The fact is that even in Germany, for the first time in post-war history, a radical right-wing party—Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD)—has entered the national parliament and is the third-largest party. The political earthquake has its roots not in the economy, but in a cultural backlash, based on a fear of migration and refugees. In its short history, the AfD has rapidly morphed from being a ‘professors’ party’ of Eurosceptic economists to one focused on nationalist conservatism and anti-migration policies, similar to other European radical populist parties. For the first time, the populists sought to use an international occasion in order to get domestic support. In fact, they were unified in the wish “to Trumpify European politics” – at least in terms of a political marketing effect (Hartleb 2017).

The German case

For a long time, Germany seemed to be a European exception. Differently to all of its neighbouring countries, from the Netherlands via Austria to Poland – two obstacles seemed to stand in the way of support for right-wing populist parties. Because populism in Germany has to operate in a historically encumbered environment, the media have developed a fear of contact with it, which prevents any unconstrained debate and constantly exposes the right-wing parties to the risk of being linked with National Socialism. A second major obstacle to success is posed by stigmatization and the parties’ inability to establish themselves as a political force. A further difficulty facing the German parties in particular is that they exert an irresistible appeal for groupings and sub-cultural milieus within the ultra-right camp. Even moderate representatives of right-wing populism are not immune to being infiltrated by ultra-right individuals and groupings seeking to escape political isolation.

Founded in 2013 in opposition to further Eurozone bailouts by liberal-conservative economists, the AfD has since moved further to the radical-right, and the party campaigned primarily on an anti-immigration and anti-Islam message in the run-up to the 2017 election. The AfD website features pictures of German towns and cities with the slogan: "It's about us, our culture, our home, our Germany." The party has used more explicit and controversial slogans and posters too, including those proclaiming "Get your country back!" Others have called for "bikinis instead of burkas", referring to the full-body covering some Muslim women wear, and "Islam does not fit our kitchen" on a poster depicting a piglet, referring to Islam's dietary prohibition of pork. After the AfD narrowly failed to gain representation in the 2013 Bundestag elections (4.7 per cent with the threshold being 5 per cent ), the party has become an even stronger vote-getter as a result of the refugee crisis and the radicalization process – it became the major protest option against the “refugee-welcome” euphoria in autumn and winter 2015. A long-term alienation of the society is visible – independently from the fact that government took measures at both the national and European level to cope with the challenge. The slogan “uns geht es so gut wie nie zuvor“ (we’ve never had it so good) could not convince all parts of society. In other terms, to paraphrase former American President Bill Clinton: it´s migration, stupid. The grand coalition formed by the CDU and SPD in 2013 has been to the detriment of both parties. Due to the CDU’s centrist course (not only in the migration policy, also in terms of gender and gay rights), part of Germany’s conservative voter base has inevitably decamped further to the right.

In eastern German society, where entire demographic groups have drifted into anomie due to the pace and circumstances of systemic change, the potential for a party or movement from the right is probably higher than average. Despite positive factors such as economic growth and a high quality of infrastructure, education etc., part of the society feels alienated. In Eastern Germany, the party is highly successful – independent from their links with the radical right. In Saxony, a Land which has been dominated by CDU since 1990, the AfD’s 27.0 % made it the strongest force in the national elections. It indicates that almost two decades after the unification, Germany has two different electorates. The sensitive fact is the phenomenon of an “hostility against foreigners without having foreigners”, as the “Pegida” phenomenon in Dresden revealed. It would be of course misleading to portray the AfD alone as an East German creation. In Bavaria, where the CSU has highly successfully integrated the populist right, the AfD managed third place (whereas the CSU fell to the lowest score since 1949 with 38.8 %). The AfD has no structure and or well-known candidates in Bavaria, whereas the CSU tried to constantly attack the welcome-culture policies of Angela Merkel and its sister party CDU. 

This February, AfD deputies from Germany’s regional parliaments visited Crimea and expressed support for the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. AfD pledged to take action to lift the EU sanctions imposed on Russia. The German federal government condemned the trip and statements made. Here AfD deputies are seen visiting the Crimean Tatar history, culture and archaeology museum housed in Bakhchisaray Palace. Photo: TASS/Scanpix

