Between January and December 2015, Germany has registered about 1 million refugees. Virtually every German federal state has received refugees although there has been some variation with respect to the relative numbers of intake.
A great number of Germans has been welcoming the refugees, despite of their arrival in enormous numbers. On the other hand, there has been a large amount of violent attacks by right-wing extremists against refugee shelters and other crimes against refugees. According to German authorities, there were 817 assaults against refugee centers in 2015, four times as many as in 2014. Moreover, 90 of these incidents were arson attacks. Overall, in 2015, 1610 crimes were classified as offences against refugees (compared to 895 offences in 2014). Criminal offenses included online bullying and agitation against minorities, damage to property as well as criminal assaults. The German political magazine Der Spiegel (51/2015) reported that since the summer of 2015, there has generally been a sharp increase in criminal offences by right-wing extremists. For instance, in October 2015, authorities recorded 1717 politically motivated crimes that were classified as right-wing, as opposed to 1484 in September.
While Neo-Nazi and other right-wing elements have existed on the fringes of German society, the recent attacks against refugees shed light on a deeper problem: the resurfacing of right-wing extremism in the mainstream. Der Spiegel refers to an assessment of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) according to which more than two thirds of the recorded offenders had no previous criminal record. Conversely, this could mean that many of the perpetrators had only recently been radicalized. Thus, the German Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière warns that “xenophobia and right-wing extremism could creep into the center of our society.”
In fact, in recent years, Germany has witnessed a rise in petit bourgeois movements that have been nurtured by right-wing nationalist ideology. They include the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) movement and the political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Since its inception in 2014, the anti-Islamic Pegida movement has been able to regularly mobilize mass demonstrations in a range of German cities. According to recent polls, the AfD, whose supporters tend to be ideologically aligned with Pegida, constitutes the third largest political entity in Germany with 10.5 per cent support of the German electorate. Pegida and AfD have in common that they have been campaigning for stricter immigration laws.
Der Spiegel paints a worrying picture of this so-called “new right” in Germany. Accordingly, the leaders of this movement have been able to fuse right- and left-wing policy issues that had traditionally been separated. Thus, the “new right” incorporates xenophobic and racist sentiments on the one hand. On the other hand, it speaks to societal segments which are skeptical towards elites, big business and the mainstream media. Hence, this might explain why the German “new right” has been compared with the Tea-Party movement in the USA, which has arguably a comparable platform. Moreover, some German commentators have argued that the “new right” reminds of the right-wing movement during the Weimar Republic. In the Weimar years (1919-1933), the right had cynically agitated against minorities in order to appeal to the disenfranchised that had suffered under economic depression. This was conducted without any serious policy outlook or concern for the populace and ultimately helped paving the way to the “Third Reich.”
And here lies the danger of the current developments: Similar as during the Weimar Republic, many Germans are currently facing economic problems that have not seriously been addressed by mainstream political parties. Neoliberal policies have increased inequality thus fostering extreme poverty. Today, 12.5 million people live below the poverty line in Germany. As a result, many Germans seem to feel excluded from the political process.
At the same time, militarism is on the rise. German foreign policy has been positioned towards the priorities of NATO. This was just recently indicated by Germany’s participation in the “fight against ISIS” which was disapproved by 51 per cent of the electorate (see Der Spiegel, 51/2015). Yet significantly, the links between the neoliberal austerity agenda of consecutive German labor and conservative governments, Western military intervention, the massive refugee crisis and Islamist terrorism have remained unexplored in the mainstream discourse.
This has encouraged the leaders of the “new right” to offer simplistic explanations that attempt to scapegoat immigrants and minorities as responsible for economic hardship. Moreover, the discourse about the refugee crisis has been manipulated to fuel sentiments towards immigration and anxieties about potential terrorist blowbacks.
Crucially, these developments and the rise of the “new right” have been enabled by a political system that does not address the concerns of large segments of society. The traditional German mass parties CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, Die Grünen and Die Linke (who has, in positions of political power, often supported the mainstream consensus, despite its left-wing ambitions) more or less support the neoliberal economic as well as militarist consensus. The lack of a real political alternative might explain why disenfranchised segments of the German populace have been driven towards new political currents that offer alternative but right-wing populist platforms.
Florian Zollmann is a Lecturer in Media at Liverpool Hope University.