The rise of the AfD

The German establishment’s complacency and elitism are assisting the AfD.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics Politics World

Germany is just two months away from commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But for many commentators, east and west Germany are more divided than ever. The success of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the recent state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony has fueled this concern. The AfD came second in both elections. In Brandenburg, it won 23.5 per cent of the vote, just 2.7 per cent below the ruling centre-left SPD. In Saxony, it won 27.5 per cent of the vote, 4.6 per cent behind the incumbent centre-right CDU. ‘When I, a Wessi [west German], leave Berlin… I see nothing but right-wingers… These are people whose sensitivities I don’t understand… Thirty years after the fall of the wall, there is still no unity’, said a writer for Der Spiegel.

Many in the east are just as keen as their western counterparts to distance themselves from AfD voters. The ‘most important message’ from Saxony’s election result was that the ‘friendly Saxony’ had won, said Michael Kretschmer, the state’s CDU minister president. As if reading from the same script, Brandenburg’s minister president, the SPD’s Dietmar Woidke, emphasised that ‘the face of Brandenburg would remain friendly’. Of course, ‘friendly’ is a code word for mainstream or pro-establishment. But presenting the elections in these terms may have helped the governing parties to their narrow victories. Some analysts suggest that voters, who would otherwise have opted for the Greens or Die Linke (the Left Party), supported the ruling parties for fear of the AfD coming first.

The debate about the east-west divide is deeply anti-political. It focuses solely on the question of what is wrong with east German voters – and the roughly one million AfD voters in particular – rather than on what has gone wrong with German politics as a whole. As a result, there is a great deal of snobbery in the discussion. For Brigitte Fehrle, former editor of the left-liberal Berliner Zeitung, the AfD’s success can be explained by a mixture of voters’ ‘disappointment’ and their ‘unrealistic expectations about what is possible in politics’. Sociologist Cornelia Koppetsch, author of a bestselling book on right-wing populism, describes AfD voters as a ‘cross-section of globalisation’s losers’. This is despite research finding that people who voted for the AfD in 2017 don’t see themselves as ‘losers’ of globalisation at all, and even rate their personal economic situation as above average. That AfD voters might simply hold different political values or views on climate policy, immigration and the family is rarely considered.

None of this is to say that there is no east and west divide. Most concerning is the economic weakness of the east. A report by the Halle Institute for Economic Research Productivity shows that, 30 years after reunification, productivity is still much lower in the east than in the west. Ninety-three per cent of the 500 biggest German companies have their headquarters in the west. People in the east still earn on average 20 per cent less than their western counterparts. The situation is particularly dire in rural areas, where there is a serious lack of infrastructure and public services. Even Saxony, once praised as one of the more dynamic eastern states, with its beautifully renovated cities of Dresden and Leipzig, is still heavily dependent on around €1 billion per year in subsidies from the federal government.

The key political difference between east and west Germany is that the disintegration of the mainstream political parties is far more advanced in the east. This is one of the main reasons the AfD performs best in the east. Unlike in the west, the traditional parties have never had a stable electoral base in the east. Election successes have been largely down to the popularity of individual leaders. In the west, the traditional parties are still able to rely on some form of voter loyalty. But these loyalties have been breaking down quickly in the west too, as the broader decline of the SPD illustrates.

In fact, the politics of the postwar era that gave us the two main parties was already over by the time of reunification. No one who grew up in the east will have experienced a time when it really mattered whether it was the SPD or the CDU in government. In the west, before the fall of the wall, the grand coalitions that have defined so much of the Merkel era were exceptional. Few would have claimed as they do now that the two parties were basically the same.

In 1969, Willy Brandt became the first SDP chancellor. He won the elections with his famous promise to ‘dare more democracy’. In the recent elections, Brandt’s slogan was appropriated by the AfD, which printed it on its election posters in Brandenburg. Another of the AfD’s campaign mottos was Vollendet die Wende. Die Wende refers to the post-reunification transition to liberal democracy, which the AfD promises to complete. Both slogans annoyed the representatives of Brandenburg’s SPD tremendously. But no one can claim that they weren’t cleverly chosen. Many Germans in the east rightly feel that the promises made 30 years ago – of economic growth and democracy – are yet to be properly fulfilled.

The established parties have ceded ground to the AfD by refusing to take it seriously. Instead of engaging AfD representatives in as many debates as possible, they have relied on trying to expose the party’s far-right connections. For instance, the AfD leader in Brandenburg has been accused of joining a Neo-Nazi demonstration in Greece in 2007. Though these accusations are not trivial by any means, they have only helped to strengthen the impression among AfD supporters that the established parties prefer to vilify the party morally, rather challenge it politically.

Ultimately, the desire for political change is not limited to east Germany. If the mainstream parties continue to be complacent, all voters will look elsewhere. On this front at least, the east and west might be closer than suspected.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl’s Brexit – Demokratischer Aufbruch in Großbritannien is out now.

Picture by: Getty.

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Alexander Nöthlich

12th September 2019 at 7:22 pm

It’s kind of funny, when in 1989 the people from East Germany took to the streets to call out the communist government for its disconnection from the ordinary people and what they want, they were celebrated as brave and heroic by the western elites. Rightly so, I’d say. But now, when they themselves are being called out for not knowing how those same people feel, they are being called all kinds of names to silence them. It won’t work in the long run. Sadly, the left has abandoned ordinary people for urban elites. Sahra Wagenknecht is one of the few in the left-wing party “Die Linke” who understands this but was stopped in her tracks by the environmentalist, feminist, anti-progress urban elites that hold the left hostage. That’s why many people from “Die Linke” who are against the mainstream passed directly to the AfD, which, right now, is doing a better job on being rebellious.

Gerard Barry

12th September 2019 at 8:16 pm

Absolutely. I live in Germany and it’s actually quite frightening to see how those who criticise the government (especially the government’s liberal immigration and asylum policies) are vilified. It’s like living in a sort of dictatorship

Winston Stanley

12th September 2019 at 8:31 pm

They wanted to be incorporated into western capitalist “democracy” and that is exactly what they got. It is doubtful that they understood what capitalist democracy is, and its class basis in the rule of the bourgeoise and the needs of capital. Which is ironic given that they lived under a supposedly Marxist state for 50 years. It clearly never bothered to explain the Marxist theory of the state to the East Germans. Either that or they went in rose eyed nevertheless.

Well, they are getting a practical lesson now, though it is unlikely that many of them grasp what is going on at a fundamental level. To be fair, most ppl in the west who have lived their entire lives under the capitalist state fail to get it. Ppl have all sorts of subjectivity that blinds them (eg. patriotism, socialisation, conformism), it is just a part of how human societies functions. The ideational superstructure reflects the economic base, both politically and in the ideas of the ppl.

Winston Stanley

13th September 2019 at 1:07 am

Some quotes from Marx and Engels on the class basis of the State. The state exists to further the interests of the ruling class, in our time the bourgeoisie. Hence the German state will do what suits German capital, just as the British state will do what suits British capital. That includes the migration of additional workers, whether settled workers like that or not. I have kept the quotes well brief, the texts contain much further discussion.

> Marx: The German Ideology

Material Life the Basis of the State

… The material life of individuals, which by no means depends merely on their “will”, their mode of production and form of intercourse, which mutually determine each other — this is the real basis of the state and remains so at all the stages at which division of labour and private property are still necessary, quite independently of the will of individuals. These actual relations are in no way created by the state power; on the contrary they are the power creating it. The individuals who rule in these conditions — leaving aside the fact that their power must assume the form of the state — have to give their will, which is determined by these definite conditions, a universal expression as the will of the state, as law, an expression whose content is always determined by the relations of this class, as the civil and criminal law demonstrates in the clearest possible way…

The same applies to the classes which are ruled, whose will plays just as small a part in determining the existence of law and the state. For example, so long as the productive forces are still insufficiently developed to make competition superfluous, and therefore would give rise to competition over and over again, for so long the classes which are ruled would be wanting the impossible if they had the “will” to abolish competition and with it the state and the law. Incidentally, too, it is only in the imagination of the ideologist that this “will” arises before relations have developed far enough to make the emergence of such a will possible. After relations have developed sufficiently to produce it, the ideologist is able to imagine this will as being purely arbitrary and therefore as conceivable at all times and under all circumstances.

> Marx: Communist Manifesto

The bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

> Engels: Socialism, Scientific and Utopian

And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital.

> Engels: Ludwig Feurbach and End of Classical German Philosophy

If we enquire into this, we discover that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, by the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.

But if even in our modern era, with its gigantic means of production and communication, the state is not an independent domain with an independent development, but one whose existence as well as development is to be explained in the last resort by the economic conditions of life of society… If the state even today, in the era of big industry and of railways, is on the whole only a reflection, in concentrated form, of the economic needs of the class controlling production… If the state and public law are determined by economic relations…

The more it [the state] becomes the organ of a particular class, the more it directly enforces the supremacy of that class. The fight of the oppressed class against the ruling class becomes necessarily a political fight, a fight first of all against the political dominance of this class.

> Engels to Borgius

What we understand by the economic conditions, which we regard as the determining basis of the history of society, are the methods by which human beings in a given society produce their means of subsistence and exchange the products among themselves (in so far as division of labour exists). Thus the entire technique of production and transport is here included. According to our conception this technique also determines the method of exchange and, further, the division of products, and with it, after the dissolution of tribal society, the division into classes also and hence the relations of lordship and servitude and with them the state, politics, law, etc.

> Engels: Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave-owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage-labor by capital…

Winston Stanley

13th September 2019 at 1:23 am

Engels, from the last quoted text: “OK, so lets have a fight with the capitalist state when the time comes.”

