Germany’s most successful postwar far-right party is stricken — divided over its coronavirus strategy and riven with civil war — but that doesn’t mean it’s dead.
The leadership of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) dropped a metaphorical hand grenade into the party last week by throwing out Andreas Kalbitz, party leader in the eastern state of Brandenburg and a leading member of Der Flügel, (The Wing) the hardcore faction of the party that represents between 20% and 40% of the members.
Read more: What you need to know about Germany’s far-right AfD
The Brandenburg party, meanwhile, has remained loyal to Kalbitz, voting on Monday to keep him in the AfD parliamentary group.
The meeting where it was decided to expel him last week must have been fractious, with the vote against tight. Even the party’s highest ranking figures were split: co-leader Alice Weidel and parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland both voted to keep Kalbitz on board, which meant the other co-leader, Jörg Meuthen, only just managed to force his motion through.
Dropping the ball on lockdown protests
This internal rancor doesn’t come at a good time for the AfD, which has been struggling to establish a position on the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, it has dropped in some national polls to under 10%.
In early March, the AfD demanded that the government shut Germany’s national borders, with some politicians occasionally trying to blame the outbreak of the virus on migrants.
Now the party has now come round to jumping on the coattails of anti-lockdown protests. AfD supporters have been a notable presence at such events, and in a Facebook post published on Saturday Meuthen condemned the way those who criticize lockdown measures are being dismissed as “corona-deniers.”
Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist and specialist in far-right populism, said the party “didn’t know exactly what to do with the coronavirus.”
“They supported the course of Angela Merkel in the parliament, now they are basically starting to resist,” he told DW.
Read more: Pandemic populism — Germany sees rise in conspiracy theories
But Ronald Gläser, spokesman for the AfD in Berlin, insists the party has been “something like an avant-garde” for Germany. “At the end of February, beginning of March, we called for border closures and said masks needed to be provided, and the government was saying, ‘Oh, we don’t need those, they don’t help anyway’,” he told DW.
“Now of course we’ve been spared the worst of it, and that’s why the party shifted to call for more loosening of measures,” said Gläser. “We especially supported the right to hold political demonstrations. We haven’t called on people to protest in the sense that we are 100% in agreement with all the demands, but many of the concerns of the protesters are justified.”
Co-chairman Alexander Gauland said the German national soccer team’s defender Jerome Boateng might be appreciated for his performance on the pitch – but people would not want “someone like Boateng as a neighbor.” He also argued Germany should close its borders and said of an image showing a drowned refugee child: “We can’t be blackmailed by children’s eyes.”
Alice Weidel generally plays the role of “voice of reason” for the far-right populists, but she, too, is hardly immune to verbal miscues. Welt newspaper, for instance, published a 2013 memo allegedly from Weidel in which she called German politicians “pigs” and “puppets of the victorious powers in World War II. Weidel initially claimed the mail was fake, but now admits its authenticity.
German border police should shoot at refugees entering the country illegally, the former co-chair of the AfD told a regional newspaper in 2016. Officers must “use firearms if necessary” to “prevent illegal border crossings.” Communist East German leader Erich Honecker was the last German politician who condoned shooting at the border.
The head of the AfD in the state of Thuringia made headlines for referring to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” and calling on the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past. The comments came just as Germany enters an important election year – leading AfD members moved to expel Höcke for his remarks.
Initially, the AfD campaigned against the euro and bailouts – but that quickly turned into anti-immigrant rhetoric. “People who won’t accept STOP at our borders are attackers,” the European lawmaker said. “And we have to defend ourselves against attackers.”
Pretzell, former chairman of the AfD in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and husband to Frauke Petry, wrote “These are Merkel’s dead,” shortly after news broke of the deadly attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016.
The member of parliament in Germany’s eastern state of Saxony made waves in early 2016 with an inquiry into how far the state covers the cost of sterilizing unaccompanied refugee minors. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Germany, according to the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees (BumF) — the vast majority of them young men.
Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, has also raised eyebrows with extreme remarks. In February 2017, he urged other lawmakers in the state parliament to join measures against the extreme left-wing in order to “get rid of, once and for all, this rank growth on the German racial corpus” — the latter term clearly derived from Nazi terminology.
During a campaign speech in Eichsfeld in August 2017, AfD election co-candidate Alexander Gauland said that Social Democrat parliamentarian Aydan Özoguz should be “disposed of” back to Anatolia. The German term, “entsorgen,” raised obvious parallels to the imprisonment and killings of Jews and prisoners of war under the Nazis.
Gauland was roundly criticized for a speech he made to the AfD’s youth wing in June 2018. Acknowledging Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era, he went on to say Germany had a “glorious history and one that lasted a lot longer than those damned 12 years. Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”
The Brandenburg state AfD chief admitted in 2019 to attending a 2007 rally in Greece by the ultranationalist Golden Dawn party at which a swastika flag was raised. “Der Spiegel” had published a leaked report by the German embassy in Athens naming him as one of “14 neo-Nazis” who arrived from Germany for the far-right rally. Kalbitz released a statement saying he took part out of “curiosity.”
Nazi or not?
The Kalbitz affair has highlighted the AfD’s dilemma: It has its power base in eastern Germany, where the AfD has replaced the former communists as a voice of protest and defiance against mainstream politics. In Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt the AfD garnered around 25% of the vote in the last state elections.
The AfD is stronger in Brandenburg, the sparsely populated state that surrounds Berlin, than almost anywhere else. Kalbitz himself ran a successful campaign in last year’s election there, taking one in four voters. He was still polling at 20% a month ago, making the AfD the second-strongest party in the state.
On the decline?
It’s a perennial dilemma for the AfD: To what extent should it accommodate its extremist base — currently centered around stubborn and powerful Thuringian leader Björn Höcke — while not scaring away the more centrist conservative voters it craves? Florian Hartleb told DW The Wing’s influence is still huge, even though it was ordered to officially disband after the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution put the group on its extremist watchlist.
As Hartleb pointed out, a glance at the comments on the AfD’s Facebook groups shows that Meuthen has become an enemy for many AfD supporters. “The radicals in the party have one idol — that’s Höcke. They have one martyr — this is Mr. Kalbitz — and they have one enemy, Mr. Meuthen,” said Hartleb. “We’re not just talking about West and East, we’re talking about a real split within the party. The conflict is about much more than Mr. Kalbitz.”
AfD co-founder Gauland has publicly defended Höcke, insisting last year that the controversial former history teacher from western Germany was “in the center of the party.” Höcke himself has defeated previous attempts to oust him from the party.
“The party is really linked with its extremists. Höcke won’t give up,” said Hartleb. “I think it’s more likely that Meuthen resigns and the radicals take over the party, and there will be a split.”
The pattern is familiar in the AfD’s short history, with relatively moderate leaders like Bernd Lucke and then Frauke Petry consistently being ousted by their more overtly nationalist successors.
Nevertheless, with the party’s history of riding out scandal, Hartleb doesn’t think this crisis will bring the AfD down. “They’re too strong in eastern Germany, where they are deeply rooted in society,” he said. “I see a decline in the west maybe, but I don’t see that it’s over for the AfD.”