Meet the Party Germany Just Put in Parliament

Alternative for Germany plays to the worst impulses of the country’s history, and Angela Merkel let them win.

By John Vinocur

Frauke Petry, right, with Alexander Gauland, left, and Alice Weidel, center, prior to a press conference of the Alternative for Germany, AfD, in Berlin on Monday. Photo: Michael Sohn/Associated Press

“Nazi” is the foulest word in the German language. It shouts horror, depravity, war. Other countries have started to find ways to joke about it over the past generation, as with the Soup Nazi character who tyrannized lunch customers on the 1990s American television comedy “Seinfeld.” Not the Germans, for whom the wretched memory of the 1930s and ’40s still stokes fears about the true national character.

But the N-word is now spoken out loud, a warning flare concerning the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s entry into the Bundestag in Sunday’s national election. That the party is now the third-largest group in parliament dims the beacon of global leadership Chancellor Angela Merkel once claimed Germany held up for the world. The beacon already was flickering after financial trickery at Deutsche Bank and environmental scandals at Volkswagen .

The AfD leadership calls for pride in the “achievements” of German soldiers in two world wars and an official end to forced German historical “shame”; it says Islam has no place in the country, and that the Quran inspires terrorism; and it has found room for candidates who have been blatantly anti-Semitic or seek an end to Europe’s ethnic diversification. Add anti-NATO, anti-American, anti-European Union and pro-Russian views.

Yet they come in an almost-respectable-seeming package, which may be why the Interior Ministry in a country that otherwise bans hate groups has called the AfD merely “right-wing populist.”

Others are tougher. “For the first time since the Reichstag in 1945,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, said recently, “real Nazis will be standing at the speakers’ podium” in the parliament.

A one-word answer came from Ton Nijhuis, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Netherlands’ German Institute, when he was asked Sunday night on Dutch television whether Nazis were being elected in Germany: “Yes.”

For Heinrich August Winkler, the historian whose books are the standard work in Germany on its postwar integration into Western democracy, the rise of the AfD has a miserably familiar look. In an interview on Sunday with Die Welt, he said:

“The AfD embodies such a mass of right-wing radical/reactionary tendencies that can be seen as parallels to the German nationalists who, in opposing the Weimar Republic before 1933, prepared the way for the National Socialists,” the official name of the Nazi party.

Alexander Gauland, who led the AfD ticket, denies any such link. But after more than 50 years keeping right-wing extremism out of a central political role, the party’s result is a historical breakthrough. It could turn out to be a blow to Germany’s stability, and another blow to the self-confidence of the West.

Who’s to blame? Jakob Augstein, a columnist for Der Spiegel and son of the magazine’s founder, has written, “Angela Merkel is the mother of the monster. It was on her watch that the Nazis came into the Bundestag.”

He’s not wrong. Once described in another context by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as behaving more like the United Nations secretary-general than the chancellor, Mrs. Merkel refused to fight the AfD head-on during the election, choosing to sell her everything’s-great-in-Germany routine instead.

Certain to retain her chancellorship in a new government, she will continue to steer clear of a confrontation, saying she wants to win back AfD voters (many of whom are enraged about her opening Germany’s frontiers to a million Muslim refugees) through “good politics.”

Fat chance. This is the noncombattant Mrs. Merkel who also says that there is no military solution to crises in Crimea, Syria and eastern Ukraine. Tell that to Russia.

Mr. Winkler, the historian, bemoans what he calls, as if it were disappearing, “the old Federal Republic” of the West. And the new one?

Fourteen months ago, when the AfD was scoring about 11% in the polls (they won just under 13% Sunday), I asked Jörg Meuthen, its co-leader, if the party thought it might have to press closer to extremism to win more votes in 2017. His reply: “We’d lose more votes out of the middle. Thank God it’s like that it in Germany.”

This year he appeared on the AfD campaign trail alongside Martin Hohmann, an apparent winner of a seat Sunday, whom Mrs. Merkel threw out of the Christian Democratic Party in 2003 when he said that Jews tried to label Germans “a people of perpetrators” while they were that themselves.

And this from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on a restaurant-bar gathering in Görlitz Saturday night. It included Jens Maier, another apparent AfD winner, who has talked about the current “manufacture of half-breeds” in Europe. Someone asked how many people were at a Maier rally earlier.

“Eighty-eight would be good,” came the answer from the crowd. The newspaper explained that 88 was code among the radical right for “Heil Hitler.”

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