On the night that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) recorded its 12.6 per cent seat breakthrough, thousands of protesters gathered outside its election celebration at a swanky bar in Alexanderplatz.
Julia Damphouse, a member of the anti-racist Coalition Berlin attended the rally: “I’m sure it was pre-planned, but I also think it took off once people saw they’d gotten as big a vote as they had.”
Discussion had already begun about how Germany had arrived at this point, and what needed to be done to stem the first far-right outfit to break into the Reichstag – with 96 seats placing them in third place – since the end of the second world war.
“It’s a tough question, because if we knew the answer the AfD wouldn’t have been able to get where they are now.”
The scale of the breakthrough presents German anti-fascists, long used to resisting their opponents on the political fringes, with a profound challenge.
It may seem strange that the AfD is their concern at all, if one were to believe the media depiction of the AfD are part of a surge in conservative, populist nationalist and Eurosceptic parties; the archetype being the UK’s own Ukip.
But the party’s successful campaign did not focus on the EU.
Instead as the official spokesperson for the No room for the Alternative for Germany (NRAfD) campaign Nina Baumgartner told me, the AfD focused relentlessly on a triumvirate: “Immigration, security, and family.”
The politics of demography and race
The most common forms of party materials on display during the campaign, especially when one entered battle ground areas of the east and parts of Berlin, were those addressing a cult of German motherhood.
In one poster, perhaps the most common, a young woman with blond hair stretches out on a meadow, her midriff bulging, laughing in joy.
Another shows a row of mothers, porcelain white, each clutching a tiny infant to their chest and staring defiantly onto the public.
A third shows a group of younger women from behind, sauntering across pure sands, bikini clad. It enjoins young women to forgo the “Burkha” for the more revealing beachwear.
The public hijacking of youthful female sexuality by an AfD that is – like many other populist right and xenophobic parties growing throughout Europe – essentially a movement of older men, has an unnerving quality of it’s own.
But what alarms more is the bridge in ethos to the procreation policies of the Third Reich. As Baumgartner reminds me, the Nazi regime created a motherhood cult to fuel Hitler’s plans for industrial and military expansion.
The party’s 2017 manifesto calls for a range of financial inducements to increase the “German” birthrate to make good a planned drastic cut in the number of immigrant workers.
The manifesto oozes with paranoia about birth-rates:
One in five women remains childless. Among graduate women the ratio worsened to one in three in 2012. Families with more than two children predominately belong to the socially underprivileged class. Members of the middle class have children later and later, whilst the number of large families within this category has been on the decline for years. In addition, Germany records about 100 000 abortions annually as account of so-called “social reasons”.
German women are, clearly, not currently up to task. Too much education and too much reproductive freedom for middle class women, whilst the stock of the German race fills up with the indiscretions of the working class and worse, immigrants who, the party warns, breed at a higher rate than ‘Germans’.
The manifesto concludes, after some exhaustive detail:
“We regard the closing of the gap between the actual number of children being born, and the desire of 90 per cent of young Germans to have children, as a central element of our political platform.”
Naturally, the party is also anti-abortion rights.
Militarism and Islamophobia
The AfD does indeed intend a military future for this new bumper generation, with the re-instatement of compulsory military service for all German males between the ages of 18 and 25. The military itself would see it’s budget and scale increased.
Many leading AfD figures call for the restoration of the military’s prestige, so tarnished in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War.
Alexander Gauland – the party’s leading personality – was recorded as saying:
“We have the right to take back our country and our history. If the French are rightly proud of their emperor and the Britons of Nelson and Churchill, we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”
Some elements of the party go even further in repudiating modern Germany’s attempts at remembrance of the Nazi era.
Björn Höcke, a Thunringian state parliament member and one of the leaders of the AfD’s most extreme tendencies, commenting on the Berlin Holocaust memorial said:
“We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital. These stupid politics of coming to grips with the past cripple us – we need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.”
But the most central aspect of the AfD project is Islamophobia.
