AfD party leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland

AfD and the battle for the German nation

12 minutes to read
Lisa Laarakker

The nation, not democracy is at the core of the AfD project. Acting like enhancers of democracy, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party uses concepts like democracy to propagate a completely different and essentially antidemocratic message.

Alternative for Germany

The Alternative for Germany party (AfD) portrays itself as a right wing, anti–establishment, conservative and liberal alternative that wants to increase democracy in Germany. However, the party leader Alice Weidel and the other members of the AfD are more known for their use of hate speech regarding Muslims and refugees and their emphasis on the insecurity of Germans because of the presence of other ethnicities in the country.

With right wing and populist parties like the AfD becoming more popular (in the last elections September 2017, the AfD gained almost 13% of votes, making it the third party within the German parliament (Eijsvoogel, 2017)), it is important to investigate what they are actually saying. What is the ideological tradition in which AfD politicians speak and how do they distort meanings of words to come across as ‘mainstream’ to the public, instead of as radical and extreme right?

The AfD is, despite its 'new' and democratic sounding measures like binding referenda, speaking in an old and conservative  anti-Enlightenment tradition. 

To give an answer to this, I will analyse statements and social media posts of Alice Weidel, her co–party leader Alexander Gauland and the AfD in general. In my analysis, ideology is understood as as a non–factual perspective on the world, shared by a group of people that are a group because they share an ideology (Maly 2012, p. 44). Ideologies are produced and sustained through institutions, for example political parties (Maly, 2017).

In the case of Weidel, I attempt to distill her ideology from the discourse she and her colleagues use and I use the concept of ‘discursive battle’ as a lens for doing this: “waged over the definition of words” ((Maly 2014, as quoted in Maly, 2016), this concept makes it possible to analyse how Weidel distorts meanings of Enlightenment concepts like democracy and how she gives them an anti–democratic meaning.

Islam bashing and the protection of German culture and identity

According to the AfD, democracy is first and foremost tied to preserving and protecting your identity and nation. In that way, democracy is linked to nationalism. The biggest threat to German culture and society, according to Weidel and the AfD, are refugees and the Islam they bring with them. In their rhetoric, they equate refugees with Islam and Islam with backwardness, the absence of a willingness to adapt to another culture and clashing morals.

Figure 1

From figure 1, it becomes apparent that Weidel promotes a view on German identity that is homogeneous and can’t be acquired by Muslims. To protect the German culture, the borders should be closed for 'the Islam'. Besides the integration issue and the idea that people of a Muslim background can’t integrate successfully, Weidel produces posts that demonize Muslims and equate Muslims with terrorists:

Figure 2

Opposing the Enlightenment in the name of the nation

These ideas that include the demonizing of part of the inhabitants of a country are, even though controversial, quite popular; these posts gained respectively 5,5 and 4,8 thousand likes and angry faces (of which respectively 5 and 3,8 thousand likes and loves). Even though it seems as if the AfD tackles issues that are ‘new’ (rapid globalization, mass-immigration to Western Europe) this ideology is party of a centuries-old tradition of speaking that is embedded in an attack on Enlightenment values. 

Enlightenment thinkers strived to improve society by means of reason. To do this, freedom on all domains needed to be a universal right and is at the base of a society (Maly, 2012, p. 95). The Enlightenment ideology is fundamental to what is considered a democracy today:  an institution that is based on equality and freedom, and that uses representatives to represent the people in government (Maly 2012, p. 98). When comparing this to Weidel’s statements in figure 1 and 2, it becomes obvious that she is not interested in equality and freedom for all, but that she is focused on the protection and preservation of the German nation.

A characteristic of the anti–Enlightenment ideology is conservatism, but anti–Enlightenment thinkers don’t just want to ‘go back’, they strive for a different modernity (a modernity of anti–Enlightenment instead of Enlightenment) in which the group is placed above the individual (Maly, 2012, pp. 104 – 105).The nation, its soul, its culture and its language are considered to be more important than the rights of the individual in this tradition. 

The Anti–Enlightenment and organic nationalism

In the anti–Enlightenment the nation state is seen as an organic and ‘living’ thing, with a unique identity and soul (Maly, 2012, p. 124). Part of this identity is also a nation’s language, its norms and values and its religion. Because the state is seen as something organic and spiritual, it can’t be based on reason. This organic nationalism has always been constructed as an attack on the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Maly 2017).

