Monday briefing: Why Germany’s far right AfD is thriving despite scandal | Germany

First Edition

Mon 22 Jan 2024 07.30 CET

Good morning. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party now polls above 20% in Germany – and it is showing no signs of going away. Earlier this month, a story emerged that you might have expected to deal a hammer blow to its popularity: AfD politicians met with rightwing extremists and neo-Nazi activists to discuss a “masterplan” for mass deportations.

Mainstream political leaders condemned the AfD, and tens of thousands marched in protest across Germany for seven nights in a row. Yesterday, Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly reported for the Observer that theatregoers attending a staged reading of the original report in Berlin chanted “Everyone, together, against fascism” for 10 minutes when it ended. Despite all of this the AfD’s support appears to be unaffected. The party is on track to win three major state elections in the east of Germany during 2024.

Today’s newsletter, with Philip Oltermann, explains what the events of the last two weeks tell us about the AfD – and why it is so difficult to stop ir. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Israel-Gaza war | Hamas has said Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of its conditions means there is “no chance for the return of the [Israeli] captives”, estimated to be 130 in number. The Israeli PM dismissed the militant group’s conditions, which he said included leaving Hamas in power and Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza.

  2. US news | Ron DeSantis, the hard-right governor of Florida, has ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and endorsed Donald Trump. DeSantis’s withdrawal in the days ahead of the New Hampshire primary followed a disappointing result in the Iowa caucus, where he finished second place but well behind Donald Trump.

  3. Health | A national campaign to boost uptake of a vaccine that protects against measles has been launched in England after a rise in cases of the potentially deadly disease. Measles outbreaks have occurred around the country, including in London, with the West Midlands experiencing cases at their highest level since the mid-1990s.

  4. Weather | Storm warnings have been issued across parts of Britain as Storm Isha takes hold, with potentially life-threatening gusts and travel disruption expected into Monday.

  5. Brexit | The UK’s fruit and flower growers face an “existential threat” from new post-Brexit border checks that could damage business and affect next year’s crops, the country’s biggest farming body has said.

In depth: ‘There is a definite sense that something big is shifting’

Protests against the AfD at the Brandenberg Gate, Berlin. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

The bombshell about AfD politicians meeting with the rightwing extremist Identitarian Movement prompted intense scrutiny of the party, and renewed questions over whether it should be banned. Among the subjects under discussion at the meeting, according to Correctiv, the outlet that broke the story: whether migrants could be forcibly returned to their countries of origin en masse, even if they are passport-holding German citizens.

“It’s been a huge story here,” Philip said. “And it’s a very significant test of where they are as a party, and what kind of support they have.”


Where does the AfD come from?

When it was founded in 2013, the AfD was a very different proposition to the party that exists today. “It really emerged in response to the eurozone crisis,” Philip said. “It was a bunch of comparatively liberal economists who were unhappy about the Greek bailouts. They had a patriotic flavour, but they certainly would have denied being on the far right.”

But over time, and as 1.2 million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016, the AfD became a home for anti-immigration voters, many in the east of Germany, and the composition of the party changed. “It has been through several iterations, and every time, it is the more liberal figures who have been ousted,” Philip said. Senior members called for the use of force to stop refugees and described the Nazi era as “no more than a speck of bird’s shit in over 1,000 years of successful history”.

The pivotal moment, Philip said, was in 2017, when a key party figure, Björn Höcke, called for the party to stop the traditional commemoration of the Holocaust, and get rid of the culture of national guilt. “There is really a step-change in the rhetoric around then, a neo-Nazi ring,” said Philip. “When he wasn’t expelled, that was when it became justifiable and necessary to call this party not just a rightwing populist group, but on the far right.” In the same year, the party became the first far-right grouping to win seats in parliament since the second world war.


Why is there an opening for the AfD now?

In 2022, after a dismal performance in national elections, it was widely thought the AfD’s moment had passed. But a combination of the uncertainty created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the AfD’s claim to be defending ordinary people during a cost of living crisis has given it a new lease of life. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition led by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has lurched from crisis to crisis, the most severe of which was the constitutional court striking down a plan to meet climate spending targets by repurposing money that had been intended for pandemic emergency measures. That created a €60bn (£52bn) funding gap and blew the coalition’s agenda apart – and meanwhile German farmers are leading strikes in protest at cuts to diesel subsidies and farming vehicle tax breaks.

“As I speak to you here in Berlin, I can hear farmers rally, the beeping of horns,” Philip said. “It’s all over the city – rail workers’ strikes, and now these rallies against the far right as well. It’s non-stop protests and rallies. It’s not specifically, or not only, the government – they haven’t been in power that long. But there are deep resentments that the AfD are picking up on, especially in the east.”

Crucially, the debate about immigration “hasn’t gone away”, Philip added. “What we’ve seen recently is a government in crisis that is taking a rightward tack on immigration. Scholz gave an interview recently in which he said that there was a need to massively speed up deportation – it’s similar to the debate in the UK. There seems to be a conscious move to take a more populist tone, and that seems to be doing the AfD a favour. They have been hoovering up a sense of disgruntlement that’s been building for a long time.”


What impact have the recent revelations had?

Alternative for Germany (AfD) co-chair Alice Weidel. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/EPA

The AfD has been second in the polls to the rightwing opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), formerly led by Angela Merkel, since the summer – and in its eastern heartlands is doing better still. Despite the significant protests and expressions of outrage from mainstream politicians over the last 10 days, that hasn’t changed. “These protests have been pretty impressive given how spontaneous they are, and it’s galvanised the majority against them, but they weren’t voting for the AfD anyway,” Philip said. “My sense is that it hasn’t turned their base of voters off in any way.”

