Surveying political developments far from home, we often look for patterns. We expect what’s happening in one country to make sense once we’ve put it in a wider context. But sometimes identifying global trends means overlooking what is regionally or locally specific, if not unique. Sometimes the discovery of patterns fools us into expecting the future to be predictable.
As recently as two years ago, the rise of right-wing populism seemed unstoppable. From India to Brazil, from Hungary to the United States, populist leaders had won political office by railing against the “elites” and purporting to speak for “the people.” In democracies across Asia, Europe and the Americas, right-wing populist parties and movements had gained political influence using ultranationalist rhetoric and vilifying minorities. We became used to the idea that the Donald Trumps and Jair Bolsonaros were here to stay.
At least in Western countries, the trend seems to have reversed. Donald Trump has been voted out of office; the right-wing populist parties that had been in government in Western Europe — Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy and the Freedom Party in Austria — have been sidelined. And isn’t it only a matter of time until Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ousts Bolsonaro? It is now possible to imagine that the era of right-wing populism is drawing to a close.
Often mentioned as evidence of the inexorable rise of right-wing populism was the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD. Less than 200 days after it was formed at a meeting of eighteen men in a church hall in Oberursel, just outside of Frankfurt, the AfD won more than two million votes in Germany’s 2013 federal elections.
At that election, the AfD fell just short of the 5 per cent threshold designed to keep minor parties out of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Four years later, in 2017, it exceeded that figure, and for the past four years it has been the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. AfD is also represented in all sixteen state parliaments, and is now the second-largest party in the five East German states of Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
But just as the AfD’s rise fits the pattern of a surge of right-wing populism in the 2010s, its recent fortunes could be evidence of the waning of this political phenomenon. In elections in the southwest states of Rhineland-Palatine and Baden-Württemberg, the AfD shed more votes than any other party. In Baden-Württemberg, its stronghold outside the former communist east of the country, its support slumped from 15.1 to 9.7 per cent. Has the AfD’s time already passed?
The matter is more complicated than the figures might suggest. What has definitely passed is the party born in Oberursel on 6 February 2013. Of the eighteen men present that day, most have long left. One of them, the economist Bernd Lucke, led the party until 2015, when he was deposed in favour of Frauke Petry and subsequently quit the party. Petry herself resigned from the AfD in 2017 immediately after winning a seat in the Bundestag.
The old AfD was largely made up of three sets of people: conservatives who thought Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats had veered too far left, advocates of neoliberal economics who wanted Germany to leave the eurozone, and elderly men afraid of cultural diversity and appalled by the official rebranding of Germany as a country of immigration. Since then, aggressive nativism and opposition to refugees and other migrants have become the party’s trademarks.
Not all the leaders who emerged in 2013 have resigned from the AfD. Notable among them is Björn Höcke, a high school teacher of history and physical education born in West Germany in 1972, who has led the AfD in Thuringia for the past eight years. Rather than championing economic liberalism, as the majority of the AfD’s founders did, he has identified neoliberalism and globalisation as twin evils. He is socially conservative but wants a complete overhaul of Germany’s politics and culture.
In 2015, Höcke founded the Flügel, a network that brought together the far right of the AfD. Attempts by moderate forces within the AfD leadership to expel Höcke failed in 2015 and again in 2017. In 2019, the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, published a report arguing that the Flügel, as well as the party’s youth organisation, was advocating attitudes and policies irreconcilable with the German constitution. Of the report’s 436 pages, fifty were devoted to Höcke’s views, reflecting the fact that he is rightly seen as the AfD’s most influential proponent of extremist positions.
The Flügel’s leadership eventually dissolved the organisation last year after pressure from Jörg Meuthen, the AfD’s relatively moderate co-leader, and his allies, who argued it was tarnishing the AfD’s brand and attracting unwelcome attention from Germany’s intelligence agency.
