One of the big stories to come out of the German general election this September was the success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party that won nearly 13 percent of the vote and will now for the first time sit in the German Parliament. (It won 94 seats in the Bundestag.) Although the AfD performed only slightly better than the polls predicted, the results nevertheless came as a shock to many. Observers inside and outside the country had believed that Germany’s Nazi past had made the country immune from the rise of extremist parties seen elsewhere in the West in the last few years.
Since the AfD was created in 2013, the German political establishment has treated it as an essentially antidemocratic party. Mainstream parties, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats—who feared that the AfD could split the right in the way Die Linke has split the left since its formation in 2005—simply refused to engage with the AfD and spoke of it from the outset as if it were a neo-Nazi party like the National Democratic Party (NPD). Mainstream German politicians and media outlets describe it as demokratiefeindlich, or “hostile to democracy,” and refer to the other parties as “democratic forces” by contrast.
The AfD was formed in opposition to Merkel’s response to the euro crisis. After she reluctantly agreed to bail out Greece in the spring of 2010—though only if it implemented extreme austerity and structural reforms—many Germans feared the emergence of a “transfer union” in which fiscally responsible countries would endlessly subsidize the fiscally irresponsible. The AfD stood for an extreme version of the Christian Democrats’ own idea that countries should be responsible for their own debt—even in a currency union such as the eurozone. In short, it opposed a redistributive EU.
In the years following its creation, the AfD shifted its focus from the euro to immigration and Islam. Since the refugee crisis began in the summer of 2015, the party’
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