In an exclusive interview, Professor Kai Arzhemier assessed the recent exposure of a meeting involving right-wing extremist AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer characterize this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. Arzheimer underscores that the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Kai Arzhemier, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz, discussed the evolving landscape of populist radical right movements in Europe, with a specific focus on the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The interview delves into various aspects, including the historical context of Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism, the ideological transformation of the AfD, and its impact on German and European politics.
One of the key highlights is the recent exposure of a meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place. Professor Arzheimer framed this meeting as echoing the ideologies of the 1930s-1940s, reminiscent of the Nazis’ plans to exterminate Jews. According to Arzheimer, the meeting adds to the concerns about the AfD’s trajectory over the past few years, aligning with right-wing extremism.
The discussion also touches on the upcoming European Parliament elections and the potential performance of the AfD. Dr. Arzhemier suggests that, based on current polling trends and the historical pattern of European elections with lower turnout, the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands, securing a robust performance ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote.
There are calls from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to ban the AfD due to the presence of individuals within the party who openly talk about remigrating people based on ethnic criteria. Dr. Arzhemier discusses the arguments both in favor of and against banning the AfD, emphasizing the high legal hurdles involved and the potential risks of the party exploiting such actions to portray themselves as victims of political suppression.
The interview explores Dr. Arzhemier’s research on the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. He discusses how regional disparities, especially in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), still influence political sentiments. Factors such as authoritarian remnants, low immigration rates and a sense of "place resentment" contribute to increased support for the radical right in these regions.
Dr. Arzhemier reflects on his prediction from five years ago, stating that the rise of a right-wing populist party in Germany has made the country less flexible and more inward-looking. While acknowledging Germany’s increased flexibility in response to external factors like the war in Ukraine and Brexit, he suggests that debates about the AfD have absorbed significant political energy that could have been directed elsewhere.
Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Kai Arzheimer with some edits.
Radical Right’s Influence in Europe Is on the Rise
Your research focuses especially on the populist radical right in Europe. How have you observed the evolution of far-right parties across different European countries in recent years? How do you see the impact of economic factors on the rise of these movements, and to what extent do cultural and identity issues play a role?
Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, I think the radical right’s influence in Europe is on the rise. Across various countries, we observe an increase in the vote share of these parties, marking a shift from the political margins to the mainstream. This evolution is evident not only in their electoral significance but also in their impact on other parties and in the shaping of public discourse. The discourse, influenced by the radical right, centers around the concept of crisis. Consequently, the transformations in different European countries, both in terms of societal composition and economic structures, are portrayed as crises. The radical right positions itself as the defender of ordinary people against these perceived threats, contributing to its growing prominence.
Regarding the second part of your question, the two aspects of this perceived crisis are closely intertwined. It is not solely about concerns over immigrants potentially taking away jobs or jobs relocating to regions like China or Central Eastern Europe. Additionally, it involves the perception that immigration and other transformative economic processes, such as the decline of traditional industries like mining and the phase-out of internal combustion engines, are altering our way of life in a manner framed as a threat to the native population. Analyzing public opinion data makes it empirically challenging to separate the effects of economic anxieties from cultural threat perceptions. While they are not identical, these factors are intricately linked in the minds of voters.
Germany was considered an exception to the success of populist radical right and far-right parties until the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). What factors contributed to Germany’s resistance to right-wing populism for an extended period, and how did the AfD manage to break this trend? In other words, how do you explain the success of ‘cordon sanitaire’ until very recently and what factors could contribute to its demise?
Kai Arzheimer: You are right. The AfD, established just a decade ago, represents the first successful national radical right party in Germany since at least the 1960s. The establishment and maintenance of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the radical right in Germany can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, right-wing and far-right actors in Germany have often adopted extreme approaches. Unlike the most successful radical right parties in Western Europe, such as those in Scandinavia, the PVV in the Netherlands, and even the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, which have moderated their stances over time to appeal to a broader electorate, far-right actors in Germany have tended to adhere closely to the roots of German right-wing extremism from the 1930s and 1940s. This historical connection, understandably, has been repugnant to most Germans, limiting the success of such parties.
Another contributing factor has been the historical division within the far-right in Germany. Numerous relatively small parties competed with each other, preventing any single one from surpassing the 5 percent threshold. Additionally, the mainstream right party, the Christian Democrats, has traditionally embraced a broad spectrum of ideologies, ranging from center-left to robust conservatism. Over the decades, they successfully appealed to a wide array of voters, some of whom later shifted to the far-right AfD once it emerged as a viable alternative.
