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Rise in German far-right reflects growing sentiment against Ukraine war

This sudden, populist surge can be partially explained by the political and economic upheaval the country is currently experiencing.

Analysis | Europe

The far right party in Germany, Alternative for Deustchland, or AfD, won a district council election in the eastern town of Sonneberg, Thuringia last month. Nationally, the AfD is now polling at 19 percent, just under Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, polling at 20 percent. 

The AfD has historically been an anti-EU, anti-immigration political party. The party usually does best in East Germany, where economic grievances and an inferiority complex have existed since the Cold War. But nationally, the party has almost doubled in popularity since September of 2021 when it garnered 10 percent in polls

The sudden changes can be partially explained by the significant political and economic upheaval the country is experiencing as a result of the war in Ukraine and Germany’s response to it.   

As I wrote in these pages earlier this year, the state of the German economy was bound to get worse as the war in Ukraine rages on and inflation soars. What’s more, economic instability has occurred concomitantly with asylum seekers trying to reach Europe from different parts of the world including South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. 

At the beginning of this year, there was a 78 percent rise in asylum applications in Germany. This figure does not include the more than one million Ukrainians who have entered Germany since the Russian invasion. The combination of these two factors is a perfect recipe to rile up populist sentiment, as many Germans blame the status quo for their perceived insecurity.

The AfD’s rise in popularity also suggests that a growing percentage of the population believes that sanctions on Russian energy are hurting Germany’s economic interests. Opinion polls conducted a year ago revealed that half of Germans perceived sanctions were hurting Germany more than Russia. 

Support for AfD additionally stems from reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine, since the party is known for being generally critical of the government’s support for the country. Back in January of this year, one poll found that 84 percent of AfD supporters opposed sending German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. 

Support for supplying the tanks was highest among supporters of Germany’s newly bellicose Green Party at 61 percent approving delivery. The war in Ukraine has led the Greens to shift away from their pacifist roots to becoming the most hawkish party in Scholz’s coalition government. Overall, however, the poll showed that only 46 percent of Germans were in favor of sending them, demonstrating a divided public on the matter of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, which is understandable given the country's commitment to pacifism after the Second World War.  

In 2021, the three-party coalition government was formed in Germany, comprising the more cautious and pragmatic Social Democrats, the more ideological Green Party, and the pro-business Free Democrats. The parties disagree over key issues such as energy procurement, the transition to alternative energy, increases in military spending, migration, and health reform, making it difficult for them to unite on issues such as Ukraine, Russia, and China. The lack of consensus on major issues exhibited by the three-party coalition government has resulted in major dissatisfaction among the German public. 

After the elections, the coalition initially promised to lead Germany through a necessary transformation in the energy and economic sectors to manage climate change and rising competition from China. But shortly afterwards, Russia invaded Ukraine and Germany plunged into deeper uncertainty as sanctions were slapped onto Russian energy exports and the country had to wean itself off of decades of dependence on the former. Cheap Russian gas had previously fueled the manufacturing base of Germany’s export-driven economy. Now, the country has plunged into recession, in no small part due to the lack of cheap energy.

A more positive side effect of abandoning Russian gas could have been a faster transition to clean energy, but in fact, it has had the opposite effect. Germany is now reverting back to the use of fossil fuels to avoid buying expensive gas elsewhere. According to the federal statistical office, coal accounted for 33.3% of electricity production in 2022, up from 30.2 percent in 2021.

According to the New York Times, AfD supporters have said their reasons for voting for the party include feeling unsafe due to rising migration and feeling uncomfortable with providing weapons to Ukraine. A local interviewee also mentioned feelings of disapproval over the government’s disagreements on issues such as climate plans and fears it will cost her and other citizens “their modest but comfortable way of life.” 

An uptick in political extremism usually accompanies worsening economies. Populist groups such as the AfD tend to capitalize on that narrative and use it to their advantage to gain supporters. According to a study on the rise of extremism and the far-right in Germany during the Great Depression, a link was confirmed between political extremism and economic hard times. In other words, GDP growth is negatively related to the rise of far-right parties.  

A negotiated end to the war in Ukraine would likely limit the successes of the AfD in Germany. It would reduce sanction-related inflation, climate-change related expenses and lessen tensions with Russia as well as the steep rise in military spending, both pushed by the Greens and both unpopular with much of the German public.

The Greens have become the most unpopular party in the coalition in part because of their bellicose stance toward Russia, as much of the German public still supports the country's pacifist political culture. Fifty-five percent of Germans surveyed in a national poll believe that diplomatic efforts to end the war have not been sufficient, demonstrating an openness to ending the war diplomatically rather than through continued fighting. 

Germany’s new National Security Strategy, released last month, suggests that the country has embraced multipolarity and is open to cooperation with China as well as (less certainly) to a possible future European security architecture that includes Russia, given the lack of any mention of Ukrainian NATO membership and of bolstering NATO’s eastern flank. 

Given the word formulation in this document, the German security establishment appears to believe its existing difficulties are only temporary and is prepared to wait them out.

However, it appears that the longer the war continues, the more extremism Germany is likely to witness as it struggles through recession and increasing migrants. Rising economic malaise will also hamper any progress towards a green energy transition. Finding a negotiated end to the war would bring economic and political stability to Germany and other European countries, a factor that must be considered given the internal political threats now facing Germany. 

As the country with the largest economy in the European Union and one of Europe's major leaders upon which much of the continent's economic support depends, the fate of Germany should concern us all.

A participant of the AfD rally in Magdeburg, Germany, on July 1, 2023, wears a T-shirt with the inscription "Get your country back". At the rally, AfD state and federal politicians criticized the European Union and called for change. (Reuters)
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