Very few Americans have heard of the Alternative for Germany ("AfD") Party or even follow German politics. This is understandable for now since we are fixated on the US presidential campaign just now. But even in non-election year little attention is paid to European politics. So I was very pleased that The New Yorker magazine published an excellent piece on the party leader (for now) Frauke Pettry: The New Star of Germany's Far Right. The timing of the article is good since the AfD has just achieved success in several state elections and is poised to do very well in the 2017 national election.
The journalist Thomas Meany spent a month traveling with Petry all across Germany and interviewed a number of people - including Pegida marchers and recent refugees - to try to understand the rise of the AfD. In the article Frauke Petry comes across as a very clever political operative who is able to mask her extremist populist views behind a veneer of technocratic competence. She is not a rabble-rouser like Donald Trump - openly inciting hate in raucous rallies. Rather she delivers rather boring speeches in which she manipulates or distorts data to advance a dangerous right-wing populism. One example cited is how she uses her training as a scientist (she has a doctorate in chemistry) to conflate scientific concepts to claim that man-made global warming is a hoax and has CO2 emissions are harmless (the scientific community is in complete agreement that carbon emissions contribute to climate change.)
Like Trump, she will always lie to deflect inconvenient truths. For example, Petry denies that any AfD supporters are behind the wave of violent assaults against foreigners in the eastern German states:
"According to an estimate by the German Interior Ministry, violence against foreigners increased by more than forty per cent last year. There were six hundred and sixty-five assaults on asylum shelters—an average of almost two a day—including fifty-five cases of arson, and there were more than a hundred attacks on individuals.
The most notorious attacks have been in Saxony, Petry’s state. At the start of this year in Chemnitz, neo-Nazis beat and trampled a thirteen-year-old Tunisian girl. In Bautzen, a small town close to the Czech border, a large crowd cheered when a refugee shelter went up in flames. In Clausnitz, another crowd attacked a bus transporting refugees to a shelter.
The attacks take place in a sinister atmosphere of municipal complicity. The police keep interventions to a minimum, and prosecutions are rare, in part because few witnesses come forward. In one town, after the home of an immigrant family was firebombed, a volunteer fireman who helped fight the blaze was later discovered to have thrown the Molotov cocktail that started it.
In the economically stagnant, mostly Eastern, towns where anti-immigrant feeling runs highest, hatred of the new arrivals has not prevented people from taking advantage of their presence. The government has invested millions of euros in housing for refugees, which local interests have welcomed as a rare form of economic stimulus. The Clausnitz attack was led by an AfD supporter named Frank Hetze, whose brother, another AfD member, turned out to be the director of the shelter. It later emerged that the Hetze family business, a metals factory, had sold shipping containers to a refugee center in Leipzig, which used them for temporary accommodations.
The day after the Clausnitz attack, Petry gave a press conference in which she blamed refugees on the bus for inciting the violence. “The incoming refugees were making unsightly gestures—possibly obscene gestures,” she said. When asked about the involvement of AfD members, she said that the matter would “need to be further researched.” Later, when I said that the AfD affiliation of the attackers was well established, she became flustered. “That’s not true!” she kept saying. “There were no AfD members connected with any of the attacks, or whatever you are calling them.”"
Her phrase - "or whatever you are calling them" -is telling. In her mind they are probably not really 'attacks' but rather a logical means of protecting the integrity of the German Volk.
What is clear is that the AfD is riding a populist wave that is sweeping across Europe. Already Petry's colleagues in the AfD are meeting with and coordinating actions with her counterparts in Europe:
She has established close ties with Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, and has also met with Geert Wilders, the star of the Dutch far right. She told me that a colleague had recently met with Marine Le Pen, of France’s Front National, and that over the summer she had spoken to various American Republicans, including the Iowa congressman Steve King, who has compared immigrants to dogs and suggested building an electric fence on the U.S. border with Mexico. When I asked her what she thought of Donald Trump, she said, “My impression is that Trump may become the American President, because the alternative to him, Hillary Clinton, is just so unconvincing. She is almost like a copy of someone like Merkel—someone who just keeps on with the same policies that led to the trouble in the first place.”
So far, Trump hasn't advocated shooting illegal immigrants at the border - as Petry has - although many of Trump's deplorable supporters would like to do so.
It will be interesting to watch the behavior of the AfD as they enter the state assemblies and are forced to actually govern and work together with the mainstream parties.