BERLIN — For the first time since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, a far-right party will soon have delegates in the German Parliament.
Founded in 2013, the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, rode a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to become the third-highest-polling party in the country. Pollsters say the party should get more than enough votes in Germany’s parliamentary elections this month to pass the 5 percent threshold required to send representatives to the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house.
That has caused tremendous hand-wringing in a country that takes the burden of its Nazi history seriously. Stickers that read “FCK AFD” are plastered to street signs and apartment buildings across Berlin, and media coverage hails citizens who take it upon themselves to remove swastikas etched onto grimy walls.
In the Bundestag itself, the mood is much the same. There’s a strong feeling among lawmakers that people with even tenuous ties to the Nazi Party that gutted democracy 85 years ago simply don’t belong there.
“I don’t know anyone in the Bundestag among the staffers and the MPs who does not feel angry,” said one staff member from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The sentiment was unanimous among the half-dozen staff members who spoke to The Washington Post, representing every party currently seated in Parliament.
Lawmakers and their staffs have spent the past few months figuring out how they might sideline the AfD once its members arrive, but doing so will be difficult. German governance is far too formalized — and rule-following perhaps far too ingrained — for such an effort to make much of a dent. But the search for even marginal ways to limit the AfD’s influence shows the extent to which Parliament sees the new party as a worry, and even a potential threat to Germany’s democracy itself.
“Nazis were elected to the Reichstag, too,” said the CDU staffer, referring to the parliament of the Weimar Republic. “They were treated like a normal party until they undermined any democratic ideas in Germany.”
Timo Lochocki, an expert on right-wing populism at the German Marshall Fund, a Berlin-based think tank, believes those concerns are justified. Winning seats in Parliament will give the AfD an enormous platform to promote and normalize its message, along with access to massive new resources and staff, which should help beef up its organization.
“Europe should be concerned,” said Lochocki. “The world should be concerned.”
The most significant attempt so far to preemptively block the AfD took place months ago. Parliamentary tradition grants the body’s oldest member the right to give the first speech of a new session. After the Sept. 24 elections, that honor could fall to Wilhelm von Gottberg, a 77-year-old AfD candidate who has previously described the Holocaust as an “effective instrument for the criminalization of Germans and their history.”
The thought of von Gottberg giving one of the most-watched speeches of the year sent a collective shudder through the Bundestag, and Merkel’s government proposed offering the first speech to the longest-serving member rather than the oldest. While she never explicitly stated that the AfD was the target of the rule change, the purpose was clear to AfD co-founder Alexander Gauland, who denounced the move as “trickery.”
Other struggles are taking place further out of public view. The chairmanship of the Bundestag’s budget committee, the most powerful in the chamber, traditionally goes to the leader of the opposition — which could be the AfD this year. According to Bild, the German tabloid, committee members are contemplating rejecting any AfD member for the chairmanship.
And even the question of the party’s physical location in Parliament has been controversial. Parties sit in the Bundestag chamber ordered from left to right according to where they fall on the political spectrum. Following that tradition would place the AfD next to the risers where Merkel’s ministers sit, a prominent position in the chamber that current members don’t want the party to occupy. And, as childish as it may seem, no current sitting party wants to sit next to the AfD, according to Bild.
German think tanks, too, are wondering how to respond to an influx of perhaps dozens of AfD politicians. “It is a tough question. We somehow have to find a way to deal with them and include them in our work,” said an employee at the leading think tank in Berlin, sighing and looking weary. “But we worry that that would legitimize their platform even further.”
So even as official Berlin recognizes the high stakes for its liberal democracy, an effective strategy is still nowhere in sight. As the CDU staffer put it: “The truth is that nobody really knows what the proper way of dealing with the AfD is.”