Alice Weidel, the new co-leader of Germany’s far right political party, is a PhD economist, a lesbian, and a mother.
Weidel, a onetime investment banker, has always lived in the kind of hyperglobalized world most right-wing populists ostensibly shun. She once resided in China, where she picked up Mandarin; she keeps a home in Switzerland; and she has a partner who isn’t even German but Swiss.
To read her biography, you’d think she’d somehow accidentally joined the wrong political party. But you’d be wrong: Weidel appears to share many of the Alternative for Germany’s most far-right positions, from shunning Germany’s participation in the Euro and sharpening border controls to banning the wearing of the hijab (Muslim head covering) in the street. That makes her a vital part of the party’s future. Sliding in the polls, Weidel’s AfD party is desperately casting about for a new message, and a new messenger. Weidel may be their last best hope.
After unexpectedly strong showings in Germany’s 2016 regional elections — the AfD took seats in nine out of 16 state legislatures and later picked up two more — the party seemed to falter. In February, they lost a third of their support in the polls, crashing from 15 percent down to 10.
Then came crushing losses for right-wing populist parties in the recent French and Dutch elections, defeats that led many to conclude that the far-right movements of Western Europe had hit their political ceilings and were now likely to slowly but steadily lose further support.
That’s left Europe’s anti-immigrant, nativist right scrambling to regroup — and to recast itself as a champion for Europe’s secular values. And what could seem, at face value, more in line with Europe’s progressive values than giving your party’s top spot to a 38-year-old lesbian?
“They are using it to portray their radicalism as a little bit softer,” says Volker Beck, a Green Party member of the German parliament.
But, last week, when Germany appeared poised to finally approve same-sex marriage, Weidel tweeted dismissively that a “‘marriage for all’ debate while millions of Muslims illegally immigrate to Germany is a joke.”
“It was a good chance to show her way more conservative party allies a signal that she is still against gay marriage,” said Timo Lochocki, a political scientist at the German Marshall Fund. (The German parliament approved same-sex marriage on Friday, June 30th, paving the way for marriage equality by year’s end.)
Indeed, Weidel’s sexual identity stands out in an already surprising biography. The traditional European far right opposes same-sex marriage, and often rejects the right of men and women in same-sex unions to adopt. The AfD, too, supports what they call “traditional families” (with a “father and a mother”). And, on July 2nd, following the Bundestag’s vote clearing the way for same-sex marriage in Germany, the AfD indicated it was not only upset with that move, it would also now consider mounting a constitutional challenge to same-sex marriage.
That leaves Weidel in the strange position of defending a party whose core beliefs seem at odds with her own life. The incongruity has brought her much public scrutiny — and intense, often vaguely misogynistic, public criticism, as well as publicity.
She’s been called a “Nazi Schlampe” (Nazi slut) on German satirical television, and mocked on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers: the host began a recent joke by saying “a lesbian was recently named the leader of Germany’s fascist party.” His co-host then cut in to parry, “if you are wondering what lesbians and fascists have in common, the answer is their haircut.” (Weidel sued in the first instance — and lost.)
But to really understand how a woman with Weidel’s biography ascended to the top spot in Germany’s leading right-wing party, and what it could mean for the fortunes of the far right, it’s useful first to understand the AfD itself.
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is Europe’s newest far-right party
The AfD was founded in 2013 by a handful of economists, academics, and former members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Party. It was considered something of a protest party, backed by eggheads, with a euroskeptic platform but not a notably nativist one. AfD’s founders advocated that Germany pull out of the common currency in the wake of the Greek economic crisis, though remain in the European Union itself.
One of the key founding figures in the early days was a Hamburg economics professor named Bernd Lucke. But in mid-2015, Lucke left the AfD. In a letter partly excerpted by Reuters, he noted the party had moved toward Islamophobia, xenophobia, and pro-Russian sentiment. As such, Lucke said, he could no longer be a part of it.
“I certainly made my share of mistakes, and among the biggest was realizing too late the extent to which members were pushing the AfD to become a populist protest party,” the letter read.
Carl Berning, a political scientist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, told me the early version of the AfD “focused on the euro and showed almost no evidence for populist or radical positions,” a dynamic that’s since shifted markedly to the right.
“That changed, and the more radical wings of the party gained power and now shape the profile of the party,” he said.
The AfD’s move toward Islamophobia began in earnest as the party responded to Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policies. Thousands upon thousands of migrants arrived in Germany in 2015; by December of that year, that number was just shy of 1 million.
Also in 2015, a former chemist and mother of four named Frauke Petry took the helm of the party. Party spokespeople began talking about how Islam was incompatible with German political and cultural values.
In spring 2016, the party made its anti-migrant sentiments explicit. The AfD unveiled a platform that included ideas about banning minarets and the niqab and encouraged German women to bear more children.
In a March 2016 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Petry said that “the immigration of so many Muslims will change our culture.”
The press began to regularly refer to the party as both anti-EU and anti-immigrant, aided by comments from party members themselves. “Islam is a political ideology that is not compatible with the German Constitution,” party official Beatrix von Storch said in April 2016, according to the Huffington Post.
Anti-migrant statements didn’t seem to diminish the AfD’s popularity. If anything, support for the AfD quickly began to rise. In January 2016, the party polled at 10 percent of voter support for the first time; by September 2016, it had picked up 16 percent and had pushed out Merkel’s Christian Democrats in two regional elections and taken seats in nine out of 16 regional legislatures. (It now holds seats in 11 out of the 16).
