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The rapid rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany/Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) party under divisive leaders like Alexander Gauland and Björn Höcke has emerged as a fundamentally destabilizing force in German politics. Founded in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD first gained prominence as the main opposition to Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) government. The party harshly criticized Merkel’s more liberal refugee policies for asylum seekers and reacted by sponsoring a platform promoting anti-immigrant nationalism and right-wing populism throughout Germany. After becoming the third largest party in the 2017 Bundestag elections, the Alternative was well-positioned to lead the leading part of the opposition to any state or federal governing coalitions against either the Christian Democratic Union or Social Democrats (SPD).
In December 2021, following the September German general elections, a three-party coalition made up of the SPD, FDP (Free Democratic Party), and Greens took power in Germany under the leadership of the SDP’s now-Chancellor Olaf Scholz; since then the AfD has risen to take its role as the main opposition party, overtaking the conservative CDU in almost all recent federal polling as the AfD continues to be the largest non-governing party in the Bundestag. The Alternative, for the last few years, has been harshly criticized in domestic German and International publications, from politicians, and activists for being the most major far-right political party in modern German history, except for… (you know which one.)
The AfD’s prominent role as a right-wing nationalist opposition is alarming to many, given the irresponsible rhetoric espoused by many of its members. Figures like Gauland, Höcke, and current party Co-leaders Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel have made incendiary statements minimizing Nazi crimes, denigrating immigrants, and questioning Germany’s culture of Holocaust remembrance. Beyond the Bundestag, the AfD has also made significant gains in state elections, particularly in Eastern Germany, where economic discontent has fueled its growth. The AfD’s surge in popularity and parliamentary influence threatens to normalize the advance of far-right extremism within Germany’s democratic system. This trajectory indicates the AfD is not merely a fringe protest movement but a rising force that could substantially impact Germany’s future policy direction and European cooperation.
AfD’s platform is admittedly pro-destabilization, at least in regard to the current German and European status quo; currently, the AfD’s role and goal as an opposition party is to challenge not just the political establishment in Germany but to fundamentally alter the makeup and relationship between the European Union and Germany itself as the EU’s strongest and most influential nation. The destabilizing impact the Alternative is having on German and European politics is already apparent, and its potential to gain even more power within local and federal channels. Understanding the nature of this ascendant far-right party is critical for perceiving the threat it presents to German democracy, European integration, and Western liberal norms.
The Alternative for Germany has experienced a meteoric rise since being founded in 2013. What began as a Eurosceptic party advocating the dissolution of the euro currency in favor of the return to the Deutsche Mark, the party has rapidly morphed into a far-right populist force built on promoting anti-immigrant nationalism and capitalizing on broader societal dissatisfaction with Germany’s current socio-political direction. This growth trajectory first became apparent when the AfD finished third with 12.6% of the vote in the 2017 German federal election after just four years of existence. Their standout issues of opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policies and criticizing the EU from the right has seemingly struck a chord with voters, cutting directly into the margins of Merkel’s CDU. This result was enough to make them the third largest party in the Bundestag, granting the AfD the status and resources of a parliamentary opposition group. The party consolidated its position in the 2021 federal elections, again coming third with 10.3% of the vote amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Alternative has continued to build on this success in recent state elections this year in 2023, consistently finishing in the top three places. Particularly striking have been their results in eastern German states such as Saxony, where they came second with 27.5% of the vote in 2019. Their gains in these eastern states show the AfD is tapping into a deeper well of anti-establishment grievance. The AfD’s opposition status in the Bundestag and advancement at the state level provides them with greater visibility, resources, and influence to promote their vision for Germany and Europe under their party’s leadership.
The Alternative has undergone a notable ideological shift since its founding from a moderately conservative neoliberalism towards more extreme right-wing nationalism. While initially focused on currency reform and opposing financial bailouts, the party has increasingly adopted xenophobic, anti-immigrant positions. This was exemplified during the 2015 refugee crisis when the AfD vocally condemned Angela Merkel’s decision to accept hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Syria and other regions. AfD leaders have made incendiary statements denigrating Islam and migrants, including controversial claims that Islam is incompatible with German society. Beyond immigration, the party rejects established climate science and opposes Germany’s Energiewende clean energy transition. On social issues, the AfD promotes traditional gender norms and opposes same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. There is also significant overlap and sympathy between the AfD and extreme far-right groups. For instance, party leader Alexander Gauland minimized Nazi atrocities during the Second World War, including the Holocaust. A hardline faction called “The Wing” led by Björn Höcke has alarmed observers with its ethnocentric rhetoric and links to neo-Nazi movements before being formally dissolved.
In regards to the current and ongoing war in Ukraine, the Alternative for Germany has staked out a controversial stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one that is out of step with Germany’s mainstream parties which are in majority uncompromisingly “pro-Ukraine”. While not fully supporting Russia, the AfD generally opposes sanctions on Moscow and providing weapons to Ukraine. AfD leaders have blamed the war partly on NATO’s eastward expansion. Through their platform the Alternative also hopes to exploit economic discontent caused by rising German energy costs attributed to the war. The AfD is divided internally on the war, but that’s by and large not the case for its voters. However, the Alternative’s opposition to strong support for Ukraine matches its historical electoral inclination to hold pro-Russian foreign policy views. The party’s contrarian position aims to differentiate itself from the CDU and other right-wing parties while tapping into war fatigue among some German voters.
