How the Alternative für Deutschland Radicalized the German Right

Sebastian Friedrich
Loren Balhorn

Ten years since its creation, the Alternative für Deutschland has established itself as a constant presence in Germany’s parliament. Now, it’s challenging the Christian Democrats — and seeking to tear down the historic barriers to the far right.

Leaders of the AfD attend the party’s tenth anniversary celebration on February 6, 2023 in Koenigstein, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

When Friedrich Merz first threw his hat into the ring to succeed Angela Merkel as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in November 2018, he set himself an ambitious goal. Merz told the German tabloid Bild that he wanted to “halve” the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), meaning to say he sought to win back half of its voters for the CDU. Back then, the AfD was hovering at around 15 percent in the polls. In fact, over the last five years its numbers have largely stayed the same — but the party now leads the polls in several states, successfully uniting wide swathes of the Right behind it.

This was hardly a foregone conclusion. Back in April 2013, more than one thousand people squeezed into a packed hotel conference room to attend the AfD’s founding congress. They cheered on an economics professor named Bernd Lucke who, his sights firmly trained on the CDU, spoke dismissively of the “old parties” and argued that Germany should step back from the EU, leave managing the economy to the market, and take a more conservative approach to social policy. Alongside Lucke, a chemist named Frauke Petry and a former journalist named Konrad Adam were also elected to the leadership of the AfD. All three have since left the party.

Ten years after its founding, the face of the AfD has changed dramatically: whereas conservative Euroscepticism represented the dominant theme in its early days, the AfD today is largely a far-right party. Nevertheless, one constant runs between the original and the current AfD: from the beginning, it sought to unite the political spectrum to the right of the CDU and its traditional coalition partner, the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Initially, the party represented an alliance between an ordoliberal current around a few dozen economics professors and a national-conservative network of aristocrats, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-feminists. A short time after its founding, however, a third current entered the stage: a völkisch, or ethnonationalist wing closely linked to the self-proclaimed “New Right” that first emerged in France and West Germany in the 1960s and harkens back to more traditional far-right ideas. Its core ideology is an ethnonationalism that understands the Volk, German for “the people,” to denote an ethnically homogeneous community. It sees its primary task as changing reality to fit this ideal.

Despite all the internal wrangling, splits, and power struggles, these three currents continue to set the tone in the AfD. The constellation necessarily entails certain internal contradictions, given the substantial differences between ordoliberals, national conservatives, and ethnonationalists.

For example, the party contains highly divergent positions on economic and social policy as well as geopolitics. Another point of contention, around which most of the AfD’s internal struggles have revolved since its founding, is of a strategic nature: while a majority of the key figures in both the national-conservative and ordoliberal currents prefer tactical moderation and a parliamentary approach, a large part of the ethnonationalist wing favors a movement-oriented strategy based on fundamental opposition to the political system as such.

Nevertheless, despite these deep differences, the AfD has consistently managed to prevent the kind of split that would threaten its existence, staying true to the party’s project character and maintaining a focus on the points of unity that hold it together: the ideology of inequality.

Old Wine in New Bottles

After years of at times quite vicious struggles for power and control, the ethnonationalist wing in the AfD has now taken the lead. The party is thus effectively the parliamentary arm of German far-right radicalism — albeit in a modernized form.

This modernization is firstly of a substantive nature. It remains focused on the homogeneity of the Volk, but it no longer defines that homogeneity on the basis of genetics, being well aware that pseudo-biological concepts of race fell into disrepute with the defeat of Nazism. There are some modest attempts to rehabilitate the category of “race” in the German public sphere, but they are flanked by a parallel, much cleverer concept: “ethnopluralism.” Ethnopluralism takes into account the critique of genetically understood racism, but arrives at similar conclusions with the help of anthropological, ethnological, and psychological arguments: different peoples are allowed to live side by side, but they should not mix and rather remain “pure.”

The concept of ethnopluralism dates back to the 1970s. At that time, Henning Eichberg, a mastermind of radical nationalism in West Germany, developed the concept of ethnically homogeneous societies, with this rejecting the Left’s universalism and reformulating racist ideas in a manner that appears more harmless than the Nazis’ aggressive ethnocentrism. Ethnopluralism continues to shape the radical right across Europe today. It is fundamental for intellectuals of the New Right as well as for fascist and far-right currents in France, Italy, and Spain.

Ethnopluralism is popular in Germany not only among the so-called Identitarian movement (a neofascist protest group active throughout Western Europe), but also among AfD politicians. Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, a member of the state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt, mentioned the term positively in a contribution to the party’s programmatic debate in September 2018, stating that ethnopluralism represented the “leitmotif of the AfD program.” The party, he argued, ought to be “committed to preserving the ethnocultural unit that calls itself the German people in all areas.”

The ideology’s influence could also be seen when AfD honorary chairman Alexander Gauland, referring to soccer players from immigrant backgrounds, said that the German national team was no longer German “in the classical sense,” or when AfD speakers distinguish between “passport Germans” and “real Germans.” In terms of both its rhetoric as well as its policy platform, the ethnonationalist wing of the AfD ultimately stands for a kind of ethnically segregated apartheid state in which social and democratic rights are tied to national origin.

