Right-wing populism in Germany: Muslims and minorities after the 2015 refugee crisis

Anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) chairwoman Frauke Petry (R) and party member Armin Paul Hampel (background R) meet with Nurhan Soykan, first deputy chairwoman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and Sadiqu Al-Mousllie (2nd L) member of the Syrian opposition in Germany, at a hotel in Berlin, Germany May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt  - LR1EC5N0S6B8U
Editor's note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


  1. Political and historical context
  2. The rise of Germany’s populist right
  3. Far-right ideology
  4. The framing of Islam
  5. Visions of identity and belonging
  6. Visions of Europe

Political and Historical Context

There can be no story of present day social conflict and political change in Germany that does not begin with at least a nod to the nation’s violent and turbulent past. There is indeed context for how we understand Germany’s wrestling today with populism and political polarization, Muslims and minorities.

The past hundred years for Germany and the Germans—a mere blip in the sweep of history—have been exceptional. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a stunning historical event. It also signaled the beginning of a process. Formal political unification of the two German states may have been completed on October 3, 1990, but a fuller and deeper social and cultural transformation had only just begun.

The end of the Cold War meant Germany would once again be dealing with its past, confronting questions about identity, and struggling to define its relationships, role, and responsibility in a changing Europe. West German philosopher Jürgen Habermas had once spoke of Verfassungspatriotismus or constitutional patriotism, the idea that one is attached first and foremost to the liberal democratic order, rather than to any ethnic or national idea of belonging or identity. This vision of national identity fit to some extent with a vision of EU supranationalism promoted by elites in Brussels and Berlin.

Other things were also happening. Germany had never been considered a proper immigration country. Immigration had often been associated with a recruiting of labor from abroad, chiefly Turkish guest workers who had never posed any significant political problem. It was first in 2005 that the German government formally recognized that Germany had become an immigration country. A new legal migration framework was introduced and amended chiefly in 2007 and 2008. As German citizenship law moved away from “blood” citizenship rights, a new approach—at least on a legal basis—to integration would be attempted.

The 2015 decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to open Germany’s borders opened a new German debate around questions of “Who Are We?” Historian Fritz Stern’s 2006 autobiography bore the title “The Five Germanys I Have Known.” This meant for Stern the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic, and the united Germany of the post-Cold War period. This period, the last Germany Stern had known, is disappearing now. It is in this context that we must consider issues related to Islam in Germany. Many countries have begun to grapple with core issues of identity. Few countries carry the baggage of Germany history, from Holocaust to division, to recent reunification.

The Rise of Germany’s Populist Right

The populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was established in 2013 as a party focused on economic issues and matters of German fiscal sovereignty. We underestimate the full consequences of the 2008 financial crisis on the politics of western nations as a whole. Germans in particular, with their penchant for stability and long standing skepticism of unfettered free enterprise and “stock market capitalism,” may have found the global financial crisis especially jarring. Then, too, the Germans had given up a decade earlier an important security blanket—their national currency.

AfD began as a free-market, Eurosceptic party, critical of the Euro and opposed to German-supported bailouts of Southern European countries. Bernd Lucke, an economist at the University of Hamburg, was an AfD founder and leading force in early days. Lucke represented a school of German economic thought that never felt comfortable giving up the D-Mark for a common European currency, which was adopted in 2000. For economists like Lucke, to do so meant in essence exporting German monetary virtue, while importing monetary vice from countries like Italy.

For nearly a half a century, the mighty German Mark had served as a symbol of West German affluence and stability. The Bundesbank in Frankfurt was revered by Germans as guardian of sound fiscal policy, and as watchdog against inflation and the deep political trauma Germans associated with reckless monetary policy. There was politics and national psychology in all this. In the late 1960s, economist Herbert Giersch noted a phenomenon he dubbed “export nationalism,” as Germans began to find pride in the quality of their “Made in Germany” brand. Habermas would later speak of “D-Mark nationalism,” a source of esteem for a nation otherwise denied and deprived of the customary symbols of identity and belonging.

We do not know whether the AfD would have had legs as a national party had it remained focused exclusively on issues of economy and economic sovereignty. The refugee crisis of 2015 changed everything. Bernd Lucke was forced out of the party leadership that summer by Frauke Petry, a businesswoman from Dresden and chemist by training. Petry, who holds a doctorate from the west German University of Göttingen, played a key role in changing AfD’s focus from economics to immigration and refugees.

