Argument

Immigrants Are Big Fans of Germany’s Anti-Immigrant Party

The fiercest devotees of the far-right AfD aren’t native Germans but migrants from Russia.

An AfD election brochure in Russian and German
An election campaign brochure from far-right party Alternative for Germany is shown in both Russian and German languages in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2016. Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

The German district of Haidach, population 8,500, in the city of Pforzheim, is seemingly quite ordinary. With rows of white, pink, and yellow apartment buildings, it resembles many other communities in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg: well-kept and peaceful places with elementary schools, supermarkets, bakeries, pharmacies, and public playgrounds. Reflecting Germany’s growing multiculturalism, more than 60 percent of Haidach residents are immigrants or their direct descendents.

A visitor to this quiet suburban environment would not see anything suggesting isolation, anger, or political extremism. But Haidach is one of the constituencies where the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) performs best. In Baden-Württemberg’s regional elections of 2016, the party received 43 percent of the vote in Haidach, and in the federal elections of 2017, 37 percent of the area’s residents chose AfD. Many of these AfD supporters are immigrants: not from Africa or the Middle East, but from Russia.

AfD is generally seen as a xenophobic, nativist force in German politics, and yet one of its key constituencies is foreign-born. The party claims that one-third of its voters are Russian Germans, and a recent study has shown that although this figure is probably exaggerated, support for the party among Russian Germans is above the national average. While AfD has a reputation for anti-Semitism, its voters also include a small but growing number of Russian Jews. In the 2017 elections, AfD fielded six Bundestag candidates who were born in the former Soviet Union, and two of them—Anton Friesen and Waldemar Herdt—are now deputies in that body. These emerging phenomena suggest it may be time to reevaluate what it means to be a far-right party—and a far-right voter.

Because the German government does not publish statistics on ethnicity, it is unknown precisely how many Russian speakers live in Germany. A conservative estimate from Osnabrück University suggests that about 3 million of the country’s 83 million residents were born in the former Soviet Union. The majority of these are ethnic Germans—also known as Volga Germans or Russlanddeutsche—whose ancestors had emigrated to the Russian Empire in the 18th century. After the Soviet Union collapsed 1991, more than 2 million returned to Germany alongside several hundred thousand Russian Jews, ethnic Russians, and other Soviet peoples. Although the term “Russlanddeutsche” formally refers to ethnic Germans, it is often used as shorthand for the entire Russian-speaking population of Germany.

Immigrants of Russian or Soviet origin are often described as an “invisible minority.” As late as 2013, a report authored by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees identified the community as politically disinterested, and prior to 2017 it received scant attention in German entertainment or news media. In 2017 the journalist Nikolai Mitrokhin wrote, “German TV channels … almost entirely ignore Russophones. There are no Russians moderators or lead actors in serials, and they seldom participate in talk shows … No documentaries are made about the problems and achievements of Russian speakers.” Although community members self-report high levels of integration, there are echoes of a Russian German parallel society. Members of the demographic buy Eastern European cuisine from the Mix Markt supermarket chain, some older immigrants still speak little German, and there is a large locally produced Russian-language press throughout the country.

Why does AfD appeal to some Russian Germans, and why does the party view them as a potent constituency? The evidence suggests three interrelated answers: AfD’s search for legitimacy, the combination of social conservatism and contrasting immigration narratives, and the influence of Russian state media.

Like France’s National Rally (formerly National Front) political party, AfD seeks legitimacy in a system whose mainstream is reflexively hostile to far-right politics. Since the party first gained representation in three state parliaments in 2014, there has been an agreement among other German parties that entering into a coalition with AfD is unacceptable. This has to date been an iron rule that has survived even when AfD holds more than one-quarter of all seats in a legislature, as is currently the case in the states of Saxony and Brandenburg. The attitude of the German political establishment toward AfD is one of containment and isolation.

AfD has responded to its quarantined status by trying to rebut accusations of bigotry, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. The outreach campaign in the Russian German population forms part of this strategy. Party leaders such as Jörg Meuthen have used Russian German support to counter the notion that AfD is an anti-immigrant organization. AfD has gone so far as to openly declare itself a champion of immigrant well-being in its Russian-language advertising. In a June 2018 open letter about pension reform, the Russian German Bundestag deputy Friesen wrote that “The AfD faction is for equality for immigrants … Russian Germans have the same rights and entitlements as all other citizens of our country.” The party has also tried, with some success, to attract Russian Jews by portraying Muslim immigrants as the true threat to Judaism in Germany.