Discourses like this, based on the nation, are also present in the members of the AfD: Alexander Gauland has a long career in conservative politics and has even published a book about it, Anleitung zum Konservativsein (Ulrich and Geis 2016). In his book, he states that ‘the moral law of the people’ must be protected, and when asked by a journalist what this precisely means he says: “That is, from where a people has developed itself, from history, tradition, from change. You could replace that by identity, and exactly identity is what other nations defend much more fiercely” (Ulrich and Geis, 2016).

Besides that fact that this perfectly illustrates the conservatism and organic nationalism of the AfD (the history and identity of the nation must be protected), it taps into a specific issue for German nationalism as well: According to Gauland, the second world war destroyed German nationalism, and Germans became embarrassed of their nationality: “Hitler has destroyed far more than the cities and the people, he almost completely broke the backbone of the Germans” (Ulrich and Geis, 2016). Interesting here is the phrase ‘backbone of the Germans’: even though it's a metaphor, it resembles the anti–Enlightenment discourse, in which a nation is represented as a body, and a man is to that nation what a cell is to a body (Maly, 2012, p. 124). This implies a natural state of inequality: like all the body parts, everyone has their own and different function, and a change in this is an attack on the moral order of the state (Maly, 2012, pp. 127 – 128). 

This type of system implies an inequality between the people and the rulers, but there is also a natural inequality between the sexes and different ethnicities; the statements of Weidel in figure 1 and 2 are clear examples of this: apparently, refugees from other countries don’t deserve the same rights as Germans do. To conclude the characteristics of the anti–Enlightenment movement, there is the conviction the nation has taken centuries to develop into what it is now, and therefore people don’t have the right or possibility to change the nation without damaging it: "We owe to him (Burke) the idea that any change in the existing order necessarily takes on the form of a utopia and can only end in disaster." (Sternhell 2010).

Gauland, as a defender of the German identity, stands by this as well. In the next quote, Gauland ties the ability to overcome a crisis to the identity of the Germans. This is a reply to a journalist, who remarks that Gauland doesn't speak about the positive things that took place after the second world war, the 'learning processes', the closer ties with other western countries and the critical evaluations of the past, that made the Germans a better people: “Excuse me, we didn’t become a better people! We are economically very successful, that’s why we don’t need what other nations have as inner backbone for national cohesion. However, that is not enough. The question is: could these Germans survive a crisis, how you just described them, so ecological, feminine and the devil knows, all those things, that I don’t like very much…” (Ulrich and Geis, 2016).

According to Gauland, only a German people with a strong German identity can overcome a crisis (economic prosperity is of no use in this) and 'ecological, feminine' Germans are weakening Germany and the preservation of the nation state in that respect.

Hegemony and the discursive battle for meaning

According to Maly (2016), all political communication and action is a ‘discursive battle for meaning, for hegemony”. From this perspective, the AfD’s ideology and the way they communicate this is a ‘battle’ to persuade the individual to believe in their ideology and their interpretation of words like nation, democracy and ‘the people’: “This discursive battle is waged over the definition of words, the interpretation of facts, the understanding of the ideology or the general image of the party” (Maly, 2016).

Ideologies are produced by institutions like political parties and can best be seen as ‘normalised ideas’ – that is, for the people that support the ideology (Maly, 2017). What we consider as ‘normal’ is actually the coming together of power and ideology: an ideology is hegemonic when the ideas of the powerful are so dominant, that most people see those ideas as moral and right (Maly, 2017). So this discursive battle is a battle to persuade people, to be accepted as normal by as many people as possible. 

Weidel engages in this battle by giving her own interpretation of words, emphasizing certain news events and ignoring other ones and coming across as a calm, intellectual person, all to convince the people that Germany is being destroyed by refugees, the Islam, criminality and other things that can be brought back to globalization. To successfully communicate their message to the public, the AfD need to ignore certain things and emphasize others. Gauland, for example, needs to persuade the Germans that their identity is at stake, despite the economic prosperity the country's experienced since the second world war, when nationalism was destroyed according to him. Another example of this strategy can be found below, in which extreme left protesters are featured:

Figure 3

The choice for this topic and a complete absence on her social media accounts for equal criticism on marches and riots by for example Pegida is obvious: people participating in and supporting those Pegida marches are supportive of Weidel’s ideology, and the extreme left is a welcome enemy for them to show to the public that they themselves are not the ones causing riots and distress, but their ideological enemies are, thus framing themselves as the ‘peaceful’ alternative.