One crucial aspect to consider is how the AfD successfully broke through the ‘cordon sanitaire,’ especially given that they did not initially identify as a radical right party. When they emerged in 2013, their platform primarily centered around soft Euroscepticism. The most notable member and co-founder, a former Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) member, contended that the CDU had left him due to a perceived leftward shift under Merkel’s leadership. This initial positioning made them acceptable to voters who had previously supported mainstream right parties like the Free Democratic Party (FDP), CDU, and Christian Social Union (CSU).
It was only over the first three years of their existence that it became evident that the AfD was transforming into a fully-fledged radical right party. By that point, they had already secured a presence in Parliament, become a significant political force, and garnered considerable media coverage. Through this evolution, they managed to establish themselves despite the long-standing ‘cordon sanitaire.’
Political Landscape Underwent Significant Changes with Influx of Refugees from Syria
Your research discusses the transformation of the AfD from its moderately Eurosceptic beginnings to a more radical right-wing stance. Can you elaborate on the key factors and events that led to this ideological shift within the AfD?
Kai Arzheimer: First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge that right from its inception, the party encompassed various right-wingers with diverse perspectives. While the individuals I mentioned in my earlier response, those with previous ties to the CDU or FDP, were more prominently featured, they represented just a segment of the broader ideological spectrum within the party. These individuals took center stage as front-row politicians for the fledgling party.
As early as 2014, a power struggle emerged within the AfD, pitting the more moderate proponents against the growing influence of radical elements within the party. By 2015, this internal conflict had escalated to the point where one of the co-founders and arguably the party’s most prominent figure decided to leave, taking approximately 10 percent of the membership with him. Notably, this group comprised a disproportionately high number of individuals from the middle management level of the party, contributing significantly to a division between the more moderate faction and the increasingly influential radical forces within the party.
Moreover, the political landscape underwent significant shifts with the arrival of numerous refugees from Syria and the broader Middle East in 2015 and 2016. This influx propelled the issue of immigration to the forefront of public discourse, providing an opportunity for the AfD to strategically capitalize on this altered agenda. Concentrating on immigration and multiculturalism emerged as a key strategy for success. This emphasis not only resonated with a segment of the electorate but also bolstered the influence of more radical voices within the party.
Finally, the party had solidified its position to such an extent that even more radical elements within its ranks, openly connected to traditional right-wing extremism both outside and inside the party, prominently rose to the forefront. This was exemplified by the regional leader in one of the Eastern States, who has become the face of the ultra-radicals within the party. Despite numerous attempts to expel him, none have succeeded, solidifying his status as a significant figure within the party. It is now challenging to envision any significant developments within the party occurring without his approval.
AfD Pushes Other Parties to Adopt a Tougher Stance on Immigration
Apparently, the AfD has emerged as a formidable force in German politics. How has the party altered the political landscape, and what repercussions does its presence carry for German politics? What impact is the AfD likely to have on the political trajectory of the CDU and CSU? Considering the broader context, what implications does the AfD’s prominence hold for the European Union?
Kai Arzheimer: Firstly, the AfD wields significant influence in several State Parliaments in Germany, particularly in the Eastern States, where it currently stands as the predominant party, commanding around 35 percent of the vote. This success has compelled the CDU to engage in unconventional coalitions with the Greens, SPD, and FDP at the state level, forming heterogeneous and oversized coalitions to avoid collaborating with the AfD. This impact is enduring, with three upcoming state elections, and the possibility that the AfD might even contend for State Premiership, potentially becoming the leading force in one of the Eastern States.
Secondly, the AfD has exerted substantial pressure on the CDU, as many politicians within the party feel a loss of both support and a portion of their conservative identity to the AfD. A discourse has emerged within the CDU asserting that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership of the party and the country was detrimental. Some argue that she shifted the party too much towards the center or even the left during her 16-year tenure as chancellor. Despite her prolonged majority control, this is perceived as a problem by a faction within the party, prompting a desire to adopt a tougher stance on immigration and cultural issues, aiming to realign the CDU with positions now advocated by the AfD. On the other hand, opposing voices within the CDU contend that societal changes have been significant, and Merkel’s success lies in her recognition of these shifts, allowing her to strategically reposition the CDU to maintain its political dominance for one and a half decades. This presents a second impact of the AfD’s success.
I believe the third impact is even more significant. In response to the AfD’s successes, there is now a discussion within the SPD and the FDP about the necessity for these parties to reposition themselves. The prevailing sentiment is that they must adopt a tougher stance on immigration and reconnect with their traditional constituencies. For the SPD, this involves appealing more to industrial workers and working-class individuals, while downplaying emphasis on issues such as gender equality or climate protection. This signifies a notable shift in the overall discourse towards a more right-leaning perspective.
