Antisemitism in the “Alternative for Germany” Party

in German Politics and Society


The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been sitting in Germany’s federal parliament since September 2017, having won 12.6 percent of the popular vote. In considering this young party’s recent development, researchers have focussed on its rhetorical strategies (i.e., populism) and its radicalization. Until now, much less attention has been paid to antisemitism within the AfD—also because the party would prefer to keep this out of public debate. By investigating its treatment of antisemitism, Nazism, and the politics of remembrance, it can be shown that the AfD has the features of a far-right party, to a much clearer extent than might be guessed from its media image, particularly inside Germany.

The relatively new party known as the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) and its relationship to right-wing extremism has been the subject of a great deal of intensive discussion among political and social scientists. While one stream of research focusses primarily on the strategic aspects of the AfD, such as its populist rhetoric and use of social media, another devotes more attention to the worldview of the AfD, and its increasing radicalization from a right-wing conservative party to a right-wing extremist one:

In the beginning, the AfD leadership tried to maintain a clear separation from anti-constitutional right-wing extremism. This has since changed. Today, the overall impression is that the AfD is on the threshold of becoming a “nationalist opposition.” It appears that a large part of the party is pushing to go a step further.1

It has become undeniable that the AfD has now adopted large parts of the far-right tradition, including racism and völkisch nationalism (a form of ethnonationalism) as central components within an ideology of inequality, alongside nationalist protectionism and anti-eu economic positions, an emphatic rejection of parliamentarianism and representative democracy, and a long-standing antifeminism and hostility towards gender equality.

Nevertheless, there has been somewhat less attention paid to the AfD’s handling of the Nazi past and its relationship to antisemitism. This might be because the party has avoided officially espousing anti-Israeli views, and at times even seems to view Israel as a strategic ally for its own anti-Muslim racism, which is ultimately aimed at blocking migration to Europe. But beyond its cultivated media image, there exist a number of antisemitic stances within the AfD that will be the subject of this investigation. In the case of the AfD, antisemitism can be attested on various levels.

Antisemitism can be generally understood as combining a worldview and an emotional zeal, and thus a specific way of thinking and feeling.2 Antisemitism involves both an inability and an unwillingness to think abstractly and to feel concretely; these two aspects are swapped in antisemitism, so that one thinks only concretely but feels abstractly. Furthermore, antisemitic resentments have been expressed in certain distinct forms that have appeared again and again throughout history, in particular: a religious/anti-Judaic antisemitism; an ethnonationalist/racist one; a guilt-deflecting one; an anti-Israel one; and an Arab/Islamist one. With regard to the AfD, it is primarily the ethnonationalist/racist and guilt-deflecting forms of antisemitism that are involved.

Here, it will be shown how antisemitism has been gradually taking hold in the AfD, thereby demonstrating that the AfD is shifting from a party for antisemites into an antisemitic party. The argument here is that the party has been transforming itself step by step over the course of its general radicalization. It began with the tacit toleration of antisemitic positions. Then came the first antisemitic incidents (such as the case of Wolfgang Gedeon, discussed below), which were downplayed along with denials of any antisemitism. The next step involved occasionally attempted expulsions from the party and their ultimate failure, meaning that party members who had come under fire for their antisemitic stances were not expelled after all. As a result, there was a slowly increasing tolerance for publicly expressed antisemitic positions—right up into the party’s leadership ranks. It became publicly apparent that antisemitism not only goes unpunished in the AfD, it is now routinely tolerated and sometimes even accepted. This demonstrates a long-term evolution from a party for antisemites into an antisemitic party—although the final step has not been taken (yet), namely insertion into the party platform. The policy plank debates described at the end of this article, however, show that this step is also under development. While internal efforts to curtail this shift do still occasionally emerge, there are many indications suggesting that this development, especially when seen in light of Germany’s history of right-wing extremism, is no longer a question of “if,” but “when.”

The Bedrock of Antisemitism: The Ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft

An important starting point for the formulation of antisemitic positions within the AfD lies in its conception of society, which is strongly influenced by the ideology of Germany’s “New Right” (Neue Rechte), thus drawing upon Nazism’s intellectual forefathers from the Weimar period, an ideological heritage that has informed the (West) German “New Right” from the 1970s until today.3 Here, the main goal is to present the völkisch (“folkish,” but with ethnonationalist connotations) terminology of these forerunners as not being genuinely antidemocratic. If one can make the Nazi heritage seem harmless, then it becomes possible to take its associated concepts like the Volksgemeinschaft (ethnonational community) and resurrect it in public speech, before then striving to make it a reality—even as the totalitarian instrument of coercion and repression that it actually is.

This project is exemplified by two attempts to rehabilitate Nazi terms—here specifically Volksgemeinschaft and völkisch—and detach such words from their antidemocratic background, while maintaining a cover of naiveté that is certainly staged. On 24 December 2015, the AfD of Saxony-Anhalt wished its Facebook audience a “contemplative and peaceful Christmas,” while also calling upon them to think about “shared values” and “responsibility for the Volksgemeinschaft.”4 Responding to criticism of this word choice, the local head of the AfD in Sachsen-Anhalt, André Poggenburg, wrote that apparently “certain entirely unproblematic and even highly positive terms are not supposed to be used” today.5 A few months later, the national party head at the time, Frauke Petry, sang from the same songbook when she wanted to rehabilitate the word völkisch in September 2016, asserting that this Nazi term needed to put back in a positive light.6

