Throughout its postwar history, Germany somehow managed to resist the temptations of right-wing populism. Not any longer. On March 13, the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD)—a party that has said it may be necessary to shoot at migrants trying to enter the country illegally and that has mooted the idea of banning mosques—scored double-digit results in elections in three German states; in one, Saxony-Anhalt, the party took almost a quarter of the vote. For some observers, the success of the AfD is just evidence of Germany’s further “normalization”: other major countries, such as France, have long had parties that oppose European integration and condemn the existing political establishment for failing properly to represent the people—why should Germany be an exception?
Such complacency is unjustified, for at least two reasons: the AfD has fed off and in turn encouraged a radical street movement, the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” or Pegida, that has no equivalent elsewhere in Europe. And perhaps most important, the AfD’s warnings about the “slow cultural extinction” of Germany that supposedly will result from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming of more than a million refugees have been echoed by a number of prominent intellectuals. In fact, the conceptual underpinnings for what one AfD ideologue has called “avant-garde conservatism” can be found in the recent work of several mainstream German writers and philosophers. Never since the end of the Nazi era has a right-wing party enjoyed such broad cultural support. How did this happen?
The AfD was founded in 2013 by a group of perfectly respectable, deeply uncharismatic economics professors. Its very name, Alternative for Germany, was chosen to contest Angela Merkel’s claim that there was no alternative to her policies to address the eurocrisis.The professors opposed the euro, since, in their eyes, it placed excessive financial burdens on the German taxpayer and sowed discord among European states. But they did not demand the dissolution of the European Union itself in the way right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe have done. Still, Germany’s mainstream parties sought to tar them as “anti-European,” which reinforced among many voters the sense that the country’s political establishment made discussion of certain policy choices effectively taboo. Like other new parties, the AfD attracted all kinds of political adventurers. But it also provided a home for conservatives who thought that many of Merkel’s policies—ending nuclear energy and the military draft, endorsing same-sex unions, and raising the minimum wage—had moved her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) too far to the left. Since there was a mainstream conservative view opposing many of these decisions, the AfD could now occupy space to the right of the CDU without suspicion of being undemocratic or of harking back to the Nazi past.