The German Far Right Doesn’t Need to Win Elections to Be Dangerous

By Sam Denney
Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 10:40 AM

On March 3, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency placed the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) under observation as a suspected far-right extremist organization. This move is only the latest step in a two-year process of increasing government scrutiny of the AfD’s activities. In January 2019, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV)—whose role is comparable to MI5 in the United Kingdom—first began monitoring the hard-right nationalist elements of the party, referred to as the Flügel or “wing.” Reports indicate that the BfV was collecting open-source evidence to build its case against the entire AfD over the same time period.

In January 2021, as the BfV’s announcement that it suspected the party to be an extremist organization drew nearer, the AfD filed suit against the agency. On March 5, two days after the BfV’s decision became public, a court in Cologne ruled that the BfV could not categorize the AfD as a suspected threat to the constitution until the lawsuit was resolved. The fact that the BfV now officially seeks to surveil the German parliament’s largest opposition party as a suspected threat to Germany’s free, democratic constitution is a testament to the AfD’s radicalization. But the AfD’s success in delaying the BfV’s operations—even if only temporarily—shows how the party has shrewdly used the architecture of German democracy to its own benefit.

The challenge posed by the German far right goes beyond the AfD. Through vocal right-wing and conspiracy theorist street movements and in hidden networks in the security services, the far right poses a significant and complex threat to the German constitutional order. Highly organized and openly hostile to the rules binding other political actors, the German far right has outperformed its electoral support in shaping German society. In 2020, the BfV reported that the number of right-wing extremists in Germany has increased to 33,300, of whom 13,300 are thought to be willing to commit violence.

The year 2021 will be a turning point in German politics. In total, the country will hold six regional elections—four more after those held on March 14—and one federal election, with the latter ushering in the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s nearly 16 years in office. As Germany reaches the end of a political era, its decisions on how best to confront right-wing extremism in its various forms will offer a lesson to countries around the world that are confronting similar security threats.

The AfD is the German far right’s principal wing. Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, the AfD came to prominence on the back of the 2015 migration crisis and has since metastasized into a hard-right, xenophobic party whose aim is nothing short of upending the German constitution. Throughout its existence, the party has seen no shortage of internal strife. After the party failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle to secure entry into the Bundestag in 2013, the AfD’s founder, the economist Bernd Lucke, lost the leadership of the party to Frauke Petry, who helped shift the party’s focus from the euro to migration. Its current leading figures, including parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland or Thuringian state leader Björn Höcke, who leads the Flügel, view Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the legacy of national socialism as negating centuries of proud German history.

By the standards of German politics, the party has seen a shocking level of success. In the 2017 federal elections, it became the first far-right party in Germany’s post-World War II history to win seats in the German Bundestag, where it leads the opposition to the Merkel government. The party campaigned in fall 2019 on east Germans’ disappointment with the legacy of reunification and rode to second-place finishes in a string of regional elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Because all other German parties have banned cooperation with the AfD, these results have made it difficult for those states to form stable governing coalitions.

On the surface, the electoral prospects for the AfD in 2021 do not appear particularly rosy. In national polling, the party has plateaued at around 10 percent—though the party is significantly stronger in eastern Germany, polling as high as 26 percent. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of a party platform built around grievance. The AfD has so far been unable to translate its opposition to coronavirus restrictions to further electoral support: 67 percent of Germans view the country’s existing measures as appropriate or not going far enough. And due to the party’s ongoing deep divisions, the AfD has been unable to select a leadership team for September’s federal election. But though the party is stagnant electorally, it has held on to some level of support despite the increasing scrutiny from the BfV, the party’s raging internal civil war and the increasing radicalization of its politicians. The 11 percent the party received in national polling released on March 4 is only a stone’s throw from the 12.6 percent it gathered in the 2017 federal election.

The possible electoral impact of further action by the BfV is unclear. On the one hand, it is likely that some “moderates” might be scared away from the AfD by BfV surveillance. On the other hand, the move will likely also strengthen the support of more hard-right elements of the party. Regional elections on March 14 seem to confirm this trend: In Baden-Württemberg, the AfD received roughly 5 percentage points fewer votes than it did in the 2016 regional election, while in Rhineland-Palatinate, the party lost a bit over 4 percentage points compared to 2016. While the AfD may continue to lose “moderate” support, it will retain its core voters, who increasingly vote for the AfD out of “conviction.” The AfD will certainly seek to politicize the steps taken by the BfV and paint the agency as a electoral tool of Germany’s governing parties—nearly 90 percent of AfD voters in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate believe the BfV’s handling of the AfD to be unfair.