With these efforts, the AfD is effectively trying to ignore the fact that the Volksgemeinschaft term is historically and inextricably tied to Nazism.7 But, even if one retreated to the excuse of historical naiveté, the term is in itself untenable within a democracy: combining Volk with Gemeinschaft produces a twofold exclusion, one that can only be interpreted ethnically, and never democratically (Volk corresponds to “folk,” but variously means people, nation, or ethnonation, while Gemeinschaft means “community.”)8 The Volk, as an alternative to the civic conception of “nation,” is not defined by rational, democratic criteria such as the subjective will (i.e., deciding to belong—or not), but instead by pre-political aspects, such as the fiction of a collective’s ostensibly shared descent. And the Gemeinschaft, if used in this way, is conceptually opposite to the Gesellschaft (society), namely a form of association that is open, plural, accepting of contradictions, and ultimately voluntary.9 In contrast, the Volksgemeinschaft stands only for coercion, one that is repressive and totalitarian towards both the included and the excluded. This is why the notion is inherently incompatible with the ideas of democracy. The concept of the Volksgemeinschaft is not only profoundly anti-democratic due to political and historical reasons, but is also inimical to democracy in terms of its fundamental incompatibility with Germany’s modern constitution, as confirmed in early 2017 by the country’s highest tribunal, the Federal Constitutional Court: “This political concept violates the human dignity of all those who do not belong to the ethnic Volksgemeinschaft, and is incompatible with the constitution’s principle of democracy.”10

This highlighting of the Volksgemeinschaft by the AfD is a direct reflection of völkisch thinking,11 and it is no accident that Petry had likewise tried to rehabilitate the word völkisch itself, which lies at the heart of far-right thought. The “völkisch Volk” (i.e., an ethnonationally defined body politic) is the countermodel to the democratic nation: whereas the democratic nation makes all citizens into political subjects, regardless of their cultural, religious, or ethnic self-ascriptions, the völkisch Volk demands the exclusion of all persons who do not belong to the ostensible ethnic homogeneity of the collective—at least according to pre-political criteria, meaning ones that are entirely accidental and without any conscious choice by the subject, and yet are considered paramount by an outside observer. The political subject of the democratic nation is the demos, while the völkisch Volk takes the ethnos as the foundation of its political conception. The real and already existing demos is to be transformed according to the premises of ethnopolitics into an ethnos, whereby the belief in a völkisch collective identity is to be consolidated through an ethnicization process “in which originally irrelevant constituent aspects are gradually transformed into significant constituent characteristics, in order to create a separate social group.”12

Through this ethnicization process, the völkisch vision strives to transform the Gesellschaft into the Gemeinschaft, so that the plurality of interests is replaced by the monolith of identity, rational thought by direct action, processes of conflict by irrefutable destiny, the legitimate opponent by the mortal enemy, and the argument by the battle. This terminological embracing of the Volksgemeinschaft and of völkisch thought is thus tied to a rejection of the modern civic conception of the nation, which is not guided by the political principle of the ethnos, but that of the demos.13

The AfD and Antisemitism

Public opinion surveys conducted over recent decades have shown that Germany’s overall populace has consistently included around one-fifth who are antisemites and one-quarter who are racists.14 While these percentages may fluctuate here and there, this discriminatory antiliberal baseline has remained stable. Not all of these people, however, are organized neo-Nazis: while some may join far-right organizations, and others might openly sympathize with right-wing parties, most are outwardly politically inconspicuous in their everyday lives, precisely because they do not see themselves as far right and would strongly reject such a label for themselves. In today’s Germany, such people prefer to present themselves as simply “concerned citizens,” despite actually having racist, völkisch, and nationalist attitudes, with a disdain for rational thought, equal rights, and the heritage of the Enlightenment.

These are very much people who are socially well integrated, mostly from the lower-to-middling middle class, often with an academic education, not infrequently male and with a solid income, but nonetheless with considerable irrational fears. Their attitudes are hard right but they do not want to admit it, so they invent labels enabling a self-image that is as far away as possible from the analytically objective ascription of “right-wing extremist.”

Before the emergence of the AfD, it had been difficult for this clientele to find a political home. In terms of available options, the political system offered either openly neo-Nazi parties, such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, npd) and the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion), or else the traditional conservative parties, which tried to distance themselves from the far right, regardless of whether for genuinely ideological reasons or purely strategic ones. There was no party that united the full range of discriminatory and antiliberal resentments while also consistently refusing a far-right label.15 With the departure of several prominent members in the summer of 2015, the last fragments of the AfD’s conservative veneer have long since flaked away, although it still maintains the image of a party that should not entirely be classified as far-right—also as a result of the media’s excessively mild treatment of it.16

The AfD is thus a manifestation of modern Germany’s political system that is only somewhat comparable to the other populist-oriented movements operating on the right-wing fringes of other European countries.17 Perhaps the closest comparison would be to the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs), a far-right party with a strongly populist public image that has long established itself as a force for antidemocrats within Austria’s democratic system.18 This desire to express essentially Nazi positions without being called a far-right extremist is particularly pronounced in Germany, a country where most have never explored the question of their own grandparents’ complicity in the Nazi regime, even now.19 In fact, perpetrators have often been recast as victims in German family memories, as seen when children and/or grandchildren remember their parents and/or grandparents as victims; they do so precisely because they lack detailed knowledge about the Nazi past and the Shoah (or choose to have none), and furthermore see their own parents and/or grandparents as the victims of surveillance, state terror, war, bombing, and imprisonment, as has been demonstrated in the family biography study conducted by Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall.20 Since Nazi perpetrators have been morally condemned as “bad” and “evil” by the descendent generations, the latter have recast their own parents and/or grandparents as victims of Nazism, and even as resistance fighters against it. Historical studies, however, have shown that the fraction of those who actually gave assistance to potential victims of Nazism was only around 0.3 percent, which would mean around two hundred thousand persons in a population of seventy million.21 This makes it entirely impossible that even a small fraction of all those claiming a story of victimhood or resistance for their families could be anywhere close to reality.

