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A Laughing Matter

Germany's right-wing populists should not be taken seriously.
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Frauke Petry, current leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, has once again seized headlines by suggesting that those crossing the border illegally be shot. Rather than give her free publicity, the press should treat these statements with the ridicule they deserve. 

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© REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

Oh, to be a right-wing populist politician in Germany.

My working life would be a breeze. I could get up on Monday morning, say something silly to a journalist, and then take a well-earned rest at a day spa while my wicked words did all the work for me. Between a swim and a sauna, I would check my smartphone to be sure that, all over the country, apoplectic politicians were dashing for the nearest microphone to express their outrage and condemn my soul to hell. If I grew unhappy with the degree to which they were foaming at their mouths, or if not enough Green Party minds had melted, I could post a follow-up remark on Facebook mid-afternoon to stir things up further.

By Tuesday morning, after 24 hours of free publicity, I could then take to Facebook to claim it was all a big misunderstanding. Or, perhaps, send an ambiguous Tweet to keep my options open?
Finally, on Wednesday morning – and only if I was in the mood – I could agree to interrupt my shopping spree or my yoga class to appear before a television camera. Looking surprised and aggrieved, I would say: What is all the fuss about? I never suggested that asylum seekers should be shot on the borders. Our party is a law-and-order party, we believe in the rule of law – and that quotation you mention was ripped from its context.

Clearly you do not shoot asylum seekers, not in Germany. Unless it is a quiet news day and you are the leader of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The AfD started life two years ago as an economic liberal party critical of Berlin’s bailout policies during the euro crisis. It rose quickly in polls, tapping a rich seam of prosperity chauvinism that lingers in western Germany. If you were comfortably off, but afraid that someone, somewhere was even thinking about taking something that might be yours, you voted for the AfD.

But times change, and AfD is on its second leader in two years.

Under Frauke Petry, leader number two, the party has become a hard right, immigration-critical party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). With her steely gaze and gamine looks, Petry is an interesting figure to watch in action. Her regular flirtations with extreme right taboos indicate she enjoys sampling German forbidden fruit almost as much as she enjoys toying with German politicians and journalists.

But Petry’s political honeymoon came to an end around the same time as her marriage to a Lutheran pastor. The latter probably would have broken up anyway, given Petry’s carefully-calibrated provocation last week.

Petry spent the first years of her life in East Germany, in the German Democratic Republic – the country that insisted it didn’t have a shoot-to-kill policy, but would shoot you anyway if you tried to leave. In a verbal curtsy to GDR leader Erich Honecker, Petry suggested that the united Germany allowed for police to shoot anyone who crossed Germany’s borders illegally.

“That’s how it stands in the law,” she said. That’s true – if you read half of the law she mentioned; but if you keep reading, or if you are a border policeman, you know the law doesn’t allow for that. But no
matter: kite-flying is an old, reliable political game, as is the well-timed follow-up.
That came from Petry’s Berlin colleague, Beatrix von Storch. She added some spice by suggesting that women and children were fair targets, too, if they breached Germany’s borders.

Oh what a circus, oh what a show! You couldn’t buy the kind of publicity the two AfD women got. By the time they offered their qualified apologies – half-denial, half-retraction – they had dominated the German headlines for almost 72 hours.

Petry has now attacked the newspaper that published her remarks. The Mannheimer Morgen daily has defended its reporter and the quotes it said Petry reviewed and approved. Take a step back from the fuss and it’s quite clear what is going on: if you are a young party with a limited PR budget, this is what you do. You generate free publicity by identifying weak spots in the political system and exploiting them. You cause a fuss and ride the wave of outrage.

Germany’s post-war political system is very stable, but Petry’s AfD has identified its stability and solidity as its Achilles Heel. If public life in Germany weren’t so absurdly serious, and German politicians so obscenely humorless, I doubt the AfD would have gotten as far as they did with their asylum assassination policy. But in Germany, being serious is such a serious business that few would consider tackling the absurd AfD suggestion with even more absurdity.

