On February 6, the AfD will be ten years old. How the party developed into a gathering place for right-wing populists and what prospects it has in the future.

“Without alternative”. Those were the words of the then Chancellor Angela Merkel, which ultimately made a decisive contribution to the founding of what later became the AfD, the Alternative for Germany. These words were spoken at a time when there was already a lot of criticism of euro policy because of the euro crisis in 2009 and 2010, the rescue package and the breach with one of the basic principles of the monetary union, according to which financial assistance was excluded – also in the ranks of the CDU / CSU and FDP.

These years and this resentment were the foundation for the AfD. A party that saw itself primarily as Euro-critical, but even then addressed strictly national-conservative circles. From his point of view, the fact that it would one day become “a radical, partly right-wing extremist party”, as described by political consultant and author Johannes Hillje, was “not automatic”. So how did the party get further and further to the right?

There was the displeasure that was mentioned about the euro policy, which in the eyes of the critics betrayed the basic principles of monetary union. Based on this, an initially non-partisan movement emerged – driven in part by the economics professor Bernd Lucke, who had been a member of the CDU for more than 30 years until 2011. Lucke started an initiative with the “Wahlalternative 2013”, and a little later he decided to found a party himself – together with other disgruntled people from the ranks of the CDU, including the former publisher of the Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung, Alexander Gauland. In the small town of Oberursel in the Taunus, Lucke said something that sealed the party’s direction: the introduction of the euro was “a historic mistake”.

The party became a gathering place for euro critics – for whatever reason. “That was definitely desired and wanted,” says a former high-ranking party member in an interview with FOCUS online. The party grew rapidly, and by the end of 2013 it already had around 16,000 members.

For party founder Lucke, the party should be one that criticizes euro policy but does not necessarily demand Germany’s exit from the euro. A party that relies on immigration based on qualifications and reforms the pension system and education policy.

But even if this sounds like a mixture of FDP and CDU, political advisor Hillje is clear: “The AfD was open to the right from the start, Lucke didn’t draw a clear line”. This was probably also due to the rapid rise of the party. The party was able to celebrate success in the state elections in the east – André Poggenburg and Björn Höcke became state chairmen in Saxony and Thuringia. Alexander Gauland took on this role in Brandenburg.

Lucke himself had always resisted this portrayal as a right-wing party, complaining that his political child was prejudiced. He does not want to talk to FOCUS online about his former party. It was repeatedly shortened or misrepresented, says Lucke, who now teaches macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg. At the request of FOCUS online, he did not want to comment on his time in the AfD.

The course towards the right had already manifested itself at that time. The so-called “Erfurt Resolution” of 2015 split the party. Höcke and Poggenburg initiated it with the demand that the party be more “conservative”. Among them grew the nationalistic and right-wing extremist wing of the party, which later called itself “The Wing”. Gauland also joined the movement.

The party was at a crossroads. Lucke pushed ahead with the division of the party by founding the association “Weckruf 2015”. The association was to receive the party as one that “objectively and constructively represents conservative as well as liberal and social values”. The association was dissolved by the party’s federal arbitration court because it was taking up directional decisions that had to be clarified at a federal party conference.

The “we” of the AfD: communication and collective identity in right-wing populism

The Erfurt Resolution, which also appeared divisive, was not challenged. He finally countered Lucke with the so-called “Germany Resolution”. It was the last attempt by Lucke and other moderates to divert the party from its long-established course. He failed. Frauke Petry, as the previous co-chair, is taking over the leadership of the party after her break with Lucke. Your new partner at the top of the party was called Jörg Meuthen. With the Essen party conference in 2015, the split in the AfD was evident.

Lucke left the party and thousands joined him. The economically liberal part of the party declined drastically. At the same time, more and more people from the right-wing fringes felt welcome in the party. At that time Lucke said: “The AfD has irretrievably fallen into the wrong hands.” The AfD, the euro-critical, in his eyes liberal-conservative party, had long been driven by “anti-Islamic and xenophobic” and also “anti-Western” forces, as he noted at the time . Lucke was bitter that Meuthen, who was considered moderate, did not follow him. But Meuthen still saw potential to keep the party from sliding to the right.

Petry had obviously come to terms with the wing long ago. She is said to have received the support of Höcke and his followers against the promise that the party arbitration court would no longer try to exclude wing supporters.