Another aspect that is specific to the AfD and its success among a certain segment of society, namely those who may be socially and economically embedded in the middle class but nonetheless adhere to far-right views, is the desire to defend one’s own prosperity at all costs, a prosperity that is always felt to be inadequate. This racist segment of the middle class seems to have subconsciously sensed that the source of their prosperity was not simply the postwar achievements of the grandparents’ generation, a foundational myth known as the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle.) Here, the argument is very much about feelings: feelings of grievance, feelings of neglect, feelings of inferiority. Of course, these are not necessarily present in each and every AfD voter, but they nonetheless characterize the general sentiment shared by many, a sentiment that is not based on any realistic assessment of actual achievements (and indeed also weaknesses), but on a one-sided overestimation of one’s own achievements—and thereby also an underestimation of those of others In fact, the main origin of their own privileged position, which the AfD would defend by proxy through its völkisch and racist slogans (i.e., “We prefer bikinis to burkas”), was historically the astounding willingness of the Allies to give the Germans a second chance, even after the evils of Nazism and the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. There is also another, much deeper sense in which the source of Germany’s prosperity lay beyond its borders, as emphasized by migration researchers who point out that “without guest workers, the German economic miracle would not have been possible at all.”22 Furthermore, the guest workers were essential for sustaining the boom.

But, admitting this would not only highlight one’s own inabilities, it would also open a back door allowing the question of family complicities during the Nazi era to be put back on the agenda. Indeed, there exists a deeply conflicted relationship between these two levels of German history:

Unlike the history of victimhood during the Second World War, the history of Nazism and its crimes is inserted by very few Germans into the personal context of themselves and their families. Factual history is perceived as an abstract one, and is also to be remembered as this abstract history … Our official remembrance does not pester us with all too personal questions about individual or familial involvement. It leaves us in peace and no longer jolts us. And it also does not call upon young people to confront this very personal past, since the actual culprit generation is barely still breathing.23

The AfD is tied to the perceived promise of being able to avoid both of these things and offers a space for projecting one’s own alternative narratives about them. This cannot actually work in sociopsychological terms, however, leading to an increasing aggressiveness and readiness for violence in the radicalized milieu represented by the AfD as a party and by Pegida as a street movement (pegida is an acronym translating as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident).24 This is because what is being evaded is the burden of German family histories, the latter of which is denied and projected onto others, causing one to seek it out in others and persecute them even more brutally.

Deflection of the Nazi Past and the Desire for Collective Blamelessness

Therefore, the deflection of the Nazi past cannot be sociopsychologically separated from the völkisch and racist stances seen in today’s right-wing discourse. This handling of Nazi history is exemplified by a long interview that Alexander Gauland, a leading figure in the AfD, gave to the weekly newspaper Die Zeit in April 2016. During this discussion, Gauland was asked to explain an expression he had used in another setting, “Sittengesetz des Volkes” (moral law of the Volk,) which needed defending. Here he answered:

It is the thing from which a Volk has developed, from history and tradition, from upheavals. You could also replace this expression with the word “identity,” and this identity is defended much more strongly by other Völker [the plural of Volk]. Of course, this has to do with Auschwitz. I was recently in Auschwitz for the first time, when I realized that it was no longer grabbing me, unlike during my visit to Buchenwald. It’s like a frozen horror. When you see all the hair, the brushes, and the suitcases, you suddenly get the feeling that this is petrified, it doesn’t speak anymore. I believe that Auschwitz, also as a symbol, has destroyed much within us.25

Of course, the immediate and obvious question was whether it was not in fact the Germans “who destroyed something there,” which was the follow-up question promptly posed by Bernd Ulrich and Matthias Geis, the journalists conducting the interview. Here, Gauland responded:

That’s correct, but much more was ruined at the same time. The Nazis touched upon many things that suddenly can no longer be said, due to their touch. The national pride felt by every Englishman and Frenchman is intensely called into question among ourselves, according to the idea: Are we actually allowed to still say this?26

Here too, the interviewers followed up with the obvious objection that “outside of German history, there has been no crime like Auschwitz.” On this point (and Gauland was obsessively fixated on Nazism throughout the interview, even when it was not necessarily addressed, such as when he answered the question about the “moral law of the Volk” by bringing up Nazism and Auschwitz without any need), he replied with: “Yes. Hitler destroyed much more than cities and human beings, he broke the spine of the Germans, to a great extent.”27

What Gauland apparently meant with this metaphor was that the actual “victims” of Nazism were the Germans, and that this victimhood also goes far beyond the issue of Nazism: in this view, it was ultimately because of Hitler that an assertive and self-confident German politics was no longer possible—and with this embodiment in the person of Hitler, any responsibility for the Shoah on the part of the German people was also denied. This interview is highly revealing of the AfD self-image in relationship to Nazism, not only in terms of explicit statements, but also in regards to subconscious motivations, which speak here through Gauland’s comments—thereby making apparent without self-editing that the AfD is virtually obsessed with Nazism, and for a long time has simply been better at disguising the revisionist implications of this, more so than the openly neo-Nazi npd, for example.

This denial of German responsibility for Nazism, as expressed through Gauland’s attempts to absolve German guiltiness (including his own) in both historical and political terms, is tied to the desire for a German collective guiltlessness, and the fiction of German victimhood in this situation. According to this, it was not that the Germans did something, but that something that was done to them, in a rhetorical trick achieved by separating Hitler—as the personal embodiment of evil and Nazism—from his people, so that guilt can be expatriated and denied. In Gauland’s worldview, it seems that there are no more perpetrators, except for Hitler and perhaps a few leading Nazis.

Regardless of whether intentionally or not, this ignores the fact that the Nazi regime enjoyed great approval among the German populace, and that the vast majority of Germans were either actively or passively involved in the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews, be it through direct participation in confiscations, plundering, denunciations, executions, deportations, etc., through looking away and not resisting, through the spreading of antisemitic and racist sentiments, through refusing to speak about Nazi crimes, or through profiting from forced labor and the “Aryanization” of property and jobs. And this also ignores the fact that the reason why this völkisch ethnopolicy and antisemitic extermination policy could be implemented to such a monstrous extent was precisely because there existed a very wide-reaching consensus between the Nazi leadership and the German populace.

