In a candid Tablet magazine interview, the rising politician talks about her rejection of Islam, being called a neo-Nazi, and why Jews should see European nationalism as a welcome development. By Yardena Schwartz
Over the last decade, Germany has been the indisputable leader of Europe, with its strong economy, liberal democracy, close partnership with the United States, and in recent years, its dominant role in steering the continent through one catastrophe after another: first the euro crisis and the bailouts of Greece, Spain, Portugal and others, followed by the refugee crisis, which saw the largest wave of migration since the Holocaust.
However, as populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic gain ground, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) poses a threat to the liberal order in Germany. Founded in 2013 by Euro-skeptic but mostly liberal economists, the AfD went from being a marginal political party that couldn’t even cross the 5 percent threshold to enter national parliament when federal elections were last held in 2013, to what is now the third-most-popular party in Germany. The AfD skyrocketed to its current level of success by serving as the only political party to vigorously condemn Angela Merkel’s policies toward the refugee crisis. That position led the party’s original founder to quit in protest of “Islamic and xenophobic” elements within. Yet it attracted a large following of voters who had until then felt that there was no political home for opposition to accepting over a million mostly Muslim immigrants.
Frauke Petry has been the leader of the AfD since 2015. Under her stewardship, the party now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago. Federal elections will be held in September, and the latest polls predict that this time the party will have no trouble entering the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament. If polls are to be trusted, the party will win 12 percent to 15 percent of the vote, which will make it the third largest political party in Germany—and the first overtly nationalist party in the German government since the Third Reich.
The party’s focus on limiting immigrants and preserving German identity has led the AfD to become somewhat of a pariah in German society. And while its focus is predominantly on curtailing the influence of Islam in Germany, some party members have been linked to anti-Semitic groups and individuals, leading some politicians and journalists to label the AfD and its leaders as neo-Nazis. Germany’s larger parties have so far opposed the prospect of aligning themselves with the AfD in a coalition government. Still, the prominence of a nationalist movement in modern Germany is worrisome to many—especially to Jews.
I met with Frauke Petry last month at her office in Leipzig, both to hear her response to these concerns, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of the woman who has become the unlikely face of German nationalism. A pretty and petite 41-year-old mother of four, born and raised in East Germany, Petry is perhaps not what you would expect when you imagine a populist German leader. She wears her brown hair in a pixie cut and is pregnant with her fifth child. She is a champion of traditional family policies, yet she recently divorced her Lutheran pastor husband, and is now married to another AfD politician who serves in the European Parliament. A former scientist, Petry’s most recent job before entering politics was as an entrepreneur who founded a company that manufactures environmentally friendly polyurethanes. Unlike Donald Trump and leaders of other right-wing European parties, she rarely speaks in slogans or sound bites, answering questions with mini-lectures on history, the Bible, and science, often referencing studies and research reports.
She arrived at our interview unaccompanied, with car keys in hand, wearing jeans and a blazer. She was a bit out of breath, having come from dropping her children off at school. She offered me coffee and prepared her own cup.
The AfD is known in Germany for its antagonistic relationship with the press, but Petry was happy to speak with Tablet. She wished to allay the fears of the international Jewish community, which she believes should be more open toward the AfD. After all, she argued, it is the left wing in Germany and new Muslim immigrants who are leading her country’s anti-Israel movement. Insisting that her family had been against Hitler during the war, she said it feels “absolutely horrible” to be called a neo-Nazi. In her opinion, the people who label her that way “haven’t understood history.” She and others in her party, she said, have tried to speak with Jewish leaders and synagogues in Germany, but have been turned away.
Recalling her first and only trip to Israel, she said that she had problems entering the country because she had been banned. Her visit, she said, led her to believe that Europe should be learning more from Israel in its fight against terrorism. She also noted that her visit changed her perspective on settlements, which she had viewed critically before actually seeing one. She compared this experience to the way people perceive her party. “Suddenly the picture you get is somewhat different than what you got when you live far away. That’s the same reasoning I use when I say to Jews, ‘Please talk to us.’ Because you may find that the actual picture of AfD that you have seen before might not be the real one. That’s how human beings work, isn’t it?”
Do you think that being the mother of four children gives you a different perspective on what today’s policies mean for Germany’s future?
Well, I think irrespective of where you live, as a citizen or as a politician, having children widens your horizon. It makes you look beyond your own lifetime. It’s something natural that simply happens the moment you have children because you have to plan their life a least for some time as well as your own.
Are you worried about your children’s future in Germany?
I think as a parent you’re always worried—and as a mother, especially. But I see it as our responsibility to guarantee our children a country that has a future. And what shocked me so much at the end of 2015 was three phrases Angela Merkel used to describe the current situation back then. In November she said it’s not in our hands, it’s not in our power to control who enters our country. That’s the first thing. Second thing, she said we are not in charge or not in power of deciding who is going to be living in Germany, who is going to make up the people of Germany. And thirdly, she said basically, we cannot guarantee that people will stick to our laws and regulations. And that’s something said by a German chancellor who is in charge and has the power to decide all of that. To not punish those who don’t stick to the laws or regulations is basically giving up your own country.
In any case, she gave up a proper idea—a conservative idea—of how the country should work, and went toward, let’s say, a utopian idea. Coming from a socialist country, I’m very sensitive when it comes to utopias.
By denying that borders are necessary, that rules are necessary, you are also starting to discriminate against your own people in a way that, for example, illegal migrants are allowed to behave in our country as if it were theirs, or as if we guaranteed them exile from disastrous living conditions in their home country. So, yes, I think if we continue the way Merkel and also previous governments have, we might experience that this free Europe, this free Western society might disappear. And that’s something that I don’t want to experience. That’s something I don’t want my children to experience.
