The AfD and the End of Containment in Germany?

in German Politics and Society


The Alternative for Germany (AfD) made history by winning 12.6 percent of the vote and capturing ninety-four seats in the Bundestag in the federal elections of 2017. This article asks whether the AfD’s rise threatens to undermine the strategy of containment that contributed to the demise of previous incarnations of the radical right. It argues that the current strength of the AfD is a direct result of Angela Merkel’s decisions to rescue the Eurozone and to welcome over one million refugees since the fall of 2015. While the AfD is still likely to suffer a collapse similar to other radical right parties, its consolidation or strengthening would have major consequences for Germany and for Europe.

The federal elections of 2017 brought a radical right party into parliament for the first time in postwar Germany. This fact alone would have made the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) the central storyline in elections that ultimately returned Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union, cdu) as chancellor and led to yet another grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (spd). But, the AfD did not merely clear the 5 percent hurdle required for representation: it soared over it on its way to amassing 12.6 percent of the national vote and ninety-four seats in the Bundestag. Thus, for the first time in several decades, observers of German politics are tasked not with explaining the enduring weakness of the German radical right, but rather with accounting for a historic electoral breakthrough. And with the AfD now technically the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, there is a very real possibility that it—unlike past radical right parties in Germany—might become a permanent force. If so, the consequences for both Germany and Europe would be dramatic.

In this article, I argue that the rise of the AfD is not terribly puzzling, even if it is unprecedented. Within the last seven years, Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken two enormous political decisions in response to two monumental international challenges, each of which virtually ensured some form of political backlash from the far right. First, her eventual rescue of the Eurozone during the sovereign debt crisis created the AfD. Second, her decision to allow a million refugees into Germany led both to the AfD’s radicalization and to its electoral takeoff. Thus, one way of looking at the rise of the AfD is that it was a direct product of Merkel’s policies, or policy missteps, depending on one’s point of view.

That there is a clear and compelling explanation for the AfD’s breakthrough does not make its occurrence any less significant. One of the defining features of postwar German politics has been the irrelevance of the radical right at the federal level. It is worth reflecting—as I do in the first section of this article—on how this result has been achieved. I argue that Germany represents the exemplar of the containment of the radical right. Whereas other states in Europe have normalized the radical right since it re-emerged in the 1980s, the sustained mobilization of German political parties, the media, and civil society against anti-immigrant parties has, to date, been very effective. The second section analyzes how two international shocks—and Merkel’s response to them—allowed the radical right to flourish in spite of the continuation of containment. Rather than writing off the AfD as simply the product of Merkel’s actions, I offer a different reading of events: the chancellor was able to take such profound decisions precisely because the radical right was, at the time she took them, of little political consequence. Moreover, she did so cognizant of the fact that stabilizing the Eurozone and opening Germany to one million refugees would provide an opening for the radical right. Her bet—if one could call it that—was that Germany would rise to both challenges without producing a powerful and sustainable nativist movement in the process. One view is that Merkel’s wager was wrong, and that Germany is moving toward a seven-party system with a radical right party being a permanent player. The third section of this article considers this possibility, but ultimately concludes that the AfD is more likely headed along the same trajectory as other radical right parties in postwar Germany.

Containment and Normalization

Since the rise of the radical right in the 1980s, European states and societies have adopted two basic responses to it. The first is what I have referred to previously as containment, and I follow that terminology here. The second is normalization, which I consider an improvement upon the concept of “contagion” that I initially posed as the alternative to containment.1

I use the term containment cognizant of its Cold War associations, and admit up-front that any analogy with the U.S.’s early foreign policy toward communism internationally will be imperfect.2 For whereas the doctrine of the containment of the ussr had an original theoretician—George Kennan—who outlined a set of specific policies that the U.S. largely followed, the containment of the European radical right had no master architect, and the dynamics of this strategy developed over time. It was also not a universal European response, as many other West European states normalized the radical right and no state in Central and Eastern Europe, with the exception of the Czech Republic, has adopted the containment strategy.3 Nevertheless, putting aside this and other problems with the historical analogy, the drawing of sharp lines against an adversary to provoke its collapse from within—the core of principle of containment—describes both U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War and one possible democratic response to the politics of nativism.

