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The German hard right’s immigration fixation is missing the point

Photo: Stefan Jaitner/dpa

Photo: Stefan Jaitner/dpa

May 16, 2018   4 mins

It was last October, to some astonishment, that the radical right populist party, Alternativ für Deutschland – founded in 2013 – took 12.6% of the vote in Germany’s general election. It won 94 seats in the 502 seat Bundestag to become the main element in an opposition block which has trebled (from 128 to 310 seats) since the previous parliament and whose other elements are the Greens, the liberal FDP and Die Linke.

The party, founded by a bunch of eurosceptic academic economists, became the most vociferous critics of Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 invitation welcoming refugees to Germany, coalescing, in part, with those who took to the streets to protest this.

It did especially well in the former GDR, gaining most votes from ex-Communists in the far left Die Linke, and in a region which – if it were a separate country – would have the oldest population in Europe. There aren’t many asylum seekers there, though people can watch their depredations on the telly.

Appropriately enough, the densest concentrations of AfD voters coincided with what, in GDR times, was dubbed ‘The Valley of the Clueless’ (Tal der Ahnungslosen) because it was out of range of West German television. The party also did well in parts of Bavaria, it being no coincidence either that in polls, 80 per cent of AfD supporters across Germany would have liked to have voted for the CSU – which is usually more rightly robust than the CDU – were it not confined to its arch-Catholic homeland.

Gradually the other parties have decided to challenge every AfD provocation, discovering that humour – which, contrary to the stereotypes, is abundant in Germany – is the most lethal weapon

So how have things been going since that autumnal electoral earthquake?

The AfD members look much like other German politicians and do not have horns on their heads. They like to emphasise their outsider credentials, turning up early and photographing the sea of empty places around them when there is an important debate. They talk a great deal about migration, Islam, and threats to German identity. Since the German Bundestag suffers from an atonal torpor, it may be good that it now sounds more like the British House of Commons. Or maybe not.

At first, the governing CDU/CSU and SPD coalition and the FDP liberals and Greens simply acted as if the AfD weren’t there, or at least shunned even the most casual engagement with them like a cheery ‘Guten Tag’ in the corridors. They did not block them becoming chairpersons of the budget and other parliamentary committees. But they do hope that the AfD will live up to its fissiparous track reputation, with too many warring chiefs and Indians whose loyalties may prove fickle.

What the other parties have been doing is challenging every AfD provocation. They have discovered that humour – which contrary to popular stereotypes is abundant in Germany – is their most lethal weapon. Take what happened when a Bavarian AfD deputy proposed that German be made the country’s mandatory official language.

Johann Saathoff from the SPD, came to the dais and reminded the proposer that his Swiss Alpine neighbours got along cosily using four languages. Saathoff then switched his own speech into Plattdeutsch, the Dutch-sounding dialect spoken widely in north Germany, and indeed among elderly people in Iowa. Although neither the Bundestag president, Wolfgang Schäuble, nor most of the deputies could understand half of what Saathoff was saying, they laughed and clapped while the AfD looked on grimly.

But while they are pretty good at stirring things up – and causing hilarity – in the chamber, their performance leaves much to be desired in the regional parliaments. Flyover Germany need not expect much detailed follow-through on issues other than their two or three hobbyhorses. These do not include social inequality, which did figure strongly in the German election: and is far more pervasive than a glance at the speeding Audis and Mercedes might lead outsiders to imagine.

This is not a case of poor East versus rich West, but rather of the gap between regions such as the Ruhr, where towns like Gelsenkirchen were badly hit by the decline of coal and steel. They are on the wrong side of highways dubbed ‘the social equator’ where glass towers house high tech and pharmaceutical industries on the other side.

Wealth is extremely concentrated in Germany, even though a combination of Protestant restraint and fear of kidnapping has made it inadvisable to flash it in the manner of the Über-rich in London. Only 45 families control as much of Germany’s wealth as the bottom half of the population – roughly €214 billion. Successive governments of Left and Right have eschewed wealth taxes or imposing inheritance tax on what are often family owned businesses, while cutting social security spending and increasing VAT which disproportionately affects poor people.

On the face of it, those of more modest means have little to complain about since the German export-economy is booming and unemployment is at record lows.

But roughly a quarter of the German population are defined as the ‘working poor’, and they are increasingly ducking and diving between un-unionised ‘mini-jobs’, and then spending their income on rent – 55% of Germans rent rather than own their homes – and basic necessities. While they have food on the table and a roof over their heads, their children will be mocked at school for not having a fancy mobile phone or for wearing summer clothes in wintertime.

Maybe in a fairytale, the good populists would work night and day to benefit those languishing in ‘flyover country’ after vanquishing the evil witches of the established elites

Almost a third of the population, according to the Federal Office of Statistics, could not find €985 in a crisis, in what is otherwise bruited as a nation of dedicated savers. Nearly five million people only have a decent meal every second day, and 12.8 million Germans cannot afford a week’s holiday away from home. These inequalities duly translate into bad health (often resulting from the poor being the biggest smokers) and poor social prospects, for in Germany having the school-leaving certificate is vital in a society which fetishises academic qualifications.

Maybe in a fairytale the good populists would work night and day to benefit those languishing in ‘flyover country’ after vanquishing the evil witches of the Established elites. But, in reality they won’t since they’ll be venting their obsessions about identity and migrants as one can see in their ‘performance art’ in the Bundestag.

The self-styled people’s tribunes are no more from Germany’s silent suffering classes than the complacent ‘liberal’ elites they affect to deplore. Their crocodile tears are fake and their agendas are quite other. What on earth does Beatrix Amelie Ehrengard Eilika von Storch, the Duchess of Oldenbourg, and deputy leader of the AfD have in common with a pensioner in Gelsenkirchen who can’t afford presents for her grandchildren? Perhaps she’s the ‘people’s princess’? Yeah, right, in a fairytale.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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