Alexander Gauland isn’t just the éminence grise of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — he’s also its most important intellectual insurgent. In 2017, the 76-year-old notched up two completely unforeseen successes. In the spring, he sidelined numerous moderate rivals within the AfD and refashioned the party as a vehicle for culture war against proponents of multiculturalism. Then, in September’s national election, he led the party to a stunning third-place finish with 12.6 percent of the vote, which upended Germany’s political landscape — and if he has his way, he’ll transform the country’s postwar identity, too.
The AfD’s triumph at the ballot box would be impossible to imagine without the lawyer and former newspaper publisher. With his gentlemen’s club combination of tweed jackets and leather Oxfords, Gauland lent the nationalist, populist party an image of moderation and intellectual heft it had otherwise lacked. (In contrast, his victories over inner-party rivals happened through hardball infighting, culminating in his successful mobilizing of the party base in rejecting a relatively moderate platform at a party conference in April.) Until he bailed in 2013 to co-found the AfD, Gauland had been a loyal member for 40 years of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). That gives him the political credibility, in the eyes of conservative Germans, to indict Angela Merkel’s leadership. He wasn’t the one who had left the party, he protests, but rather the party left him.
“Today’s CDU is completely void of content,” Gauland says. “It’s nothing more than a vehicle for Merkel’s political career.”
It’s an argument with a glimmer of merit: Even before she responded to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 by opening Germany’s borders, Merkel had steadily shifted the CDU toward the left on matters including compulsory military service and nuclear energy use, typically with little debate or consultation. But Gauland’s own motives in helping create the AfD were more revisionist than he lets on. His main political interest has been the promotion of a type of German national identity rejected by the country’s postwar establishment. But Gauland says it’s an identity long coveted by many ordinary Germans, who simply feel too browbeaten by political correctness to admit as much.
“The other parties aren’t interested in German identity as such, in any kind of German identity,” Gauland says. “They’re willing to let in anyone who wants to come in do so and become German.”
Germany is a great nation, he proclaimed on the campaign trail this year, but its greatness has been obscured since the end of World War II. That’s when its bad conscience, and its international allies, forced it to compromise its political and cultural sovereignty. A properly proud German nation, Gauland claimed during the election campaign this summer, shouldn’t have to subordinate itself to the European Union or dilute its national culture by inviting mass immigration.
Precisely in an era of globalization, Gauland argues, Germany needs to have recourse to its authentic heritage. That includes Germany’s tradition of militarism tracing back at least to Prussia’s 19th-century “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck. Gauland doesn’t claim that Germany’s military should have designs on former German territory in Europe. But he does think Germany’s commitment to its transatlantic alliance is a mistake borne of guilt. Germany, he says, deserves a military focused on protecting and controlling its own borders rather than on behalf of other powers such as the United States. If NATO has any future at all, he claims, then it must include Russia, his superpower ally of choice.
These views are less popular in western Germany than formerly communist eastern Germany, which has become the AfD’s stronghold under Gauland’s leadership. “Gauland, who was a member of Brandenburg’s regional legislature for the last four years, understands the mentality there,” says Matthias Kamann, who covers the AfD for the German daily Die Welt.
“The easterners aren’t tied to traditional political parties the way the westerners are — like, say, Social Democrats to the trade unions or Christian Democrats through the Catholic Church,” Gauland says. “The easterners can vote one way one election and then change from one day to the next.”
Christianity is another part of German national culture that Gauland believes the AfD must defend. He says the AfD is open to accommodating “real refugees” but not economic migrants. At rallies, though, he uses rhetoric reminiscent of neo-Nazi organizations, whose denizens are in the audience applauding. He rants against Merkel’s “policies of human overflooding” and “the attempt to exterminate Germans.” Islam simply has no place in Germany, Gauland underscores, and never has.
None of these ideas was at the forefront of the AfD’s agenda when the party was formed in 2013 as a protest against liberal EU economic policies. But this past year Gauland has proved that a slice of the German electorate, particularly in the east, is interested not just in opposing the mainstream parties’ policies but also their most basic conception of national interests. “Gauland was the one in the AfD who saw that the party can’t be successful without the constituency of the extreme right,” Kamann says.
Gauland has said the AfD will pursue uncompromising opposition in the German parliament against the CDU-led government — for now. It won’t bow down as junior partner in a coalition government, even if there were a party interested in governing with it — and there isn’t. But “when Merkel falls dead, they’ll be no more CDU,” he said in 2016. That’s when the AfD will take power. It would mark the end of an era for Germany — and the start of a very different one.
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist.
In the 1980s, Gauland wrote philosophical essays for Frankfurt’s anarcho-alternative weekly Pflasterstrand.