When Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, most Germans seemed to be in mourning. The country’s vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, warned of “a rough ride” ahead; a week later, Chancellor Angela Merkel lectured the new president on the Geneva Conventions, telling him that the fight against terrorism does not justify banning refugees fleeing war and persecution.
But in the dawn of the Trump era, one political party formerly on the fringes of German society has been glowing: the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Four days after Trump’s inauguration, I met AfD’s party leader, Frauke Petry, who represents the district of Saxony, at her office in Leipzig, where she compared Trump’s victory to Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Both events, she said, inspire parties like hers, which are critical of the EU because they show that the increasing consolidation of power in Brussels is not inevitable. “It shows us at least that change is possible,” she said.
While other prominent right-wing leaders, like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, have received more attention for their fiery brand of politics, the AfD’s Petry may, in some ways, be the most consequential of all the nativist European politicians.
The AfD has gained political influence extraordinarily quickly. Just four years after its founding, the once-peripheral party has become a major force, having won seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments. It succeeded in some surprising places, defeating Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), in the chancellor’s home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and in September 2016, it won 14 percent of the vote in liberal Berlin, the highest showing there for a far-right party since World War II.
Now the AfD, which critics have lambasted for peddling xenophobia, seems poised to do well in Germany’s federal elections in September, which could give it seats in the country’s national parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time. Polls and political analysts predict the CDU will win the largest share of votes, which means Merkel will likely remain chancellor, despite a challenge from the left. But if the AfD’s support holds, it would become the third largest party in the Bundestag, and the government’s most prominent opposition party, making it the most successful nationalist party since the Nazis.
As Merkel has become Germany’s—and the continent’s—most powerful defender of liberal Western democracy, Petry has become the face of Trumpism in Europe’s most powerful nation. Her party has campaigned to reverse Merkel’s open-border immigration policies and her tough stance on Russian aggression, and it seeks to limit Germany’s role in the EU. The AfD’s rapid rise in a country whose dark history has made it so wary of nationalism speaks to the magnitude of the frustration and xenophobia that have brought Trump—and others like him—into the Western political mainstream.
The End of National Guilt?
Unlike France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party, both founded decades ago, the AfD is relatively new. Established in February 2013 by economists critical of the expensive bailouts of smaller EU members like Greece and Spain, the AfD failed to enter the German parliament that year. But in 2015, a refugee crisis brought hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim asylum seekers fleeing war, violence and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to Europe.
This crisis spurred anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment—especially in Germany, which absorbed 1 million asylum seekers in 2015, more than all other European nations combined. The decision to do so was Merkel’s; that same year, her government announced that all Syrian refugees were welcome to stay in Germany and that the country would place no limit on the number of asylum seekers permitted to apply for refuge. While many Germans saw this open-border policy as a courageous, humanitarian response to the crisis, it generated resentment among some of their fellow citizens who felt it was a threat to national security and national identity.
Tapping into this resentment helped Petry lead AfD’s transformation into an anti-immigrant party when she took charge in July 2015. Under her leadership, Bernd Lucke, the party’s founder quit over concerns the AfD was becoming "Islamophobic and xenophobic.” Recently, the AfD has won many voters who used to support the National Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi party that all of the country’s 16 state parliaments recently tried to ban. (Germany’s supreme court overruled that ban, arguing that while the party’s goals are unconstitutional, it is too weak to achieve them.) But the AfD’s message of reclaiming national pride and identity has attracted more than just fringe followers. Recent polls have put support for the AfD between 10 and 15 percent of voters—a result that could allow it to enter the Bundestag in September.
Compared with Trump’s remarkable victory in November, those poll numbers may seem modest. But the AfD’s rising popularity alarms many people in Germany, where guilt over the country’s Nazi past has long played a significant role in its psyche and politics. Some AfD leaders have fueled the anxiety with their comments. One party official, Wolfgang Gedeon, has called Holocaust deniers “dissidents” and lamented that one of the nation’s largest memorials, in Berlin, is dedicated not to national heroes but to the Holocaust, which he has called “misdeeds.” In January, another AfD official, Bjoern Hoecke, stirred national outrage by calling that same memorial “a monument of shame.”
Fear of a Muslim Planet
When I met Petry at her Leipzig office on January 24, it quickly became clear why she was chosen to lead the AfD and how, under her stewardship, a nationalist party has managed to gain such a large following: In person, she comes across as disarmingly normal.
Arriving just a few minutes late, the 41-year-old pregnant mother apologized profusely, explaining that she had to drive her kids to school. “The roads were so icy,” she said, adding that one of her young sons didn’t want to leave the house.
Pretty and petite with a pixie haircut, wearing jeans and a navy blazer, Petry spoke in lengthy, didactic sentences that seemed more suited to a university professor than the leader of a populist party. She seems to have little in common with the more controversial characters within the AfD, especially those associated with anti-Semitism. As we talked, Petry was quick to criticize Hoecke’s call for a “180-degree turn” in how Germans perceive their history, by which he means that Germany should move on from what they believe is a kind of guilt driving political decisions, like accepting refugees. (That’s a sentiment that several party members told me they agree with, even if they wished Hoecke had phrased it differently.)
