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The view from the ground.

Germany May Soon Pay Millions to Far-Right Operatives

A pending court case could force Berlin to fund the AfD’s foundation.

By , a freelance writer based in Berlin.
Alternative for Germany (AfD) candidate Alice Weidel (left) speaks with former Christian Democratic lawmaker Erika Steinbach during an AfD election campaign event on in Pforzheim, Germany, on Sept. 6, 2017. Steinbach has since joined the AfD and heads its political foundation, Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung.
Alternative for Germany (AfD) candidate Alice Weidel (left) speaks with former Christian Democratic lawmaker Erika Steinbach during an AfD election campaign event on in Pforzheim, Germany, on Sept. 6, 2017. Steinbach has since joined the AfD and heads its political foundation, Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung.
Alternative for Germany (AfD) candidate Alice Weidel (left) speaks with former Christian Democratic lawmaker Erika Steinbach during an AfD election campaign event on in Pforzheim, Germany, on Sept. 6, 2017. Steinbach has since joined the AfD and heads its political foundation, Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

BERLIN—For four years, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has petitioned the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, for state funding to expand the operations of its affiliated political foundation. It has been rejected each time. But now, with a critical case before Germany’s constitutional court, the AfD might finally prevail.

The German government allocates hundreds of millions of euros annually to the foundations of major political parties, which operate similarly to think tanks. Only the AfD and its Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung (DES) remain outside this lucrative arrangement. On May 19, the Bundestag’s budget committee confirmed that the DES would once again not receive public money this year.

The decision is backed by the German Institute for Human Rights, which said that “a foundation that spreads racist and right-wing extremist ideas … should not be supported by the state as a matter of principle.” DES chair Erika Steinbach issued a stinging rebuke, accusing the committee of acting illegally. “The budget committee has taken it upon itself to determine who is democratic. This is pure arbitrariness,” she wrote, threatening legal retribution.

BERLIN—For four years, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has petitioned the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, for state funding to expand the operations of its affiliated political foundation. It has been rejected each time. But now, with a critical case before Germany’s constitutional court, the AfD might finally prevail.

The German government allocates hundreds of millions of euros annually to the foundations of major political parties, which operate similarly to think tanks. Only the AfD and its Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung (DES) remain outside this lucrative arrangement. On May 19, the Bundestag’s budget committee confirmed that the DES would once again not receive public money this year.

The decision is backed by the German Institute for Human Rights, which said that “a foundation that spreads racist and right-wing extremist ideas … should not be supported by the state as a matter of principle.” DES chair Erika Steinbach issued a stinging rebuke, accusing the committee of acting illegally. “The budget committee has taken it upon itself to determine who is democratic. This is pure arbitrariness,” she wrote, threatening legal retribution.

There is growing concern among civil society groups that the legal basis for the DES’s exclusion has weakened considerably since Germany’s federal election last September—and that Steinbach’s threats could have consequences. An AfD legal petition is currently lodged at the constitutional court, which may soon overturn the budget committee’s decision.

The disbursement of state funds to political foundations is not codified in German law. Since the postwar era, it has been dictated instead by parliamentary custom, roughly in proportion to a party’s performance in recent federal elections. A 1986 constitutional court ruling found that “all lasting, important political currents” should be entitled to their share, and this rather vague definition was nailed down—most recently by a 2020 ruling from the court—to mean a political party that enters the Bundestag for at least two consecutive terms by meeting or surpassing its 5 percent electoral threshold.

The AfD cleared this hurdle last year with 10.3 percent of the vote, a worse result than its 12.6 percent in 2017. Though the party’s fortunes have waned even further this year, it shows no signs of falling below the 5 percent threshold anytime soon and is likely to be a fixture of German politics for years to come.

In its appeal to the constitutional court, the AfD said the foundation’s exclusion from funding violates “the right to equal opportunities for all political parties in political competition and the prohibition of arbitrariness.” Many AfD critics reluctantly admit that the party’s case has merit.

“There is no ideological restriction in the sense of the good ones get money and the bad ones don’t,” the political scientist Claus Leggewie said. “This doesn’t work in democracies. This is a legal party—it’s not forbidden.”

A paper Leggewie co-wrote before last year’s election found that once the AfD reentered the Bundestag, the exclusion of the DES from state funding would become “constitutionally difficult,” a position supported by other legal experts. This is despite the fact that since March, German domestic intelligence has had permission to surveil the AfD for suspected anti-constitutional activities.

By some estimates, the AfD could be entitled to between 50 million and 75 million euros (about $52 million to $78 million) for the DES before the end of the parliamentary term in 2025, raising the surreal prospect that a foundation connected to the extreme right could receive enormous sums of money from the German state, which it could then use to undermine German and European democracy.


Political foundations are a unique feature of the German political landscape. Although they are legally independent entities with memberships and governance structures separate from their affiliated parties, they typically share that party’s ideological outlook and receive almost all their funding from the state.

Political foundations’ remit is broad. According to the German interior ministry, “their sociopolitical and democratic educational work is based on the principles of the liberal democratic constitutional order and is committed to the fundamentals of solidarity, subsidiarity, and mutual tolerance.” In practice, they have grown into hydras: public policy mills, hosts of lectures and conferences, retirement homes for party grandees, training grounds for young talent, lobbyists, givers of grants and awards, international development agencies, media financiers, and back channels for diplomacy. The résumés of leading politicians attest to foundations’ formative influence: German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz both received financial support from their respective party foundations for their university studies.

With more than 300 offices spread across almost every country in the world, the foundations’ global soft power reach is vast, and their fingerprints appear in surprising places: The CDU’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung greased the wheels of Poland’s accession to the European Union, acting as an interlocutor between Eastern and Western European conservative parties; the Social Democrats’ Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung provided money and training to its Spanish sister party in the early years after the country’s dictatorship; the Free Democrats’ Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung lent public support to the 2009 military coup in Honduras, which its representative there called a “return to the rule of law and constitution.” And several were active in state-building in Afghanistan after the 2003 invasion.

