Germany’s Far Right Is at War With Itself

Sebastian Friedrich
Loren Balhorn

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland came second in the European elections but fell short of expectations. Now its leadership is riven by conflicts both internal to the party and among the broader European far-right milieu.

Tino Chrupalla (R) and Alice Weidel, coleaders of the Alternative für Deutschland, and AfD European Parliament candidate René Aust speak to the media the day after European parliamentary elections on June 10, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Less than six months ago, the rank and file of Germany’s leading far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), was ecstatic. Founded a little over a decade ago as a Eurosceptic protest party, by early 2024 the AfD was polling at up to 23 percent — and nurtured justified hopes of becoming the strongest party in Germany in June’s vote for the European Union’s parliament.

The AfD’s so-called Spitzenkandidat, or top candidate for the EU elections, Maximilian Krah, emphasized at every opportunity that the AfD was the most exciting right-wing party in Europe. Unlike Giorgia Meloni in Italy or Marine Le Pen in France, he told supporters, the AfD rejected cooperation with the political center. The AfD had instead staked out a clear position on the hard right while still gaining in the polls. The party faithful eagerly anticipated the 2024 “super election year,” including not only the EU elections but three important state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia, which it was set to dominate.

In the aftermath of the EU vote, however, little is left of that euphoria. The AfD did take 15.9 percent — almost 5 percentage points higher than in the last such elections in 2019 — and became the second-strongest party behind the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). But overall, this outcome was disappointing compared to the sky-high expectations of only a few months ago.

Four Setbacks for the Far Right

There are essentially four reasons for the AfD’s comparatively poor performance. First was a report by the news platform Correctiv about a secret meeting between AfD functionaries and far-right activists that discussed mass deportations of foreigners. This scandal triggered nationwide demonstrations, by far the largest in recent memory. These undoubtedly dealt a blow to the party’s public image and that of the far-right project in Germany more generally.

Secondly, allegations of corruption and espionage emerged against Krah and Petr Bystron, an MP for the AfD. Bystron is suspected of taking money from pro-Russian networks in return for campaigning on behalf of the Kremlin in Germany. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office also accused one of Krah’s close associates of spying for China and passing on information from the European Parliament. In the meantime, Krah has also been accused of taking money from Russia and China.

Thirdly, a new party is giving the AfD a run for its money. The Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), named after Die Linke’s former parliamentary leader, was founded in January. On questions of migration policy, BSW is rooted in the tradition of right-wing social democracy; on labor and social policy, it leans more toward the left-wing social democratic traditions of Wagenknecht’s former party. In terms of economic policy, it lies somewhere between ordoliberalism and Keynesianism. BSW positions itself as an antiestablishment party in its marketing and communication, while simultaneously drawing on the untapped electoral potential of German voters who want a negotiated solution to the Ukraine war as soon as possible.

Election analyses and current studies on the BSW’s electoral potential show that although it doesn’t much appeal to the AfD’s core clientele, it scores well among voters who turned to the AfD over the past two years, doubling its polling numbers. A study by the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the Hans Böckler Foundation (a think tank affiliated with the German trade unions) early in June concluded that the BSW does compete with the AfD, particularly in eastern Germany. This is an area where the Party for Democratic Socialism and its successor, Die Linke, were once successful: BSW is strong in regions with high unemployment and an aging population, and appeals particularly to low-income voters who lack meaningful savings, face economic anxiety, and distrust existing institutions.

Finally, the AfD’s exclusion from the Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament likely worsened its situation. Le Pen first cut ties with the AfD in May, followed shortly thereafter by the ID group expelling all AfD MEPs. The expulsion occurred days after Krah told Italian newspaper la Repubblica that “not everyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal.”

There have been repeated conflicts between Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) and Krah in recent years, such as when he hired a French activist from the Identitarian movement who the RN had fired for making antisemitic comments. Krah was even part-suspended from the ID parliamentary group at the instigation of the RN because he supported Éric Zemmour — Le Pen’s even further-right competitor — in the 2022 French presidential elections. Other European far-right parties such as Italy’s Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), and Hungary’s Fidesz have also distanced themselves from the AfD. Of Europe’s major right-wing forces, only the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has stayed loyal.

The fact that the AfD has apparently become too right-wing even for these other parties may be of little interest to most AfD voters. But it has deepened internal rifts within the party. In fact, the break with the ID group exposes two deeper, more fundamental lines of conflict running through the AfD and the European right as a whole.

Realpolitik or Real Opposition?

Directly linked to Le Pen’s offensive against the AfD is a growing conflict between right-wing realpolitik and far-right opposition.

Across Europe, established center-right parties are withering away, and far-right parties are gaining ground. PiS, Fratelli d’Italia, and Lega, as well as the FPÖ and the Finns Party, have already been in government, while the Sweden Democrats give their external support to a right-wing coalition. Geert Wilders’s party in the Netherlands is also set to participate in government for the first time.

After decades in opposition, Le Pen hopes to finally emerge victorious in the upcoming French elections. She has her sights set primarily on emulating Meloni’s trajectory, which leads toward the center, at least in some areas. But to become French president in 2027, she needs an absolute majority in the second round, for which she will have to win over voters far outside her own camp. Distancing herself from the AfD is another tactical maneuver in Le Pen’s strategy of “de-demonization.”

With regard to the EU itself, many of the realpolitik-oriented far-right parties have moderated their positions for strategic reasons: those who opposed the EU outright for years and advocated leaving it entirely now want to reform it. When the extremist fringe of the AfD speaks in worrying tones about “Melonization,” it is branding as opportunism what it sees as excessive accommodation to realpolitik in Italy and France.