The implications for Europe pose a distinct question. Personally, I don’t foresee the AfD entering into any form of coalition at the national level. There remains a broad consensus within the German political landscape that European integration, if not unification, is generally beneficial. While there is a push for fiscal prudence in Germany’s European relationships, it doesn’t undermine the fact that both major German political parties and the population, broadly speaking, are pro-European. Even the AfD, despite their criticisms of the European Union, doesn’t attribute a significant part of their current success to this issue. Strangely enough, the impact on the matter of European integration seems rather minimal at the moment.
A potential consequence could be that successful German governments may lean towards supporting more restrictive European policies on integration. Historically, the German government has maintained a relatively liberal stance within the European Union. However, there is a shift occurring, as a minority of European governments still support this more liberal approach. Domestically, there is pressure on the German government to adjust its position, and to some degree, this adjustment has already taken place.
Anti-Immigration Sentiment: A Fundamental Driver of AfD Support
Could you explain how the AfD’s current support aligns with the typical image of European radical right voters? What fundamental motivations drive support for the AfD among its voters? How significant is the role of anti-immigration sentiment in the AfD’s ascension?
Kai Arzheimer: It is absolutely essential for the support of the AfD, just as it is for other European radical right parties. Concerns about immigration, particularly from non-European countries, play a pivotal role in driving support for these parties. While not every individual skeptical about immigration aligns with radical right policies, a close examination of the AfD’s electorate in Germany, as well as that of comparable parties like the PVV in the Netherlands and others across Europe, reveals a notable correlation: it is challenging to find a supporter of these parties who views immigration as a positive development.
There are other motives as well. A range of secondary issues, including climate change denial, concerns about gender equality, and opposition to same-sex marriages, among others, align closely with support for the radical right. While Euroscepticism is present, it is essentially a secondary motive. Stripping away these secondary concerns reveals that the primary and most significant factor for the AfD, and many similar parties, is resistance to immigration and the apprehension towards European societies becoming more diverse and multicultural.
One of your studies explores the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right sentiment in Germany. Regarding the impact of ‘place’ on populist radical right attitudes, how do regional disparities, such as those in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), still influence political sentiments, and what policy implications does this have?
Kai Arzheimer: That’s a very interesting question. What we observe across Europe is a concentration of support for these parties in specific regions, often in rural areas or smaller, economically challenged towns. In our study, we sought to quantify the impact of objective indicators of deprivation, such as demographic changes, declining public infrastructure, high unemployment, and significant immigration rates, among other factors. Even after accounting for the demographic composition of the local population—for example, recognizing that younger, more educated individuals are less likely to support the radical right, while older men with lower levels of formal education tend to support it disproportionately—we discovered a persistent effect related to places being in the former GDR 30 years after reunification. There seems to be something enduring about this part of Germany that contributes to increased support for the radical right, and there are various possible explanations for this phenomenon.
One possible explanation is the lingering influence of the authoritarian regime in the former GDR, which might have left behind an authoritarian mindset. Additionally, the low levels of immigration into the GDR, even up to the present day, could contribute to the phenomenon. Rural parts of the former GDR, in particular, have relatively few immigrants, leading residents to be less accustomed to exposure to individuals who look different or have a different culture. There’s also the argument that individuals in the former GDR, having been ridiculed, treated as second-class citizens, may harbor a backlash against perceived Western superiority.
While all these potential explanations seem to align in a similar direction, disentangling them from each other proves challenging. However, a noteworthy factor that stands out is what we term "place resentment"—the sentiment that the area, town, or region where one lives lacks sufficient recognition and resources. This sense of being overlooked, especially in terms of recognition, appears to be a significant contributing factor to the peculiar and enduring GDR effect observed to the present day.
Hurdles for Banning AfD are Exceptionally High
Given the growing strength of the AfD, there are calls from the SPD to ban the party. How do you evaluate the arguments and considerations behind these calls for banning the AfD?
Kai Arzheimer: The hurdles for banning a party in Germany are exceptionally high, with only three institutions—the Federal Council, Federal Government, and Federal Parliament—having the authority to initiate such a process. However, they lack the power to enact a ban; they can only request the highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, to consider it. Convincing the court requires demonstrating that the targeted party poses a threat to the existence of democracy in Germany, and even if this argument is made, a supermajority of the court, two-thirds of the sitting judges is needed for approval. The last successful attempt to ban a party was in 1956 when the Communist Party was prohibited, and even then, it was a controversial decision. There have been two subsequent attempts to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), another far-right party, which is now relatively small. Despite being labeled a real neo-Nazi party openly aligned with Nazi ideology, the Federal Constitutional Court concluded that, while they may espouse neo-Nazi views, they are essentially a tiny political sect and not a significant threat to the constitutional order of Germany, preventing their ban.