The increasing influence of radical and extreme right forces has resulted in radical party chairwoman Frauke Petry (who replaced moderate Bernd Lucke, a more technocratic professor of economics) becoming herself the target of inner party attacks. Paradoxically, she is now the one calling for moderation and it is her leadership that is now being questioned by radical nationalist currents in the party. She argued with her new husband, the Pro-Russian Markus Pretzell, both Member of European Parliament and the Parliament of Lower Saxony (which reflects a lack in the German constitution), that she would enable the AfD to take part in future coalition governments, both on a regional and national level. An increasing number of influential party members see her as a threat to the core of the AfD, namely its anti-establishment character. Björn Höcke, leader of the Thuringian AfD and right-wing stance within the party, who has strong links to the intellectual circles of German New Right nationalism, has openly called for ending the “cult of guilt” around the Holocaust. Instead, in Höcke’s view, Germany needs to take a more “positive” attitude toward its history. Even if the party leadership reacted by instituting procedures to remove Höcke, he has stayed on and become a powerful figure, winning a battle against Frauke Petry, who stepped aside. The party wants to provoke (as an internal strategic paper for the election campaign revealed), including targeted attacks against the German “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. The established parties regularly fall next to the traditional media in the populist trap in giving all attention to AfD in blaming them as a “shame on Germany” or “new Nazis”, or for “attacking the voters”. How difficult this is demonstrated by the top candidate for the national election, Alice Weidel, who has been called the prototype of a cosmopolitan young professional: fluent in Mandarin, she lived in China for six years and worked for Goldman Sachs. Holding a PhD in economics (on a grant from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung), where she was supervised by one of Lucke’s early supporters, the 38-year-old is portrayed as symbolizing the continuing importance of ordo-liberalism in the party (as the whole project once started under Lucke). Weidel, who represents a homophobic party, is herself in a relationship with a woman, with whom she is raising two adopted children. The other top candidate, Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old former CDU state secretary, has been a fervent supporter of Höcke and his New Right nationalism. In addition, he stands for a close connection with Putin´s Russia, typical for parties such as Front National and FPÖ. Gauland also said that Crimea is officially reunited with Russia “in the wake of 2014’s peaceful exercise in democratic self-determination” ( 2017).  In the fall of 2015, he met in St. Petersburg with members of Putin’s political party, United Russia. Similar to its counterparts, the AfD is using professional social media strategies including manipulation via social bots and trolls. AfD supporters used the hashtag #Wahlbetrug (“election fraud”) throughout the last week of campaigning. The traffic was not organic, but boosted by a network of automated “bot” accounts which operates largely in Russian ( 2017). In their elections, the AfD also addressed the Russian-German community. In the Berlin elections, they printed their flyers in Russian. The AfD has estimated that about a third of its support comes from Russian-speaking voters, several million of whom have settled in Germany since the 1980s; they now make up as much as 5% of the population. The AfD thus had no difficulty in attracting Russian-speakers not only to join the party but also to run for office. In the region of Lower Saxony, for instance, three out of the party’s top 12 candidates for parliament were native Russian speakers ( 2017).

A first look at the exit polls can help us to better understand the election result. A significant number of voters switched from the centrist CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, to the AfD. The AfD also attracted many voters who previously voted for the centre-left SPD, and most surprisingly perhaps from the far-left Die Linke. However, the largest number of new AfD voters did not cast a ballot in the previous federal elections. Far from just attracting disgruntled voters from other parties, the AfD was also able to mobilize a significant number of previous non-voters. The electoral success of the AfD can thus be seen in part as the result of mobilizing individuals who have previously been disaffected due to a lack of a political “voice” in the party system. At the same time, centrist and left-wing voters were also more likely to cast a ballot due to the polarisation of the party system brought about by the emergence of a new party on the far right. It remains to be seen whether the rise of the AfD will lead to a long-term shift to the right in German politics. In general, AfD voters are less attached to the party and vote for it less out of conviction than voters for the other parties (Hoerner/Hobolt 2017).

Various studies have shown, in contrast to the popular “losers of modernization thesis”, that the majority of AfD voters are economically successful members of the middle class. Thus, some argue, the basis for the AfD’s rise is neither a fear of economic globalisation nor economic need, but a perceived lack of positive national self-consciousness and a perceived decline of German cultural identity (Göpffarth 2017). Many voters still see the AfD as the only political force that has continuously opposed Merkel, be it in terms of their policies on the economy and migration, or by standing up for German sovereignty and identity in times of social change and perceived crises. As long as this is the case, the party will continue to play an important role in German politics and remain a means to ensure the influence of far right ideas on mainstream politics. The refugee-welcome culture with the shadow of dangers for security will therefore have a long- impact.

