedly not very pleasant anti-immigration protests.

Or will they just keel over and silently accept their fate, having come to the conclusion that taking part in the political process in whatever form has become pointless, because all real decisions are being taken in Brussels and by the international financial markets and cannot be influenced in any significant way in democratic elections?

Only time will tell. But the last vote in the Bundestag on giving further support to Greece certainly did not bode well for the future of democracy. When around 70 - 75 % of all voters in Germany have serious misgivings about giving further help to Greece, it may not be a good sign that 95% of all MPs vote in favour of extending financial support and that there is not a single party in parliament arguing against this momentous decision.

One could well get the impression that what we see is merely a democratic façade for a political system which long ago became post-democratic. One is reminded of Ken Livingstone’s famous dictum: ‘If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it.’

The author of this article is a member of the Alternative für Deutschland but holds no office in the party and the article presents only his own personal opinion not that of the party itself. He has written this article from a partly partisan point of view, but partly also in a perspective an anthropologist might classify as ‘participant observation’.

If you enjoyed this article then please like the Can Europe Make it? facebook page and follow us on twitter @oD_Europe

About the author

Ronald G. Asch is professor of early modern history at the University of Freiburg. His latest monograph is Sacral Kingship between Disenchantment and Re-enchantment. The French and English Monarchies c. 1587-1688, Berghahn, New York /Oxford 2014 and he is at present working on a study (to be published in German) entitled: The Hero’s twilight: Models of Heroism in England and France from the Wars of Religion to the Age of Enlightenment.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.