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp wrote at the time:
For obvious reasons, post-World War II Germany has had something of a taboo on far-right extremist parties. They've existed, sure, but until recently they've been unable to pull together significant levels of support. The fact that one is rising — and, indeed, winning a significant percentage of the vote in elections — suggests that the liberal consensus in German politics may not be as strong as previously thought.
Germany wasn’t the only place where the far right seemed ascendant. First came Brexit, then the election of Donald Trump. Candidates like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands were polling ahead of their opponents in their respective countries. Their popularity, European commenters began to worry, might spur a real rise for the AfD in Germany. The AfD hoped so too.
But then the promised victories in France and the Netherlands failed to materialize.
Germany’s elections are up ahead. The AfD still has a chance to change stride.
In early spring, a local AfD official named Björn Höcke, talking to a group of young party supporters, slipped from the party’s more typical anti-migrant positions (tolerated) into one where he griped about how much time is spent memorializing the Holocaust in Germany (not tolerated). "These stupid politics of coming to grips with the past cripple us," he said. "We need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance." He then called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe “a monument of shame in the heart of their capital."
In Germany, even more than everywhere else in Europe, statements that smell of anti-Semitism, not to mention Holocaust fatigue, are unacceptable. Internally, the party was divided about how to handle the fallout — and whether to expel Höcke from their ranks. Externally, the party was vilified.
Meanwhile, the German political obsession with migrants had begun to fade a bit, taking the wind out of the sails that saw the AfD soar in 2015 and 2016.
Frauke Petry had been such a rising star in German politics that the New Yorker profiled her just this past October. But in the wake of the controversy over Höcke and sliding polls, she decided in April not to run again for leadership of the AfD. (She’s also pregnant with her fifth child, which might have played a role in the decision.)
Instead, last month the AfD chose Weidel and a 76-year-old former Christian Democrat named Alexander Gauland to lead the party into the German federal elections in September. Gauland, who grew up in what was then East Germany, is known as a conventionally hardline right-winger. Weidel, on the other hand, seemed to offer an almost liberal, more reasonable hand on the tiller.
And Weidel’s sexuality has been offered as a means to show that the party is, in some ways, more open-minded than one would expect. It’s also been an excellent way to gin up publicity.
“My election and my high acceptance within the party show that, contrary to public perception, my party is tolerant,” Weidel told Anthony Faiola of the Washington Post in May. It’s not the only time she’s offered up her identity as a shield for the party.
“To be in favor of the traditional family does not mean you reject other lifestyles,” she told the Financial Times. “The fact that I was elected top candidate shows how tolerant [the party] is.”
But tolerance comes in many guises. Weidel isn’t a fan of the euro, but she’s happy to stay in the European Union, says Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund; she’d just like states that can’t keep up — like Greece — to leave. And like her predecessor, Weidel is decidedly unhappy about Merkel’s asylum and refugee policies.
“It just can’t happen that the state gives up control of its own borders,” she told the Local.de. In the same interview, she told the reporters that Germany should adopt a Canadian-style system of privileging skilled over unskilled immigrants.
Her sexuality notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom is that the selection of Weidel and Gauland is a signal the AfD remains just as hardline. At the party conference where Weidel was named to the top spot, the AfD approved a right-wing platform that proposed ending family reunification for migrants and expelling newcomers who commit major crimes.
Further, the party wants to close off Germany’s borders and put in place a system of immediate removal for those whose asylum applications have been denied. It is also staunchly pro-life.
Weidel herself claims she isn’t anti-Islam at all, but simply rejects Merkel’s immigration policies. That’s hard to square with the fact that she has been outspoken about rejecting the hijab. "Headscarves do not belong in public spaces and should be banned on the streets," she said in an interview with the German daily Tagesspiegel.
If her Twitter feed is any indicator, those kinds of statements aren’t isolated.
(The tweet reads: “Cross yes, headscarf no? Correct!” and below: “Men and women are not equal in Islam, and the headscarf is an absolutely sexist symbol.")
In an interview with Tagesspiegel, Weidel maintained that her party’s anti-migrant positions aren’t all that different from those held by Germany’s mainstream parties today. She’d like African refugees returned to Africa, and refugee asylum processing centers to be created outside of Europe. Asked how the AfD could increase its popularity, she said that they’d be doing even better if other parties didn’t continually steal their ideas.
The Tagesspiegel reporters also tried to pin down Weidel on the question everyone seems to have: How could a lesbian support a party that appears to be homophobic?
Weidel refused to bite. “I have never felt discriminated against,” she said, and maintained the only people who care about her sexuality are the reporters themselves.
Then in mid-June, the Green Party and the Social Democrats promised to make same-sex marriage a ballot-box issue. Soon after Angela Merkel suddenly back away from her own long-held opposition to same-sex marriage. “I had a life-changing experience in my home constituency,” she said onstage at an event sponsored by Brigitte magazine. She then narrated a story of meeting a lesbian couple caring for foster children who opened her eyes to what a loving LGBTQ home looked like. Later that week the Bundestag, the German parliament, approved same-sex marriage.
With a lesbian running a party that disavows formalizing her own union, the issue of what makes a family is sure to be talk show fodder. That will keep Weidel, and the contradictions inherent in her political identity, in the headlines until Germany goes to the polls this fall.
And any pressure Weidel can put on German elections in September will be closely watched, given the role Angela Merkel now plays as the world’s great counterweight to Donald Trump.