At home, political foundations are also an unofficial means of funding party activity. Total state funding for German parties was limited to 200 million euros (about $209 million) in 2021, dwarfed entirely by the roughly 660 million euros (about $690 million) allocated to political foundations each year. (Private donations play a minor role in funding German parties and election campaigns.) There is minimal transparency in where and how this money is spent, drawing concern from state auditors. But there has been little desire for greater scrutiny. A law to regulate what it called an “unconstitutional gray zone” was introduced by the AfD in 2018 but voted down by other parties.

The DES is a more modest operation than its peers, registered to a residential side street in the Baltic city of Lübeck. It takes its name from the humanist philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, for whom it credits both “independent thinking” and “respect[ing] tradition.” (The DES is currently embroiled in a copyright suit with the EU over its popular student exchange program of the same name.) Run on a shoestring budget through volunteer labor and private donations, its output consists of intermittent magazine publications and lectures discussing immigration, Islam, climate change, revisionist history, and other favorite topics of the German far right.

Foundations’ global soft power reach is vast, and their fingerprints appear in surprising places.

The foundation requested 7.85 million euros (about $8.2 million) from the government for 2022, well below what it could potentially be entitled to based on its proportion of seats in the Bundestag. Within that request, 3.6 million euros is designated for 60 staff positions, as well as interns and apprentices; 2.7 million euros for hundreds of lectures and seminars and two large congresses; and 1 million euros to rent a headquarters in Berlin and open dozens of regional offices. The DES does not yet envisage a presence outside Germany, but an internal plan reported by German media in 2018 aimed for staff numbers to eventually reach over 900.

Steinbach, the foundation’s chair, formally joined the AfD this year after a long career in the CDU as a member of the Bundestag for Frankfurt, denouncing then Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies and saying that the AfD had become the “only bourgeois alternative” to the mainstream consensus and a “political glimmer of hope.” Steinbach has compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia, opposed the criminalization of marital rape, and suggested Muslim members of the CDU should sign an “anti-sharia declaration.”

She has maintained that the DES acts within the boundaries of the German Constitution—which prohibits supporting the undermining or abolition of liberal democracy—and that any claims to the contrary are products of “massive defamation, insinuations, and lies” by left-wingers, greens, or false conservatives. However, the foundation has myriad links to the German New Right, a loose intellectual movement of extremists who advocate for identitarianism, anti-communism, and anti-feminism and are maximally hostile toward migrants and Islam.

“[The New Right] see themselves as the intellectual side of the extreme right, and so they try to gain attention and to try to get into mainstream discourses and try to weaponize them against democracy,” said Natascha Strobl, a Vienna-based expert on the movement.

One study found the DES to be enmeshed in a wide network of far-right groups and individuals. Among its milieu are chair of the board of trustees Karlheinz Weissmann, a retired teacher and key figure of the New Right since the 1990s; his predecessor Max Otte, head of the CDU’s ultra-conservative Values Union, who faces party expulsion for running as the AfD’s presidential candidate; guest speaker Herbert Kickl, chair of the right-populist Freedom Party of Austria and a former Austrian interior minister; and board member Hans Hausberger, an AfD politician who in the 1990s led the Franz-Schönhuber-Stiftung, named after a former member of the Waffen SS.

“It [the DES] is very closely linked to the extreme right, so it has a bridging function between the AfD within the parliament and extreme right outside of parliament,” said Strobl, who believes the foundation could become an extraordinarily valuable conduit for money and know-how. “That’s one thing that a fairly young party like the AfD lacks: to have highly educated people for the purposes they need within parliament. And that’s what the Erasmus Foundation can provide.”


Now that the AfD has reentered parliament, German law offers few avenues to oppose the DES’s financial demands, so long as it remains a legal party. Even on its increasingly radical trajectory, outright proscription of the party is unlikely. Repeated attempts by the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament, to ban the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party have failed, and the group still receives around 350,000 euros annually (about $365,000) from the German state.

“The remedy would have to be a new foundation law that defines the tasks of the foundations more precisely, especially in the area of civic education,” said Leggewie, the political scientist. “Only then the foundations’ activities could be closer examined to determine whether they hold anti-democratic positions.”

The coalition agreement of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens, and Free Democratic Party to form a government pledged to “provide better legal protection for the work and financing of political foundations” but offered no specifics relating to funding reform. The Greens and socialist Left party have both publicly backed further legal regulation of all foundations’ finances to restrict the DES, while the SPD and CDU have indicated they are satisfied with the present arrangement.

Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center, has for years campaigned against funding the DES, which he likens to giving a pyromaniac control of a gas station. Mendel worries about educational material produced by its members filtering into schools and universities. “We know that the people who engage in the foundation, they’re right radical. They’re very, very dangerous,” he said.

Alongside former Green parliamentarian Volker Beck, Mendel developed a framework for a so-called “defensive democracy law,” which legislators could use to require that organizations receiving public funds prove that they will be used for democratic activities, as intended. Dozens of anti-racism and civil society groups have backed their campaign, but a year later the Bundestag has yet to introduce it.

Mendel is frustrated at the apathy shown by some political parties in the face of a major threat to German democracy and is deeply concerned about the coming court ruling.

“We [German society] are investing a lot of money in preventing right-wing extremism and radicalization,” he said. “To give the same money to an organization which encourages right-wing radicalization—this is a very big paradox.”

Ruairi Casey is a freelance writer based in Berlin who reports on politics, housing, and migration. Twitter: @Ruairi_Casey

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