An insider’s account of the AfD: ‘The wrong people stayed’

Conventional wisdom says far-right parties must detoxify to win. Only if they distance themselves from the fascist past, as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and France’s Marine Le Pen have tried to do, can they escape the electoral fringes.

Alternative for Germany has challenged that analysis. It has become steadily more extreme — and at the same time Germany’s most successful far-right party since the second world war. It is expected to be one of the big winners in this week’s European parliament elections, as the continent swings to the right. Indicative results are expected later on Sunday.

Even the AfD’s natural allies balk at its extremism. Last month Le Pen said her party would no longer support it in the European parliament, after the AfD’s lead MEP candidate, Maximilian Krah, argued that not all SS members were criminals.

Jörg Meuthen reached breaking point nearly three years ago. A former economics professor who led the party from 2015, he quit as leader and left the AfD altogether in 2022. One of the final straws was his inability to expel a senior member who described himself as the “friendly face” of National Socialism.

Jovial and intelligent, Meuthen was the quasi-acceptable face of the AfD. Today his message is clear: even for one-time sympathisers, the party now has no acceptable face. The problem is not just Krah; it is the whole list of candidates. “I could tell you a large number of stories about these people. I would never elect one of these guys. Never!” When we meet at Meuthen’s home in south-west Germany, he has just sat out the European election campaign on holiday on a Greek island. He acts both liberated and indignant.

His political career was a test in whether it is possible to play with fire without getting burnt. He hoped the AfD would be “a liberal conservative movement,” opposing EU integration and immigration. Does he feel responsible for what it is today? “I was one of the people who made this party as big as it is . . . I think I failed.” But he adds: “I feel not responsible for the positions it takes nowadays, because I always fought against them.”

Once, to protect his role as leader, he decided against trying to expel Björn Höcke, a firebrand who was recently convicted of using a Nazi slogan. “I always thought the positions that people like Höcke had were so absurd that they couldn’t be successful. That was a complete error.” Höcke is arguably now the AfD’s most influential figure.

The AfD peaked at around 22 per cent in polls in January; before voting started this week, it fell back to 16 per cent, still in second place after the leading centre-right Christian Democrats. “People have begun to realise that the so-called alternative is not really an alternative. They begin to ask themselves, what would happen if the AfD came into power? They realise that they don’t have the people they would need to make things really change. They must be aware that [because of Le Pen’s boycott] the AfD MEPs won’t play any role in the [European] parliament.”

Meuthen joined the AfD aged 52, shortly after its creation in 2013. He says he had never before been a member of a political party. His aim, like other academics drawn to the party, was to oppose Eurozone bailouts.

By 2015, however, opposition to Angela Merkel’s asylum policy came to the fore. “The migration crisis was the [issue] people were most worried about — even today,” he rationalises, referencing the killing of a police officer in Mannheim, for which the suspect is an Afghan refugee. “They are not wrong.”

Some key moderate voices left the AfD in 2015, citing xenophobia. Meuthen too had seen its dark side, including anti-Semitism. But he chose to remain: the AfD was “the only chance to do something.”

He found himself fighting the anti-immigration, anti-Islam faction, The Wing. “There have always been two parties in one.” The two sides did not speak. “A few words if necessary, not more. For years.” As an MEP, he confided in Le Pen. “She told me: kick them all out of the AfD. I said, Marine, what you don’t know is that in German law it’s not so easy to kick people out.”

Could the so-called moderates ever have won the battle for the AfD? “Maybe I wasn’t the best networker. But in any case, the other side of the party was more efficient in bringing in more and more of these people. Classical liberals like me are individualists. To build a strong group out of dozens of individualists is difficult. That has a lot to do with why I failed.” When did Meuthen realise he’d lost? “It was not one single day, it was a period from the end of 2020 to the whole of 2021.” One AfD member made a video with a mocked-up coffin of him: “Disgusting.”

Today the AfD’s policies confound him. It wants Germany to leave the EU. “I said, hey guys, you’re crazy. It’s like committing suicide because you’re too fat . . . instead of thinking about how can we lose weight.” Its hostility to foreigners — flirting with the idea of deporting migrants — is “nonsense.”

Many senior members have close links to Russia, making them “useful idiots” for Vladimir Putin, says Meuthen. Among his internal enemies was Alice Weidel, president of the AfD in Baden-Württemberg before the 2021 regional elections. “The week before the elections, she didn’t do any campaigning here. She was in Moscow. Why? No explanation.”

A spokesperson for Weidel says the four-day trip to Moscow was “highly relevant for the AfD”.

But Meuthen’s critics could argue the party did better in regions, such as Thuringia, where it was most hardline. Krah and others now seem to believe some Germans, particularly young voters in east Germany, are tired of guilt over the Nazi past. Did Meuthen misjudge how extreme many voters are? He admits he doesn’t really comprehend. “If I see what’s going on in my country since October 7, I don’t understand. You have Jewish people who are afraid to go out. In 2024! I couldn’t imagine that.”

Meuthen’s friendly manner disguises his own hardline views. The AfD’s 2019 manifesto stated that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” He now distances himself from that: “Even if you’re president of a party, you cannot expect that there are only positions that are your positions.” But in big cities, he insists, increased numbers of asylum seekers mean that “there are no-go areas”. He supports pushing back migrant boats in the Mediterranean, and deporting some immigrants in Germany. He was vaccinated against Covid, but now regrets the decision.

In Germany, mainstream parties have imposed a cordon sanitaire on the AfD — refusing to govern alongside it. Meuthen supports that policy. But in September, the AfD could win regional elections in Thuringia, potentially creating an impasse.

Can the mainstream’s rejection hold? “Definitely yes. Maybe it will change in five years — I can’t say. But for this year, and the next year, the cordon sanitaire will exist.” What happens if the AfD gets 35 per cent in Thuringia? “They won’t,” he says, arguing the left-wing populist upstart, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, will erode its support. Even if the AfD does win, there will be an anti-AfD coalition or a minority administration.

The party is beyond saving, Meuthen argues. “The wrong people stayed . . . They had the chance to become a serious party, and they didn’t take it.” Is it committed to democracy? “Half of the party is, half of the party no. There are guys who have totalitarian thoughts.”

German domestic intelligence has designated the AfD a suspected extremist organisation. This could, in theory, lead to the party being banned. “I don’t think they will ban the party because they cannot win this in court. If I am liberal, I must try to win against them with better arguments.”

Aged 63, Meuthen is due to return to his job lecturing at Kehl University. He already has an eye on retirement in Greece. Isn’t that ironic for a man motivated by his opposition to the Greek bailout? “Of course! I’m aware of it. I say to my wife, the street they’re building to the port — we paid for it. In Greece, they have better roads than we have.”

He is an unusual populist — calm, reasonable, articulate. But his political outlook seems designed for disappointment. He wants changes for which there is no majority, such as reduction of state pensions, and resists developments that are inevitable, such as the shift away from petrol cars. His small-state ethos means he is more excited by Argentina’s Javier Milei than the prospect of Le Pen winning the French presidency. But he admits Milei will probably fail, and suggests Meloni may be failing too. “Some people in AfD say: what changes has Meloni brought in Italy? She wanted to fight against illegal migration. Did it change? They have more than ever.” Politics is the art of the possible, and populists expect the impossible.

Under Meuthen’s presidency, the AfD’s slogan was “Germany. But Normal.” “This slogan I could take for a new party!” he says, seriously. Around us, this prosperous area of Germany already looks normal. But Meuthen complains of a lack of social cohesion. Unlike Greece, “our society is quite aggressive. We have one side, and the other side, and they are fighting each other.” A sceptic might wonder if he is talking about his own legacy.

Additional reporting by Lucy Rowan

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