On Sunday, 27 May, supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gathered in the centre of Berlin. Founded in 2013, the AfD has quickly amassed sizeable support. Were an election held today, the party would probably get 14 per cent of the vote. The parallels between the AfD and Ukip – or, rather, Ukip before its sudden, post-Brexit decline – are striking. Like Ukip, the AfD has its roots in nationalist, anti-EU sentiment. It opposes the perceived dominance of Brussels and the bailout of the banks. Like Ukip, it combines social conservatism with more or less explicit xenophobia and racism. Like Ukip, it contains openly fascist elements. And, like Ukip, it draws energy from the sense of abandonment, resentment and despair bred by neoliberalism and austerity.
Skiving off an academic conference, I went with a friend to take part in the counter-demonstration. After navigating a series of police cordons, we eventually spotted our opponents. Across the Spree, we saw a river of black, red and gold flags, held aloft. We traced the AfD march along the opposite bank for a few minutes, then stopped and waited as it made its way over the bridge. After a few more minutes, it began to peter out. The counter-demonstrators were shouting: ‘Nazis raus!’; ‘AfD, in the Spree!’; ‘There is no right to Nazi propaganda!’
According to police estimates, there were five thousand AfD demonstrators. The estimate for the number of counter-demonstrators was between twenty and twenty-five thousand. A comment piece in Die Zeit concluded that ‘the AfD demo and the numerically much stronger counter-protests show that political discourse is functioning.’ But although we may have outnumbered the AfD by five to one, the comparison is not like-for-like.
The AfD demonstrators represented a hard core, many of them travelling hundreds of miles from Bavaria and other regions to be in Berlin. For every AfD demonstrator on Sunday, there were doubtless many more nodding along at home.
The counter-demonstrators made a point of having more fun: techno music, beer, weed, dancing and semi-nudity in the hot Berlin sun. Nothing wrong with that. But their oppositional stance is officially shared by the main political parties in Germany, and it was difficult to see them as the visible manifestation of a firm and further-reaching bedrock of commitment to resist all that the AfD and Pegida – the so-called ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West’ – represent.
Besides the tendency to underplay the AfD’s numerical support – they outperformed both the radical left party Die Linke and the Greens at the last federal election – there is a corresponding danger of mistaking the party’s qualitative character. A report in Die Welt, for example, offered an apparently miscellaneous list of things the AfD is purportedly against: corruption, the EU, neoliberalism, immigrants. This helps to obscure the fact that the AfD, like Ukip, is first and foremost a vehicle of anti-immigrant – and, above all, Islamophobic and anti-Arab – sentiment.
The dimension of the AfD’s stance most often singled out for comment is its anti-Semitism: one of its leading figures, Björn Höcke, called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a ‘monument of shame in the heart of the capital’, and argued that Germans should stop atoning for Nazi guilt. The CDU general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that the AfD represents a ‘threat to Jewish life in Germany’. The AfD’s Jörg Meuthen responding by simply reversing the charge: the CDU’s policy of ‘unconditional mass immigration from the Islamic world’, he said, is the real threat to German Jews. The charge of anti-Semitism carries enough weight to be worth making, and worth flinging back. The charge of Islamophobia does not, so thoroughly has the demonisation of Muslims been absorbed into the European political mainstream. Whatever the electoral fates of such far-right parties as Ukip and the AfD, the wider effects of the normalisation of the attitudes they represent should not be underestimated.