In 2011, the Pirate Party stormed into Berlin’s state parliament, taking 8.9 percent of the vote. Its legislators proudly demonstrated how different they were from establishment politicians, donning dungarees, hoodies, and man buns. The lunatics had taken over the asylum—and they had every intention of rewriting its rules.
Sebastian Nerz, the Pirates’ leader, declared this victory a sign that they were capable of “serious, long-term politics in parliament.” The media seemed to agree. The BBC called the Pirates’ victory a “spectacular . . . success.” The Guardian asserted that “U.K. politicians could learn a lot from the Pirate Party.” The New York Times went so far as to suggest that Barack Obama should emulate the Pirates’ campaign techniques.
But within three years, a party that had looked on the verge of transforming German politics began to collapse. Their platform, which had originally been centered around data privacy, consumer rights, and transparency, was co-opted by radicals of all stripes. “Our biggest problem was that we let everyone in who wanted to join,” Stephan Urbach, a former Pirate activist who eventually left the party, told the New Republic. “I’d go to a Party convention and there would be, like, Holocaust deniers there.”
Five years after entering Berlin’s state parliament, the Pirate Party lost every one of its seats. Today, it is a spent force, barely remembered as a bygone curiosity.
The history of the Pirate Party illustrates the challenges faced by upstart political parties: even when their message resonates, they need to build a professional operation, rein in extremists, and avoid destructive spats to survive. Most fail to do so. After celebrating brief successes, they fight over the spoils or fail to moderate, and eventually return to obscurity.
This helps to explain why Germany has not sent a single far-right party in its national parliament since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949. Die Republikaner, the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), and the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) each made inroads in a series of regional elections, only to fall prey to uncompromising extremism or organizational ineptitude.
Then came the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded in 2012 partly by Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, the party started as a one-issue movement with a libertarian streak. At first, the AfD managed to be seen as radical but not overly unsavory. It started by advocating for the reintroduction of the deutsche mark, a policy with broad support in a country where pride in the postwar economic miracle had long functioned as a substitute for more overt patriotism. But soon enough, its genteel Euroscepticism success attracted the less genteel elements of Germany’s far right. Once Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, everything else became secondary: the party increasingly gravitated towards fear-mongering and race-baiting. In 2015, Frauke Petry, a charismatic chemist in her thirties, toppled Lucke from the leadership.
Under Petry’s leadership, the AfD turned into a far-right populist party on the model of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Within months, its agenda had become less about Germany leaving the European Union and more about Islam leaving Germany. AfD members proposed a ban on headscarves in schools and universities. A party pamphlet declared that “Islam does not belong in Germany.” In January, Björn Höcke, one of its most senior leaders, called on Germans to stop atoning for World War II, pledging to “rewrite the history books” if the AfD gained power. These comments have led to Höcke’s near expulsion from the party, with party leaders, including Petry, voting to start the legal process required for his removal.
And yet, the AfD retained many of the advantages of its origins. Better organized and less tainted than previous far-right parties, it turned into the “most successful nationalist phenomenon since the Second World War.” And with refugees entering Germany in record numbers, the AfD’s anti-immigrant message seemed destined to grow in popularity. As one party leader put it, Europe’s refugee crisis was a “gift from heaven” for the AfD. Until a few months ago, polls predicted that the party would take over 10 percent of the vote in national elections scheduled for this coming fall.
Petry took power by allying herself with the party’s extremist wing. Now, that same wing has grown impatient with her moderation. At the party’s annual conference last weekend, Petry was, for all intents and purposes, dethroned.
Her defeat had many roots: A husband implicated in dodgy dealings. An attempt to promote what she touted as a “realist” program over her opponents’ vision for the party, which she rightly branded as “fundamentalist.” And her attempt to throw Höcke out of the party for his remarks about the Holocaust.
The AfD’s success so far has in good part been owed to Petry’s ability to put a friendly face on a nasty message. When Yascha saw her speak at a party rally while reporting “Echt Deutsch,” she straddled a thin line between firing up her base with attacks on the government’s refugee policy and disavowing openly racist rhetoric. When Yascha asked whether she worried about the fact that some of the party’s supporters had advocated setting refugees’ homes on fire, for instance, she shrewdly deflected. “People should protest against the government’s refugee policy in front of town halls and ministries,” she said, “not in front of the homes of asylum seekers.”
The new leadership team, composed of Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, will attempt to pass as moderate, too. It’s not impossible that they might succeed: Gauland was a long-time functionary for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Weidel is young, well spoken, and openly gay. In theory, they might be as successful in “detoxifying” the party as Petry had been.
But the damage they’ve done to their mainstream appeal is, in practice, likely too high. To take control of the party, they had to pander to its extremes. While Weidel claims to have considerable political disagreements with Höcke, for example, she still vowed to campaign alongside him in the coming months.
And so the most recent turn in the AfD’s evolution is a decidedly mixed blessing: On the one hand, it looks as though the party might do less well than it seemed a few short weeks ago. While polls still predict that it will comfortably clear the 5-percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag, its chances of taking 15 or 20 percent of the vote have markedly declined. “I’m hopeful that the AfD is finally showing its true face,” Lamya Kaddor, the Muslim writer and teacher profiled in “Echt Deutsch,” wrote in a Facebook message in the wake of Petry’s ouster. “Now, even the last voter will perhaps understand where that particular train is headed.”
On the other hand, the party will continue to have a very loud voice—and its new leaders are even more likely to engage in unambiguously racist discourse. Refugees like Mousa, Ranim, Ali, Maya, and Amr, whose fate Yascha has been following since he met them while reporting for “Echt Deutsch” in March of 2016, will face even more hatred in the coming months. And so, for now, the promise of a truly multiethnic democracy remains unrealized.
Read “Echt Deutsch” here.