Gauland’s conception of history is based on a positive self-identification with the German nation, so that “being German” is not subjected to interrogation, nor does a critical examination of German history’s negative sides take place. Here, any feelings of ambivalence are either very limited or completely nonexistent—instead, there is only the desire to highlight and exaggerate whatever is seen as positive. This was also seen in early 2017 with the AfD parliamentary group in Baden-Württemberg, when it called for the elimination of local state funding for a concentration camp memorial and tried to justify this with the need for a “balanced culture of remembrance,” while also repudiating “a one-sided focus on the dark chapters of history and a suppression of our historical achievements.” The goal, according to the AfD, is a “positive self-identification with Germany and our history.”28 Beyond that, there was also a proposal that grants for visiting “memorials to Nazi wrongdoings” should be dedicated instead to visiting “significant sites of German history.”29

On the federal level as well, the current party platform of the AfD explicitly downplays the objective historical reality of German responsibility for Nazism and the Shoah, so that the general push towards historical revisionism has even become an official plank in the federal party’s platform: “The current narrowing of the German culture of remembrance to the time of National Socialism is to be broken up in favor of an expanded historical view that also includes the positive, identity-building aspects of German history.”30 This identifying with the German nation lies at the heart of this world view. Gauland’s intervention into the politics of memory is thus also an attempt to suggest that Germans in general are victims of Nazism. The remarkable thing about this act of self-projection is the indirectly expressed desire to claim the status of the victim, which often seems like a badge of honor in public debates—and this despite the fact that every victim of violence would prefer to have never suffered this, since actually being a victim is anything but desirable. This victim envy in the context of Nazism is then expressed through the belief that Jews are somehow trying to profit from the Nazi past, a notion that has been documented through numerous empirical studies.31

It is thus about deflecting feelings of inferiority and guilt by projecting not only one’s own sullied state on the Jews, but also one’s envy of their accomplishments and successes, be they real or imagined. Here, on the path taken by the AfD towards openly invoking central components of Nazi ideology, the whitewashing of the Nazi past has been not simply a minor detour, but in fact the primary route. Gauland’s historical revisionism was then further escalated in January 2017 by Björn Höcke, the AfD parliamentary leader in Thuringia’s state assembly, when he similarly took up the myth of the German victim and tried to whitewash history, but now tied this to an antisemitic stance that also included a brazen threat of violence against the modern German republic.

During a speech at a Dresden event organized by the Young Alternative for Germany (the AfD’s youth organization), Höcke declared that the bombing of Dresden had been a “war crime” and that “even today, it is not possible for us to mourn our own victims” (which is simply a barefaced lie, considering the ubiquitous war memorials across Germany, including the commemoration of the flight and expulsion of Germans in the wake of World War II, manifested in countless dedicated sites and thoroughly anchored in the official culture of remembrance: besides the countless memorials in almost every German cemetery, there are also numerous commemoration sites not only in larger localities, but also smaller ones, with extensive information on the topics of flight and expulsion). He thereby called for a “turnaround in remembrance policy” to highlight the “magnificent achievements of our forebears” and called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a “memorial of shame,” one that the German Volk had “planted … in the heart of its capital.”32 Here, Höcke added an explicit threat: “The AfD is the last revolutionary chance, the last peaceful one, for our Fatherland.”33

Höcke’s speech reflects the real substance of assertions like the ones expressed by Gauland, and clearly demonstrates how a historically revisionist antisemitism is combined with an ahistorical, anti-factual belief in a German victim identity. Here, in creating a historical facade or “cover identity,” the still dominant strategy is to cultivate the myth of collective guiltlessness: the goal is to talk about “German victims” without actually mentioning Nazism.34 The historical context is meant to disappear, so that we forget how German ethnopolicy and extermination schemes ultimately led to the bombing of German cities and the mass resettlement of German populations; such connections are redacted from memory, without ever being subjected to serious reflection in public discourse. Constantly imagined accusations of German collective guilt, a concept that never actually guided the policy conduct of the Allies and their associates, are met with an interpretation of history aimed at creating precisely the opposite: the myth of German collective guiltlessness.35

This was shown very clearly by a speech that Gauland gave in September 2017, in which he tried to completely reverse perpetrator/victim roles by denying the criminality of the Wehrmacht, a central institution in Germany’s antisemitic war of extermination, believing it had been unfairly singled out; but he conveniently forgets that the Wehrmacht was quite unlike the Allied armies, which had not conducted a war of extermination, but had instead prevented the Wehrmacht from murdering even more people. According to Gauland, if the British can be proud of Churchill and the French of Napoleon, then “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers from two world wars.” He furthermore stated that “there is no longer a need to reproach us for these twelve years. They no longer pertain to our identity. This is why we also have the right to take back not only our country, but also our past.”36

The fact of having followed in Nazism a doctrine that promised special privileges to Germans above all other people, and of having projected one’s own aggressions upon fellow human beings and thus made them into “sub-humans,” did not lead to a sense of shame among the vast majority of Germans after the war, but instead to the childish excuse of having “only” followed the leader. As already highlighted by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, this explains:

the tendency of many Germans to take on the role of innocent victim after the war. Each individual feels the disappointment of his own desires for protection and direction; he has been misled, seduced, abandoned, and finally expelled and condemned, although he had only been obedient, as commanded by the citizen’s first duty.37

This childish attitude not only “forgets” the historical facts, it also inverts the perpetrator/victim roles in one’s own favor: an act of destruction and extermination is indeed regretted, but only in regards to one’s own position and desires. Gauland encapsulates this with just a few sentences in his cited interview, while Höcke conveys the same idea in his cited speech, yet expressing it even more clearly than Gauland and combining his revisionist stance with an explicit threat of violence.