The 2015 refugee crisis offered Petry an opportunity, both for power inside the party and for expanding rapidly the AfD’s base. The number of refugees admitted was staggering. In the course of a year, nearly a million migrants entered a country a bit larger than the U.S. state of Oregon. In high years, over the past decade the United States would take 50,000 refugees a year. In Germany’s case, the situation would be made even more dramatic by the fact that the sudden influx of new arrivals were often young men coming predominantly from Muslim-majority countries. According to a formula based on the population and tax revenues of individual federal states, the newcomers have been distributed across Germany. Since 2014, more than 1.4 million people have applied for asylum in Germany, more than 43 percent of all applications made to the European Union, and six times, for example, the number made to France.

Frauke Petry used the issue of refugees to push the AfD forward. Before 2015, there seemed to be little interest in the subject of foreigners in Germany. Turks, for example, had lived in Germany for decades, in many instances beginning as “guest workers.” Turks were not a significant issue of concern for the AfD. And indeed in summer 2015, many Germans seemed to welcome refugees arriving in the country. It was perhaps a kind of balm; the country that had expelled (and worse) was able to demonstrate Germany’s Willkommenskultur, culture of welcome. The mood changed. By 2016, a majority of Germans wanted a cap on refugees. In one survey, 81 percent of AfD supporters strongly supported the idea of a cap. Approval was also high in Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), at 64 percent, followed by the Free Democratic Party with 57 percent, the Left Party with 54 percent, the Social Democrats (SPD) with 53 percent.

In the September 2017 elections, the AfD entered the national parliament, obtaining 12.6 percent of the vote and 92 seats in the Bundestag. To detractors, Petry stoked xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. To supporters, Petry was a champion of rule of law, not afraid to speak out about issues of social cohesion and identity. The AfD saw a surge in voter support. Immigration was foremost on voter’s minds. Slogans like “Der Islam gehoert nicht zu Deutschland,” (Islam doesn’t belong in Germany) resonated.

During an interview with Frauke Petry in Leipzig in November 2017,  she told me that part of the problem with migration was quantitative. What other country could be expected to absorb so many people in such a short period of time? The other issue was qualitative in nature—was one not permitted to speak openly about Germany as a Judeo-Christian nation? Many Muslim newcomers brought with them very different attitudes toward women, work, society and social custom, according to Petry. Petry echoed others in AfD—and by this time not only in the AfD —by asking whether such topics must remain taboo. Conservative members of the CDU and CSU followed suit.

Indeed, AfD has fed off a steady diet of media reports of cultural conflict. In December 2017 there was the case of a 15-year-old German girl killed by an Afghan boy, thought to be the same age, in the village of Kandel in southwest Germany near the French border. The girl, who had been going out with the young man, broke up with the boy. Fifteen days later, two days after Christmas, the boy followed the girl into a local drug store and stabbed her in the heart with a kitchen knife. He was an unaccompanied asylum seeker who had been denied refugee status.

In January 2018 a court ruled that a group of Muslim men should be retried, overturning a 2016 acquittal in a case against seven individuals who claimed they were merely trying to keep young Muslims away from alcohol and other debauchery. The men were patrolling streets of the western German city of Wuppertal, donning orange vests emblazoned with the words “Sharia Police.” They also carried signs with the words “Sharia Controlled Zone,” (it is illegal in Germany, a legacy of the Nazi past, to wear uniforms in public that express a shared political view). Preacher Sven Lau, a German convert to Islam who led the detail, was sentenced on separate charges to five and half years for supporting a foreign terrorist organization.

There had been national outcry over the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016.  The AfD would feed on this calamity. For example, when in December 2017 police in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where Cologne is located, included in a tweet New Years greetings in Arabic—along with German, French, and English—AfD’s Beatrix von Storch responded with choice words. She tweeted: “What the hell is wrong with this country? Are [we] trying to appease the barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes of men.” Von Storch faced accusations of violating Germany’s hate-speech laws.