What is clear is that the AfD is now an established part of the German political landscape. Even if it is now in relative decline, the party is today in 13 out of 16 state parliaments. With the faction in Bundestag, they receive state funding, which they can use to build up a stable network. The biggest enemy is the party itself. In almost all of its unit in the Länder, the party is dealing with personal clashes, struggles over the party line and the general political goals beyond just protest. Because right-wing populist challengers previously stood no chance in Germany, it is not surprising that the AfD, which has hit the ground running, has become a haven for various strands of the political radical right which seemed to have won the battle over the liberal-conservative wings who have already left the party.

At the 30th annual congress of the CDU in Berlin in February, members of a wing of the CDU protested against the “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats. The coalition has since received the blessing of members from both parties. Photo: SIPA/Scanpix


The Europe-wide success of new parties is, in many ways, astonishing considering their lack of resources, members and, to some extent, traditions. The latter factor has become less important because of anti-elitist tendencies in the media, the public’s attraction to new and unconventional parties, and the logic of the media systems themselves (e.g. the popularity of talk shows and pithy slogans, and the arrival of social media). Furthermore, the new parties sometimes have creative financing tools, or entrepreneurs as sponsors. The anti-establishment parties have frequently achieved this success by breaking up the elite’s commitment to consensus and disrupting the classical method of reaching compromises in meetings, parliaments, summits and so on. As the polarisation between establishment parties decreases (as in Germany due to a grand coalition and a consensus on the refugee topic), the anti-establishment parties are able to gain more electoral support.

The fast-growing character of anti-establishment projects also leads to internal rivalries about the course being taken, the issues covered and so on, as has been the case from the beginning for the AfD. Personal scandals cast doubt on the claim that the parties will clean up corrupted politics. However, due to the protest character of these parties, such scandals may not automatically endanger or damage the whole project. Many experts agree that politicians and social establishments have already accommodated the radicals among immigrants for far too long, saying that they have overlooked the cultural conflict between orthodox Islam and libertarian European societies where, for example, women are emancipated (Cuperus 2011). The refugee crisis strengthens this argument in many regards, due to the associated fear of terrorism, increased crime (also from European communities against immigrants) and the difficult integration in the labour market (due to limited skills not only in terms of language), not to mention that many refugees come from an Islamic culture.

How difficult the government-building process is can also be observed after the national elections in Germany on 24 September 2017. There has been a clear break with the old “Bonn model“ of a two-party coalition between a bigger and smaller partner. Due the fact that – differently to the Netherlands and Scandinavia – minority governments are not part of the national political culture, only two options remained: the unpopular “big coalition“ between the CDU/CSU and the weakened Social Democrats for a third time (which the SPD’s top candidate and party chairman Martin Schulz immediately excluded ,costing him dearly in influence after the coalition negotiations) or a so called “Jamaika“-coalition between CDU/CSU, the Liberals (who made a comeback in the Bundestag) and the Greens. The new unpopular big coalition with a divided SPD in this question will increase the number of opportunities for the AfD, which uses the new Bundestag for provocations. The Berlin republic has an unwelcome guest which has dramatically shaken the party system – in times where the German economy is booming. This will continue: As the great Timothy Garton Ash puts it “The last thing that Germany – and Europe – need is a grand coalition” (Ash 2018). The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the debate about its causes is definitely not over.


Ash, Timothy Garton (2018): The last thing that Germany - and Europe - need is a grand coalition, in: The Guardian, 23 February,

Cuperus, René (2011): Der populistische Dammbruch. Die niederländischen Volksparteien unter Druck, in: Friso Wielenga/Florian Hartleb (eds.): Populismus in der modernen Demokratie, Die Niederlande und Deutschland im Vergleich, 163-178, Münster etc.

Göpffarth, Julian (2017): The rise of Germany’s AfD: From ordoliberalism to new right nationalism and into the Bundestag?, Blog, London School of Economics, 27 June, (accessed on 15 October 2017).

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Hartleb, Florian (2017): Die Stunde der Populisten. Wie sich unsere Politik trumpetisiert und was wir dagegen tun können. Wochenschau-Verlag: Schwalbach/Ts.

Hoerner, Julian M./Hobolt, Sara (2017): The AfD succeeded in the German election by mobilising non-voters on the right, Blog, London School of Economics, 29th September, (accessed on 15 October 2017).

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Political expert and lecturer Florian Hartleb defended his doctorate on the topic of right and left populism at Chemnitz University of Technology. Hartleb has served as a research fellow at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Berlin. He is a frequent commentator for numerous TV channels and newspapers. He recently pursued studies at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College in Hamburg.