On March 8, 2022, a court ruling in Cologne (Köln), Germany, concluded that the Alternative für Deutschland Partei or AfD is now able to be surveilled by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, due to concerns over “increasing radicalization, especially within its youth organization.” The AfD is a far-right party in Germany that has gained popularity in recent years in response to the migrant crisis of 2015. This ruling would now categorize the party as a “suspicious entity,” according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), and would allow the party to be monitored via wiretaps and informants. This move is seen by one side as the right move for democracy by preventing neo-nazi sympathizers from gaining political influence in Germany, while the other posits that “the elites” are simply trying to silence “the people.” This is a major development in response to the increasing influence of the AfD, especially in the former eastern part of the country which is supported by a significant segment of the population who feel that their concerns haven’t been listened to by Berlin. The use of wiretaps and informants is also significant for Germany specifically, given its history of state surveillance from the Gestapo (Geheimstaatspolizei) under the Nazi regime (1933-1945) to the Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst) in the East German regime (1950-1990).
An important factor when considering the recent relevance of the AfD in the former DDR states and Germany more broadly is the sense of disillusionment in this region which developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two Germany’s. For individuals and institutions in the former East to be successful, they had to mimic institutions of the West, a process that was common in the former Eastern Bloc more broadly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Surveys from the early 90s indicated that 70%-80% of the people polled felt that things weren’t going right in the former East, and two-thirds of the respondents said they were being “colonized” by the West. As the Iron Curtain fell, it became easier for citizens to go back and forth across the border without fear of being shot, and with more opportunities in the western German states, there were more incentives to simply move to the former West in a quasi “brain drain.”
With the loss of opportunities in the former East and the inflow of migrants after the crisis in 2015, parties such as the AfD and the PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) began to gain popularity and win local elections as well as securing seats in the German parliament (Bundestag). The AfD did this by tapping into the post-Cold War sense of disillusionment and fear of an “us” versus “them” dynamic. They have even adopted a phrase that was used right around the time of the Berlin Wall coming down, “wir sind das Volk” (we are the people). This saying has been co-opted by the far-right in Germany as a way to rally “the common people” in the “heartland” against the “corrupt elites” who have little interest in supporting them. One illustrative example of how these rallying cries hold weight in the hearts of people can be found in the makeup of the Olaf Scholz cabinet where only two of the seventeen ministers are from the former East. Thus, anxiety over the influx of migrants coming into Germany is not the only important issue for far-right voters in Germany. Another is the disillusionment that voters have of other parties, and a desire for change.
This recent development of surveillance will also play a role in employment opportunities for current AfD members as well. The verdict may have immediate consequences for AfD members in the civil service, says Deutsche Welle (DW) political correspondent Hans Pfeifer. “There are members of the party who are civil servants; police officers, district attorneys, teachers, judges,” Pfeifer said, and this may result in civil servants getting fired over their viewpoints. The move could be considered a key pivot in checking the increasing influence of the AfD (who currently hold 80 seats in the German Bundestag) and far-right extremism more broadly. However, it can also be used as ammunition by the AfD as evidence that the elites are out to get them. “They can turn this around, like the alt-right does in the US,” Pfeifer said, “they’ve already begun using it as a tool to de-legitimize the BfV and other government institutions, by insinuating that the mainstream political establishment has it out for them.” For now, the AfD continues to play a strong role in German politics, but time will tell to what extent this court ruling may have a mitigating effect on AfD activity and support.
Patrick Kornegay, Jr. is a first-year graduate student at the Elliott School in the European & Eurasian Studies program. His interests focus mainly on transatlantic relations through the lens of the German-American relationship. He will be attending the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany in the fall as a foreign exchange student.
Image: “+Bundestag Wahlkampfplakat in Sebnitz 2021 – AfD. – Jetzt erst recht – Bild 001,” by Lupus in Saxonia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.