Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Are Germans turning against the AfD?

A demonstrator holds a placard saying 'Everyone hates Nazis' during the protest by the Brandenburg gate, Berlin, 14 January (Credit: Getty images)

After months of steadily climbing in the polls, could this be the moment the bubble bursts for the right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)? Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people gathered in cities across the country to protest against the party and its ideology. 

Over 25,000 people congregated by the Brandenburg gate in Berlin on Sunday, holding placards with slogans such as ‘AfD is not the alternative’ and ‘Defend Democracy’. At least 7,000 turned out in the northern port city of Kiel, a further 5,000 protested in the south-western city of Saarbrücken, and in the city of Dresden just under 1,000 came out to protest. On Friday, 2,000 people also picketed the AfD headquarters in Hamburg. 

For many, the summit proposals’ similarities to the Nazis’ ethnic cleansing are too close for comfort

The trigger for the protests was the news, revealed last week, that senior figures in the AfD had met with German and Austrian neo-Nazis (as well as two members of Angela Merkel’s CDU party) at the end of November for a secret summit to discuss plans to deport millions of non-ethnic Germans from the country, including those with German citizenship.  

As well as causing outrage, this revelation has spooked the German public and political class. For many, the similarities between the summit’s proposals and the Nazis’ ethnic cleansing in the 20th century are too close for comfort. Last week’s news appears to have woken many Germans up to the fact that the AfD is not just a home for dissatisfied right-leaning voters, but a party with the desire – and potentially soon the power – to overturn the democratic basis on which the country has functioned for since it was reunified three decades ago. 

After it was revealed that Potsdam was the location of the AfD’s secret meeting, it was no surprise that the second largest protest in the country took place there this weekend, with 10,000 protesting in the Brandenburg state capital. Among the marchers were the chancellor Olaf Scholz and foreign affairs minister Annalena Baerbock – both have constituencies in the state. Potsdam is also significant in Germany’s wartime history as the place where Churchill, Stalin and Truman met in 1945 to carve up the country and, significantly, to agree to de-Nazify and democratise it. 

Scholz and Baerbock’s decision to attend the protest there was designed to send a message of defiance to the AfD, but also an ideological one to the country. ‘I stand here as one of thousands of Potsdam residents who stand up for democracy and against old and new fascism,’ Baerbock told the German press. Both politicians were pictured wearing scarves with the logo ‘Potsdam shows its colours’ written on them.  

Both Scholz and Baerbock clearly have the future in mind as well as the past. In September, the states of Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony will head to the polls for their state elections. In all three states, the AfD is leading in the polls, on an average of 30 per cent. There is now a realistic possibility the AfD could, for the first time, take power at the state level in Germany. Last week’s shocking revelation was the perfect opportunity for Scholz to capitalise on the outrage and try to claw back support away from the right-wing party. 

Scholz, of course, is not the only party leader with one eye focused on the threat to Germany’s democracy and the other on this year’s elections. The Green party leader Omid Nouripour said the AfD should be prosecuted ‘with the full force of the law’ for their part in November’s meeting. Meanwhile, the prime minister of North Rhein-Westphalia, Hendrik Wüst, branded it a ‘dangerous Nazi party’. 

It is too soon to say whether the summit will have a more permanent impact on the AfD’s popularity until we see more polling in the weeks to come. But if Scholz, or indeed any other party leader, can successfully capitalise on the disgust the AfD’s secret meeting has triggered in Germany, it might just halt the party’s seemingly unstoppable rise.