AfD's poster in Schleswig-Holstein, "Islam does not belong to Germany. The freedom of the woman is not negotiable!" Source: Wikimedia Commons
At the end of October, the eastern Germany city of Dresden passed a resolution declaring a “Nazi emergency.” A largely symbolic measure, city council members hoped to highlight the far-right attitudes and violence present there. Meanwhile, Mayor Andreas Hollstein of Altena has been a forthright critic of the far-right ever since he was stabbed in the neck over his pro-immigrant status back in 2017. Suffice to say, Germans have become increasingly concerned about the rise of the far-right and the consequences thereof.
Amid this backdrop of concern stands the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an ascending populist party who some believe only worsens the situation in Germany. Varying from right to far-right ideology, it has made unprecedented gains in federal and state elections in the past few years. The AfD scored its strongest-ever results in Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg’s state elections back in September and most recently made large gains last month in Thuringia. All states of former East Germany, the AfD has developed a stronghold in this region. In the context of existing viewpoints, it becomes clear that the AfD’s presence in East Germany, in particular, has done little to stem the rise of the far-right extremism. More than that, the far-right ideas presented in its policy may subsequently incite support for terrorist groups like ISIS.
For some, the relationship between the increase of far-right extremism and the AfD is quite clear, a sentiment especially seen after the shooting inspired by antisemitic and xenophobic beliefs in Halle. Marco Buschmann of the Free Democratic Party asserted that “All those who use scapegoat theories to gain votes bear responsibility for strengthening the beliefs of people like [the Halle shooter].” His comment, a reference to the AfD’s tendency to oust immigrant and minority groups, is supported by political scientist Hans-Joachim Funke. Specializing in far-right extremism in Germany, Funke claims that the AfD’s rhetoric creates an environment that fosters and enables this line of thinking. For Funke, they are “intellectual arsonist[s].”
If the AfD is the spark, the conditions in former East Germany are the readily available fuel. The legacy of German reunification has made the region particularly fertile ground for the party. That is, there is reason to believe that the East has not fully integrated with the West, causing the former to feel like second-class citizens. In a 2016 study titled “Who Controls the East?” researchers point out that out of the 200 admirals and generals in the army, only 2 are East Germans. Others cite the fact that despite comprising 17% of the total population, East Germans only hold 4 to 5% of senior administration jobs. These realities contribute to East German dissatisfaction with the current system.
As a result, voters in this region are susceptible to alternative ideas promising change, a void the AfD is eager to fill. The appeal of its anti-establishment message was seen in the 2017 nationwide elections, as the AfD drew support from the East by denouncing the opposition as “pseudo elites,” helping it enter the federal parliament for the first time. Tying nicely to this image is the AfD’s anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric, as it contrasts Chancellor Merkel’s more moderate refugee and migration policies. The main source of its popularity, the AfD campaigns on slogans like “Islam does not belong in Germany.” Ultimately, one can see how this rhetoric in the context of the European migrant crisis agitates the discontent present in East Germany. For example, when the integration minister of Saxony -- a former East German state -- explained to constituents why the state was helping refugees, some replied: “Integrate us first!”
Put simply, the regional disparities that exist within Germany have the potential to lend themselves to misgivings over newcomers. While not necessarily xenophobic in itself and plausibly the result of other factors such as right-wing voting traditions in East Germany, the end conclusion remains the same: the AfD’s inflammatory anti-immigrant commitments have no place in East Germany. Due to the region’s inclination towards right-wing ideals in one way or another, the AfD’s exploitation of this situation to garner support only escalates matters. Environmental factors in former East Germany, coupled with Funke’s belief that the AfD uses inflammatory rhetoric, facilitates a process to normalize far-right extremism.
Finally, it is worth noting how those marginalized by the rhetoric spouted by the AfD are affected. Namely, one must acknowledge that the consequences do not stem solely from the radicalization of the right. The literature on the matter has already shown how ill-feelings toward Muslim immigrants in Europe has created mutual distrust, as the former has resisted social integration due to the animosity from the latter. More disconcerting, a recent study conducted by political scientist Tamar Mitts found that support for ISIS in Western Europe is linked to the rise of far-right groups. In examining millions of pro-ISIS tweets by location to measure the degree of sympathy for the terrorist organization and comparing it against areas that voted for far-right parties, Mitts found that online radicalization is strongly correlated with the presence of groups like the AfD. While she pointed out that radicalization does not necessarily lead to violence, this discovery is an alarming and ironic one. While the AfD hopes to find an alternative for Germany, the party may ultimately be forcing the individuals it marginalizes to find an alternative of their own with ISIS.
In light of this information, Germany’s concerns over the rise of its far-right movement are more warranted than ever. Not only have extremists already violently acted on their impulses, but more security headaches potentially arise from those marginalized by far-right rhetoric. In both cases, the AfD has been implicated to some degree. While certainly not a full-fledged far-right organization, as there are moderate factions within the party, the AfD has nonetheless contributed to this instability in Germany. Leaders from other political parties and especially from the AfD itself must step up to the plate and confront this shift to the right for the sake of all Germans -- newcomers and natives alike.