Germany and the Refugee Crisis – Actio et reactio is the third law of motion by Isaac Newton which says: “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.”
This is how, on a very basic level, all interactions work. Everyone at any given point is influenced by his or her surroundings, everyone and everything is therefore inseparably connected in a perpetual motion of actions and reactions. Exceptionally strong actions, therefore, result in equally strong reactions, like we’ve seen in Germany over the past two years where, with rising refugee numbers, the populist right gained more and more traction and reception among citizens. A trend that can be observed in all of Europe.
The refugee crisis surely isn’t the sole reason for the political changes the country faced in the past months and years, but it certainly is the common denominator that may not have inspired a new form of political protest, but sustained it for a long period of time and still does.
In October 2014, the first Pegida demonstration took place in Dresden under the banner of ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’. While only a few people actually took part in these early ‘evening strolls’ to voice their fear over threats of Islamic extremism, Islamization, and Muslims that refuse to integrate, the small group quickly gained momentum over social media and managed to get as many as ten thousand people on the streets by December, spawning similar movements all over Germany.
The Pegida demonstrations repeatedly sparked discussions about the rise of the political right in Germany and inspired just as many protests against it. Both movements gained some more momentum after the Charlie Hebdo Attacks in France with about 25,000 protesters but started to trickle to a halt afterward. It didn’t take long until the founder of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann, eventually had to step down from organizing the events after publicly calling asylum seekers ‘animals’ and ‘scumbags’ on Facebook but was reinstated as chairman less than four weeks after that event.
While the interest in Pegida slowly faded, the refugee crisis started to show its extent and reinvigorated the movement, which seemed to become more radical over time. A public death threat by individual protesters against Chancellor Angela Merkel, violence against a pair of journalists and a keynote speaker that referred to refugees as “invaders” and foretelling the country’s future as a “Muslim garbage dump” were some of the headlines Pegida produced in September and October of 2015 alone. There has been a rise in racially motivated violence since the beginning of the refugee crisis as well which shows, though unrelated to the Pegida movement, that there are rising tensions on all levels in Germany.
Alternative for Germany
While Pegida almost exclusively functioned as a mouthpiece for ‘worried citizens’, the right-winged AFD (Alternative for Germany) Party gained momentum simultaneously. The AFD, which started out in 2013 as a primarily eurosceptic party similar to the British UKIP, positioned itself further to the right by nurturing the fears expressed by Pegida and similar movements, going as far as to suggest securing the borders against refugees by use of gunfire as a last resort. There have been frequent complaints about the party using vocabulary close to what was used by the Nazi regime. They have since avoided using anything that could be used against them, but still complained that the prohibition of certain words has a huge impact the freedom of speech.
So, on the one hand, we have a significant amount of people unsatisfied with the established parties, afraid of the Islam, of refugees and, basically, the imminent change of their country. On the other hand, we have a right-winged party that answers to those fears, making the political right socially acceptable and thus gained huge percentage points in several state elections. But why is that? Shouldn’t Germany of all countries be more sensitive about the political right? The truth is, it is, and that might be part of the problem.
A huge percentage of the people, I’d even say most of them, who are marching with Pegida or voting for the AFD do not consider themselves to be politically right. And yet they cling to an inherently racist concept offered by right winged parties.
The Refugee Crisis is Used as Political Fuel
The AFD, to boil it down, has figured out a way to address the citizens that felt previously untouched by the established parties or at least did not feel comfortably represented by those. Especially now as the CDU/CSU (usually perceived as center-right and probably the rightmost established party prior to the AFD) moves more to the left in its endeavors to make the refugee crisis work without limiting numbers, people are looking up to the AFD to provide definitive answers.
For many, the party is viewed as the only viable option to infuse a refugee critical voice into a parliament, that almost exclusively consists of pro-refugee parties. While the refugee crisis is still far from being under control and the crucial question can’t be answered properly by the government, the AFD provides simple solutions and managed to mobilize people that have kept quiet before but feel encouraged now to make a change. That’s why whenever there are higher turnouts at state elections, the AFD usually benefits from those extra votes.
While the refugee crisis is the driver of what makes the AFD and its rising popularity so worrisome, there are other issues that have an impact as well such as a faster developing globalization and other changes in social and economic matters that drive people to get into a ‘me first’ mindset, which is catered perfectly by the AFD and groups like Pegida.
With the national elections due next year, time will tell how well the AFD will actually fare in an election on a national level. While they have had good results in state elections nationwide, they have not yet managed to actually break through everywhere. As of now, the eastern states of Germany have been their most successful ground, while the western states seem not to be as affected. Nevertheless, if the established parties don’t find good solutions and start addressing the fears of some of the citizens without defaming them, it might lead to another increase in votes in favor of the AFD. While still a minor party, it could prove to be a big thorn in the side of Germany for a long time to come.
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