The containment of the European radical right includes a political, a civil society, and a public discourse component. The clearest political manifestation of containment is the cordon-sanitaire (or the policy of Ausgrenzung in Germany), which at the minimum involves explicit agreements to not enter into political coalitions with the radical right, and, at the maximum, means calling out the radical right as antidemocratic, racist, or otherwise morally compromised. Civic reaction against the radical right involves a significant and sustained amount of social mobilization and peaceful protest. Finally, the media contributes to containment by (a) refusing to recognize the radical right at all; (b) by consistently presenting it negatively; (c) calling its audience to action against it; or (d) some combination of (b) and (c). Those countries in Western Europe that have contained the radical right in this way include Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden.

Given the enduring electoral power of the National Front in France, and to a lesser extent of the Vlaams Belang in Flanders, one cannot claim that containment has necessarily made the radical right any less attractive to a core constituency. Even in these two cases, however, it is difficult to argue that containment has been counterproductive. Marine Le Pen’s percentage of the vote in the presidential elections of 2017—a year that provided close to ideal circumstances for radical right parties—was not that much greater than her father’s total in 2002, or even in 1988. Thirty years of the cordonsanitaire in France has rendered the National Front a strong contender for the award for the party least able to translate millions of votes into measurable policy outcomes. Members of the Front—as well as many academics—nevertheless claim that the party’s influence has shifted the entire political terrain of party competition, but Jean Marie Le Pen’s oft-cited quip that the parties were copying his message remains a rhetorical weapon of the weak.

Containment need not “lock-in” an electorally powerful and politically excluded radical right. More likely is that the perpetual lack of coalition options, sustained negative press, and regular social protest are powerful enough at the minimum to prevent radical right parties from growing stronger, and at the maximum leads to party implosion.4 Until the recent elections, Germany had executed containment close to perfection. The history of every radical right party in postwar Germany—the National Democratic Party (npd), the Republikaner, the German People’s Union (dvu), the Schill Party, to name some of the most successful ones—is one of sudden rise, factional infighting, radicalization, and organizational decay.

The policy of normalization, by contrast, has led to the consolidation of the radical right in every European state that has adopted it. When other political parties cooperate and even govern with radical right parties, when civil society does not protest against it, and when important media outlets have embraced its message, the radical right has not generally wilted after riding an anti-establishment wave. Indeed, the radical right has itself become the establishment in states like Austria, Denmark, Italy, and Switzerland. The notion that radical right parties would be either ideologically tamed or electorally destroyed by government participation now seems, with the benefit of close to forty years of hindsight, terribly misguided. Furthermore, once normalization has occurred, it is probably impossible to roll back. The choice of strategies that states adopted when the radical right first appeared in the 1980s and 1990s has mattered profoundly. The Northern League in Italy and the Austrian Freedom Party thus currently find themselves in similar commanding positions to those they held in 2000.

Shocks to the System

Within the space of six years, the European Union faced two monumental challenges: the Eurozone crisis and the European refugee crisis. For the first time since the founding of the European Union, Germany played the leading role in shaping Europe’s response to such massive international challenges. Putting aside the question of whether her delaying tactics (“merkeling” as they are known) contributed to the economic crisis, two points are clear: Merkel ultimately decided that there would be a Eurozone bailout and that it would be on German terms. The latter fact allowed her a fair degree of political cover, as well as a chance to reshape the institutional architecture of the Eurozone.5 But, by violating the no-bailout clause of the Maastricht Treaty, Merkel drew the ire of Germany’s ordoliberal establishment. While economists and business leaders believed they had an ally in “Frau Nein” during the winter of 2010 when Merkel steadfastly refused to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s sovereign debt, her ultimate decision to sign off on a trillion dollar bailout—the first of many to Greece and other eu states—amounted to a betrayal, in the ordoliberal view, of German values and of the German constitution. Although Merkel won the political and constitutional battle, her victory came at the price of major resignations, such as Axel Weber from the Bundesbank in 2011, and a rebellion among professors of economics.