Nonetheless, the AfD has proved adept at influencing German society and left an indelible mark on the German political system. Its major success has been to shift the bounds of German political debate markedly to the right. Backed by a network of think tanks, such as the Institute for State Policy; publications, such as the magazine Compact; and publishers, such as Jungeuropa, the German hard right has pursued a “mosaic” strategy, seeking to mold every facet of German society through a constant stream of “patriotic” content.

Through its perch in the federal and state legislatures, the AfD has waged a culture war on art that it views as pushing an un-German ideology. Among its parliamentary staff, the party has employed white nationalists and former members of the banned neo-Nazi group “Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend” (HDJ), providing these individuals with a state-financed platform to pursue their goals. Despite the expulsion of Andreas Kalbitz for his ties to the HDJ by the party leadership as part of a power struggle, the AfD cultivates close ties with anti-democratic and racist groups.

The AfD has proved adept at utilizing Germany’s legal and parliamentary architecture in its favor. Its lawsuit over the BfV’s decision to place the party under observation claimed that the move would infringe on the party’s right to equal opportunity in a political campaign. AfD legislators at the national and state levels have submitted large numbers of detailed parliamentary requests for information to ministries, which the government is obligated by law to answer within a certain time frame, tying up staff resources. Often, the requests themselves are incendiary: One asked for the number of disabled children born through intermarriage within the family, with the implication that this occurred more often in families that had migrated to Germany. At the regional level, the AfD has repeatedly sought to discredit Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), by forcing the CDU into positions where it must vote with the AfD to uphold its own agenda.

There are close ties between the AfD and hard-right street movements. Following the 2015 migration crisis and in the run-up to the 2017 federal elections, the AfD and PEGIDA, an anti-Muslim protest movement whose name stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident,” enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with PEGIDA functioning as a “transmission belt” for the party. Germans enraged by PEGIDA protests would in turn give their votes to the AfD. Despite an AfD decision to not openly cooperate with the movement, PEGIDA provided security for AfD events during the 2017 federal election campaign, and PEGIDA’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, spoke at the party’s 2018 conference.

Opposition to Germany’s coronavirus restrictions has added a new element to the country’s far-right scene, though not all those who object to restrictions are themselves on the right. The Stuttgart-based organization Querdenken 711—“Querdenken” means to think outside the box, and 711 is the city’s area code—has organized massive anti-lockdown protests in cities across Germany, including in Berlin in August 2020 and Leipzig in November 2020. By flouting social distancing regulations, these protests have challenged the ability of the German government to enforce its own public ordinances.

The Querdenken movement represents an attempt to bring together the German far right and far left—the August 2020 Berlin protest featured imperial German flags held by far-right nationalists side by side with peace flags. The name itself echoes the “Querfront,” the efforts by the anti-republican far right to cooperate with the hard left in Weimar-era Germany. Its members come from across the German political spectrum but tend to share a distrust of representative democracy and a belief in conspiracy theories. Participants in Querdenken demonstrations often compare themselves with those protesting against the East German communist regime in 1989, or even with resistance against the Nazis during World War II. As the second wave of coronavirus infections hit Germany, the movement became increasingly violent. In November 2020 alone, the German police recorded more than 50 violent acts committed by protesters against scientific institutions, members of the media, and politicians, including three specifically against Jewish establishments.

The German far right has sought to co-opt the Querdenken movement. At a large Querdenken protest in Berlin in August 2020, neo-Nazis and “Reichsbürger”—a far-right movement whose members reject the legitimacy of the post-1945 German state—attempted to storm the Bundestag but were stopped by police on the steps leading up to the entrance. In Leipzig, members of the far-right scene and white nationalists marched in front of anti-lockdown protesters. Responding to new coronavirus restrictions in October 2020, AfD parliamentary leader Gauland called Germany’s pandemic regime a “corona dictatorship,” imitating rhetoric used in Querdenken protests. A month later, AfD parliamentarians helped Querdenken protesters and prominent conspiracy theorists into the Bundestag, where the protesters attempted to intimidate and harass members of the government and parliamentarians as they went to vote on an update to Germany’s law on infectious diseases. Nonetheless, relatively few members of the Querdenken movement, roughly 27 to 30 percent, appear likely to vote for the AfD, with the majority preferring instead to support smaller, more niche parties that represent a “fundamental opposition” to the political system.

The AfD’s relative success and the growth of increasingly vocal far-right street movements is concerning enough. More ominous still, though, is the fact that significant numbers of far-right extremists have been uncovered in Germany’s security services. Such discoveries have long been dismissed as isolated cases, but the past few years have seen far-right networks uncovered by government investigations and the press among both serving and former members of Germany’s military and police.