For her part, Petry would overplay her hand. She found herself outmaneuvered in AfD leadership battles. And while Lucke went on to establish a new party called Liberal-Konservative Reformer, Petry—after resigning dramatically a day after last September’s Bundestag elections—would found Die Blaue Partei (the Blue Party). AfD has yet to form a coherent and consistent ideology. Its voter base comprises a hodgepodge. In dozens of interviews with AfD supporters over 2017-2019 in western and eastern Germany, what they all seem to have in common is alarm over rapid social change, and the belief that elites in Berlin (and in Brussels) are out of touch.

Mainstream parties have been losing support. Here’s a snap shot of change. Before national elections in 2017 pollsters had forecast that the Alternative für Deutschland would get into the Bundestag, but with 7-8 per cent of the vote, and that Merkel’s Christian Democrats would end up with roughly 40 per cent. The CDU settled instead for a disappointing 33 per cent. The upstart AfD did indeed enter the Bundestag, with 12.6 percent of the electorate’s support. And, stunningly, with 20 percent the Social Democrats suffered their worst result since the end of World War II.

The SPD has hit historic lows. The CDU has struggled to stay above 30 percent since Angela Merkel’s reelection as Chancellor in 2018. The AfD has stabilized itself, however, at least for now. The party is represented today in each of Germany’s 16 state legislatures. Nationally, the party has polled 10 to 15 percent over the past year. Germany’s party landscape is in flux. Mainstream parties are in trouble. Smaller parties see fortunes rising, which opens at least the possibility that the AfD and its anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim agenda will take root and influence the broader political and public policy debate.

Far-Right Ideology

Franz Josef Strauss, the legendary leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats, used to say, “To the right of us is the wall.” In other words, Strauss would allow no room for right-wing antics outside his control: the CSU would absorb and endeavor to manage all the unsavory temptations floating around in conservative space and circles.

AfD’s success—although the party is far from having a coherent ideology—has rested on anti-immigration sentiment and appeals to social conservatism and societal cohesion. But is it also possible that Angela Merkel created the conditions in which the AfD has been able to flourish.

Coincidental with a drop in voter support for the SPD, the German Chancellor moved the CDU left ward over the past dozen years on everything from nuclear energy to gay marriage and borders and refugees. Merkel herself is the socially liberal daughter of a Protestant pastor. She is also a shrewd politician who understood for her first decade in power that votes for the CDU were to be had in the center. This worked for a time.

As elsewhere across the West, however, something else was afoot in Germany. In a 2013 book titled, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Irish political scientist Peter Mair was recording structural shifts in European politics generally: voters’ ties to establishment parties had for years been loosening, observed Mair, civic participation was on the decline, trust in elites and mainstream was eroding. At the time, Mair was asserting: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

Is there a coherent AfD ideology?

At this stage, AfD is a party of considerable paradox. The party fares strongest in eastern Germany; yet some of AfD’s hardest ideological voices come from western Germany. The party is frequently labeled “far-right.” This characterization can be misleading, however. “The Social Democrats have completely lost touch with the working class,” asserts ex-Green Party parliamentarian Antje Hermenau, explaining the inroads AfD is making with German labor. Some 15 percent of labor union members cast their ballots for Die Alternative in national elections in October 2017. In some ways AfD, not dissimilar to France’s National Front, can be described as a right-left party, or as national-socialist. It is nationalist, anti-immigrant on the one hand, while favoring a strong social welfare state and state intervention in the economy, on the other. Roots to much of this can be found in the Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the West). For the fullest analysis available to date, the work of scholars Joachim Klose and Werner J. Patzelt is exceptionally helpful.

Hermenau does not stand alone in her assessment of SPD woes and AfD opportunities on the left side of the political spectrum. Former SPD Chancellor (and Gazprom lobbyist) Gerhard Schröder had been known for years now as epitomizing what critics call the Social Democrats’ “Tuscany faction”; that is, social justice rhetoric side by side with a taste for fine wines, expensive Cuban cigars and custom-tailored Brioni suits. By the end of 2018, metal workers’ union IG Metall—Germany’s largest union and Europe’s largest industrial union—was warning of threats from the populist right. Frank Neufert, a BMW worker in Leipzig, had announced he would run for a spot in a local Betriebsrat, or works council. Neufert was also an AfD state legislator in Zwickau. Such examples abound. AfD is out to get the “Kaviar-Linke”—the so-called Caviar Left. In doing so, new alignments are noteworthy. Some, like radical left-wing icon Sahra Wagenknecht—the 49-year- old wife of ex-SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine—sound a lot like AfD when they voice their concern for German workers whose jobs are threatened by the influx of foreigners, although the hard left’s concern is chiefly about foreigners taking German jobs, and not necessarily about the threat of Muslims per se.

