September 25, 2017
German federal parliamentary elections on September 24 made it almost certain that Chancellor Angela Merkel will serve a fourth term in office that, if served in its entirety, would prove record-breaking. It also brought a right-wing nationalist party into the parliament for the first time since the 1960s, disrupting a long-held political consensus in Germany that far-right politics do not belong in the federal parliament.
That party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), won more than 12% of the vote for the Bundestag after conducting a racist, anti-Islam, and anti-refugee election campaign that received heavy criticism from politicians, civil society, and the media. It is now the second-largest party in the five eastern German states, with nearly every second voter in some of those states’ districts casting their ballots for the AfD.
The AfD phenomenon dominated an otherwise bland election campaign, reigniting simmering resentments and fears triggered by the influx of more than a million refugees, largely from the Mideast, during 2015-16. Following a pattern similar to those of populist parties elsewhere in Europe, AfD politicians appealed to those who feel left behind by globalization and worry about eroding living standards. The AfD insinuates that politicians are giving higher priority to the needs of immigrants and refugees, rather than addressing economic and social issues such as the scarcity of skilled jobs and the lack of affordable housing. They also stoke resentment against the poorer EU member states in southern Europe for “exploiting” Germany. The party claims to articulate views that allegedly have long been suppressed in Germany, with one top AfD leader recently declaring that “political correctness belongs on the scrap heap of history.”
Since its founding in 2013, the party has been elected to seats in 13 of the 16 German state parliaments, where its representatives have repeatedly voiced positions that reject the humanistic and universalistic values on which postwar German democracy was founded. The AfD is anti-European, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim. Although party leaders claim that AfD poses no threat to Jewish voters, they have yet to censure those in their own ranks who express antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories, downplay the Holocaust, and laud German Wehrmacht soldiers as national heroes. The party platform includes a call to ban religious slaughter. A similar proposal to ban religious circumcision was narrowly averted at the last minute.
Some AfD leaders have expressed strong support for Israel. However, German Jewish leaders have consistently called on community members to beware of the party as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, outwardly friendly toward Israel and hardline on issues of terrorism, but unable or unwilling to deal decisively with antisemitism even within its midst. This concern about the AfD’s intentions was heightened the morning after the election when one of the party’s top leaders questioned Germany’s security assurances for Israel. This appeared to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel’s often-stated position that support for Israel is part of Germany’s raison d'être.
The openly racist and populist election rhetoric of a number of AfD leaders was chilling. For example, one AfD leader suggested that the Federal Commissioner on Integration Affairs be “disposed of” by sending her back to Anatolia, eliciting a forceful rebuke from Chancellor Merkel. A campaign poster with the motto “We prefer bikinis to burkas,” with a sexist image of a bikini-clad woman and another woman in a burka, provoked widespread protest. One AfD parliamentary candidate, a judge, called for an end to the so-called “German guilt” culture, an obvious swipe at Holocaust memory. And the co-leader of the party recently quipped that if the British can be proud of Churchill, Germans can be proud of their World War II Wehrmacht soldiers.
In addition, some AfD leaders adopted an aggressive and insulting political style that is unusual in German politics. On election night, a party co-leader promised his voters that the AfD would start “hunting” Chancellor Merkel, presumably until she steps down from office, a strong echo of calls during the U.S. election campaign to “lock up” Hillary Clinton.
Election analysts say that the AfD success is partially due to concerns about growing societal divisions and economic inequity, particularly in the former communist eastern states of Germany. In addition, anxieties about refugees and terrorism run strong, as does fear of a loss of German identity within an ever larger European entity. The anti-Muslim agenda has reportedly helped the party gain support among Russian-speaking ethnic Germans who came to Germany following the fall of communism. The AfD’s pronounced Russian-friendly positions, including a defense of Russia’s Crimea annexation, as well as the AfD’s advertisements in Russian-language media surely influenced millions of Russian-speakers.
It will take some time for the full consequences of the AfD parliamentary victory to become clear, but even at this early stage it looks likely that issues such as the postwar German consensus on Holocaust memory, textbook narratives about World War II, immigration regulations, and transatlantic relations may be reopened.
The Social Democratic party—the current junior coalition partner—conceded its poor showing at the polls immediately after the election, and announced that it will go into the opposition, preventing the AfD from becoming the main opposition party. This leaves the liberal Free Democratic Party and the Green Party as the only viable coalition partners for Merkel’s CDU in the German parliament. This could affect the government on foreign policy issues, for instance on Iran, since the FDP has traditionally encouraged trade with Iran, and the Green Party places great stress on denouncing human rights violations.
Despite Chancellor Merkel’s strong affinity for Israel, German-Israeli tensions have grown in recent months, with disputes over settlements and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Previous FDP and Green foreign ministers were considerably engaged in German-Israeli relations, a possible indication that a change in the Foreign Ministry leadership might provide an opportunity for a new calibration of the relationship.
An unfortunate result of the elections is the departure of a number of parliamentarians who have been extremely strong supporters of transatlantic relations, Israel and German-Jewish affairs, and close friends of AJC for many decades. AJC Berlin, in coordination with European colleagues, is uniquely situated to advance key AJC advocacy issues among the new members of parliament – including some familiar faces reentering parliament – while at the same time expanding existing contacts. Its robust engagement with civil society groups, Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy organizations, and intergroup partners puts AJC Berlin in a key position to monitor and counter incidents of antisemitism and right-wing extremism, sustain historical memory, and counter strains in the transatlantic relationship. A top agenda item will be the adoption of key recommendations made in spring 2017 by the German Parliament’s Expert Group on Antisemitism.
Germany is facing ever-growing challenges. Large numbers of refugees remain poised at Europe’s borders, European unity is under threat, and the U.S. appears to be launched on a process of political disengagement from Europe. Now more than ever, AJC must raise its voice and work, in cooperation with German and German-Jewish partners, to ensure that the country’s leadership remains committed to German-Jewish affairs, stays the course on the transatlantic agenda, sustains European unity, and retains the vital importance of Germany and Europe’s relations with Israel.
Deidre Berger is the director of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute.