Coronavirus and the far right

We are living through unprecedented times here in Germany and across the globe: The coronavirus outbreak has driven all of us inside our homes and paralyzed entire economies and societies until the virus is contained.

For far-right leaders currently in power, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the crisis has provided an opportunity to push through new authoritarian measures. But for those in opposition, like Germany’s AfD, the coronavirus has taken away the political spotlight they so depend on—and has made them, at least for the time being, somewhat irrelevant in the political discussion.

This comes, ironically, in spite of the fact that such parties have (temporarily) seen some of their wildest policy dreams come true in recent weeks: The return of borders within Europe, and the increased influence of nation-states seeking to protect their own citizens.

As Berlin-based political consultant Johannes Hillje told me: “This crisis is not like the other crises that the AfD has benefited from, the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. Both crises had an enemy which was an outsider … but now it’s a virus, and it’s spreading from within. The default populist narrative—us versus them, insiders versus outsiders—doesn’t work anymore.”

I wrote about this in a dispatch for Foreign Policy, which you can read here. And late last month, as we were just settling into lockdowns across Europe and much of the world, I explored similar topics for ICWA.

Thuringia and the AfD’s talent for political chaos

One vote in one state parliament in Germany may not seem like the kind of action that could trigger a massive bout of national soul-searching and topple Angela Merkel’s preferred successor.

But that’s exactly what happened earlier this month, after lawmakers from two right-of-center parties in the eastern state of Thuringia voted with the far-right AfD to topple the state’s left-wing governor. The vote, breaking a major taboo in Germany on collaborating with the far right in any form,

Parties like the AfD may not, in the short term, have any hope of running a national government. That said, they have an outsize impact on the political discussion here precisely because they’re good at exploiting existing political tensions, using it to create political chaos—and then, in turn, benefiting electorally from that chaos.

In my first piece for CNN Opinion, I looked at that phenomenon, and what it might mean for mainstream parties hoping to combat the far right’s influence. You can read the piece here.

Germany and the legacy of 1989

This week, Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which led to the country’s reunification and helped usher in democracy across Eastern Europe.

Despite the lack of a literal wall today, eastern and western Germany remain in many ways divided: the East still faces significant economic, societal and infrastructural challenges, and eastern Germans remain underrepresented at the highest levels of politics, media and business. But what’s more, and most relevant to my current research, is the political divide: The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is demonstrably stronger in the East than in the West.

After my month in Görlitz this summer, I’ve spent the better part of this fall focusing further on the AfD’s appeal in eastern Germany. In its campaign across three eastern German state elections this fall, the party explicitly pitched itself as the party best equipped to take up the legacy of 1989—to bring about a Vollende der Wende, or “complete the revolution.” Traveling to Gera, an AfD stronghold in the state of Thuringia, I watched these strategies in action from far-right leader Björn Höcke. I wrote about it here, for the Institute of Current World Affairs.

And throughout October, I interviewed young Germans born in 1989—some from eastern Germany, some from the West—to understand the extent to which differences in upbringing, family experience and identity remain today. Like me, these Germans turned 30 this year; they’re the same age as post-Berlin Wall Germany.

Throughout my conversations for this piece, I sought to understand to what extent eastern Germans, and their children and grandchildren, have fully worked through their experiences. How long does it take for such a process to take place? Though young people from both parts of Germany feel increasingly European, they notice that invisible divides do still remain. That piece, also for ICWA, is available here.

(I also worked on my first-ever audio feature on this topic, which you can listen to here; it’s the second part of the latest episode of The Cable podcast).

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, lit up at night for a recent event

The die-hard fans of Austria’s FPÖ

FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl takes selfies with supporters at the party’s campaign kickoff in Pasching, Upper Austria

In May, leaked video from the Spanish island of Ibiza showed Heinz-Christian Strache, then leader of Austria’s populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering state contracts in exchange for election help from a woman he believed was the niece of a wealthy Russian oligarch.

Strache quickly resigned, and the so-called “Ibiza affair” triggered the collapse of Austria’s government and early elections on Sept. 29. But in spite of that scandal, the FPÖ’s support seemed to remain remarkably stable throughout the summer—it was polling only about one percentage point lower than its pre-scandal average—so I spent a few weeks in Austria trying to understand why.

That exploration took me from an Alpine village in the state of Carinthia to a glitzy shopping mall in Upper Austria to a biergarten in Vienna’s Prater amusement park. I talked to the party’s die-hard fans about why they stuck by it—and even stuck by Strache in many cases. The explanations I heard were varied: some said it was all overplayed by the media, some said all politicians do such things, others argued that Strache had left the party so it was all already dealt with. In many ways, the party’s rhetoric—pioneered by the late Jörg Haider, the charismatic FPÖ leader who transformed it into an anti-immigration force in the 1980s—has helped inoculate its supporters against its own scandals.