Former party leader Frauke Petry reached out to Pegida (an Islamophobic street movement similar to the EDL in the UK), called for a ban on minarets and said it could be “necessary” to deploy lethal force to protect Germany’s borders from refugees.
Jens Maier, a judge in the Saxony state court and a 2017 AfD candidate spoke sympathetically of neo-nazi terrorist Andres Breivik, who murdered 78 in Norway in 2011 in the name of removing Muslims from Europe, saying: “Breivik became a mass murderer out of pure desperation.”
The AfD successfully whipped-up anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of Angela Merkel’s pledge to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees in the wake of during the height of the refugee crisis.
But as anti-fascist activist and national coordinator of Aufstehen gegen Rassismus (Stand up to Racism) Nora Nais told me, the AfD did not create the terrain for their own Islamophobic narrative. It was created for them by the political centre – including elements of the left and centre-left:
“Islamophobia has been strengthened since 9/11. Not only by the far right, but also by other politicians and parties (Thilo Sarrazin, of the SPD, is a famous example). For the AfD this is the soil. Islamophobia is the most accepted form of racism, so they put it out front while mostly hiding anti-semitic positions, because with antiSemitism you cannot get mass support in Germany.
In a move that only reinforced the trend, the centre parties spent the election campaign validating the AfD’s xenophobic policies as rhetoric.
“During the weeks before the election other parties put a lot of energy in talking about AfD’s topics, especially asylum policies, because they were afraid of losing votes. They thought if they went further to the right they could win voters back who would otherwise vote for AfD. However the opposite was the case. The best example is Bavaria, where the CSU, which is on the rightwing of the CDU, lost and the AfD won. The whole political discussion went further to the right and strengthened the AfD, because they got much more attention and because the voters voted for the original, not for the copies.”
There was some excuse for the depiction of the AfD as German Ukip when the party formed back in 2013, and after it had it’s electoral breakthrough, winning 7 MEP’s, in 2014. The party, lead in its initial ascendancy by Bernd Lucke and a group of Eurosceptic conservatives, was taken over in 2015 by Petry at the fore of a factional seizure of the party by it’s more hard right and openly fascistic elements.
Just hours after the German elections on 24 September, Petry herself – hailed by many commentators as a dynamic force for the new European right – stormed out of the party over concerns about it’s increasingly extreme direction.
What we have seen, in other words, is yet another manifestation of more ‘moderate’ elements of a new rightwing milieu emerge before rapidly seceding ground to more hard-line and fascist tendencies.
The new far-right milieu…
Speaking to me after the election of the new AfD parliamentary group, Glasgow University sociology lecturer Neil Davidson, who writes widely on the social movement dynamics of the new far right, says that a distinction between the tendencies remains important.
“We’ve seen both fascist and non-fascist variants of the far-right emerge since the 1990s. The differences between them are not just about ‘control of the streets’ versus ‘ election to parliament’, although this is part of it. There’s also a more fundamental difference in that fascists are revolutionaries and seek to transform the state in their own image; the non-fascists simply want to take it over so they can take their country back to 1950, or 1930, or whenever the pre-lapsarian moment is supposed to have been.”
What are the typical relationships between these two tendencies?
“It varies from country to country, but both variants are attempting to gain support from the same social base, so in a sense they are rivals opposed to each other: the fascists see the non-fascists as compromisers; the non-fascists see the fascists as vote-losing throw-backs.”
The AfD is only the latest organisation which draws both wings into a common organisation, creating complications for activists seeking-out tactics to deal with this new threat.
“Obviously, I’m using ‘ideal types’ here [fascist and non-fascist] – in the real world you get all sorts of overlaps, shared membership, and so on…members can move from one wing to another – quite often not really understanding the wider politics or programmes involved.”
Leading German activists admit to not knowing exactly how many of the new MPs are of the fascistic tendency – led by Gauland and Höcke, but believe it to be sizeable and assert that it’s internal faction is large and well organised. Clearly, from the party manifesto and leadership it is ascendant and influential.
