The AfD: A party without a clear philosophy?

The ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ Party is mobilising people in the run-up to Germany’s national elections  – at the expense of Muslims. An analysis by EMU chairman Abu Bakr Rieger

STRASBOURG (EU) – There is a key question when dealing with right-wing populists: do you simply berate them, or do you approach them with a reasoned argument? Journalist Tilo Jung recently tried the latter on YouTube. He spoke for over two hours with Brandenburg state MP and founding member of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, asking him biographical and policy-related questions that revolved around what the politician calls his “conservative, sceptical world view”. Leading candidate Gauland is considered AfD’s civic face. He parted ways from the ruling CDU, initially because of differences on “military conscription, nuclear power and the euro”; he and a group of professors then set up a new, alternative party.

As we now know, these differences with the CDU don’t really have the potential to mobilise large numbers of voters. Only by mixing them with existing, Islamophobic attitudes in civic circles, combined with the circumstances of the refugee crisis, has a mood arisen which is likely to lead right-wing populists into Federal Parliament. Their presence in the Bundestag will once again beset everyday German politics the historical and systematic problem of democracy – namely, the seizure of power by the Far-Right using legal means.

Gauland’s standard response to Jung’s questions was that “abstract” and “simple” answers are not always possible – a sensible principle which he does not apply to refugees, and certainly not when talking about Islam. The senior conservative finds it hard to disguise his deep ressentiment towards “the Mussulmanns”. Other than that, the interview revealed little about the actual intellectual foundations of right-wing conservatism. Gauland’s vaguely intimated reference-point for understanding political Islam was the long-dead revolutionary Khomeini, so it was unsurprising to hear him admit that he had “never spoken with an Imam”.

And of course, the very idea of German Muslims represents a taboo and intellectual overload for Gauland. He also confirmed the thesis that, as a conservative politician, he had never talked to the country’s Muslim intelligentsia. This is not a coincidence. The AfD is not interested in any kind of discernment, even if only for reasons of mobilisation. It needs Islam as an enemy stereotype. It is worth mentioning as a footnote to the interview that Gauland openly admitted to having no idea at all about digitalisation, a key phenomenon of our time. He made no such confession about the subject of Islam, something which Tilo Jung was unfortunately unable to explore fully in the conversation.

Where does the Party’s Islamophobic attitude originate? Its mobilisation against Islam, or against what it believes Islam to be, comes primarily from the periphery of the AfD, where the borders blur with the Identitarian movement (‘Reconquista’) and PEGIDA. Andre Poggenburg, the AfD’s parliamentary party leader in Magdeburg’s Landtag, makes no secret of the fact that “Germany should belong to the Germans”, and of course he disseminates the simplified view of Islam so typical of the AfD. According to MDR-Online, in June, when people were asking why so few Muslims participated in the Cologne demonstration against terror, the politician tweeted: “No surprise at all. Islam represents terror, violence and the rest, so why should Muslims demonstrate against it?”

Politicians like Poggenburg and his Thüringen colleague Björn Höcke meticulously record the criminal acts of Muslim extremists, readily making the exception the rule and creating a vague, synthetic picture of Islam which they claim acts against the West as a “subject” of history. Sulaiman Wilms, Editor in Chief of IZ, aptly noted, “Whenever a sentence begins with ‘Islam says, does or believes’, you can basically switch off, because what follows will be fallacy.” Islamophobic logic has long become a kind of brand essence for the AfD. They continue to describe the refugee crisis as the “Islamisation of Europe” and “an invasion”, tilling the field for militant, non-parliamentary resistance.

But in their shallow rhetoric, prominent AfD politicians do not define which philosophical foundations their concept of Germany actually has. Clearly occupied with setting themselves apart from others, they participate only superficially in the discussion about what being German actually means. “Being German,” states Dieter Borchmeyer in an important new publication on the topic, “actually means being transnational and European, and thinking as a world citizen. This has been the case in every classical definition of what it means to be German.” Perhaps it is because it is so difficult to create a fixed image of the Germans that the AfD’s image of Germany is devoid of the classical genius of a Goethe or the literature of Thomas Mann.

