In her recent interview with the Financial Times the AfD party chief Alice Weidel said she “will hold a referendum on EU membership if elected” in Germany. This was a remarkable statement, since the newspaper also quotes a poll by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation between June and September 2023, which found that just 10% of German voters would opt for an exit from the EU (‘Dexit’).
Also remarkably, on 15 January 2024 the Independent newspaper quoted a study by Cambridge Econometrics stating that Brexit has already cost the UK economy £140bn and will leave its economy “£311bn worse off by the middle of the next decade”.
If we put these two things together, we have to conclude that this German right-wing party chief is not only out of touch with an overwhelming majority of German society but also completely ignorant of Brexit’s economic consequences.
More than seven years after the famous referendum, a growing number of British citizens have become aware of what PM Theresa May’s famous dictum: “Brexit means Brexit” really means. Instead of Boris Johnson’s lie on his bus of “£350mn for the NHS”, the waiting lists of the health service have become longer, junior doctors have gone on strike and the NHS is on its knees. As London’s mayor has stated, Britain’s younger generation have had to pay the highest price for that decision. And when you ask UK travellers to the continent, you will hear reports of delays and ‘special treatment’ at EU borders, not to speak of the hardships of UK expats living in France, Spain or other EU countries.
Germany’s recent crisis
In 2024 there will be three federal elections (in Saxony and Thuringia on 1 September and in Brandenburg on 22 September). On 9 June the German members of the European Parliament will be elected. As early as 11 February some constituencies in Berlin will have to vote again for the national parliament (Bundestag), after courts rejected several previous results of the election in 2021 because of faulty preparation and illegal procedures.
The ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens are dreading the outcome of these elections, since compared with 2021/22 it has dramatically lost support. Broadly speaking, there seem to be three major reasons for this:
- The Covid pandemic.
- Russia’s full scale war against Ukraine.
- The fundamental controversies within the coalition about priorities under strained financial conditions.
In addition, the growing economic problems, particularly slowing exports, have contributed to the recent malaise. While in late 2021 many voters were happy to see the ‘grand coalitions’ of the Merkel years finished and had hoped for a new approach towards societal modernization and decisive action against climate change, the above reasons have dramatically changed priorities. Instead of the proclaimed goals, the ‘traffic light’ coalition (red for the Social Democrats, yellow for the Liberals and green for the Green Party) had to borrow money to significantly strengthen the armed forces and help Ukraine to withstand the Russian assault.
The AfD phenomenon
Public frustration has become particularly strong in the ‘new Länder’. More than 33 years after re-unification there is still a significant divide between Germany’s East and West. One clear indicator is the difference in strength of the AfD between East and West. To be sure, AfD is now also represented in various parliaments in West German federal states, but not as strongly as in some eastern ones. Latest polls show that the vote for AfD would be over 30% in all eastern Länder. The AfD would also increase its share of the vote in all western Länder except for Bavaria. Taking Thuringia for example, according to pollster DAWUM, the AfD is by far the strongest party with 33,3 %, ahead of CDU (20,0%), Linke (15.9%), SPD (7,4%), Grüne (5,0%) and FDP (3,0%). The AfD also leads in Saxony with more than a third of potential voters.
This public support is all the more astonishing when one takes into account that the AfD’s leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, can be legally called “Fascist” and “Nazi” (2019 court judgement in Meinigen, southern Thuringia). For quite some time Höcke has been investigated by the Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution). This former teacher from the western Rheinland area now claims to be the leader of the East German population, openly using Nazi slogans and extremist right-wing postulates. The debate goes on as to whether the AfD can be banned. The banning of another right wing party, Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party of Germany, NPD) twice proved unsuccessful.
The fact that about one third of Thuringia’s and Saxony’s population is not deterred by AfD’s extremist und inhuman views (especially against ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’) points to significant problems of the process of re-unification. That re-unification excluded those territories like Silesia lost at the end of WWII was also a source of frustration to some. While many GDR citizens wanted to gain freedom and Western well-being, they were not prepared for the radical restructuring of their economy and the loss of very many jobs.
The East Germans also had to adapt very quickly to West German standards and laws. Some critical observers have gone so far to call the process of re-unification a “takeover from the West”. 40 years of ‘socialist indoctrination’, the secret persistence of old traditions (such as sentiments against ‘foreigners’) and the lack of experience with democratic procedures with their sometimes seemingly endless parliamentary debates have obviously left their marks. The attitudes of certain ‘better knowing’ West Germans (‘besser Wessis’), might have contributed to the frustrations. This has all led to a yearning for a strong leader and easy answers to today’s difficult questions.
A return of the Nazis?
While it seems too early to equate the recent situation with Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, united Germany’s democracy is now indeed facing its most severe test of strength. Not to forget: the first time the Nazi party joined a federal government was in early 1930 in Thuringia, with Wilhelm Frick becoming the Minister of the Interior and People’s Education (‘Volksbildung’).
However, the most recent public protests by hundreds of thousands of the hitherto ‘silent majority’ against the AfD in many cities in East and West demonstrate that Germany’s civil society has now woken up to defend the country against its right-wing demagogues following Trump, Farage and the like.
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