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Germany's AfD: Euroskeptics turned far-right populists

March 11, 2024

What started out as a euroskeptic party has turned into a hub for the disgruntled — and a political home for right-wing extremists. Now, the Alternative for Germany is striving for government participation.

Blue AfD logo with red arrow pointing upwards and the words Alternative für Deutschland
Germany's far-right populist AfD was founded 11 years agoImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been in the Bundestag since 2017 and is represented in 15 of 16 state parliaments. Opinion polls currently show them as the second-largest party nationwide.

The AfD has seen its support rise against the backdrop of widespread uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Europe and the increasing refugee immigration to Germany.

The rise in support for the far-right populists comes at a time of mounting dissatisfaction with the center-left federal government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Ahead of this autumn's regional elections in the eastern states of Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia, those regional branches of the AfD are polling between 31 and 36% of the vote despite being the most radical right-wing. In Thuringia AfD leader Björn Höcke, who may be described as a fascist, has his eyes set on the premiership.

Konrad Adam, Bernd Lucke, Alexander Gauland sitting on the podium at the first AfD party conference
Co-founders (from left) Konrad Adam, Bernd Lucke and Alexander Gauland presided over the first party conference in April 2013Image: Marc Tirl/dpa/picture alliance

AfD evolution

The AfD has evolved from its early days, when it was dismissed as a party catering to economics professors, into a "far-right party that is extremist, antisemitic and racist," political scientist Ursula Münch told DW.

At the time of its founding, the AfD was critical of the euro currency and the EU bailout program for Greece. In September 2012, the "Election Alternative 2013" was formed — the precursor to the AfD. Economics professor Bernd Lucke, journalist Konrad Adam and Alexander Gauland a former member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union then turned it into the Alternative for Germany. 

The party was officially founded on February 6, 2013. Since then, "the AfD has become a permanent fixture in the German party system, where a decidedly liberal-conservative force had previously been sorely lacking," wrote AfD co-chair Alice Weidel in response to a DW query on the tenth anniversary of the party's foundation.

The party fast became a rallying point for people with right-wing attitudes for whom existing far-right extremist splinter groups seemed too extreme, but who had become disenchanted with the liberal tendencies of the center-right Christian Democratsunder former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

From the beginning, the AfD comprised three different movements: the liberal economists, the national conservatives and right-wing populists.

The frequent change of leadership has become a distinctive feature of the AfD, as more moderate leaders opt out.

The move to the far-right

The party's radicalization began when hundreds of thousands of people fled to Germany in 2015, seeking protection from the war in Syria. Xenophobic anti-refugee street protests began to grow, especially in eastern Germany, the former communist GDR, which had known little immigration until 1989.

AfD founding member Alexander Gauland once referred to this development as "a gift" for his party, whose anti-government rhetoric turned increasingly aggressive. In 2016, then-AfD leader Frauke Petry said refugees should be prevented from crossing the border into Germany by force of arms if necessary.

In early June 2018, Gauland, who was the party's parliamentary group leader, triggered outrage across the country when he trivialized the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust. Speaking at a party event, he said that "Hitler and the Nazis were no more than a speck of bird's shit in over 1,000 years of successful history."

Political scientist Münch said the AfD's success also comes from the fact that "such radical statements go down quite well with parts of the population: those who applaud AfD politicians for daring to speak out and ruffle the feathers of the political establishment."

These radical statements have put the German security authorities on alert. In March 2021, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) — the domestic intelligence service — classified the entire party as a "suspected right-wing extremist case."

How much do neo-Nazi views influence Germany's AfD?

"Der Flügel" (the wing), an extremist faction of the AfD, has been determined in court to be right-wing extremist, which means its members can be put under state surveillance. This may include the employment of undercover investigators and the tapping of telephone conversations.

Weidel believes this is "a blatant party-political instrumentalization of the domestic intelligence service." Political scientist Münch, on the other hand, said the AfD has indeed "by and large, become an extreme right-wing party."

The party has mastered social media and through a strong presence on TikTok have become attractive to a young electorate.

Russia-friendly stance

The AfD is Russia-friendly. From the start of the war, AfD lawmakers have categorically opposed arms deliveries to Ukraine. 

After over a decade in opposition, the AfD has its sights set firmly on government participation. It may not be within reach on the federal level, but AfD leaders believe they have a chance in the eastern German states.

The AfD sees the CDU as a possible coalition partner. The conservatives, however, have ruled out such coalitions, even passing resolutions to that effect at party conferences.

But that resistance may be waning. According to political scientist Münch, many regional CDU representatives are already asking "quietly and not so quietly" what is actually "so bad" about the AfD. Should an AfD-CDU alliance actually come about, however, it "would be a very big conflict for the CDU," she predicted.

Germany debates ban on far-right AfD party

'Remigration' plans

An investigative report of a clandestine meeting last November triggered nationwide protests against the AfD in 2024. In Potsdam, AfD representatives met with right-wing extremists and some CDU members and debated a "master plan for remigration". Presented by the well-known Austrian right-wing extremist Martin Sellner, they discussed the possible expulsion or deportation of asylum seekers and foreigners with the right to stay, as well as "non-assimilated" German citizens.

A close associate of party and parliamentary group leader Weidel, who was subsequently dismissed, was also present. An ongoing debate about a possible ban on the AfD has so far come to nothing, but steps have been taken to limit its party financing. The AfD has sought to portray itself as a victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by their political opponents, the "mainstream parties."

The meeting in Potsdam, however, has damaged the AfD's reputation with other right-wing populists in Europe. The leader of the French far right, the "Rassemblement National," Marine Le Pen, was critical of the "remigration" proposals and threw the joint parliamentary group in the European Parliament into question.

While Weidel sought to make amends in a personal letter to LePen, Maximilian Krah, the AfD's top candidate for the EU parliament election in June, has taken things in his stride. He has repeatedly called the AfD "the most exciting right-wing party" in Europe.

This article was originally written in German. An early version was published in 2023 and it has since then been updated and republished.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.
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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau