Alexander Gauland, 76, is co-leader of the far-right, anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany, which is known by its German acronym, AfD.
The party, which Gauland helped found in 2013, began as a protest against European bailouts in Greece. But it is now principally known for its anti-immigration and anti-refugee positions. Polls show that the party is positioned to take third place in Germany’s federal elections Sunday and could become the official opposition party in the Bundestag, the German parliament.
The Washington Post’s Griff Witte and Luisa Beck sat down Friday with Gauland at his state parliament office in Potsdam, outside Berlin. The following are excerpts from their conversation:
Washington Post: Nationalist parties haven’t made it into the German parliament since the 1960s. What is happening in Germany now that explains their relative success?
Alexander Gauland: The "refugees welcome" policy of Angela Merkel alienated a lot of people, a lot of voters, as you can see in the demonstrations against Merkel. We call it “Merkel muss weg” demonstrations, or “Merkel must go.”
WP: Even with the AfD’s success, it’s not performing as well as populists in other parts of the world. Why is it that the AfD seems to be getting 10, 12, maybe tops 15 percent of the vote but is not getting more than that?
AG: That has a lot to do with German history. What is National Socialist in Germany is [considered] out of order and you can’t discuss it correctly. It is very difficult for so-called right-wing parties to gain votes in Germany.
WP: The year began with a lot of expectations for right-wing parties across Europe. It hasn't worked out in the elections so far. To what extent has what's been going on in the United States, President Trump in particular, influenced the course of events in Europe this year?
AG: We are often told that President Trump has changed the outlook of the AfD, but I don’t think so. You [in the U.S.] have other problems. You have economic problems. You have your Rust Belt, you have problems of export and import. Those aren’t German problems. And I don't believe in the similarity of Trump with the AfD.
WP: And why do you think it is that the AfD has dipped in its support from where it was last year?
AW: It’s easy to explain. In 2015 you had the television reports on the Balkan route of refugees. And these pictures you don’t see any longer.
WP: So does that mean that if there’s not a repeat of 2015 that the AfD's potential is limited?
AG: It is more difficult to explain today because it is a problem now in the society. Society changes for the worse. And the people feel it and see it in school, in housing problems, in the crime problems. So society is changing for the worse, but it is not so visible on TV.
WP: But on the other hand you could say that Germany is doing exceptionally well. Refugees have not caused the type of panic that people feared. Why do you see [society] getting worse?
AG: You don’t get cheap housing. You get a lot of Islamic people who have totally other values than our people. You have problems with school. You have problems with school food. You have problems bringing girls from Muslim families to swim lessons. You have daily problems now.
WP: In the past few years there was a surge in right-wing extremist violence against minority groups in Germany. Why hasn’t the AfD done more to distance itself from that or to speak out against that?
AG: We have nothing to do with the extremism. We have nothing to do with violence against people.
WP: But some of your rhetoric has been very inflammatory. You've said that the integration minister should be "disposed of" in [Turkey]. Isn't that incitement to violence?
AG: She says she is integration minister. And she says there is no German culture, besides the language. And I have recommended her to go where she perhaps understands much more about the culture than in Germany. That's all.
WP: Do you regret any of the language that you used or any of the language used by your colleagues in the party?
AG: Why should I?
WP: When your colleague [AfD politician Björn Höcke] questioned why there should be a monument to shame, as he put it, in the capital of Berlin, referring to the Jewish Holocaust memorial, was that over the line?
AG: He has spoken of a monument of shame in the midst of the German capital. And that is totally correct.
WP: You were for decades a member of [Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union]. As far as you're concerned, did you leave the CDU or did the CDU leave you?
AG: Angela Merkel changed the CDU from a party that had convictions to a party that’s an empty balloon. There’s nothing in it any longer. A lot of decisions of Angela Merkel — transitioning to renewable energy, refugees, changing of the military from conscription to volunteer — ran opposite to what we called in former times "the soul of the CDU."
WP: Do you find that Germany is more divided now than it has been in previous years?
AG: Yes. It is more divided now. Because in the beginning of the refugee crisis, all media and all politicians were for refugees. The people who didn’t like this very much didn’t find their opinion in the media. And they couldn’t discuss their fear about what was going on in Germany. And that did divide the German society into the people who want to help [refugees] and the other ones who said we have enough problems in this country.
WP: What are your expectations for Sunday? What will be a successful outcome for the AfD?
AG: If we get into the German Bundestag it will be good. I don’t forecast votes.