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The applause began as Björn Höcke, a 43-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) politician from the German state of Thuringia, took the stage at the Event Tagungs Center in Magdeburg, a city of 230,000 people in eastern Germany, last Sunday. “What an extraordinary day!” he said. “Today, we have fought like lions, my friends. Today, we begin a new chapter in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, and of German history itself!” His party, which is right wing and conservative, had just won big over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in state parliamentary elections.
The crowds yelled back with furor, and slowly the incoherent roar turned into a chant: “Merkel muß weg! (Merkel must go!)” Höcke seized the opportunity and pressed on. “Ladies and gentlemen, today we will show a red card to Mrs. Merkel’s tenure in ofﬁce! She has been the worst chancellor in German history! No one has done a worse job than this woman! We reject her! Her migration politics have broken the German constitution!”
Since 1949, the CDU has controlled the edges of what it meant to be conservative within legitimate German politics. To be a serious political party meant moving no further to the right than the CDU. But after 27 years of the CDU’s rule in Germany since 1982, the party’s support for the euro and Merkel’s immigration policies have alienated its conservative base. The AfD saw an opportunity to fill the void.
And it did. In Baden-Württemburg, a wealthy state in the southwestern corner of Germany and the home of Mercedes, Porsche, and Bosch, the party won 15 percent of the vote. And in Saxony-Anhalt, a smaller state located just west of Berlin and once a proud manufacturing base in socialist East Germany, AfD won 24 percent of the vote, after only polling around two percent in November. Citizens felt that they had been systematically ignored by the German government for more than 25 years. To them, Merkel’s Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) toward migrants made no sense, as West Germany had made no effort to welcome them into the fold since 1989. Altogether, AfD won the votes of 17.3 percent of German voters in eligible elections on Sunday, which grants the party an unexpected degree of influence in Germany’s state parliaments.
AfD was born two years ago from a fringe insurrection within the CDU against a second ﬁnancial rescue package for Greece in 2012. The party’s manifesto described the eurozone as an “unsuitable” currency area, criticized Merkel’s bailout politics for “extending and pretending” away the endemic imbalances inside the monetary union, and insisted that Germany should not be responsible for paying the debts of foreign countries. Sixty-eight German economists, journalists, and business leaders endorsed the manifesto for federal elections in 2013. But AfD has since shifted from ﬁscal heterodoxy to conservative identity politics, largely under the leadership of Höcke and the party’s ofﬁcial speaker, Frauke Petry. In July 2015, the party’s leader and principal founder, macroeconomist Bernd Lucke, was ousted from his position in favor of Petry. He resigned from the party days after, stating that the party had “fallen irretrievably into the wrong hands.” Meanwhile, Höcke and André Poggenburg of Saxony-Anhalt steered the party toward the ideology of the Erfurt Resolution, written in March 2015, that defined the party as “a movement of our people against the social experiments of the last decades (gender-mainstreaming, multiculturalism, etc.).” The party continued to attract attention through 2015 as leaders like Petry and Alexander Gauland of Brandenburg met with openly anti-Muslim groups like PEGIDA, whose members Gauland described as “natural allies” of the party.
Meanwhile, increasing resentment of migrants, 1.1 million of whom have entered Germany since the beginning of 2015, has given AfD a signiﬁcant boost in the polls. Just seven months ago, AfD polled at two percent in Saxony-Anhalt. Three weeks ago, it polled at 17 percent. But on Sunday, the party won 24 percent of the votes in Saxony-Anhalt, 15 percent in Baden-Württemburg, and 12 percent in Rheinland-Pfalz, more than doubling the number of AfD politicians holding office in state parliaments from 40 to 101.
This outcome was nearly unthinkable. The AfD had struggled to ﬁnd legitimacy among mainstream German voters, particularly as protests around the country have linked the AfD’s support for closed borders to Nazism and genocidal racism, both highly taboo topics in German political culture. Loud protests against the party have been a common sight in both small towns and big cities across Germany this year, whether in politically charged Berlin or even the small town of Breisach in the Rhine Valley, where over 800 protestors demonstrated against AfD last weekend.
Sunday’s elections suggest that AfD has managed to overcome some of these associations. There are still detractors, however. At a party to celebrate AfD’s victory in Saxony-Anhalt, two AfD candidates were scrambling to remove a 98-foot Nazi banner that an unknown person had hung from the fourth-ﬂoor exterior of the building. It was not clear whether the person who posted the banner was a supporter or an opponent of the party.
