Reporter's notebook'AfD reminds people of Nazis, but on some things it's right'

Germans say far-right AfD lacks legitimacy, even after its European Parliament gains

Amid a nationalist swell, AfD rises 5 percentage points but remains too controversial for widespread public support – even for some small-town sympathizers

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Alice Weidel (L) and co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Tino Chrupalla react after first exit polls after the European Parliament elections in Berlin, on June 9, 2024. (Ralf Hirschberger / AFP)
Co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Alice Weidel (L) and co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party Tino Chrupalla react after first exit polls after the European Parliament elections in Berlin, on June 9, 2024. (Ralf Hirschberger / AFP)

MUNICH, Germany — Few if any of Europe’s far-right parties carry as much baggage as Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigration movement that’s frequently rocked by scandals connected to the country’s Nazi past.

Yet, in a sign of the European far-right’s rising popularity, the party — called AfD locally — received 16 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections in Germany on Sunday, a five-point increase over the 2019 elections. AfD is now for the first time the second-largest German party in the legislative branch of the European Union.

Other European far-right parties also fared well in the elections, in which each European Union member state elected its representatives to the 720-person house, which allocates EU budgets and supervises the work of the executive branch.

France’s National Rally rose from 23% in the 2019 elections to 31%, prompting the centrist President Emmanuel Macron to call an early parliamentary election nationally. The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom increased its vote share from 2.5% to 17%, and Austria’s Freedom Party upped it from 19% in 2019 to 27%, the highest share of any Austrian party. (Despite these gains, the far-right bloc is not the largest in parliament, trailing both the center-left and center-right ones.)

AfD’s strong showing happened despite a crisis that rocked it only last month during the European Parliament campaign. Maximilian Krah, the party’s main candidate in those elections, said in an interview that “not all SS soldiers were criminals,” prompting rebukes from his party’s many critics and its own leaders and allies. Krah was forced to resign.

The scandal will likely not help AfD on its years-long journey toward the mainstream. The party, which was founded in 2014, has attempted to peel off the neo-Nazi label applied to it by many critics, including Jewish community leaders, to whom AfD is reminiscent of the Fascism that decimated Jewish life on the continent 80 years ago.

Pedestrians walk through Kaufbeuren, Germany, on June 7, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Yet, like the ones that preceded it, last month’s scandal also appears to have scarcely hurt the AfD, which gained after campaigning on immigration-related problems — including antisemitism — as well as inflation, energy policy, and security issues.

Dozens of street interviews conducted by The Times of Israel on the eve of the elections in the German state of Bavaria confirmed both the popularity of the party’s platform and the limitations of that popularity. Multiple interviewees who expressed positions close to AfD’s or who defended the party outright declined to tell this reporter, even anonymously, whether they would vote for it.

One elderly woman named Margarite Sandheim said she would vote “for anyone but the AfD neo-Nazis” during an interview in Kaufbeuren, a picturesque town at the foot of the Alps about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Bavarian capital Munich.

A woman sits next to elections posters in Kaufbeuren, Germany on June 7, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Others in Kaufbeuren defended the AfD against the “Nazi” allegation, arguing that the party was no different from any of its counterparts in Europe, which the interviewees suggested were responding to challenges that mainstream political parties have either created or failed to address.

“People don’t feel comfortable saying they’ll vote AfD,” said Marcus, a man in his 30s, outside a shopping mall in Kaufbeuren. He declined to say how he would vote himself.

“When you hear them say ‘Germany first’ or ‘Germany for Germans’ it reminds people of the past and they call AfD Nazis. But on some points, AfD is right: We can be proud of our country and nationality, just like they are in France or the United States. I mean, ‘America first?’ It’s the same, yet we’re not allowed because we’re Germans. It’s unsustainable,” said Marcus.

AfD’s share of the vote in Bavaria, one of Germany’s richest states, is at 11% — five percentage points below the national average and far less than the party’s showing in places such as Saxony, a relatively poor state where AfD swept 40% of the vote Sunday.

But even in Kaufbeuren, where crime is low and the average wage is roughly on par with the national one, AfD’s ideas resonate with many locals.

A scene from a 19th-century novel

Clean and boasting manicured landscaping, the cobblestoned streets of the old city of Kaufbeuren seem like a page out of a 19th-century novel, with locals enjoying ice cream in the early summer sun to the burble of Alpine streams whose turquoise waters flow in canals across town. A placid locale of about 40,000, Kaufbeuren hosts hundreds of Ukrainians who fled the war and several thousand immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech at the defense ministry during the ceremonial send-off for her in Berlin, on December 2, 2021. (Odd Andersen/Pool/AFP)

Some from the latter group arrived after 2014, when then-chancellor Angela Merkel, who was elected on the center-right platform of her CDU party, began accepting hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the war-torn Middle East despite growing opposition internally to this move, for which she cited humanitarian grounds.

“I want the German government to do more for its own people,” said one local in Kaufbeuren, Julia Fischer. She declined to say whom she intends to vote for.

“I’m not a racist but I think it’s very sad how retired people have to pick up bottles on the street to make a living, while the budgets go to Ukraine, to immigrants,” she added.

AfD politicians have raised similar arguments (their use of the phrase “we’re not Nazis” has served many satirists and meme creators.) Yet, at the same time, AfD top brass have repeatedly and consistently stood up for Nazi Germany, leaning into its legacy.

