Claudia Martin, a local state member of parliament in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, abruptly abandoned her own party in December 2016 after only six months in office over what she described as prominent right-wing extremism among her fellow Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) or Alternative for Germany lawmakers. Since leaving the AfD, Martin has accused the leading German opposition party of being far worse than any previous far-right or neo-Nazi party in the country since World War II.
On December 16, 2016, only a few days after her sudden break with the party, Martin issued a stark warning to the German public, explaining her reasons for abandoning the AfD. In a YouTube video posted online, she noted that her most pressing concern was a piece of draft legislation concerning refugees in Germany, which reminded her of Nazi-era policies: “It is not surprising when legislation suddenly appears among the AfD lawmakers in Baden-Württemberg proposing solutions for the refugee crisis that bring the Warsaw ghettos [the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe] to mind.”
Martin held a press conference the same day she released her video, in which she disclosed the party’s internal plans to the German media. The draft legislation, which was allegedly written by the deputy chairman of the AfD working group in Baden-Württemberg, Emil Sänze, consisted of a plan to detain all refugees and asylum seekers in Germany and deport them back to their countries of origin. In documents obtained by the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, Sänze allegedly outlined how asylum seekers and refugees should be relocated to “communities” in preparation for their deportation:
The inhabitants have limited basic rights. Among the affected laws include constitutional articles 2 (self-determination) and 3 (equal treatment) and 11 (freedom of movement)… True integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Germany is not possible and is damaging to both Germany and to the countries of origin [for refugees].
Martin noted the parallels between the draft legislation proposed by her local party’s deputy chairman and the Madagascar Plan, which was an early legislative effort by Hitler and his ruling Nazi party. Shortly after France’s fall to invading Nazi forces in the spring of 1940, the Madagascar Plan was conceived to apprehend and imprison all European Jews in Nazi-occupied lands before deporting them to the French colony of Madagascar, which was then under German control.
Nazi officials later determined that the plan did not sufficiently address what they saw as the systemic corruption, by Jews, of European society generally and the German population in particular. The Madagascar Plan was quickly discarded, after the leader of the infamous Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler, began to outline his final solution later that same year. Himmler’s genocidal plans were implemented in early 1942 after countless Jews and others deemed Untermensch or ‘inferior people’ had already been relocated to camps and ghettos, such as the one in Warsaw.
Since Martin’s allegations, the AfD has denied the very existence of the refugee plan. In doing so, AfD officials have focused their attention on publically attacking and disparaging Martin as a liar in the press and over social media. Responding to the press, the head of the AfD parliamentarian faction in Baden-Württemberg, Jörg Meuthen, dismissed Martin’s disclosure as a “premeditated backhanded action for a cheap 15 minutes of fame,” and warned Martin that she was playing “the wrong game.”
Currently, Martin retains her office despite the head of the Baden-Württemberg AfD parliamentarian faction asking that she return her seat to the AfD so that they may replace her. On Martin’s personal website for her parliament seat, the headline continues to read: “AfD – We need to talk!” However, discussion of Martin’s revelations has since been eclipsed in Germany by ubiquitous coverage of the Berlin attack, which occurred three days later on the 19th of December. There has been no mention of the story in any English-language media, in the United States, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.
Unprecedented Far-Right Gains Since WWII
The current leader of the AfD party, Frauke Petry, has previously stated that German police should shoot refugees who are illegally crossing the border into Germany and compared multiculturalism to landfills for rubbish. After the attack in Berlin, the AfD quickly exploited the alleged terrorist attack to indirectly blame refugees by focusing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her formerly liberal immigration policies. Marcus Pretzell, an AfD candidate running in upcoming elections for a seat in the German federal parliament, tweeted shortly after the attack in Berlin, “These are Merkel’s dead!” Pretzell also echoed Petry’s statements with calls to defend the German border with armed forces.
Since its formation in April 2013, the AfD has surged in popularity with large gains in each successive federal and local election. Currently, the AfD holds seats in ten out of sixteen state parliaments in Germany. This is an unprecedented development for any far-right opposition party in Germany, since the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945. For now, however, the AfD only holds seats in local parliaments. During the 2013 federal election, the party polled just 0.3 points under the required 5% threshold for representation in the German federal parliament. The next federal election in Germany is scheduled between August and October of this year – and the AfD could see its fortunes rise even further in the wake of their successive victories in local state elections.
Much of the AfD’s recent advancements, as a legitimate opposition party, have been fuelled by the growing popularity of the PEGIDA movement in Germany, which is short for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the West.” PEGIDA has led mass demonstrations against refugees within Germany using highly charged racist language to dehumanize refugees, immigrants, Africans, and Muslims. Previously, such far-right sentiments and language were considered taboo, denounced universally, and limited to the world of neo-Nazi and extremist right-wing parties, such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP), which polls at less than 1 to 2% nationwide.
According to Martin, such extremist rhetoric is being promoted by the AfD leadership to gain votes from large segments of the German population that are facing economic uncertainties. “As more seats are being picked up in local parliaments by the AfD and with the upcoming federal elections, I have to make the observation that we as a party are becoming less and less distinguishable from – but instead slowly becoming – the very thing that we have always been accused of: right-wing populism,” Martin said in her December 16 warning.
