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The Tables are Turning: Germany’s Attitudinal Shift in the Battle Against the Far Right

Graphic features a collage of the flags of the European Union, United States, Japan, and China. Designed by Amy Lim

In the 2017 German national elections, the populist radical-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party won 13 percent of seats in the Bundestag. Not only was the AfD the first party to the right of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to obtain seats in the German parliament since the pre-war era, but they received the third largest share of votes among the German electorate. This trend of increasing public support for populist radical-right ideology appears across Europe, perhaps most notably in Hungary with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party.

Yet, both the AfD and Fidesz were dealt forceful blows in the first week of March. In Cologne, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) placed the AfD under surveillance—which allows the BfV to tap party communications and monitor members’ movements. In Strasbourg, Orbán removed Fidesz from the European People’s party (EPP)—the main center-right voting block in the European parliament—after the group threatened to exclude Fidesz itself. Such attempts to remove Fidesz had been proposed before; however, pressure from Merkel and the German CDU, also a member of the EPP, had kept Orbán’s party aboard. The recent developments around the AfD and Fidesz, therefore, signify a turning point within Europe, and particularly within Germany, to counter the rise of populist radical-right parties after a period of ambivalence. Germany’s shift in behavior comes at a critical juncture merely months before its citizens will vote for the parliament that will select their first new chancellor in 15 years, and the nation’s leading forces are now explicitly positioned against the rise of right-wing extremism and as fervent defenders of liberal democracy on a national and European level. 

Germany’s history of far-right politics needs little explanation. The horrors committed under the Nazi regime were vast and unfathomable in destroying human life and disregarding any semblance of democracy. These atrocities prompted strict political and societal reform after Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, which successfully kept radical Splinterparteien, or splinter parties, out of the German parliament for decades. Reforms included an entry-threshold for parties, which requires them to receive a minimum five percent of the vote to hold seats in the Bundestag.

The AfD cleared this hurdle with ease in 2017. Founded in 2013 in opposition to German-led bailouts during the Eurozone crisis, the party quickly gained momentum through its fervent opposition to Angela Merkel’s open immigration policy for refugees. Merkel’s welcoming of migrants was initially popular among Germans, but a series of reported crimes in Cologne and Hamburg by men of migrant backgrounds quickly changed public perception. Merkel’s approval rating sharply declined, while the AfD’s growing popularity catapulted it into both the Bundestag and all 16 lower-level state governments. The AfD’s official platform lists the party as a “staunch supporter of democracy,” however various members—including Björn Höcke, the party leader in Thuringia—have been accused of promoting neo-Nazism, including mockery of Holocaust memorials and calls for a “180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance” in Germany. Additionally, the AfD’s existence and the lack of action taken against it in its early years enabled the party to absorb the base of the smaller National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), another far-right, neo-Nazi party which has since declined into near nonexistence. With the bases of smaller, more radical parties funnelling into the AfD, the party has embraced its position on the far-right end of German governance.

Little has been done until now in opposition to the AfD, partly because of the unlikelihood of any party in the Bundestag to form a coalition with their colleagues on the right. While the party is radical, its sphere of influence is small and it rarely plays a role in policymaking. Indeed, when the CDU and AfD worked together in Thuringia to elect a new leader of the state parliament, backlash immediately ensued—ultimately resulting in the resignation of CDU National Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was thought to be Merkel’s hand-picked successor. 

On the European level, however, Merkel has been more than willing to form alliances with populist-right forces such as Orbán and Fidesz. R. Daniel Kelemen, professor of European politics at Rutgers University, notes that the close relationship between Merkel and Orbán in the EU has been mutually beneficial. Orbán’s Fidesz receives political legitimacy and Merkel’s CDU gains votes for its policy initiatives. Moreover, Merkel and the CDU are less hesitant to form partnerships with populist parties at the EU level, because such moves receive much less national attention. 

With limited public awareness of partnerships with the right-wing Fidesz, the door has remained wide open for German economic and business activity in Hungary. Three of the four largest companies in Hungary are German (Mercedes Benz, Audi, and the Bosch Group) and Daimler, a German automaker, recently announced it would invest over $120 million into its Hungary-based plant. The timing of this announcement is notable, as it came shortly after Merkel compromised with Hungary and Poland on the EU’s Covid-19 fund and budget, suspending “rule of law” conditionality for the allocation of EU funds—which Hungary and Poland likely would have violated. 

Germany’s abrupt change in position towards the AfD and Fidesz serves as a stark turning point in its stance towards the further rise of populist radical-right parties, both domestic and abroad. Furthermore, Germany’s actions symbolize their position to the international community as fervent defenders of liberal democracy in domestic and global contexts. After all, Orbán is the face of illiberal democracy within Europe. Why Germany was willing to initiate this change, when the AfD and Fidesz posed little threat to the CDU’s policy agenda, is a question that must be raised.

There are two explanations for why the BfV placed the AfD under observation. First, the increases in right-wing extremism among the party’s ranks were simply too significant for the BfV to stand idly by, necessitating the constraint of the AfD’s anti-democratic schemes. While the party was created in opposition to EU initiatives, it has quickly developed into an established far-right force. Over 1,100 pages of reports from the BfV clarified this, assessing the AfD’s violation of liberal democratic principles. Second, and more indicative of a true turning point, the notice of observation came after Germany released an 89-point plan in November to combat right-wing extremism, investing more than 1€ billion over the next four years in political, cultural, and educational measures. No single point is explicit in mentioning the AfD, but the initiative sets a clear direction the country will take—no longer allowing parties to instigate democratic backsliding.

Fidesz’s exit from the EPP following the group’s threat to remove Orbán’s party also symbolizes a stark revision of German tolerance for populist radical-right parties outside of their own borders—particularly when both countries have benefited immensely from their prior partnership. This, more broadly, is a precursor to what will likely be the German position following the next elections in 2021, in which Angela Merkel will be replaced as chancellor. Indeed, it is unlikely that Merkel’s successor will share a close relationship with Orbán as she has, with no history of cooperation and the continuous divergence of opinions toward democracy between the two nations. This made Orbán’s decision to leave the group even easier. 

Rather than stand idly by with the domestic and international spread of populist extremism becoming a greater threat, Germany has used the AfD and Fidesz as examples for a societal call to action. While it is too early to tell if these attempts will be successful, the depth with which they attack the problem nearly guarantees a level of effectiveness. As the leader of the EU, Germany has drawn a line in the sand that separates what is acceptable for German and European governance from right-wing populist pressures which pose a threat to political stability at all levels.

In 1933, the fusion of an economic crisis, political gridlock, and the rise of a right-wing extremist not only caused the fall of German democracy, but created the conditions for two of humanity’s darkest decades. The nation is determined to prevent this from happening again. While economic fallout from the pandemic and political gridlock may very well exist come September, Germany has taken a stand against the rise of populist radical right forces, ensuring these conditions will not be met.

Graphic by Amy Lim