The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

German voters punished the far right. German taxpayers are about to reward it.

The AfD lost seats in the election, but its political education arm will now get millions to spread its ideas.

Germans attend a campaign rally in Bautzen for the Alternative for Germany party ahead of state elections in 2019. The party lost seats in last month’s parliamentary elections but gained government funding for its political foundation.
Germans attend a campaign rally in Bautzen for the Alternative for Germany party ahead of state elections in 2019. The party lost seats in last month’s parliamentary elections but gained government funding for its political foundation. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
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BERLIN — In some ways, the guardrails against fascism in Germany, which have been critical to postwar ideology here, appear to have held once again: The recent elections did not go well for the far-right anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The young party, founded in 2013, first won seats in parliament in 2017, becoming the third-largest political party in the Bundestag — and the first to represent the far right since World War II. But it lost 11 seats at the polls last month, a drop of two percentage points from its triumphant Bundestag debut. What’s more, before the elections, all the other parties pledged to avoid forming a coalition government with the AfD.

In one crucial way, however, the AfD is about to become a big winner. Its affiliated political foundation is on track to receive millions of euros in taxpayer money, with almost zero restrictions on how to spend it because there is no mechanism for transparency. If the forces of xenophobia will have less influence in the Bundestag this go round, the AfD’s education, recruitment and brand-polishing arm will have far more — paid for by the state.

The government has subsidized Germany’s political parties for decades. The AfD simply draws new attention to an old phenomenon in that regard. But in addition, whenever a party is represented in the Bundestag for a second consecutive term, its affiliated political foundation also receives funding. The foundations’ educational mission includes organizing events, conducting research, awarding scholarships and sharing their ideas around the world. In 2019, the six foundations affiliated with the parties represented in the Bundestag received 660 million euros ($766 million), which was three times what the parties themselves received. Now AfD’s foundation, Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung (DES), demands a piece of the pie.

Making far-right nationalism acceptable again

This presents a conundrum and exposes a weakness in those vaunted guardrails. On the one hand, the multiparty system is part of the constitution, and Germany is obligated to finance whatever crazy views a sufficient share of voters believe. On the other hand, the constitution forbids political extremism considered a threat to the democratic order. Deciding who’s an extremist posing that degree of threat is tricky, however. Right now all eyes are on Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which has a kind of rapid alert system. You don’t need to be violent to be subject to the agency’s surveillance for extremism, but ultimately a court has to decide who is too threatening. The AfD has been subject to surveillance; DES so far has not. This leaves the AfD with a dangerous tool. Its representatives know what other foundations’ representatives have long known: Political education has a deeper and stronger impact on public opinion than any election campaign. That 1 out of 10 German voters supported the AfD in this year’s elections is a result of right-wing ideas becoming mainstream in Germany.

DES Chairwoman Erika Steinbach, who left Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in 2017 over the chancellor’s migration policy, said she expects the foundation to receive $8 million next year and $16 million in the following years. It could be a lot more. Varying calculations suggest that DES might receive $70 million to $80 million a year. A foundation’s allotment is decided in part by budget negotiations, the size of its party’s delegation and the cost of specific projects it plans — opening offices abroad, for example.

Although parties and foundations are ostensibly separate, the AfD and DES share identical goals. The 78-year-old Steinbach claims that there is no place for “radical, racist and extremist ideas” in her foundation, but various unions and organizations, including the Central Council of Jews in Germany, accuse her and other DES board members of “relativizing” the Holocaust, or minimizing it by comparing it to lesser events, and having ties to extremist groups. At a DES event in 2018, for example, speakers claimed that Germany did not lose World War I. More recently, a member called masks against the coronavirus the new “judenstern,” or yellow badge, like the ones Jews were forced to wear in the Nazi era. A study by the Otto Brenner Foundation documents instances of notable DES figures associating with right-wing extremist organizations.

Some DES members have been well known on the far right for decades: In the 1990s, Hans Hausberger supported a radical right-wing minority party, the Republicans, in its foundation efforts, introducing himself as “Schönhuber’s man.” Franz Schönhuber, founder of the Republicans, had been a member of the Nazis’ Waffen-SS. Hausberger is now an assessor on the DES board of directors. Karlheinz Weissmann co-founded a far-right think tank and is now on the DES advisory board. Other DES members, like AfD politician Marc Jongen, are affiliated with far-right groups monitored by the domestic intelligence agency — the fate the DES itself has so far avoided.

There is no law that regulates the state funding of party-affiliated foundations. Until now, parties and their foundations have not supported such a law because they all benefit from the system. The distribution of the funds is keyed to election results, but the process is extremely opaque and largely informal. This year the German Federal Audit Office criticized “significant violations” by all six foundations in the payment of their staff.

DES has depended thus far on private donors. As soon as the foundation receives government funds, it is expected to do what other foundations do: represent Germany worldwide and support the next generation of ideologues with its scholarship programs. This means that with the help of DES, the far right will gain a foothold at German universities. And with AfD offices short-staffed and the party in need of academic workers, the AfD’s hope is that DES becomes a funnel for young far-right recruits.

If millions of euros in taxpayer money can flow into the pockets of DES, the far right is sure to get more support from society over the coming years — if not in votes, then in actions. Those guardrails against fascism, effective for more than half a century, don’t seem so strong now.

Twitter: @AnnelieNaumann

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Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, a power divide remains in Germany. That’s dangerous.

Merkel rose to command Europe — thanks to her East German humility

Can remembering past atrocities prevent future ones?

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