The discursive battle for democracy

In the last section, I want to show how Weidel and the AfD use Enlightenment concepts like democracy to give it an anti–Enlightenment and therefore anti–democratic meaning. Firstly, Weidel claims in an interview with Klaas Heufer that the democracy needs to be ‘restored’: “We demand a separation of authority and mandate. Then the democracy needs to be completed by referenda. That is something very important, in order to revive the democracy”. 

In Weidel’s ideology, the democracy is ‘broken’ and can only be restored by direct democracy – this contrasts with Enlightenment ideology, in which the representative democracy is considered ideal: "Sovereign in appearance, the common people in a direct democracy are in reality the slaves of ‘perverse demagogues’ who manipulate and flatter them." (Israel, 2011, p. 815). Through her discursive battle, Weidel wants to make her interpretation of democracy hegemonic, undermining representative democracy and Enlightenment values

. There are a lot of indicators that this has worked in Europe during the last years and that direct democracy has become more hegemonic: the Brexit referendum is a good example of this. Besides this populist approach to convince people to vote for them, the AfD re-interprets the Enlightenment concept of democracy as an anti–Enlightenment concept.

In spite of the undermining of democracy by referenda, the ideology that democracy means equality and freedom for all is deeply hegemonic in our society, and the AfD can attack this interpretation of democracy only in hidden terms: if they would attack the concept democracy openly, the AfD would be ridiculed and no one would want to vote for them anymore. This is clarified in their election program, in the introduction of the chapter 'Democracy in Germany':

“We are against centralism and uniformity. Strong, independent districts, regions and villages in a sovereign Germany are in harmony with the ideal of free peoples and multiple cultural identities. Unity in variety, instead of giving up your identity in the collective is the origin and goal of the German self - determination. We want to preserve the sovereign, democratic nation state.”  

This text is a good example of organic nationalism, because the emphasis is on the differences instead of on what unites people, values like equality that are found in the Enlightenment movement. The focus is on people’s roots and the text therefore evokes a feeling of nationalism on a regional level. Some of these phrases may seem contradictory regarding the AfD’s ideology: “the ideal of free peoples and multiple cultural identities”  This obviously doesn’t apply to people coming from Muslim countries, but only for people that identify strongly with “Strong, independent districts, regions and villages”.

Moreover, the word “Gleichmacherei” (used in the phrase “We are against centralism and uniformity”) has a connotation of ‘the same’ (gleich = the same), giving the sentence another meaning, namely that the AfD is against people being all the same and therefore equal, a core idea of the Enlightenment. This is not a negative thing according to the AfD: stressing that Germans are not all the same and have different identities is an example of this. Therefore, ‘Unity in variety’ stands for a nation state (unity) of Germans from a variety of regions, and people from outside Germany are not included in this ‘unity’. The focus is on a German identity that includes different districts, but not on Germany in the world or German values and democracy. Consequently, Germany sovereignty here means German independence in the EU and independence of globalization in general.

By using phrases from the Enlightenment movement that are hegemonic, democracy has lost its original meaning and is, filled with nationalism, used as a tool to justify the lack of a cooperative stance internationally and the party turning its back on globalization. The positive connotation of the concept democracy is used to exclude people from other backgrounds in particular, and globalization and EU member states in general. Because the AfD claims democracy in a nationalist way, it is difficult for people to remark that the party is not democratic at all, and this is exactly why they do it. 

People don't know what they voted for

To conclude, the AfD is, despite its 'new' and democratic sounding measures like binding referenda, speaking in an old and conservative tradition. In Weidel’s ideology, the nation is an old, precious thing that needs to be cherished by the people, and not improved upon or criticised by people of another background, ethnicity or religion. In order to persuade people, she engages in a discursive battle in which she distorts the meanings of Enlightenment values and frames left wing radicals, while ignoring quite some of her own supporters that are radical as well.

It is important to note that these are not just vain ideas, but ideas that, when given power, could have and have great impact in the functioning of our democracies. Because of the way news items are framed and the twisted interpretation of words and phrases with positive connotations like ‘democracy’ and ‘unity in variety’, people don’t know what they have voted for and are mainly led by fear instead of by reason.



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