It’s not Germany’s past that matters most after the elections: it’s what comes next

Daniel Koehler and Cynthia Miller-Idriss

As the news sinks in that the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) party won nearly 13 percent of the national vote and will hold dozens of seats in the German Bundestag, much of the reaction has focused on Germany’s past and what the success of a radical far right party says about Germany’s democratic politics and civic education. But what’s more crucial is what happens next: AfD’s success will likely lead to increased violence and lasting damage to political systems and processes not only in Germany, but across the globe.

By integrating far-right language and themes into their rhetoric, the AfD brought neo-Nazi positions into the mainstream. AfD leaders regularly dehumanized migrants, argued that Islam does not belong in Germany, and called for the use of lethal force against refugees at the nation’s borders. They reintroduced Nazi language like “Lügenpresse” (lying press) into the political realm and told Germans they can be proud of their soldiers’ achievements in both world wars. Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said that the party’s electoral program directly violates several key articles of the constitution.

The AfD rose to success by building a bridge between the conservative upper classes and the hard core right-wing extremist spectrum. It offered millions of pessimistic and frustrated citizens a future-oriented vision that called Germans to reclaim their nation and play a role in its future. Like the so-called ‘alt-right’ in the United States, the AfD appealed directly to elite and educated voters by presenting itself as different from neo-Nazi and right-wing extremists. Its early reputation as a “professors’ party” reflects a strong academic and professional base: AfD voters mostly have middle to upper class incomes.

There should be little question that the AfD can create lasting damage in its new role. The AfD already sits in 13 state parliaments, where they have tried to disable normal bureaucratic functioning by flooding ministerial departments with nonsensical information inquiries, often focusing on criminal behaviour of refugees or left-wing activists. It’s not a stretch to imagine similar tactics being deployed at the federal level. Once in the Bundestag, it will be much harder to investigate the party or to ban it. The AfD now will have more political weight, significantly more financial resources, and fewer restrictions on access to information. They may be able to gain access to areas where their influence could cause lasting damage—such as in education or in the police and intelligence services.

This isn’t the only kind of damage the AfD will do. The party’s success will likely bring about a spike in violence directed against ethnic and religious minorities. The evidence on this is clear: When far-right political parties and positions make it into mainstream governments, racist violence rises. Hate crimes and violence spiked in the United Kingdom after Brexit and in the U.S. after Trump’s election. The political success of far-right parties that rely on exclusionary and racist rhetoric legitimizes white supremacists and unleashes violence against ethnic, religious and racial minorities. In the early 1990s, studies found a strong connection between derogatory language used by politicians to describe immigrants and asylum seekers and the uptick in xenophobic violence in Germany—including several thousand arson attacks against refugees.

Of course, it is important to remember that post-war Germany has proven exceptionally resilient against the kind of large scale populistic turn of its politics that we’ve seen across Europe and in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of the population continues to uphold and champion core democratic principles, human rights, equity, and pluralism. Angela Merkel is a strong and steady leader whose clear moral voice resonates across Europe and the globe.

But the long-standing assumption that decades of intense education about the Holocaust would keep German voters on a moderate course, even as far-right parties made inroads into the European Union parliament and to national and state governments across Europe, has been laid bare as the myth it always was. No matter how powerful the state’s education or how deep the investment, the AfD’s success confirms that large portions of national populations remain vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. It is time to refocus preventative education toward strategies that will combat far-right violence, offer positive ways for Germans to build trust and community, and educate the public about how to report and respond to hate crimes and incidents.

This would mean reorienting civic education in a positive and future-oriented way. Germans will never abandon the essential teaching of the Holocaust and the importance of acknowledging the culpability of everyday Germans in it, but teaching about the past is insufficient. Citizens also need positive ways to identify with and move the nation forward. If nothing else, the AfD’s success has shown that if mainstream politicians won’t reclaim the narrative of how to engage in the nation in a meaningful and emotionally rewarding way, this space becomes open to extremists who offer pessimistic and alienated citizens the promise of a sense of pride in a meaningful identity and a contribution to a greater cause.

Daniel Koehler is Director of the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies (GIRDS) in Germany.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at American University and the author of The Extreme Gone Mainstream, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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