The deflection of German culpability and the denial of the Nazi past, as already seen right after the end of World War II, thus goes together with an almost ritualistic cultivation of personal guiltlessness and personal victimhood. If this myth of German collective guiltlessness is now being reactivated by the AfD, however, then the implications of this go far beyond the politics of memory. After all, if one manages to minimize or entirely jettison Nazism by making its terminology and worldview seem acceptable and by freeing its central geopolitical and ethnopolitical ideas from the Nazi context, then it becomes possible to once again pursue the implementation of concepts like the ethnonationally oppressive Volksgemeinschaft. And it is precisely here that one finds the deeper meaning behind the instrumentalization of German history by the AfD: whoever manages to excise Nazism from memory can then implement Nazi ideas without being seen as a Nazi or right-wing extremist. This is exactly why so many in the AfD have been unwilling to recognize the clearly, explicitly, and unmistakably articulated antisemitism of Wolfgang Gedeon as such: because accepting the obvious would have meant a real roadblock to the entire political program of the AfD.

The Tip of Many Icebergs: The Gedeon Affair and Deep-Rooted Antisemitism

The originating circumstances of the Gedeon affair can be quickly summarized: Wolfgang Gedeon became a member of the Baden-Württemberg state legislature for the AfD in the spring of 2016, and had previously expressed extensive, indisputably antisemitic sentiments in his writings. For any German legislator, this in itself was already a scandal. But the even bigger scandal was how the AfD dealt with the Gedeon affair—and it is the party’s handling of this that offers greater insights into antisemitism in the AfD, more so than what is found in Gedeon’s words alone. The party’s reaction makes it clear how deeply rooted antisemitic sentiments are in the AfD, and why, despite having not been an explicitly antisemitic party in terms of its official platform so far, it is nonetheless undeniably a party for antisemites.

What did Gedeon write? In one book, he described revisionist neo-Nazis like Horst Mahler, Ernst Zündel, and David Irving as “dissidents,” and took the view that in the courts, “the Zionist influence is manifesting itself in a limiting of free speech.”38 According to Gedeon, the Jews are working towards the “enslavement of humanity within a messianic empire of the Jews,” with the goal of “Judaizing the Christian religion and Zionizing the politics of the West.”39 He further claimed:

Just as Islam is the external foe, the Talmudic ghetto Jews were the internal foe of the Christian Occident … As the political centre of power shifted during the twentieth century from Europe to the u.s., Judaism, in its secular Zionist form, became a decisively powerful and influential factor in Western politics … The previous internal foe of the Occident is now a dominating power in the West, and the previous external foe of the Occident, namely Islam, has overrun the borders through mass migration and penetrated deeply into Western societies, and is reshaping them in many ways.40

The situation is fairly straightforward so far—but then the party and its leaders began desperately casting around for experts who could speak about Gedeon in their stead, before the AfD parliamentary group in Baden-Württemberg’s state legislature finally underwent a (purely cosmetic) schism in July 2016. The central question plaguing federal party leader Petry and her colleagues was: did Gedeon’s words actually constitute antisemitism? With the desperate search for outside experts to answer this question in the party’s stead, one might well be tempted to discount this as simply a rhetorical strategy.41 But, it makes more sense to take the party’s actions seriously here, and to make it accountable for this. After all, it is evident that Gedeon had made clearly and unmistakably antisemitic statements, drawing upon numerous aspects of common antisemitic tropes. The fact that AfD members could seriously ask whether Gedeon’s utterances were even antisemitic at all shows that they clearly did not find the content of his statements to be problematic, instead wanting an outside referee to make an evaluation for them. Here it is clear that they must find at least parts of Gedeon’s world view acceptable—there is no other plausible explanation.

This handling of the affair shows two things. Firstly, the AfD wanted to farm out all responsibility for the conduct of its members, purely so that it would not have to scare any of them away—in this case, Gedeon might at worst have been ruled an antisemite by some member of academia (which is more or less reviled anyway by the AfD and its followers), but this verdict would not have come from the party itself. Secondly, antisemitism is deeply rooted in the AfD, with the party attracting antisemites like a magnet. After all, if the party is unable to see antisemitism even in a case like Gedeon’s, then where does antisemitism actually begin in AfD eyes? Only with the onset of mass murder?

When AfD members refuse to acknowledge antisemitism for what it is, they do so because they are either unwilling to admit sharing antisemitic opinions themselves, or unwilling to hold antisemites accountable for their words, as has also been demonstrated by many other cases—and in no case has the AfD ever admitted, officially and unambiguously, that antisemitism was involved. Instead, the AfD has failed to distance itself from such ideas, which is why Gedeon is only one tip of the increasingly visible icebergs of antisemitism within the AfD.

The cases of antisemitism in the AfD have become so numerous that the usual right-wing strategy of shrugging them off as isolated incidents has lost all substance. For example, Gunnar Baumgart, who was a local AfD politician from the town of Bad Münder (near Hanover), was already defending the neo-Nazi revisionists and Holocaust deniers Ernst Zündel, Germar Rudolf, and Fred Leuchter back in 2015, and posted a Facebook link to an article claiming that “not a single Jew” had died from “Zyklon B or in the gas chambers.” He further stated that “if I had children, they would not attend history lessons in Germany.” After several criminal charges were filed against him, he said he wanted to resign from the AfD, “in order to deflect any damage to the party.”42

