German media wakes up to a nationalist resurgence

A man holding a German flag marches through the streets of Berlin during a demonstration by the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) political party. (Colin McPherson / Corbis via Getty Images)

On November 14, Martin Shmid headed to work in Munich, still ecstatic about the previous week’s election of Donald Trump and what it would mean for the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, Germany’s populist, right-wing party. Shmid, who works as director of the AfD’s state headquarters in Bavaria, lost the bounce in his step as he got closer to the office.

Red graffiti was sprayed across the building. “FCK AfD” it read. “Attack the Racists!” “Nationalism is not an alternative.” The windows were shattered, the interior covered in broken glass. It was the second attack on the office in two weeks and the fourth in six months, says Shmid. And that was just in Bavaria.

Shmid seemed unfazed that these attacks received little national media coverage, though they did show up in local news reports. “The mainstream media does almost no reporting about such incidents if we are the victims,” he says in a phone interview. “It is almost never reported on a national level.”

The German press is making many of the same mistakes the US media made in its coverage of the Trump campaign. The AfD started gaining ground as a political force in 2013, and hit its stride in the last year, but only now is the German media beginning to take the party more seriously. So, too, is three-term Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will seek re-election next year, and who is slowly adopting AfD policies in a bid to win back right-leaning voters.

Nationalist politics have been socially unacceptable in post-Nazi Germany, and some experts say the lack of political space for such views has contributed to the AfD’s meteoric rise. The major “conservative” party in Germany is Merkel’s CDU, which can hardly be considered conservative by global standards.

The AfD is Germany’s most popular nationalist party since World War II, and Monday’s terror attack in Berlin, in which a truck drove into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people and wounding 48 others, has the potential to bring even more voters into the party’s arms. Germany’s  first large-scale terror attack in the last decade will also test the German press.

Much as the US media’s perceived disdain for Trump supporters helped bolster support for Trump and made the press appear less trustworthy to some Americans, some analysts say the German press has contributed to the rise of the AfD by covering the party in a sneering, negative way.

Founded in 2013 by Eurosceptic economists, the party took a sharp turn to the right when the refugee crisis hit Germany like a tsunami in 2015, leading Merkel to promise shelter to anyone fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere. While her stance was heralded by the domestic and international media, it earned resentment from many conservative voters. A large contingent of AfD voters are in fact former Merkel supporters, says Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz and an expert on AfD voter behavior.

The crowd of right-wing Germans who have embraced the AfD has enabled the party to accomplish in just three years what similar European parties—notably France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom party—took 40 or 50 years to achieve. While the AfD missed the 5 percent mark needed to enter parliament in the last federal elections in 2013, polls now predict the party will win 16 percent of the vote next year. The party currently holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago.

Distrust of the press is one of many characteristics shared by supporters of Trump and the AfD. In fact, a recent poll found that 44 percent of Germans believe the press lies regularly and is “controlled from the top.” It’s no wonder AfD supporters welcome the news that some Trump supporters have begun referring to journalists by the German word “Lügenpresse,” a name that dates back to 1850s Germany and meaning “lying press.”

“I’m super happy they’re using this word because it’s the truth,” says Jörg Sobolewski, AfD’s 27-year-old regional manager in Berlin. Sobolewski is also super happy about Trump’s victory. “We feel empowered because someone who had everyone against him won.” He’s optimistic that the same thing can happen in Germany.

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At a recent meeting of the AfD in Munich, Ulrich Weymeyr, a party member, told me he believes the media is decidedly against the AfD, and is collaborating with the political establishment—Merkel’s government—to suppress his party.

These accusations aren’t assuaged by the fact that most journalists at the top newspapers in Germany share the same views as the current political establishment, much like their US counterparts, says Stephan Russ-Mohl, who covers the German media for various newspapers and magazines, including Der Tagesspiegel and Neue Zuercher Zeitung

“A large share of the German population felt unrepresented,” and thus were drawn to the anti-establishment party, says Russ-Mohl, who is also director of the European Journalism Observatory. German media also tends to reduce AfD voters to oversimplified stereotypes, describing them as old, racist, poor, and uneducated, said Arzheimer, the political scientist.

Most AfD supporters are in fact under 65, says Arzheimer, with the largest group between 30 and 65, followed by those under 30. Their education and professional backgrounds are similar to those of voters who support Merkel’s CDU.

“We are not rednecks. We are educated professionals, doctors, lawyers, and professors,” says Weymeyr, a 50-year-old patent attorney.

The media also often portrays the AfD as an extremist party, but that’s wrong, says Arzheimer. “There are some right-wing extremists within the party, but I think it’s misleading to brand the party as Neo-Nazis.” By doing so, he says, “[the country is] losing track of their significance in German politics.” The AfD, in three short years, has managed to bring back the sort of German nationalism that has been essentially unacceptable in German society since World War II.

Not all German journalists agree with these accusations, of course, just as many American journalists feel they covered Trump and his supporters as best they could. “When I’m reading the press, I think I get a quite accurate picture of the AfD,” says Lutz Hachmeister, a German journalist and director of the Institute for Media and Communications Policy. “They’re using it as a scapegoat, blaming the luegenpresse,” he says of the party and its supporters. “But the press isn’t lying about them.”

