“Long live freedom!”: How the AfD presents itself as Defender of the German Basic Law

In the campaign “Gemeinsam für das Grundgesetz” (Together for the Basic Law), the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) presents its far-right political positions as liberal-conservative to defy accusations of anti-constitutionality.

A poster with the AfD logo is pictured next to a Bundestag background banner, Berlin, Sept. 2017. (AFP Photo)

During the last month, the German far-right populist party AfD has faced two major challenges. The Corona crisis has decreased public interest in immigration issues and caused a peak in public trust in the grand coalition government under chancellor Angela Merkel, making it hard to mobilize xenophobic sentiments and challenge established parties. Moreover, the AfD faction ‘Der Flügel’ (The Wing) was recently classified as far-right extremist group and officially put under surveillance by domestic intelligence. ‘Der Flügel’ was dissolved in late March  following a respective vote by the AfD executive committee, but accusations of the party´s anti-constitutionality and due calls to put the AfD under observation by the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) have not subsided. Defending the party against these accusations and swiftly picking up on discourses around basic rights and freedoms frequently addressed in discussions around Covid-19, the AfD has recently started the online campaign “Gemeinsam für das Grundgesetz” (“Together for the Basic Law”).

The campaign mainly consists of audiovisual content that is distributed via a central campaign website as well as several Social Media accounts. Here, images accompanied by short texts highlight and explain Articles of the German Basic Law, while different video formats feature AfD politicians expressing their personal attachment to the Basic Law and discussing how AfD positions relate to specific fundamental rights.

The general message of the campaign is an example of the right-wing populist self-victimizing, anti-establishment narrative: the Merkel government, in cahoots with an opaque conglomerate of leftist-green mainstream media and political actors, is violating the German Basic Law’s norms and values, and systematically infringing upon the German people’s rights and freedoms by using state institutions – most notable the Verfassungsschutz – for political purposes, namely to discredit the AfD as anti-constitutional. According to statements made in above-mentioned videos, the true enemies of the German constitution and people are thus the government and especially the Greens, the Left and the Social Democrats with their connections to left-wing extremists, while the AfD is presented as not only fully in line with, but the only true defender of, the Federal Republic´s fundamental norms and values.

While these claims coming from a far-right populist party are neither surprising nor particularly creative, two aspects of the campaign are remarkable: an a-political style and the utilization of the German historical and politico-cultural context. Graphics, text fonts, colors, background music and the objects depicted in the videos and images contribute to a fashionable style that is more reminiscent of an advertisement for a lifestyle product developed by a Berlin start-up than for a far-right political campaign. In addition, beyond some politicians stating their party affiliation in the videos, the campaign’s connection to the AfD is not recognizable at the first sight. While the style of images and videos aesthetically softens and thus mainstreams the far-right contents promoted here, the lack of a clear AfD-branding depoliticizes the interpretations of the German Basic Law presented in the campaign, camouflaging them as easy-to-agree-on universal truths instead of right-wing populist political messages.

The central aim of the campaign is to construct the AfD as representing the liberal-conservative essence of the Federal Republic´s Basic Law. This strategy must be understood in the context of post-war Germany´s dominant political culture that promotes a rational identification with the Basic Law instead of an emotional attachment to the national flag. This principle, described by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas as ‘constitutional patriotism’, has been the cornerstone of today´s Federal Republic that defines itself against the country´s totalitarian Nazi-past. Articulating their commitment to the Federal Republic´s foundational legal document thus becomes a means to rhetorically endow AfD positions with liberal-democratic legitimacy and indirectly defies accusations of right-wing extremism within the party.

A central narrative strategy apparent in AfD politicians’ video statements is to establish a connection between the AfD and historical figures who embody the spirit of the Federal Republic´s liberal-democratic order. In this case, references to the ‘fathers and mothers of the Basic Law’ as well as to popular statesmen such as Konrad Adenauer, Franz-Joseph Strauß and Kurt Schumacher work as rhetoric tool to normalize AfD positions and frame them as being perfectly in line with liberal-conservative ideas central to the Federal Republic political thought and traditions. This is best exemplified by honorary party chair Alexander Gauland, who constructs a link between the AfD and the Federal Republic’s first chancellor when portraying accusations of anti-constitutionality against his party as absurd by claiming that, analogous to the AfD, “Adenauer would be a case for the Verfassungsschutz today”.

Lastly, the proclamation “Long live freedom!” uttered by AfD politician Andreas Otti in a campaign video deserves attention. This slogan is commonly connected to resistance against the Nazis. Precisely, “Es lebe die Freiheit!” were the famous last words of Hans Scholl, brother of Sophie Scholl and member of the resistance movement ‘The White Rose’ before he was executed in 1943. This reference implicitly puts the AfD not only in line with influential post-war politicians but with antifascist freedom fighters, thereby framing the AfD as a party in legitimate and rightful opposition to what is constructed as a totalitarian and illegitimate ‘leftist-green’ regime under chancellor Merkel.

The aesthetic softening of far-right positions and the discursive distancing from right-wing extremism through the mobilizations of historical personalities embodying the Federal Republics spirit of democracy and liberalism in course of the campaign resonates well with the AfD´s overall efforts to counter their labelling as ‘Nazi-party’ and instead frame itself as liberal-conservative, civic-bourgeois party. The “Gemeinsam für das Grundgesetz” campaign tries to establish the AfD not as enemies but as the only true defenders of the German Basic Law and is therefore conducive to what Samuel Salzborn (2017) pointed out as being central to the success of the AfD: offering voters the opportunity to support far-right positions without having to identify themselves as (anti-constitutional) right-wing extremists.

Ms Sophie Schmalenberger is a Doctoral Fellow at Doctoral Candidate at School of Culture and Society (Department of Global Studies), Aarhus University. See her profile here.

© Sophie Schmalenberger. 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).