Antisemitic sentiments have also been expressed by other AfD office-holders.43 For example, Peter Ziemann, local state-level treasurer of the AfD in Hesse, ranted in 2013 about “satanic elements in the financial oligopoly” and “cover organizations organized by Freemasons,” harking back to common themes in antisemitic conspiracy theory.44 Or Jan-Ulrich Weiss, an AfD local state-level politician in Brandenburg who reposted an ostensible quote from British investment banker Jacob Rothschild, saying “we control … the media … and your government.”45 Or Gottfried Klasen, an elected AfD county assembly member in northern Hesse who claimed that the Central Council of Jews in Germany possessed “political opinion-making hegemony and political control over Germany.”46 And Höcke, the AfD parliamentary party leader in Thuringia’s state legislature defended prolific neo-Nazi activist Ursula Haverbeck when he spoke at an AfD rally in the city of Gera in late October 2016—soon after her latest of many criminal convictions for Holocaust denial.47

After the national elections of September 2017, Germany’s federal parliament was joined by AfD politician Wilhelm von Gottberg, who had previously spent almost two decades as head of the Homeland Association of East Prussia (Landsmannschaft Ostpreussen, a right-wing reactionary group), and has since failed to unequivocally repudiate the front-page article he wrote for the far-right newspaper Das Ostpreussenblatt in 2001, in which he included comments doubting the Holocaust. Here, he approvingly cited an Italian neofascist who stated that the “propaganda steam-roller” has not weakened over the years, but is strengthening instead, so that “the Holocaust must remain a mythos, a dogma, exempt from all free historical discussion.”48 Back in 2003, Gottberg had also defended Martin Hohmann, a member of the federal parliament who gave an antisemitic speech in October 2003 and was consequently thrown out of the parliamentary group of the cdu/csu (Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), and then out of the cdu altogether. In his speech, Hohmann had tried to downplay German responsibility for Nazi crimes, while also accusing Jews of “perpetratorship” in terms of the October Revolution in Russia. Hohmann has since returned to the federal parliament, this time sitting for the AfD.

During the Berlin municipal election campaign of 2016, Hugh Bronson, deputy head of the local AfD, made his worldview clear when he trivialized the Shoah in his tweet: “Extremes are typically German. Like with people on trains, it’s either Auschwitz or Refugees Welcome. Both are wrong!”49 Meanwhile, Kay Nerstheimer, the AfD politician who won a seat representing the district of Lichtenberg I at the same election, repeated a conspiracy theory that the “powers” behind the First and Second World Wars were now trying to start a third one, while also denigrating the modern German state as a “Federal German Trust Company headquartered in Frankfurt,” thus adding a financial conspiracy theory as well.50 The fact that Nerstheimer was excluded from the AfD parliamentary group upon its establishment in Berlin’s state legislature is no more than a cosmetic ruse, just like what was seen in Baden-Württemberg’s state legislature with the schism of its AfD parliamentary group, orchestrated to effectively stifle media criticism of antisemitism in the AfD, but then rescinded again just a few months later in October 2016.

As for Wolfgang Gedeon himself, it seems he was entirely unmoved by the public criticism of his words, and simply added fuel to the fire when he responded to an article in Die Zeit that analyzed his antisemitic comments, written by a scholar working at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at Berlin’s Technical University.51 Gedeon demanded to know “from what non-state actors” this center receives its financing, as “this would certainly interest a few readers.”52 Here, Gedeon does not really want an answer to his question: for him it is enough to simply make an insinuation, thus utilizing the common antisemitic strategy of suggesting a conspiracy without naming any specifics. And within the now reunited AfD parliamentary group in Baden-Württemberg’s state legislature, there are once again elected members who do not see any antisemitism in the statements of Gedeon, now sitting as an independent, and continue to support him.53 By November 2017, he was being invited to participate in AfD committees as a “parliamentary guest.”

It is with increasing frequency and clarity that antisemitic beliefs are manifesting themselves in openly antisemitic statements, as shown by the examples seen so far. In its handling of the Höcke affair, the AfD took a fateful step in January 2017, when its leadership ultimately decided not to expel him after his revisionist and antisemitic speech, thereby granting him their political backing. As it was put in Der Spiegel, the AfD has thereby lost all “democratic accountability;” furthermore, “it has become a party for Nazis and their followers. And whoever votes for them must now know: you are one as well.”54 This appraisal of AfD voters as equivalent to Nazis is shared by sixty-two per cent of all German citizens, according to a survey conducted by the Forsa Institute.55


It is simply a matter of time before a party for antisemites ultimately becomes a decidedly antisemitic party. This trajectory is demonstrated by the obsessive efforts seen within the AfD to revive positive feelings for Nazi terms like Volksgemeinschaft and völkisch: not only does this incorporate the ethnonationalist and antisemitic extermination policy of the German Volksgemeinschaft, these words also have a historical reality in the implementation of this extermination. The völkisch worldview represents the essential foundation of German antisemitism—and of the Nazi regime’s antisemitic extermination program.

Furthermore, the evolution of the AfD since its foundation has demonstrated a steady radicalization towards the far right, so that classical conservative stances, let alone liberal ones, no longer exist at all in the AfD today, with the latest party infighting clearly about personal dominance and not about any real differences in political agenda. Even now, nobody of rank and influence in the AfD has ever publicly acknowledged, clearly and unequivocally, that representatives like Gedeon and Höcke had been plainly antisemitic in their statements. Debates within the party are focused only on whether such statements might damage the party’s image—and so are only strategic in nature. The same thing applies to the lip service paid to Israel by the AfD. Its support is not based on fighting antisemitism—which the AfD clearly propagates in its treatment of the Nazi past, its inversion of perpetrator/victim roles, and its glorification of criminal institutions like the Wehrmacht. The AfD only wants to use Israel, firstly to deflect accusations of antisemitism by exploiting the notion that whoever is pro-Israel could not possibly be antisemitic, and secondly to find strategic allies in its fight against Muslim immigration.