An investigation into the contradictions of the AfD’s philosophy takes one to another important pioneer of the movement: Götz Kubitschek. This publicist lives in a manor house in the Saxony-Anhalt town of Schnellroda and is well acquainted with Höcke and Poggenburg. Kubitschek is not a member of the AfD; its former chairman and co-founder, Bernd Lucke, prevented him from becoming one when he was still in office. But he remains an inspiration and source for the AfD’s right wing. He is intellectually superior to the rightists of the party now forming in the state parliament. He is said to have influenced Höcke’s scandalous Dresden speech in which the latter described Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “Monument of Disgrace” and its central location in Berlin’s cityscape as a barrier to a positive German conception of history. Kubitschek also advocates the ‘Martyr Thesis’, which posits that an immigrant can only be considered a ‘true’ German if he or she is prepared to die for the country – a quixotic philosophy in today’s nuclear age.

The actual intellectual project of the Schnellroda think-tank is to link the AfD with three major thinkers of German thought: philosopher Martin Heidegger, author Ernst Jünger and jurist Carl Schmitt. These three greats of German intellectual history remain controversial to this day, being, as they are, to varying degrees, accused of playing an active role in the intellectual process of the National Socialists’ rise to power. A look at the sprawling secondary literature about these thinkers reveals that the public discourse about their works is explosive and still preoccupies thinking minds.

The work of Carl Schmitt in particular still impacts indirectly on the ideologues of the ‘new alternatives’. Famous works like Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des Parlamentarismus (The Intellectual-Historical Situation of Today’s Parliamentarianism) which appeared in 1923, can seem remarkably current, especially to AfD proponents. In it, Schmitt describes the tendency of the modern state to disempower parliament, strengthen the executive and politicise the judiciary. This throws light on the AfD’s demand for popular referendums along Swiss lines. Schmitt’s most famous book, Concept of the Political (1932), could be considered a gift for a party which today considers itself, first and foremost, a counter-movement to Muslims and refugees. Schmitt argues in it that political players who wish to mobilise people cannot avoid differentiating between friends and enemies.

Yet ironically, Heidegger, Jünger and Schmitt supply content which can be used in direct opposition to the AfD’s antiquated concept of the sovereign nation state – especially in their post-War thinking. Schmitt himself explained in his most important post-War work, The Nomos of the Earth (1950), that the concept of the nation cannot be viewed ahistorically, but rather that the former national entity has long been dissolving into new and wider areas whose nihilism is revealed in their separation of “order and location”. In other words, even Schmitt would not have given historical credence to the romantic idea of a strong Berlin in the midst of a German order surviving the age of global Technik. Kubitschek, of course, entirely omits this other dimension of the jurist.

A new generation of Schmitt experts like Reinhard Mehring have recently been working out how to relate to Schmitt’s topicality without slipping into the nationalism of the past. On Deutschlandfunk Kultur, Mehring, calling Schmitt “dangerous but instructive”, said that the constitutional legalist could never have accepted the enemy stereotype of Islam, although one could understand “anti-Semitism as a blueprint for the Islamophobia of today’s radical Right Wing.”

Equally, the critique of technology and technique offered by the late Heidegger could be interpreted as opposing the idea that a small political party could simply seize power and intervene in world destiny. Nor would the philosopher have been likely to pursue the idea of the sovereignty of state and politics within a context of globalised, borderless Finanztechnik. People’s emphasis of rationalism was, to the author of Being and Time, nothing more than an aspect of the world’s unfolding global destiny. And Heidegger certainly never inclined towards a biologically determined concept of man.

Ernst Jünger was not only a traveller, he was, as an author, engaged more with the necessity of a future “world state” and was never in the mode of provincial withdrawal. When I met the author in 1989 at the University of Bilbao, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate, I remember his mild derision towards the founding of a right-wing populist republican movement. Jünger’s world view did not contain any ressentiment towards Islam, although in direct conversation he did express an acceptable criticism to the effect that the Muslims of the modern age have donned the “Kleid der Technik” – the robes of technique and technology.

It is in precisely this relationship with Technik that Muslims can profit from the works of these three thinkers. If we consider terrorism an extreme form of power-technique, then Muslims certainly should be concerned with it. Political Islam spent decades thinking that the phenomena of technique and technology – from the nation state to the bank – could simply be Islamised without losing anything of Islam itself. This could represent the starting-point for an intelligent debate with conservative thinkers about the current situation of the Muslims. But such a debate is likely to fail, since those conservatives can only be interested in the continuation of an enemy stereotype, for reasons of political mobilisation.

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