And Meuthen was by no means an opponent of the right-wing extremists; on the contrary, he was on good terms with wing representatives, says political advisor Hillje – as long as they were useful to him. For his top candidacy he needed the backing of the new strong power in the party. It was also he who attended the “Kyffhäuser Meeting” where the wing supporters came together.

But Gauland was one of the most powerful supporters of the wing. A former high-ranking AfD member once described him as a “conservative quasi-intellectual” who had a “heart for the common people”. But his vocabulary was shaped early on by folkish words. In 2015 he described the refugee crisis as a “gift” for the AfD.

It became a key issue for the party, which increasingly positioned itself against foreigners and refugees. In an interview, Frauke Petry called for federal police officers at the border to prevent illegal border crossings and “if necessary, use firearms”.

With the war in Syria and the call by the terrorist militia “Islamic State” to young people from Europe to join them and also to carry out attacks in this country, the AfD began to flirt with the Islamophobic protest movement Pegida – Höcke practiced shoulder to shoulder with founder Lutz Bachmann against the “Islamization of the West”.

The attacks in Brussels and finally in December 2016 in Berlin did the rest to give the party a boost. In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD achieved the best state parliament result of a right-wing populist party in German history with 24.3 percent.

Hatred of foreigners became part of the program. At the same time, the distance to right-wing extremists continued to shrink. In 2017, Gauland defended Höcke, who had described the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “memorial of shame”.

Meanwhile, Petry found himself increasingly isolated on the board. When she tried to expel Höcke from the party and to draw “red lines” against the party’s right-wing course, she failed. After the 2017 general election, when the AfD first managed to get into the Bundestag, she surprisingly announced she was leaving the party.

Neither Meuthen nor the newly elected parliamentary group leaders Alice Weidel and Chrupalla knew about it. Petry gave substantive reasons, shortly afterwards founded the “Blue Party”, which has since been dissolved.

In 2018, Gauland criticized himself for comparing the Nazi era as “bird shit in 1000 years of successful German history”. Within the party, his statements hardly caused an uproar. Probably also because Gauland was too powerful in the party and impressed a growing number of members with his attitude. In the same year, Gauland became party chairman – alongside Meuthen.

In 2019, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution attested to his “völkisch-nationalistic image of society”. “Gauland has helped shape the party’s current line from the start,” emphasizes Hillje: Gauland is one of the “central protagonists” in the AfD, who represents an “inhuman attitude”. “He knows where the boundaries to right-wing extremism lie and made a conscious effort to ensure that voters from the right-wing spectrum were also addressed,” sums up Hillje.

Gradually, the composition of the federal executive board changed, three wing supporters, including Andreas Kalbitz, chairman of the AfD in Brandenburg, and Stephan Brandner, came to the committee. Voices critical of the wing were voted out. In 2019, Tino Chrupalla replaced Gauland as co-party leader, alongside Meuthen. He too has never clearly distanced himself from the wing members, but publicly denied a problem with right-wing extremism in the party.

As honorary chairman, Gauland remained a key figure on the AfD federal executive board – Höcke found a powerful advocate in him. With him, the wing became more and more powerful. “Gauland has made Höcke socially acceptable,” says a high-ranking former member of the AfD today. As state chairman in Thuringia, the right-wing front man became the puppet master in the party. Although he was not a member of the federal executive board, no one could get past the grand piano by now at the latest.

The AfD as a whole increasingly moved to the edge of the democratic spectrum. The ranks of opponents of the hard legal course were thinning. When Kalbitz was suspected of having belonged to the banned right-wing extremist “German Youth Loyal to Home”, Meuthen insisted on expelling him from the party. The party arbitration court later upheld the decision. Gauland called the decision wrong, and Meuthen’s counterpart, co-spokesman Tino Chrupalla, also criticized him for it.

At the 2020 party conference, Meuthen gave an angry speech about the AfD rhetoric with a view to the federal government’s corona policy. “Is it wise to speak of a Corona dictatorship?” Meuthen asked the party members, “Either we get the curve here, or we fail and get into rough seas.”

