May 1, 2023

IntelBrief: Amidst Europe’s Right-Wing Successes, Youth Wing of Far-Right German Party Classified ‘Extremist’

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Bottom Line Up Front

  • On April 26, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency classified the youth wing of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, as well as two other far-right entities, as extremist groups that threaten the country’s constitution.
  • The newly classified organizations are part of the so-called “New Right” in Germany, a conservative ideological movement that the German intelligence agency said promotes violent, anti-democratic, and racist ideas.
  • Despite being under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, AfD has seen a recent resurgence in the polls as it capitalizes on voters’ anger over the country’s energy and cost of living crises.
  • The extremism classifications come amidst a wave of electoral successes by far-right European populist parties, including the latest in Finland and Austria, suggesting far-right populist messaging still resonates with the European electorate.

On April 26, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), classified the youth wing of the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) as an extremist group pursuing anti-constitutional endeavors. Since 2019, the BfV has been monitoring the youth organization, also known as the Young Alternative, and its parent group as the AfD has faced increasing scrutiny over concerns of radicalization. The BfV stated that its investigation had shown that the Young Alternative rejects the integration of immigrants and refugees from outside Europe based on “biological assumptions,” and has shown Islamophobic tendencies. The BfV also announced that it has classified two other entities, the Institute for State Policy and the “One Percent” group, as right-wing extremist groups, claiming they also display similarly concerning ideology. With this new classification, the agency can formally increase its surveillance of the three entities, and domestic intelligence services can receive authorization to wiretap and surveil their group members more quickly. Those subjected to the designation also may lose work opportunities in the public sector and can be denied weapons licenses or have them revoked.

The newly classified organizations are part of the so-called “New Right” in Germany, a conservative ideological movement that the BfV said promotes violent, anti-democratic, and racist ideas. The BfV included a subsection on the movement in its annual 2021 report of political extremists in Germany, where the agency described the movement as an “informal network” of individuals and organizations ranging from right-wing conservatives to right-wing extremists that seek to foment a right-wing “cultural revolution” – repackaging old ideas that are often ethnocentric, racist, and anti-democratic, into messaging more palatable for the mainstream. In a recent statement, Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser accused the New Right of trying to combine “an intellectual and modern appearance” with a message of hatred and discrimination aimed toward refugees and migrants.

The far-right populist AfD party catapulted to prominence when it became the official opposition and third-largest political party in the German government in 2017, just four years after its founding. Capitalizing on public discontent and anxieties around former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over one million refugees to enter the country in 2015, the party shifted its focus from a Euroskeptic platform – drawn from the Greek debt crisis – to emphasizing anti-migration and anti-refugee rhetoric and policies. The AfD also adopted an explicitly anti-Islam policy, and supporters have marched with neo-Nazis in demonstrations against COVID-19 policies and Germany’s support for Ukraine. Some AfD members and supporters have been connected to concrete threats against German democracy: In December, a former AfD lawmaker and judge was arrested as part of an alleged plot to overthrow the German government and a former director at Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was arrested on charges of treason and spying for Russia – one of the gravest espionage scandals in recent German history. The intelligence agency reportedly put the entire AfD party under surveillance in 2021, with authority to tap the group’s communications and to use undercover informants to investigate the party. It was the first time in Germany’s postwar history that a party represented in the federal Parliament has received such a level of scrutiny. In the 2023 parliamentary elections, AfD lost its position as the main opposition force, with some analysts suggesting that the AfD had exhausted its chances of expanding beyond its strongholds in eastern Germany. Yet, AfD has recently gained popularity, polling at record highs of 15-17 percent in some national surveys, as the party has capitalized on voters’ anger over the energy and cost of living crises.

The BfV extremism classifications come amidst a wave of electoral successes by far-right European populist parties, most recently in Finland and Austria. In Finland’s April parliamentary election, the far-right populist party, the Finns Party, won the second-most votes in a tightly contested race. The Finns, formerly known as the True Finns, had been in the government from 2015-2017 and recently saw a resurgence of support due to a sharp rise in the cost of living. Finland’s prime minister-elect and leader of the center-right National Coalition Party (NCP), Petteri Orpo, stated on April 27 that he would begin formal talks to form a coalition government that would include the anti-immigration Finns party. Talks between the parties are not guaranteed to succeed, as they are deeply divided over key policy issues, such as immigration; yet leadership of the Finns seem determined to be part of the new coalition and may be willing to cede or soften certain stances.

In late April, the far-right populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) made important gains in a regional election, confirming signals of its national resurgence. Recent polls have shown that the FPO is leading other national parties, capitalizing on the economic consequences of sanctions on Russia, rising inflation, skepticism of vaccines and pandemic-related restrictions, and rising migration levels. A 2019 scandal involving the leader of the FPO toppled the right-wing government and triggered a dramatic dip in the party’s support among the electorate; however, the recent elections and national polling indicate that the party has now regained that previous support and become the country’s prevailing political force. Despite being led by Nazis in its early years, an explicit agreement among other mainstream parties to refuse to collaborate with the party has all but collapsed. The party has now entered into a governing coalition at the state-level. The electoral successes of the Finnish and Austrian right-wing political forces are part of a larger trend in Europe, evidenced by other major electoral successes of far-right groups in Sweden and Italy. The victories indicate far-right populist messaging continues to resonate with the European electorate, particularly in the wake of several crises facing Europe – including rising energy costs, cost of living, and migration levels. Yet it remains to be seen whether these electoral successes will continue to proliferate in other areas of the continent, much less whether they will translate into effective governance.