Geopolitics

Nazis v. AfD, Can We Really Compare Germany's New Far Right To Past?

The success of the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany in this week's parliamentary elections has prompted comparisons to the rise of Nazism. There are in fact similarities, but also key differences. An overview.

A graffitied AfD poster
A graffitied AfD poster
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

BERLIN — The final surge was unsurprising. For several months, returns in local elections had suggested the forthcoming success of the far right in last Sunday's national elections. Nevertheless, the shock was palpable when the results came in: a party, thought just a few months ago to to have been largely defeated, had tripled their share of votes in some districts and increased it 30-fold in others. In the end, 18.3% of all votes went to the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

No, the AfD's showing did not quite match the above-referenced gains that the Nazis had made in the Reichstag election of September 14, 1930. At 12.6%, the AfD almost tripled their total number of votes from the previous election in 2013. Still, many observers are noting the analogies between the two electoral moments in German history. Certainly, the comparison can be made — but with due diligence. For alongside these similarities are also key differences.

Like the Nazis in 1930, the AfD is a (still relatively small) protest party. No specific demographic voted for Germany's newest political party in the recent Bundestag Party as the Catholics had for the Centre Party in the Weimar Republic or urban left-liberal bourgeoisie for the Greens in 2017. Rather, disappointed, frustrated, and in many ways fearful people who had supposedly fallen victim to economic misery and social disillusion turned to the AfD.

There is another recognizable similarity in the Nazi and AfD's fundamental image of the enemy. Hitler and his supporters very aggressively railed against the so-called "November Criminals," the politicians who had signed the Armistice ending the First World War in November 1918. Their next target was the media. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that "journalists were real virtuosos in the art of twisting facts and presenting them in a deceptive form." Third, they turned against the so-called "system parties' — in other words, all the standing parties of the German democracy.

Whoever doesn't aggressively oppose Islam won't win the support of the far-right populists.

The AfD focused its smear campaign on the slogan "Merkel needs to go" and sent squads of supporters with whistles to every one of the Chancellor's campaign appearances. In the DNA of every AfD supporter is a complaint about the "lying press." Instead of the "system parties," the AfD attacks the "old parties."

Another point of comparison between the Nazis and the AfD is their focus on an enemy in society: The role that anti-Semitism had with Hitler's adherents, as the "cement of the movement," corresponds to the Islamophobia that binds all AfD voters. As once in the Nazi party, there are also several clear manifestations of this resentment. But ultimately, whoever doesn't aggressively oppose Islam won't win the support of the far-right populists.

A more contradictory point is the situation faced by Ernst Rohm, who co-founded the Nazi Party's Storm Trooper militia, and AfD frontrunner Alice Weidel. Rohm, who was a closeted gay man, was a leader in an openly homophobic movement, and Weidel is a lesbian woman at the head of party supposedly committed to traditional family values. Such contradictions can only be explained, if at all, by self-hatred.

In spite of all these similarities, it would still be entirely wrong to equate the Nazis and the AfD, for serious comparison also reveals many stark differences. By far the most important concerns both parties' leadership and engagement with their members.

The Nazis rallied around the perfect agitator at that time, Adolf Hitler, who by 1928 had concentrated all power around himself, eventually prompting Germany's downfall. Even Hitler's only notable opponent, Reich Organization leader Gregor Strasser, who vied for party leadership, never publicly defied Hitler.

By contrast, the AfD has as its figurehead Alexander Gauland, an embittered old man, who must read his provocative speeches from a sheet of paper. Its lead candidate Alice Weidel is a young woman who is, ideologically speaking, the closest to an early 20th-century fascist despite living her life with a female partner. And finally, Frauke Petry and Jorg Meuthen, the party's two hapless co-chairs, share nothing else besides a mutual burning hatred for one another. Petry even managed to blow up her own party the day after the election by leaving it completely.

Dissimilarities are of no real comfort.

Similar differences exist in terms of both parties' membership. The Nazis could mobilize supporters in large numbers. Many literally spent what little money they had and sacrificed their free time in order to help Hitler to win the election. On the other hand, the AfD must call upon their supporters by email in order to convince them to harass Angela Merkel from one campaign rally to another.

But the most noteworthy discrepancy exists in the conditions in which both parties achieved their victories. In the fall of 1930, the Germans found themselves in a world in which the global economy on the whole was in free fall. The number of unemployed laborers was skyrocketing and incomes shrinking significantly.

The situation today is completely different: Despite big problems like global terror or the unpredictability of Donald Trump, Germans are doing better than ever before. Never before have there been so many jobs. Never before has consumption been so great. Even those who are still unemployed lead vastly better lives than the average worker in 1930. The imagined fears of a supposed "ethnic takeover" or the imminent "downfall" of Germany have no basis in reality.

Serious comparison of the Nazi Party and AfD therefore shows that there are some similarities but also important differences between the populists in 1930 and today. But admittedly, these dissimilarities are of no real comfort.

For the first time in decades, members of a right-wing extremist party will be moving into the Bundestag. Even if the AfD falls apart and loses its archenemy at the foreseeable end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship, the party will change Germany. Radical parties never change things for the better — how much worse remains to be seen.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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