Germany, like much of Europe, has witnessed a resurgent populist nationalism that has fundamentally destabilized the political status quo. The 2017 federal election marked a watershed moment in German postwar history, with the culturally conservative, Eurosceptic, and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) gaining representation in the German Bundestag for the first time in its history (becoming the third largest party in the process).
Germany, reflecting the social and political landscape of other European countries, is a nation divided. This division was demonstrated in the strongest terms by the anti-immigrant riots in Chemnitz, an East German city located in the heart of Saxony. Following the arrest of a Syrian and an Iraqi man after the fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German-Cuban man in September, a wave of far-right protests engulfed the city.
Besides the AfD organizing a small rally, right-wing populist groups and neo-Nazi organizations such as The Third Path and Autonome Nationalisten held protests. Some demonstrators gave the Nazi salute, while mobs also launched random street attacks against people they took to be foreigners, including an Afghan, a Syrian, and a Bulgarian man. The crowd chanted “Lügenpresse” directed at the mainstream media, a term repopularised by the far-right movement PEGIDA that roughly translates to “fake news.”
The spectacle is not an anomaly, but rather the symptom of a liberal democracy struggling to cope with a revitalized far-right. What makes for particularly grim reading are poll figures from Reuters exploring attitudes towards the protests. While 57 percent of those polled viewed the Chemnitz protests as a “danger to democracy,” 90 percent of AfD supporters polled did not feel this was the case. Such sharply differing perceptions of events involving Nazi salutes and the open harassment of people of a foreign background indicate a troubling division over basic moral standards and decency.
Postwar Germany, traditionally viewed as a bastion of consensus politics and democratic liberalism, is very much a changed nation – one could say, a “New Germany.” Once seen as unthinkable in a country that witnessed the rise of the Third Reich, the far-right AfD now sits in the German Bundestag as the main opposition party.
Germany, once a country utterly traumatized by the extermination and brutalization of religious minorities, is now more confident in asserting its “leading culture,” known in German as “Leitkultur.” This concept infers ideas of European cultural superiority and includes demands for the assimilation of minorities.
A two-part study by Mercator Foundation highlighted a hardening of attitudes of Germans towards the integration of migrants. Whereas 33.5 percent of respondents expressed that Germany should exercise “stronger self-confidence” towards newly-arrived migrants in 2014, this figure rose sharply to 44.5 percent by early 2016. In 2014, 36.2 percent of respondents held the view that the onus was on migrants alone when it came to adapting to German life. Two years later, this figure had shot up to 54.9 percent.
The AfD has thrived politically in this changing social context, which has in part been exacerbated by a series of social events. The New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, attempted suicide bombing in Ansbach, and train stabling spree in Würzberg raised questions over Germany’s ability to integrate refugees from unstable societies where sharply contrasting cultural and social norms predominate.
Research by the University of Munster found that only 6 percent of native German respondents associated Islam with human rights, 5 percent linked the religion to the principle of tolerance, and a paltry 7 percent felt Islam and peace go hand-in-hand. In mainstream German society, there is the widespread perception that Islam is an expansionist ideology devoid of basic human rights and that the policy approach of “Multikulti” must give way to an assertive brand of cultural assimilation.
AfD in New Germany
In this New Germany, a party like the AfD – anti-E.U., culturally preservationist, and wary of the “Islamic threat” to Germany’s Judeo-Christian heritage – can be the third largest party in the federal parliament. The AfD has a larger representation than the free-market liberal FDP, environmentalist Greens, and Die Linke (The Left). The party is the largest opposition party in the three state parliaments of Baden-Württemberg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Saxony-Anhalt. A poll published two weeks ago by public broadcaster ARD placed the AfD second on 18 percent, only behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weakened CDU-CSU bloc (which leads on a relatively slender 28 percent).
Whether it is political support or social values, postwar Germany is now characterized by division. The aggressive nature of the protests in Chemnitz sends shivers down the spine of those who are fearful of a resurgent far-right in the country that knows only too well of the destructive effects of fascism. However, these events were also supported by a growing number of people who desire a more “assertive, self-confident, belligerent” Germany, a Germany that enforces cultural assimilation and actively promotes ideas of European – specifically German – cultural superiority.
For some, Germany should no longer be shackled by its history and past misdemeanors, but rather be a country that needs to protect its Judeo-Christian heritage from the “Islamic threat.” Merkel’s decision to allow in approximately a million refugees from Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan greatly intensified this “threat.”
Many in Germany are anxious, feeling that their society is moving in an increasingly disturbing direction. For others, the growth of the AfD and the Chemnitz protests are the signs of a revitalized, more assertive Germany. A nation awoken. A country reborn.