You can read my piece for ICWA on that resilient voter base here.

In the final week of the campaign, however, things changed. A second Strache-related scandal, this time involving alleged misuse of party funds for personal purposes, dominated headlines. That second scandal seemingly proved too much for some FPÖ voters: the party won a disappointing 16 percent, nearly 10 points lower than its result two years ago.

For The Atlantic, I went to the FPÖ’s election-night party and talked to the people who still stood by it—and looked at the idea that, even after a disappointing result, the party has a remarkably high electoral floor. That story is available here.

Summer in Görlitz

Despite the fact that I’ve been in Germany for more than two years now, I’ve really only lived in Berlin—which, as a diverse international capital city, is hardly representative of life in Germany more broadly.

So in order to better understand parts of the country that vote heavily for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), I spent the month of August living in Görlitz, a small city of about 57,000 in Saxony that sits on Germany’s eastern border with Poland. The city’s been in existence for centuries and has a picturesque old town that, due to lucky circumstances at several points, remained standing through World War II and the Communist East German regime. At the same time, it is representative of many of the struggles and inequalities facing eastern Germany nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—and voted nearly 38 percent for the AfD in Saxony’s Sept. 1 elections.

Spending such a significant amount of time in a place gave me the chance to slow down, get to know the city and meet people from a wide range of professions, generations and walks of life. And rather than my usual reporting trips, which tend to involve a few packed days of interviews and campaign events, my month in Görlitz felt different. In addition to feeling a quick affection for the city itself, it helped me better understand the mindset of eastern Germans who cast their ballots for the AfD.

I wrote about the experience for ICWA, which gave me a chance to get into Görlitz’s fascinating history as well as talk with people across the political spectrum. You can read that piece here.

And for The Atlantic, I focused in on one town square that felt to me like an encapsulation of the debate over immigration, culture and open societies: Görlitz’s Wilhelmsplatz. That piece is available here.

A few of Görlitz’s city hall, at the center of the city’s picturesque old town

Life after scandal for Austria’s Freedom Party

Time and time again during my first month as an ICWA fellow, focusing on the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), books I read or people I spoke with mentioned the ways in which Germany’s populist party had learned from its counterpart in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). So after my trip to Cottbus to talk to AfD voters, I booked myself a ticket to Vienna to explore these connections.

What I didn’t count on at the time, however, was a massive scandal a few days later that brought down FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and, shortly thereafter, the entire Austrian government (more on that here).

It turns out dealing with the fallout of a major scandal is a great way to observe a party’s communication strategies and rhetorical tactics in action, so I was still able to explore my original topic. My reporting took me to a demonstration-turned-concert for the late 90s/early 2000s Dutch dance pop sensation the Vengaboys, to party and campaign offices, to a full sampling of Vienna’s world-renowned coffeehouses.

Ultimately, it seemed like the FPÖ’s strategies, often emulated by the AfD, were a big part of why many of the FPÖ’s voters were sticking by it — and why there’s a decent chance they could end up back in government in some way after September’s snap elections.

You can read my dispatch for ICWA here.

Campaign posters for the FPÖ, featuring ex-leader Heinz-Christian Strache, in Vienna

The AfD’s appeal in East Germany, and a government crisis in Austria

As I’ve posted about here, in April I started a new reporting fellowship with the DC-based Institute of Current World Affairs. Over the next two years, I’ll continue my focus on the rise of right-wing populism in Germany as well as nearby in Austria, Hungary and Poland. My goal is both to better understand the appeal of such parties, as well as the historical context behind their rise.

For the first of my monthly ICWA newsletters, I traveled to the eastern German city of Cottbus, which is emblematic of the far-right Alternative for Germany’s particular strength in eastern Germany. There, I spoke with AfD politicians and supporters about their reasons for choosing the party, and in the process discovered the extent to which that support is tied to their identity and history as East Germans.

Last weekend’s European elections also showed the extent to which the AfD dominates in eastern Germany: it came in first in both Brandenburg, where Cottbus is located, and in Saxony. With elections in three eastern German states coming up this fall—including in both Brandenburg and Saxony, on Sept. 1—spending time in this part of the country is essential to understanding the AfD’s appeal.

For more on my experiences in Cottbus and an explanation of my research plans for my ICWA fellowship, you can read my newsletter here.

I’ll spend my next month focusing on Austria, where political chaos is unfolding after a leaked video scandal involving the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). I wrote about the scandal for ICWA’s blog here — stay tuned for more from Vienna!

A view of the Altmarkt in Cottbus