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Penny Bochum: The Rise of the ‘AfD’ from a British Perspective

Germany has a phenomenon called ‘AfD’, an extremist right-wing party that has entered all sixteen state parliaments and the Berlin Bundestag. The British researcher Penny Bochum examines its rise in her new book.

Nijmegen, September 26th, 2020 (The Berlin Spectator) — In the United Kingdom, there is a lot of interest in regard to a party that calls itself ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD). But there was hardly any material in English, until Penny Bochum released her book ‘We Are the People’.

She is a political researcher and writer who is active in both Berlin and London. In Britain, she has worked for Labour MPs and contributed several publications including ‘Can Labour Win? The Hard Road to Power’. In the German capital, it was the Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group at the Bundestag Penny Bochum cooperated with. Imanuel Marcus spoke to her.

‘Battle for the Soul of the Party’

The Berlin Spectator: When people want a Nazi to stay in their party, what does this aspect make them? And when that person is being kicked out anyway, is this the beginning of the end of the party? Will the AfD rip itself apart?

Penny Bochum: The history of the AfD is a history of factionalism, splits and radicalisation. It carries the seeds of its own destruction within itself and risks ripping itself apart.

Following its beginnings as a eurosceptic party in 2013, the AfD became increasingly radical. The nationalist wing, the ‘Flügel’, led by Thuringian leader Björn Höcke, gained more and more power, to the alarm of the more moderate members, who in the summer of 2019 publicly rejected the idea that the AfD would become a ‘Björn Höcke party’.

The decision this year by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) that the ‘Flügel’ represented a right-extremist tendency set alarm bells ringing amongst the party leadership. Co-leader Jörg Meuthen, who in the past has himself spoken at Flügel meetings and who was named in a BfV report for his “aggressively xenophobic rhetoric”, took up the power struggle against Höcke’s faction, even proposing that the party should split in two. For his part, Höcke announced the dissolution of the Flügel, in a defensive action which has been dismissed as a chess move.

Not only that. There have been increasing numbers of reports of divisions in regional and local party associations and, following the exclusion of Brandenburg leader Andreas Kalbitz, AfD members have been offering to cooperate with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

The battle for the soul of the party has not yet been resolved. The dissolution of the Flügel and the exclusion of Kalbitz does not mean that the extreme right has disappeared. The party still has a nationalist base in the eastern federal states. But in other areas, the possibility exists that moderate voters, put off by right-extremism and the failure of the party to present any solutions to the Covid-19 crisis, could drift back to the mainstream parties.

Signal to the Outside World

The Berlin Spectator: The AfD has a rather long list of people it disposed of, from Lucke and Petry to Kalbitz. Was the man from Brandenburg the sacrificial lamb? “See? We are not a Nazi party, but part of the conservative spectrum.” Is this what Kalbitz’ sacking is supposed to say?

Penny Bochum: That is interesting because this ‘disposal of leaders’ mirrors the increasing radicalization in the party.  The eurosceptic Lucke was deposed by Petry when the party began to evolve into a far-right populist party. Under Petry, the party exploited the 2015 refugee crisis with its xenophobic ‘autumn offensive’ and shot up in the opinion polls. Its 2017 election manifesto, written under Petry’s leadership, stated that “Islam does not belong to Germany”, linked immigration to crime and social decline, accused a political oligarchy of making unconstitutional decisions, and asserted German ‘Leitkultur’.   

But Petry clashed with the ambitious nationalist right, and resigned from the party after the 2017 election, indicating that she believed that the party was moving into right-extremist territory.   

In 2020, Kalbitz has been excluded because of his connections to right-extremism. His dismissal was certainly a signal to the outside world to show that the party is attempting to separate itself from right-extremist positions and position itself on the conservative spectrum. But it is by no means clear that the party has rejected this faction.

Attacking Refugees and Muslims

The Berlin Spectator: Is the AfD the political arm of right-wing terrorism of the kind we saw in Halle last year? What kind of dangers does it pose in this regard?

Penny Bochum: Statements from AfD politicians which encourage prejudice against groups of people or which trivialize Germany’s Nazi past can legitimize hate, for example when Björn Höcke criticized the Holocaust memorial as a monument of shame, or when Alexander Gauland said that the Nazi time was just “bird shit” in 1,000 years of successful German history. Parliamentary leader Alice Weidel has made a row of statements attacking refugees and Muslims. In a budget debate in 2018 she spoke of “girls in headscarves, knife-wielding men on government benefits and other good-for-nothing people” destroying Germany’s prosperity. In July of this year, she complained about “uncontrolled immigration” through which many “young men, primarily from the Islamic culture”, who “despise the state”, came to Germany.

Many politicians have pointed out that hatred and hate speech as practised by the AfD and AfD leaders lower inhibitions, can lead to violence. This is especially seen online. The AfD uses social media very effectively, and its supporters are more active on social media than supporters of other parties. This is one of the reasons that the government have introduced a new law which cracks down on hate-speech on social media websites.