Martin underscored the AfD’s hostility toward comparisons made between it and right-wing extremists, such as the Nazi regime or neo-Nazi parties in Germany. According to her, the AfD as a whole “has lost all ability to receive any self-criticism.” In the conclusion of her video, Martin noted that the AfD had the potential to be an invaluable opposition party, which served as a check on traditional liberal and conservative parties, if it “had not lost view of the people… and refugees are also people. This path of the AfD is no longer my way.”
Merkel’s About Face
Over the past two years, almost one million refugees, largely Afghans and Syrians, have been accepted into Germany. Soon after these refugees began to flow into the country, the AfD party started to embrace more extremist language, invoking Nazi imagery and adopting official party slogans such as “Refugees are all to blame.” Leading officials and lawmakers in the AfD repeatedly described refugees and asylum seekers in Europe as illegitimate immigrants who emigrated from Turkey simply to find better economic prospects.
With growing backlash in recent elections, Angela Merkel began rescinding her liberal immigration policies. September 2016 brought significant losses for Merkel’s ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), coupled with gains by the AfD in local elections for the northern German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Niedersachsen. Later that month, Merkel’s party lost with 18% of the vote in local elections in Berlin, while the traditional center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) secured the largest majority with 22% of votes. The AfD party placed third with 14% and entered the local state parliament of Berlin for the first time.
Just before its success in the 2016 elections, the AfD gathered for its national party conference on May Day, where calls were made for bans across Germany on burkas, mosques and minarets, and the Islamic call to prayer. One official party slogan, publicized by the AfD in connection with the conference, claimed “Islam does not belong in Germany.”
Only a few months later, when she announced her candidacy in the 2017 election for the German chancellorship, Merkel revealed her support for a partial burka ban in Germany. Critics in the media viewed this as an attempt by a weary Merkel to stake out a centrist position between her party and the extreme Islamophobic, racist economic populism of the AfD, which has pushed the center farther and farther to the right.
Some have even begun to speculate about how Merkel’s reversal of her liberal refugee policies and normalization of extreme right-wing attitudes will impact the coming federal elections. One editorial for The Economist remarked:
If centrists like Mrs. Merkel now see burqa bans as minor concessions to hold off populists, they are fooling themselves. Those who want to ban veils are not worried about security but about immigration and integration. To them, limited bans confirm only that mainstream politicians are too timid to embrace the real thing.
Neoliberal Failures Mirror Far-Right Gains Globally
The day after the November 8, 2016 election in the United States, the national AfD deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, wrote in support of Trump on Facebook: “This is a historic election victory. The victory of Donald Trump is a sign that the people of the Western world want a clear political change.”
A week later, President Obama met with Chancellor Merkel, under the far-right electoral specter of Trump’s victory, the success of Brexit, President Duterte’s rise in the Philippines, and growing right-wing sentiment in Austria, France, and even Germany itself. Obama publicly lauded Merkel, who was his last strong political ally and remaining hope for liberal democratic leadership in the West. He concluded the trip by telling the German people how lucky they were to have Merkel as their leader.
Austria held federal and local elections two weeks later. To the surprise of many, the far-right political party was defeated thanks to a strong counter-narrative of progressive values and issues mounted by the Green Party and pitched to voters facing the same economic grievances unraveling in other countries.
This narrative strategy was key to defeating the far-right’s rise in Austria. Political moderation cannot defeat the far right, which no longer resembles anything close to a measured conservative party. Such moderation will only ensure the complete irrelevance of leftist groups during these times of rapidly evolving extremist narratives. Indeed, across the globe, this passive strategy has weakened traditional establishment parties and allowed far-right elements to cement their exclusionary populism, as the dominant political narrative.
This has been occurring across Europe over the last decade, as traditional liberal and conservative parties have failed to deliver meaningful reform on corruption and socio-economic inequality, while far-right and neo fascist movements have secured electoral victories and significant numbers of parliamentary seats. These neo fascist movements include Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Jobbik party in Hungary, and the Freedom Party, which nearly won in Austria earlier this month.
In France’s upcoming parliamentary elections, on April 23, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France stands to unseat President François Hollande’s center left party. Shortly after receiving news of his 4% approval rating from the French electorate late last year, Hollande announced he would not be seeking re-election this spring.
With such dangerous developments invoking dark memories of Europe’s past and echoing a powerful global trend, Chancellor Merkel’s passive response to the AfD and abrupt decision to adopt part of the AfD platform into her campaign is concerning. Unfortunately, the ultimate result of this approach is the effective normalization of far-right extremism.
Without a powerful counter-narrative to denounce far-right extremists, Merkel and her party remain incredibly vulnerable to escalating public discord over the neoliberal elite and their economic status quo. There is, however, still ample time to act decisively in the coming months and develop an effective narrative strategy to prevent even more gains by far-right political groups, such as the AfD in Germany or the National Front in France.
Unless more radical and authoritatively progressive alternatives emerge, as was seen in Austria, it appears increasingly likely that even the stubborn German voter may swing toward these new and flashy demagogues.