Another survivor of the class of 2013 is Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s deputy leader from 2013 until 2017, its co-leader from 2017 until 2019, and co-leader of the AfD’s parliamentary party in the Bundestag since the last election. Born in 1941 in East Germany, he emigrated to West Germany as an eighteen-year-old, gained a doctorate in law, and also studied history. From 1977 until 1991, he worked as chief of staff of the Christian Democrat Walter Wallmann, who was in turn mayor of Frankfurt, federal environment minister and premier of Hesse.
After Wallmann’s defeat in the 1991 state elections, Gauland moved to the East German state of Brandenburg, where he became editor of a local newspaper. He joined the Berliner Kreis, a loose network of conservative Christian Democrats critical of Angela Merkel, but meetings with like-minded conservatives only exacerbated his alienation from the party that had been his political home since the 1970s. Although he is not usually considered to belong to the far right of the AfD, he has consistently taken Höcke’s side in factional struggles and signed the Erfurt Declaration, the Flügel’s foundational document.
More than anybody else, Höcke and Gauland have shaped today’s AfD: the former by attracting a sufficient number of followers, particularly in East Germany, to shift the AfD towards the far right, the latter by personifying the party’s radicalisation over the past eight years and providing cover for Höcke whenever necessary. More than anybody else, these two men can tell us where the AfD is heading.
Höcke and Gauland have each attracted more controversy than any other AfD politician. That’s partly because they habitually refer in offensive terms to people belonging to ethnic or religious minorities. In 2016, for instance, Gauland criticised the successful Berlin-born footballer Jérôme Boateng, son of a Ghanaian father and a German mother: “The people like him as a player. But they don’t want to have a Boateng as a neighbour.” A year later, he suggested it would be desirable to “dispose of [“entsorgen”] in Anatolia” the prominent Hamburg-born Social Democrat Aydan Özoğuz, whose parents had migrated from Turkey.
Even more controversial have been Höcke’s and Gauland’s demands for a reappraisal of Germany’s Nazi past. In a 2017 speech in Dresden, Höcke said that German president Richard von Weizsäcker’s famous address to the Bundestag on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, in which he acknowledged Germany’s responsibility for that catastrophe, was a speech “against his own people.” Referring to the national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Höcke said that “we Germans are the only people in the world who have built a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” adding that “a 180-degree turnaround of German memorial politics” was needed. In a speech in 2018, Gauland infamously remarked that “Hitler and the Nazis are only a Vogelschiss [a piece of bird shit] in more than a thousand years of successful German history.”
Gauland and Höcke have consequently been branded Nazis and fascists. But however reprehensible their views, the labels are misleading. Neither of them would like to see a return to the Third Reich, and neither has endorsed the Nazis’ policies. Ostensibly, AfD figures violate taboos to defy political correctness, but their real aim is to attract the media’s attention, to unsettle their opponents, to shift the boundaries of political discourse and to demonstrate to their supporters that the “ruling elites” are vulnerable.
“It requires a provocation to be noticed,” Gauland said in defence of his suggestion that Özoğuz ought to be “disposed of.” “Again and again, the limits of what is sayable have to be extended by means of small advances,” Höcke explained to the Dresden writer Sebastian Hennig in a book-length conversation. Too often, commentators have fallen into the trap of denouncing individual AfD leaders as Nazis or fascists without recognising the intention behind their violations of taboos.
Unlike other parties on the far right that have had an impact in postwar Germany — including the German Right Party, which was represented in the 1949 Bundestag, and the National Democratic Party, the German People’s Union and the Republicans, all of which have at some stage been represented in state parliaments — the AfD is not a party in the tradition of the (historical) Nazi party. Rather, Höcke and other Flügel stalwarts have been influenced by the New Right.
In fact, the Flügel’s Erfurt Declaration is said to have been drafted by the Höcke confidant Götz Kubitschek, a publisher and author who is one of the leading proponents of the German New Right. Kubitschek and others think of their movement as a response to the New Left, and adopt some of the latter’s strategies. They aim not just for political power but also for cultural hegemony.
