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Who Voted for Germany’s New Nazis?


As Germany’s police attacked anti-Fascist protesters once again with tear gas (as if gas hadn’t already done enough damage throughout German history!), Germany’s newest Nazi Party, the AfD, held its party convention in early December 2017. Plagued by years of infighting, the party selected, once again, a new leadership. The new leaders will shift the party away from its reactionary-conservatism wing towards its racially motivated völkisch-nationalist wing which positions the AfD even more to the extreme right.

Already represented in 14 regional parliaments, elections to the federal parliament (on 24th September 2017) resulted in the fact that for the first time since 1945, a new neo-Nazi party called “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) was elected with 12.6%. Although the AfD is relatively new as a political party, its ancestors date back to Germany’s real Nazis (NSDAP 1920-1945) followed by the short-lived post-World War II “Socialist Reichsparty”(SRP). Like the NSDAP, the SRP was not a socialist party. It was the NSDAP’s Nazi successor immediately after the victory over Nazi Germany. Once declared illegal, the SRP’s successor became the neo-Nazi party “National-Democratic Party” (NPD). None of these parties were democratic. Neither SRP nor NPD made it big, perhaps because both simply weren’t as good as the AfD in hiding their Nazism. In many ways, however, the NPD has, at least in terms of ideology and voter support, paved the way for today’s AfD.

While similar in its racist-nationalistic and Anti-Semite ideology, today’s AfD has been highly successful in mobilizing voters. As AfD votes rose to 12.6%, the NPD’s votes declined to a meager 0.4% during the 2017 federal election. As voters shifted from NPD to AfD, the AfD can safely be called “NPD light”. It supports the AfD’s völkische Höcke-wing that is based on a more open version of Anti-Semitism, hallucinations of racial cleansing and Aryan nationalism. Nonetheless, merely shifting the rather small number of NPD supporters to the AfD cannot explain the AfD’s election success. Five facts have contributed to the rise of the new Nazis.

Firstly, there is a marked east-west difference in voter support for the AfD. The AfD was twice as strong in the former East-Germany than it was in the west. In the east, the AfD has also been successful in establishing local support networks. Often, these geographical areas are places created after Germany’s unification (1989/1990). The AfD takeover was originally furnished through a well-orchestrated demise of local “state-socialist’ structures (socialist clubs, youth associations, school-community links, neighborhood bodies, etc.).

As a consequence, many of these areas of the east are what AfD/Pegida/Neo-Nazi street thugs call “nationally freed zones” – no go areas for foreigners, progressives, and those not too German looking. The Nazis called such areas “Judenfrei”. In these areas, AfD’s street-fighting organization “Pegida” established local support structures long before the AfD was founded in 2013. Subsequently, they favored the AfD. In addition, many eastern AfD voters see themselves as ‘the losers of modernization’ – whether real or imagined. They make up about two-thirds of AfD voters. The AfD has also been successful in utilizing eastern resentment against the west. And indeed, for a long time, the citizens of the former East-Germany have been (mis-)treated as second class citizens by their western neighbors (BMW-vs.-Trabbi).

The east-west problem is further exasperated by the fact that AfD voters tend to live in rural areas with a low population density while voters of democratic parties are typically city based. In short, the more rural and the lower the population density, the higher the AfD vote. This is one factor. But this alone does not explain the AfD’s success. One might say, that Germany’s traditional conservatives (e.g. CDU) have been occupying rather similar strongholds – rural, catholic, but, unlike AfD rather wealthy voters. Overall however, the AfD has made significant inroads into Germany’s conservative bloc, indicated through a 15% shift in votes away from Merkel’s CDU towards the AfD. It is here where the AfD made some of their most significant gains indicating a conservativeŽNazi shift.

Traditionally, support for Germany’s only truly neoliberal party (FDP) and the environmentalist Greens tends to be also more city-based with people on higher income. FDP/Green voters are also younger than AfD voters who are predominantly male and older. The social-democratic SPD and the socialist “The Linke” (The Left) remain stronger in traditional working class areas where people with secure incomes (the semi-affluent petit-bourgeois middle-class) lives. Despite neoliberalism, many still have secure jobs with a reasonable income. In sharp contrast to the moderate SPD’s nation-wide appeal, the more radical Die Linke remains a thoroughly East-German party, unable to secure significant gains in Germany’s western parts.

Secondly, the AfD has also been highly successful in capturing resentment against capitalism, diverting anger away from capitalism and towards its newly found scapegoats: migrants and refugees. For old Nazis it was the Jew. For the new Nazis it is less the Jew and more the migrant, the foreigner, the refugee – anyone not fitting into the AfD’s racially cleansed picture of a crypto-Nazi Volksgemeinschaft. Many AfD voters are recruited from socio-economically disadvantaged groups harboring such –often media induced– sentiments. They are some of those philosopher Hegel once called “rabble” and his even more successful pupil Karl Marx later called Lumpenproletariat. Those tormented by Germany’s former welfare state, the working poor, the precariat, etc. with incomes below average were led to believe that by voting AfD they would form part of a ‘rebellion by those left behind’. As neoliberalism holds sway, the lower middle class and the lower class feel left behind as these sections of society experience less education, suffer from higher unemployment and insecure jobs while encountering less petit-bourgeois affluence. Together with significant gains from traditional conservatism, these sections created the bulk of AfD votes in 2017.