Why do you think so many Germans disagree with the AfD’s stance on refugees?
There’s a number of reasons. First of all, many Germans do not read newspapers anymore. There’s a growing number of people getting a large portion of their information from the internet. The majority still get their information from ARD and ZDF, those are the two biggest TV channels they get their information from. And we find especially with these public channels that they don’t always report, let’s say, authentically. They leave out details.
I also think that many Germans for a long time have become completely indifferent when it comes to political issues. Talking to families and groups of friends in Germany, politics was something you didn’t talk about. That was something I didn’t experience in East Germany because, since the pressure was so high not to criticize the government in public, you would have the urge to speak about it in private groups. For example, churches in East Germany played a very important role because it was normally where you could speak up freely. So it was completely different from the role of the church in a free country of course, due to the public pressure.
I’ve got this one phrase I normally use because that was my feeling when I came to the West. To me, if felt as if citizens had degraded themselves to consumers. They would allow themselves lots of time to consider the details of their new mobile contract or their new gas contract because in the 1990s things started to privatize, and suddenly people needed lots of time to decide which contract to choose because it would mean you would save lots of money. So becoming degraded from a citizen to a consumer is something that happened over, let’s say, years when the economy was going well and no one seemed to have any concerns over where Germany went. In fact, after the fall of the Iron Curtain in ’89 and ’90, the preparations, let’s say, the perspectives of where the EU would go politically were already being determined: giving up your currency, harmonizing everything across Europe, and that was something that the east of Germany and eastern Europe never expected—and as you can see now, didn’t really want. But it was already on its way.
So I think that these things, together with the nature of many Germans being rather patient over a long period of time, leads to the fact that it takes a while to initiate a political discussion. And then there’s the one aspect of human beings which is universal for mankind, which is, to sell someone bad news, to persuade someone that something is happening that will have dangerous risks, is something people don’t like believing, is it?
No. People tend to believe that everything will work out in some way. Especially when it means you will have to become active yourself. So the belief in a more positive future is much easier than to sell someone on the belief that something has to be done.
A lot of the AfD voters I’ve spoken to say one thing in response to that question of why most Germans support Merkel’s refugee policy. They say that Germans feel the need, because of their history, to give back, and to help people in need.
That comes on top of that. But I explained all the other aspects because I think that to reduce it to the national guilt, which is still being discussed strongly at schools, wouldn’t show the whole picture.
Do you think this guilt has led Germany to neglect its own people?
It’s more a problem of politicians of the established parties than of normal people. I was asked a couple of weeks ago by a French magazine about the discrepancy between rational analysis as a scientist, which I am, and to address the gut feelings of people. And I don’t always think there has to be a discrepancy. I think the gut feeling of people all over the world is that people—be it Americans or Germans or Chinese or whoever it is in the world—they’re all human beings, they’re all a part of mankind, in the way they all behave similarly. Of course, there are differences in society, but human beings, we all in a way are similar to each other. So I don’t think there’s a people in the world who are better than any other. Yes, there are historic—there are societies and countries with their own specific history, and there are always dark ages and light ages in those histories.
But to put it specifically to Germans—Germans as a people and Germany as a people—is not worse than any other people in the world. And that is something that is sometimes, let’s say, expressed differently by the different political parties. Take the Greens, for example, in Germany. Their followers openly admit that they would like the German nation to disappear within a European nation, which, in my view, will not exist in my lifetime, at least because there are so many different countries with so many different traditions and languages. So yes, I think the guilt complex is something that plays into the whole picture.
But do you think Germany needs to get over that guilt—do you think that it’s time to move on?
I think as long as you take apart guilt and responsibility, I’m fine with that opinion of our members and also of our voters.
I had a lot of interesting conversations in Israel when I went there for the first time on a private trip. I asked young and middle-aged Israeli citizens what they thought about this special relationship between Germany and Israel, which is very special in the way that we feel responsible and have to feel responsible for what happened to the Jews because it was committed by Germans. But, on the other hand, that the relationship should, in my view, be a positive one. And we discussed the hypothesis that relationships—be it between states or private people—work in a positive way. And we came to the same conclusion in the end that those relationships can only work when they’re based on the same values, such as a free and democratic society; for example, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, everything.
You cannot base your relationship simply on guilt. And that is something that I think is too strongly stressed by many politicians in Germany, and this is something that gives people in Germany, especially our voters, a very uneasy feeling. Because on a private basis, you would say that if a friendship, if a love story, is based on a guilt complex, it’s doomed to fail, isn’t it?
Left to right: Geert Wilders, chairman of the Partij voor de Vrijheid of the Netherlands, Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party, and Marine Le Pen, chairwoman of France’s National Front, at the European Parliament in Koblenz, Jan. 21, 2017. (Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)
I think it’s just a historical process. And, yes, it needs courageous citizens and politicians to come up with a sensible subject, but also we carry responsibility for how we argue our case, because what sometimes happens, and what definitely happened to other political parties in Germany in the past, was that they tried to completely, let’s say, turn their view of history upside down. Like, for example, I have to admit, what my party colleague Höcke has just done when he asked for a 180-degree turn in how we look at our history. That, I think, won’t happen, because a 180-degree turn means a complete reversal of the way history is looked at.
Patriotism is based on having a healthy sort of attitude toward your own country and your own history. But I’m not very much in favor of—and the AfD in a vast majority thinks the same way—simply reversing the way we look at our history. That is not going to work…