Despite Petry’s measured approach to nationalism, her beliefs on multiculturalism are no different from the most extreme on the right. Petry’s mistrust of Islam fuels her political passions: Citing Sharia and reports of sexual assaults committed by asylum seekers in Germany, she argued that Muslims are a threat to a free, Western society. Muslim immigrants come here “with attitudes that are so way out of our sort of common behavior and European attitudes,” she said. “It’s simply a lie by the government that these migrants will fit into our society.”
In the 2016 state-level elections, Petry campaigned on a platform against the “Islamization” of Germany, which she said should include changes to family policy. She argues the government should offer things like tax incentives and inexpensive child care to encourage Germans to have more children to preserve national identity, rather than relying on immigration to fill the gaps left by the country’s low birth rate. (She is expecting her fifth child, the first with her second husband, Marcus Pretzell, who represents the party in the European Parliament in Brussels.) Asked if she hopes to be Germany’s chancellor, Petry dismissed the suggestion, but she is quick to say that Germany should be led by someone with children—Merkel has none—because, she noted, “it makes you look beyond your own lifetime.”
She also criticizes Germany for applying different rules to asylum seekers than to its citizens. “The government basically allows them to live in a different world,” she said, arguing that statistics (“if you’re able to read them”) show that violent crimes have increased in Germany because of refugees. (They don’t. Federal statistics show that refugees have not increased crime in Germany and are no more likely to commit offenses than native Germans.)
If that doesn’t sound Trumpian enough, Petry seems to echo the New York billionaire on Russia too. She seeks closer ties with Moscow and hopes to speak to President Vladimir Putin soon. (Members of her party, she adds, have already met with Kremlin officials.) “The whole of Europe needs good relations with Russia,” she said. “This doesn’t mean that we favor Russian hegemony over Europe in any way. I mean, coming from…[East Germany], we had enough of Russian domination. But yes, with Trump many new perspectives appear possible.”
While many leaders have expressed concern over Trump’s statements about lessening U.S. engagement overseas, Petry welcomes the prospect. “American involvement in European issues since the First World War has led to a situation where many European states relied on America instead of taking their own responsibility,” she said. Referring to American troops who have been stationed in Germany since World War II, she added, “Just as the Russians had to leave Germany in the ’90s, I think it’s time that the Americans leave as well.”
‘We Can’t Allow This to Happen’
Before helping create the AfD, Petry was a chemist who founded Purinvent System, a company that produces environmentally friendly polyurethane products (the company’s website now explicitly disassociates Purinvent from the AfD). She used to vote CDU, Germany’s most conservative party until Merkel moved it to the center, and even considered becoming a party member back in the early 2000s. “The CDU used to stand for family values, conservative policy and a rational economic policy, and they’ve given up on many of those ideas,” she said. “They used to be the party that guaranteed security and safety for its citizens, but we see with Merkel that she cannot secure borders anymore. She doesn’t want to.”
Like Petry, a majority of AfD voters used to be supporters of the CDU, while others felt there was no political home for their conservative views, according to Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz and an expert in far-right voting patterns. Arzheimer’s analysis shows that most AfD voters are under 65, and many are young with diverse educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. AfD voters also skew male, and support for the party is far higher in the former East Germany than it is in what was once West Germany, owing partly to AfD’s anti-establishment brand, said Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden’s Technical University.
In Germany, AfD’s attitudes toward Islam also seem surprisingly mainstream: A poll published last year by German company Infratest Dimap showed that 60 percent of Germans surveyed believe that Islam does not belong in German culture; another 2016 poll, from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, found that 25 percent believe Jews are “exploiting the past of the Third Reich.” These views may explain why AfD support is growing among the broader German population. “People are very watchful when it comes to the radical right in Germany,” said Arzheimer. “I think it is misleading to brand the AfD as a party of neo-Nazis.”
For the liberal majority, the rise of this new movement has been alarming. Hajo Funke, a professor at Berlin’s Free University and the author of a book about the AfD, On Angry Citizens and Arsonists, said Petry is merely the acceptable face of an otherwise ugly party, arguing that she hasn’t done enough to distance the AfD from anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “It’s the classic right-wing populist concept of ‘We represent the people, We have the solutions,’ using the scapegoat of Islam,” said Funke. “It's a kind of second wave of anti-Semitism that has re-emerged.”
Richard Weiss, a member of the Green Party in Munich, agrees, saying that Germans, of all people, should be standing up to anti-Muslim rhetoric. “We have to wake up because this is a really dangerous situation if we give the Muslims the same stamp that we gave to the Jews. It’s no different,” he tells Newsweek. “We know better than anyone in the world that we can’t allow this to happen.”