A hush fell over the Willy Brandt Haus, the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), when the results of the German federal election were announced on Sunday. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right party, a party with members who have argued for shooting refugees and against German atonement for the Holocaust, received 12.6 percent of the vote. Its success came at the expense both of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which lost 8.6 percent of its seats, and the SPD, which, with 20.5 percent of the vote, saw its worst result since the end of World War II.
Party members and guests stood in silence, shaking their heads. Passing journalists sniffed around for quotes. Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, gave a halting speech in which he exhorted the party to fight against extremism. He left the stage and the room began to clear.
Until recently, the German election seemed to have a foregone conclusion: Merkel and the CDU, with its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would sail into a fourth term of government; other parties would experience relatively little shakeup. Posters with bland slogans (“For a Germany in which we live well and happily”) papered trees and poles in Berlin. At campaign rallies, party members handed out shoehorns and novelty wooden spoons to spread their messages.
The only major sign of the election in my neighborhood was a large CDU center that opened up in Mitte a few blocks from where I live—the first time any party had opened such a center, the receptionist proudly told me. When I visited last week, the place was almost empty. A photo booth allowed visitors to take pictures of themselves with pro-Merkel slogans. (“Because she keeps her promises.” “Because she governs without scandal and drama.”) Around the corner, an interactive display turned people’s faces into emojis. Stand perfectly still, and you’d be replaced by a round, yellow Merkel head.
The chancellor was set to arrive a few hours later to hold a press conference for children. She told the assembled kids that, if she weren’t chancellor, she’d want to be an “astronaut flying over the earth,” and that her favorite hobby was growing potatoes.
The apparent calm of the election belied the real concerns of the German public, concerns evident in the election results. Merkel began her campaign late and then barely campaigned; she gave plain speeches that rarely mentioned her opponents. To the eyes of the public, the two major parties seemed nearly identical. This provided the AfD with an opening to be the opposition. If people turned to a party that said the unspeakable, it was partly because very speakable things weren’t being said at all.
The German political system is parliamentary, and for the last four years, the two major parties, the SPD and Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, have governed together in a so-called Grand Coalition. In some ways, the coalition has been good for the SPD, Clara West, a party representative in Berlin, told me. It helped the party push through certain important measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage. But being part of a coalition made it hard for the party to claim these victories as its own.
At a rally at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin last Friday, Schulz complained about Merkel’s party’s taking credit for the SPD’s political program. “What, then, is the difference between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz?” he asked. If “the SPD promised that the sun would shine over the Gendarmenmarkt, one can assume that two hours later a report would come from a press agency: The CDU’s committee on weather conditions, led by Angela Merkel, had already planned it for fourteen days.”
“Merkel and Schulz: they agree,” read a headline after the one TV debate of the election season, in which the two candidates seemed to bat canned answers back and forth. The four other parties that will enter the Bundestag, or Parliament—in addition to the AfD, the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Greens, and the far-left Die Linke—were relegated to a follow-up show the next evening. Merkel and Schulz barely discussed the eurozone. Education and NATO spending did not come up.
Voters noticed the lack of political debate, and complained. At a rally for Die Linke, an eighteen-year-old physics student told me that politics had become too sleepy. Merkel had been chancellor since the student had been six years old. Reelected, she would govern well into his time at university.
“Things don’t come into the political discussion when the same party is in power,” he said. After the TV debate, the AfD’s polling numbers rose.
On Saturday, I went to north-east Berlin, where both the SPD and the AfD were canvassing voters in front of a mall. Activists from the two parties worked off the same sidewalk, barely looking at each other. At the SPD booth, party members talked with voters, hugged them, and asked about their lives. At the AfD booth, a long line of journalists waited to interview a single supporter.
Heinz, eighty-one, a former East German soldier, and his wife Christine, seventy-five, said they would vote SPD, even though they were disappointed by the party’s performance. “Schulz should have fought more. He should have been more on the offensive,” Heinz said. At least the AfD “actually talked about what people are complaining about.” For him, this was the American airbase in Ramstein, which he hoped would soon close.
The central issue of the campaign, migration, barely came up at all in most of the speeches by Merkel and Schulz. Merkel herself hardly mentioned the subject in her campaign, as if hoping the issue would simply go away. The CDU’s “strategy was to not talk about it, hoping in vain that voters wouldn’t realize it,” Dr. Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund told me.
In the absence of debate, the AfD’s xenophobic nationalism set the agenda for every other party. Christian Lindner, the head of the libertarian FDP, which has reentered the Bundestag with 10 percent of the vote after failing to meet the 5 percent threshold in 2013, gave an interview to the right-wing tabloid Bild that was headlined “All refugees must go back!”
When the AfD hired an American company, Harris Media, to run the party’s final advertising push, the consultants were criticized for suggesting the slogan “Germany for Germans.” Yet it was a member of Merkel’s own cabinet, Thomas de Maizière, who in April published an article in Bild that attempt to define German culture in anti-immigrant terms: “We are not Burka…. Our country is molded by Christianity.”
Nearly all the parties called for more police presence and increased deportations of illegal immigrants. Such policies would once have been “unthinkable,” an SPD member told me while handing out flyers. Soon after, a voter came over to the stall to complain about how much refugees were costing the country.
No candidate in the election proposed a future in which migrants could be anything but a source of crime or discord; no party articulated any other kind of vision for German society. Voters could barely have been faulted for forgetting that, just two years ago, the chief executive of the automaker Daimler suggested that an influx of migrants could be a “new economic miracle” for Germany. In this election, when violence was mentioned, it was only Islamic terrorism; hate crimes against migrants in Germany, which rose last year to nearly ten incidents a day, did not figure at all, from my observation.
At his rally on Friday, Martin Schulz brought a Holocaust victim onto the stage and kissed her on the forehead. The AfD, he said, were “the gravediggers of democracy.” He called for “tolerance.” But migrants and people of color seemed nearly absent from the political stage, even as sentiment against them pushed people to the polls.
No one knows what the AfD will do in the Bundestag. For the moment, pundits are buzzing about a so-called “Jamaica” coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the Greens, and the FPD, whose party colors make up those of the Jamaican flag. This would allow the SPD to act as the opposition, possibly weakening the AfD. “Tonight our collaboration with the CDU is over,” Schulz said Sunday night, getting the biggest cheer of the evening.
Yet the negotiations over such a governing coalition could take months, and it’s unclear whether these three very different parties would be able to work together. If that partnership doesn’t work, the CDU will have to try another grand coalition with the SPD; if the SPD were to refuse, there could be another election in January, Dr. Lochocki told me. He predicted that the right wing of the CDU will now gain more power as the party tries to recover from its losses. The idea of a CDU-AfD coalition at some point in the future does not seem impossible: some CDU members have already tried to cooperate with the AfD in state parliaments.
As for the AfD, this election was a greater success than its leaders had hoped for. Georg Pazderski, the head of the party in Berlin, told me on Saturday that any result in the double digits would be a considered a win. “Voters are waking up,” he said. On the sidewalk, another AfD member was handing out white roses along with a pamphlet on Christian values.
“White! The color of innocence,” he yelled. Most passersby accepted the roses. “It is becoming easier to support the AfD,” Pazderski said. “It will be easier when we sit in the Bundestag.”
Madeleine Schwartz, a former member of the New York Review of Books editorial staff, lives in Berlin, where she is a Robert Bosch Foundation fellow.