Like its politics, Germany’s version of bowling—kegeln—is a muted affair. You arrive at the kegelbahn by descending into the basement of a certain genus of unpretentious bar, with mastodonic beer mugs, imitation wainscoting, and a permissive smoking policy. The oldest alleys have been operating beneath these pubs for more than a century without mechanization or electronic upgrade, just two narrow wooden lanes—unwaxed and slightly concave—running the length of a bare hallway toward nine pins arranged in a diamond. Due to the slight bowing of the lane you need to bowl the croquet-sized ball so that it traces the path of a sine wave back and forth across the boards, moving gently to the left, then the right, until it reaches the pins, ideally just a hair off-center. A designated teammate reassembles the diamond and returns your ball by rolling it down a freestanding metal chute.
As an American whose experiences of both bowling and politics are those of fully automated, high-gloss, thunderous spectacles, I was excited when a friend invited me to the bowling night of one of the Berlin chapters of Social Democrats (SPD). I imagined that I would learn something about two national traditions. It was plain luck that I happened to come the night Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, turned up. We even bowled against each other, using the same craggy gray sponge to moisten our hands before each turn. The center-left politician was an expert bowler. He knew exactly how much force to apply in order to get the ball maneuvering back and forth over the center. I rolled mostly gutterballs.
After the game, we gathered around the basement’s long table for the nightly meeting, where various political issues are traditionally discussed. But tonight everyone was bursting to talk with Müller about the same thing: the previous day’s election results. Three of Germany’s state legislatures had held elections on March 13th, and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s new far-right populist party, had managed to enter all three state parliaments, winning double-digit portions of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt. In the latter state, AfD won a startling 24 percent of the vote, upending the coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and SPD. A new, larger coalition would have to be formed, possibly with the Greens, to reach a majority. In the celebrations following the elections, AfD party leader Frauke Petry, who has been the subject of such newspaper quizzes as “Who Said It: Frauke Petry or Donald Trump,” spoke triumphantly: “We are now a party for the whole of Germany.” The nation’s six-decade-long taboo against right-wing populism looked finished. The question of the night, unanswerable by Müller or anyone else: How had it happened?
Germany’s rechtspopulismus is traditionally smaller and tamer than those in other European countries, owing in part to the country’s strong economy and commitment to welfare, in part to the historic need for “guest workers” from abroad, and in part to concerted reeducation efforts in the decades following World War II. These efforts were concentrated in West Germany, where in the 1960s and ’70s the nation began to confront the question of Nazism’s appeal and the horrors of the Holocaust. But AfD’s support is greatest in the east, where Soviet and East German officials once asserted that Nazism was just another problem of Western capitalism, and where lingering racism and xenophobia are today conjoined with the country’s highest rates of unemployment and poverty. (Unemployed people in Germany are more likely to support the extreme right.)
For many observers, the rise of the populist right is less shocking than the fact that Germany seems to have abandoned its reputation for political stolidity. Campaigns have come to resemble those elsewhere in Europe and the US: divisive, chaotic, and loud. Much of the rhetoric surrounds the so-called flüchtlingskrise. Groups like the openly Islamophobic Pegida host thrumming rallies attended by thousands of irate protestors, who are often confronted by counter-protesters in equal or greater numbers. Jingoists are once again unashamed to shout “Germany for Germans,” not just to sympathetic bar mates but out on the streets. Crimes against refugee housing such as arson increased fivefold in 2015, tenfold in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the largest number of refugees have been resettled. And AfD, which rarely commanded more than 5 or 6 percent of the vote since its founding in 2013, has over the past few months grown into the nation’s third largest political party.
Yet AfD was founded three years ago not as a populist movement but as a technocratic, single issue party: they believed Germany should leave the eurozone and return to the Deutschmark. During the Greek debt crisis, party leaders expanded this position to include an appeal to stop the bailout of debtor nations. Early supporters of AfD were conservative economists and college-educated “soft” eurosceptics who didn’t necessarily want to leave the EU but who nevertheless believed the German chancellor was caught in a contradiction. With one hand Merkel slashed social spending while preaching the virtues of austerity to her citizens. With the other she handed out billions of euros to Europe’s biggest debtors and spent billions more securing housing and welfare for mostly Muslim migrants who had the gall to sneak into the Schengen Zone with complete disregard for international border law.
In retrospect, it was only natural that AfD’s particular strain of isolationism—the oft-heard line that “Germany can’t solve all of Europe’s problems”—and their appeal to the good old Deutschmark days would translate to broad populist sentiments. Bernd Lucke, the party’s technocratic cofounder and leader, was booted last summer in favor of the staunchly anti-immigration Petry. More than a million asylum seekers entered Germany last year, and AfD’s popularity has correspondingly grown, especially since the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. In January, Petry told a newspaper that border guards should “use firearms if necessary” to stop illegal border crossings, and clarified that armed guards were needed as the last resort “to prevent refugees reaching German soil.” Other recent comments by Petry include the suggestion that all German women should have at least three children. The party opposes gender quotas in the workplace as well as the “gender mainstreaming” of homosexuality. In one campaign poster, the popular progressive slogan “Refugees welcome” has been supplanted by a smiling blonde girl and the phrase “Children welcome!”
