Far-right leaders reject calls for pragmatism as Islamophobia takes centre stage at Cologne conference.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will become the first far-right nationalist movement to enter the German parliament since World War II, after winning 12.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s federal election.
The result, following the election on September 24, makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag.
News of the party’s success prompted anti-AfD protests in Germany’s capital, Berlin, with hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets shouting slogans against the anti-immigrant party.
Founded in April 2013 to contest that year’s September federal election, the AfD began as an anti-euro party.
This is a very important moment in German history… They are trying to exploit people's fears and make them bigger.
The party, in response to the European debt crisis that marked the years preceding its launch, challenged German-backed bailouts of Europe’s struggling southern economies such as Greece.
Their manifesto, endorsed by a number of Eurosceptic academics, called for the dissolution of the euro currency and less centralisation of power in Brussels.
Despite failing to win the required five percent of votes needed to gain representation in the German parliament, the party made a mark in the election, winning 4.7 percent of votes.
The AfD had proved effective in occupying the space left behind by Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s gradual shifting of her conservative CDU party closer to the political centre ground.
“Merkel has been changing the CDU since 2005, moving it more to the centre. In the years 2005-12, you had people inside the party that were dissatisfied with where she was leading it,” Julian Gopffarth, a researcher at the London School of Economics’ European Institute, tells Al Jazeera.
The newly established AfD, to the right of Merkel’s party, offered an outlet for former CDU members who felt her changes had taken the party too far from its conservative political roots.
“When it formed in 2013, offering a potential alternative, a lot of ex-CDU individuals moved over,” Gopffarth says.
Though its original purpose was to promote a eurosceptic agenda, the party has since shifted its focus to immigration and Islam.
Bernd Lucke, the AfD’s first leader, resigned two years after its founding in 2015, citing concerns the party had become “Islamophobic and xenophobic”.
“I certainly made my share of mistakes, and among the biggest was realising too late the extent to which members were pushing the AfD to become a populist protest party,” he said.
“The refugee crisis has definitely given the AfD a new raison d’etre,” says Gopffarth.
“The party became big during the euro crisis, but when the media hype around that issue subsided they weakened. They have now gained strength again, campaigning on a fear of Germany’s culture being changed [by immigrants].”
Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, prompting fierce criticism from the AfD leadership, who say her stance has had an unacceptably high fiscal, social and administrative cost.
“We want Merkel’s policy of bringing one million people into this country to be investigated, and we want her to be severely punished for that. We’re gradually becoming foreigners in our own country,” he said on September 17.
Gauland, a 76-year-old former CDU politician and cofounder of the party, campaigned alongside fellow leading candidate Alice Weidel, 38, an ex-Goldman Sachs employee who lives in Switzerland.
In many respects they are different, but in political outlook, they appear to be one.
Together, they have driven the party towards an increasingly “right-wing and revisionist” approach, Khue Pham, a political editor at Die Zeit, Germany’s leading weekly newspaper, tells Al Jazeera.
Both also created controversy in the lead-up to the vote.
“In Germany, it’s really taboo to question the crimes the nation did to the world between 1933-45, but they want to touch on that and open up a discussion about a ‘culture of guilt’,” says Pham.
This strategy resulted in Gauland telling supporters “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in the two world wars” during a speech on September 2.
According to Gopffarth, the AfD sees itself as the party attempting to reshape the discourse surrounding “what it means to be German and how Germans remember and talk about the past”.
“They want Germany to be proud of itself, and not have a national feeling based on 12 years of Nazi dictatorship,” he says.
But, Gopffarth says, their method, as well as their message, is highly contentious.
“This is a very important moment in German history … these are things that have never been stated by a party in the German parliament before,” he says. “They are trying to exploit people’s fears and make them bigger.”
Sunday’s success marks a new high-point for the AfD, who have been making gains at the state level for some time.
The party now has representation in 13 of Germany’s 16 devolved parliaments.
“They have been fairly successful in some state elections, particularly in East Germany,” Pham says. “They saw you can mobilise a lot of people if you talk about refugees and capitalise on their anger.”
Building on the foundations of their victories at lower levels – brought about by right-wing, nationalist policy pledges – the AfD manifesto for Sunday’s election included pledges to close the European Union’s external borders, end all foreign funding of mosques in Germany and ban the full Islamic face veil.
But, whether or not they prove an effective force in Bundestag, the AfD may already have had an effect on the next German parliament.
“The AfD has had a very big impact on the other parties,” says Gopffarth. “They have all shifted to the right on refugees and asylum policies.”
Despite the AfD’s success, Sunday’s vote was about more than the far-right party, and more than Merkel winning a fourth successive term as chancellor, Pham tells Al Jazeera.
“This [was] a very important election, not only for Germany,” she says.
“You have this world that’s in turmoil, and at the same time, in Germany, a sense that Merkel has been around forever.”
Germany is now anxious, she says, about what a party dredging up the nation’s past may mean for its, and other nations’, future.
“We felt we had learnt our lesson with racism and fascism, it’s scary to see that there might be quite a lot of people out there channelling their anger in the AfD’s direction,” Pham says.
“A lot of Germans have a sense that our government is like an anchor for the world.”