Conservative parties in the Federal Republic of Germany are cautious, stodgy machines — and yet they have been for decades among the most successful political entities in Europe. In alternance with the moderate-left Social Democrats, and sometimes in national-unity coalitions with them, they have helped steer Europe's largest economy and ensure Germany's place as the anchor, together with France, of a political alliance at the heart of a peaceful, prosperous continent.
This quiet approach —perfectly summed up by the 1957 party slogan "Keine Experimente!", No experiments! — has kept the conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), long at the helm of the German government. But now that stable if uninspiring model — the slang verb merkeln, modeled after the Chancellor and meaning "to just sit there doing nothing," recently made it into the dictionary —is threatened by the emergence of a far-right party that is reaching back into Germany's dark past.
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), or "Alternative for Germany," is gaining consensus by focusing on, and demonizing, the biggest issue these days in the country and in the rest of Europe: immigration. AfD is still small fry politically. But its critical stance towards Merkel's welcoming migration policy is gaining sympathizers as Germans grapple with almost 1.1 million new migrants inside their borders.
Unrest towards the influx has risen in the first months of 2016. Last fall, new migrants brought mostly by a surge in refugees from Syria were welcomed by applauding groups in train stations across the country. But cracks in the longstanding Willkommenskultur, the "culture of welcome" shared by most Germans, were on display last month, when a group of protesters screamed at a bus of refugees arriving in the Saxon town of Clausnitz, "Go home!" and "We are the people!" — the latter a slogan recycled from the mass demonstrations that helped bring down the Communist government of East Germany in 1989.
Days later, a hotel being converted into a shelter for refugees in the town of Bautzen, a two-hour drive from Clausnitz, also in the former East Germany, was destroyed by arson. Onlookers cheered and celebrated.
AfD's poll numbers are stunning the political establishment. According to a poll from Germany's biggest daily newspaper Bild, it now has the support of 17 percent of voters in the eastern German state of Saxony - Anhalt, where important state parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday. The party was polling at only 2 percent in September. Overall, it would place third in the state, far behind Angela Merkel's CDU at 30 percent and just a percentage point behind the leftist Die Linke. But it would be ahead of the Social Democrats, the center-left party that has been a mainstay of German politics for decades.
"AfD works because they have found a voting base with the losers of globalization who have not joined the Social Democrats," a high-level official in the European Parliament's Party of European Socialists, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, told VICE News.
"So long as Merkel fails to deliver a comprehensive political platform on refugees, migration, and integration, AfD will benefit."
The party has taken quick advantage of unrest towards migrants and a failure to coordinate migrant burden-sharing across the European Union. Merkel first supported a common EU solution to Europe's refugee crisis in the fall of 2015. She has seen little success.
Austria's unilateral choice last month to cap daily asylum requests has made AfD's euroskeptic and nationalistic approach to migration politics all the more appealing, as Germany may admit another 1 million migrants in 2016 alone.
"Merkel stands alone with her migration and refugee politics," AfD leader Dr. Frauke Petry said on German television last week. "Germany has had enough."
A chemist from Saxony - Anhalt, Petry sparked uproar in late January when she said border police should, when all options were exhausted, shoot migrants, including refugees, attempting to illegally cross into Germany.
"So it stands in the law," she said.
Frauke Petry at a press conference in Berlin in 2015. Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka/EPA
Employing this sort of language in politics is more serious in Germany than anywhere else. Germany has been a model of liberal democracy for over six decades, but the ghosts of a genocidal past still dwell in the country. Its books, its movies, and its political life continue to focus on guilt to a degree unseen in other countries.
Then again, no history is really quite like Germany's, where Nazi references are a crime and people are prosecuted for making the Hitler salute.
AfD is working hard to distance itself from the political vocabulary of the extreme right of the 1930s, which still causes opprobrium in mainstream Germany. Internal party registration documents seen by VICE News require that new members be checked against current or previous membership in any right-wing extremist organization. AfD is following a similar strategy to what Marine Le Pen did with the very right-wing, and very successful, Front National in France: expel the radicals who embody the link to outright fascism.
Yet AfD's ties to racist ideas are obvious. A prominent party member, Björn Höcke, spoke only last year of genetic differences between Europeans and Africans that make the latter reproduce more. The party has neither expelled nor reprimanded him.
As AfD climbs in the polls, it has sparked vociferous protest. An AfD event in Frankfurt was met with nearly 200 protesters last week, not a small number in a normally sleepy city. The event, a lecture on political correctness, was chaired by the party's candidate for upcoming municipal elections in early March, the 63-year-old dentist Dr. Dr. Rainer Rahn. (It's not a typo: Rahn has two academic titles, and Germans make a point of listing all of their qualifications before their names.)
"[Their success] is very shocking ... And this worries us all"
The party is still clearly unequipped for political combat at this level. lt lacks large-scale organization across Europe's biggest country; its headquarters in the German state of Hessen, population six million, is a second-floor apartment in southeastern Frankfurt. The neighbors are annoyed.
And as Dr. Dr. Rahn shuffled into the conference hall, guarded by police, no AfD militants were on hand to drown out the chants by the ANTIFA hard-left group: "Frankfurt Nazi free!" "There is no right to Nazi propaganda!" "Hear it loud, hear it clear, refugees are welcome here!"
"Most of the strategy behind the very loosely and thinly organized AfD is copy-pasted from the more experienced and professional extreme-right wing parties of Austria and France," said an electoral strategist for the Party of European Socialists, the moderate-left aggregation in the European Parliament. "Both countries have considerably popular far-right parties. They have proper organizations and tested messaging strategies that have gone through decades of trial and error," added the strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss a subject viewed as very sensitive in the European Parliament.
AfD may be politically immature, but it is hitting a vulnerable nerve in German politics. As the German political elite continues to dismiss AfD's legitimacy — not always in the polite terms of typical German debate: Gunther Oettinger, a high-level European Union commissioner and former president of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, said he would shoot himself immediately if Petry was his wife — the party is growing. The country's most influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, called Petry "a spreader of hate" and AfD "a dangerous party" on a February cover. But as migrants continue to pour into Germany, Petry sees an opening.
And in Frankfurt's local elections last Sunday, she clearly delivered on that opening. Dr. Dr. Rahn and his party took 13 percent of votes in the usually center-left city. AfD now ranks as the third most powerful party in the state of Hessen. Elke Tafel-Stein, a member of the centrist Free Democrats in Frankfurt, said she had not thought it possible that "such a right-wing populist party could be popular in liberal Frankfurt."
Germany may have a long tradition of leftist protest movements, but it has never really faced far-right political parties invoking racist language and breaking past the CDU/CSU stranglehold on German conservative politics. Regional and local elections this month are increasingly showing the limits of tolerance in a Western democracy — one, however, in which some citizens see their national identity under siege. AfD is leading the charge to exploit their uneasiness. But with what implications for German politics, and the German identity, is an open question.
"[Their success] is very shocking," Eva Hoegl, vice-chairwoman of the Social Democrats in the German federal parliament, or Bundestag, said to German broadcaster ARD on Monday. "And this worries us all given that three important state parliament elections will take place this coming Sunday." Those elections will take place in two states from former West Germany — North Rhine - Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg — and Saxony - Anhalt in the ex-Communist eastern part of the country.
"Elections are about more than proving a point. They are too important. They are about shaping our society and our democracy," she said. "If AfD wins double digits in the regional elections, and even someday in Bundestag elections, our society will be transformed in a very negative way."