The September 24 German election can be seen as part of the series of European elections serving as litmus tests for European sentiment on core issues: the future of the European Union, immigration, the rise of Islam and the character of Europe.
Much of the attention throughout the German campaign centered on the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Established just five years ago as a Euroskeptic party, it has since evolved to garner messages that are similar to other European far-right parties: anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-EU and German nationalism.
While AfD has so far been successful in having its representatives elected to 13 of 16 state parliaments, it is now set to enter the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament – the first time since the aftermath of World War II that a far-right party is represented in the parliament. Furthermore, it was the surprise of the election by becoming the third largest party, winning over 13 percent of the seats, according to preliminary results.
“We reject the move toward a centralized federal United States of Europe. We favor the return to a community based on sovereign nations of shared economic interests,” Beatrix von Storch, AfD’s deputy chairwoman and one of the public faces of the party, tells The Jerusalem Report
When asked if she sees a possibility of the European Union disintegrating, von Storch is clear: “If the present path of centralization and harmonization continues, the result will be disintegration.”
Such a move away from “federal Europe” inevitably comes with greater emphasis on German nationalism; there are those in Germany who feel their nationalism has been exaggeratedly suppressed in the aftermath of World War II.
AfD prominently highlighted German nationalism in its campaign such as banners at its rallies stating, “Our land, our homeland” and advertising with the caption, “Get your country back.”
Although some are uneasy with such slogans, which evoke memories of similar catchphrases in Germany’s past, von Storch does not see a problem with elevating German nationalism. “We stand for patriotism that promotes peace and good-neighborliness,” she says.
Dr. Marcel Lewandowsky, a political scientist at Helmut Schmidt University who researches populist parties and election campaigning in Germany, explains, “The mainstream in Germany has been very sensitive when it comes to German nationalism. Every nationalist party that has popped up over the years was stigmatized and interpreted in the context of German history. But in the last 10 years, the Christian Democrats [the center-right party], under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, has shifted to the political center. That created a gap in Germany’s party system.”
The void on Germany’s Right is not the only contributor to the rise of AfD. Prof. Catherine de Vries of the University of Essex focuses on the rise of Euroscepticism and the success of extremist parties in Europe. She views the rise of AfD in the context of a broader European anti-establishment wave.
“There is a crisis of representation on a national level throughout Europe,” she says. “It is not just about the EU. Voters are crying foul against the elite, against their governments, against their ministers.”
Capitalizing on the combination of the political void and the anti-establishment attitudes, von Storch believes her party delivers an appealing answer.
“Many things drive our voters. Central to all of them are the policies of Merkel’s government such as the expansion of the EU, failure of the euro, and Merkel’s failed immigration policy,” she says.
Some, however, are questioning who exactly are those voters attracted to AfD and what are their backgrounds.
“There is a moderate faction within AfD, but there is also a strong nationalist faction, especially in parts of eastern Germany. Indeed, AfD also attracts real neo-Nazis, but they are not the majority in the party,” says Lewandowsky.
It is the presence of such elements within the party that has drawn accusations that it is antisemitic.
Lewandowsky addresses the validity of these accusations. “There is some secondary antisemitism. You find amongst AfD sympathizers those who hold the view that Germany should get rid of the past, get rid of the culture of guilt. That by itself implies a relativization of the Holocaust.”
Von Storch, a member of a European royal family, is the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler’s last finance minister, Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk. When asked what role Germany’s past should play in its current politics, she puts it this way, “We have learned from our history that we must defend the principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”
Von Storch does not feel her party’s rise should be of concern to others in Europe.
“Our neighbors are not afraid of AfD. They fear the repercussions of Merkel’s open-door refugee policy and resent its contribution toward an EU refugee redistribution scheme.”
The success of AfD raises questions not merely about the role of the EU, but also about the crux of the European narrative.
For most people, it is clear what it means to be German or French ‒ having a distinct language, culture and heritage. But it remains unclear what exactly it means to be European. What is the pan-European narrative?
There are those who would suggest that the European narrative is the lack of narrative ‒ a reactionary correction to previous European wars that were caused as a result of narratives, nationalism, religion and ideologies.
But such regression of narrative arguably allows for the emergence of a competing narrative in Europe: The strong and distinct narrative of Islam, which includes faith, customs, dress, behavior patterns and language.
That not only generates a debate about the role of Islam in Europe, but also generates a fear.
“Replacement is the core of the fear of AfD voters,” asserts Lewandowsky. “You add replacement to terrorism and you get AfD message that Islam produces terrorism, Islam does not match our culture and Islam is spreading in Europe."
This fear of replacement was featured prominently in AfD advertisements. One shows a pregnant white woman and reads, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”
But the reality remains that, with declining birthrates, Germans and other western Europeans do not make many babies ‒ the European Muslims do. Not only is there an incoming narrative to replace the previous European narrative, the logic goes, but there is also a demographic path for such replacement to materialize.
That fear of replacement is further augmented by the fear of terrorism, and that too has been a central feature in AfD’s campaign. An ad showing blood-traced tire tracks listed recent terrorist attacks that have occurred in Europe. It states, “The tracks left by the world chancellor through Europe” ‒ a reference to Merkel.