SENDING A MESSAGE
Twenty-six years after national reuniﬁcation, the former East German states, including Saxony-Anhalt, have seen their economies stagnate and their populations drain. For many, memories of “the good old days” exert a strong pull.
“Expectations after the fall of the Berlin Wall and national reuniﬁcation in 1990 were enormous. People in East Germany wanted to create more prosperity for themselves and for future generations. The [West German] government promised ‘blooming landscapes’ within just a few years,” said 12 German economists in a report from DIW Berlin, Germany’s leading economic research center. But “the promise quickly proved to be an illusion. From a purely economic perspective, mistakes were made.”
Income and productivity in eastern Germany have not converged with the rates in the West, and so highly skilled workers leave. In fact, of the 14 administrative units that Saxony-Anhalt comprises, more than half have seen their populations decrease 10–20 percent since 1990; seven have seen their populations decline about 21–38 percent since 1990.
Today, the citizens of eastern Germany are looking to political alternatives for a prosperous future, which has crystallized into broad swaths of support for AfD. Although migration from east to west has stabilized since the early 1990s, when nearly 300,000 left the states of the former DDR every year, eastern Germany has seen 60,000 leave its half of the country each year on average since 2001. The young have been the quickest to leave the east, and the percentage of the population below the age of 34 has decreased from 46.3% to 34% since 1991. AfD’s party leader in Saxony-Anhalt, André Poggenburg, described the eastern demographic drain as “a threat to our social state.” His supporters in Saxony-Anhalt told me that AfD could once again revive the “social structures” that once promised work and prosperity for all East Germans, but had been destroyed in the past fifteen years of neoliberal reform.
Klaus, a 44 year-old landlord from Halle, in Saxony-Anhalt, used to be a supporter of Merkel’s CDU party, but has become increasingly fed up with what he calls “the destruction of German society.” He told me that he was on a trip to the United States recently. “I spent some time in Brooklyn. What I saw there, I do not want here in Germany, these parallel societies of different races,” he said. “I saw so many black people without homes, some with only one eye, wandering the streets. They clearly had no health insurance and no one to protect them. I do not want this in Germany, but I can see that it is coming.” He called Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to multiculturalism “naive” and doubted that the CDU’s neoliberal fiscal politics would be able to provide sufficient protection for citizens’ well-being, despite Merkel’s humanitarianism. This has led him to consider an alternative: Alternative for Germany.
“We had a good life in East Germany. We were not rich, but we had work, and we were happy. I think this is now over.” Klaus, like many in eastern Germany, idealize socialism and its employment benefits, even at the expense of forgetting how difficult it was to buy basic goods with comparatively worthless wages.
Klaus drove me through Magdeburg over the weekend. Just ten minutes away from City Carré, one of two new malls built in the city since reuniﬁcation, he showed me rows of crumbling buildings and apartment complexes. Heavy industry, a mainstay of the days before German unification, has vanished. The demographic consequences of industrial flight have crippled the small communities throughout eastern Germany.
“How much longer can we afford streets in remote and sparsely populated towns? How will we ﬁnd doctors and teachers for rural regions? Where will our citizens be able to even buy basic goods in the future?” wrote Hartmut Augustin, chief editor of Saxony-Anhalt’s newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, in an editorial published on the day of the state parliamentary elections.
The AfD has succeeded by taking advantage of these vulnerabilities. Yet it remains to be seen if the party has much of a plan to cure eastern Germany’s economic malaise. The details are easily forgotten in the midst of “Merkel must go” and “Multiculturalism in Germany—this we reject!”
SYMBOLISM AND IDEALISM
Sunday’s elections are a largely symbolic win for AfD. State parliaments have little to no say over federal migration politics, and they are usually charged with responsibility only for state education and transportation. But the vote has been rightly interpreted as a referendum on the status quo in Germany, as well as Merkel’s tenure in ofﬁce. Her belief in European solutions, cemented during the years of the eurozone ﬁnancial crises, is proving unpopular—even among Germany’s centrist, pro-European voters, who see their society stretched to the limits to accommodate refugee and migrant populations.
Never before has a right-wing party presented itself as a genuine conservative alternative to Merkel’s CDU. Nor has such a party garnered the support that the AfD achieved in recent elections. AfD’s big win in Saxony-Anhalt, along with modest successes in Baden-Württemburg and Rheinland-Pfalz, could change the shape of mainstream politics in Germany for a long time to come.