MAGDEBURG, Germany — For years, debate in the parliament of this east German state capital on the banks of the Elbe flowed as languidly as the cool waters of the river on a clear autumn's day.
But then, in March 2016, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party stunned the cozy local political establishment with a second-place finish. Ever since, the currents in the state parliament have boiled and churned, the glass-paneled debating chamber transformed into a forum for seething exchange.
Lawmakers question each other’s patriotism, and some refuse to sit together in the parliamentary cafeteria. Innocuous-seeming debates over issues such as elder care devolve into bitter re-litigations of the country’s refugee policies. And, almost daily, insults fly that evoke the worst of German history.
“Nazis!” the far right’s opponents shout.
“Stasi!” the AfD’s lawmakers reply, using the name of communist secret police in Cold War East Germany.
The sudden transformation of the political culture in Magdeburg from numbing to noxious offers a preview of the future that could await Germany's federal Parliament in Berlin after the AfD surged to third place in Sept. 24's election, becoming the first far-right party in more than half a century to win seats in the Bundestag, the legislature's lower house.
As in Magdeburg’s legislature before last year, the tone in the Bundestag has long been consensual in the extreme, with the two major parties joined in a coalition government and with little else to disturb the harmony of a body where, in direct response to the darkest chapters of Germany’s past, civil discourse is prized.
But the AfD, which won 94 seats in the recent vote, has vowed to intrude noisily on the quiet. On election night, party leader Alexander Gauland thundered that the AfD would use its prominent new platform to "hunt" Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.
The five parties that control the remainder of the seats in the 709-member Bundestag have said they will not cooperate with the AfD and have denounced the party’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. That makes the AfD’s chances of actually using its perch in the federal Parliament to enact legislation minimal, at best.
Yet, as Magdeburg shows, the party doesn’t need to pass laws to have an outsize influence.
“The tone has changed,” said Roger Stöcker, a political scientist at the city’s Otto von Guericke University. “It’s more aggressive. It’s more rough. There’s less respect. The language used is not what you’d expect in [the state] parliament.
“I think,” Stöcker said, “the Bundestag will go the same way.”
The AfD’s emergence last year as the second-largest party in Saxony-Anhalt, the struggling eastern German state of which Magdeburg is the capital, was even more surprising than its relative triumph nationally on Sept. 24.
At the time, the three-year-old party had never scored higher than 12 percent in a state election. But on March 13, 2016, it doubled that total in Saxony-Anhalt, storming its way into a parliament that had been dominated for a decade by a tightknit coalition between the country’s two dominant parties.
“It was a big shock,” said Stöcker, who is an active member of one of those establishment parties, the Social Democrats. “There was paralysis. Nobody thought they would get that kind of result.”
The outcome forced the two main parties to add a third — the Greens — to the state's coalition government, just as results of the national election are likely to yield an uncomfortable three-way coalition among parties that are less than natural allies.
And just as it plans to do nationally, the AfD’s disruption of the existing order did not stop there. AfD opponents in the state parliament say the party’s lawmakers brought a new mode of behavior to the chamber, one in which they openly cheered their own, jeered others, interrupted when they disagreed and smashed long-standing taboos.
When climate change comes up, AfD members interject that it’s a hoax. If there’s a debate over funding for the elderly, the far-right party demands to know why refugees are getting money that it says should be going to German senior citizens. Issues that were never on the state parliament’s priority list, such as the wearing of burqas among members of the very small Muslim population in Saxony-Anhalt, have crept onto the agenda.
“It’s not who makes the best argument anymore,” said Tobias Krull, a member of the state parliament from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which leads the government here and nationally. “It’s who makes the loudest argument.”
Krull said a group of children recently visited the parliament to observe the debate. Afterward, one of them shared his impressions, Krull said: “He said, ‘If we behaved in school as you behave here, we’d be kicked out.’”
It’s not just in Saxony-Anhalt. The AfD now has a presence in 13 of the 16 German state parliaments. A recent study by the Otto Brenner Foundation found the party had brought a sharper and more belligerent tone to state government, along with a new focus on polarizing issues such as refugees, Islam and immigration.
Members of other parties in Saxony-Anhalt said the behavior goes well beyond rudeness, and echoes the rhetoric of the Third Reich.
In February, the AfD’s leader in the state, André Poggenburg, denounced left-wing activists in local schools. “Help us once and for all get rid of these malignant growths on the German national body,” he said, words that struck many here as being uncomfortably similar to those of Nazi leaders.
Members of left-wing parties say they’ve been verbally attacked in ominous and dehumanizing ways, including with the German word “versifft,” meaning “filthy.”
“Their choice of words is shameful,” said Dorothea Frederking, a member of the Saxony-Anhalt parliament from the Greens. “It’s really a pity that right-wing extremists are sitting in our parliament 70 years after the Second World War. Years ago, it was unthinkable to have these kinds of debates. But now they’ve come back.”
Poggenburg, blond, blue-eyed and younger-looking than his 42 years, acknowledged in an interview that his party’s members are inflaming tensions. But that, he said, is what they were elected to do.
“Before the AfD, the debates had been very sleepy and comfy,” he said. “It’s our goal to provoke. That’s what the people wanted.”
He also dismissed any similarity between his party’s rhetoric and that of the Third Reich.
“If you’re going to make 10 statements, the likelihood of one of them being used in Nazi times is high,” said Poggenburg, who described his party as the only patriotic one in Germany.
And he accused the AfD’s rivals of stooping to incivility first. Members from some other factions, he said, won’t shake the hands of AfD members, sit with them in the cafeteria or acknowledge them at social events. Plus, he said, the name-calling goes both ways, with the far-left Die Linke party being especially aggressive.
“For every three times they call us Nazis or fascists, we might call them communists or Stasi once,” he said.
Not every party has responded to the AfD with pure derision. The state premier, 63-year-old Reiner Haseloff, said the party has repeatedly gone “below the belt” with its rhetoric, and that the AfD’s use of language that echoes Germany’s Nazi past is particularly intolerable. But his party, the ruling CDU, has shown a willingness to work with the AfD that other factions see as disconcerting.
The CDU recently teamed up with the far right to pass legislation creating a commission to investigate left-wing extremism — a move that drew a swift rebuke from Merkel, who has sworn not to engage the AfD.
Haseloff, once an ally of Merkel who broke with the chancellor over her response to the refugee crisis, said his party has an obligation to take seriously the forces that gave rise to the AfD, even if it disagrees with the far right’s tactics.
“Up until now, there hasn’t been a discussion about German identity and how much migration is a good thing and to what extent are we bringing conflicts that are happening all over the world to Germany,” Haseloff said. “If we don’t hear the signal from voters, then the AfD is not going away.”