But the party had long since gotten into rough seas. When the Office for the Protection of the Constitution classified the wing as “safe right-wing extremist efforts against the free democratic basic order” in the same year, Federal Executive Meuthen felt compelled to act. He wants to “clean up” the AfD, he says, but he doesn’t want to give himself up “as a bourgeois fig leaf” in 2021. Although the wing officially disbanded, Höcke’s influence and connections within and outside the party remained.

When Meuthen suggested a split in the party into a liberal-conservative camp and a “social-patriotic” camp, he was counted out. After the poor performance of the AfD in the federal elections in 2021, he himself announced his retirement. But the party conference was postponed due to Corona. Meanwhile, Chrupalla was increasingly determining the course, duping Meuthen with the candidacy of Max Otte, then head of the ultra-conservative Union of Values, as the AfD candidate for the office of Federal President.

Meuthen stayed at the top of the party for the longest time, and was recently used as a figurehead for the apparently moderate parts of the AfD because of his rhetoric and because he is a civil servant. But Meuthen knew about the developments in the party and supported them long enough: “He has perfected the strategy of playing down himself,” says political advisor Hillje today about him.

Meuthen has made the party accessible to many voters. “The right-wing extremists in the party have benefited from this,” adds the expert. Even if he didn’t want it – Meuthen had long been “the bourgeois fig leaf” of a party that had long since determined its course to the right. At the request of FOCUS online, Meuthen did not want to comment on his AfD time.

In early 2022, Meuthen took his hat off and resigned from the party, only to announce his membership in the German Center Party shortly thereafter.

Shortly thereafter, in March 2022, the AfD suffered the next blow. Instead of observing the wing, the entire AfD was classified as a suspected case by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The fact that the wing can no longer be officially classified as “extremist” was more due to the fact that it had officially dissolved. But the structures remain.

In addition to Chrupalla at the dual leadership, a place became vacant, which Alice Weidel, parliamentary group leader since 2017, took. Hillje also believes this to be a calculation by the party’s wings: Weidel is a woman who is supposed to counteract the party’s image of old white men, she is considered an economic liberal and characterizes a bourgeois demeanor. Her homosexuality contradicts the party’s ideology, but she “never made it her attribute,” explains Hillje. She wants to keep the topic small.

Weidel positioned himself early on on the side of the right-wing forces, a high-ranking ex-AfD member described her as “Janus-faced”, several ex-members describe her as difficult to calculate, it is unclear where she stands. Others describe her as opportune, as someone who “hangs her flag to the wind”. Weidel himself had missed an appointment agreed with FOCUS online and did not respond to inquiries.

AfD expert Hillje describes it like this: “If she’s pursuing a strategy, it’s not to make any powerful enemies.” With that, she made it to the top of the party.

She avoided confronting the wing, regularly downplayed Höcke’s right-wing extremist statements, and even as parliamentary group leader, she coined xenophobic rhetoric when she spoke of “headscarf girls” and “alimented knifemen” with regard to asylum policy. In 2017, when a controversial email from 2013 signed “Lille,” her nickname, was leaked, she denied it was her.

But high-ranking former members of the party confirmed to FOCUS online that the e-mail, peppered with racist insults and conspiracy theories, came from her. It said, among other things: “The reason why we are being inundated by culture-alien peoples such as Arabs, Sinti and Roma etc. is the systematic destruction of civil society as a possible counterbalance to the enemies of the constitution who govern us.”

The donation affair about an illegal campaign donation from Switzerland, 2017 transferred to the district AfD on Lake Constance with the title “Election campaign Alice Weidel” costs the party a lot of money. The investigation against Weidel herself is dropped – it probably didn’t damage her reputation in the party. The FOCUS column by Jan Fleischhauer – no joke! How to immediately recognize a super-convinced AfD supporter

With Chrupalla and Weidel, there are two federal spokesmen in the leadership, both of whom come to terms with the extreme right-wing tendencies in the party. But it has been clear for many years who really has the most power in the AfD: “If the party was a Lucke party in 2013, it will be a Höcke party in 2023,” says Hillje: “Höcke’s power is not fed out formal offices, but rather as a party puller.” As such, he steered the party in a clear direction. To the right outside.

The party will therefore not gain in importance, says the expert: “Without deradicalization and without a perspective of power, the AfD will not get beyond its core electorate. It will remain where it is: a right-wing party.