Historians will be looking at the motives and consequences of Merkel’s handling of the Eurozone crisis for a long time. There can be no debate, however, that her policies—which she routinely described as alternativlos—led directly to the foundation of the Alternative for Germany. The AfD began as a website constructed by Bernd Lucke, Professor of Economics at the University of Hamburg, in March 2013. It was euro-skeptical rather than Euroskeptical, in that it wanted an orderly dissolution of the common currency but not of the European Union. The founders of the party included—in addition to the many economists—former members of the cdu (as well as of the classically liberal Free Democratic Party, fdp) and social conservative activists. Academic studies that were conducted during the AfD’s first year of existence found that the party was not xenophobic. Based on an analysis of the party’s manifesto and on hundreds of its online statements, one discovered no “evidence of nativism or populism in the party’s manifesto, which sets it apart from most of the other new right parties in Europe.”6 Another study was more equivocal, but nevertheless concluded that “the AfD is not a right-wing populist party in itself but may be a right-wing populist movement in the making.”7

This proved prescient, for by the 2014 European elections the party had developed a distinctly anti-immigrant profile. The 2013 Federal Elections had been a referendum on Merkel’s handling of the Eurozone crisis, and while the AfD nearly surmounted the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation it was difficult to see exactly how it could build on that performance with a single-issue campaign based on the return of the deutschmark. There was thus a deliberate turn toward “cultural issues,” such as immigration as well as gender and family politics in the search for votes. The messaging apparently worked, for in the 2014 European Parliament elections AfD voters mentioned immigration as much as a stable currency as having motivated their choice.8 The question of whether the AfD was nativist from the beginning, as some researchers have argued, is not as important as the fact that it had become decidedly anti-immigrant before the onset of the European refugee crisis in the fall of 2015.9

Like with her defense of the common currency, Merkel’s welcome of refugees was hardly unqualified.10 Yet, with all the criticisms and caveats, Merkel’s call on the refugee crisis amounted to one of the most significant defenses of the liberal international order within the last decade. It also made every single election since then a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policy. One could have hardly imagined a more favorable opportunity structure for the AfD. As the victories piled up, any chances of it moderating its central message of “Islam is not part of Germany” and returning to its original economic message quickly evaporated.

Indeed, the AfD lurched even more unmistakably rightward through some of its leaders attacks on Holocaust memory. Speaking in Dresden in January 2017, Björn Höcke lamented how “German history is handled as rotten and made to look ridiculous” and that Germans had the “mentality of a totally vanquished people.” He specifically disavowed President Richard von Weizsäcker’s influential 1985 speech that, among other notable elements, designated 8 May 1945 as a “day of liberation” rather than one of defeat. According to Höcke, the president gave “a speech against his own people, and not for his own people.” He further noted that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.” His conclusion was that “these stupid politics of coming to grips with the past cripples us—we need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.”11

A Seven-Party System or Just Another Wave?

Is Germany now moving toward a seven-party system that includes the radical right? Although similar predictions based on the rise of the Republikaner following German unification and the asylum crisis of the early 1990s came to naught, this time might truly be different. In addition to being in the Bundestag, the AfD is now represented in fourteen of sixteen state parliaments. Thus, in contrast to the Republikaner party, which was unable to expand beyond its base in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, and to parties like npd and dvu that have shown intermittent strength in the east, the AfD is a national phenomenon. That said, when any radical right party wins over 20 percent of the vote in any state election—as the AfD did in both Saxony-Anhalt in March 2016 (24.2 percent) and in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania (20.8 percent)—such concentrations of strength further suggest the party is unlikely to be a flash in the pan.

At the same time, the history of the postwar radical right in Germany suggests another possible outcome for the AfD. An apparently irreconcilable conflict between “moderates” (those who want to avoid xenophobia and potentially form coalitions with other political parties) and the extremists (those who adopt xenophobic appeals and want to remain in permanent opposition to the existing political system) has undercut every attempt to build a party to the right of the cdu/csu. The policy of containment paradoxically helped ensure that the extremists were always the more powerful faction in postwar Germany, as moderates were both less likely to join and more likely to quit a party that was a political and social pariah. Radicalization, organizational breakdown, and institutional decay have been the hallmarks of every postwar German radical right political party to date.12

There are clear signs that the AfD is on this same trajectory. Even before the refugee crisis and the AfD’s anti-immigrant turn, the extremists (they would no doubt prefer the term national populists) within the AfD had out-maneuvered the moderates like Lucke. Frauke Petry, a businesswoman with no previous political experience who learned of the AfD through a political flyer from her mother, played a key role in the AfD’s first major split. Petry rose quickly to become one of the AfD’s three co-chairs (along with Lucke and former Christian Democrat Alexander Gauland), and her apparent willingness to publicly embrace anti-immigrant positions when neither of the other party leaders would turned her into a favorite of the party’s extremist faction.

