On the face of it, Sunday’s general election will be the most boring in Germany’s history. The only question seems to be: will chancellor Angela Merkel continue her “grand coalition“ with the Social Democrats (SPD), or will she rule with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or the Greens, or both? One thing, however, seems as certain as Merkel’s continued premiership, and it’s more important: the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party will enter the Bundestag. Polls put it at 10% or more. For the first time since the Reichstag fire of 1933, a nationalist, reactionary, racist party will sit in the building where the republic was proclaimed in 1918, where Nazis and communists helped destroy the democracy of Weimar, where the red flag was raised by Soviet soldiers in 1945, and which – redesigned by British architect Norman Foster – has come to represent the modern, multicultural and friendly Germany the world saw during the football World Cup in 2006, when Merkel had been in office for just one year.
Rightwing populism has been a fixture in the Netherlands and Austria for years, authoritarian nationalists are ruling Poland and Hungary, Marine Le Pen is down but not out, Ukip is taking Britain out of Europe, and then there’s Trump. Perhaps it’s time to get real, and live with the far right as part of our political present. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And with all due respect to the Netherlands and the others: Germany is different. Size matters, for a start. And then: German reactionaries have historically been even nastier than their counterparts elsewhere. The most worrying thing about the AfD is the way its rapid descent into nastiness has been accompanied by rising numbers at the polls.
Four years ago, the party narrowly missed the 5% of the vote needed to get into the Bundestag. At the time, the party was a radical free-market affair led by an economics professor, Bernd Lucke, who wanted Germany to leave the euro. Lucke had his quirks: he was in thrall to an evangelical sect and not above railing against gay people. But he refused to have anything to do with Ukip, which was too nationalist and anti-EU for his liking. I visited party meetings in south-west Germany at the time; they were sedate affairs, where lawyers and shopkeepers listened raptly to people such as Joachim Starbatty, another economics professor, or Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of the federation of German industries, expound on the dangers of the common currency.