East v. West? The Internal Battle within the Far Right in Germany

The 2019 European Parliament Elections provided an important case where the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) performed electorally well. However, we argue that there is a core tension within the AfD’s party strategy. This tension lies at the regional level, with a clear split ideologically within the party between Western and Eastern Germany.

We argue that in Western Germany, the AfD resembles much more of a populist radical right party (PRR). Yet in Eastern Germany, the AfD resembles an ‘extreme right-wing’ party family (ERW), where it performs even better electorally, in terms of its (a) ideological strategies and (b) core voter base. We argue that this internal party tension threatens to divide and weaken the AfD in the future, potentially leading to a split within the wider parliamentary party in Germany at the national level.

 Recent Electoral Successes

The AfD was founded in 2013 and narrowly missed out in entering the Bundestag in September of that year. Afterwards, however, the record shows an electoral success story for the party, first gaining 7.1% of the votes in the elections for the European Parliament in 2014 and also entering the state parliaments in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg in the same year. Having secured seats in all state parliaments by 2017 except for Bavaria (followed in 2018), the party also successfully performed electorally well, in the federal elections in that year and acquired 12.7% of the votes.

In the 2019 European Parliament Elections the party further increased its vote share but did not perform as well as expected, primarily because the issue of immigration was not as salient anymore in voters’ overall considerations. Yet, the success story of the AfD is also one of significant regional differences. Ever since the party first participated in elections, it has shown to be much more popular in Eastern Germany. Polls for the state elections in Autumn 2019 in Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony show that they may even become the biggest party there, repeating victories from the European elections earlier this year.

Paradox: Divergent Electoral Strategies of the PRR v. ERW Ideological Factions

The prominent political scientist Cas Mudde has extensively written about how the Far-Right party family in Europe can be seen under a ‘broad’ umbrella term, with the PRR and ERW factions being subsumed under this ideological category. Previous empirical research undertaken by the political scientist Elisabeth Carter has demonstrated ideological tensions between the more ‘moderate’ PRR wings and the often hard-line ERW party wings in contemporary European politics. Carter’s research has also demonstrated how more ‘moderate’ far-right parties achieve higher levels of electoral success, primarily because of being more ideologically palatable to voters.

It is first important to differentiate between populist radical-right parties (PRR) and extreme right-wing parties (ERW). Drawing on key scholars such as Cas Mudde at the University of Georgia, there are three key features that characterize PRR parties. First, they have a nativist, authoritarian and largely populist ideology. Populism for PRR parties means that they portray themselves as the “outsiders” in society and seek to overturn the existing political elite in society through widespread anti-political establishment messages.

Importantly, PRR parties seek to work under the democratic confines of democracy and do not seek to overturn democracy. They do, however, reject the “liberal” component of democracy, manifested in their general opposition and intolerance toward immigrants and ethnic groups such as Muslims. Key examples include the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France. In contrast, ERW parties tend to reject being democratically elected, and many of these parties’ historical roots can be traced back to post-World War II neo-fascism. Golden Dawn in Greece is one such example in contemporary European politics.

Turning to the German political context, Previous studies on the AfD by renowed scholar Kai Arzheimer amongst others have classified the party as conservative and Eurosceptic, but not yet a fully-fledged PRR party. Only more recently has this shift become obvious and well-documented. However, this is also due to the fact that the party was treated as a unitary actor across Germany, neglecting the splits within the party that existed from its inception as a political party.


Although the party gained the image of being a ‘professor’s party’ in its initial stage with Bernd Lucke and Hans-Olaf Henkel in leading positions, this does not describe the full picture. Yet, the newly-formed Eastern German associations were already infiltrated by more radical personnel. It was people like Frauke Petry, Bernd Höcke and André Poggenburg who also entered the party in its founding days and moved the party onto a right-wing track in subsequent years. They first dominated the regional East German outlets of the party in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia respectively.

Strengthened through electoral victories at home, they were also able to significantly influence the future direction of the party as a whole. Likewise, current party leader Alexander Gaulander was the more radical and national conservative counterpart to co-founder Bernd Lucke and has followed the party through its radicalisation. In addition, the rank and file of the party in Eastern Germany in particular includes people that were previously members of extreme right-wing parties and groups such as NPD or the Identitarian Movement or had previous links with these organisations. This is a distinct contrast to the Western Germany branch of the party.


The ideological split within the party became obvious for the first time in 2015 leading to the departure of Bernd Lucke as party leader. Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt party leaders Höcke and Poggenburg in particular attracted attention with their ‘Erfurt Resolution’. The document was not only signed predominantly by East German AfD politicians, but also explicitly mentions the region as ‘disappointed’ about the party’s lack of commitment to a fundamental political transformation. Members of the far-right faction in the so-called‘Flügel’ (Wing) have subsequently expressed support for fundamental opposition in parliaments and instead advocated working with protest movements such as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) or the Identitarian Movement.

Their positions have become increasingly openly racist, anti-Semitic and the rhetoric used often resembles that of the Nazi era with Höcke’s remarks on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin in 2017 being only one example of that. This has also been noted by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution announcing its decision to closely monitor the Flügel earlier in 2019. The openly radical network within the party is not exclusive to East Germans but definitely dominated by them. Furthermore, its increasing influence has caused distress particularly in West German constituencies concerned with maintaining a more moderate appearance. In East Germany, rather than aspiring to become a potential coalition partner for the Christian Democrats, members of the party have often joined neo-Nazis and hooligans in efforts to mobilise protests and express their anger on the streets.

