Inside the German War on Democracy
Some in the German establishment are trying to disallow a popular opposition party, Alternative für Deutschland.
Many American liberals obsess about a possible “Trump dictatorship” should the former President return to the White House this fall. In Europe, the mainstream media have long been haunted by the specter of right-wing politicians like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whom they claim are undermining democracy and the rule of law. But, at present, it is in Germany where democracy is really under threat.
This is not because of the rise of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), as many media commentators and politicians would have you believe. It is rather because of the undemocratic reaction of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s embattled coalition, some fake “conservatives,” and the corporate media, to the AfD’s emergence as a powerful challenge to their left-liberal consensus. Under the leadership of Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, the party has surged to more than 20 percent in national polls, second place and well ahead of Scholz’s Social Democrats with just 15 percent. In recent weeks, the establishment has moved towards hysteria. The welcome trigger was a dubious report by a left-wing organization about the AfD’s alleged plans to “deport millions of migrants.” They are crying for drastic measures against the party—measures that could upend German democracy.
Some politicians and media are calling for an outright ban on the AfD, whom they present as enemies of democracy. More than one and a half million people have signed a petition to strip Björn Höcke, one of the AfD’s more hardline regional leaders, of his basic constitutional rights—like freedom of speech, the right to teach or protest, or to vote or run for office. And there are many other ways the legacy parties try to, or really do, restrict the AfD’s constitutional rights.
For example, they deny them the right to nominate a vice-president position in Parliament, as any other opposition faction can do. Furthermore, the Greens, and the leader of the “center-right” Christian Social Union (CSU), Markus Söder, are trying to find ways to exclude the opposition party from the state system of public financing of all parties that have attained a certain level of electoral support. This would deprive the AfD of dozens of millions of euros every year, and would significantly damage electoral fairness.
Can a country where the ruling class attempts to ban or suppress their fiercest opposition really be called a democracy? No other European country has ever banned a large opposition party, however much it may be disliked by the ruling class. Any ban on the AfD would be an affront to freedom, and a declaration of moral bankruptcy on the part of German democracy.
AfD is the second strongest party at national level. In eastern German Länder (states) like Saxony or Thuringia, it is by far the strongest party and has the chance of winning state elections in September. This prospect petrifies the establishment, which is trying to isolate the party and keep it behind a “firewall.” Millions of voters are deeply disenchanted with Scholz’s Ampelkoalition (“traffic light coalition,” so called because of the party colors of the three parties involved—the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats). Around 80 percent of voters say they have lost all confidence in the government, which has consequently gone into panic mode.
Uncontrolled mass immigration, the cost of living and economic recession in Germany, also due to deeply controversial energy and climate policies, not to mention the general disdain of the condescending political class, are all fueling anger. AfD’s rise is part of a larger picture in Europe, with similar parties on the rise in many countries in the run up to June’s elections to the European Parliament. The European Council on Foreign Relations, a liberal think-tank, last week published a forecast warning that right-wing and Eurosceptic parties (“anti-European populists”) could become the largest or dominant party in 18 of 27 of the bloc’s member states. In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is leading the polls, in Italy the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia, in the Netherlands Geert Wilders, and in Austria the Freedom Party, to name just a few—all of them promising to end the influx of illegal aliens and proposing much tougher policies on immigration and crime.
The Ampelkoalition’s utter incompetence has propelled the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, to a combined 30 percent in polls, but many voters—traditional conservatives, as well as blue collar workers—who still remember the CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel’s disastrous immigration policies, have steered increasingly towards the populist alternative. Although it was established only in 2013, the AfD has become the real rallying point of right-wing opposition. Even official accusations of “extremism” by the domestic spy agency Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) have not dented the AfD’s electoral support. People often ignore those warnings, because they understand that the agency has been politicized by the ruling parties and is used as a weapon to attack opposition groups they dislike. Meanwhile, the AfD’s membership has climbed by more than a third to over 40,000, and is still growing fast.
In the last two weeks, however, the establishment has almost lost its mind completely, following the report by a left-wing investigative and activist organization named Correctiv, which spied on a private meeting that took place at Potsdam, near Berlin, in November. Among the 20 or so attendees were a handful of mid-ranking AfD functionaries, a couple of CDU members, and some wealthy entrepreneurs. At this small private conference, which Correctiv hysterically dubbed a “secret meeting,” a political activist from Vienna presented his ideas for a “remigration plan” to move migrants who have no legal right to stay in Germany or who have committed severe crimes back to their home countries. Correctiv’s journalist-activists, sensing the potential for a report that would make their names, cunningly likened this “master plan” to a notorious Nazi scheme.
Ludicrously, and tastelessly, this little meeting with its vague talk about repatriation of illegal foreigners was dubbed “Wannsee Conference 2.0” (the Wannsee Lake, where Nazi officials agreed on the “final solution” to murder the Jews in January 1942, is a half-hour drive away). This grotesque and unhistorical equation of a small private talk among people without any real power with the 1942 event arguably downplays the monstrous crimes of the Holocaust—but it worked wonders, creating a perfect scandal for the system. (This weekend, the Correctiv deputy did declare on public TV that they have in fact never used the word “deportation” and this was an interpretation—but the perfect storm is underway anyway.)
The left is gleefully exploiting the affair with lies and distortions about the Potsdam gathering – which mainstream media, spearheaded by the public broadcasting corporations, are happy to parrot. The last two weekends, the SPD, the Greens, die Linke (the Left, the successor party of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party), and mass organizations like trade unions, liberal churches, the Council of Muslims, migrant associations, and Antifa groups have called for public demonstrations.
Almost a million people obediently took to the streets to protest “against the right.” (In Germany, “the right” is lazily used as a synonym for right-wing extremism). Not all the marchers were peaceful or liberal; in Aachen, some protesters flew a banner reading “Kill AfD.” Ignoring such banners, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, thanked the demonstrators and praised their “courage.” Scholz rejoiced that “we are more”—that in Germany “democrats” are more numerous than “anti-democrats,” which in the circumstances is an ironic reversal of reality.
It is hard to tell where these debates will lead. The political climate is extremely heated. Robust debates are always welcome, and the AfD is no stranger to polemics. Yet even contemplating the idea of suppressing a party with several million voters is fundamentally anti-democratic. This is why my newspaper, Junge Freiheit, has launched a petition against a ban, which so far 120,000 people have signed. Leading Social Democrats, like party leader Saskia Esken, want to start the process by submitting a request to the Constitutional Court, but cooler heads—even within the SPD—suspect the move might backfire, just as the lawfare against Trump seems to be only increasing his support.
Vera Lengsfeld, a former dissident in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) who fought against political oppression before 1989 and later became a respected CDU Member of Parliament, has spoken passionately about how Germany is turning into a soft-totalitarian state where the ruling class tries to control and suppress dissent. In the GDR, she points out, there were also mass demonstrations organized by the government to solidify support for the regime, and stir up passions against supposed “enemies of the state.” An internal spy-organization infiltrated and denounced dissident groups. She writes, “The state of affairs, which became clear during the demonstrations ‘against the Right’, are fatally reminiscent of the GDR.” It is hard to disagree.
For now, in Germany as much as the United States, many establishment figures “have a dream” to rid the country of those opposition groups who threaten their positions and ideologies by turning them into moral pariahs. One can only hope that their undemocratic dreams fail.