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Making sense of Germany's rightward shift

There has been much talk of a rightward shift in European politics this year, though Germany's has been relatively mild. Here's a rundown of the right-wing scene and its influence on Germany's conservative parties.

Politicians from Germany's mainstream parties have been united in condemning the so-called "Islamic State," the brutal Islamist militia currently occupying territory in Syria and Iraq. But the attitude in some parts of the population is decidedly more mixed when it comes to helping their victims fleeing the two countries.

Police are still investigating who was behind Friday's suspected arson attack on three planned refugee shelters in the Bavarian town of Vorra, but, considering that swastikas had been painted on one of the facades of the buildings, it seems safe to assume that far-right extremists were responsible.

That is how Germany's politicians have interpreted the attack, with Bavarian state premier and head of the conservative Christian Social Union Horst Seehofer telling his party conference on Saturday, "Far-right ideas have no place in our free society." The condemnation was echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also attended the conference.

Brandanschlag in Vorra bei Nürnberg 12.12.2014

An asylum seekers' shelter was attacked in Vorra, near Nuremberg

But left-wing opposition parties responded by accusing the center-right half of the German government of creating an atmosphere that legitimizes such attacks. Left Party leader Bernd Riexinger told the Leipziger Volkszeitung this weekend that in a political climate "in which established parties are making racism acceptable, violent right-wing gangs feel encouraged."

The Green Party's parliamentary leader Anton Hofreiter added: "The probable far-right origin of the arson attacks on refugee shelters in Vorra should shake the CSU awake."

But who are Germany's right wing parties and movements? This is a rundown of the right half of Germany's political spectrum and a quick look at the two mainstream conservative parties, CSU and CDU:

National Democratic Party

Germany's traditional neo-Nazi party has become somewhat marginalized in the current climate. NPD members took part in populist right-wing PEGIDA demonstrations in Saxony - seen as their political heartland - but they did not help initiate them.

The party has been left struggling by a combination of financial difficulty, a popular perception that their members are mainly skinhead thugs, and the pressure of another attempt to have them outlawed as an anti-democratic haven for violent extremists. And yet, populist movements have adopted many of their policies.


HOGESA, which stands for Hooligans Gegen Salafisten (Hooligans against Salafists), was an alliance of between 3,000 and 5,000 violent football supporters and far-right extremists who took over central Cologne on October 26 to demonstrate against "Islamization."

Rund 2500 Hooligans bei Kundgebung gegen Islamisten in Köln 26.10.2014

The HOGESA protest erupted into violence in Cologne

The protest emerged out of a network of "Ultras," football fans who had been gathering on an online forum for around three years proposing action that occasionally bordered on the criminal. Around 60 police officers were injured during clashes that followed the Cologne demo, and police are thought to have been surprised by the scale of the crowds.

Fewer protesters turned up at a follow-up HoGeSa event in Hanover on November 15, which was initially banned, while police brought a much more significant force to prevent a repeat of the violence in Cologne. Counter-demonstrators, organized by a number of left-wing organizations, also outnumbered the "Hooligans" by two to one.

Pro Deutschland

This populist far-right political party founded in western Germany in 2005 is part of a conglomerate of organizations who all carry the "Pro" prefix - "Pro Köln" (for Cologne), "Pro NRW" (for North Rhine-Westphalia), Pro München (for Munich), etc.

The party calls itself a "citizens' initiative," and attempts to position itself as a right-wing alternative to mainstream, centrist parties and a respectable alternative to the National Democratic Party. But many of the party leadership are former members of extremist political groups and the party is under observation by German intelligence agencies.

The group has made connections with far-right parties across Europe, including Italy's Lega Nord and France's Front National. They have also staged a number of anti-Islam events over the past few years, including an "Anti-Islamization Congress" in Cologne in 2008, and an "Islam-critical caricature competition" in 2012, in which party members gathered outside mosques and drew cartoons of Muslim figures.


PEGIDA's organizers appropriated the East German tradition of "Monday demos" against the old Communist regime to stage weekly protests in Dresden against Islamization.

The demonstrations, which have grown from a few hundred to several thousand in nine weeks, were initiated in response to clashes between Kurds and Sunni Muslims over the West's intervention in Syria, but the organization's name suggests broader aims.

PEGIDA stands for "Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes" or "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West," and associated protests have sprung up in several cities around Germany - "Kagida" in Kassel, "Wügida" in Würzburg, "Bogida" in Bonn, and "Dügida" in Düsseldorf.

Far-right extremists and ultras from local football clubs have taken part in the demos, but organizers claim those attending are ordinary, disgruntled people worried about "Salafist hate-preachers" and immigrants abusing the welfare system. An almost equal number of counter-demonstrators have also turned up regularly.

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)

By far the most successful of Germany's new political movements had one of the most unprepossessing of starts. Founded in February 2013 by a group of economics professors in response to the Euro crisis, the "Alternative for Germany" made its name as a euroskeptic party, but has increasingly won support from conservative voters unhappy with Merkel's centrism - particularly on social issues like same-sex marriage.

It also says it favors a more restrictive immigration policy. It narrowly missed entering the Bundestag at the first attempt in September 2013, gaining 4.7 percent of the vote, but took seven of Germany's 96 seats in the European Parliament in May.

Considering itself a populist alternative, it was notably slow to follow the mainstream parties and condemn the PEGIDA protests. Party leader Bernd Lucke said the demonstrations showed that the concern about a spread of "radical Islamist thinking" were justified.

Christian Social Union (CSU)

The Bavarian sister-party to Merkel's CDU, which occupies three ministries in her cabinet, came under the most pressure from the AfD in the European election, and has persistently raised more populist proposal. Last week, after considerable ridicule, it was forced to backtrack on the idea to force immigrants to speak German in their own homes.

At the party conference, leader Seehofer called the PEGIDA movement "rat-catchers, who have to be opposed," and said that politicians had to stay in dialogue with the "normal population" on the subject of immigration.

The CSU's Joachim Herrmann, Bavarian interior minister, also picked up on the pied piper metaphor, telling a conference of Germany's interior ministers in Cologne: "We have to absorb the fears of the population, before far-right rat-catchers do it with their crude slogans."

Thomas de Maiziere Innenministerkonferenz 2014 Köln

De Maiziere said politicians have to take PEGIDA's "concerns" seriously

Christian Democratic Union (CDU)

Merkel's party has also felt the pressure from the right in recent weeks, and last Thursday Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere - of the CDU - joined the AfD in expressing understanding for the PEGIDA demonstrators.

"Among those taking part, there are many who are expressing their concerns about the challenges of our times," he told state TV network ARD. "We have to take these concerns seriously."

By comparison, Ralf Jäger, his Social Democrat counterpart in North Rhine-Westphalia, dismissed the PEGIDA organizers as "neo-Nazis in pinstripes." Merkel herself has remained characteristically aloof from the debate over her party's rightward shift - rarely even mentioning the AfD, for instance, as a serious threat.

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