The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been no stranger to scandal since its formation five years ago. The latest controversy surrounding the party, the third largest in Germany's parliament, involves a man widely revered in the country today: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. A colonel in the Wehrmacht, Germany's Nazi-era army, he spearheaded an effort to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1944. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, it is considered an act of heroism in Germany to this day.
One of the AfD's rising young stars, Lars Steinke, recently branded von Stauffenberg and his fellow would-be Hitler assassins as "traitors and enemies of the German people," an opinion that is not uncommon in right-wing extremist circles. Steinke is the head of the AfD's youth faction, the Junge Alternative, in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. His Facebook post denigrating von Stauffenberg drew outrage from within the Junge Alternative as well as more senior members of the AfD. At the state and national level, his fellow party members are calling for his expulsion. And this is not the first time. At the beginning of the year, his colleagues denounced him and tried to have him removed from the AfD because of his ties to right-wing extremists.
The purpose of provocation
According to political analyst Werner Patzelt, this eagerness to overstep the boundaries by younger party members is seen as an act of duty. In the AfD, "the sludge rises to the top easily and unfiltered," Patzelt told DW. The sentiment Steinke expressed, that those who conspired to assassinate Hitler are not heroes, has a certain "tradition" in Germany, and this latest incident is a confirmation of that legacy, he explained.
Franziska Schreiber, a 28-year-old AfD defector, warned that the AfD is adopting provocative and radical stances that promote historical revisionism. "The heads of the AfD are under a lot of pressure," Schreiber, who recently published a book on the increasingly open extremism within the party, told DW.
Guided from the bottom up
Patzelt, who is a professor in Dresden in the eastern state of Saxony — a state considered to be the spiritual home of the AfD — considers this latest development in the party as "logical." That's because the AfD so quickly earned its reputation as a far-right party in the eyes of most Germans, that it attracted many people from the country's right-wing fringe, he said.
"They actually represent the momentum of the AfD," said Patzelt, noting that this far-right faction makes up the majority at party conferences. Those who want to rise to a leadership position within the AfD "do well to listen to these people," he added. Patzelt said the AfD functions differently from other political parties in Germany. "It is not the leadership of the party that determines the line the lower ranks should toe;" it is in fact the other way around, he explained.
The more moderate voices within the AfD get little airtime, and the fate of former party head Bernd Lucke is evidence of that. Lucke, who co-founded the AfD as a euroskeptic party in 2013, and also his successor, Frauke Petry, both faced tensions from radical factions within the party that ultimately helped force their ouster. As the AfD drifted steadily to the right, Lucke and Petry were unable to placate the grassroots members of the party. Anyone unable to toe the line is "sawn off," said Schreiber.
'Party of PEGIDA'
Further evidence of the AfD's shift to the extreme right is the recent lift on a ban preventing cooperation between the party and the xenophobic organization PEGIDA, the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. Since 2014, PEGIDA demonstrations have been taking place in Dresden. Patzelt, who has been observing Germany's right-wing scene for years, said that if PEGIDA demonstrations were to be held elsewhere in the country, AfD members would attend them. In his view, the AfD is "PEGIDA's party."
Even if the AfD leadership publicly appears to be denouncing the radical provocateurs within its ranks, such as in the latest von Stauffenberg affair, it remains unclear just how far to the right the party is willing to position itself.
Another question the AfD will soon have to address is its stance on Steve Bannon, a former adviser to US President Donald Trump. Bannon wants to promote Europe's right-wing populists with a project dubbed "The Movement." Although it is still unclear whether the more domestically concerned right-wingers in Europe want to align with the former executive of the alt-right Breitbart media outlet, Patzelt believes that cooperation between Bannon and the AfD is possible. In fact, the first meeting between the two sides took place last spring.