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Far-right gains leave Germans pondering future

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, six from left in yellow, leads the first cabinet meeting of the German government after last weekend’s general elections at the chancellery in Berlin on Sept. 27.

BERLIN >> As the results of Germany’s election Sept. 24 flashed on her television screen in the western city of Cologne, Kirsten Schindler, watched with a mixture of confusion and dismay.

For the first time since 1960, a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, had broken into the parliament, winning nearly 13 percent of the vote. Celebrating, its leading candidate, Alexander Gauland, pledged to “take back our country and our people.”

Schindler, a professor of linguistics at the University of Cologne, felt that all the postwar lessons of tolerance and acceptance of her western German upbringing were now suddenly at risk.

“I kept thinking the whole time, who are ‘our people?’” she said. “He doesn’t mean me.”

The outcome of the election has given her country equal pause. The result has ushered in a moment of national soul-searching over what post-World War II Germany is today, and whether its sense of a unique historical burden for Nazism and the Holocaust is felt as deeply as it once was.

At the very least, the vote has forced many Germans to realize that their country, despite its past, is not immune to the tug of nationalism and populism that has challenged liberal democracies across Europe and in the United States.

Many Germans bridled at the thought. Within minutes of the election results, German-speaking social media responded with a campaign promoting the 87 percent who did not elect the far-right.

Some noted the comparison with the United States, where a right-wing populist, Donald Trump, won the election, or France, where the far right made it to the final round of presidential voting this year.

Compared to many of its European neighbors, Germany’s far-right force remains a minority. But an analysis of the returns also shows that in only 1 of 299 polling districts did the AfD earn less than 5 percent, reflecting widespread, if not necessarily deep, support for the far right.

That revelation is a sobering reality for those Germans who believed that liberal democracy was an unshakable moral compass for their modern, reunified country.

“Now I have the impression there is no longer any consensus anymore,” Schindler said.

Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned against allowing the vote to drive a wedge in society, insisting that now is not the time for anyone “to retreat to their own niche shaking their heads.”

But the map of where the AfD enjoyed its strongest support also reveals clear lines of division that have split the country throughout its history.

One is the divide between the largely Roman Catholic southern states, where conservatives turned their backs on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

The other cuts along the former East-West border of the Cold War, with support for the AfD by far strongest in the former East Germany, where the party also made its strongest showing ever in regional elections last year.

Johannes Staemmler, now in his mid-30s, was born and raised in Dresden, the capital of the eastern state of Saxony, where the AfD emerged as the strongest force with 27 percent of the vote.

From his home in Berlin, he recognized immediately whom Gauland meant by “our people” — it was his former schoolmates, neighbors and family members in the east.

In the first two decades after reunification, the region’s population dropped by 2 million, many of them young people like him who had moved west looking for jobs.

Referencing an idea laid out by J.D. Vance in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Staemmler said that while church, family and country serve as mainstays of community in the American Midwest, such anchors are missing in the former Communist east.

“In the east, there is no church, families are splintered because so many young people have moved away and the state is not viewed as representing them,” Staemmler said.

“So when Gauland says, ‘Let’s be proud of Germany, let’s take back our country, let’s put our country first,’ he is serving their need for identity, for community,” he said.

Others placed the blame squarely on Merkel.

“Through the gutting of her party, in which she drove out any and all conservative positions, she opened up space on the right fringe, sending unhappy conservatives into the arms of right-wing populists,” Stefan Kuzmany, wrote in an editorial commentary in Spiegel Online.

Still others lay the fault not with the policies of the governing parties, but in their inability to take the far right seriously. They never stopped to consider what made the party attractive to voters.

“The traditional parties were too relaxed about the rise of the AfD — too sluggish,” said Dieter Hoffmann, 71, a retired former teacher from Berlin. “I think at the next election, we’ll perhaps have less of the AfD, because the other parties will have realized what the people want.”

Julian Reichelt, a digital editor at the country’s most widely read newspaper, Bild, drew on the image of stopped-up school toilets — a perennial theme in the German press — to illustrate the disconnect between voters and the politicians who are supposed to represent them.

“Such imperative daily realities rarely made it into the election,” Reichelt wrote in an editorial.

Nor did the increasing fears women have of walking city streets alone, or the inability to speedily deport migrants who have no case for legal asylum, he noted.

Politicians’ failure to address such basic concerns during the campaign, he said, “made many people utterly, needlessly angry.”

The bulk of those who will represent the AfD in parliament are virtual political unknowns, leaving some Germans to take a wait-and-see approach.

Although the AfD has vowed to be a disruptive force in parliament, Gauland acknowledged the responsibility the party faces.

“Of course the language of an election campaign is different than the language in parliament,” he said.

Others hoped that a turn in government would ultimately lead the AfD to self-destruct, or self-correct.

“The Left Party was just as despised early on, or even the Greens,” Hoffmann said. “Today, it’s the AfD, and if they have any sense they will expel the extreme forces from their party and become just a typical conservative party.”

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