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AfD's Petry wants to rehabilitate controversial term

Jefferson ChaseSeptember 11, 2016

Frauke Petry, one of the two main leaders of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, says the word "völkisch" should be destigmatized. The term has Nazi connotations.

Porträt AFD Frauke Petry
Image: Getty Images/T. Lohnes

In an interview with the Sunday edition of the newspaper "Die Welt," Alternative for Germany (AfD) co-chair Frauke Petry called for revaluing the term "völkisch," which is closely associated with National Socialism.

Duden, the German dictionary of record, defines "völkisch" as follows: "1. (National Socialist) (in the ideology of National Socialism), concerning a people as a purported race; of or belonging to a people as a purported race 2. (obsolete) national."

"It's unacceptable to reduce the word 'völkisch' to 'racist,'" Petry said. "I myself don't use the term, but I have a problem with the negative connotations of the concept 'völkisch' being extended to the word 'Volk.' We need to work on giving the concept positive connotations."

The word "Volk" had racial connotations during the Third Reich but continues to be used in common speech to signify people in the sense of the German people. By contrast, the adjective "völkisch" has no active meaning apart from Nazi racist ideas.

Screenshot Duden.de Bildmontage Begriff: völkisch
The definition of the word "völkisch" in the Duden dictionary leaves no doubt as to its racist and Nazi connotationsImage: duden.de/DW

Petry's statements made headlines in almost all the Sunday editions of Germany's major newspapers and drew initial condemnation from a variety of critics.

"Next up will be the concept of 'race,'" Green Party Bundestag Deputy Konstantin von Notz tweeted.

The comedian Jan Böhmermann, himself no stranger to controversy, also tweeted sarcastically: "She could have used the occasion to positively revalue the terms 'racial defilement' or 'popular parasite.'"

Those are phrases from Nazi jargon, but the term "völkisch" goes back even further.

Titelseite "Völkischer Beobachter" von 1933 am Tag der Machtübernahme der Nationalsozialisten
The main Nazi newspaper was called the Völkischer Beobachter, or Völkischer ObserverImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ullstein

An unsavory history

The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte may have used the word in 1811 as a synonym for "volkstümlich" (popular), but, with the rise of ethnocentric political movements, the word had taken on racial connotations by the late 19th century.

The völkisch movements from the 1890s through World War I were chauvinistically nationalist, anti-democratic, authoritarian, anti-Semitic, militaristic and racist. The ideology was a major source of inspiration for Adolf Hitler when he began his political career in the early 1920s, and it thoroughly informed National Socialism after Hitler came to power in 1933.

Deutschland Mainz Plakat der AfD bei Pegida Demo
PEGIDA is the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the "Islamization" of the WestImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

After the war, the word fell out of use - for good reason. Even the French writer Guillaume Faye, himself a pioneer of the neo-right in Europe, acknowledged that there was no divorcing völkisch from racist.

"What does völkisch mean?" Faye wrote in 1980. "It derives from the word 'a people' and thus ought to mean: 'popular.' In fact, however, völkisch has ... come to occupy quite a different semantic position. ... Völkisch no longer means 'popular' but 'racist.'"

More recently, the author Bastian Sick - the most popular authority on the German language - deemed the term "völkisch" "utterly discredited." Therefore, it is striking that Petry would choose to associate herself with it just one week after the AfD's breakthrough electoral triumph in a state election.

An emerging pattern

Though the party has never declared itself as explicitly racist, the AfD has increasingly aligned itself with the anti-immigration agenda of such right-wing groups as the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement.

In January 2015, the government-sponsored German-language society GfdS criticized PEGIDA for using a number of terms associated with racism and National Socialism, including "Lügenpresse" (lying press) and "Volksverräter" (betrayer of the people).

In May, AfD Vice-Chairman Alexander Gauland sparked controversy when he asserted that "people wouldn't want Boateng as a neighbor," referring to German national team defender Jerome Boateng, whose father is from Ghana. Petry distanced herself from that statement, but her latest interview with "Die Welt" may have opened her up to accusations of racism - perhaps even from within her own party.

On Sunday, the editor-in-chief of "Die Welt," Ulf Porschardt, tweeted that the AfD's press secretary had wanted to withdraw the interview but that Petry had refused. A miscalculation on her part or a calculated risk?

Political shock waves

Last Sunday, the AfD polled over 20 percent in local elections in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The AfD took votes from parties all over the political spectrum, including some 3 percent from the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which some observers consider neo-Nazi. Petry's flirting with such vocabulary could be interpreted as an attempt to appeal to voters on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

"It's intended to create a fear that too many foreigners are coming here and could change everything established," Kai Biermann wrote in the online edition of the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit." "It's an attempt to portray fascist ideas as one opinion among many. It's an overture to the extreme right."

There's no denying that Petry ramped up the rhetoric in her interview with "Die Welt," warning of a possible "civil war" in Germany if the alleged negative effects of immigration continue. She also said she hoped to earn a Bundestag mandate in Germany's 2017 national elections.

The next test of the AfD's appeal will come in a week's time, when the city-state of Berlin holds regional elections. Petry said she didn't expect the party to attract the same level of support as in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but added that she did anticipate a 10-percent or better showing.

Recent opinion polls have put the level of support nationwide for the AfD at between 9 and 15 percent.