But much as AfD has taken advantage of its Russian German support to improve its image, that support could not exist without genuine ideological compatibility between the party’s platform and the social conservatism of many in the Russian-speaking population. According to a survey of foreign-born Russian Germans conducted by the Bonn-based Boris Nemtsov Foundation in August and September 2016, 49 percent of the community members interviewed believe that Germany’s borders should be completely closed to refugees, and 72 percent believe that refugees have “terrorists among them.”

More broadly, less than half of Russian Germans deem living next to a homosexual neighbor “acceptable,” and significant numbers across generations believe that the West is “prejudiced” against the Russian Federation. AfD’s Russian-language campaign appeals to these views. In September 2017, an issue of the newspaper Telegraf NRW featured a front-page advertisement for the Russian German Bundestag candidate Yevgeny Schmidt, which made the following pledges: “Stopping migrant chaos; securing the safety of our citizens; achieving decent pensions; upholding the traditional family; preserving Christian traditions; restoring good-neighborly relations with Russia.”

AfD positions itself not only as the natural ideological home for Russian Germans but also as the sole party that appreciates the community’s history, problems, and efforts to integrate into German society. AfD’s Meuthen said of this: “Take a look at who really votes for the AfD, and where we have the strongest numbers … people with an immigrant background who lead integrated lives here … cannot believe what is happening to this country.” Russian Germans who campaign for the party portray their community’s immigration to Germany as a journey of struggle that was confronted quietly, diligently, and successfully. This is openly contrasted with the denigration or dismissal of North African or Middle Eastern migrants and their experiences. On a Facebook page called “Russian Germans for the AfD,” which was created in June 2016 and has more than 13,000 followers, the description reads: “We are among the much-scolded Russian Germans who came to Germany decades ago … Observed suspiciously by the local population, we still managed to integrate successfully here, although not all wounds healed and not all humiliations are forgotten.” In a political focus group assembled by German academics prior to the 2017 elections, an ethnic German immigrant in his 60s said: “We had huge problems entering the country. And other people have it really easy. They are simply waved through.”

The relationship between Russian Germans and AfD is not an entirely organic phenomenon of German politics. The role of Russian state media and disinformation in generating support for the party cannot be ignored, though some Russian German leaders have warned against exaggeration. The Boris Nemtsov Foundation reports that about 40 percent of those polled turn to Russian television and internet media as a primary source of information. Heavy users of Russian-language media have harsher beliefs about immigration, greater fear of Islamic terrorism, and more skepticism of German institutions and values. In January 2016, Kremlin networks falsely reported that a young Russian girl had been raped in Berlin by Arab migrants, generating a brief protest movement of Russian Germans in 20 cities across the country. The so-called Lisa case raised awareness in the German public sphere about the threat of Russian propaganda, and a postmortem government study concluded that while “Berlin state police published a complete denial of the story, most Russian government-controlled media that featured the issue did not correct it or remove it from their websites.”

In the last six years, a symbiosis has developed between AfD and the Kremlin. AfD receives extremely negative coverage in the German press and has sought a better portrayal in Kremlin outlets, while the Russian state likely views AfD as a useful advocate for Russia in German politics. The party has made numerous overtures to Moscow in pursuit of external support. AfD-funded or affiliated publications such as Zuerst!, Compact magazine, Epoch Times Germany, and Junge Freiheit are generally positive about Russia’s government and geopolitical positions. A recent study has shown that there is some reciprocation: Kremlin outlets such as RT Deutsch and Sputnik Deutschland systematically promote AfD and denigrate all other German parties. While these and similar agencies are far from universally trusted among Russian Germans, they are known to have a strong foothold in areas with high concentrations of post-Soviet migrants, such as Pforzheim, Osnabrück, and eastern Berlin.

What does it mean when immigrants support an anti-immigrant party? Few Germans would consider AfD a plausible political home for immigrants, but this is what the party represents for a sizable segment of the country’s Russian-speaking population. If there is a lesson from this fact, it is that the interests of right-wing populist parties and immigrant voters are not always mutually exclusive. AfD seeks the credibility and success that have eluded every other far-right party in postwar Germany, and Russian Germans are a key to shedding its neo-Nazi image. Immigrants, meanwhile, are not single-issue voters and should not be stereotyped as such. Like most people, they vote for a complex array of reasons, in which immigrant status is one—and not necessarily the most important—factor. Russian Germans who campaign for AfD cite culture, religion, family, and economy as components of their decision-making, and the party’s Russian-language advertising covers all of these themes. That should be a warning for those who seek simplistic explanations for the success of far-right parties: In the world of right-wing populism, not all immigrants are the enemy.

Philip Decker is pursuing an MPhil in international relations at Oxford University.

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