The case of Franco A., a Bundeswehr officer who impersonated a Syrian refugee and allegedly planned to commit murder, served as an initial wake-up call for Germany’s armed forces. The case revealed massive flaws in how the German armed forces handled right-wing extremism internally. According to news reports, Franco A.’s “right-wing extremist mindset” was first flagged by a supervisor after he turned in his master’s thesis at the French military academy Saint-Cyr in December 2013. Yet afterward, he continued to serve.

Beginning in late 2015, press reports state, Franco A. lived a double life posing as a Syrian refugee while also serving as an officer in a Franco-German infantry unit. Before his arrest in 2017, he reportedly collected weapons and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and allegedly planned to assassinate prominent politicians known for their pro-refugee stances—such as Heiko Maas, currently Germany’s foreign minister. Reports indicate that Franco A. also became well known in far-right circles within Germany’s special forces, the “Kommando Spezialkräfte” (KSK), and attended at least two meetings of the paramilitary group Uniter, itself organized by a KSK officer.

The discovery of far-right extremists within the KSK has further raised the level of alarm in Germany’s security services. In 2017, a young woman reported that, at a particularly drunken retirement party, KSK soldiers had listened to far-right metal music, given each other the Hitler salute—an illegal act in Germany—and planned a competition involving throwing the severed head of a pig. One of the attendees of the “pig’s head party” was later discovered to have cached an AK-47, 6,000 rounds of ammunition and two kilograms of explosives in his garden. In response, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer ordered two of the four KSK companies dissolved and instituted a series of 60 reforms, including far greater military control over the handling of weapons and ammunition and increased screenings for those entering and leaving the armed forces.

But the threat posed by far-right extremists in the security services extends further than the relatively small KSK. A Bundestag report released in November 2020 revealed that far-right extremists, including some with violent tendencies, can be found in the various federal and regional security agencies. The report argued that the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), which is tasked with combating right-wing extremism in the armed forces, had not paid sufficient attention to the problem and shared information with the BfV only “reluctantly.” Additionally, roughly 400 suspected right-wing extremists have been reported by the German federal and local police within their own ranks.

Germans have often critiqued the government as “blind in the right eye”—that is, blind to the threat posed by right-wing extremism, which has been allowed to fester. If so, Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of the BfV, might count as one of the most egregious recent examples of that partial blindness. While in office, Maasen was sharply criticized for having maintained too cozy a relationship with the AfD. In 2015, he was alleged to have advised then-AfD leader Frauke Petry to expel Björn Höcke, in order to prevent the party from being placed under observation as a right-wing extremist organization. In 2018, Maassen again came under fire for seeming to downplay the threat posed by far-right extremism and for passing information from the BfV’s yearly report on political extremism to the AfD ahead of its publication. Following this latest scandal, Maassen was forced to retire but was employed by the law firm representing the AfD until January 2021.

Ultimately, the strength of Germany’s far-right scene carries important implications beyond German borders. The AfD has an affinity for President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and has pushed to lift EU sanctions on Russia and for better German-Russian relations. In December 2020, AfD co-chairman Tino Chrupalla and parliamentary foreign policy speaker Armin-Paul Hampel were invited to Russia by the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower chamber, and received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. While serving as election observers, some AfD parliamentarians have praised as fair disputed elections in Crimea and Nagorno-Karabakh. Others have met with the Kremlin-aligned Assad regime in Syria, declaring the war-torn country “safe” for migrants to return. Funding streams for the party are murky and stretch beyond German borders to Switzerland, where two Swiss companies have been used to funnel money to the AfD from unknown sources. The AfD claims the funds come from 14 different donors, both Germans and non-Germans, but this explanation is disputed in the press and by campaign legal expert and AfD-watcher Sophie Schönberger as an attempt to hide campaign financing from official oversight.

The international ties of the German far right go beyond the AfD. German neo-Nazis have developed contacts with like-minded groups in the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine and the United States. To gain paramilitary and even combat experience, some have traveled to Russia, Ukraine and the United States. German right-wing extremists have organized music festivals and martial arts events to which thousands of extremists from a dozen countries have traveled. According to the Counter Extremism Project, events such as these have played a key role in the development of “a leaderless, transnational and apocalyptic violent extreme right-wing movement,” and German far-right extremists count as some of the most internationally networked. President Trump’s one-time adviser Steve Bannon attempted to create a coordinated far-right internationalism that failed. But the creation of a leaderless movement dedicated to the protection of white European culture and operating in similar fashion to Islamist terrorist groups might be more dangerous still.

The past years have served as a disturbing wake-up call about the allure that hate and illiberalism still hold in German society. While the AfD has not been able to expand its base of support, two years of increasing pressure by the BfV, combined with the party’s infighting and clear radicalization have not dented it significantly either. The actions of the BfV alone will not protect German democracy from the far right. As in democracies everywhere, that remains the responsibility of the voters.