Lack of Real Solutions

The Berlin Spectator: Germany’s democrats want to get rid of the AfD. So far, the only effective tool was Corona. The virus made the AfD shrink by a third, at least for a while. What is the right strategy to make people turn away from Nazis and extremist right-wingers?

Penny Bochum: The Corona example is interesting because it exposed the AfD’s lack of real solutions. During the turbulent Corona months, people were looking for a stable government and leadership, and the AfD has failed to articulate any coherent response to the crisis. So that is one of the main strategies: the center parties must expose the reality that populists’ simplistic solutions offer no alternative.

The center parties must also recognize why voters have turned to the AfD and address these issues. Tony Blair has said that “populism is about ‘riding the anger’ rather than providing the solution. The center parties must provide the solution with a progressive agenda, including addressing structural problems in the east of the country, regional inequalities and contrasts between rural and urban areas. They must also develop new ways of speaking to voters, reinforcing good governance and countering far-right propaganda.    

Penny Bochum’s ‘We Are the People’ looks into the extremist ‘AfD’. Picture: Haus Publishing Ltd.

The Non-Cooperation Policy

The Berlin Spectator: What are the mistakes Germany’s democratic parties and the government have made? How did they contribute to the rise of the AfD and its invasion of the Bundestag and all sixteen state parliaments?

Penny Bochum: The established parties did not recognize either the rise in right-extremism or the discontent amongst voters which led to a rise in support for populism soon enough. Too many people did not feel listened to or represented by the mainstream political parties for too long. The AfD won votes from across the social and political spectrum in 2017, but the largest number of votes it received, 1.47 million, came from people who had never voted before.

This feeling of not being listened to is particularly true in the east, where a majority of voters feel themselves to be second class citizens and where there are still significant structural and demographic differences when compared to the west of the country.

Attempts to fight populism by shifting to a populist agenda have failed. For example, Horst Seehofer’s attempt to use of the issue of asylum and immigration to win votes from the AfD before the October 2018 election in Bavaria only resulted in a record low for the CSU. 

The question of whether to cooperate with the AfD politically is a controversial one. So far, there is an uneasy consensus not to enter into coalitions with the AfD. If the established parties exclude the AfD, this  supports the party’s identity as a victim denied representation by a corrupt establishment and could further alienate voters who distrust the political system, and who are more likely to vote AfD. Additionally, in the east, where the party is in second place, it makes coalition building very difficult- as was seen in Thuringia in February, when CDU and FDP politicians broke the consensus and voted with the AfD for an FDP First Minister.

However, the non-cooperation policy, though troubling, is the correct position. Ruling out coalitions with the AfD has so far blocked right-extremists from entry into governments and avoided the normalization of populism in power. Additionally, cross-party coalitions offer an opportunity for the center parties to demonstrate that they can cooperate to implement progressive programs that deliver benefits. Agreement through compromise is a feature of and advertisement for democracy, and coalition government is a very successful German norm, which endures even if it falters.

Similarities with Trump

The Berlin Spectator: You know about politics in the United Kingdom as well. Are there parallels between any party or movement over there and the AfD? Was the pro-Brexit movement related to them? Or how about the Labour party under Corbyn? In order to become antisemitic, an extremist right-wing party was not even needed.

Penny Bochum: There are parallels with populists all over the word, and the pro-Brexit movement shows many similarities, particularly in the claims that it speaks for the undefined “people” against the “elite” and in its use of immigration as a tool to provoke fear. 

In the 2015 election in the UK, UKIP won the same percentage of the vote that the AfD did in 2017 in Germany. The UK’s electoral system left UKIP with just one seat in Parliament, while the AfD won 94. But, in an attempt to see off UKIP and its successor, the Brexit Party, the populist agenda was adopted by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party. Johnson’s Conservatives used such highly populist ‘Parliament versus the People’ language in the run-up to the December 2019 election that former minister Ken Clarke labelled his party “The Brexit Party, rebadged”. 

Additionally, studies have shown that there was a rise in racism and anti-semitism in the UK after the Brexit vote, and this was not only seen on the right. Corbyn’s “for the many, not the few” Labour Party failed to stamp out antisemitism in its ranks.

The Berlin Spectator: Where are the commonalities between Trump’s Republicans and the AfD?

Penny Bochum:  The AfD enthusiastically welcomed the election of Trump.  The anti-establishment nationalism of both Trump and the AfD is fueled by excluding outsiders who are attacked using an ‘us against them’ mentality. Trump’s campaign against the liberal establishment and “fake news media”, and his reliance on social media to promote his message, is very similar to the AfD’s rejection of the political establishment and ‘Lügenpresse’ attacks on the mainstream media. 

The Berlin Spectator: When did you start looking into the AfD and how did you decide to do so?

Penny Bochum: I started researching the AfD about two years ago. Like many others, I was alarmed at the rise of the AfD. At that time, the AfD was even threatening to overtake the SPD in the opinion polls. I found that although there is a lot of information about the AfD in German, there was not so much in English. At the same time, there is a lot of interest in the subject in the UK. So I wanted to synthesize the research and news reports about the AfD in English.

‘We Are the People’ by Penny Bochum is available through House Publishing.

Related feature: ‘AfD’: Germany’s Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes