The surge in support for far-right nationalists in the German election is a frightening disgrace that confronts the political establishment with its biggest challenge since the Second World War, Muslim and Jewish leaders and anti-racism campaigners warned on Monday.
Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims which represents Germany’s approximately four million Muslims, said he was alarmed at the gains of the Alternative for Germany party which became the third-biggest party in Sunday’s election.
“Racists are on the rise,” Mr Mazyek wrote in a newspaper commentary. “Until now they haven’t dared to put their ideology and their attitude on public display. Now it’s possible. These days the risk of being ostracised for being openly anti-Semitic, hostile to Islam or voicing anti-Romani sentiment appears to be smaller.
“It has been a creeping development, it’s often only noticed by the people who are directly affected.”
The AfD scored 12.9 per cent by tapping into the anger of millions of Germans over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. The ferociously racist and nationalist rhetoric employed by some of its members has drawn comparisons with the Nazis. AfD politicians have hailed the achievements of German soldiers in the Second World War and criticised the erection of Germany’s main Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
It will have 93 MPs and receive millions of euros in public funding to help spread a message that during the campaign consisted of vilifying women wearing burqas and promising to “muck out Germany”, shut its borders, boost deportations and put a stop to the “invasion of foreigners.”
Election gains for right-wing parties have been a Europe-wide trend in recent years in response to the impact of globalisation, the euro crisis and the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. But in Germany, which started the Second World War and committed the Holocaust, the ascent of the far right is particularly disturbing and has sparked international condemnation.
“It is abhorrent that the AfD party, a disgraceful reactionary movement which recalls the worst of Germany’s past and should be outlawed, now has the ability within the German parliament to promote its vile platform,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the New York-based World Jewish Congress.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany said the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, now faced its biggest democratic challenge since the formation of the post-war republic in 1949.
“This is the first time a right-wing populist party with a strong overlap with the right-wing extremist scene has been elected to the Bundestag on such a scale,” the council said in a statement. “Now the priority must be to fight for democracy inside parliament and to vigorously defend its values.”
In the former communist east, parts of which have been described as no-go zones for foreigners due to an upsurge in far-right violence after unification in 1990, the AfD became the second strongest political force behind Ms Merkel’s conservatives, winning 22 per cent.
Sunday’s result followed a series of AfD regional election victories that have coincided with a sharp rise in racist assaults. The total of reported cases reached 1,020 in 2016, a 35 per cent rise over 2015, plus 12 cases of attempted murder, up from seven, according to figures from the domestic intelligence service.
Anti-racism groups said the AfD’s gains both reflected and encouraged everyday racism because ordinary people were becoming more uninhibited about expressing their views of immigrants.
“With 93 MPs in parliament, the AfD will become even more socially acceptable and the average racist next door will feel empowered because he will think he’s backed by public sentiment,” said Anne Brügmann, spokeswoman for Opferperspektive, a group that offers help and advice to the victims of far-right crime. “It’s frightening.”
"People are telling us they're encountering massive everyday racism in the street," she told The National. "We get cases of children hurling stones at immigrants, or arguments in supermarket queues with people saying 'what's this foreigner doing in front of me,' or young girls being forced to take off their headscarves."
“We get people saying ‘we thought we were coming to one of the world’s most advanced democracies and never expected to encounter such hostility here.’”
Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, whose party was roundly defeated on Sunday, said the AfD represented “base racism and right-wing extremism,” and he vowed to fight it.
Alexander Gauland, one of the leaders of the AfD campaign, was in jubilant mood on Sunday and announced a plan to set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry to investigate Ms Merkel’s actions in the 2015 refugee crisis.
“We will make sure that what people are thinking on the street starts playing a role in the Bundestag again,” he said. “We will change this country. We will hunt Ms Merkel and we will take back our country and our people.”
But the hunt got off to a rocky start on Monday when a rift opened in the AfD’s leadership. AfD co-chairwoman Frauke Petry walked out of a news conference with fellow party members and declared she would not be joining the party’s parliamentary group because its public comments had been too strident.
“I want the issues to be at the forefront in future and not the off-the-wall comments,” she said. Remarks such as Mr Gauland’s vow to “hunt” Ms Merkel amounted to “rhetoric that middle class voters don’t find constructive,” she said.
Mr Gauland is tame by comparison with other AfD newcomers to the German parliament.
The oldest MP in the Bundestag is 77-year-old AfD man Wilhelm von Gottberg, who once called the Holocaust an “effective instrument to criminalise the Germans and their history.”
Another new MP, Jens Maier, a judge, has said it’s time for Germany to draw a line under its “culture of guilt” and said he opposed what he called “the creation of mixed-race peoples.”
Statements like that have so far been the domain of neo-Nazis and the extremist National Democratic Party, which this year escaped a bid to outlaw it — but only because it wasn’t deemed enough of a threat to the constitution.
Ms Merkel meanwhile, as sober and unfazed as ever, told reporters on Monday she would win back AfD voters by implementing good policies. She insisted that despite the criticism and the rise in support for the AfD, she had been right to keep Germany’s borders open to refugees.
“Taking the action we took was the best response and the one that was most in line with our compass,” she said. “It remains a task of which many probably say it would have been nice if we hadn’t experienced something like that and the Syrian civil war hadn’t happened.”