International Politics

How the Alternative for Germany Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Virus

Germany’s right-wing populists embrace vaccine-sceptical positions that are putting their supporters at risk. In doing this, the party is following its basic instincts. 

On December 19, 2021 the Alternative for Germany (AfD) held a rally against the government’s anti-Covid measures in Nuremberg, attended by 2500 people belonging to the Querdenken-scene. Alamy.Alexander Pohl/Sipa USA

In his book Anatomy of Human Destructiveness published in 1973, the German-American psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, came to an unsurprising conclusion about Adolf Hitler. As he observed, reviewing the ‘Führer’s’ genocidal life, Hitler had essentially been a clinical necrophiliac who had been irresistibly attracted to all that is ‘dead, decayed, purid, sickly’, single-mindedly obsessed with corpses, megadeath and killing. While necrophiliac Nazis evoke the most traumatizingly nightmarish movies of the 60s and 70s, such as The Nightporter, The Damned and the extremely disturbing sado-splatter porn Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, Fromm’s analysis was grounded in an understanding of fascism that was shaped both by theory and personal experience. During the 1920s and 1930s, he had been linked to the so-called Frankfurt School of Social Research which developed an innovative analytical toolset to study the falling Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Using sophisticated psychoanalysis combined with tailored sociological surveys sent to thousands of ordinary Germans, Fromm and his collaborators identified several psychological traits that made someone perceptible to the lures of fascism: first among them was a love of authority and the will to submit one’s freedom to another’s will. Connected to this mental disposition were sadomasochistic phantasies, a tendency for violence and finally what Fromm termed necrophilia, the love of death and the nihilistic desire to see the destruction of all things. Crucially, in opposition to the necrophiliac character, Fromm also identified a biophiliac character which is striving for the preservation, enrichment, development, and celebration of human life and which is fundamentally democratic in nature. 

Almost eighty years after the fall of the Third Reich, Germany’s latest far-right incarnation, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is also finding itself irresistibly drawn to death, decay, putridity, and sickness. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the party has held a series of remarkably muddled, inconsistent and overtly self-defeating stances towards the virus that have lend support to the most fringe and outrageous Covid-denying conspiracy theorists (so-called Querdenker, ‘lateral thinkers’) and have recently culminated in a public campaign against mandatory vaccinations. This course has led to a series of morbid statistical correlations: in areas in which the AfD has enjoyed strong electoral successes, infection, and hospitalisation rates and the number of victims of the pandemic have been noticeably higher than in other regions, while resistance against vaccinations remains extraordinarily high among the party’s supporters. At the same time, the AfD is also alienating large sections of the German population that are supportive of the government’s biophiliac measures to curb the spread of the virus and whose votes the party would conceivably require if it ever wanted to form or join a government. This patently self-defeating, at its core wholly a-political strategy begs the question why the AfD is pursuing it and if the party’s history, mentality, and worldview can at all explain its current behaviour.

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a national-liberal-conservative party of professors, businessmen and right-wing journalists representing the radical fringe of the Christian Democratic Union that had abandoned the party over Merkel’s Euro-bailout policies. To this odd mix, were soon added nationalist libertarians coming from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), East German regionalists who had previously tended to vote for the Communist party The Left (Die Linke), as well as a host of neofascists and volkisch lunatics of all stripes. At first, the new party languished in obscurity, polling below the critical five percent that are required to enter the Bundestag, and it is quite likely that it would sooner or later have sunk back into insignificance, as an unfortunate, embarrassing footnote in Germany’s post-war history. It was only in the fall of 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis that the party gained noticeable traction among German voters, resulting in a string of electoral victories across the country, culminating in the AfD’s entry into the Bundestag in 2017. Not incidentally, 2015 was also the year that the party first expressed its sadistic tendencies in statements that suggested to shoot underage migrants at the border, while the Thuringian party boss Björn Höcke mused that a future AfD-led government would not be able to avoid the application of ‘well-tempered cruelty’ in the treatment of refugees. In private chat groups, AfD members, politicians and functionaries have similarly indulged in phantasies of ‘civil war with millions of dead, women, children’, mass executions of political enemies and the wholly necrophile phantasy of ‘pissing on corpses’ and ‘dancing on graves’. Many of the party’s members must have privately nurtured such homicidal phantasies long before they joined the AfD and have cultivated them in far-right organisations, such as so-called Wehrsportgruppen (paramilitary sport groups), violent computer games and neofascist networks. Thus, the party’s former Brandenburg chief, Andreas Kaulitz, is alleged by the German domestic intelligences service to have been a member of a Neonazi group called Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend (HDJ), while the AfD has a long history of hiring far-right activist as parliamentary clerks and functionaries. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the AfD has, in way, come full circle and has been able to unite both its nihilistic-necrophiliac and libertarian tendencies in one political project. It has on the one hand resisted mandatory vaccinations designed to preserve and protect human lives on the grounds of self-responsibility and individual freedom, while on the other hand, it has aligned itself with a quickly radicalising scene of anti-vaxxers, Covid-deniers and far-right conspiracy-theorists who last year attempted to storm the Reichstag in Berlin and out of which recently grew plans to to assassinate the Minister President of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer. By aligning itself with the cause of vaccine-scepticism, the AfD has effectively become the parliamentary arm of a nihilistic movement that seeks to destabilise and undermine Germany’s liberal-democratic constitutional order. For the sake of following its most basic populist instincts, the party has thereby allowed human lives to be put in mortal danger. Maybe, if we heed Fromm’s advice, it cannot but act the way it acts. After all, it is what it is. 

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