Public Attitudes

However, taking on a more extreme right stance in Eastern Germany is by no means a one directional strategy. Arguably, this strategy was adopted and proves more successful because there is simply more of a ‘market’ for this ideology in the region. Between 2003 and 2009 the NPD had already shown that a more openly extreme party can achieve electoral successes in East Germany. Consequently, the AfD was able to gain support from almost all previous NPD voters and expanded its electoral base, in part because of the appearance of being more moderate. Much has been written on East German’s susceptibility to radical right parties and often it is linked to the relative deprivation they face in comparison to their Western German counterparts.

While Social Democrats have traditionally been relatively weak in East Germany, the Christian Democrats have faced considerable resentment especially after the handling of the refugee crisis beginning in 2015. Furthermore, the Left is continuing to lose voters since it has come to be associated with the political establishment and is therefore not suitable for protest voters anymore. East Germans have also complained about their remaining lower status thirty years after the reunification. Not only are almost all leading positions in politics and economy filled with West Germans, salaries and pensions on the whole are still much lower in the former GDR. This has led young and educated people to look for employment elsewhere but left remaining inhabitants with an ever-increased feeling of deprivation. Turning into the ‘East German voice’ has thus proved to be a successful strategy for the AfD, yet it also does not explain the difference in radicalism between the parties’ Eastern and Western branches.

Decker and Brähler’s (2018) study on authoritarian attitudes across Germany may point to a potential explanation. The following data are taken from their study and illustrate how widespread right-wing attitudes are in society. They find statistically significant differences between East and West Germany regarding support for right-wing, authoritarian dictatorship, xenophobia and social Darwinism which are all more widely supported in the East. In other words, in East Germany it may be more strategic to openly serve these right-wing attitudes instead of attempting to appear more moderate.

Table 1: Authoritarian Attitudes in Germany: East v. West in 2018

2018 Mean East Germany (N=498) West Germany (N=1918)
Support for right-wing, authoritarian dictatorship** 3.6 7.0 2.7
Chauvinism 19.0 18.5 19.2
Xenophobia** 24.1 30.9 22.3
Antisemitism 4.4 5.2 4.2
Social Darwinism* 3.2 4.6 2.8
Belittlement of National socialism 2.7 3.0 2.6

Pearson Chi-square:**p<.01, *p<.05

Source: (Taken from Decker and Brähler, 2018: Page 88)

As Decker and Brähler’s (2018) long-term graph shows, it was not just the AfD that popularised the right-wing political attitudes in recent years. The data on xenophobic attitudes in particular shows that the proportion of respondents agreeing to statements such as ‘Germany is overrun by immigrants to a dangerous extent’ is consistently higher in the former GDR than in Western Germany. Therefore, while trying to conceal or resist extremist tendencies in the West is necessary, in Eastern Germany it may actually be a fruitful strategy to capitalise on the resentments already widespread among the population.

Table 2: Authoritarian Attitudes in Germany: East v. West, 2002-2018

Xenophobia/Hostility towards foreigners Mean East Germany West Germany
2002 26.9 30.2 23.7
2004 25.5 24.4 25.5
2006 26.7 30.6 25.7
2008 21.2 32.6 18.2
2010 24.7 35 21.9
2012 25.1 38.7 21.7
2014 18.1 22.4 17
2016 20.4 22.7 19.8
2018 24.1 30.9 22.3

Source: (Taken from Decker and Brähler, 2018: Page 83)

The AfD is often characterised as attracting protest voters and yet, in nationwide post-polling surveys, around one third of the respondents say they are convinced party followers instead. This number is likely to be even higher in the upcoming state elections in Eastern Germany later on this year. Furthermore, the party has built up local structures and its ideology is widely shared amongst the East German electorate, thereby allowing the AfD to establish a somewhat loyal party base.

Future Implications

Recent cases in European politics, from as far afield as Austria (The Freedom Party of Austria) France (National Rally) Belgium (Flemish Interest) and in the United Kingdom (United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP) have also demonstrated the conflict that contemporary far right parties often face, between the divergent PRR and ERW party-wings on key issues such as immigration, the European Union, alongside differences on economic policies such as whether to embrace state nationalisation v. neo-liberal market economics.

In the case of France, the PRR wing appears to have won, with Marine Le Pen’s ideological revamping of the party. More recently, UKIP has been besieged by the ERW party faction and arguably suffered electorally as a result of its ‘extreme’ rightwards shift in the 2019 European Parliament elections and the setting up of a new anti-political establishment party (The Brexit Party) under former leader Nigel Farage.

These cases serve as an important reminder that the far-right party family’s main stumbling block to electoral success is often internal party disputes over ideology, rather than the party stances and strategies of ‘mainstream’ centre left and centre right parties in contemporary European politics. Internal party conflicts have been part of the AfD since its establishment and became obvious most recently in the elections for the party leadership in 2017. These internal party factions are likely to be heightened and intensify in the future for the AfD, with the ERW wing in Eastern Germany strengthening its power base through electoral victories.

Dr James F. Downes is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and an Associate Fellow at The Center for Research & Social Progress (Italy). He also provides regular analysis for CNBC on European politics. His profile can be found here.

Felix Wiebrecht is a PhD Student in the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include comparative politics and legislative behaviour.

© James F Downes © Felix Wiebrecht. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).