Far right’s laugh­ter fills the Bun­destag in Ber­lin

Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many mem­bers re­spond to po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents with cack­les and in­sults

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY GRIFF WITTE AND LUISA BECK griff.witte@wash­post.com luisa.beck@wash­post.com

The Ger­man Re­ich­stag is nor­mally a solemn place, its walls etched with a dark his­tory, its de­bates marked by an earnest so­bri­ety. But ever since the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) stormed into the na­tional Par­lia­ment last fall, be­com­ing the first far-right party to do so in more than half a cen­tury, the glass-domed cham­ber on the banks of the River Spree has re­sounded with an un­ex­pected sound: laugh­ter.

Not the funny kind. The de­ri­sive kind. When other par­lia­men­tar­i­ans speak, AfD mem­bers try to drown them out with co­or­di­nated cack­les.

“We were elected by peo­ple who want us to tell the truth,” said Ge­org Pazder­ski, an AfD party leader. “If [op­po­nents] are talk­ing non­sense, what should you do? Should you boo or should you laugh? We are laugh­ing.”

The tac­tic rep­re­sents just one way the AfD is trans­form­ing pol­i­tics in Ger­many, turn­ing a sys­tem long marked by ci­vil­ity and sta­bil­ity into one in­creas­ingly char­ac­ter­ized by point-scor­ing and provo­ca­tion.

Party mem­bers also freely hurl in­sults at op­po­nents and bois­ter­ously cheer their own, giv­ing syn­chro­nized ova­tions to those who use their time at the lectern to un­leash at­tacks on the cen­trist govern­ment or swing de­bate to­ward their fa­vorite topic: con­tempt for im­mi­gra­tion.

To AfD stal­warts such as Pazder­ski, the change rep­re­sents noth­ing less than a demo­cratic re­vival, the re­turn of “a real op­po­si­tion” after more than a decade of cozy con­sen­sus un­der Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel.

Yet the party’s crit­ics see some­thing far more omi­nous: a coars­en­ing of de­bate and the den­i­gra­tion of mi­nori­ties in a coun­try where that com­bi­na­tion has led to cat­a­strophic con­se­quences.

Other Euro­pean na­tions have grown ac­cus­tomed to a far-right pres­ence in their par­lia­ments. But be­cause of Ger­many’s past, the AfD’s emer­gence as a po­lit­i­cal force has been es­pe­cially jar­ring.

Rather than shy from the con­tro­versy, the party has leaned into it. This month, AfD co-leader Alexan­der Gauland dis­missed the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in the broader sweep of Ger­many’s “glo­ri­ous his­tory.” Crit­ics said the com­ment was part of a pat­tern in which the party at­tempts to min­i­mize the crimes of the Third Re­ich.

The AfD has also drawn re­bukes for adopt­ing in de­bates some of the phrases and rhetor­i­cal tech­niques pop­u­lar­ized by the Nazis.

“Some AfD mem­bers and me­dia re­fer to these dis­cus­sions as ‘more lively,’ ” said Pe­tra Pau, a leader of the Left party, which oc­cu­pies the op­po­site end of Par­lia­ment’s ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum. “But they are sim­ply more ag­gres­sive and racist.”

There was the time in mid-May, for in­stance, when AfD coleader Alice Wei­del used a rou­tine bud­get de­bate to de­nounce “girls in head­scarves, knife-wield­ing men on govern­ment ben­e­fits and other good-for-noth­ing peo­ple.”

The com­ment prompted an of­fi­cial re­buke from the par­lia­men­tary pres­i­dent, who de­scribed it as in­sult­ing to Mus­lim women. But it also earned Wei­del an in­cen­di­ary video for the party to post on Face­book. The clip quickly racked up thou­sands of likes.

“The AfD is try­ing to split so­ci­ety,” the Ger­man daily Süd­deutsche Zeitung con­cluded after re­view­ing 1,500 speeches de­liv­ered since this Par­lia­ment con­vened in late Oc­to­ber. “And the Bun­destag is crack­ing.”

If that was the goal, it’s hap­pened quickly: The AfD is just five years old. It got its start by cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Ger­man re­sent­ment over Euro­pean bailouts for Greece. Its pop­u­lar­ity spiked after the 2015 mi­gra­tion cri­sis, when the ar­rival of more than 1 mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers in Ger­many spawned a back­lash against the govern­ment’s wel­com­ing stance.

Party lead­ers ad­vo­cate mass de­por­ta­tions, ques­tion cli­mate science and sug­gest that Ger­many may have to aban­don the euro in fa­vor of a re­turn to the Ger­man mark.

In re­cent months, the AfD has taken on an out­size role for a party that won less than 13 per­cent of the vote in Septem­ber elec­tions and holds 92 seats out of the 709 in the Bun­destag, the lower house of Ger­man Par­lia­ment. (The Bun­destag meets in the Re­ich­stag, a build­ing that has been burned, bombed and re­peat­edly re­born dur­ing its tu­mul­tuous hun­dred-plus-year his­tory.)

The AfD’s sta­tus as the largest op­po­si­tion party gives its speak­ers the first op­por­tu­nity to re­but rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Merkel’s cen­ter-right Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union or their cen­ter-left part­ners, the So­cial Demo­cratic Party (SPD).

