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Meet Germany’s Alt-Right

The rising movement uses the same playbook as the American version.

In September, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new parliament. One of the parties expected to enter the Bundestag for the very first time is the Alternative für Deutschland (or Alternative for Germany). Over the course of two years, as AfD has transitioned from an agenda of economic reform to one of nationalist populism, they have morphed into something resembling the American alt-right.

In 2012, a group of German conservatives and classical-liberal economists who had defected from Angela Merkel’s center-right and the traditional liberal-democrat party found themselves associating with independent-voter groups in order to run for office on the local level. Soon, these conservatives, who were heavily critical of the European Union’s economic interventionism and especially the European common currency, found themselves alienated by these existing platforms, and in 2013 they founded the AfD.

Soon after its creation, the party began to struggle with internal disagreements about the priorities of its political message: the classical liberals were keen on developing a German brand of Euroscepticism—which, relative to the Anglo-Saxon brand, would appear less aggressive and more academic—while nativists and those who were religiously inspired pushed for more nationalism and social conservatism on issues like gay marriage (which remains illegal in Germany). These were internal fights over these differences during the 2013 election, which contributed to the AfD narrowly failing to enter parliament.

In 2014, the party continued its rise in the polls. It won electoral success in the European Parliament, local parliaments, and municipal councils. Former AfD chairman Bernd Lucke, a classical-liberal economist known for his numerous appearances on German TV shows dedicated to debates on the Euro and its effect on the European debt crisis, became the target of the nationalist wing of the party. But AfD’s moment in the spotlight was short-lived. As the issue of Greece leaving the Euro was swept off the table and the Euro-crisis became uninteresting for the German media, so did the focus on the AfD.

Meanwhile, the stream of Syrian refugees coming into Germany intensified and a new right emerged. The so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West movement, or PEGIDA, rallied thousands of people throughout the country against the permissive immigration policy of Chancellor Merkel. Some PEGIDA demonstrations contained controversial chants, including the iconic media slur Lügenpresse, or featured speeches that smacked of modern-day Nuremberg rallies. The AfD split over some of its members’ support for PEGIDA, marking the beginning of the alt-right takeover of the AfD.

In fact, these gatherings bear strong similarities to what commentators in the United States refer to as the alt-right. What is all the more remarkable is that protagonists of the American movement, such as Richard Spencer, seem to follow the AfD handbook. Instead of starting their own political movement, they parasitically infest other groups and turn them inside out. This is precisely what happened to the AfD.

In 2015, one the AfD’s most controversial high-ranking members, Björn Höcke, co-authored the Erfurter Resolution requesting a major policy shift in the party. According to this manifesto, the new focus of the AfD should be “A movement of the German people against the societal experiments of the past decades (like Gender-mainstreaming, multiculturalism).”

Höcke is no stranger to controversy: he has described Judaism and Christianity as being in opposition to one another and has wished Germany a prosperous “1,000-year future,” a well-known Nazi reference.

The party’s moderates, appalled by the support behind the nationalist takeover, defected from the AfD and splintered into insignificant groups.

The now-radicalised right-wing party quickly backed off of any economic liberalism. The new chairwoman, Frauke Petry, performed complete u-turns on major policies. For instance, while she had previously called the newly introduced minimum wage a product of “neo-socialism” and loudly suggested abolishing it, today the AfD insists on its existence in order to “protect workers.”

In this fashion, the nationalist right of the party is dismantling preceding leaders’ small-government approach in order to morph into a German version of the French National Front or Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands. This is the alt-right in practice: not only do they reject social democracy and pursue nativism, but their political goals have turned them into socialists and opponents of limited government.

Bill Wirtz is a law student at the Université de Lorraine in Nancy, France. He blogs in four languages and has been published by the Foundation for Economic Education, the Mises Institute, the Washington Examiner, and daily Luxembourgish newspapers.