As the far right rises across Europe, its ascent in Germany has seemed among the most alarming and puzzling. For decades, Germany was thought to be inoculated against far-right politics by its history with Nazism and the Holocaust. But today, Germany is experiencing a resurgence of the right — driven, at least in part, by its effort to overcome past misdeeds by suppressing any vestige of nationalism.
Since the Second World World War, trying to define the German national identity, much less celebrate it, has been taboo. Doing so was seen as a possible step towards the kind of nationalism that once enabled the Nazi regime. Flags were frowned upon, as was standing for the national anthem.
But spurred by a sense of lost control over the country’s borders, economy and politics, many Germans are reaching for a shared identity but finding only an empty space. Into that vacuum slipped the Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials, AfD, the nation’s fastest-growing party with recent polls showing support at 12 per cent, ahead of some mainstream parties.
Only the AfD, whose populism puts it far outside of mainstream political norms, is openly promising to fulfill a desire for patriotism that would be routine in most other countries.
The result is that a social and political norm intended to stifle the far right is empowering it. That focus on identity has allowed the AfD, even if it is unlikely to win enough votes to govern, to shape the national conversation to its advantage, and to present itself as the champion of ordinary Germans.
The search for identity
The AfD rally in a snowy square in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was scheduled to last precisely 30 minutes. It started promptly, ran like clockwork and ended with an instruction to the crowd to pick up any litter on the ground.
Such respect for rules and punctuality is something Germans are good at, said several attendees, who clustered in the glow of the small stage, stomping their feet against the numbing cold.
But mostly the mood was one of frustration. A woman in a shearling coat, who asked not to be named out of fear of anti-right-wing discrimination, said that she hoped the AfD would help heal Germany’s “broken self-confidence.”
A chemist with a doctorate, she personified the way that Germany’s identity gap has allowed the AfD to extend its appeal beyond the far-right fringe and into the middle-class mainstream.
“Only in Germany, I found it very strange, people don’t want to say ‘I am German’,” she said. Because the party was the only one willing to challenge that taboo, it was the AfD’s message she absorbed.
Immo Fritsche, a professor at the University of Leipzig who studies group identity formation, said, “There has never been a positive definition of German identity since the Nazi era.”
“It is easier to say what you are against than what you are for,” he said. “And this might be more true in Germany, where the national identity was built on ‘never again’.”
For decades, German politicians worked to layer any sense of Germanness beneath a European identity.
“Germany has negotiated the European part very well, but the casualty has been Germanness,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who specialises in the legacy of European fascism.
That smoothed the country’s path back into the community of nations after the Second World War. But Germans are increasingly concerned about the costs. A July 2016 Pew poll found that half of Germans had an unfavourable view of the European Union. As Euroscepticism rises, a growing minority of Germans are chafing at what they see as pressure to place European identity before national identity.
The influx of refugees into the country in recent years has caused particular stress, Ben-Ghiat said. “In Germany, you’re not even allowed to say you’re proud to be German. You have to say you’re European,” she said. “So when these people come in, what are they left with?”
The power of challenging a taboo
When people feel a loss of control, they seek a stronger connection to a group identity, and also become more interested in making their group more powerful, Fritsche said he had found in his research. Germany’s traditional political parties have been reluctant to indulge that desire because of political taboos. But the AfD has proved adept at exploiting it.
That strategy was on full display the night of January 17 at a beer hall in Dresden, ground zero for Germany’s far-right movement. Hundreds of AfD supporters had gathered for a speech by Bjorn Hocke, one of the party’s fastest-rising figures.
Addressing the crowd, Hocke looked every inch the ordinary German politician, besuited and with a white-toothed grin and an unseasonable tan. But what he said went far beyond the norms of German politics.
Germans are “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital,” he said, a thinly veiled reference to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Germans had “the mentality of a totally vanquished people,” he argued, but it was time for the country to re-embrace its history and develop a positive relationship with its identity.
The crowd’s applause shook the floors, a noisy manifestation of how thrilling transgression can feel in a rule-bound society.
“The foundation of being able to move forward is identity,” Hocke later elaborated in an interview. “There is no people that has given more to humanity than Germany. It is a great and old people, and it would be sad if it were to sink.”
Hocke is an extreme figure within his own party, and his speech provoked a backlash from AfD’s national leadership. But his message demonstrates how the party has broadened its appeal: by telling Germans they should have a proud national identity, a message that in Germany could come only from the political fringes.
That has resonated with middle-class supporters like Julian Walder, 21, a law student who had helped to organise the event in Dresden. He said that his journey to the AfD began with his frustration at the identity taboo.
“The definition we have right now of tolerance in the German political landscape is self-deprecating to a degree that it’s actually self-destructive,” Walder said. “Everything will be tolerated except for being a German.”
Focusing on identity allows the AfD to present itself as a protector of ordinary people — punching up against the nation’s political elite, rather than attacking vulnerable refugees portrayed by the party as a threat to the nation.
That approach, accusing the elite of stifling debate over German history and culture, could be especially appealing to Germans desperate to restore a sense of control over their country.
“This will be very attractive to people who perceive their own lives as without control,” Fritsche said.
A minority, but influencing the conversation
The AfD, despite its rapid growth, remains a minority party. Its support reached a high of 15 per cent, according to a survey by Ipsos in late 2016, but slipped to 12 per cent in a February 7 poll by the same firm.
But as mainstream parties become more focused on defending against the far-right upstarts, the AfD’s populist agenda is trickling into their policies and messaging — raising the possibility that the party’s political influence could outpace its electoral gains.
Frauke Petry, the party’s national chairwoman, said that the AfD’s ideas were shaping the national conversation, even if they were not yet able to shape national legislation.
Fritsche’s research suggests that Petry could be correct, as right-wing parties become more visible. “What would really be dangerous is to have a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which people feel a likely right-wing shift, and this leads to a perceived norm shift,” he said.
There are signs that is happening. Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her re-election bid in December by announcing a more populist agenda. She took a harder line on immigration and called for a ban on Islamic veils that cover the full face, saying they “do not belong to us” and should be “forbidden wherever that is legally possible.”
And although she did not name the AfD directly, she expressly tried to reclaim the identity issue, saying that who “the people” are was something for all to decide, “not just a few, no matter how loud they are.”
Hocke was unmoved by her rightward shift. He called Merkel a “chancellor-dictator” who had broken German law by opening the country’s borders to refugees, and he demanded an end to her “regime”.
“We Germans have to be self-aware,” he said in the interview. “We can see our state falling apart; it’s falling apart before our eyes. It’s about survival.”
–New York Times News Service