Political journalists in Berlin often do a thing called Hintergrundgespräch. This “background conversation” involves gathering in an airless room of a ministry or a party headquarters with a group of favoured colleagues and some alpha politician who then tells you what’s what. Or what’s really what. The mood is relaxed and pally. Recording devices are not allowed, and although notes may be taken, direct quotes can’t be used. Free drinks are provided. The first time I went to a Hintergrundgespräch, not long ago, a heavy realisation dawned on me: this is why people hate us. This is why people vote for the far-right AfD. It looks a lot like a cosy arrangement: journalists being spoonfed their stories by politicians.
Several obvious factors have helped the AfD get itself established in the party system in the past year: weariness with Chancellor Angela Merkel, coupled with exasperation that her latest coalition with the Social Democrats has lurched from one crisis to the next, tearing itself apart over the perennial problem of refugee policy. Merkel will step down from her party’s leadership next month, yet it is unclear how that will affect support for the AfD. Still, today, migration is almost never out of the news, even though the “refugee crisis” is now more than three years old, and Merkel has done all she can within legal limits to close Germany’s borders and deport failed asylum seekers back to countries deemed “safe”, including Afghanistan.
Florian Hartleb, a political scientist and author of a book on European populism, thinks this last point is crucial. Ever since Merkel’s fateful decision in 2015, the media have made things too easy for the AfD, first by relentlessly demonising it and then by keeping its core policy issue on the front pages.
The media has done some soul-searching recently: a 2017 study by the Hamburg Media School and Leipzig University found that a majority of news outlets had accepted the government’s “slogans” on migration too uncritically. Merkel’s famous line “Wir schaffen das” (“We will manage”) had simply been adopted, rather than scrutinised. “It was easy for the AfD to play the opponent,” says Hartleb. “And the more we talk about migration, the more the chances are for the AfD.”
But the origins of the AfD predate 2015 and, if you believe the party’s strategists, the refugee crisis was simply the moment when 15 years of frustration with complacent German centrism finally crystallised into a party. “The refugee crisis broke trust in established politics,” Rainer Erkens, an AfD member in Berlin, tells me.
“For years politicians were doing things they did not have a mandate for, which were not even remotely an issue in elections.” He lists decisions made by successive governments “over the people’s heads”: creating the euro, launching the so-called Hartz IV social welfare reforms in the early 2000s, abandoning nuclear power, abolishing military service, and bailing out Greece in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis. Merkel’s decision to open borders in 2015 was the last straw for many voters, Erkens says. “People realised that politicians were getting majorities in elections for policies they’re not even pursuing.”
AfD voters seem unaffected, however, by the scandals that outrage everyone else – like the time in June when AfD leader Alexander Gauland triggered an outcry because of a speech describing the Third Reich as a “bird shit in a thousand years of successful German history”.
The pessimism of AfD voters supersedes any such scruples. “If you have the feeling that Germany is going down the drain and if there is one party, the AfD, which is saying exactly that, then you couldn’t care less that Gauland uses the term ‘bird shit’ when he talks about the Nazi period in German history,” says Erkens. “The AfD is much more important than one politician possibly talking nonsense.”
Ronald Gläser, a spokesperson for the AfD in Berlin, puts it bluntly: “Those outrage issues do accompany us, but they don’t harm us that much. And of course, when the media reports about us so hysterically, that’s useful for us.”
Hartleb believes baiting the media is a calculated strategy. “There is this taboo-breaking logic: you say something baldly provocative, then you say it was just a misunderstanding, then you go one step further,” he says. “It doesn’t help any more to just blame the voters of the AfD. It doesn’t help to say that these are neo-Nazis.”
So what strategies are left to counter the far right? Recent state elections have shown that only those parties that aren’t divided over migration are winning – the AfD and the Greens. Either you’re for a diverse society or you’re against it. This, says Erkens, is where the political debate in Germany is headed: “In the future there will be two big parties: the Greens and the AfD. Those will be the poles, and between them there will be three other parties crawling around at 10% or 15%. It’s perfectly feasible that that will be our party system.” If it’s true, journalists and politicians might need to get out of those Hintergrundgespräche once in a while to grasp how Germany’s political scene is being redrawn.
This is an edited version of an article published in the Berlin Policy Journal
• Ben Knight is a journalist based in Berlin