We Irish have a love of the absurd. Which is why, when Frauke Petry said she favored shooting asylum seekers at the border, I wanted to know: what with? Are we talking hand-guns, semi-automatic? Would a hunting rifle, generating a nice flint spray, do the job? Or is Petry more an exploding-tip ammunition kind of woman?

If women and children are fair game, too, should we be thinking in terms of a light flesh wound or favor a clean shot to the head just to get the unpleasantness over with? Should their relatives be charged for the bullets, the body bags, the urns? Or does the AfD suggest police search the warm bodies for money to pay the bills rather than add the expense of chasing up funeral bills?

That might all seem in poor taste, but sometimes the only way to undermine the ridiculous is by amplifying it.

German politicians’ plodding seriousness is little match for the AfD stings. And what of Germany’s media? The AfD has had great fun insinuating the mainstream media is a “Pinocchio Press” thanks to the regularity of its lies, both about the party and about other matters.

Journalists could get upset at being compared to a beloved Disney cartoon character. Or they could start an entertaining blog called “Shit the AfD Says.” I’ve forgotten half of their half-baked, borderline eugenics theories about the Greek bailout, just as I’ve blanked their Chicken Little comments over the euro’s future. But it would be fun to read a best-of list of AfD nonsense in one place. It would certainly put the party’s asylum suggestions in perspective.

A final task to put the AfD back in its place would be the neutralization of another pejorative label: the “Altparteien” or “old parties,” labels for Germany’s mainstream political forces. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Anyone who’s ever been to an AfD event will never forget the sagging sea of tweed-sweater-shirt-tie pensioners.

Their flatulent awfulness is the AfD’s most striking trait. Watch these angry pensioners talk themselves into a fury, listen to them snap at each other at meetings, and you almost have to feel sorry for party leaders on the podium who have to listen to this garbage on a regular basis.

Despite the unintended hilarity of its “Altparteien” accusation, though, the AfD is not to be underestimated. If the fussy economic professor Bernd Lucke were still in charge, or if one of the party’s tweedy foot soldiers had taken his place as leader, I would not give the AfD a long-term political prognosis. I would instead expect it to eventually implode in a super-nova of self-importance and Rechthaberei dogmatism.

But Frauke Petry is smart and determined. She has done her homework and, in many cases, is merely exploiting Germany’s apathy-encrusted political landscape. Long before Angela Merkel took over as Christian Democrat (CDU) leader in 2000, sleepwalking party officials had believed voters would be happy with their murmurs of “social market economy”. Using a 50-year-old political theory as the all-purpose answer to difficult questions in a globalized world is not a political strategy.

Since Gerhard Schröder’s day, meanwhile, dazed and confused Social Democrats (SPD) have staggered from the political left to the center and back again muttering “social justice”. What, in post-bailout Europe, does that mean? What does the SPD stand for? And, apart from being an organization with Angela Merkel at its head, what is the CDU exactly?

Opinion polls now give the AfD double digit support because its ambitious, populist leader has activated two groups: non-voters disillusioned and angry with the political status quo in Germany, and voters tired of other parties. The AfD’s politics are problematic, no question, but Petry is mainly a beneficiary – not a cause – of Germany’s political rot.

If the AfD is here for the medium-term – and three state elections next month will give us a better idea of that – it is up to Germany’s established parties to up their game and win back voters with real politics. Getting over-excited and throwing their toys out of the cot won’t do. Denouncing the AfD may be well-intended and deeply felt, and I understand people’s anger here towards the AfD is informed by the country’s history. But outrage is rarely productive and often makes forbidden fruit more, not less, attractive.

The Bavarian wit Karl Valentin used to say there are always three sides to any story: the positive, the negative, and the funny. So until Germany’s mainstream politicians and journalists get their act together to calmly take apart the AfD, I suggest we all keep calm and crack a joke or two.