The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The far right is back in the Reichstag, bringing with it taunts and insults

Alternative for Germany leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland react to a comment by a Free Democratic Party speaker during the first session of the newly elected Parliament in October. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The German Reichstag is normally a solemn place, its walls etched with a dark history, its debates marked by an earnest sobriety. 

But ever since the Alternative for Germany (AfD) stormed into the national Parliament last fall, becoming the first far-right party to do so in more than half a century, the glass-domed chamber on the banks of the River Spree has resounded with an unexpected sound: laughter.

Not the funny kind. The derisive kind. When other parliamentarians speak, AfD members try to drown them out with coordinated cackles.  

“We were elected by people who want us to tell the truth,” said Georg Pazderski, an AfD party leader. “If [opponents] are talking nonsense, what should you do? Should you boo or should you laugh? We are laughing.” 

The tactic represents just one way the AfD is transforming politics in Germany, turning a system long marked by civility and stability into one increasingly characterized by point-scoring and provocation.

Party members also freely hurl insults at opponents and boisterously cheer their own, giving synchronized ovations to those who use their time at the lectern to unleash attacks on the centrist government or swing debate toward their favorite topic: contempt for immigration.

To AfD stalwarts such as Pazderski, the change represents nothing less than a democratic revival, the return of “a real opposition” after more than a decade of cozy consensus under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yet the party’s critics see something far more ominous: a coarsening of debate and the denigration of minorities in a country where that combination has led to catastrophic consequences.

Other European nations have grown accustomed to a far-right presence in their parliaments. But because of Germany’s past, the AfD’s emergence as a political force has been especially jarring.

Rather than shy from the controversy, the party has leaned into it. This month, , AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland dismissed the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in the broader sweep of Germany’s “glorious history.” Critics said the comment was part of a pattern in which the party attempts to minimize the crimes of the Third Reich.

The AfD has also drawn rebukes for adopting in debates some of the phrases and rhetorical techniques popularized by the Nazis.

“Some AfD members and media refer to these discussions as ‘more lively,’ ” said Petra Pau, a leader of the Left party, which occupies the opposite end of Parliament’s ideological spectrum. “But they are simply more aggressive and racist.”

Alice Weidel, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany Party, drew heckling during a speech in the lower house of the German parliament on May 16. (Video: Bundestag)

There was the time in mid-May, for instance, when AfD co-leader Alice Weidel used a routine budget debate to denounce “girls in headscarves, knife-wielding men on government benefits and other good-for-nothing people.”

The comment prompted an official rebuke from the parliamentary president, who described it as insulting to Muslim women. But it also earned Weidel an incendiary video for the party to post on Facebook. The clip quickly racked up thousands of likes. 

“The AfD is trying to split society,” the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung concluded after reviewing 1,500 speeches delivered since this Parliament convened in late October. “And the Bundestag is cracking.” 

If that was the goal, it’s happened quickly: The AfD is just five years old. It got its start by capitalizing on German resentment over European bailouts for Greece. Its popularity spiked after the 2015 migration crisis, when the arrival of more than 1 million asylum seekers in Germany spawned a backlash against the government’s welcoming stance. 

Party leaders advocate mass deportations, question climate science and suggest that Germany may have to abandon the euro in favor of a return to the German mark. 

In recent months, the AfD has taken on an outsize role for a party that won less than 13 percent of the vote in September elections and holds 92 seats out of the 709 in the Bundestag, the lower house of German Parliament. (The Bundestag meets in the Reichstag, a building that has been burned, bombed and repeatedly reborn during its tumultuous hundred-plus-year history.)

The AfD’s status as the largest opposition party gives its speakers the first opportunity to rebut representatives of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union or their center-left partners, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

More important is the AfD’s willingness to bend or even break unofficial rules of decorum.

Personal attacks on fellow lawmakers, for instance, were long considered out of bounds. But Aydan Özoguz, a former federal migration commissioner, has been on the receiving end of several, with AfD politicians dismissing her as “a failed example of integration.” Özoguz was born in Hamburg to Turkish immigrants and has been a Bundestag member for nearly a decade.

“We’re all prepared for confrontations that happen again and again and which previously weren’t common in Parliament,” she said. “They’re often at the limits of what’s legal.”

When Detlef Seif, a veteran of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, attempted to deliver a speech on border security in March, he didn’t get far before the insults started raining down.

“Nonsense!” “Foolish!” “Impossible!”

In all, he was interrupted by AfD laughter and heckling 20 times, or an average of once every 15 seconds, according to an analysis by Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

“It’s theater,” Seif said in an interview. 

But dangerous theater, in his view. Seif noted that the party uses words favored by the Nazis, including “entartet,” meaning “degenerate,” and a phrase meaning “the dying of the German people,” which the AfD employs to whip up fears that the country’s traditional way of life is under siege from immigrants.

“Those are words they’re consciously using,” Seif said. “I can’t accept that, even if they just use them to gain attention.”

But what to do about it is a question that has divided the AfD’s opponents. 

The CDU has largely chosen to treat the AfD as a pariah and to ignore its provocations. When Weidel gave her speech against girls in headscarves last month, she finished with a flourish, saying that Germany was being run “by idiots.” 

Merkel, seated nearby, barely looked up.

“She doesn’t want to make the AfD bigger than they are,” said Matthias Quent, an expert on right-wing movements.

Other parties have taken a more combative approach. The Left and the Greens, in particular, have chosen to match some of the AfD’s tactics, issuing their own taunts and mocking guffaws.

The behavior, said parliamentary expert Wolfgang Schroeder, was a feature of Bundestag debates in the 1980s but not since. He said it reflects just how deep the divisions now run in German society. 

“It’s a big cultural fight,” Schroeder said. “Neither side is willing to accept the other.”

In a recent passionate speech from the floor of the chamber, former Greens party leader Cem Özdemir denounced the AfD as “racist,” compared it to Turkey’s autocratic regime, and said party members were intent on damaging “everything that is respected about Germany around the world,” including its culture of Holocaust remembrance.

“You shouldn’t even be cheering for the German team” in soccer, Özdemir jibed. “You should be cheering for the Russians.”

Jürgen Pohl, an AfD parliamentarian, said the other parties’ contempt is no act: When the AfD joined the Bundestag in October, he said, members of rival parties would not even nod their heads to say hello.

“Now we’ve reached the point where about 10 percent of the Bundestag greets me,” he said.

But Pazderski, Pohl’s AfD colleague, said the party shouldn’t be too concerned about that. German politics, he said, is already shifting in the party’s direction. The government recently embraced AfD positions on ways to speed deportations.

“It will take some time for others to accept us as a normal party, but it will happen,” said Pazderski, a retired German military officer who proudly boasts of his work alongside U.S. generals at allied command centers. “We will not go away.”

Surveys show that about two-thirds of the German public say they would never consider voting for the AfD. But that leaves a third who would, he noted hopefully, leaving ample room to grow. 

And as for those who denounce the AfD as a resurrection of Nazi tactics and beliefs, Pazderski shakes his head: “I can only laugh at that.”

‘Nazi!’ ‘Stasi!’: In German state where the far right won big, cozy political culture quickly turned toxic

The far-right AfD wants to ‘protect’ Germany from Islam. Now, one of its politicians has become a Muslim.

German far-right leader says Merkel’s refugee policy enabled his party’s rise

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news