At the AfD’s congress on 4 July 2015, Petry challenged Lucke for the party leadership and won by a tally of 60 percent to 38 percent. “Barely suppressing tears, Mr. Lucke slammed his laptop shut and left the stage.”13 He left the party four days later, as did four of the seven AfD members of the European Parliament. Following a long tradition among ousted moderate leaders of radical right parties, Lucke then founded his own party: the Alliance for Progress and Renewal (alfa). None of these radical right successor parties—such as Bruno Mégret’s X (National Republican Movement) in France or even the far more successful B of Jorg Haider in Austria—have ever consolidated themselves, there is little reason to believe that alfa will prove the exception. Indeed, to date alfa has failed to win even 1 percent of the vote in the state elections it has contested.

Petry, by contrast, enjoyed a two-year run as Germany’s “first lady of populism.” During the height of the refugee crisis in January 2016, she claimed that police should “if necessary” shoot at migrants seeking to enter the country illegally. She appeared alongside Marine le Pen at rallies and press conferences. Yet Petry was not particularly adept at fending off challenges from her right flank. After Höcke’s attack on Germany’s institutionalized Holocaust memory, Petry called him a “burden for the party” and sought to expel him from the AfD. Apparently, she lacked the political muscle to do so, and Hocke remained. At this point, the extremist wing of the party had lost confidence in Petry, for she appeared to want to turn the AfD into a possible coalition partner for the established parties. Facing a potential revolt, Petry signaled she might step down as chancellor candidate in March 2017, and then did so at the Party Congress in April 2017.

The bitter infighting within the AfD obviously did not prevent it from entering the Bundestag. Yet only one day after the September 2017 election, Petry stunned everyone by announcing she was leaving the AfD and would retain her mandate in the Bundestag as an independent. She had apparently set the wheels in motion on 17 September (one week before the election) by beginning the process of founding a new political party. She then formally announced the formation of the Blue Party in December 2017, with the aim of drawing moderates to it. Whereas the AfD’s official position is that there is “no place for Islam in Germany,” the Blue Party only denounces “political Islam.” At this point, it remains unclear whether such a slightly less virulent form of xenophobia will have any electoral appeal.

Petry’s departure from the AfD left the position of co-chairman open, and the contest at the party congress on 4 December 2017 came down to a moderate, Georg Pazderski, and a representative of the extremist wing (X), who was put on the ballot to block Pazderski. When the extremist candidate easily beat the moderate (but without sufficient votes to win), Gauland emerged as compromise candidate. Since Gauland is perceived as closer to the extremist than to the moderate wing of the party, and since Hocke appears to be the central power figure in the AfD at the moment, any chance of the AfD moderating its defining features seems remote.

I can make one prediction with absolute confidence: the AfD will be treated as a political pariah and political coalition markets will remain closed to it. There will also be symbolic protests, such as when no political party would agree to be seated, literally, next to the AfD in the Bundestag. Leading politicians in the party will face the same social environment that Petry did, and that as a profile in Der Spiegel argues, took a heavy toll on her:

Sometimes it seems as though Petry is paying too high a price for her political success. She has difficulties finding an apartment, her family van was set on fire last September, and her children are bullied in school. In advance of the meeting of European right-wing populists in January, she couldn’t find a hotel to accept her reservation until one did, on the condition that she wouldn’t enter through the lobby. She had to arrive through the subterranean garage, like a Colombian drug kingpin.14

A recent case of social protest reveals the remarkable commitment of the AfD’s adversaries. Shortly after Höcke described the Berlin’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a “monument of shame,” a group of artists arrived in his village and began scouting it discretely. They registered a business in order to get local license plates, and then used those plates to rent the property directly next to Höcke’s house. Under the cover of a tent, the artists erected a to-scale replication of a piece of the Holocaust Memorial that was different in one crucial detail: the slabs were tilted 180 degrees.