In addition to this ideological modernization, we can also observe a strategic modernization within the German far right over the AfD’s ten-year history. The AfD has long since ceased to function as a mere party, but forms one element among many in a far-right political project that also includes right-wing citizens’ initiatives, media, student fraternities, think tanks, and subcultures. The strategists of the ethnonationalist wing in particular not only seek to win votes, but fight over language and for control of the streets.

The AfD has clearly won the electoral contest within Germany’s right-wing camp, making gains in almost all classes and social milieus. Meanwhile its previous competitor, the more explicitly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), and other far-right parties have largely faded into insignificance or dissolved entirely. That said, the ethnonationalist wing of the AfD in particular has a very low opinion of parliamentarism.

According to Björn Höcke, the undisputed leader of the ethnonationalists, the job of the AfD is to serve as the “voice of the movement” in parliament, which is seen above all as a stage on which to promote party positions. This is about more than just parliamentary work — speaking about his wing’s strategic orientation in a taped interview, Höcke explained: “A few corrections and minor reforms will not be enough. But German unconditionality will be the guarantee that we will tackle the matter thoroughly and fundamentally. Once the turning point has been reached, we Germans will not do things by halves.”

The struggle over language is one of cultural hegemony, or “metapolitics.” The concept of metapolitics was in many ways inspired by the strategy of the post-1968 New Left in France. It stipulates that the focus of right-wing politics should no longer be on elections and parties as such, but on the “pre-political space,” i.e. the battle over interpretations and ways of thinking. Götz Kubitschek, one of the founders of the Institute for State Policy (IfS), a far-right think tank and a cadre of the New Right, identifies three discursive strategies for the far right’s culture war:

First, the Right must expand the boundaries of what can be said through targeted provocations. To this end, it is necessary to “provocatively push forward along the fringes of what is sayable and doable.” The AfD has used this strategy of calculated taboo-breaking since its founding, enabling it to dominate political debates, especially in its early years.

Secondly, the Right should pursue a strategy of “interlocking” with the aim of “preventing the enemy’s artillery from firing.” The Right should interlock its own troops with those of the enemy, so that the latter never knows for sure “whether he will not hit his own people when he fires.” In practical terms, this means agreeing with conservative politicians when they condemn so-called left-wing extremism or the German government’s refugee policy.

Thirdly, Kubitschek recommends a strategy known as Selbstverharmlosung, roughly translated as “self-trivialization.” The Right must seek to “ward off the opponent’s accusations by displaying our own harmlessness and emphasizing that none of our demands fall short of the standards of civil society.” In reality, so this posture goes, the Right is not so bad; it opposes violence and supports the constitution and democracy. However, he cautions, the Right should be careful not to overdo it with self-trivialization.

In addition to the battle for votes and the battle for minds, the New Right is also pursuing a battle for the streets. Here, the AfD repeatedly succeeds in building bridges to right-wing street mobilizations such as Pegida, an Islamophobic extra-parliamentary movement. The preliminary high point of the strategy to establish the AfD as the leading force of the far-right movement was a demonstration in Chemnitz on September 1, 2018, at which top AfD personnel marched shoulder to shoulder with the figureheads of Pegida, Identitarians, and neo-Nazi thugs. The demonstration marked the first time that the AfD openly presented itself as the leading force of a right-wing united front linking the fight for the streets with parliamentary activity.

The Right-Wing Mosaic Under Pressure

The ethnonationalist wing of the AfD and the party as a whole experienced difficult years in 2020 and 2021. The party stagnated at around 10 percent in the polls, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution officially began monitoring its activities, and the opponents of the ethnonationalist wing gained ground in party infighting. All of this was cause for anxiety, and some far-right figures began to turn their backs on the party. To them, it appeared as if the “iron law of oligarchy” — coined by the Social Democrat-turned-fascist Robert Michels, according to which parties have a tendency to develop bureaucracies and power elites and thereby lose momentum over time — was playing out before their eyes.

At times, the AfD almost lost control over the battle for the streets. During the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests that emerged around the COVID pandemic, the party lost its status as the avant-garde of the right-wing movement in some parts of eastern Germany to a group known as Free Saxony. Right-wing critics complained that the AfD had invested too little in consolidating its periphery and devoted insufficient attention to the movement.

In the meantime, far-right strategists are paying more attention to the interplay between the party and movement actors, developing the term “Mosaic Right,” coined by IfS intellectual Benedikt Kaiser in reference to German trade unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban’s concept of the “Mosaic Left.” The basic idea behind the term is that all right-wing forces should work on a common political project, but leave enough space for themselves in their respective spheres: the party, a magazine, a youth group, women artists, student fraternities, and right-wing hooligan groups. In a diverse modern society like Germany, the political right needs to be diverse as well.

An important base for the AfD and its ethnonationalist wing are the eastern German states, where the party has polled between 20 and 25 percent for several years. Here, the AfD scores points with antiestablishment rhetoric. East Germans’ lower level of trust in the institutions of the state is due in part to the fact that in the course of the eastern states’ accession to the Federal Republic, many things changed for the worse for East Germans within a short period of time: virtually overnight, the former industrial proletariat was confronted with forced structural transformation, targeted deindustrialization, and, as a result, mass unemployment.

