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.
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.