The rejection of Islam in Germany is not unique to AfD. Even Merkel herself has repeatedly objected to the notion of having separate Islamic and other new cultures in Europe. In 2010, she stated that the multicultural approach has utterly failed and that immigrants need to do more to integrate.
In 2015, she said multiculturalism leads to parallel societies and, therefore, remains a life lie.” Other European leaders echoed the same message, essentially demanding that Muslims and other immigrants fully assimilate into the prevailing European culture.
AfD takes the demand for assimilation to higher levels. One of its campaign ads shows a photo of two women in bathing suits and reads, “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.” Another, showing a pig, reads, “Islam? It does not fit in our cuisine.”
But, closing the door on the possibility of any form of autonomous Muslim life in Europe creates a problem. What do you do with those Muslims who do not wish to wear a bikini and who do not wish to eat pigs because it is against their faith.
“Islam, as a political ideology, and shari’a law are not compatible with the principles of a free society. Muslims must separate their religion from its political implementation such as calling for shari’a law,” von Storch states clearly.
Lewandowsky says AfD links its anti-Islam views with its anti-EU platform, going further than just blaming Merkel for the rise of Islam.
“AfD members view the EU as a traitor to Europe’s Christian heritage because they let in the Muslims. The view is that the Islamization of Europe was caused by the EU,” he says.
The discussion about the character of Europe emanating from the German election and rise of its far-right could trigger debates on more strategic issues. Some in Europe are frustrated with the rise of the populist vote in recent elections and have developed a counterreaction accusing that “the people do not know what is good for them.” Could this signal the early stages of a debate on the actual merit of European liberal democracies?
“That is a super-important question that is not easy to get into empirically,” says de Vries. “In the 1960s, if you were a member of a labor union, you would automatically vote for a particular party. Parties could send their messages through unions and through churches. That has changed. Voters are now critical consumers.”
Could such critical consumers in other parts of Europe be affected by the German election? For example, in South Tyrol, a German-speaking region that has been controlled by Italy since World War I.
Some Tyrollean residents claim that, unlike Catalonia to their west, they are less at liberty to pursue national aspirations because of the taboo of German nationalism. Furthermore, a strong EU allows them to feel European, deferring the questions of their sentiments toward Italy and their Tyrollean national identity.
But, if the German election legitimatizes German nationalism and further elevates calls for weakening of the European connection, could this change?
De Vries claims AfD getting into parliament could be a game-changer, giving it a bigger platform and budget to carry its message through Europe.
“As long as populist parties are in parliament and do not end up in government, they can be successful. As long as they can stay on the sidelines and scream, they will be raising expectations for governments and will make governing more difficult.”
Would such screaming further energize the populist movement in Europe? De Vries is looking beyond the German vote.
“Some looked at the French election and victory of [mainstream candidate Emmanuel] Macron, and said the populist wave is over. That is naïve. The voters for populist parties have real concerns ‒ about immigration, about terrorism. Those sentiments are not going away and they are not being picked up by the mainstream parties either.”
One of the more interesting sentiments held by far-right parties is their attitude toward Israel
Von Storch draws a line from Germany’s past to her party’s current support for Israel. “For historical and cultural reasons, we will always look for good relations and close cooperation with Israel.”
As a member of the European Parliament, von Storch was one of the founding members, in 2016, of “Friends of Judea and Samaria in the European Parliament,” which is composed mostly of members from far-right parties.
That was shortly after the EU issued a first of its kind decree mandating the labeling of products made by Jewish-owned businesses in Judea and Samaria – perhaps in doing so, attempting to draw a contrast between friends on the far-right and adversaries in the European establishment.
Some question the purity of support of AfD and the far-right for Israel, arguing it might be a way to excuse antisemitic elements in its midst. Lewandowsky says it is hard to tell.
“It is too soon to figure out the source of their Israel support,” he says. “There are no studies done about it. It is new. It is possible that it is driven both by AfD’s anti-Muslim stand and as a way to refute charges of antisemitism
. But there is no doubt that there is also genuine support for Israel in AfD, especially amongst the moderates.”
Interestingly, observers also claim it is too soon to determine the source of the anti-Israel escalation that has occurred in Europe over the past 20 years. Some argue it is a function of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; others claim it is a result of catering to Europe’s growing Muslim population; and still others attribute the escalation to European discomfort with the astonishing success of the Jewish state.
While Israel was not an issue in the German election, it does seem that on the Right and Left, among the European establishment and anti-establishment, the Europe-Israel relationship is evolving and is affected by the domestic European issues debated throughout the elections.
Support for Israel, says von Storch, is an ideological one, connecting it to other key messages of her party.
“Both antisemitism and anti-Zionism are strongest in the Islamic community, as well as the Left. They reject the fact that the Judeo-Christian foundations of European civilization are instrumental to its success. We recognize the threat they pose to both Israel and Germany’s Jewish community and their safety is a high priority for us.”
Keeping in mind that Israel’s foundation is rooted in solid ideology ‒ Zionism ‒ a comparison can be made. Von Storch takes note of that in the context of Germany’s relation with its Muslim community.
“Israel could be a role model for Germany,” she says. “Israel is a democracy that has a free and pluralistic society. Israel also makes efforts to preserve its unique culture and traditions. The same should be possible for Germany and any other nation.”