Germans thought they were immune to nationalism after confronting their Nazi past. They were wrong

If an election were held today, the far-right Alternative for Germany party would be the second largest voting bloc



March 19, 2024 - 2:40 PM

A sign reads “Never again 1933” in reference to the year the Nazis came to power at a gathering protesting the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD party, and right-wing extremism in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Jan. 20, 2024. Millions of Germans have joined rallies and even held weekly vigils in their neighborhoods to express their frustration with growing support for far-right populism at the ballot box. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

BERLIN (AP) — When Sabine Thonke joined a recent demonstration in Berlin against Germany’s far-right party, it was the first time in years she felt hopeful that the growing power of the extremists in her country could be stopped.

Thonke, 59, had been following the rise of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, with unease. But when she heard about a plan to deport millions of people, she felt called to action.

“I never thought such inhuman ideas would be gaining popularity in Germany again. I thought we had learned the lessons from our past,” Thonke said.

Many Germans believed their country had developed an immunity to nationalism and assertions of racial superiority after confronting the horrors of its Nazi past through education and laws to outlaw persecution.

They were wrong.

If an election were held today, the AfD would be the second largest party, according to polls.

But national polls camouflage an important division: the AfD has disproportionate support in the formerly communist and less prosperous eastern states of Germany.

After the fall of communism in 1989 and the unification of East and West Germany a year later, many people in the five eastern states lost not only their jobs but their collective past, leaving them disoriented and helpless in the capitalist system.

The AfD’s rise has been propelled by anger over inflation and, above all, rising immigration. The EU received 1.1 million asylum requests in 2023, the highest number since 2015. Germany got by far the largest number of claims — more than 300,000 — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. The country has also taken in more than a million Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russia’s invasion.

Voters in Germany and across Europe are increasingly empowering far-right nationalist parties who promise to restrict immigration and, in some cases, constrain democratic freedoms of religion, of expression, of the right to protest. These forces have bubbled up in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria.

People attend an election rally of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party for the Saxony state elections in Bautzen, Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)


After 1945, West Germans grew up with the guiding principle that there should “never again” be a dictatorship on German soil. West German leaders made visits to Israel and apologized to the countries occupied by the Nazis, while schoolchildren were taken to see concentration camps or Holocaust memorials.

In the East, a self-declared anti-fascist society, young people were also taken to concentration camps, but the lessons did not focus on culpability. Instead, the lessons emphasized that they were the descendants of the Nazis’ victims.

Thonke, who works at Berlin’s water utility, grew up in Bavaria, which was part of West Germany before reunification in 1990. She said she did not speak much with her grandparents — the Nazi generation — about what happened during the Third Reich, but learned about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust in school.

Today’s far right is using similar tactics, she said, exploiting people’s fears to win their trust and their votes.

“I understand that many people are worn out from all these crises — the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the many migrants, inflation — and that they are afraid that things are going to get worse,” Thonke said. “But the solutions the AfD offers won’t solve any of these problems.”