On February 1, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first Eurosceptic upstart party in decades, ended its three-day conference in Bremen. The event had attracted an estimated two thousand party participants and nearly twice as many protestors, which has been a common ratio for anti-Muslim demonstrations occurring in the country. Pegida, or the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, is the anti-Muslim movement that has been organizing near weekly demonstrations around the country. While it does not boast an official affiliation with AfD, those that attend Pegida demonstrations are the most vocal supporters of the upstart party. The two groups share the same stance on immigration and many of the same supporters.
Journalists are predicting that the anti-Muslim, anti-Immigration movement is doomed, citing its shifting leadership, dwindling approval rating, and lousy turnouts with each new demonstration. Anti-Pegida protestors are now outnumbering Pegida supporters, successfully debunking each planned appearance. Still, the country is rattled by the proliferation of Pegida and AfD’s rhetoric, marked by extreme nationalist sentiment and pro-White European ideology that jeopardizes the country’s progressive identity. Just one day after the nation observed Holocaust Remembrance Day, Alexander Gauland, vice chairman of AfD, released a statement calling for an end to Muslim immigration. The historical comparisons were not overlooked, and were particularly chilling just weeks after photographs of Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. Bachmann has since resigned.
Despite the quick and severe backlash from the German press, AfD is currently polling at 6%, meeting the required minimum to vie for seats in parliament in several critical state elections—a rare success for an upstart party. At this weekend’s conference, the party announced its plans to narrow its leadership model to one chairman, which would consolidate founder Bernd Lucke’s strategy to mobilize 23,000 grassroots members across the country.
The distinction of Otherness has never left Europe, but despite social tensions, Germany has maintained inclusive policy towards new communities. While France had little trouble banning the hijab and Switzerland banned the construction of new minarets, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, announced a series of pro-Muslim initiatives to ease tension within German communities and combat Islamophobia. Among these new policies, Maizière wanted to make it easier for Muslim immigrants to obtain dual citizenship, encouraging new communities to feel welcome in Germany without having to renounce cultural links to their places of origin. The growing fear of überfremdung, or over-foreignization, is still a deep issue within the country, but anti-Muslim rhetoric remained outside of political discourse, mostly thanks to the German politicians who considered it their duty to keep in mind the country’s Nazi past.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has not shied away from publicly reproving the movement. As quoted in the Guardian, she warned Germans that anti-immigration reasoning was thinly veiled racism, arguing, “What they really mean is ‘you are not one of us’ because of your skin color or your religion.” Islamophobia is seeping into the political discourse more explicitly than ever before, but unlike Germany’s neighbors, the conversation isn’t just being driven by the conservative elders, but by the youth.
Not long after AfD formed, the Junge Alternative for Germany (JA) was founded in June 2013. Citing the same values as its elder counterparts, the youth organization is open to people between 14-35 and has mobilized and recruited mostly through social media.
The Junge Alternative has continually tried to gain official endorsement from the AfD, but has failed to win affiliation because it is seen as “too far right,” even by the people wanting to ban Muslims from entering the country. As JA continues to submit the necessary papers to be recognized as the official youth component and publicly asks for AfD’s recognition, the rest of the world watches a large and growing conservative youth group prove itself less progressive than any representative in Parliament.
In addition to sharing AfD’s anti-immigration sentiment, Junge Alternative has leveraged social media to introduce its own anti-feminist campaign. In response to a Facebook post by the Social Democrats showing support for International Women’s Day, the JA launched “Gleichberechtigung statt gleichmacherei," literally meaning “Equality without egalitarianism,” but more closely implies “equality without lowering the standard.” German media has had a field day with its controversial images and sexist imaging, most notably when its meme of four shirtless men went viral. Above the men read a slogan: “schluss mit kuscheljustiz,” or “end cuddly justice.”
By mobilizing through social media, the movement has reached teenagers and young adults more effectively than the its elders, successfully holding a presence in every German state. Whether AfD wants to officially accept it or not, the young organization has rebranded the image of the conservative party and removed the “old man” stigma. In an interview in the German language newspaper Zeit, a former member of the JA spoke out on the brand strategy of the racist youth group, explaining how insiders and supporters know it as “Neo-Nazi Hipsters.”
Image is important to the Neo-Nazi Hipsters. Their chairman, Franziska Schreiber, is a 21 year old law student who is edgy in appearance and active on social media, waxing poetic on her right to free speech. She encourages youth to speak their minds and claims that the major political parties are obsolete. Her defense of anti-immigration is polished, vague, and dubious, as Die Welle relayed her claim, “to understand Muslims alone as a victim is too undifferentiated.”
Schreiber and her cohorts were in Bremen this weekend, expecting to receive an official nod from AfD. Once again, they left disappointed. The rest of Germany watches nervously as the fringe group garners more attentions and support than upstart organizations before it, leaving politicians in a quandary. Political parties do not want to remain silent in the face of growing racism, keeping in mind the country’s Nazi past and Germany's present-day commitment to the slogan “Never Again.” It is clear that Pegida sentiment is shared by only a fringe minority, but the BBC reported statistics that show 20 percent of under-30s voted for fringe parties, including the AfD, in the 2013 general election, compared with only seven percent in 2005.
We have seen many iterations of Germany in the last one hundred years: an empire, a republic, a regime, an occupation – each of these starkly contrasting eras, when examined alongside one another, proved contentious with its predecessor. After Merkel’s era has ended, Parliament will have to ask itself what the Germany of tomorrow will look like. As long as Junge Alternative and its ilk continue to recruit those who are generations removed from the wars, walls, and the lessons that have driven the country’s progress, Germany’s democratic structure leaves the country with little choice but to include them in the conversation.
Mary von Aue is a freelance writer based in New York. She holds an MA from Columbia University, where she studied classical Islamic literature and the effects of the water crisis in Palestine, a topic she investigated while working in Deheishe Refugee Camp. Mary has lived in 6 countries and writes about history, policy, and culture. Twitter @von_owie