Writing less than three years ago, one distinguished scholar noted that “the meteoric rise of the AfD and its ability to steer clear of Nazi connotations is a very unusual and significant development.”15 As this article has argued, however, it was also short-lived. The AfD radicalized within a short period of time, and in this sense its experience mirrors other political parties to the right of the cdu that have tried to preserve enough moderation to make them potential coalition partners in government. The AfD’s embrace of anti-immigration and historical revisionism ensures that it will be treated like a pariah in the Bundestag. When leading figures in the party refer to Turks as “camel drivers” and “unpatriotic rabble” who should “return to their mud huts and polygamy,” their vitriol helps legitimize the strategy of containment.16

But, will containment still work now that the AfD is in the Bundestag, heading up important parliamentary committees, and introducing legislation on immigration and national identity at a rapid clip? Will it be effective given that the AfD is now the largest opposition party in parliament and is running ahead of the spd in some public opinion polls in early 2018? And if the AfD consolidates its recent gains in state parliaments and reproduces its 2017 performance in the next federal elections, is the end of Germany’s exceptional resistance to nativist political forces nigh?

While I would still bet on the AfD collapsing in the short to medium turn, and while Merkel has vowed to get the party out of parliament, one can no longer rule out the less rosy scenario. The consequences for German and European politics would be so dramatic that I cannot even begin to lay them out here. So instead of prognosticating further, let me close with a historical counterfactual: imagine that the radical right in postwar Germany played a role equivalent to that in Austria, Italy, or even France. Would Merkel have had the freedom of maneuver to accept a million refugees or to agree to bail out the Eurozone? Moving further back in time, would eastern enlargement of the European Union have happened at all? Would Germany have ever agreed to a single currency? Readers of this journal might possess more creativity than me, but I cannot imagine any of these monumental foreign policy choices turning out similarly in a domestic politics setting where nativism is strong and well represented. Put another way, the weakness of the German radical right has made major steps in European integration possible. Time will tell if 2017 was the year that this formula was abandoned.


See David Art, “The Containment of the Radical Right in Europe,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 8 (2015): 1347–1354.


John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (New York, 1982).


Sean Hanley, “The Czech Republicans 1990–1998: A populist radical right outsider in a consolidating democracy” in, Populism in the Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?, ed. Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rivera Kaltwasser (New York, 2012): 68–88.


See David Art, Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (New York, 2011).


See David Art, “The German Rescue of the Eurozone: How Germany is Getting the Europe it’s Always Wanted,” Political Science Quarterly 130, no. 2 (2015): 181–212.


Kai Arzheimer, “The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Euroskeptic Party for Germany?” West European Politics 38, no. 3 (2015): 535–556, here 551.


Nicole Berbuir, Marcel Lewandowsky, and Jasmin Siri, “The AfD and its Sympathisers: Finally a Right-Wing Populist Movement in Germany?” German Politics 24, no. 2 (2015): 154–178, here 173.


Frank Decker, “The “Alternative for Germany”: Factors Behind its Emergence and Profile of a New Right-wing Populist Party,” German Politics and Society 34, no. 2 (2016): 1–16.


Rudiger Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative fuer Deutschland’ in the Electorate: Between Single Issue and Right-Wing Populist Party,” German Politics 26, no. 1 (2017): 124–148.


Maximilian Conrad and Hugrún Aðalsteinsdóttir “Understanding Germany’s ‘Short-Lived’ Culture of Welcome,” German Politics and Society 35, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 1–21.


See Art (see note 5), 190–208.


“A Bad Time to Break Up,” The Economist, 11 July 2015.


Alexander Osang, “Frauke, ich habe Angst um dich,” Der Spiegel, 9 April 2017.


Arzheimer (see note 7), 540.


These comments were attributed to Andre Poggenburg, the leader of the AfD in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Poggenburg stepped down following a media firestorm over his remarks. Reuters.

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Contributor Notes

David Art is Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. His field is comparative politics, with a regional focus on Europe and research interests that include extremist political parties and movements, the politics of history and memory, and comparative historical analysis in the social sciences. He is the author of Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (New York, 2011) and The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria (New York, 2006). His articles have appeared in Comparative Politics, German Politics and Society, Party Politics, Political Science Quarterly, and West European Politics. Art was Co-Convenor of the European Consortium for Political Research’s (ECPR) Standing Group on Extremism and Democracy from 2006–2012. E-mail: