Donna Swarthout
Donna Swarthout

Germany’s Weakened Far-Right: What’s at Stake in 2021?

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Preliminary results from Germany’s first two regional elections of the year show that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) received a significantly lower share of the vote in Baden-Württemberg (9.7%) and Rhineland-Palatinate (8.3%) than it did in the 2016 elections. The AfD’s popular support across Germany, currently estimated at around 10%, has also declined from its peak a few years ago.

At the same time, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) has decided to place the AfD under surveillance because of its continuing ties to right-wing extremists. Although the decision has been placed on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge, the possibility of being under surveillance can only harm the party’s electoral prospects this year.

These developments are good news as Chancellor Angela Merkel nears the end of her long tenure in office and Germany prepares for a major transition when federal elections are held in September. But the political environment is volatile right now and a continuing downward trend for the AfD is by no means assured.

Some observers think the threat from the far-right is overblown and point to the AfD’s inability to capitalize on its coronavirus-skepticism agenda. The New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe argued last fall that in Germany’s current political climate, “The AfD looks pointless – primarily because, as the voice of successively disproven grievances, it has no point. It has been remorselessly mugged by reality.”

Given the relative strength of German democracy, it’s not surprising that the AfD – the “party of grievances” – has a hard time gaining traction by exploiting the public’s dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians. The Green Party appears to be in a much better position right now to capitalize on the public’s frustration with Germany’s pandemic response. But the deadly attacks committed by far-right extremists in Hanau and Halle are a clear sign that the threat of right-wing extremism is still present.

The migration patterns of recent years have greatly expanded Europe’s Muslim population while the Jewish population has been in decline. With Muslims making up more than 5% of Germany’s population compared to a Jewish population of well under half a percent, right wing populists have shifted their xenophobic tactics and rhetoric.

A look at recent public opinion surveys helps to put far-right threats into perspective. A number of surveys confirm that European public opinion is more negative towards Muslims and Roma than towards Jews.

According to the World Jewish Congress 2019 Survey of Antisemitism in Germany, 16% reported having an unfavorable opinion of Jews while 53% reported having an unfavorable opinion of Muslims. An earlier European Social Survey, analyzed by Jeffrey Cohen in a 2018 article, Left, Right, and Antisemitism in European Public Opinion, revealed that “rates of antisemitic attitudes are much lower than negative attitudes for Muslims and Roma on average” and at each position on the left-right spectrum.

Relatively low rates of antisemitism have been documented in a number of Pew Research Center Surveys. One researcher with the Jewish Policy Research Institute in London found that “the proportion of the population holding an unfavourable opinion of Jews is lowest in the Anglophone and Western European countries” (ranging from approximately 5%-15%) and did not increase in the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany from 2009 to 2016. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey also showed widespread acceptance of Jews and rejection of negative stereotypes among Western European adults.

Although there is evidence that antisemitic views are not actually on the rise in Europe, hate crimes and other violent acts make it clear that antisemitism remains present in some segments of society. It is therefore not surprising that the European Jewish population perceives antisemitism at significantly higher levels than are recorded. The 2018 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey of Jewish perceptions of antisemitism found that 61% of Jews in Germany thought antisemitism had increased during the past five years. 77% of French Jews and 58% of British Jews expressed the same belief.

The horrendous Nazi chapter in German history is the lens through which European Jews view extreme right-wing figures and their actions. Positive opinion trends notwithstanding, the Holocaust is an imprint on Jewish identity that will continue to influence fears and perceptions of antisemitism. The 2019 murder of Walter Lübcke, a CDU politician who strongly supported Merkel’s refugee policy, is another reminder of the persistent threat from far-right Islamophobia. At the time of Lübcke’s murder, the government estimated that there were nearly 13,000 right-wing extremists with violent tendencies in Germany.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are present at different levels in Germany, but they pose the same threat to its democratic society. There is good news about the AfD’s drop in popularity and the government’s decision to spy on the party. But that doesn’t negate the need to be informed, engaged and to help minimize the prospects for extremist parties to win seats in this year’s elections.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany, published by Berlinica in January 2019.
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