Meanwhile, a debate is raging over whether the party should be banned: intelligence services have classified parts of it as either suspected or confirmed extremists. But regardless of the democratic ramifications, there are significant fears that suppressing such a well-supported party would simply play into its hands.

“Perhaps one reassuring thing is that it has shown they aren’t completely shameless yet,” Philip said. “The co-leader [Alice Weidel, pictured above] has fired her aide who attended this meeting, and I thought maybe she wouldn’t do that. It may suggest that they are not as confident about their standing, or in the space yet where they can simply shrug this off. But as important a piece of journalism as it is, I’m not sure it’s going to have a big electoral impact.”


Where does the party go from here?

European elections and then three state elections later this year could be a significant show of strength for the AfD. “I think there’s a chance they benefit from people using the European election as a protest vote,” Philip said. “And they have particularly pronounced support in these three states in the east.” In Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, the AfD is leading in polls with more than 30% support.

The next question is whether mainstream parties seriously reconsider the “cordon sanitaire” that has always kept the AfD out of government. “For about five years at local levels, politicians from the CDU have been talking about whether they need to at least work with the AfD informally, and making the argument that it would expose them as amateurs. But clearly, that could backfire.” Recently in Thuringia, the local CDU passed a property tax cut with votes from the AfD. Meanwhile, the CDU’s national leader, Friedrich Merz, has been hazy about whether it should work with the AfD in ways that fall short of coalition.

“We are still a long way from a debate about whether the AfD could join federal government – I can’t see them power sharing after the next election in 2025,” Philip said. “But there is a definite sense that something big is shifting.”

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What else we’ve been reading

Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in Expats, Amazon Prime drama Photograph: Prime Video

  • Ahead of the Oscars nominations, Guardian critics have created their own shortlists. Have a read to see who made the cut and whether you agree. Nimo

  • Michael Hall’s long read for Texas Monthly, about a juror haunted by remorse about a guilty verdict she helped hand down three decades ago, is a remarkable account of a heartbreaking miscarriage of justice. Archie

  • Zoe Williams’s interview with Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue and Ji-young Yoo, the leads of new drama series Expats, makes me want to watch the show. They discuss the complicated themes explored in the series and the emotional challenges of filming in the middle of a pandemic, thousands of miles away from home. Nimo

  • I loved Eva Wiseman’s column about hostile architecture, and “how public spaces are increasingly not for the public at all”. Archie

  • After returning home to Sydney from rainy Manchester during the pandemic, Madeleine Gray was at a loose end. She took a job in a bookshop and learned more about herself and others than she ever thought she would working in retail. Nimo


Lauren James of Chelsea celebrates after scoring her team’s third goal during a Women’s Super League match. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Football | Liverpool moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League with a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. Oli McBurnie’s equaliser in the 103rd minute made it 2-2 for Sheffield United to deny West Ham. In the Women’s Super League, a hat-trick from Chelsea’s Lauren James saw off Manchester United 3-1, with second-placed Manchester City thrashing Liverpool 5-1, also thanks to a hat-trick from Khadija Shaw.

Tennis | Novak Djokovic continued his march towards a record 25th grand slam, moving into the Australian Open quarter-finals. Britain’s Cameron Norrie beat Casper Ruud on Saturday in what he called “one of his best” ever slam performances. In the women’s draw, American teenager Coco Gauff and defending champion Aryna Sabalenka are into the quarter-finals but world number one Iga Świątek was a shock exit – knocked out by 19-year-old Czech Linda Noskova.

Skiing | Mikaela Shiffrin earned her 95th career win to extend her record, triumphing in a women’s World Cup slalom on Sunday, a day after the star’s main rival sustained a season-ending injury.

The front pages

In our Guardian print edition today we are leading with “Surge in modern slavery in social care sector since visa rules eased”. The Daily Mail splashes on “Worst heart care crisis in history”. “BBC faces tougher scrutiny over bias” says the Daily Telegraph while a story that’s on several front pages is number one in the Daily Express: “Sarah Ferguson in ‘good spirits’ after shock new cancer diagnosis”. “Crisis for parents over free childcare” – that’s the Times while the i goes with “Water bosses behind toxic sewage will be ‘put in dock’ under Labour”. “VISH-ous storm batters Britain” – the Metro is stretching it there as it leads on Storm Isha. “Harry – It’s OK to ask for help” – the England captain offers mental health advice on the front of the Daily Mirror. Top story in the Financial Times is “Surging stock prices propel top-tier hedge funds to best profits on record”.

Today in Focus

Ahmed Tobasi with arms outstretched in blue plastic vest Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

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Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

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The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

On the 120th anniversary of Cary Grant’s birth in Bristol a Cary Grant fish and chips evening was held at the Rendezvous chip shop, where he used to stop on return visits and get a bag of chips. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Though Cary Grant is largely remembered for his Hollywood films and glitzy life in Beverly Hills, he was born Archibald Leach in Bristol. Even after finding fame and losing his West Country accent, Grant returned to the city often and loved to have a bag of fish and chips, specifically from a chippy called Rendezvous, which now has photos of the star dotted all over the place. A big party was staged to celebrate what would have been his 120th birthday and the 60th anniversary since Rendezvous opened. There was plenty of sparkling wine, singing and fond storytelling with locals and staff.

“I feel quite emotional,” said Charlotte Crofts, a professor of cinema arts at the University of the West of England Bristol regarded as the city’s Grant expert. “The chip shop opened in 1964 and the father of Michael Georgiou [who runs it now] remembers serving Cary.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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