In the raw hours after the recent German election, politicians struggled to process one result in particular. Alternative for Germany (AfD)—an upstart populist party incensed by the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants into Germany since 2015—had finished in third place, with nearly 13 percent of the vote, and was poised to enter the legislature for the first time. Angela Merkel, who won a fourth term as chancellor, promised to conduct a “thorough analysis” of why so many of her voters had flocked to the AfD. Her main challenger, Martin Schulz, noted that German democracy had “survived” despite “an extreme far-right party showing its ugly face.” Others were more alarmed. Once again, the leaders of the Greens lamented, there are “Nazis in parliament.”
To better understand this new force in German politics, I spoke with Alexander Gauland, who co-founded the AfD in 2013 and is now one of the party’s top leaders. (While Gauland’s views are characteristic of the AfD’s, the party is notoriously divided internally and contains a range of perspectives.) He rejected the label of far-right, pledged to make life difficult for Merkel’s government in the coming years, and vowed to take his country back “from the refugees” who are endangering the “German way of life.”
While calling the Holocaust a “singular crime,” Gauland also raised questions about Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security and defended the record of German soldiers during World War II. He noted that only a small percentage of German troops committed war crimes and that the German armed forces, in contrast to the SS, was not deemed a “criminal organization” during the Nuremberg trials, even though German military leaders were tried as war criminals. (The U.S. Holocaust Museum dismisses this argument as the “myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht.’”)
“A lot of political discussions that have nothing to do with history often end in the remembrance of Auschwitz,” Gauland told me. “That is a problem in Germany.”
Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Uri Friedman: Since the German election, the AfD has often been described as one of the first far-right parties to enter the German parliament since the end of World War II. What people are suggesting in saying this is that the extreme right, with all its associations with Nazis and neo-Nazis, is on the rise again in Germany. What would you say to those who worry about this development?
Alexander Gauland: I can’t see any connections with far-right wing policy. We have been a liberal-conservative party and we are a bit right of [Angela Merkel’s] Christian Democratic party. But the reason is that the Christian Democratic party [or CDU] has moved to the left.
You may remember the famous saying of [the late conservative German politician] Franz Josef Strauss, “There should be no party right of the CDU.” But because of Angela Merkel’s refugee “welcome” policy, which was opposed by a lot of people who voted for us, there is enough room now right of the CDU.
Friedman: Would your party have been as successful if the refugee crisis hadn’t happened?
Gauland: We have a lot of other [causes]—direct democracy, referendums, we don’t like Islamic invasion. But I think the refugee “welcome” policy of Angela Merkel was the main reason for our success.
Friedman: Now that you’re the third-largest party in parliament, you’ve promised to “hunt” Angela Merkel. What do you mean by that?
Gauland: I did not mean “hunt” Angela Merkel as a person. But I like British parliamentary policy, and the opposition has the task to make many difficulties for the government party. This is what I meant by “hunting.” It had nothing to do with force or gunpowder. It was a symbolic expression that we are the only real opposition party in parliament.
Friedman: You say you want to put Germany “first.” You campaigned on populist-nationalist policies of hardening Germany’s borders and restricting immigration, particularly Muslim immigration. Many people therefore compare your agenda to Donald Trump’s. Is that a fair comparison?
Gauland: I am very careful about trying to compare different, as you call it, “populist” parties in Europe and America. Trump was brought in [to power] by economic problems—by what you call the “Rust Belt” and the high jobless figure of the white workforce. We have a cultural problem, not an economic problem, because Germany is very successful [economically].
The [greatest] similarity we have to another populist party is the [Freedom Party] of Austria because of the common language, common traditions, and similar cultural problems.
Friedman: You say you want to “take back the country.” Take it back from whom?
Gauland: From the refugees who came in and were not registered—nobody discussed if we should open the borders. Angela Merkel has [indicated] that in 2018 the Syrian [refugees resettled in Germany will] have the right to bring their families here. We Germans are beginning to lose control of this country.
Friedman: During the election campaign, you criticized the German integration minister for saying that there is no “specifically German culture.” What specifically is German culture, in your view?
Gauland: That’s very difficult to explain in a short summary. There’s Bach and Goethe and Handel, there’s Thomas Mann. There are German traditions, there are German foods, there is German history. German identity is different in, let’s say, Hamburg or Bavaria, but there is an identity. There is a German way of life.
Friedman: Can that German way of life survive if Germany continues to welcome immigrants?
Gauland: No, it can’t.
Friedman: But Germany has in recent years welcomed a lot of high-skilled immigrants for the workforce.
Gauland: That’s a totally other problem. [The AfD is] for immigration of people who are necessary for our society, who are necessary for our economic welfare. But the people who are arriving in this country have come here because they are looking for a better life. We would like what the Canadians have: an immigration policy where Canadian society chooses what Canadian society needs [in terms of] immigrants. The refugees are not the people we need.
