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AfD's success: A turning point for Germany's far right

July 27, 2023

After years of infighting, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has established itself as a radical force which wants more power. It intends to solidify those ambitions at its upcoming party congress.

AfD protesters with blue umbrellas
Image: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Party conferences of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — which includes right-wing extremist elements, were always a spectacle. On the public stage, the members openly jeered at, booed, and ridiculed their own top executives. The party chewed through chairpersons with regularity. In doing so, the AfD can be compared to an onion: supposedly more moderate nationalist-conservative layers have been peeled off (driven out) — and the radical right extremist core emerged and expanded its power.

At the same time, the AfD has managed to position itself as a radical party of the fundamental opposition which stands against all other German parties. They stamp their mark on all the big debates: for example, with their rejection of almost all immigration and demands for mass deportations of asylum seekers.

'AfD — nationalist and extreme right-wing'

The current AfD party congress being held from July 28, 2023, in the eastern German city of Magdeburg, will take place under new circumstances for the party: Stunning power struggles and upheavals are not to be expected.

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"The question of the political orientation of the AfD has been resolved internally," sociologist and expert on right-wing extremism David Begrich from the Magdeburg-based non-profit association "Miteinander e.V." (Together - Network for Democracy and Cosmopolitanism in Saxony-Anhalt), told DW, adding: "The ethnic, nationalist, right-wing extremist wing has prevailed."

And its members are more confident than ever: "We are currently the most exciting right-wing party in Europe," influential AfD European Parliament member politician Maximilian Krah commented during a discussion in the Saxony-Anhalt village of Schnellroda when talking about his party's record-high polling results.

This success he attributed to the AfD's radical nature: "Everyone else is following the false proposition that if you want to increase your share of the vote you need to adapt your content to suit. But we as the AfD are currently showing that we have produced these results with a clear policy course."

Out of the EU, euro and NATO

By "a clear course" the AfD means a radical rejection of almost all political developments of recent decades: For the convention in Magdeburg, the main proposal from the party leadership for the European elections in 2024 states: Germany must leave the EU, leave the euro common currency, and leave NATO. Climate protection measures and renewable energy are to be fought. The party promotes a "fortress Europe" against immigrants and against Islam. The fight against racism and discrimination is to be rejected. Regarding Germany's brutal colonial history, the proposed election campaign platform says: "The culture of blame and shame, which proponents of postcolonial ideology want to establish across all of Europe, does not do justice to the historical facts. That is why we reject it."

The AfD is more and more openly making common cause with right-wing extremist individuals and groups. Even positive references to neo-Nazism, Adolf Hitler and the murderous National Socialist era have virtually no consequences for important officials. "The AfD deals with its connections to right-wing extremist organizations and people according to the motto: If we are caught with our hands in the cookie jar, then we will say 'we didn't want to take any cookies,'" Begrich, the expert on right-wing extremism said, adding: "and if they are not caught, they continue to cram the cookies into their mouths."

AfD demo with placards reading 'PEACE' in German, English and Russian and 'Our money for our people'
AfD supporters in eastern Germany are critical of Germany's support for UkraineImage: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Openly sympathizing with Putin

While the party is becoming more united in its radicalism, the divisions within the AfD have still not completely disappeared. An example of this is the policy regarding Russia, said David Begrich from Miteinander e.V. "In the eastern German region, behind closed doors but sometimes also openly, people sympathize with Russia's social policy and also with Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine. The situation is completely different in the western German regional associations of the party."

Ahead of 2024, a year full of important elections across many levels of government, the AfD seems to be on course for success. Opinion polls put their share of the vote at about 20% nationwide, which is better than the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the party of current Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and its governing coalition partners the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP). Begrich concludes from this that the AfD's influence is increasing. "We will surely experience that the AfD will be able to expand its position in the upcoming regional and local elections. This means that the party is now growing from the ground up."

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Demand for a homogenous society

That is a challenge for the political system in Germany. For years, German domestic intelligence and experts on far-right extremism have been warning of the antidemocratic and misanthropic tendencies of the AfD. Especially its definition of "being German." For the AfD, a German passport is no proof someone is German. It propagates a view of people that are determined by their ethnicity and cultural background — and continually coats immigrants with racist abuse and threats to deport them.

In doing so, they breach one of the most important principles in the German constitution and one of the biggest lessons from the country's violent history: That no German should be disadvantaged because of their family origin, their religion, or their culture.

The AfD's political competition is still yet to figure out a consistent way of dealing with them. The center-right conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their leader Friedrich Merz, in particular, are struggling to set a clear course. On the one hand, the CDU wants to win voters back from the far-right party. There are numerous connections and overlaps at the local municipal level. On the other hand, the CDU leader has vigorously promised a "firewall" between the parties. The ongoing to-ing and fro-ing has so far benefited only one party, according to David Begrich: the AfD. "The discussion in Germany about the AfD is going as badly as can be."

This article was originally written in German.

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