Nevertheless, even the supposedly pro-Israel stance of the AfD has now become largely a myth, one based mostly on statements by politicians who have since left the AfD. More recently, during its 2017 federal party convention in Cologne, a motion to consider a clause entitled “strengthening German-Israeli friendship” for inclusion in its federal election platform failed to pass; in a speech against further considering this proposal, it was argued that there existed a problem with Israeli “war criminals.”56 A few months later, the leading AfD figure Gauland even questioned whether the championing of Israel’s right to exist, long an element of Germany’s national consensus, is actually in Germany’s “national interest.”57

In order to understand the party’s true nature and its progression towards right-wing extremism, one cannot overlook the antisemitism that has become an established fixture in the worldview of the AfD. It would clearly prefer to downplay the antisemitism displayed by many of its members and officials, since acknowledgement of this would remove the last obstacle to recognizing the AfD as simply one more of the many far-right parties that have emerged in Germany’s postwar history—with the only difference being that the AfD has managed to profit from the middle-class image of its early phase, thus allowing it to achieve double-digit results in the federal elections of 2017, making it the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the end of the Nazi era. For the development of the AfD, the result of a representative opinion poll is particularly enlightening. The renowned Allensbach Institute for Demoskopie has shown in June 2018 how common antisemitism is among supporters of the AfD: 55 percent of the supporters of the AfD agree with the statement: “Jews have too much influence in the world.”58 Compared with the other German parties, the approval in any other party is a maximum of 20 percent. The results show that antisemitism not only unites the officials of the party, but also its supporters.


Christoph Kopke and Alexander Lorenz, “Auf dem Weg in die ‘Nationale Opposition?,’” vorgänge: Zeitschrift für Bürgerrechte und Gesellschaftspolitik, no. 216 (2016): 15–28, here 24.


For a closer look at this, see Samuel Salzborn, Antisemitismus als negative Leitidee der Moderne: Sozialwissenschaftliche Theorien im Vergleich (Frankfurt, 2010).


See Samuel Salzborn, “Renaissance of the New Right in Germany? A Discussion of New Right Elements in German Right-wing Extremism Today,” German Politics and Society 34, no. 2 (2016): 36–63.


Quoted in Patrick Gensing, “Die AfD und die ‘Volksgemeinschaft,’”, 29 December 2015.


Quoted in ibid.


See Beat Balzli and Matthias Kamann, “Petry will den Begriff ‘völkisch’ positiv besetzen,” Die Welt Online, 11 September 2016.


See Markus Brunner, Jan Lohl, Rolf Pohl, and Sebastian Winter, ed., Volksgemeinschaft, Täterschaft und Antisemitismus: Beiträge zur psychoanalytischen Sozialpsychologie des Nationalsozialismus und seiner Nachwirkungen (Giessen, 2011); Dietmar von Reeken and Malte Thiessen, ed., “Volksgemeinschaft” als soziale Praxis: Neue Forschungen zur NS-Gesellschaft vor Ort (Paderborn, 2013); Detlef Schmiechen-Ackermann, ed., “Volksgemeinschaft”: Mythos, wirkungsmächtige soziale Verheißung oder soziale Realität im Dritten Reich? (Paderborn, 2012); Peter Schyga, Über die Volksgemeinschaft der Deutschen: Begriff und historische Wirklichkeit jenseits historiografischer Gegenwartsmoden (Baden-Baden, 2015); Michael Wildt, Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft and the Dynamics of Racial Exclusion (New York, 2012).


See Samuel Salzborn, Ethnisierung der Politik: Theorie und Geschichte des Volksgruppenrechts in Europa (Frankfurt, 2005).


See Samuel Salzborn, Demokratie: Theorien, Formen, Entwicklungen (Baden-Baden, 2012).


Bundesverfassungsgericht, “Urteil des Zweiten Senats vom 17. Januar 2017: 2 BvB 1/13—Rn. (1-1010);” available at, accessed 20 January 2017.


See Uwe Puschner and G. Ulrich Grossmann, ed., Völkisch und national: Zur Aktualität alter Denkmuster im 21. Jahrhundert (Darmstadt, 2009).


Wolf-Dietrich Bukow, “Soziogenese ethnischer Minoritäten,” Das Argument, no. 181 (1990): 422–426, here 423 (emphasis in original).


See Anthony D. Smith, National Identity (London, 1991), 8.


See Wilhelm Heitmeyer, ed., Deutsche Zustände, 10 vols. (Frankfurt 2002-2011).


On the party’s early history, see David Bebnowski, Die Alternative für Deutschland: Aufstieg und gesellschaftliche Repräsentanz einer rechten populistischen Partei (Wiesbaden, 2015); Sebastian Friedrich, Der Aufstieg der AfD: Neokonservative Mobilmachung in Deutschland (Berlin, 2015); Alexander Häusler and Rainer Roeser, Die rechten “Mut”-Bürger: Entstehung, Entwicklung, Personal und Positionen der Alternative für Deutschland (Hamburg, 2015); Andreas Kemper, Rechte Euro-Rebellion: Alternative für Deutschland und Zivile Koalition e.V. (Münster, 2013).


See Samuel Salzborn, Angriff der Antidemokraten: Die völkische Rebellion der Neuen Rechten (Weinheim, 2016).


See Frank Decker, Bernd Henningsen, and Kjetil Jakobsen, eds., Rechtspopulismus und Rechtsextremismus in Europa: Die Herausforderung der Zivilgesellschaft durch alte Ideologien und neue Medien (Baden-Baden, 2015); Ralf Melzer and Sebastian Serafin, ed., Right-wing Extremism in Europe: Country Analyses, Counter-Strategies and Labor-Market Oriented Exit Strategies (Berlin, 2013).


See Anton Pelinka, “Die FPÖ in der vergleichenden Parteienforschung: Zur typologischen Einordnung der Freiheitlichen Partei Österreichs,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 31, no. 3 (2002): 281–299; Heribert Schiedel, Der Rechte Rand: Extremistische Gesinnungen in unserer Gesellschaft (Vienna, 2007).


