World War II was a dark time in Germany’s past which most Germans feel deep remorse over. So, it is alarming when a political party with similar far-right and nationalistic views as the Nazis takes pride in their former WWII soldiers. From the election of Donald Trump, to Brexit, to Narendra Modi’s landslide re-election in India, the tide of nationalism has formed in response to the forces of globalization. In Germany, the influx of immigrants and the loss of autonomy under the European Union (‘EU”) have fueled the rise of the ultranationalist Alternative fur Deutschland (“AfD”) political party in a manner eerily similar to the post World War I rise of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (“Nazi”).
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The AfD has gained significant significant ground in the past few years. In 2017, it became the third largest political party by obtaining 12.6% of the popular vote. This translated to 13.5% of the German legislative body and 90 seats in the Bundestag. The party’s rise is similar to other populist movements around the world. They drew most of their following from working class and rural males who felt as if their voices were not heard and wanted change. AfD promotes German Nationalism and opposes the anti-militarization and international diplomacy that have been the backbone of German political ideology for the last seventy years. After the party split up in 2015, the new AfD took on more extreme stances under new leader Bernd Lucke. The AfD’s far-right political agenda then took hold in many parts of Germany.
Support for nationalist movements within the AfD grew in response to the most recent economic crisis within the EU. Germany has fared well in comparison to its neighbors, but the country remains tethered to the EU. Although there are many economic and political benefits to the EU, there is also a loss of autonomy. For example, members of the EU converted their currency to the Euro. This facilitates international trade and promotes European economic and political stability but it also cedes control over monetary policy to the European Central Bank. In essence the Euro linked Germany’s economic future with less fiscally disciplined countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal. When the global economy entered into the Great Recession and Greece was unable to pay its debts, stronger members of the European Union, including Germany, were forced to step in and finance a bailout. This bailout, along with other international pressures as a result of globalization, provided fuel for the nationalist movements within the AfD because many Germans were justifiably outraged at being held responsible for another country’s mistakes. This reinforced nationalist feelings in the many Germans who have little sense of belonging to the EU. The AfD promised to return to former times, when Germans were not bound to other nations under a multinational political entity. This sense of nationalism appealed to many Germans and fueled the AfD’s popularity.
The AfD used the recent waves of asylum seekers and immigrants allowed into Germany as an opportunity to denounce globalism and foster feelings of nationalism. During the refugee crisis in 2015-2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed many asylum-seekers. This policy allowed Germany to seize the moral high ground in the eyes of the world. Domestically, however, it was less popular and led to a significantly large drop in Merkel’s approval ratings. Many Germans felt the influx of refugees was yet another example of Germany having to deal with problems that it did not cause. For this reason, the German populace began to favor a more isolationist view in an attempt to resist globalization. The AfD capitalized on this sentiment by arguing that these refugees were “Islamifying” Germany. The party pushed for a return to Germany’s traditional Christian values. Because many people of the working class worry that immigrants will steal their jobs and threaten their way of life, they find comfort in AfD’s anti-immigration policies. The AfD party portrays foreigners, especially Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Americans, and Israelis as the personification of the multinational corporations and European Union or NATO entities infringing on the traditional German way of life. The feeling of lost sovereignty was exacerbated by the the Schengen Area, a zone where 26 European countries essentially abolished their internal borders in order to facilitate unrestricted movement of citizens within the zone. Unsurprisingly, the AfD’s call for an immediate closing of German borders was immensely popular with its political base.
AfD’s recent rise in popularity is unnervingly similar in many ways to the rise of the Nazi Party in the years before World War II. In both cases, many citizens lost faith in the ability of democratically elected, mainstream politicians to effectively govern. Through the effective use of propaganda, both parties were able to harness the shared anger of struggling citizens who look for simple answers to complex socio economic problems. Nazi support was particularly strong amongst farmers and other rural laborers facing difficult economic times. Likewise, today the AfD is backed by a disenfranchised rural and middle class that has fallen behind their more prosperous and educated urban counterparts. Interestingly, many of the very same geographic regions that supported the Nazis now support the AfD. Researchers Davide Cantoni and others from Germany’s Collaborative Research Center found that a 1% increase in the Nazis’ vote share in 1933 was associated with an extra 0.3-0.5% gain for the AfD from 2013-17 (34). The key to the rise to power of both the AfD and the Nazi parties is based on nationalism in response to the disrupting forces of globalism. For example, both parties used minority groups within Germany as scapegoats. The Nazis spread fear that Jews were a threat to the cultural and economic well-being of the country. The AfD points to a different non-Christian minority, Muslim immigrants, as a threat to German society. In addition to blaming Germany’s non-Christian minorities, both the Nazis and the AfD blame the rest of Europe for Germany’s fiscal struggles. The Nazis stirred resentment over the Treaty of Versailles and World War I reparation payments, and the AfD likewise promotes feeling of discontent for Germany’s EU membership and the bailout of Greece.
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The rising power of the AfD can be attributed to backlash from discouraged middle class and rural workers threatened by the forces of globalization. Feelings of marginalization in an ever changing world drive them to readily believe nationalist rhetoric promising simple solutions to the difficult socio economic challenges. Forces of globalization, such as the influx of Muslim immigrants and the loss of autonomy to the EU, serve to support a nationalist agenda similar to the tide that swept through Germany following World War I.
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