This summer the pretty, peaceful town of Görlitz in eastern Germany was roiled by its biggest demonstrations in years. The trigger — a scuffle at a high-school graduation party.
What began as a fight at a popular disco, the L2 Club, quickly escalated into unrest that appeared to capture Germany’s political divisions over migration. While the police were making inquiries, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party sprang into action.
It called for a protest against “migrant violence”, and within two days, hundreds of locals took to the streets.
Referring to the brawl at the L2, in which eight people were hurt, Sebastian Wippel, a former police officer who sits for the party in Görlitz city council, said: “We never had this kind of thing before . . . The aggressors were quite clearly foreigners.”
The L2 incident fed a narrative that the AfD has been peddling for years: that rising immigration is threatening the German way of life and making the country less safe.
“They just couldn’t believe their luck,” said Jana Lübeck, a leftwing councillor. The AfD used the L2 “to sketch out a dystopia that I’ve never experienced in Görlitz”.
Famed for its Gothic spires and baroque mansions, Görlitz has long been a happy hunting ground for the AfD: the party makes up the largest group in the town council and Wippel nearly won elections to become mayor there in 2019.
But now the popularity of the party — sections of which have been designated extremist by German domestic intelligence, and one of whose leaders is to stand trial for using banned Nazi slogans — is spreading far beyond such eastern strongholds.
Nationally it is polling at nearly 22 per cent, ahead of all three parties in chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition: the Social Democrats, Greens and liberal Free Democrats.
The party’s poll success means it is increasingly setting the tone in Berlin too, where centre-ground politicians are finding themselves dragged into a debate on race and immigration they are ill-equipped to fight. Friedrich Merz, leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, recently made waves by calling his party “an Alternative for Germany — with substance”.
Many now worry what the AfD’s strength could mean for three crucial elections next year, in the eastern states of Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia. Some polls suggest the party could win all three.
It will not actually be able to rule: no one else will work with it. But if it continues on its current trajectory, some German states could struggle to form workable government coalitions, especially in the east.
“There is a real risk that Saxony in particular will become ungovernable,” said Jana Krauss, a councillor with the group Motor-Görlitz/Alliance Greens.
Observers cite myriad factors for the AfD’s recent surge. Discontent about inflation and high energy prices plays a role, as does anger over a recent law to speed up the switch from gas boilers to heat pumps.
The AfD, which says it wants to see a ceasefire in Ukraine and has condemned the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia, has also provided a vehicle for Germans unhappy with Scholz’s support for Kyiv.
But pollsters say the key to the party’s success is immigration. “We have a huge influx of migrants into Europe right now, just as large as during the 2015-16 refugee crisis,” said Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at Mainz University. “And that’s the AfD’s big issue.”
Karsten, a Görlitz native, said the party’s stance on refugees appealed to many in the town. “The government isn’t listening to the people on this — they’re just completely ignoring us,” he said. “The AfD is really the only alternative.”
Authorities in Germany recorded more than 204,000 asylum applications this year to the end of August, an increase of 77 per cent on last year. That was in addition to the 1.1mn Ukrainian refugees who have found a haven in Germany since Russia launched its invasion 19 months ago.
Local municipalities are struggling to accommodate the newcomers. “Germany is at its limit,” the country’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said last week. He had been hearing “loud calls for help from . . . German cities” and took them “very seriously”, he said.
The AfD in Görlitz, which lies on the border with Poland, has made hay with irregular migration. “No other issue worries people as much,” said Wippel.
Earlier this month the party called an emergency meeting of Görlitz town council, moving that the town’s capacity to absorb more refugees was “exhausted” and that any further allocations would “endanger order and security”.
Pointing to the fight at the L2, Wippel claimed the influx was making Görlitz more dangerous. Others dispute that.
Critics accused the AfD of exploiting the incident for political purposes. The town’s mayor said they had exaggerated the scale of the fight at the L2; in the end, 10 young men were detained after the brawl and only two, both Syrians, remained in custody.
“You shouldn’t generalise on the basis of a couple of incidents,” said mayor Octavian Ursu of the CDU. “The idea that crime is increasing and the security situation deteriorating because of the refugees is just not borne out by police statistics.” Saxony police say that immigrants committed 4 per cent fewer crimes last year.
Yet the AfD used the L2 fight to suggest Görlitz was experiencing a breakdown in law and order. “They’re trying to undermine trust in the organs of the state, and in doing so, weaken them,” said Krauss, the Greens councillor.
A fellow councillor from the group Motor Görlitz/ Alliance Greens, Mike Altmann, who took part in the town council debate said the AfD group were just “scaremongers and doomsayers”. They had put on a “show” that left him “numbed and tired”.
“I was amazed at the vehemence with which they maligned our town,” Altmann said.
Altmann rejected the image of Görlitz as an AfD stronghold, saying that was a distortion that could scare off the foreign skilled workers the town so desperately needs.
“Yes, they have a core electorate of 30 per cent,” he said. “But when I feel optimistic, that means two-thirds of people here don’t vote AfD.”
But Lukas Rietzschel, a novelist who lives in Görlitz, said the AfD’s “scare tactics” were now “determining the discourse” in the town.
Rietzschel ruffled feathers recently by calling for the AfD to be banned. A democracy, he wrote, should defend itself against “actors who plan its liquidation”. Soon afterwards he found threatening messages in his letterbox. “They said ‘you have interesting views’,” Rietzschel recalled. “And ‘we know where you live’.”
To illustrate the AfD’s growing influence, Rietzschel cited the example of August’s summer festival in Görlitz Old Town. A few days before, a forged document emerged, allegedly from the German border police, noting an unspecified “increased security risk”. The AfD picked it up and spread it on social media. There were calls for the festival to be cancelled.
“The mayor was forced to issue a statement assuring citizens they’d be safe,” Rietzschel said. “The whole town went completely gaga.”
For him it showed how successful rightwing parties are at pushing “post-factual” narratives. “Facts just don’t seem to matter any more,” he said.