In recent years, Germany has emerged as Europe’s preeminent power not only because of the strength of its economy but also because of the extraordinary stability of its political system. Chancellor Angela Merkel is the embodiment of this stability: for most of the past decade, she has been able to govern as a centrist, unconstrained by the right-wing populist groups that have become a major force in all of Germany’s neighbors. This domestic calm allowed Merkel to focus on managing Europe’s various crises—from the negotiations over Greece’s debt to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

All of that is now changing fast, thanks mostly to the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is capitalizing on widespread discontent with Merkel’s refugee policy. Represented in ten of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments and polling at up to 15 percent nationally, the AfD is on track to enter the German Bundestag for the first time after the autumn 2017 elections.

The AfD has drawn voters from all of Germany’s major parties, but it is Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that has suffered the most damage. This month, the right-wing upstarts replaced the CDU as the second-largest party in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. That victory must have been especially sweet for the AfD leadership, which regards Merkel as a dictatorial figure who has sold out the German people to foreign interests. Indeed, removing the chancellor from office is a prime goal of the far right’s broader project to turn Germany into an illiberal, nationalist, anti-Islam, and anti-EU country. 

Within Merkel's increasingly nervous party, there has been a bitter disagreement over how to stop the AfD’s rise. The chancellor's critics have demanded that the CDU take a dramatic shift to the right to capture the AfD’s supporters. But Merkel has taken the opposite course, doubling down on the CDU’s centrism. That is the right move, but it will keep her coalition in power only if Merkel confronts the weaknesses in her refugee policy so far and addresses the insecurities that encouraged many Germans to turn to the political fringe in the first place. Nothing less than Germany’s liberal democracy and open society is at stake.

A far-right rally against German immigration policy in Berlin, March 2016.
A far-right rally against German immigration policy in Berlin, March 2016.
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS


The AfD was founded as a movement against Europe’s common currency in 2013. Since then, as more than one million asylum seekers, many of them Muslim, have entered Germany, the party has evolved into a nativist, xenophobic force that exploits and encourages popular fears of Islam and terrorism. The party’s leaders spin a tale of a Germany under siege by Muslim migrants who threaten its cohesion and culture, abetted by feckless leaders in Berlin. In fact, the party’s declaration that “Islam is not a part of Germany”—spelled out in its electoral platform—is a direct shot at Merkel, who in January 2015 made the opposite claim in an appeal to inclusivity. For the AfD, opposing Islam and rejecting Merkel go hand in hand. 

The roots of the party, however, extend beyond the current political moment. In its quest to replace pluralism and diversity with monoethnic nationalism, the AfD has revitalized some of the themes advanced by the protofascists of the interwar period, whom the historian Fritz Stern labeled “conservative revolutionaries” for their potent mixture of traditionalism with antiestablishment rage. AfD leader Frauke Petry has even called for the rehabilitation of the controversial term völkisch, or “ethnic,” which was a central concept for the nationalists of that period and later for the Nazis. The party represents the core of a broader movement to undo the social liberalization ushered in over the decades since the student protests of 1968. 

Little in the experience of Germany’s political class has prepared it for the extraordinary confluence of domestic and international challenges it now faces.

As for Germany’s foreign policy, the AfD seeks to do away with two of Berlin’s most important commitments: the first to European integration and the second to the transatlantic security alliance. The party backs the dismantling of the EU and questions Germany’s ties to NATO, calling for the ejection of U.S. troops and nuclear weapons from German soil. Like France’s National Front, it flirts with what might be called an authoritarian international, arguing for closer ties with Russia and noninterference in the domestic matters of other states. 


Not all of the Germans who voted for the AfD in recent state elections are true believers. Many of the ballots cast for the party were protest votes, signaling anger with the political establishment rather than commitment to the AfD’s cultural or political ideals. Mainstream parties can likely keep the AfD small by winning back such disaffected voters. But thanks to the AfD’s hardened core, which represents around five percent of the German electorate, it will be difficult to push the party off the national stage entirely. 