For veteran activists, this has already meant a reappraisal of anti-fascist tactics.
Florian, an activist in Germany’s oldest anti-fascist outfit, the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime, has been part of a protested movement to remove the influence of AfD institutions in Charlottenburg, alongside NRAfD.
The fashionable district near the one time city centre of the former West Berlin has many plush hotels and other venues which have played host to AfD organisations and associated groups. Florian claims that the campaign has met with some success in denying organising space to the far right, but admits that a wider strategy remains elusive:
“It’s tough – its not really figured out yet.
“With former fascistic parties, you automatically had the majority of the population on your side.
“The AfD is different – at part of them is not neo-nazis, and they have more credibility in the public.”
“We used to have the National Democratic Party, which is in fact Neo-Nazi, they derive directly from people who were already fascists in the Reich [Nazi regime of 30s and 40s].
“The AfD is a bit more complicated, it is a party facing two ways at once. Part of the party has the same ideas [as NDP], but there is another part of the party which is more Neo-liberal – they are not like UKIP, because Ukip is fighting for Brexit, the AfD aren’t so much about anti-EU. They are fighting to exclude some countries from the EU and the others stay together, so there is a north-south division.”
For Davidson, tactics must match the strategy and type of threat posed by the political opponent themselves:
“I think we have to respond based on the actions and behaviour of the different tendencies rather than their formal belief systems. In other words, some members of non-fascist organisations can hold quite as disgusting beliefs as their fascist brethren (as can some Conservatives or Christian Democrats); but unless they actually seek to conduct physical attacks on people, organise marches, etc, we treat them as ‘conventional’ opponents – demonstrate against them, in other words but do not smash up their meetings.”
Following the shock of the electoral breakthrough, activists are gearing up for a sustained campaign against the AfD, its normalisation in political culture and the impact it has had on public discourse.
From protests at the opening of the Reichstag to the AfD’s hard-liners on 22 and 24 October, to a planned mass demonstration in on 2 December in Hannover, a new street movement is in preparation. Thousands are also signing petitions calling on MPs of all parties to refuse to collaborate with AfD MPs, alongside other ongoing projects to isolate the AfD and limit its influence.
Anti-racists are engaging in a campaign of popular education, and claim to have provided classes to around 6000 people, including in schools and through unions, in how to take on far-right arguments in their workplaces and communities.
Undoubtedly, activists face a struggle in persuading a critical mass of Germans of the fascist nature of elements of the AfD, given it’s growing popularity and complex nature. But activists cite the example of a successful prototype campaign in Munster, where the AfD received their lowest support in Germany despite an active presence.
“To defeat the AfD we need a broad public movement against them, including SPD, Greens, Unions, as well as Antifa groups and leftists. A movement which is radical enough to do protests and to block them, but open and non-violent so that everybody who is against the AfD can take part. A good example is Münster, the only place where the AfD gained less than 5 per cent: there was a huge protest in the beginning of this year against the AfD’s new years meeting, which became so popular that in the end even the CDU supported it and the owners of the shops in the centre turned of the lights of the houses that evening.
“We need such a movement all over the country so that there is the feeling that everybody is against the AFD. This means that for people hesitating to support them it becomes an image problem to do so. And with such a movement also other parties would not format a coalition with them in future. We already have this movement in many places all over the country, but it is not strong, broad and big enough yet.”
Needless to say the AfD themselves reject the accusations of fascist influence. The continual splits and defections of party moderates and advances of hard-liners, combined with party policy and public statements, tell their own story.
No one can fairly accuse the German activist left of complacency over the AfD, nor say they lack a realistic appreciation of the balance of forces between themselves and the far-right movement as it presently stands.
There is no ignoring that Germany is just a single front in an increasingly global fight against the far right. The advances of the Freedom party and the right of the People’s Party in Austria just weeks later being an apposite example.
The outcome of the fight in Germany, at the heart of the European system, will be one of the crucial theatres, and one that conditions many other fights across the continent.
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