Both leaders and supporters of AfD now seem more interested in attacking “economic migrants” and “social tourists” (a term for people moving to Germany for social services) than criticizing the currency that was the party’s original bête noir. They sound a lot like supporters of France’s National Front, Great Britain’s UKIP, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), Austria’s Freedom Party, and Hungary’s Fidesz. Nativist groups are making gains across the western world; in many ways Germany is belatedly catching up to its neighbors. But AfD may resemble the American right even more closely than it does European far right parties. Like both Trump and many old guard Republicans, AfD’s leaders would like to dismantle long-popular features of the liberal state. They want to repeal minimum wage laws, destroy the estate tax, increase the retirement age, privatize unemployment benefits, and lower taxes on high-income earners. Even among the German right, you would not have heard such free-market advocacy in an AfD-less election. But wage stagnation, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a sense of resentment toward political elites have pushed the German voting public toward American extremes.
AfD’s worldview, too, is vague enough to appeal to an array of voter groups once considered mutually exclusive: not just confirmed neo-Nazis, but disenfranchised former Communists, eurosceptics, libertarians, and social conservatives who decry abortion as well as gender studies departments at state universities. Forty-five percent of AfD supporters think of themselves as centrists. (Nearly 75 percent are men.) Their broad appeal is based on the floating signifiers familiar to any populist campaign. “Germany for Germans” is just one rallying cry. The most egregious is probably supporters’ adoption of the motto Wir sind das Volk, or “we are the people,” which every citizen knows as the chant of dissent and democratic inclusivity among the East German protestors who precipitated the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Must Germans take seriously a party whose leader calls Angela Merkel “the worst chancellor in German history”? After last Sunday, they have no other choice. Petry’s comments attract growing and disparate groups of voters who perceive themselves to be disenfranchised by the mainstream right. She rejected her predecessor’s call to distance the party from Pegida, where support for AfD is near-universal, and met with several members last year. But 17 percent of AfD’s votes were siphoned from the CDU base, solid evidence for many op-ed writers that conservatism in Germany has become unmoored from any clear guiding vision. Another 10 percent came from former supporters of Die Linke, the leftist party with roots in the Communist government of former East Germany. (On learning this statistic I couldn’t help but think of the passage in A Time of Gifts where Patrick Leigh Fermor comments on all the claustrophobic “Hitleriana” covering the walls of a Bavarian pub. “You should have seen it last year,” a barfly replies. “Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers and sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World, Unite!”) But the most unsettling news for Germany’s mainstream parties is that 40 percent of AfD’s support came from unaffiliated voters and former non-voters. Turnout was considerably higher this election than the last one five years ago, before AfD existed, which suggests that the party’s greatest appeal is among Germans who aren’t usually politically involved.
Still, some of the dread liberal Germans expressed last week is overblown. Because the CDU was the biggest loser, it’s easy to talk about the results as a repudiation of Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy. The head of the Bavarian Christian Socialists (CSU), the CDU’s sister party, said that the election represented a “tectonic shift” in the asylum conversation, and the federal chairperson of the CDU-CSU union claimed the results require that Merkel send a “stop signal” to incoming refugees or risk great trouble for the mainstream conservative parties. But the politicians who aligned themselves with Merkel’s asylum policies actually performed well in the election; only those from her party who distanced themselves from Merkel did poorly. Moreover, in Baden-Württemberg the election was an unprecedented success for the liberal Green Party, which has vigorously defended Merkel’s asylpolitik.
Merkel has said she plans to adhere to these policies, which despite the pejorative “open door” moniker are now more restrictive than at any time since the early ’90s. (Germany is one of the few countries to have the right to asylum enshrined in its constitution.) She is cutting a deal with Turkey to deport or resettle virtually all refugees trapped in Greece no matter their country of origin, in return for which Germany will allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, pay the country 6 billion euros in aid, and allow thousands of Syrian asylum applicants from Turkey to resettle in the EU. The deal is worrisome to human rights groups like Amnesty International, since Turkey, which is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, has a history of deporting refugees back into war zones. Merkel is also working to speed up deportations and place Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria on Germany’s “safe list” in order to return asylum applicants who come from those countries. (Many of the arrestees following the Cologne attacks came from North Africa; the reclassification has broad public support.) She has already begun deporting some asylum seekers back to Afghanistan. And her government is helping to send EU ships into the Mediterranean in order to turn boats of refugees back to Libya, a failed state and the point of departure for refugees escaping other disaster zones in Sudan and Somalia.
Almost lost in the election commentary is the fact that three-quarters of voters supported either Merkel’s CDU or a party with more inclusive asylum policies. Even after Cologne, a majority of Germans do not perceive refugees as a threat. And unlike in the US, in Germany all major politicians have rejected the rhetoric of their challenger on the far right. The CDU has already ruled out a coalition with AfD in national elections next year; Merkel views them as a fringe group. This may be optimistic thinking about a party that attracts such a broad spectrum of alienated voters, but for now the alternative is unthinkable. To debate the AfD’s stated goals—“German children for German families”—would be to legitimize a form of political discourse unseen here for many decades. Even Bernd Lucke, AfD’s co-founder and ousted chief, said shortly before the elections that “how the AfD are acting in the refugee debate is inhuman, cruel, and unbearable.” Back when Lucke was still wrestling for control with the party’s upstart xenophobic wing, he criticized Petry and others for their dilettantism in the serious field of politics. “We’re not a bowling club,” Lucke said at the time. He was right.