> And lastly the possessing class rules directly by means of universal suffrage. As long as the oppressed class – in our case, therefore, the proletariat – is not yet ripe for its self-liberation, so long will it, in its majority, recognize the existing order of society as the only possible one and remain politically the tail of the capitalist class, its extreme left wing. But in the measure in which it matures towards its self-emancipation, in the same measure it constitutes itself as its own party and votes for its own representatives, not those of the capitalists. Universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state; but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling-point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.

Gerard Barry

13th September 2019 at 9:28 am

Germany may be a capitalist “democracy” but it is also very left-wing in many ways, not least in its ridiculously generous, liberal, naive asylum laws. Seeing as the East Germans lived for years under a communist dictatorship, I understand why so many of them want to vote for a proper conservative party like the AfD. I get it that you think mass immigration is great and/or unavoidable, but don’t expect everyone to agree with you. In other words, you can’t have it both ways: you can’t enforce mass immigration on the people and then expect that none of them will rebel in the polling booth. That’s their democratic right.

Winston Stanley

13th September 2019 at 4:38 pm

Mass immigration is a purely capitalist policy, there is nothing “left wing” about it. Yes it probably is inevitable within the context of capitalism, which is the reality of the situation. My own subjectivity is completely irrelevant and I have no “feelings” on the matter one way or the other. Yes they can vote for who they want simply b/c that is the law as it stands and not b/c I say so, again my own subjectivity is completely irrelevant to that question, it is determining of nothing. The situation is what it is and it would continue to be did I exist or not.

Winston Stanley

12th September 2019 at 7:19 pm

Marriage in UK is gradually becoming a quaint institution for lonely ppl in their 70s?

DM today.

The end of marriage? Proportion of women who are hitched dips below 50 per cent in England and Wales while the single population SOARS

The proportion of women who are married in England and Wales has dipped below 50 per cent while the number of people who are single continues to increase.

Proportion of women married in England and Wales was 49.5 per cent in 2018
Proportion of men married also falling, dropping 1.8 per cent since 2008
Single population increased by 369,000 between 2017 and 2018 to 16.7 million

The proportion of women who are married in England and Wales has dipped below 50 per cent while the number of people who are single continues to increase.

New data published by the Office for National Statistics today shows that since 2008 the proportion of men who are married has fallen by 1.8 per cent from 53.3 per cent to 51.5 per cent.

But the number is now below 50 per cent for women, having dropped by 1.3 per cent from 50.8 per cent a decade ago to 49.5 per cent in 2018.

However, the overall size of the married population increased over the past decade because of overall increases in the size of the population.

The statistics represent a potentially landmark moment for the institution of marriage in England and Wales as the proportion of people getting hitched continues to slide.

Edward Morgan, from the Centre for Ageing and Demography at the ONS, said: ‘In England and Wales, around half of the population aged 16 years and over were married in 2018.

‘The proportion of people married has been in decline over the last decade, while the single population has been increasing.

‘However, those in their 70s and beyond are seeing a different trend where, despite a modest rise in the divorced population, the proportion of people aged 70 years and over who are married has been increasing at a greater rate.’

Overall, the proportion of the population aged 16 and over in England and Wales who are married has continued its slow fall to 50.5 per cent, down slightly on the 51 per cent recorded in 2017.

Gerard Barry

12th September 2019 at 8:18 pm

What’s that got to do with the AfD in Germany?

Winston Stanley

12th September 2019 at 8:51 pm

It is the same demographic trend. The situation in Germany fits into a wider European picture. It is important to recognise the wider patterns and the underlying common trends, as well as the local peculiarities.

Germany is blazing a trail with the incorporation of refugees into the society and economy.

The EU birth rate fell from 2.65 in 1964 to 1.44 in 1998 and it is stable at 1.59 in 2017. That is a 75.7% replenishment rate, which means that the number of births would fall to 57% in 2 generations, to 32.7% over 4 and to 18.6%, over 6 generations, of the present number. The direction is inexorably downward.

UK gets hundreds of thousands of migrants per year from EU and also from outside of the EU, six million over the last decade. So far we have not needed to rely on refugees, we get plenty of non-EU migration anyway. German has a law that non-EU migration must be high skilled, which limits its ability to get non-EU migrants. Refugees allow them to do that. We do not have that high skilled policy. The Brexit Party wants to bring it in, but BP is posturing, it is nowhere near government anyway.

UK is probably hoping that it can continue to draw in EU migration and non-refugee non-EU migration for the foreseeable.

Even if the DM article had no direct relevance to AfD, what are you going to do about it? The wider picture is interesting nevertheless.

Winston Stanley

14th September 2019 at 12:28 am

It was a mistake of custom to say “we”, obviously I meant the British capitalist state, which is obviously nothing whatsoever to do with me. I have said before that I do not “identify” with this society let alone with the British State. I bear it no allegiance and I recognise no authority or debt. Just wanted to clarify that embarrassing typo.

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