The potential for failure in this process is substantial, and many politicians are concerned that it could be perceived as restricting political competition. Such an attempt would likely align with the AfD’s narrative of victimization and marginalization in German politics. The party could exploit the situation to portray themselves as suppressed, with the establishment resorting to legal means to limit competition and disenfranchise their supporters. The risk of this narrative gaining traction is significant, and even if the process were initiated, it might turn out to be a protracted endeavor. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee of success, as the Federal Constitutional Court could ultimately decide against banning the party, which would, in essence, be seen as a tacit endorsement. Given these concerns, many German politicians and the government are highly reluctant to pursue this course of action.
The argument in favor of a ban stems from the presence of individuals within the AfD who pose genuine threats to the constitutional order. They quite openly talk about remigrating people, suggesting that individuals with a German passport, those who have legally resided in the country, or even their parents, should be expelled because their skin color is the “wrong tone,” or their surname is of the “wrong kind.” This sparked considerable controversy in German politics last week, although such sentiments are not new. These voices have persisted for an extended period, with concrete evidence such as a book authored by Björn Höcke in 2020 where these individuals actively campaigned for reprehensible ideas. The potential elevation of figures like Björn Höcke to significant positions, such as Minister, President, or State premier of a German State, is particularly concerning. Additionally, if the AfD emerges as the dominant political force in various parts of the German East, it raises legitimate concerns about the threat to liberal democracy.
This is why some politicians, journalists, professors, and others argue that we should, at the very least, contemplate the possibility of banning the AfD before it reaches a point of irreversibility. These are the key arguments both in favor of and against such actions. Despite the substantial political risks and the lengthy process involved, proponents argue that it might be a necessary step due to concerns that some individuals within the AfD are actively attempting to undermine the democratic principles that define Germany.
The last sentence of your article titled "Don’t Mention the War! How Populist Right-Wing Radicalism Became (Almost) Normal in Germany" reads: "Therefore, my prediction is that as in other countries, the rise of a right-wing populist party will make Germany less flexible and more inward-looking than it already is. This does not bode well for German and for European Politics." It is an article written in 2019. Five years later, do you believe your prediction has been vindicated, or has Germany, in fact, become more flexible and outward-looking?
Kai Arzheimer: In a sense, my perspective has been vindicated, as Germany has indeed devoted significant energy to discussions about the rise of the AfD. The debates on accommodating voters, considering more restrictions, and emphasizing national interests have absorbed the attention of German elites and political energy that could have been directed elsewhere. In a sense, yes, Germany is even more inward-looking than it was five years ago. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the geopolitical landscape has undergone radical changes, marked by the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and the need to contemplate European security in light of a possible second Trump presidency. In response to these external factors, Germany has shown increased flexibility in its approach to using military power, providing military support to Ukraine, collaborating with European neighbors, and welcoming Ukrainian refugees. However, Germany was compelled to take these actions due to external factors. While I may not have been entirely accurate in my predictions, there is a sense of vindication in understanding the context behind Germany’s decisions.
AfD Poised to Secure 20-30 Percent of the Vote in EP Elections
How do you assess the recently exposed meeting involving AfD politicians and neo-Nazis, where discussions about deporting millions of people with a non-German ethnic background, including citizens, took place?
Kai Arzheimer: Well, I’ve already touched upon that. It sparked public outcry, and rightly so, given its disturbing resemblance to the ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the Nazis’ plan to exterminate Jews. This development is significant, aligning with the trajectory of the AfD over the past 5 to 6 years. Martin Sellner, a prominent figure in right-wing extremism from Austria and former leader of the Identitarian movement, attended the meeting, adding weight to the concerns.
Officially, the AfD asserts an incompatibility between membership in the Identitarian movement and the AfD. However, in reality, numerous members, especially within the youth wing of the AfD, are affiliated with the Identitarian movement. Furthermore, individuals from the Identitarian Movement have been hired as staffers for AfD members of Parliament. During the recent party conference for the upcoming European Parliament election, when the list of candidates was drawn up, many expressing similar ideas were present. The party leadership was in attendance, and no one seemed oblivious to the implications. While not entirely surprising news, it does contribute to a growing public awareness of these concerning tendencies within the AfD.
And lastly, what is your prediction regarding the AfD’s potential performance in the upcoming European Parliament elections? Do you believe the AfD could replicate the success of Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands?
Kai Arzheimer: I think that’s quite possible. Currently, the AfD stands at approximately 20-21 percent in national polls. However, European elections typically witness lower turnout, as some individuals may not view them with the same seriousness as national elections. The lower threshold becomes relevant for the AfD in this context. Consequently, people might be more inclined to experiment with their votes and support outsider parties. As a result, I anticipate a robust performance by the AfD in the European election, ranging between 20-30 percent of the vote.