What had taken decades in West Germany’s industrial regions such as the Ruhr — triggering upheavals in the social fabric despite the state’s attempts to soften the blow — took place within weeks in the early 1990s in the territory of former East Germany. Instead of the promised “blooming landscapes” promised by West German politicians, they were left with industrial ruins. Instead of hope came disillusionment.

The population’s ties to the ideologies and institutions of the old Federal Republic thus did not have to weaken over time in East Germany — they were never particularly strong to begin with. Unlike in western Germany, large parts of the former East have been caught in a permanent crisis of hegemony for thirty years, in which political and economic elites are unable to reach the masses and fail to establish a social consensus. Electoral turnout is significantly lower in the East than in the West, as are the numbers of citizens active in volunteer associations or nonprofit organizations.

This situation has enabled the AfD and its supporters to fill the vacuum, especially in rural areas, partly because the Right has succeeded in presenting itself as looking after the interests of eastern Germans. In doing so, the party consciously ties in with the experience of 1989–90: “Complete the Wende,” the term used to describe the uprising during that period, is a slogan frequently used by the AfD in eastern Germany. The message is clear: back then, the people rose up against the ruling party bigwigs; today, they do so against the political establishment of the Federal Republic.

The Parliamentary Arm of Street Violence

As a parliamentary representation of modernized far-right radicalism, the AfD tries to distance itself from violence as part of its aforementioned self-trivialization strategy. Yet despite all of its attempts to formally distance itself from that violence, links to potentially violent groups persist.

One example: the twenty-five people arrested in the so-called Reichsbürger raid in December 2022, when federal police arrested a network of suspected far-right militias, included a Berlin judge who sat in the German parliament for the AfD until 2021. The association, which called itself the “Patriotic Union,” had allegedly planned to storm parliament by force of arms and install a self-appointed government.

A second example: in June 2019, right-wing extremist Stephan Ernst shot and killed CDU politician Walter Lübcke, the head of the public administration of Kassel. Ernst had previously been an AfD supporter, attending its events and donating money to the party, and in 2018 helped with its state election campaign in Hesse by hanging posters and working campaign tables.

A third example: in October 2020, an AfD member drove an SUV into an anti-fascist demonstration on the fringes of a party event in Henstedt-Ulzburg in Schleswig-Holstein. Some of the victims were seriously injured. The public prosecutor’s office accuses the driver of hitting the protesters “with intent to kill.”

These are the most obvious instances of connections between the AfD and right-wing violence. There are many other cases that are difficult to prove directly, but where far-right propaganda incited the perpetrators of violence to put into practice the supposed will of the people as formulated by the AfD. Nevertheless, neither these connections nor the party’s ongoing far-right drift and its observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution have substantially harmed the AfD.

Ten years after its founding, the party has established itself as a durable political presence. It sits in almost all state parliaments, and has hundreds of deputies and even more staff. Hopes that the AfD would be torn apart by its internal contradictions have not been realized — and are unlikely to be realized in the future.

Unlike Die Linke, which is currently on the verge of a damaging split, the AfD manages to work through its fundamental internal differences of opinion, and in some cases even puts them to productive use. Disputes now take place relatively quietly behind the scenes.

The AfD also succeeds in papering over internal differences concerning the war in Ukraine. Similar to the Left, a wide range of opinions can be found in the right-wing camp when it comes to the role of Russia and NATO. The (mostly western German) voices that support NATO are likely in the minority within the party compared with those that express some “understanding” for the Russian invasion, partly because they see Putin’s Russia as a role model for their own political approach. Nevertheless, a degree of internal pluralism is allowed to exist on this issue.

Following the last federal party congress in Riesa in June 2022, the balance of power has been clarified for the time being: the ethnonationalist wing is here to stay. The German Left must now prepare itself for at least ten more years of the AfD.

Nevertheless, the AfD faces a strategic dilemma: in all likelihood, the other parties will not form a coalition with it in the foreseeable future. Even in eastern Germany, where the AfD is particularly strong and the CDU is more reluctant to distance itself from the right-populists, no coalition is likely to be considered in the medium term. Right-wing forces in the CDU seeking to initiate such a move have so far been harshly rebuked for doing so. After talks between CDU and AfD members of the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament on tolerating a CDU minority government presumably took place at the end of 2020, Holger Stahlknecht, the CDU minister of the interior who was apparently open to such a proposition, was forced to vacate his post.

The fact that a coalition is very unlikely at this point suits the leaders of the ethnonationalist wing, as they do not aspire to cooperate with the CDU at all. Their model is Italy, where the extreme right has succeeded in putting so much pressure on the established conservative parties that they have largely eroded. That is the long-term perspective of the ethnonationalists: the destruction of the CDU. In the best-case scenario, a purified, heavily depleted CDU shifting significantly to the right will be willing to join an AfD government as a junior partner.

The AfD knows that this will not happen anytime soon. But its leaders think in larger dimensions and in the long term. If it’s up to the ethnonationalists, the AfD’s first ten years will only be the first step.