A recent example, in addition to the one provided by Krah, came from party leader Alice Weidel, who in September boycotted an event commemorating the liberation from Nazism because it was akin to celebrating “my own country’s defeat,” as she put it. Party founder and honorary chairman Alexander Gauland in 2017 was filmed saying Germans “should be proud” of soldiers who fought in both world wars.

Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor who heads the Jewish Community of Munich, has consistently warned against the perceived dangers of electoral gains by the AfD.

In a speech (in German) last week, she called AfD “anti-democratic,” adding that “it represents our greatest threat today, and not only in the parliamentary context. Their arrogance and hubris must be shattered both at the ballot box and by the defensive institutions of democracy.” At the 76th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2021, she addressed AfD leaders, saying: “You lost your struggle 76 years ago,” referencing both the Nazi defeat and Adolf Hitler’s well-known book, “Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle.”

Germany has seen significant violent antisemitism in recent years both from the far-right — as in the attempted synagogue massacre in Halle in 2019 — and from people with roots in Muslim-majority countries.

The outbreak of war in Gaza following the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities in southern Israel further exacerbated the situation, with life-changing consequences for many German Jews.

The ‘Nazis’ turn to fighting antisemitism?

Gady Gronich in his office in Munich, Germany on June 7, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In Munich, Gady Gronich, the CEO of the Conference of European Rabbis, lately did something he’d never done during his 32 years living in Germany: He avoided speaking Hebrew in public.

“Many German Jews are afraid. They fear getting assaulted, of course. But they also fear being confronted by questions like, ‘Why does Israel murder children,’” said Gronich, who faced such a question multiple times in recent months on the street in Berlin. In many cases, hostility toward Jews comes from immigrants from Muslim countries, he noted.

In 2023, authorities recorded a total of 3,614 antisemitic hate crimes in Germany, where about 120,000 Jews live, according to the Conference of European Rabbis. This constituted a 31% increase over 2022, with the bulk of the incidents occurring after October 7.

Whereas Germany’s government has supported Israel staunchly in the war and upped security around Jewish institutions, the hostility or antipathy of many non-Jews is making Jews in Germany feel isolated, Gronich said. “Security is tighter around our Jewish community center, but there are fewer people to guard: Attendance has dipped since October 7,” he said.

AfD has attempted to harness this development for political gain. In November, the party submitted a draft resolution, which the German parliament later rejected, titled “Clearly identify and effectively combat antisemitism caused by immigration – deport supporters of antisemitic terrorism.”

The antisemitism that erupted on October 7, Gronich said, “is a more clear and present danger than the success of the AfD in the elections.” But, he added, the AfD’s gradual rise is “also worrisome. There is no need to run to the arms of the far-right because of fears of antisemitism by extremist Muslims. It will not improve matters,” he said. Many Germans, and AfD voters especially, consider Jews foreigners, he noted.

“When the AfD crowd are done dealing with the other foreigners, they will come round to the Jews,” Gronich said. The Conference of European Rabbis is not considering changing its policy of zero engagement with AfD, he added, “but we are deliberating internally on how to proceed with other European far-right parties in light of the European Parliament elections results.”

Tino Chrupalla, right, co-chairman of the ‘Alternative fuer Deutschland’ (Alternative for Germany) and Alice Weidel, left, co-chairwoman of the ‘Alternative fuer Deutschland’ (Alternative for Germany) party cheer at the end of the European election meeting in Magdeburg, Germany, August 6, 2023. (Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa via AP)

AfD has been outspoken in its support for Israel after October 7, when about 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 251, prompting an ongoing Israeli operation in Gaza that has resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths, including many terrorists but also civilians.

Speaking as the honorary AfD chairman, Gauland said in October that “Israel is the West in an environment that rejects and fights the West. When we stand with Israel, we are also defending our way of life.”

AfD is one of several European far-right parties that have expressed support for Israel after October 7 even as public opinion — and sometimes the diplomatic establishment — in their countries began to turn against the Jewish state.

Gronich sees this as an attempt by AfD to ingratiate itself with Israel and its supporters to distance the party from its antisemitic image.

“AfD is taking a page out of Marine Le Pen’s manual,” said Gronich, referencing the leader of France’s National Rally, whose leadership she took over from her overtly antisemitic father, Jean-Marie. She has worked to rehabilitate and mainstream the National Rally — formerly called National Front.

Supporters of the French far-right National Rally party react at the party’s election night headquarters in Paris on June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

Her efforts, which included kicking out antisemites — including her own father — have been successful: Prior to receiving 31% of the vote in France for the European Parliament — an 8-point increase over 2019 that will make National Rally the largest French party by far in the house — she had received 41% of the vote in the 2022 presidential elections (also an 8-point jump over the previous match in 2017.)

Ahead of the European Parliament elections, Serge Klarsfeld, a French-Jewish hunter of Nazis and longtime critic of National Rally, said that it is “progressively entering the circle of republican parties,” meaning mainstream and legitimate political movements. Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister, Amichai Chikli, spoke with Marine Le Pen at a conference in Madrid, in a rare sign of acceptance by an Israeli official.

AfD’s own messages resonate with some Jews in Germany, just as National Rally’s does in France.

“What Jewish community leaders say is, in my opinion, largely determined by political hypocrisy,” said one German-Jewish man, who spoke to The Times of Israel under the condition of anonymity, citing concerns for his livelihood.

The man said he has voted AfD in the past but decided to sit out the current elections.

“I don’t think the AfD has any hidden agenda. The AfD lacks a Nazi ideology, it has simply become a nationalist party… like there are in every country. This is a natural part of every society. You don’t have to sympathize, but you shouldn’t demonize them either,” he said.

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