Reiner Haseloff, the minister president of the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, is helpful in explaining the motivation of AfD voters. The 64-year-old Haseloff is a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Like the Chancellor, Haseloff grew up on the country’s communist side. He, too, was trained as a scientist. Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry; Haseloff’s doctorate is in physics. Haseloff has distanced himself from the Chancellor’s liberal migration policy, and has what one might describe as sympathetic views of AfD.

Haseloff believes that eastern Germany’s limited experience with migration plays some role in the difficulty many East Germans have coping with social change triggered by the 2015 refugee crisis. He also blames mainstream media, though, for exaggerating differences between east and west, and failing to distinguish between ordinary citizens and genuine right-wing radicals. Haseloff sees the current AfD as a national conservative party, to the clear right of the current CDU yet operating within democratic boundaries. Yet boundaries and categories are not always clear.

Alice Weidel, the 39-year-old Bundestag member and chair of the parliamentary faction, is a case in point. Weidel is a former Goldman Sachs banker from North Rhine-Westphalia. Weidel was a top student in her class at the University of Bayreuth where she studied business and economics. She lived six years in China, working there also for the Bank of China. Today, the Mandarin-speaking Weidel lives in Switzerland where she raises two boys with her lesbian partner Sarah Bossard, a 36-year-old Sri-Lankan-born Swiss filmmaker.

Weidel and AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland are the two public faces of the AfD. In one sense, the two make an odd couple. The 77-year-old ex-journalist from East Germany is a frumpy and acerbic national conservative who made news in summer 2018 with his quip that Hitler and the Nazis are merely a speck of bird poop in 1,000 years of successful German history. Gauland says not everyone who has a German passport is a German. He calls for a de-acceleration of technological development, and a return to Heimat—a German word for homeland that connotes a strong sense of community, connection, and belonging. To some, Heimat rings malignly nationalist. In the hodgepodge that is AfD, at this stage in any case, the search for identity is an important leitmotif.

Weidel represents the pro-entrepreneurship side of the party. Yet she is not to be outdone by Gauland on ideological fronts either. Weidel bristles at Germany’s subservience to the United States. She says she doesn’t want to see her country covered with Muslims praying everywhere. Last year she stormed off the set of a nationally televised talk show, ostensibly frustrated that her fellow panelists refused to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. Although she herself lives with her lesbian partner and children, Weidel opposes gay marriage, perhaps as a sop to traditional party faithful. She is never entirely clear.

There is no uniform AfD ideology. AfD is both Christian and secular and both socially conservative and laissez faire. AfD is a lumpy mixture of voter frustration, a “Sammelbecken,” as Germans call it, or “collecting bowl,” for a range of grievances. It is anti-establishment. It’s a protest party and platform, suddenly, for Germans revisiting thorny questions, a number having to do with the past. Centrally, perhaps, numbers of Muslim migrants have stirred debate and focused the mind of some around questions of what it means to be German. In any case, large-scale migration from Muslim-majority countries is a challenge to liberal-integrationists, while providing an opportunity for xenophobic, anti-Muslim tendencies and sentiment.

The Framing of Islam

There are extreme elements inside AfD.

There are extreme elements inside AfD. Wolfgang Gedeon is a medical doctor, a general practitioner turned politician and AfD legislator in in the state parliament of the prosperous western German state Baden Würtemberg. Gedeon calls Holocaust deniers “dissidents,” and speaks positively about the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion,” the fabricated anti-Semitic text purporting to describe Jewish plans for world domination. Bernd Höcke, also west German, is another example. A former high school teacher from North-Rhine Westphalia, who taught in Hessen and now represents AfD in the eastern German state of Thuringia, Höcke calls it a national scandal that Germans would put a Holocaust memorial in the heart of their capital. The ex-educator, whose grandparents were expellees from East Prussia, now Poland, used to hang maps in his classroom of a previous Germany, Lebensraum included. Höcke is a prime example of just how fluid things are inside the AfD. Some have moved against him, working to expel Höcke from the party. But it’s difficult to purge these elements.

As a party, AfD advances the idea of Leitkultur in Germany, or core culture.