The German New Right draws on ideas developed by writers associated with the Conservative Revolution in the 1920s and early 1930s, including the constitutional lawyer Carl Schmitt, the philosopher Ludwig Klages, the writer Ernst Jünger and the philosopher Oswald Spengler. Martin Heidegger, while arguably not himself part of the Conservative Revolution, is another whose ideas have had an impact on the thinking of the German New Right.
Gauland and Höcke frequently cite writers associated with the Conservative Revolution. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Schmitt, Spengler and others provided intellectual ammunition for the Nazis and sympathised with them, at least during the first half of the 1930s. But then, the Third Reich, which AfD politicians often refer to only as “those twelve years,” was supposedly but a Vogelschiss in a glorious past spanning a thousand years.
Another key difference between outfits such as the German Right Party and the National Democratic Party, on the one hand, and the AfD, on the other, is that the latter is populist. It has embraced a populism that pits “das Volk” against an “elite” that supposedly dominates government and the media. The AfD’s 2016 manifesto also favours some form of direct democracy: Swiss-style referendums to approve legislation passed by parliament and opportunities for extra-parliamentary groups to put bills to a popular vote.
Volk is a central category in Höcke’s and Gauland’s universe. It is both demos, the political citizenry, and ethnos, an exclusive group defined by common ancestors, language and cultural practices. Höcke has described Volk as a “community whose members are linked by fate and across generations.” Not everybody with a German passport is a German, Gauland once told the journalist Jana Simon; they would need to have a German mother, be fluent in the German language and share “German values” (which he did not specify). According to Höcke, whether someone belongs to a particular Volk is determined not only by kinship ties but also by association (“Verbandschaft”) — that is, by a willingness to belong. Those formally belonging to a particular Volk by descent could therefore be excluded if they don’t identify with it or extend their loyalty to it.
As a historical category, Höcke’s and Gauland’s German Volk is ill-defined. For them, it becomes concrete only in the present, when it is defined in opposition to what they variously term a “globalised class,” “new elites” (Gauland), a “caste” of politicians and media professionals (Höcke), or “a transatlantic political elite” of “cosmopolitan universalists” (Höcke). They contrast this new “class,” “caste” or “elite” not only with the Volk but also with the “genuine” elites of yesteryear.
They want the Volk to have more direct political influence. But Höcke worries that, “As a Volk, we are already very fragmented, and we no longer produce a homogeneous people’s will, but rather dissonant cacophony.” Referring to the summer of 2015, when most Germans were in favour of welcoming refugees, he told Hennig that the people’s will must be tempered by “responsible politicians” who, if need be, make decisions “against current public sentiment and in favour of the Volk.” He then compared the “statesman” favourably with the populist, because in his view the latter is prone to pave the way for ochlocracy, or the rule of the mob.
Yet Höcke is also fascinated by the mob’s raw energy: “At some point the pent-up pressure will be released, clenched fists will be raised in the air, and the people, that big lout, will shake the fortified gates of power.” He regularly professes his love for the Volk, but I believe he does so from the position of somebody imagining himself in the role of the “statesman” who would be able to harness the energies of “that big lout.”
While baiting journalists and other public commentators with statements that are racist or smack of historical revisionism, and while mimicking the rhetoric of Hitler and Goebbels, Gauland and Höcke have been careful to draw a line between themselves and the Nazis. Thus they have rejected the adjective “völkisch,” which former AfD leader Frauke Petry had wanted to reanimate in 2016. Höcke said that it is associated with a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century politics whose demands he does not share. More importantly, however, unlike Volk, the connotations of the term völkisch place it firmly in the context of “those twelve years.”
The other term the pair avoid is Führer, because that is now associated only with Hitler — according to Gauland the sole “progenitor” of National Socialism and the Holocaust. That is not to say that Höcke, in particular, is unsympathetic to the concept of an authoritarian leader who knows best what the Volk needs. For him, the term “statesman” might be but a placeholder.