More im­por­tant is the AfD’s will­ing­ness to bend or even break un­of­fi­cial rules of deco­rum.

Per­sonal at­tacks on fel­low law­mak­ers, for in­stance, were long con­sid­ered out of bounds. But Ay­dan Özoguz, a for­mer fed­eral mi­gra­tion com­mis­sioner, has been on the re­ceiv­ing end of sev­eral, with AfD politi­cians dis­miss­ing her as “a failed ex­am­ple of in­te­gra­tion.” Özoguz was born in Ham­burg to Turk­ish im­mi­grants and has been a Bun­destag mem­ber for nearly a decade.

“We’re all pre­pared for con­fronta­tions that hap­pen again and again and which pre­vi­ously weren’t com­mon in Par­lia­ment,” she said. “They’re of­ten at the lim­its of what’s le­gal.”

When Detlef Seif, a vet­eran of Merkel’s CDU, at­tempted to de­liver a speech on bor­der se­cu­rity in March, he didn’t get far be­fore the in­sults started rain­ing down.

“Non­sense!” “Fool­ish!” “Im­pos­si­ble!”

In all, he was in­ter­rupted by AfD laugh­ter and heck­ling 20 times, or an av­er­age of once ev­ery 15 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by Süd­deutsche Zeitung.

“It’s the­ater,” Seif said in an in­ter­view.

But dan­ger­ous the­ater, in his view. Seif noted that the party uses words fa­vored by the Nazis, in­clud­ing “en­tartet,” mean­ing “de­gen­er­ate,” and a phrase mean­ing “the dy­ing of the Ger­man peo­ple,” which the AfD em­ploys to whip up fears that the coun­try’s tra­di­tional way of life is un­der siege from im­mi­grants.

“Those are words they’re con­sciously us­ing,” Seif said. “I can’t ac­cept that, even if they just use them to gain at­ten­tion.”

But what to do about it is a ques­tion that has di­vided the AfD’s op­po­nents.

The CDU has largely cho­sen to treat the AfD as a pariah and to ig­nore its provo­ca­tions. When Wei­del gave her speech against girls in head­scarves last month, she fin­ished with a flour­ish, say­ing that Ger­many was be­ing run “by id­iots.”

Merkel, seated nearby, barely looked up.

“She doesn’t want to make the AfD big­ger than they are,” said Matthias Quent, an ex­pert on right-wing move­ments.

Other par­ties have taken a more com­bat­ive ap­proach. The Left and the Greens, in par­tic­u­lar, have cho­sen to match some of the AfD’s tac­tics, is­su­ing their own taunts and mock­ing guf­faws.

The be­hav­ior, said par­lia­men­tary ex­pert Wolf­gang Schroeder, was a fea­ture of Bun­destag de­bates in the 1980s but not since. He said it re­flects just how deep the di­vi­sions now run in Ger­man so­ci­ety.

“It’s a big cul­tural fight,” Schroeder said. “Nei­ther side is willing to ac­cept the other.”

In a re­cent pas­sion­ate speech from the floor of the cham­ber, for­mer Greens party leader Cem Özdemir de­nounced the AfD as “racist,” com­pared it to Turkey’s au­to­cratic regime, and said party mem­bers were in­tent on dam­ag­ing “every­thing that is re­spected about Ger­many around the world,” in­clud­ing its cul­ture of Holo­caust re­mem­brance.

“You shouldn’t even be cheer­ing for the Ger­man team” in soccer, Özdemir jibed. “You should be cheer­ing for the Rus­sians.”

Jür­gen Pohl, an AfD par­lia­men­tar­ian, said the other par­ties’ con­tempt is no act: When the AfD joined the Bun­destag in Oc­to­ber, he said, mem­bers of ri­val par­ties would not even nod their heads to say hello.

“Now we’ve reached the point where about 10 per­cent of the Bun­destag greets me,” he said.

But Pazder­ski, Pohl’s AfD col­league, said the party shouldn’t be too con­cerned about that. Ger­man pol­i­tics, he said, is al­ready shift­ing in the party’s di­rec­tion. The govern­ment re­cently em­braced AfD po­si­tions on ways to speed de­por­ta­tions.

“It will take some time for oth­ers to ac­cept us as a nor­mal party, but it will hap­pen,” said Pazder­ski, a re­tired Ger­man mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who proudly boasts of his work along­side U.S. gen­er­als at al­lied com­mand cen­ters. “We will not go away.”

Sur­veys show that about twothirds of the Ger­man pub­lic say they would never con­sider vot­ing for the AfD. But that leaves a third who would, he noted hope­fully, leav­ing am­ple room to grow.

And as for those who de­nounce the AfD as a res­ur­rec­tion of Nazi tac­tics and be­liefs, Pazder­ski shakes his head: “I can only laugh at that.”

ODD ANDERSEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

CARSTEN KOALL/GETTY IMAGES

TOP: Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many’s Alice Wei­del and Alexan­der Gauland re­act to a Free Demo­cratic Party mem­ber in the first ses­sion of the new Par­lia­ment. ABOVE: AfD demon­stra­tors in Ber­lin last month.

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