A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Innocence Lost

Egged on by the populist AfD party, Germany’s chauvinist-xenophobes are becoming ever more uninhibited.
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As hosts of the Soccer World Cup of 2006, the Germans seemed to have succeeded in creating a new, open-minded, decontaminated nationalism. Ten years on, enabled by the right-wing anti-foreigner Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a growing part of German society has no qualms anymore to agreeing with xenophobic and chauvinist positions.

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© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since I attended an improvised disco in an empty and abandoned Berlin swimming pool. It was 2006 and Germany’s Sommermärchen – the World Cup fairy tale – had taken the country by surprise. Pre-tournament jitters had given way to a golden, month-long debutante ball for a new Germany: lighter, happier and more confident in itself.

After yet another match ended in victory for the German national side, a euphoric friend of mine dragged me through the streets of eastern Berlin looking for a party. We found one in the Oderberger Strasse swimming pool. Where generations of East Berliners had once learned to swim, we danced on the dry tiles while a DJ played music and partygoers on the sidelines tested a new sunny semaphore with the German tricolor: black, red, and gold.

It was a remarkable moment. It seemed that, after six decades, German national identity had been removed from its postwar decontamination chamber and its flag reclaimed from an intolerant far-right nationalist minority. So the hope, anyway.

But with Germany now again in football fever – this time for the 2016 European Championships – I can’t help feeling that the German flag – and everything it symbolizes – has lost its innocence again.

I first had the thought in January in the eastern city of Erfurt, while standing in the beautiful cathedral square and listening to Bernd Höcke, state leader of the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

Catalyzed by the euro and migration crises, the AfD has channeled a frustration with the country’s political and media establishment to become a new force in German life. Its leaders have many bases covered, from the tweedy professor to the angry nationalist, and Höcke has pitched himself at the latter end of the spectrum. His public speeches are so full of bizarre “Volk und Vaterland” language that German television recently ran a mock quiz asking viewers which quotes were his and which originated with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Höcke was in fine form during my visit, telling his audience of around 3,000 that Angela Merkel had “lost her mind” in the refugee crisis. If she refuses to go quietly, she should be “led from the chancellery in a straitjacket.” The crowd chanted, “Traitor!” and “Deport! Deport!” and people wave signs that read “The Terror Has Arrived” and “Disastrous Asylum Madness”. My heart sank as, all around me, the black-red-gold fluttered in the cold winter air.

“Infiltrated by Too Many Foreigners”

I thought of those flags and the AfD supporters on Wednesday as I read a new survey showing a hardening attitude in Germany towards migrants. The latest edition of the biannual University of Leipzig survey showed that half of Germany’s population feels they are “foreigners in their own country” because there are too many Muslims – a seven-point rise since the 2014 survey.

Four in ten said they wanted Muslims blocked from immigrating to Germany, a figure up from 36.6 percent in 2014, while three in ten felt Germany had been “infiltrated by too many foreigners in a dangerous way.” Three in five Germans believe that most asylum seekers “are not really at risk of any persecution in their home country” in the representative survey of 2,400, the first since Germany accepted around one million asylum seekers last year.

More than 80 percent of respondents said the state should not be too generous when examining asylum applications. Around a third of Germans believe foreigners only come here to take advantage of welfare benefits – a figure that rises to around 40 percent in Eastern Germany. A quarter of East Germans under 30 have no problem agreeing with xenophobic positions, according to the study, while 12 percent of the population agree with the statement that Germans as a people are by nature superior to others.

The good news of the report is that there is a growing, strong majority in Germany who recognize democratic values. The bad news: the minority that rejects these values is more ready than ever to embrace violence.

According to the report’s authors these troubling attitudes are not new in themselves. What is new, they said, is that this group of people have found a megaphone to express their previously held concerns and prejudices: the AfD. This was perhaps the most telling element of the report, encapsulated in its title: “The Uninhibited Middle”.

Egged on by Germany’s newest party, and the self-affirming algorithms of its Facebook groups, Germany’s chauvinist-xenophobes are emerging, blinking, into the sunlight. After years in resentful silence, they feel they have been handed a free pass to get everything off their chest in public. As the report’s co-author put it: “There is a voter grouping who previously didn’t consider it possible to vote for far-right parties but who now vote for the AfD.”

A Force to Reckon With

Just over a year before Germany’s federal elections, AfD support hovers between 11 and 14 percent in polls. Of that number, nearly one in five (18.1 percent) told the Leipzig researchers they are in favor of a dictatorship while nearly a half (46.5 percent) embrace positions the researchers described as chauvinist. No other party had supporters with such stark positions.

Talk to members of the AfD’s more moderate wing – of which there are many – and you don’t get far with this columnist’s concern. Ask if they worry that they have let a genie out of the bottle – or are assisting people in the party who are doing just that – and they look at you as if you have two heads.

So what is going on? In the post-war decades, sociologists say that Germans found two main substitute vessels for national pride: soccer and engineering. With Germany’s Volkswagen (VW) and other engineering giants under fire, there’s a lot riding on the soccer card. Perhaps that is why anyone who wonders aloud where Germany’s black-red-goldism is going should expect the worst. Like the Green Party’s youth wing, whose concerns about Germany’s soccer “party patriotism” saw it bombarded with threats of murder. “I got messages that people wanted to hang me or beat me up,” spokesperson Jamila Schäfer told Der Spiegel. “This time it’s particularly bad. It shows that the debate has become completely uninhibited.”

This is Germany’s new uninhibited middle: a small, but growing group of professional resentfulists. And they have swallowed the AfD’s party program – a xenophobe’s charter that somebody somewhere is doing or getting something at their expense.

As fictional newscaster Howard Beale in the movie “Network” put it: they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Perhaps my concerns are unfounded, nourished by complete disinterest in soccer and nylon flags. Or perhaps the decade-old summer fairytale has taken on a darker hue and, after decades as an exceptional exception, Germany has embraced the new, nationalist normal.