While more extreme elements and members have been attempted to be expelled from within the party, the AfD nonetheless serves as a political outlet for ultranationalist sentiment. Their positions and rhetoric threaten to undermine Germany’s liberal democratic values and norms.
The rise of the AfD poses alarming dangers for the future of German democracy and its politics. Most immediately, the Alternative has rapidly normalized extreme ideology and rhetoric within the nation’s mainstream political debate. Their MPs’ incendiary words in the Bundestag and state parliaments grant wider exposure to positions that, in many instances in post-war Germany, would previously have been considered unacceptable. This coarsening of discourse and tolerance for illiberal views risks corroding Germany’s democratic culture and institutions. Moreover, the AfD exacerbates political polarization and acts as a destabilizing opposition force obstructing governance. Their gains have come largely at the expense of the center-right CDU, jeopardizing any ‘stable’ centrist coalitions. There is also the risk of the Alternative for Germany one day being needed, and more frighteningly, the party may become an essential component for any future right-leaning coalition government at both the German State and Federal levels. If this happens, it will allow the Alternative to directly influence policies in a large number of German State Governments, not even to mention the National/Federal Government. If this ploy is successful, it may very well end the Alternative’s current era, characterized by the AfD’s role of being the largest non-governing party in the Bundestag.
The AfD, in its current form, provides a platform to amplify disinformation and fearmongering narratives. For instance, the party exploited anti-vaccine sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic. In tandem with their views on COVID and vaccine denialism, there are widespread concerns that Alternative for Germany is reviving a conspiratorial and xenophobic far-right politic, which, unfortunately, has still persisted as a subculture in Germany after the War. The AfD’s rhetoric has fueled racialized resentment towards immigration and minorities, raising the specter of violence and unrest towards many sectors of the German population. It is also imperative to note that the rise of a Eurosceptic nationalist party weakens Germany and the nation’s position of leadership within the EU, which is especially worrying at a time of growing challenges to European integration and immigration policies throughout the continent.
Germany has traditionally been a driving force behind greater EU cooperation and the bolstering of a united European Union on the global stage. Angela Merkel, despite her many critics, was viewed as a marginally steady leader during successive crises like the Eurozone debt crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Brexit. The AfD’s anti-EU platform undermines German commitment to the bloc. Their xenophobic rhetoric also erodes the values of internationalism and human rights the EU and current and previous postwar German governments have claimed to represent. Having a vocal Eurosceptic opposition as the third largest party in the Bundestag limits the German government’s room to maneuver on vital EU issues. The AfD threatens to return Germany towards insular nativism and undermine its commitment to liberal internationalism, which would and very well may set the tone for the European continent as a whole.
Looking ahead, the Alternative for Germany faces obstacles to gaining national majority status and struggles with coalition building, but the party will likely continue advancing its current agenda. Despite the AfD’s good chances in polls predicting their victories in many key German States, it remains unlikely the Alternative will be able to win a federal election outright in the near future, given the persistent strengths of Germany’s current establishment parties, coupled with the general wariness among most voters towards ‘extremist factions.’
The AfD’s far-right positions also make it challenging to find coalition partners willing to work with them, especially at the national Bundestag level. Almost all mainstream and governing parties have ruled out cooperating with the AfD, especially after the 2020 Thuringian government crisis, in which Thomas Kemmerich of the Free Democrats (FDP) was unexpectedly elected Minister-President of Thuringia with support from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, breaking a political taboo and prompting widespread outrage which has severely limited the AfD’s ability to join governing coalitions directly. However, there is potential for the AfD to gain incremental influence by becoming a junior partner in unstable coalitions at the state level throughout Germany. The Alternative’s firebrand opposition image relies partially on maintaining its anti-establishment and “alternative” credentials, so joining the national government may actually damage its popularity. The AfD also faces a ceiling of potential support, with polls indicating only around ~20% of German voters are supporting the party. Much depends on whether wider conditions continue fueling discontent and protest voting. Even if they hit a plateau nationally, the AfD’s impact has already been substantial in shifting Germany’s political landscape rightwards and amplifying extremist voices within the Bundestag.
The ascent of the far-right ‘Alternative’ represents serious danger to the stability and values of German democracy. In just a decade, the AfD has gone from a fringe Eurosceptic protest party to the main opposition in Germany’s national parliament. Their advancement shows how populist far-right movements can exploit economic and cultural grievances to gain footholds within democratic systems. The AfD’s extremist ideology, irresponsible rhetoric, and links to neo-Nazi elements threaten to normalize the advance of political discourse and policymaking. This risks corroding Germany’s postwar democratic institutions and culture of human rights and tolerance. The AfD also poses wider threats as a destabilizing actor undermining centrist governance, spreading disinformation, fueling social divisions, and damaging Germany’s position within the EU.
While (currently) the Alternative for Germany faces hurdles to gaining outright national power, they will remain dangerous and vigilant, and the party, in turn, requires vigorous democratic responses. Defending democracy necessitates strong coalitions committed to pluralism, combatting the social roots of extremism, and asserting core values against nationalism and xenophobia. Germany, in particular, must stay vigilant against any revival of far-right extremism, especially given the infamy of their country’s history. The AfD’s rise serves as a warning about the appeal of right-wing populism even in a perceived “prosperous and stable democracy.” Countering this dangerous movement through inclusive and responsible politics remains imperative. The stakes involve not just Germany’s future but the broader struggle to protect liberal democracy and its future amidst rising illiberalism in the West.
This article was edited by Zachary Bader and Katherine Hohman.