Russ-Mohl echoed that sentiment. “I think the AFD supporters are stereotyped in the same way as the Trump supporters. On the other hand, it is not only a stereotype. There are real Islamophobes, real homophobes, and real anti-feminists who are supporting the AFD,” he says. “We shouldn’t forget that.”

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The weekly meetings of the AfD’s local branch in Munich are held on a quiet residential street outside the city center. No businesses in the center will allow them to rent space, says Weymeyr. The mayor of Munich even sent a notice to restaurant owners (which CJR viewed), discouraging them from renting space to “right-wing populists.” Since the AfD is Germany’s most prominent right-wing party, members took this as a clear attack.

Weymeyr is one former CDU voter who says he felt betrayed by Merkel’s so-called open-door policy toward refugees and migrants. He joined the AfD soon after the party was founded because he believed the European Union needed reform to avoid future debt crises and expensive bailouts.

Even as the AfD drew voters with its anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance, analysts say the German press has been decidedly pro-refugee. Party supporters note that German media coverage of refugees typically highlights photos of women, children, or fathers with their children. According to data from Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees, most refugees in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are young men.

The German press arguably got the AfD wrong from the beginning, before it became a nativist party. Its missteps are rooted in a fear of—and a desire to protect the country from—the re-emergence of German nationalism, press critics say. “The media mislabeled the first generation of AfD politicians. Even though they consisted of liberal university professors, they were labeled as right-wing extremists,” says Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University of Dresden. “This made the AfD attractive to right-wing-minded Germans. It would never have occurred to them that a liberal economist like Lucke (the founder of the AfD, who left the party after it veered toward what he called xenophobia) would have been a right-wing politician.”

After misrepresenting the early leaders and characteristics of the party, the press then moved on to depict AfD voters more generally as “right-wing populist Nazis,” says Patzelt. “Most of their voters clearly do not feel like that. They simply wanted a different approach to Eurozone policy-making, immigration, and integration policy-making.”

Germans who leaned to the right of the established parties, meanwhile, suddenly felt they had found a new home. “One could say that the media themselves, although they wanted to oppose the AfD, instead nourished the rise of the AfD,” Patzelt says.

The German media is now starting to depict the AfD as a serious threat to Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in 2017. “Journalists were likely aware of the threat, but felt that instead of simply reporting on the threat, it was their role to prevent the public from supporting the AfD,” says Russ-Mohl.

Hachmeister, who founded the first media criticism section in a major German newspaper, disagrees with this assertion, comparing it to what he referred to as the unfounded self-flagellation among members of the American press over coverage of the Trump campaign. “It’s difficult,” he says, “because if you are over-representing the popularity, or giving them too much attention, you are producing the result that you don’t want to have.”

This may sound familiar to US journalists, whose aggressive coverage of Trump wound up alienating some voters who related to his rhetoric, style, and policy ideas.

Adding fuel to the AfD’s media distrust and bolstering its support was coverage of the now infamous sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2016. Hundreds of German women were reportedly sexually assaulted that night by men of mostly North African and Middle Eastern descent, some of them refugees.* The press waited days to report on the attacks, and when it did, few reports included the attackers’ countries of origin or ethnic backgrounds, leading many Germans to believe the media was trying to protect refugees from public backlash.

“That was really a shortcoming, particularly of public television and public radio,” Russ-Mohl says. “They have their headquarters half a mile from the site in Cologne. They have hundreds of journalists, and nobody covered the story. So of course in the public, there was an impression that journalists were trying to hide what had really happened.”

Russ-Mohl says that the press is still making this mistake, even after the events of Cologne shook the German media. The most recent case was in Freiburg, where 19-year-old Maria Ladenburger was reportedly raped and murdered by a 17-year-old Afghan refugee. The national media in Germany, says Russ-Mohl, did not give this story the attention it deserved. In response to a public outcry, Tagesschau, the most-watched national news program, aired by ARD, Germany’s largest public broadcaster, issued a statement explaining that the show only covers issues of national significance, while this case was only of “regional significance.” After mounting criticism, it began covering the arrest.

Days later, an Iraqi asylum seeker was arrested on suspicion of rape in the city of Bochum. The arrests led Merkel and others in her government to warn against scapegoating refugees.

Coverage of the AfD has improved in recent months, multiple AfD members told CJR. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump contributed to that development, but it was more the party’s own success that led many journalists to start taking the AfD more seriously.

Weymeyr still thinks the AfD is misrepresented by the German media. “But I think this will change,” he says optimistically. “Twenty-five years ago, nobody took the Green party seriously. Today, they are a major force in German politics.”

Over the past year, Merkel has taken a few pages from the AfD’s playbook, tightening Germany’s borders, reducing benefits, and deporting thousands of asylum seekers. Last week came the latest and perhaps most telling shift to the right. Speaking at a CDU conference, she backed a ban on the burqa and niqab—traditional garments worn by observant Muslim women that cover the face and body. That ban was first proposed by the AfD, earning it widespread accusations of Islamophobia.

Interestingly, Merkel’s burqa ban has not drawn cries of Islamophobia from the mainstream German press. 

* An earlier version of the story reported “dozens” of women were assaulted on New Year’s Eve, but subsequent reporting shows the attacks were much more widespread.

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Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC. Previously, Yardena was a producer at NBC News in New York.