The Alternative for Germany (AfD) on Sunday, breaking a taboo, became the first hard-right, openly anti-immigration party to win dozens of seats in parliament since World War II, despite mainstream politicians’ calls to halt “the Nazis” in their tracks and sparking concern from Jewish groups and others.
Exit polls credited the AfD with around 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest political force in Germany — a stunning result for a party that was founded just four years ago.
“We will change this country,” vowed Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s top two candidates, pledging to “go after” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
Having already won seats in 13 of 16 state parliaments, the AfD will now send dozens of lawmakers to the Bundestag opposition benches, giving them a platform to spread their views, including challenging Germany’s culture of atonement over World War II and the massacre of six million Jews and others in the Holocaust.
Almost immediately after the exit polls were released, several major Jewish groups expressed alarm and dismay at the anti-migrant party’s rise.
German Central Council of Jews President Josef Schuster said the AfD “tolerates far-right thoughts and agitates against minorities.”
He said he expects Germany’s other parties will “reveal the true face of the AfD and unmask their empty, populist promises.”
Charlotte Knobloch, chairwoman of the Munich Jewish community and a former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, described the strong AfD showing as a “nightmare come true.”
“I am greatly concerned about democracy in our country,” she said. “This result is a nightmare come true, a historical change. For the first time [since the end of the Second World War], an extreme-right party will be strongly represented in parliament.”
The head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, congratulated Merkel on securing a fourth term, calling her a “true friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”
But he denounced the AfD as “a disgraceful reactionary movement which recalls the worst of Germany’s past.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it had no immediate comment on the election results.
After the results were announced, the AfD promised that it would make it a priority to launch a parliamentary probe against Merkel over her decision to let in a million asylum seekers since 2015.
Among the AfD remarks condemned by Jewish groups was co-leader Alexander Gauland’s recent statement that no other country has faced up to past crimes the way Germany has and that the Nazi years “today don’t affect our identity anymore.”
The International Auschwitz Committee warned that the “conglomerate of anti-Semites, enemies of democracy and nationalistic agitators” will bring “an inhuman coldness” to the glass-domed chamber of the Reichstag building.
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily called the election “a watershed in the federal republic’s history, comparable to the first vote of a unified Germany in 1990, although that case was a welcome event.”
“For the first time in more than 50 years, a nationalist, extreme-right, broadly racist party will sit in the Bundestag… That is sad, shameful and will change the climate in the country,” the paper’s lead editorial read.
‘Bikinis, not burkas’
The AfD began life as an anti-euro protest party but then shifted focus to capitalize on misgivings over the record one million asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since 2015.
Its tone turned increasingly extreme in the last stretch of election campaigning, with one of its two leading candidates saying Germany should be proud of its war veterans and claiming that terror was grounded in Islam.
Provocative posters declared “Burkas? We prefer bikinis” and “New Germans? Let’s make them ourselves.”
Its supporters heckled Merkel’s rallies across the country, jeering, whistling and chanting, “Get lost” in attempts to drown her out.
Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, has warned that “for the first time since the end of the second World War, real Nazis will sit in the German parliament.” The Greens party has used the same term.
Merkel, more cautiously, urged voters to choose “the parties that are 100% loyal to our constitution.”
The AfD will be a pariah in the Bundestag, as all mainstream parties have said they won’t work with it, but the party could still be vocally disruptive from the opposition benches.
‘Le Pen pales in comparison’
A commentator in the Spiegel weekly blamed Merkel for the rise of the AfD, saying she should be voted out simply for failing to stop “the Nazis from entering the Bundestag” on her watch.
Critics say widening social inequality, despite record employment, is also playing into the hands of AfD populists, who are most popular in the de-industrialized heartlands of the former communist east.
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said the AfD’s rise shows that “Germany is not so different from other European countries, where there are strong right-wing populist forces.”
“Our population is no more virtuous than the French population,” he noted, saying that even France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen “pales in comparison.”
The party “will challenge key themes” in parliament, he said, pointing to Germany’s culture of wartime remembrance and debate on cultural identity.
Gauland recently called for Germans to stop atoning for the past.
He also said integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz should be “disposed of in Anatolia,” suggesting she would never be German because of her Turkish origin.
The presence of the AfD “will very much change the tone of debate in parliament,” Benner warned.
But Manfred Guellner, who heads the opinion poll institute Forsa, predicted that the AfD will self-destruct in the Bundestag.
“The AfD will disintegrate because that’s what happens to sectarian groups from the right,” he told Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.