There are still voices within the AfD who want to strategically orient their party more toward the center and make it capable of governing as a junior partner in the future, but they have grown quieter over the past two years. Until the beginning of the year, the party’s long-lasting surge in the polls papered over internal division. As that surge subsides, the conflicts appear to be coming to a head.

Go West?

The same is true of the second line of conflict within the European right and the AfD: that over geopolitical orientation. The scandals surrounding Krah, which at least strongly suggest a proximity to the Russian and Chinese governments, have already stoked anger among those in the AfD who tend to favor the transatlantic alliance and remain highly skeptical of any “Eurasian” political designs. Since the war in Ukraine began, most of the major far-right parties in Europe have also leaned more toward NATO. Even the RN is now holding back from making open advances toward Moscow.

A few weeks after the Krah scandals came to light, the German far right’s premier intellectual, Götz Kubitschek, wrote that the current upheavals in the far-right camp were actually part of a wider battle over Europe’s geostrategic alignment. Kubitschek sees the RN’s forced exclusion of the AfD from the ID group as Le Pen signaling her allegiance to the transatlantic far-right European project crystalizing around Fratelli d’Italia, Lega, PiS, Wilders, and now also Viktor Orbán. The AfD no longer plays a role in this project, which he considers “anti-German.”

The composition of an important networking conference is revealing here. A European offshoot of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), CPAC Hungary, took place in Budapest at the end of April for the third time. The location is no coincidence: Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán is also seen as an inspiration on the US right, particularly by Republicans looking to transform the American state should Donald Trump actually be reelected. Many leading figures from the European right were present at the Hungarian meetup: former Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki, Wilders, and representatives from Fratelli d’Italia, Lega, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the FPÖ, RN, and Spain’s Vox .

Attempts to bring the European right closer together have been ongoing for some time now. So far, there have been two large groups to the right of the moderate center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), to which Meloni belongs, and the ID group around the Rassemblement National. There is also Orbán’s Fidesz, which used to belong to the EPP group but has been unaffiliated since 2021.

Meloni, Le Pen, and Orbán — the three most important far-right figures in Europe — have marched separately so far, but moved closer together in recent months and could now form a joint parliamentary group in the European Parliament for the first time. Although Orbán is pro-Russia, and the RN has long been skeptical or even hostile toward strong ties with Washington, the shifts in the wake of the Ukraine war and a possible second Trump presidency appear to be shaking up the European far right’s geopolitical certainties.

The AfD — which, with people like Krah, Bystron, regional party leader Björn Höcke, and others, is much more oriented toward Russia and even China — stands in the way of this convergence engineered by the grandees of the European right. The AfD leadership is also aware of this fact and is desperately trying to keep up with its European counterparts. For example, Krah was excluded from the AfD delegation to the European Parliament the morning after the elections. It was very unlikely that Le Pen would change her mind again — the desire of some MEPs to eliminate Krah as a competitor was probably stronger. Hopes that this step would perhaps allow them to become part of the ID group after all went unfulfilled. The door remains closed for the AfD even without Krah, which in turn is likely to harm all those who campaigned for his expulsion.

The AfD is currently working behind the scenes on a paper to clarify the party’s foreign policy. According to media reports, it is supported by some state leaders, national spokesperson Alice Weidel, and the newly appointed AfD delegation leader in the European Parliament, René Aust. Politically, it will distance the party more strongly from China and Russia, but without committing to the Western alliance and the United States.

Old Struggles Flare Up

The AfD has a tough few weeks ahead of it. Following its removal from the ID group, it faces the difficult task of forging an alliance of smaller, more radical far-right parties. In order to form a parliamentary group, it must find willing MPs from six other countries. There is still a residual chance of rejoining the ID group if the RN joins Meloni’s ECR. It is also possible that the “most exciting right-wing party in Europe,” of which Krah once spoke, will soon become the loneliest.

As if that weren’t enough, more political infighting broke out within the AfD immediately after the election — running straight through the party’s extremist camps. Krah’s exclusion plays a special role here, as the decision sparked a great deal of resentment within the party. Its chief in the European Parliament, Aust, who is said to have pushed for Krah’s expulsion behind the scenes, was the subject of a special “shitstorm,” as the German press called it. He is accused of nothing less than treason.

Aust comes from the Thuringian state party and has been politically and personally close to Höcke, in many ways the figurehead of the party’s extremist fringe. The fact that Aust, together with the leadership, is now forming a counterpole to him is also causing difficulties for Höcke himself. Höcke is also connected to Krah’s friend Kubitschek. However, that did not stop him from siding with Aust and firing back against Krah and his supporters. In a recent podcast, far-right intellectuals Benedikt Kaiser and Philip Stein called on both the Aust and Krah camps to strike a compromise. The far right in the party, they argued, should instead make common cause against those who want to align the AfD with the West.

While earlier infighting was mostly between ideological camps, the current conflicts are less about policy than a matter of power. The current situation makes it clear that the far-right grouping around Höcke called “the Wing,” which was officially dissolved in 2020, is not only organizationally but also effectively history.

AfD party leaders Weidel and Tino Chrupalla are also being criticized more and more openly after a poor European election campaign. That said, the leadership is likely to survive the upcoming party congress in Essen at the end of June — given the lack of alternatives, if nothing else.

Krah announced that he no longer plans to run for the national party leadership in Essen. Still, although he is at the center of the current disputes and will probably be an unaffiliated MEP in Brussels, his eventual comeback is by no means out of the question. It is quite possible that he will be back in the game in the medium or long term: he could be the voice of the younger, particularly far-right base, among which he is very popular, and an antiestablishment candidate against a potentially “Melonizing,” more pliant party leadership. No wonder that he has been compared to Trump.