See Jan Lohl, Gefühlserbschaft und Rechtsextremismus: Eine sozialpsychologische Studie zur Generationengeschichte des Nationalsozialismus (Giessen, 2010); Ingrid Peisker, Vergangenheit, die nicht vergeht: Eine psychoanalytische Zeitdiagnose zur Auseinandersetzung mit dem Nationalsozialismus (Giessen, 2005).


Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall, “Opa war kein Nazi”: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis (Frankfurt, 2002).


See Jana Hensel, “Opa war kein Held,” Die Zeit Online, 3 March 2018.


Thomas K. Bauer, “Einwanderung ist kein Minusgeschäft (Interview),” Die Zeit Online, 21 October 2010. See also Klaus J. Bade and Jochen Oltmer, Normalfall Migration: Deutsch-land im 20. und frühen 21. Jahrhundert (Bonn, 2004).


Hensel (see note 21).


See Kai Arzheimer, “The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany?,” West European Politics 38, no. 3 (2015), 535–556; Hans Vorländer, Maik Herold, and Steven Schäller, pegida: Entwicklung, Zusammensetzung und Deutung einer Empörungsbewegung (Wiesbaden, 2016).


Alexander Gauland, “Hitler hat den Deutschen das Rückgrat gebrochen (Interview),” Die Zeit, 14 April 2016.






Alternative für Deutschland Landtagsfraktion Baden-Württemberg, “Pressemitteilung ‘Gedenkstätte Gurs,’” 23 January 2017.


Quoted in Roland Muschel, “AfD will Fördergelder für Gurs-Gedenkstätte streichen,” Badische Zeitung, 21 January 2017.


Alternative für Deutschland, Programm für Deutschland: Das Grundsatzprogramm der Alternative für Deutschland (Stuttgart, 2016), 48.


See Samuel Salzborn, Antisemitismus: Geschichte, Theorie, Empirie (Baden-Baden, 2014).


Björn Höcke, “Vollständiges Transkript der Rede vom 17. Januar 2017 im Ballhaus Watzke, Dresden im Rahmen der Veranstaltungsreihe ‘Dresdner Gespräche’ organisiert vom Jugendverband der Alternative für Deutschland, der ‘Jungen Alternative;’” available at, accessed 19 January 2017.




On the concept of “cover identity” (Deckidentität), see Elisabeth Brainin, Vera Ligeti, and Samy Teicher, Vom Gedanken zur Tat: Zur Psychoanalyse des Antisemitismus (Frankfurt, 1993), 64.


On the fiction of collective German guilt, see Norbert Frei, “Von deutscher Erfindungskraft oder: Die Kollektivschuldthese in der Nachkriegszeit,” Rechtshistorisches Journal 16 (1997): 621–634.


Quoted in “Gauland fordert ‘Stolz’ auf deutsche Soldaten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung online, 14 September 2017.


Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollektiven Verhaltens (Munich, 1980), 53–54.


Quoted in Hans-W. Saure and Anton Maegerle, “Skandal um antisemitisches Buch von W. Gedeon,” Bild, 1 June 2016.


Quoted in Justus Bender and Rüdiger Soldt, “Im Eiferer-Modus gegen Juden,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4 June 2016.


Quoted in ibid.


On the search for outside experts, see Martin Krauss, “Rechtspopulisten halbiert. AfD spaltet sich wegen Umgang mit Antisemiten,“ Jüdische Allgemeine, 6 July 2016.


Quoted in Jens Rathmann and Thomas Thimm, “Vorwurf der Volksverhetzung,” Hannoversche Allgemeine, 13 August 2015.


See also Jan Riebe, “Wie antisemitisch ist die AfD?,”, 10 May 2016.


Quoted in Armin Pfahl-Traughber, “AfD: Antisemiten finden Durchlass; Es ist kein Zufall, dass in der ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ ständig judenfeindliche Skandale auftauchen,” Jüdische Allgemeine, 9 June 2016.


Quoted in ibid.


Quoted in Carsten Meyer and Joachim F. Tornau, “Antisemit in der AfD,” blick nach rechts, 25 July 2016.


See Knut Krohn, “Höcke verteidigt Holocaust-Leugnerin,” Stuttgarter Zeitung, 22 November 2016.


Quoted in “AfD-Politiker lehnte Distanzierung von Holocaustzitat ab,” Die Zeit online, 15 March 2017.


Quoted in Frederik Bombosch, “Auschwitz-Vergleich: Berliner AfD-Vize Hugh Bronson relativiert Shoah,” Berliner Zeitung, 16 September 2016.


Quoted in Oliver Das Gupta, “AfD-Abgeordneter schmäht Flüchtlinge als ‘widerliches Gewürm,’” Süddeutsche Zeitung Online, 20 September 2016.


See Marcus Funck, “Wolfgang Gedeon: Wie antisemitisch ist dieser AfD-Politiker?,” Die Zeit, 11 August 2016.


Wolfgang Gedeon, “Zur Kritik von Marcus Funck in der Zeit;” available at, accessed 17 September 2016.


See Rüdiger Soldt, “Unangemessene Formen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 November 2016.


Stefan Kuzmany, “Höcke darf in der AfD bleiben: Partei für Nazis und Mitläufer,” Spiegel Online, 23 January 2017.


See “Nazi-Ideologie in der AfD,” stern, 25 January 2017.


See Benjamin Steinitz and Daniel Poensgen, “Die AfD im Spannungsfeld zwischen Relativierung und Instrumentalisierung des Antisemitismus,”, November 2017.


See “Gauland bringt kritische Sätze über Israels Existenzrecht,” Berliner Kurier, 25 September 2017.


See Thomas Petersen, “Wie antisemitisch ist Deutschland?” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20 June 2018.

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Contributor Notes

Prof. Dr. Samuel Salzborn is a Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University of Berlin, and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (carr). He received his doctorate in 2004 from the University of Cologne and habilitated at the University of Giessen in 2009. He has also been a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Economics in Prague, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Marburg. Email: