‘The AfD have taken the place of Merkel’s CDU on the right of German politics’

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) caused an earthquake in the German political landscape by taking 12.6 percent of the vote in the national election on Sunday. The Local spoke to Germans who see the party as a force for good.

'The AfD have taken the place of Merkel’s CDU on the right of German politics'
AfD supporters in Hamburg in 2015. Photo: DPA.

“Honestly speaking, on several occasions I reviewed my conscience and asked myself whether this party was actually radically right-wing before I decided it wasn't,” Berlin native Martin admits.

He says he has concerns that extremists might take over the party and adds that he doesn't like it when their supporters “go too far and start screaming for asylum seekers to get out.”

Nonetheless, refugees were at the forefront of his mind when he entered the polling booth and put a cross next to the AfD. He describes the government's decision to open German borders to refugees in the late summer of 2015 as leading to “uncontrolled migration” that has allowed “terrorists, murderers and rapists” into the country. He also states his belief that many people who came to the country weren't really fleeing from persecution.

“Merkel should have at least got authorization from the German parliament before opening the border,” he says. “Instead she did her thing without any debate or coordination with German citizens. The controlled and orderly distribution of migrants to all EU countries from the outset subsequently didn’t happen.”

It is dangerous to make generalizations about what makes a typical AfD voter. Studies show that stereotypes about them being poor or badly educated don't bear much relation to reality. 

READ ALSO: Why Israel doesn't really know how to deal with the AfD

But a clear trend is that the far-right party are much more popular in east Germany than in the west, and that they are more popular among men than women. Indeed, if east German men had decided the outcome of the election alone, the AfD would now be forming the government as Germany's largest party.

Martin himself grew up in east Germany. But the 29-year-old doesn't fit the rest of the stereotype of an AfD voter. A young Berliner, he works in the media industry and says he has a multicultural groups of friends.

He refers to his east German roots when talking about an AfD campaign poster which encouraged Germans to have more kids with a picture of a heavily pregnant white woman.

“I grew up in east Germany in the 90s when we had a demographic problem and Germans needed to have more kids,” Martin explains, adding that he can’t understand why bringing up this issue twenty years later is racist.

An AfD campaign poster spotted in Berlin before the election in September. It reads: “'New Germans?' We'll make them ourselves.” Photo: Shelley Pascual.

‘They are the new CDU’

While the AfD performed most strongly in former East Germany, they are far from a phenomenon that can simply be blamed on “backward Ossis.” Across the former west they increased their vote share in comparison with the last election in 2013.

In Lower Saxony, they won 9.1 percent of the vote, beating the Greens, a party with a much longer tradition of support in the former west. 

Jan, a lawyer in his 40s based in Lower Saxony, says he had previously voted for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for 20 years, but couldn't bring himself to do so this time because that would be “putting Germany as a whole in danger.” 

“The CDU moved far to the left, leaving an open space on the right. This space has now been filled by the AfD,” he said. 

Like Martin, the refugee policy pursued by the Merkel government was clearly the decisive factor that led him to desert her CDU party.

The refugees who arrived in late 2015 were primarily “not the clever and well-educated Syrians who had already left Syria for attractive countries like the US, Canada or Australia before the migrant wave,” he claims.

“It’s almost impossible to get rid of people who come here and don’t want to support German society. So I thought there was a need for a movement that spoke up against this.”

Jan stresses that, after thinking long and hard about it, he didn't end up voting vote for the AfD, but he calls them “good for democracy.”

There are two groups of foreigners in Germany, he says: “those who damage the state by doing things like selling drugs or taking advantage of social benefits and those who come to Germany intending to work hard and to contribute towards the state.”

“If the other parties had listened to what their voters and their party members were telling them, and if people had been allowed to voice their concerns critically about migration, the AfD wouldn’t exist today,” he argues.

SEE ALSO: Petry, co-leader of far-right AfD, to quit party altogether as strife deepens

‘Not a big fan of globalization’

Ramon D’Avila, a German-American communications consultant based in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, stresses that he isn't against immigration per se. He has himself lived in countries such as Slovakia and Vietnam.

“What I am against however is migrating to a country with the expectation to benefit from social welfare,” said the 32-year-old, who gave his first and second vote to the AfD.

He states that when people from certain parts of the world bring with them cultures and religions that clash with German society, this is “not good for western values in general. People who are Muslims are welcome in Germany, but their ideology isn't.”

An asylum seeker arriving in Munich in September 2015. Photo: DPA.

But he makes clear that it isn't just immigration policy that struck a chord with him. He also likes the AfD's emphasis on national sovereignty.

“I'm not a big fan of globalization. In general I am a supporter for each country to be able to govern its own affairs whether here in Europe or on another continent,” he says.

The AfD courted controversy throughout the election campaign, with their campaign leader Alexander Gauland calling for a left-wing politician with Turkish roots to be “dumped” in eastern Turkey. He also said that Germany should “be proud” of the achievements of its soldiers in the Second World War.

But D’Avila doesn’t think a party entering the Bundestag that had provocative campaign posters and represented by politicians such as Gauland reflects badly on Germany.

“Germany occupies a special place in history, but a lot of people kind of exploit this to their advantage. No other countries have a clean slate,” he states.

For D'Avila, the AfD has opened up discussions that have been taboo for far too long; he considers the party to be a beacon of change.

“The result of this election provides the chance to actually see what a new party is able to do. [Let's] see how they’re going to act in parliament and let their actions prove what they really think and want to do.”

With Jörg Luyken

SEE ALSO: What we learned from the German national election

For members


EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Compared to many other countries, October 3rd is a relatively new nationwide holiday, marking 32 years since German reunification. Aaron Burnett explains the background to it and why it's celebrated on this particular date.

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany's national holiday

Independence Day in the United States dates all the way back to 1776. Canada Day, celebrated on July 1st, goes back to 1867. France’s Bastille Day on July 14th commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Compared to those national holidays, Germany’s October 3rd is fairly recent, having only been around since 1990.

October 3rd – or Tag der Deutschen Einheit – marks the date that the former West and East Germany officially became one country again, after being divided since the end of WWII. In 2022 it’s celebrated on a Monday, meaning many people will get a long weekend. 

Between 1945 and 1949, the country was split into four occupation zones – held by the Americans, British, French, and the then Soviets. In 1949 the Soviet zone became the communist East Germany – or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), while the rest of the country became the West German Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD).

The Bundesrepublik continues today, but now with the five eastern federal states, plus East Berlin, that were formerly in the DDR.

Why October 3rd and not November 9th?

Less than a year before official reunification on October 3rd, 1990, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.

At first glance, November 9th might seem a better day to commemorate as a national day.

Growing up in Canada, my Gelsenkirchen-born Oma used to talk about the Berlin Wall falling with a slight waver in her voice – and sometimes even tears – decades after it crumbled before her eyes on her television screen.

November 9th, 1989 is remembered by many Germans as the happiest day in the history of the country, but the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall is not observed as a national holiday.

‘It was the happiest day in German history,’ she told me at the time. ‘People were just so amazed at seeing that and no one really thought it would actually happen and guck mal – there it was. It was very emotional at the time and I guess I still am too,’ she would say.

READ ALSO: ‘There was a human tide moving’: Berliner remembers crossing the Wall

For Oma and many other German-Canadians I grew up around, Unity Day felt a little less momentous than November 9th. To them, October 3rd was an important day to observe, but conjured up a few less emotions.

‘November 9th suddenly made the dream of having a unified Germany again seem possible,’ my teacher at Calgary’s German-Canadian Club told me years ago. ‘By the time it was actually official, it just seemed like the final step of something that had been going on for a while already.’

To my Oma, my teacher, and others I grew up around who remembered that time – German reunification seemed inevitable within days of the Wall falling. But it wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. Even after the Wall fell, the DDR and BRD remained separate countries at first.

The months between November 9th, 1989 and October 3rd, 1990 were momentous – and saw several additional events that would pave the way for reunification.

On March 18th, 1990, the DDR would hold its first – and only – free and democratic elections. Won by the East German Christian Democrats, their leader Lothar de Maiziere served as GDR Premier until reunification on October 3rd.

Lothar de Maiziere, the first and only democratically elected leader of East Germany, at a German reunification celebration on October 3rd, 2020.

In Spring 1990, Bonn and Berlin agreed to convert the East German Ostmark – which was practically worthless at the time – to the West German Deutschmark on a largely 1 for 1 basis, with most salaries, prices, and savings being converted straight over.

Finally, the process for legal reunification took months, with the signing of an economic and currency union, the reconstituting of the five eastern federal states that had been abolished in communist times, the official reunification treaty, and the treaty that saw the WWII allies renounce all rights and responsibilities in Germany.

READ ALSO: What unity means to eastern Germans

At the stroke of midnight on October 3rd, 1990 – a reunified Germany became a fully sovereign state for the first time since WWII. That was thanks in large part to both political will and legal work in the months immediately following the Wall’s fall.

Although it seems so normal now, reunification was never guaranteed, which is part of why October 3rd enjoys and deserves its own special commemoration.

November 9th – German history’s double edge

The other major reason why October 3rd serves as Germany’s national day instead of November 9th is that November 9th, while associated with the happy elation of witnessing the Berlin Wall crumble, is also linked to many other momentous – and often solemn – historical commemorations.

On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Within hours, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party both declared the Weimar Republic and a ‘free, socialist republic,’ respectively. It would serve as the first sign of political instability that eventually allowed the Nazis to take power.

On November 9th, 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup that started in a Munich beer hall. He was arrested and wrote Mein Kampf during his time in jail.

November 9th was not chosen as Germany’s national day partly because of the solemn commemorations attached to it, such as Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938.

And on November 9th, 1938, Jewish businesses and synagogues were violently targeted during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” At least 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported.

As happy as November 9th, 1989 was, commemorating it as Germany’s national day would be problematic given the other solemn observances attached to it, which is also part of why October 3rd was chosen.

READ ALSO: Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history

What days does October 3rd replace?

Both East and West Germany had national holidays before reunification. The DDR observed ‘Republic Day’ on October 7th, the anniversary of its founding in 1949. Before 1990, the BRD commemorated June 17th, or the anniversary of the East German uprising in 1953.

October 3rd replaced both days as the national day of celebration. 

Where can you celebrate it?

Unity Day is a national holiday with celebrations readily found around the country.

In Bavaria, Oktoberfest remains open until October 3rd partly to mark the occasion. In Berlin, festivities are readily found around the Brandenburg Gate.

However, each year, a major city plays host to official celebrations and the Unity Day Bürgerfest, or ‘Citizen’s Festival.’ The host city is in the federal state presiding over the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper legislative chamber – that particular year.

For 2022, Erfurt – the state capital of Thuringia – is the host, and next year will see Hamburg take over hosting duties.