In Berlin

Lorna Finlayson

On Sunday, 27 May, supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gathered in the centre of Berlin. Founded in 2013, the AfD has quickly amassed sizeable support. Were an election held today, the party would probably get 14 per cent of the vote. The parallels between the AfD and Ukip – or, rather, Ukip before its sudden, post-Brexit decline – are striking. Like Ukip, the AfD has its roots in nationalist, anti-EU sentiment. It opposes the perceived dominance of Brussels and the bailout of the banks. Like Ukip, it combines social conservatism with more or less explicit xenophobia and racism. Like Ukip, it contains openly fascist elements. And, like Ukip, it draws energy from the sense of abandonment, resentment and despair bred by neoliberalism and austerity.

Skiving off an academic conference, I went with a friend to take part in the counter-demonstration. After navigating a series of police cordons, we eventually spotted our opponents. Across the Spree, we saw a river of black, red and gold flags, held aloft. We traced the AfD march along the opposite bank for a few minutes, then stopped and waited as it made its way over the bridge. After a few more minutes, it began to peter out. The counter-demonstrators were shouting: ‘Nazis raus!’; ‘AfD, in the Spree!’; ‘There is no right to Nazi propaganda!’

According to police estimates, there were five thousand AfD demonstrators. The estimate for the number of counter-demonstrators was between twenty and twenty-five thousand. A comment piece in Die Zeit concluded that ‘the AfD demo and the numerically much stronger counter-protests show that political discourse is functioning.’ But although we may have outnumbered the AfD by five to one, the comparison is not like-for-like.

The AfD demonstrators represented a hard core, many of them travelling hundreds of miles from Bavaria and other regions to be in Berlin. For every AfD demonstrator on Sunday, there were doubtless many more nodding along at home.

The counter-demonstrators made a point of having more fun: techno music, beer, weed, dancing and semi-nudity in the hot Berlin sun. Nothing wrong with that. But their oppositional stance is officially shared by the main political parties in Germany, and it was difficult to see them as the visible manifestation of a firm and further-reaching bedrock of commitment to resist all that the AfD and Pegida – the so-called ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West’ – represent.

Besides the tendency to underplay the AfD’s numerical support – they outperformed both the radical left party Die Linke and the Greens at the last federal election – there is a corresponding danger of mistaking the party’s qualitative character. A report in Die Welt, for example, offered an apparently miscellaneous list of things the AfD is purportedly against: corruption, the EU, neoliberalism, immigrants. This helps to obscure the fact that the AfD, like Ukip, is first and foremost a vehicle of anti-immigrant – and, above all, Islamophobic and anti-Arab – sentiment.

The dimension of the AfD’s stance most often singled out for comment is its anti-Semitism: one of its leading figures, Björn Höcke, called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a ‘monument of shame in the heart of the capital’, and argued that Germans should stop atoning for Nazi guilt. The CDU general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that the AfD represents a ‘threat to Jewish life in Germany’. The AfD’s Jörg Meuthen responding by simply reversing the charge: the CDU’s policy of ‘unconditional mass immigration from the Islamic world’, he said, is the real threat to German Jews. The charge of anti-Semitism carries enough weight to be worth making, and worth flinging back. The charge of Islamophobia does not, so thoroughly has the demonisation of Muslims been absorbed into the European political mainstream. Whatever the electoral fates of such far-right parties as Ukip and the AfD, the wider effects of the normalisation of the attitudes they represent should not be underestimated.


  • 1 June 2018 at 5:35am
    farthington says:
    So what is the German estsblishment and Brussels doing about the adverse consequences of its neoliberalist agenda?
    Nothing of course. It will continue to reinforce it.
    The EU project is a manifest failure - Greece's dismantlement as Exhibit A.
    One can't continue to look to the Far Right's electoral success as purely built on racism and anti-immigration.
    The current scenario in Italy is representative.
    If only the populist masses were not so stupid, ignorant and selfish!
    They should know their place and take their medicine.
    Better still, they should be deprived of the vote until they learn some manners.

  • 5 June 2018 at 9:00pm
    pulexobtusa says:
    Finlayson states "the parallels between the AfD and UKIP are rather striking". So perhaps it will also fizzle out.
    But the single big mistake is to oppose parties like AFD and UKIP on the doctrinaire grounds that they are simply bad. That approach was what led to UKIP gaining ground. It's crucial to address the points they make one by one. In England especially the debate descended into 'immigration is good' or 'immigration is bad'. But try asking a UKIPPER who is going to wipe their backside when they go into a nursing home, who is going to pick their carrots in the bleak winter fields of Lincolndhire, or ask them how NHS hospitals staffed 90% by immigrants will continue, then you force them onto the back foot.

    There needs to be exculpation too. There is no question at all that the Brexit vote was lost on immigration, and the single most important factor was Blair's govt's decision in 2004 to forego the EU's offer to existing countries of a 7 yr moratorium on migration for employment from the new Eastern European member states. Instead, Blair just waved them all in. Labour has never owned up to this disastrous error. Similarly Merkel made a terrible error in waving in 1m immigrants, in her desperate attempt to show the humane face of a country that is still being pilloried for its past 70 yr's after the war ended. She needs to own up to this. Actions have consequences. So let's just stop berating AfD for being AfD and confront them on their issues head on.

  • 5 June 2018 at 10:37pm
    Chrisdf says:
    The new US ambassador to Germany has just said he hopes to empower far-right political partes in Europe

    • 6 June 2018 at 11:25am
      Remonstrater says: @ Chrisdf
      Would you be kind enough to provide the direct quote and source in which Richard Grenell stated that he wanted to "empower far-right political parties in Europe"? The statement I read went as follows: "I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders." Unless, of course, one makes no distinction between "conservative" and "far right", in which case one can only be on the "far left".

  • 5 June 2018 at 10:39pm
    Chrisdf says:

  • 6 June 2018 at 10:47am
    Remonstrater says:
    First, a couple of questions for Lorna Finlayson: 1) Can you read German? 2) If you can, and do, why do I have the impression when reading your text that you know and understand rather little about the AfD - especially odd, since your supercilious tone strongly suggests that you have a better understanding of "the party’s qualitative character", as you put it, than, for example, the hopeless amateurs at the newspaper, Die Welt (an amateurishness revealed by their “apparently miscellaneous list of things the AfD is purportedly against”)? An ill-disposed reader of your piece might get the impression that by chance you were in Berlin for a conference, heard about the demonstration(s),decided to go along and join the fray (naturally, with the "good guys", i.e., the have-a-good-time guys), then dashed off the above piece, implicitly presenting yourself as some kind of authority on the AfD, without being anything of the kind. But, as I said, one would need to be an ill-disposed reader to gain that impression... (By the way: I have lived in Berlin for more than 15 years and follow German politics assiduously.)

  • 11 June 2018 at 11:43am
    manchegauche says:
    An ill-disposed reader of your comment, Remonstrater, might get the impression that you are, in fact, an AfD fellow traveller.

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