As a party, AfD advances the idea of Leitkultur in Germany, or core culture. This means rejecting relativist multiculturalism and advocating instead that German language and German cultural traditions remain at the basis of German identity and central to the cohesion of German society. As conceived in the late 1990s by the Syrian-German sociologist Bassam Tibi, Leitkultur also meant an obligation of newcomers to show allegiance to democracy and rule of law, political pluralism and secularism.[14] Left and right in Germany have been split over the wisdom and utility of Leitkultur, although left and right are broadly unified in their commitment to secularism.

Enter the provocateurs. From the west German port city of Lübeck, Beatrix Von Storch is the AfD politician who, as already noted tweeted out in January 2018, after police authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia had posted New Years’ greetings in different languages including Arabic: “Are we now appeasing barbaric Muslim rapist hordes of men?”

These parts of AfD want to inflame and provoke. This is not the only face of AfD, however. A more complicated and nuanced view comes from Karsten Hilse, whom I have met several times over the past two years. The 53-year-old father of three is a policeman from Bautzen in Saxony in eastern Germany and, since autumn 2017, a member of the Bundestag with AfD.

Hilse comes from Hoyerswerda, 18 miles northwest of Bautzen where, infamously, over several nights in September 1991 facilities housing guest workers (from Vietnam and Mozambique) and refugees (from Vietnam, Ghana, Iran, and Bangladesh) were repeatedly surrounded by mobs hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. As a young cop Hilse was part of the local police force fending off neo-Nazis. As an AfD politician today, Hilse is a strong restrictionist on immigration and a defender of Leitkultur. And, nevertheless, Hilse declines to take part in lawful, public demonstrations protesting mass migration. “The demos attract too many extremists,” he tells me.

What is an extremist?

In his local office in Bautzen near the city center, Hilse has a poster with a woman in full hijab and the text, “Der Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland.” I’ve argued with friends whether this means “Islam does not belong in Germany” or “This Islam does not belong in Germany” (it can mean either in German).  For Hilse it’s the latter. He tells me he can accept cultural difference, to a point, but not to where the cultural values of Muslims clash with the tenets of Germany’s liberal, secular society.

Germany—West Germany, that is—has experience with Muslim immigrants going back decades. In 1961, Bonn signed an agreement with Ankara to facilitate the recruitment of Turkish Gastarbeiter or guest workers. While the original intent was that workers would stay for a period before returning home, many stayed over the years and brought families from Turkey to Germany. Anti-immigrant sentiment has always existed in parts of Germany society, with questions about Islam’s compatibility with German culture seldom far from the surface. Yet Germany had made its peace by and large with its Turkish population. While not without problems and tensions, this segment of the country was manageable in size and reasonably well integrated.

In 2006, then minister of the interior Wolfgang Schäuble told a conference on Islam that “Islam is part of Germany and part of Europe.” Another CDU politician, Christian Wulff, would follow Schäuble. On October 3, 2010 in an address to the nation on the 20th anniversary of German unification, Federal President Wulff asserted: “Christianity belongs without a doubt to Germany. Judaism belongs without a doubt to Germany. This is our Judeo-Christian history. But meanwhile Islam belongs to Germany, too.”

There was backlash within the ranks of the CDU at the time. “That Islam would belong to Germany is a fact without any historical basis,” said CSU politician Hans Peter Friedrich at the time. This debate is about to widen and deepen. The CDU as a conservative party always had its divisions over such questions. Things have sharpened in recent years, however, due to a confluence of factors, including increased concerns over terrorism and the large number of Muslim migrants who entered into the county starting in 2015. If Europe and Germany find themselves compelled to take in new waves of refugees in the coming years, the debate is likely to intensify.

Visions of Identity and Belonging

The German word Heimat is a fraught expression. It’s a folksy concept that means homeland—a place, feeling, and tradition adding up so something familiar, cozy, trust worthy and reliable. But Heimat can also project something less benign, an idea of exclusion and intolerance. The word goes back to the 17th century. Heimat became absorbed by Nazi literature in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the national socialist concept of ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.

At the heart of the conversation about newcomers (Who Are They?) lie fundamental questions about German identity (Who Are We?).

One easily gets the impression today that layers of an onion are being peeled. Indeed, Germany’s dense, rich, and exceptionally complicated history is backdrop to today’s discussions over migration, minorities, and Muslims. At the heart of the conversation about newcomers (Who Are They?) lie fundamental questions about German identity (Who Are We?).

