As migrants from Syria poured into Germany throughout the summer of 2015, Angela Merkel responded with the reassurance: “We can manage this.” The phrase came to define Merkel’s chancellorship, setting her apart from the rest of the European elite for its humanitarian commitment to the refugee crisis.
For the far right, Merkel’s welcoming response symbolised all that was wrong with Europe. They declared her out of touch with ordinary, working people. Across European capitals moderates were also incandescent . Some rejected the approach in principle, advocating “securing” EU borders instead. Others saw it as a well-intentioned but muddled gesture, a gift to the far right
On the surface it might now appear that those who warned the far right would capitalise on Merkel’s openness were correct. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has, after all, gained significant electoral support – an unprecedented phenomenon in Germany’s post-war history.
Founded in 2013 as a conservative, Eurosceptic party opposed to the euro, the AfD has moved steadily to the fascistic right. Highly inflammatory rhetoric, previously rare in the country’s democratic politics, has been normalised. “We will hunt Mrs Merkel,” said the party leader, Alexander Gauland, following the 2017 national election, “we will take back our country and our people.”
Events this week have again underlined how the party is a dominant force in the states of the former East Germany. In the Saxony and Brandenburg state elections on September 1, the party achieved its best ever set of results, coming second place in both.
They were denied victory in Brandenburg only by a better than expected result for the Social Democratic party (SPD). The AfD cleverly triangulated the slogan, “We are the people”, raised by the protesters who brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989. They have turned this expression of democratic resistance into a totem of opposition to multiculturalism, and in the run-up to the state elections they even compared contemporary Germany with the GDR, urging people to bring down the “corrupt” system.
It is too simplistic however to put the rise of the AfD down to Germany’s relatively liberal response to the migration crisis. This view accepts too many of the far right’s own arguments about why people are turning to them.
As we show in our new report, there are significant regional differences in the support for the party across Germany. We found that neither a high unemployment rate nor a higher proportion of foreigners in a neighbourhood correspond to a greater willingness to vote for the AfD. States and regions with high levels of immigration are not strongholds for the party. Among every other group of voters in the German federal republic there is strong opposition to the AfD. All major parties have categorically ruled out a formal coalition with the party. In this sense, its rise has been contained to a degree, especially among West German voters, where the party wins on average half the share of votes it picks up in the former East German states.
Migration is a crucial factor in AfD support, but not in the way politicians assume. AfD voters are concentrated in regions that have experienced large waves of outward migration since reunification. Young people in particular moved westwards, leaving ageing populations and economic stagnation in their wake. These towns of the forgotten Germany have proved to be fertile ground for the AfD.
The AfD’s rise should profoundly concern all Europeans. Nearly a third of the party now align with the extreme-right platform, the Wing, whose leaders play down Nazi-era atrocities and argue that foreign “intruders” are overwhelming ethnic Germans. The strength of the party lies in its ability to unite these extremists with more conservative, neoliberal members in one fragile but stable party of the German right.
Misdiagnosing the reasons for the AfD’s growth carries huge risks. Having lost a million voters to the AfD, Merkel’s party, the CDU, has responded with a rightwing turn on migration, cutting benefits and facilitating detention, deportation, and criminalisation of migrant and human rights activists. Merkel has overseen this policy shift, announcing in September 2016 that she would no longer use the “we can manage this” slogan.
This week’s state elections show that the approach is failing. The starting point for an alternative is recognising that Germany’s regional inequalities are unacceptably high and have fuelled the rise of the far right. Increased investment in the east of Germany to create jobs and growth can be at the heart of a new policy to address the roots of the AfD’s support. The creation of the eurozone, which regulates fiscal investment and monetary policy, also makes this a Europe-wide issue. Indeed, reforms to the EU are not an optional luxury for a strong counter-extremism strategy. They are an essential foundation on which a better, more socially just, Europe can be forged.
• Titus Molkenbur is a research consultant, and Luke Cooper a research associate, both at the LSE Conflict and Civil Society research unit