Yet that is precisely what many of Merkel’s critics within the CDU propose. According to their argument, reestablishing the CDU’s appeal to the right could make the AfD disappear. Merkel’s original sin was to move the CDU leftward, this theory goes, turning it into a modern conservative party more accepting of diversity. The critics are correct to point out that the CDU’s shift opened up space on the right for the AfD to fill. But they wrongly discount the fact that the CDU’s pivot won the party many voters in the center and that there are plenty of AfD voters who wouldn’t return to the CDU even if it reversed course. Equally important, the CDU’s moderation has made many Muslim voters comfortable with a party on the center-right for the first time in Germany’s postwar history. That a sizable number of minorities now back an organization that bills itself as Christian testifies to this progress, which in its easing of ethnic and religious cleavages is good for the CDU and healthy for German democracy. In the 2013 federal elections, Merkel managed to double the share of the Turkish German vote captured by the CDU to 20 percent. 

Those who demand that the CDU shift to the right jeopardize this progress. Consider Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn’s recent call for the elimination of dual citizenship, which would especially affect Germany’s three million residents of Turkish descent. Germans with a second passport, Spahn has suggested, are of questionable loyalty to the state.  But his proposal to deal with those citizens would surely backfire: denying Turkish Germans dual citizenship would needlessly stigmatize them, hinder their integration into German society, and do little to diminish the appeal of the AfD. If anything, it could legitimize the AfD’s ethnonationalism without giving its supporters reason to turn to moderate alternatives. 

Merkel clearly recognizes the danger of proposals of this kind. In a Berlin press conference after yet another electoral setback for the CDU on September 21, she made clear that she would oppose any suggestion that Germany should “not accept any foreigners,” particularly Muslims. “This would be against our basic law, our obligations under international law, but above all also against the ethical foundations of the CDU,” she said. The answer to the right-wing challenge, she suggested, is better governance: hard work on limiting illegal migration and improving the integration of new arrivals could “win back the trust” of frustrated Germans who voted in protest for the AfD.

AfD candidate Georg Pazderski and AfD co-leaders Frauke Petry and Joerg Meuthen in Berlin, September 2016.
AfD candidate Georg Pazderski and AfD co-leaders Frauke Petry and Joerg Meuthen in Berlin, September 2016. 
Axel Schmidt / REUTERS


Winning back the public’s trust should indeed be an urgent priority for Merkel. In 2013, when she last campaigned for reelection, her pitch to voters revolved around a trademark phrase: “You know me.” At the time, Merkel’s record of steady and competent leadership was enough to win Germany’s confidence. A year into the refugee crisis, her reservoir of political capital is nearly depleted. The chancellor’s approval ratings have plummeted to their lowest level since 2011. According to one recent poll, 82 percent of Germans support a change of course in Berlin’s refugee policy.

That dismal number is the result of a threefold failure of communication on Merkel’s part. First, by repeating her mantra “We will manage” (Wir schaffen das) in recent months without clearly acknowledging where the government’s efforts to deal with the refugee crisis fell short, Merkel seemed to gloss over serious assessments of her policies with a hollow catch phrase. Next, by arguing for her policies in moralizing terms, she alienated the many Germans who were uneasy about the massive migrant arrivals. Finally, by downplaying the significant changes she has made to Germany’s refugee policy over the past year in a misguided attempt to avoid appearing weak relative to her competitors, she made it impossible for the government to take full credit for the efforts it has made to reduce the number of migrant and refugee arrivals in Germany. Toughening Germany’s asylum laws, backing the EU-Turkey deal to reduce migrant inflows, enforcing deportations of rejected asylum seekers, increasing humanitarian spending in the wider Middle East, supporting the tighter protection of the EU’s external borders, refusing to take in the refugees stranded in Greece: had Merkel publicized these steps as part of a plan to avoid a repeat of the humanitarian emergency of September 2015, she would have made it harder for the AfD to suggest that her government has lost its grip. 

