A recent outbreak of violence in Bautzen, a town in eastern Germany, between far right protesters and young asylum seekers highlights the growing animus toward foreigners, refugees, and Muslims in the country. On Wednesday night, 80 Germans clashed with 20 teenage and young adult asylum seekers after the Germans chanted slogans, like “Foreigners out” and “This is our Nazi neighborhood.”
The violence doesn’t come as a huge surprise though, as a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment has manifested itself in a number of ways across the country in recent months. Germany has seen increasing violence against refugees, which human rights organizations report authorities aren’t addressing.
But perhaps the most specific vessel for Germany’s shift to the far right has been radical right wing parties, like the AfD.
What is the AfD?
Recent local elections in Germany have shined the spotlight on a right-wing, populist, anti-immigrant party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party’s emergence over the last three years reflects the complexities in German society and the feelings of a frustrated populace.
Founded in 2013, the AfD was created on a platform of euro-skepticism after the Eurozone crisis. The AfD argues that the euro has failed — especially in struggling southern European states — and is threatening the future of the European Union. But its more recent anti-immigrant message mirrors those in other populist movements in Europe and the United States, including but not limited to: the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (commonly referred to as “Brexit”), and the burgeoning of France’s National Front party now led by Marine Le Pen (and that’s without wading into the debate over the “burkini” ban).
While the AfD doesn’t have as much support — it suffered a recent setback in local elections — the party is still on the rise. A recent poll found that AfD is set to receive 14 percent of the vote in Germany’s capital in a local city vote on Sunday — news which worried many.
“It would be seen around the world as a sign of the return of the right-wing and the Nazis in Germany” if the AfD wins a large portion of the vote, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, a Social Democrat (SPD), wrote on Facebook on Thursday, as translated by Reuters.
“Berlin is not any old city — Berlin is the city that transformed itself from the capital of Hitler’s Nazi Germany into a beacon of freedom, tolerance, diversity and social cohesion.”
Stoking fears about the refugee crisis
Experts told ThinkProgress the German public’s increasing concerns about immigration was a major driving factor behind the recent successes of AfD.
With millions of refugees fleeing war by planes, cars, and even rafts, Merkel announced an open-door policy in 2015. Germany’s borders were opened to all refugees — without limit — which led to 3,000 people entering the country each day at one point.
As a result, in 2015, net migration in Germany increased by 49 percent, as the country opened its borders to over 2 million refugees and immigrants. A large percentage of these new arrivals were Muslims, with many arriving after fleeing the civil war in Syria.
The enormous influx of refugees in such a short period of time has ruffled the feathers of many in Germany.
“People called it the most significant change in Germany since reunification,” Jessica Bither, a program officer at the German Marshal Fund in Berlin who studies migration and refugee issues, told ThinkProgress by phone. “I tend to agree with that.”
Germany is fairly split about accepting refugees. In recent months, a majority of Germans polled said they disagreed with Merkel’s optimism about receiving and integrating refugees into German society. Last year, the terrorists attacks in Paris and Brussels and the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve — an event that was largely pinned on refugees despite their involvement being overstated — has driven anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-immigration sentiment.
The refugee increase has also emboldened more radical voices from the far right to speak openly against refugees and Islam. Rhetoric that was once deemed fringe has become more mainstream.
“I think it is a mixture of fears that many parts of the public — and also non radical parts of the public — have,” Bither said, adding that the observers across the political spectrum felt the government had lost control over the issue of migration management.
The rise in anti-immigration populism, both in Europe and the United States, was initially attributed to those struggling economically. That now appears to not be true in the case of Trump supporters or in the case of Brexit. And in Germany, many of the AfD supporters don’t seem to be struggling economically either.
“This is not an economic phenomenon,” Timo Lochocki, a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshal Fund’s Europe program who has studied the rise of AfD extensively, told ThinkProgress over the phone from Berlin. “Yes, the socially disadvantaged in the U.K. are slightly over represented in the [far right-wing and pro-Brexit] UKIP and in the Brexit vote but, by in large, the UKIP and Brexit voters are from a broad array of voters and economic [levels]. The same can be said in Germany.”
Experts said the economic condition in Germany is actually quite good at the moment, and voters are instead supporting AfD due to anxieties and fear.
“This is not necessarily about economic decline but anxiety about the future,” Martin Lodge, a professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics who specializes in German public policy, told ThinkProgress. “It is largely about anti-system voting that wants ‘easy answers’ addressing potential economic decline after nearly a decade of [the] wider euro-zone crisis, war in the Middle East, Ukraine, and instability in Turkey. Refugees and migrants have become a symbol for rapid and uncontrollable change that is perceived as a threat to future well-being.”
But while AfD is drawing voters from all economic statuses, many of the voters still care deeply about the economy in Germany and are frustrated that political discussion has abandoned the economic debate. Attention has instead turned to migration and the issue of refugees.
“Voters vote for the AfD because issues like economics are not as salient as they used to be,” Lochocki said. “This is a very important distinction. Voters are not economically disenchanted. They are wondering why they should vote for other parties when the previous selling point was economic and now the only issue discussed is migration.”
Voters in Germany want political debates about the economy and a unified political strategy for migration, Lochocki said. Instead, they’ve received the opposite which has only added fuel to the populist fire brewing in German society.
“Voters hate disagreements on migration issues and appreciate economic differences, so at a point in time voters get the feeling that the established elites are united against the common man,” Lochocki said. “This is the perfect breeding ground. There is fertile soil for the anti-establishment to do very well.”
Threat of populism
The German government has tried to ease anti-Muslim sentiment in the country by funding certain civil society groups. These groups use the ‘contact theory’ to introduce immigrants to Germans in person. When Germans meet new immigrants in person, and make ‘contact’ by putting a face to a name, studies show their level of prejudice tends to subside.
But while civil society is making inroads, the majority of Germans still don’t trust any party to deal with the refugee increase, according to a recent report (in German) by Allensbach. And with trust in the major parties at a low, there is room to maneuver for populist parties offering simple answers to difficult societal issues and potentially destabilizing sectors of German society — as was witnessed in the clash in Bautzen on Wednesday.
“The biggest fear is of course that [Germany] will follow a similar course to what you have seen in France or the U.K., where just the presence of a party that promotes radical discourse [influences policies],” Bither said. “It may happen with the AfD.”
America has Trump, France has the National Party, Britain has UKIP and the Brexit movement, and the fear is Germany could follow suit. The emergence of these right wing and populist movements is bringing fringe discrimination to the mainstream. Should that be the case, refugees fleeing torment at home could face additional threats in a place they once viewed as a bastion of safety.