Friedman: The AfD’s platform stated that “Islam is not a part of Germany.” But there are 5 million Muslims in Germany. So how is Islam not a part of Germany?
Gauland: We have always said that you can believe in Islamic values as an individual. But we don’t like the values of Islam based on sharia [law] that are not compatible with our Basic Law. [This] Islam doesn’t know the parity of men and women. Islamic states are not democratic states [with] democratic values. It is totally different with an individual who believes in Allah and Muhammad. That’s not my problem. My problem is that we get a society which changes a lot in ways the German people don’t like very much. Look at school food, for example. There are a lot of schools that don’t accept pig meat [because Muslim dietary laws forbid it].
Friedman: What about public displays of Islam—being able to wear head coverings in line with individual religious beliefs, or minarets [of mosques that issue the Muslim call to prayer]?
Gauland: We have in our [party] program that we don’t like minarets and we don’t like the call of the muezzin because it says that Allah is the only god in the world and this doesn’t fit with our Basic Law.
Friedman: Let me take you back to the early stages of the refugee crisis in Germany. Imagine that you, not Angela Merkel, are chancellor of Germany in the fall of 2015. Large numbers of migrants in Hungary are making their way to Austria and on to Germany. The border with Austria is open because both countries are part of the EU’s passport-free zone. The news is full of headlines about desperate refugees—a drowned Syrian boy washing ashore in Turkey, for example. Faced with these circumstances, Chancellor Merkel decided to leave Germany’s borders open, and hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers entered the country. What would Chancellor Gauland have done in that same situation?
Gauland: We wouldn’t have opened the German border.
Friedman: But the borders were already open.
Gauland: I would have closed the borders.
Friedman: Would you have granted asylum to any of the refugees outside of Germany’s borders?
Gauland: There could be “hot spots” in other countries where people could [apply] for asylum, but this was not done by Angela Merkel. She brought in all people, and most of them are not asylum-seekers [in that they’re] politically oppressed or war refugees. These were social refugees because they are looking for a better life in Europe or Germany. I can accept their motives, but it’s not [the responsibility] of Germany to give them a better life in this country.
Friedman: One comment of yours in particular got a lot of attention during the campaign: You said that Germans have a right to be proud of German soldiers’ achievements in the two world wars—that the Nazi era doesn’t influence German identity nowadays. Were you suggesting that Germany should remember that dark chapter of its history differently, or were you arguing that Germany has done enough atonement and that it should move on from its past?
Gauland: I said what’s common opinion in other countries. [Francois] Mitterrand, the former president of France, [said] so in a great speech on the eighth of May 1995, where he said that German soldiers fought hard and gallantly—yes, there was a criminal leadership [in Germany] and there were criminal goals of the war, but the individual soldier fought gallantly. About 95 percent of [German] soldiers were not involved in war crimes. [Gauland did not specify his source for this statistic, beyond citing “press” reports.] Even the Nuremberg criminal tribunal did not condemn the Wehrmacht [Nazi armed forces] as a criminal organization. And the victors of the Second World War were the judges of the criminal tribunal.
Friedman: Do you think modern Germany is too focused on the Nazi era?
Gauland: A lot of political discussions that have nothing to do with history often end in the remembrance of Auschwitz. That is a problem in Germany. But I can understand it because 6 million dead Jews are a singular crime, which makes all our traditions and all our history difficult to maintain. There was a time in Germany where you could find that all the German heroes from former times—let’s say Friedrich von Hohenstaufen and Frederick of Prussia and Bismarck—were steps on the way to Adolf Hitler. This nonsense has disappeared, but each historical discussion in Germany ends in Auschwitz, and that is very difficult.
Friedman: You recently argued that Israel’s existence shouldn’t be considered part of Germany’s “national interest.” Why?
Gauland: No, I didn’t say that. I said Chancellor Merkel and other politicians [have said] that the existence of the state of Israel is part of the German raison d’être. That’s correct. But I have said that, if it is not only a phrase, that means that when Israel is attacked and is going to lose, we have to stand with [German] soldiers by Israel and our soldiers have to fight and even die for Israel. And I have only asked if all these people who say our raison d’être is the existence of Israel know what this really means. That means that you have to defend Israel as your own country.
Friedman: Which country, in your view, is Germany’s greatest ally?
Gauland: We are part of NATO, and I would always mention the United States, France, and Britain.
Friedman: Should Russia be considered an ally of Germany’s?
Gauland: Russia should be considered as part of a new European peace order.
Friedman: During the election campaign, you told me that changing people’s voting habits takes time. That was before your strong showing at the polls. Now your party is a significant force in the parliament. What do you think the German political landscape will look like in four years’ time?
Gauland: It depends on a lot of circumstances we can’t anticipate now. If we get [many] more refugees, we get a much stronger AfD in the next federal parliament.