Following the recent state elections, Meuthen blamed two factors — the pandemic and the party’s supposed victimisation at the hands of the domestic intelligence agency — for its losses. He also tried to talk down the poor showing. Gauland and Höcke took a different approach, referring to the result as a “wake-up call” (Gauland) and a “rout” (Höcke). Höcke blamed the rout on what he perceived to be timid and lame election campaigns designed to increase the party’s appeal among moderate middle-class voters. When lambasting the desire to appease mainstream voters, he clearly had in mind Meuthen’s keynote address at the most recent party congress in November 2020, in which Meuthen famously said, with a wink to Höcke, “We won’t become more successful by presenting as increasingly uncouth, aggressive and uninhibited.”
In Höcke’s view, the AfD ought to have targeted traditional non-voters, who “are fundamentally opposed to the ruling politics” but can’t be mobilised to vote by means of policy positions that come across as half-hearted and tame. He was also concerned that the party had done poorly in working-class areas; like Gauland, he believes the AfD needs to champion the interests of the “kleine Leute” (literally: the little people). Höcke’s rather than Meuthen’s strategy seems likely to be adopted during the next campaign, ahead of state elections in June in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the Flügel’s strongholds.
Although Höcke was quick to blame the Meuthen camp for the losses in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, he has otherwise not been too concerned about losing or gaining a few percentage points in elections. For him, the AfD is not only a party but also a movement. It needs to pressure ruling “elites” both in parliament and by organising demonstrations outside parliament. This is a lesson the AfD might have learned from the Nazi party of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but also from Germany’s Greens of the 1980s and 1990s. In other respects too, the Greens provided a model: like them, the AfD has two leaders, one representing the moderate camp that wants to be in government and one representing the Flügel.
With the Greens having developed a taste for participating in governing coalitions, their more radical faction, the so-called Fundis, have been sidelined. It’s unlikely that something similar will happen anytime soon in the AfD. While the Greens have become a sought-after ally (they are in power in eleven out of sixteen states, and a sure bet to be part of the federal government after the national elections in September), the other established parties consider a close association with the AfD poisonous. (Inside Story reported on the turmoil that ensued last year after a Free Democrat was elected premier of Thuringia with the help of Christian Democrats and the AfD.)
The fates of Trump and Salvini are no necessary guide to what will become of the AfD. Its isolation makes its case unique among right-wing populist parties and movements. Elsewhere, the rise of right-wing populism increased the chances of populists taking power; in Germany, that is not an option. In some European countries, right-wing populists came to power indirectly because other political leaders adopted their key policies in an attempt to deprive them of oxygen. Danish Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen and Austrian People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz, for example, embraced far-right positions on immigration. A similar thing happened way back in the late 1990s in Australia, when prime minister John Howard attempted to neutralise Pauline Hanson’s appeal. Thus far, the German Christian Democrats have not given in to the temptation to copy key planks of the AfD’s platform. It is unlikely they will do so any time soon.
Björn Höcke was right in his analysis of the recent election results: it doesn’t matter to the AfD who forms the next government in Rhineland-Palatinate or in Baden-Württemberg. Nor, in order to predict the party’s fortunes and future role, is it necessary to know who will win the upcoming elections in September. The AfD won’t be invited to help form a government, and it hardly matters to its leaders whether Angela Merkel’s successor will be the Christian Democrat Armin Laschet or his Bavarian colleague Markus Söder — or Annalena Baerbock or Robert Habeck from the Greens.
For the AfD, this year’s crucial elections will happen in December, when the party selects its leadership team. It may well be that its transformation will be complete by then, and there will no longer be the need for two leaders covering the party’s range of positions. The epithet “populist” may then be less relevant than that of “far right.”
Another reason the outcome of the September elections won’t matter much for the AfD is that whoever forms government will introduce policies to meet the Paris climate agreement’s targets. That will offer an opportunity to the AfD to mobilise climate change sceptics and those who believe they are personally bearing the costs of the government’s policies. Björn Höcke will be hoping that the people, “that big lout,” will then rise up. •