In her remarks on September 21, Merkel finally corrected some of these problems. She acknowledged the shortcomings of her policies and resolved to avoid repeating the massive migrant arrivals of 2015. She openly discussed the failure of her efforts to encourage European states to share the burden of the refugee crisis and the difficulties of integrating refugees into German society. 

Doubling down on this strategy could give Merkel a second chance. To begin with, the chancellor needs to address the diffuse, identity-based fears that have driven many Germans away from mainstream parties and toward the AfD. Her reassurance in a recent speech in the Bundestag that “Germany will remain Germany with everything we hold dear” was a clear attempt to move in this direction. But it also pointed to a deeper difficulty in Germany’s cultural politics: there is little consensus among Germans as to what, exactly, they should hold dear in the first place. To win back the trust of citizens who have grown disenchanted with Germany’s open society, then, Merkel must build on better communication with better policies. The government should process asylum claims faster to clear its current backlog and to clarify the situation of the hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals who do not know whether they will receive protection in Germany or be deported. It should invest more in the welfare of poorer Germans, who are most likely to compete with migrants for housing and jobs and may chafe at a state they believe does little for them but a lot for asylum seekers. And to better integrate new arrivals into German society, it should vastly increase the resources for education and training programs, investing in adults seeking to enter the job market and in children adjusting to their new lives. At the EU level, Berlin should put to bed its hopes for a binding quota system for refugees and learn to live with the fact that most EU states will try to limit their humanitarian commitments as much as possible. At the same time, Germany should continue to invest in European border control and work with other European states to harmonize asylum standards and processing capacities across the continent. Beyond Europe, Merkel should push other governments to follow through on their humanitarian and refugee assistance pledges by backing a system to track the commitments made at this year’s summits in Istanbul and New York. 

Time for Merkel to regain the public’s trust is running out.

As for terrorism, the AfD has thrived on Germans’ fear of attacks, especially those linked to Muslim migrants. Merkel should acknowledge that a Paris-style attack is possible in Germany to ready the public for such an eventuality and to preempt the AfD’s attempts to exploit it for political gain. According to a recent report in Der Spiegel, the AfD is already preparing a billboard campaign that it will launch in the wake of a deadly strike. Its message, displayed in capital letters, will be personal: “DANKE, FRAU MERKEL!” 


With Germany’s next federal election only a year away, time for Merkel to regain the public's trust is running out. In the coming months, the nervousness within the CDU will increase, and the chancellor’s opponents—not only in the CDU and the AfD but in all of Germany’s other parties—will seek to take advantage of her first moment of vulnerability in years. Under such circumstances, Merkel will herself be tempted to join the populist chorus. (Rhetorically, at least, she already succumbed in late August, when she demanded that all German residents with Turkish roots “develop a high degree of loyalty to our country” and promised, patronizingly, to “try to keep an open ear to their concerns” in return.)

More likely is that Merkel will stick to a positive vision over the coming year. The problem is that there is a real chance that this vision won’t be realized. Merkel has spent almost all of her political capital on refugee policy—and she did so under exceptionally favorable economic conditions and without a major terrorist attack. Even so, Germany has grown more polarized and the AfD and its dream of conservative revolution are gaining strength. It is enough to imagine how the migration crisis would play out in a Germany with high unemployment, high budget deficits, or a string of powerful terrorist attacks to appreciate the immediate risks of the country’s political moment.

The years ahead will test German leaders’ ability to beat back the far right, defend the country’s open society, and preserve political stability. Dealing with these problems will leave a second layer of difficulties, however: accommodating Germany’s social security system and industrial base—the foundations of the country’s success—to the pressures of demographic and technological change. Bold and careful leadership could indeed produce a better Germany despite these problems, and Merkel herself has said that the country will “emerge better out of this admittedly complicated period.” But little in the experience of Germany’s political class has prepared it for the extraordinary confluence of domestic and international challenges it now faces, and a less stable Germany in a weaker Europe is the more likely outcome. 

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