Can Europe Make It?

Understanding Gauland – how to think about radical right leadership

What's the importance of radical right leadership? A discussion of Olaf Sundermeyer’s, Gauland. Die Rache des alten Mannes [Gauland – The Revenge of the Old Man], Beck: Munich (2018).

Manès Weisskircher
25 February 2019


Alexander GAULAND, AfD party chairman at the AfD Federal Party Congress 2018, Augsburg, Germany. Oryk Haist/Sven Simon/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Among political analysts, it has for a long time been commonsense to highlight the importance of individual leaders’ public appeal. In an extreme form, the likes of Jörg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen were even portrayed as the main causes of their party’s success. Importantly, social scientists are pointing to the limits of such perspectives: on average, radical right leaders do not matter more for voting choice than the front runners of other parties.

This is particularly obvious in the case of Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany; AfD), lacking a ‘charismatic’ – for example as conceptualized by Roger Eatwell – leader on top. Instead, the party’s key figure, 78-year old Alexander Gauland, is probably the opposite of what most would commonly associate with charisma. Gauland rather makes the peculiar impression of an elderly grump, avoiding eye contact in personal encounters, fascinated with Great Britain as reflected in his fashion and speeches, and always decked out with his famous Hundekrawatte.

Still, Gauland, co-leader of both the national party organization and the Bundestag group, is a highly efficient politician. The excellent recent book Gauland. Die Rache des alten Mannes [Gauland. The Revenge of the Old Man] by German journalist Olaf Sundermeyer helps to understand this politician’s rise. The short but informative biography, based on many conservations with him and other relevant personalities, provides an empirically-grounded perspective. In contrast to some other new non-scientific German books on the country’s far right, Sundermeyer’s critical stance towards Gauland does not overshadow, but adds to his analytical sense.

Disappointed insider

Gauland tells the story of a disappointed CDU insider. At the beginning of the 1990s, when Gauland had reached his 50s, he left the party’s second row and became evermore critical of its politics. Already in 1994, Gauland wrote a provocative book on CDU chancellor Kohl – which points to the long-term dissatisfaction of some right-wing CDU members, even before Merkel’s chancellorship. Several of them, including Gauland, were involved in the foundation of the AfD. While some of them left the party over the course of its later radicalization, Gauland did not. Even though Sundermeyer refrains from portraying Gauland as ‘right-wing extremist,’ he is described as a person who does not hesitate to embrace and therefore to legitimize some of the AfD’s most radical members. When reading the book, I was reminded of the relevance of dimensions beyond ‘charisma’ to understand Gauland’s role as party leader.

First, Gauland’s socialization in both Germany’s east and west makes him particularly suitable as an AfD leader. Born in the Saxon city of Chemnitz in East Germany, he left the GDR before the wall was built. In Hesse, he made a career working for CDU politician Walter Wallmann, who was first mayor of Frankfurt, then, for a short time, Germany’s first environmental minister, and ultimately Hesse’s regional governor. In the 1990s, Gauland returned to the east, settling in Potsdam to work as a newspaper editor. Amongst others, this familiarity with the east made Gauland realize how important the Ukraine crisis was to many eastern Germans – a fact that, according to the author, is neglected by analysts of AfD. Despite lacking any fascination with Russia, Gauland took up the issue, criticizing the Ukraine politics of the US and the EU. Literature in social movement studies has highlighted the often neglected importance of individual biography in the choices of political players.

Sheer experience and a talent for opportunism

Second, Gauland has the talent of pragmatism, or if you will, opportunism – specifically when it comes to having a nose for moods and trends. Acknowledging the liberal Zeitgeist in Frankfurt of the 1980s, Gauland even pushed his boss, the city’s mayor Wallmann, to award a prize to none other than Jürgen Habermas, back then still a no-go scholar for many conservatives. Wallmann’s honorific speech, praising Habermas, was written by Gauland.

For many contemporaries, such as the Green’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Gauland seemed like a rather liberal representative of his party. Three decades later, things look rather different: Gauland’s pragmatism and opportunism have led him to become a key AfD figure since 2013, both when the party was dominated by Euro-critical neoliberals and later when immigration-skeptical radical rightists took over. For some observers, Gauland seemed like a politician who did not want a clear radical right turn of the party, while for others, he has clearly been a driver of this process. Obviously not the staunchest ‘policy-proponent,’ it does not seem that Gauland’s eventual end as party leader will be caused by ideological conflicts.

Third, Gauland is highly experienced, having always worked closely with leading political figures as well as journalists – before working for the CDU, he worked for the Press and Information office of the German government in Bonn and as press officer in the German consulate in Edinburgh. David Art points to the importance of skilled politicians for the electoral success of the radical right – the AfD certainly has not suffered from this problem, even after the ‘neoliberal professors’ left the party in 2015.

Gauland also learned from his opponents, in particular from the early Greens, whose stronghold in the 1980s was Hesse. There, the then new challenger party also mobilized on the streets. The AfD now follows a similar strategy, for example cooperating with PEGIDA’s Siegfried Däbritz, who organizes AfD’s anti-immigrant street mobilization. Unsurprisingly, Gauland was also among the first key AfD politicians to attend a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden.

Politicking and charisma

What remains neglected in Sundermeyer’s very interesting book and what not only scholars of the radical right, but scholars of party politics in general have a problem studying is, in the words of William Riker, ‘the art of political manipulation’, i.e. the strategies and tactics used to construct majorities within organizations and institutions. In particular, a stronger focus on the key episodes of AfD leadership change would have been illuminating. In 2015, Bernd Lucke and his neoliberal supporters lost out at a party conference in Essen. What was Gauland’s role, then AfD deputy leader, in this? And how did Gauland and his supporters later sideline Lucke’s successor, Frauke Petry? Despite the empirical relevance of such micro-level developments, this perspective is neglected in the book – as in the specialized political science literature.

Some of the most interesting works on the radical right are provided by critical journalists, writing in their native tongues. Social scientists should not miss out on these publications, despite our focus on English-language scientific publications. Ultimately, reading Sundermeyer’s book from the perspective of the radical right leadership raises one more important counterfactual question: Would the AfD be even stronger if it had a leader who shared some of Gauland’s traits and was ‘charismatic’?


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