The German Ideology

Overcoming the AFD

The backlash against Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a bittersweet relief.

The Holocaust never dies. Hanau massacre protest, Neukölln.

It couldn’t have come sooner.

AfD leaders participated in a meeting with other far-right extremists to discuss expelling immigrants and “non-integrated” people from Germany.

In response, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in German cities, putting the country’s favourite populists on the back foot.

The demonstrations constitute a peculiar reversal of the standard populist narrative.

To that way of thinking, globalists are the enemy, plotting to reconfigure society and keep the good people down.

As it turns out, Alternative für Deutschland is not above plotting against them either.

If not for some devious journalists, it might have ended there.

Or not. Running a meeting that the German press compared to the Wannsee Conference is a dog whistle.

Even at the best of times, the frequency with which prominent figures in AfD float fascist ideas in public is alarming.

Intentional or not, Alternative für Deutschland’s Nazi nostalgia exercise has had unexpected consequences, drawing mass demonstrations in response.

Some of them (notably in Hamburg and Munich) were so large that they had to be dispersed because they outstripped the available space.

Of course, this is all to the good.

AfD has boosted its public profile by being coy about its fascism. The party officially rejects racism but espouses xenophobic policies all the same.

The demonstrations against AfD were surprising, and not just in volume.

A large proportion of the placards on display at the demonstrations contained messages that explicitly linked AfD to Nazism.

Much as the German far right has experienced a revival over the decade, accusations of Nazism still carry a great deal of weight in German society.

AfD has been polling well, as high as 23.5% last week, making it the second most popular party in the country, just behind the Christian Democrats (CDU).

The recent protests against the party saw its popularity drop by 2% this week, according to pollsters, to 21.5%. But AfD still held on to its second-place ranking.

The last few years have seen passionate debates among scholars about the application of the term Nazi (or fascist) to modern political movements.

There is a typical inclination to term every movement of the authoritarian right as “Nazi” or “fascist.”

In part, this stems from the fact that, given its connection to horrors like Auschwitz and Treblinka, Nazism is essentially a metonym for “the absolute worst”.

On the other hand, the more one uses terms like “Nazi” and “fascist,” the less weight they carry.

Overuse risks turning these historical concepts into terms of abuse. For ideas to retain their vigour, they have to do some work.

Calling a group “Nazi” has to mean something more than just right-wing, authoritarian, and reprehensible.

However, employing such terms can get attention and alert the public that something terrible is pending.

Thus, when demonstrators hit the streets to criticise Alternative für Deutschland, slogans like “It Feels Like 1933” can break us out of our lethargy.

It may be cynical to say that if that strategy were going to work, it already would have. But the sheer number of Germans protesting last week suggests otherwise.

This is a pivotal moment for the far-right party and for Germany generally.

There are moves afoot to get AfD excluded from the ballot in the upcoming regional elections scheduled for later this year.

Alternative für Deutschland polls particularly well in Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg, where the elections will occur.

Blunting its political momentum in these formerly communist states has the potential to change the rightward drift in German politics.

This is what the situation has come to, and there is a palpable sense that AfD has misplayed its hand.

While plenty of Germans are willing to consider restricting immigration, Alternative für Deutschland’s Potsdam meeting was a bridge too far.

The ideas mooted at the now notorious confab would have involved the expulsion of a fifth of Germany’s population of 84.7 million. That’s 17,480,000 people.

That’s a lot of minorities to dispose of. AfD chief Alice Weidel ought to have her head examined if she doesn’t think she should be called a Nazi.

Some historical context is needed in order to grasp the gravity of Alternative für Deutschland’s remigration fantasy.

In WWII, Germany suffered 4.3 million military and 635,000 civilian casualties. Not included in these figures,180,000 German Jews died in Hitler’s genocide.

Domestic counts for the Romani Holocaust are unavailable, but up to 500,000 were killed across Europe. Still, roughly 5.2 million deaths is far less than 17,480,000.

The dehumanisation this represents is instructive. That Germans could even be thinking of ethnic cleansing, again, particularly at such a scale, is shocking.

The problem is Alternative für Deutschland is doing so. Whether it wants to dispose of these people by bus or at Auschwitz is immaterial.

AfD has built its popularity on making xenophobia respectable. Mooting mass deportations is on a whole different level of extremity.

The question remains as to the demonstrations’ longer-term significance.

Marching in the streets has value, but one should not mistake that for effective political organising.

There is still the matter of what former US President Richard Nixon called the “silent majority”.

In Germany, this has included many people willing to pass over AfD’s Nazi-adjacent politics.

It remains to be seen whether this flirtation with genocide will cause many (or any) of these people to have second thoughts.

The time has now come for leftist German parties to turn the mobilisation in the streets into mobilisation at the polls.

The difficulty is that the AfD’s anti-foreigner rhetoric is only part of a larger complex of the issues besetting Germany.

In recent years, the returns from Berlin’s export-led growth strategy have declined.

Germany is headed back toward the broader trendline of Europe in general, with slower growth and a population that is both ageing and reproducing at a lower rate.

Economic stagnation and dislocation, especially in the former DDR states, have created conditions in which xenophobia flourishes.

Still, xenophobia cannot simply be reduced to economics.

At the same time, if a strategy for seeing off Alternative für Deutschland is to come out of the recent protests, it will have to do more than call them Nazis.

Every street movement must learn what to do when the placards are put away.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.