Matthias Rößler, a CDU politician and president of the Saxon state parliament, put the issue to me in this way during an interview a year ago: “In this part of Germany, we are east Germans, not west Germans; we’re Saxons, not Bavarians; we’re east Saxons, not west Saxons, and we have more in common in many ways with Central Europeans than we do with West Europeans.” How then do Muslim immigrants fit into this complex and contradictory debate inside Germany about what comprises nationhood and German identity?

There are a number of lenses through to look to understand what is happening in today’s Germany. British writer David Goodhart argues that across the West we are witnessing a bigger-picture struggle today between what he calls “Anywheres” and “Somewheres.” The “Anywheres” for Goodhart are well educated, well traveled, tech savvy, and mostly liberal, agile, and entrepreneurial elites. They live and work and travel comfortably abroad and maintain a cosmopolitan mindset. “Someheres” tend, on the other hand, to be more locally rooted, traditionally patriotic, religious, and generally cautious about social change.

Surely AfD-ers are “Somewheres.” At a campaign rally last in September 2017, AfD candidate Karsten Hilse told an audience, “no matter what journalists and our political opponents claim, we stand simply and beyond reproach for Frieden und Heimat (“peace and homeland”).

In practice, where does Heimat begin? Where does it end? Who belongs? And how should German Heimat fit with visions of a supranational Europe? How does Germany’s debate about Islam in the Federal Republic fit and conflict with larger German questions about national purpose and identity? The AfD’s appeal to Heimat is fundamentally exclusionary. Slogans like, “Der Islam gehoert nicht zu Deutschland” (Islam doesn’t belong in Germany); “Der Islam? Passt nicht zu unserer Kueche” (“Islam? It doesn’t belong in our kitchen” – slogan appeared on a poster of a pig); and “Burke? Ich steh’ mehr auf Burgunder!” (Burka? I prefer Burgundy wine!) underscore the idea of Muslims as outsiders.

Visions of Europe

During its first four decades, the European Community existed chiefly to foster intra-European cooperation. Democracy played an important role, as did a strong and continuing American presence through NATO, formed in 1949.

As the Cold War ended, though, the idea behind the European Community began to mutate. Germans had become fully pacified, responsible, and democratic. Frenchmen, the Poles, and even Margaret Thatcher’s Britain had all made their peace with the idea of German unification.

And in this context, the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 established the European Union and a new European citizenship, changing the character of the European project. Led from Berlin and Paris—the French wanting leverage and a restraining hand on the shoulder of their newly unified neighbor; the Germans wanting “Europe” as further cover to advance their national interests—the new EU was conceived essentially as method to consolidate power. With monetary and political union, an emerging European powerhouse would have its say in the world and be able to position itself to compete on the global stage with the likes of China and the United States.

The old raison d’être of pursing integration to secure peace in Europe had faded in the minds of ordinary Europeans and elites alike.

But as the EU pushed forward with deeper integration, gaps between elites and publics grew. The old raison d’être of pursing integration to secure peace in Europe had faded in the minds of ordinary Europeans and elites alike. And the ambition to turn the EU into a post-geopolitical 21st-century superpower never managed to capture the hearts and souls of the ordinary citizens. For many AfD voters, what’s more, the EU has been a destructive force, both in undermining German national interest and in enabling large-scale Muslim migration, in a sense two sides of the same coin.

The old West Germany ties its identity close to Europe and a particular vision of integration, post-nationalism, and to some extent secularism. The arrival of large numbers of Muslim newcomers, together with fears of terrorism and an Islamification of Germany — well founded or not — have been jarring to the German body politic. AfD has capitalized on this, including with its own vision of a Europe of Vaterlands, with more national patriotism and greater emphasis on sovereignty. The question then is whether Muslim migrants themselves can find ways to both preserve a sense of dignity and cultural identity, while finding a home and a sensible path to integration within a wider and changing German context.

In a fundamental sense, German populism represents the attempt of many ordinary citizens to reconcile with elites. The expression of German populism may at times be vulgar and abrupt. Parts are indeed radical and extreme. Yet the questions posed by AfD have begun to strike chords with different parts of German society. At their heart these are questions about democracy, sovereignty, and identity—about who belongs and what it means to be German today.