Thirdly, the AfD has been highly successful in capturing non-voters (roughly ¼ of its total) and it has been effective in herding these voters into its corral, relying on what Nietzsche once called the herd mentality. To achieve that, the AfD has been effective in using “the politics of fear” and xenophobia against almost anyone non-German. Playing on fear, the AfD seeks to protect Germany’s borders ready to shoot at intruders, e.g. refugees. The politics of fear has been successful as it relies, at least partly, on a systematically engineered depoliticization. De-politicized voters are made to believe in easy solutions. In reality, there are no easy solutions. Still, they remain easy prey for right-wing propaganda and AfD populism. Much of this feeds on what philosopher Adorno once noted as ‘authoritarian personality’ manifested in a rejection of modernity, gender equality, liberalism, multiculturalism, and Kant’s cosmopolitanism.

This, of course, allowed AfD propaganda –against refugees, anti-democracy, chauvinism, militarism, nationalism, and Anti-Semitism– to work. Not really surprising is the fact that just as the Anti-Semite does not need the Jewish family next door, the AfD supporter does not require the migrant family to be Anti-Semitic or racist or both. Also not surprisingly, AfD strongholds are often in regions with a rather low density of migrants. Interestingly, this also works in the opposite way: the higher the migrant numbers, the higher the AfD vote. The Nazi just as the AfD man can indeed hate his neighbor. The idea that the Anti-Semite needs personal contact to be Anti-Semitic and that the AfD man needs migrants to be a racist cannot really be supported through the election data of 2017.

Fourthly, AfD support was strong in the age group 35 to 59. In those areas where an aging population is concentrated, AfD gains were strong. AfD voters are even higher in the above 60 category while lower in the 18-34 category. Unlike the real Nazis of 1933, today’s AfD voters are not the young – it is a party of old men. Maleness and age signifies the AfD. Germany’s older generation is by far more ready to follow AfD calls to end all memory on the Holocaust, to view the Holocaust no longer as singularity believing in the “others have done the same” falsehood.

Others have not done the same. Auschwitz is uniquely German: no Germany, no Nazis, no Auschwitz. What has changed is that the AfD no longer just wants to hunt Jews; now it wants to hunt migrants as well. Overall, Pegida and AfD have changed the political culture of Germany. Today, words like “völkisch” re-appear for the first time since 1945 openly. Calls to build a new railway from Berlin to Auschwitz are made, and refugees are now associated with hunting and “disposing”. Not surprisingly, Germany “officially”(!) registered 318 racially motivated attacks against migrants, foreigners, and not-too-German-looking refugees in the first quarter and 324 in the second quarter of 2017 alone. In the third quarter, 76 people were injured in such attacks. In total, there were 1,067 attacks in the first nine months of the year 2017 with 230 people being injured.

On the whole however, AfD success cannot be explained through a single factor: migration. AfD’s street-fighter organization Pegida rose to fame long before Merkel welcomed refugees in 2015. Nonetheless, Merkel’s “welcome culture” allowed Pegida and AfD to intensify their propaganda of xenophobia, racism, Anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, misogyny, etc. Much of it fell on fertile grounds. However, it was not the same throughout Germany. Three regional clusters of AfD support can be identified:

Low AfD vote:  Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Bremen

Medium AfD vote:  North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Saarland, Berlin

High AfD vote:  Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Not surprisingly, Germany’s two city states with strong working class milieus –Hamburg and Bremen– are on the lower end of AfD votes. The middle level is defined by Germany’s mid-west while much of high-AfD voting occurred in regional states exclusively in the east. This might indicate a north and west versus a south (partly: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria) and predominantly east divide.

Lastly, pre-election media coverage played a crucial part in the rise of the AfD by, for example, pretending that Angelika Merkel’s re-election was a done deal. This encouraged those who simply wanted to “send a message” and “wreck the boat”. Furthermore, the media also played into AfD hands by orchestrating the highly watched pre-election TV debate in a particular way: AfD issues dominated. The TV debate was converted into an AfD election platform. This gave voters the impression that Germany is indeed overrun by migrants and that refugees are the issue of the day. As an old PR/Spin saying goes, the media cannot tell people what to think – but it can tell them what to think about. As long as the media engineered public thought about migrants, they did not think about the real issues facing Germany, Europe, and in fact the world (necrocene). Together with the reasons that lie deep in Germany’s very recent Nazi history, in the skillful scapegoating of shifting blame away from neoliberalism and towards refugees and migrants, and by strong media support, the AfD is now a parliamentarian reality.

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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