Sunday was a dark day for Germany. For the first time in its postwar history, a far-right party won enough votes to enter the Bundestag. And not by a hair, either — the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 12.6 percent, ahead of stalwart parties like the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, making it the third-largest caucus among the seven represented in the Parliament. It’s shocking. It’s a catastrophe.
And yet Sunday was also a great day for Germany. It was a demonstration of the stability and health of the country’s postwar democracy. It was proof that its system is resilient in a crisis. It was a demonstration of Germany’s serenity and maturity.
I will try to explain why both can be true at the same time.
It’s a sad day because some 5.8 million Germans cast their vote for the AfD. Founded in 2013 by a mélange of ultra-conservatives, right-wing economists and assorted fringe groups who were concerned about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s adamant commitment to the euro, the party adopted an anti-immigrant stance, galvanized by the 2015-16 refugee crisis.
In both its platform and the public statements by AfD representatives, the party increasingly used racist language. The AfD regards the German people as a coherent biological body under threat to be “destroyed” by immigration. It strives to protect Germany’s “endemic” culture against immigrant cultures, which it regards as inferior.
Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s two front-runners, recently demanded that Aydan Ozogus, a policy maker of Turkish descent, be “disposed of” in Turkey. He also said that Germany could be proud of “the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” In a statement after the election results, Mr. Gauland said “We will take back our country and our people.” The AfD will receive about 94 out of approximately 709 seats in the new parliament, meaning many even more obscure figures than Mr. Gauland will sweep into the Bundestag, people sympathizing with extremist groups and conspiracy theorists.
But there’s another way to look at these results. Only two years after 890,000 immigrants entered Germany almost at the same time, nearly overloading the system; only one year and nine months after gangs of young men, many of whom were immigrants from northern Africa, sexually harassed hundreds of women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne; only months after a series of terrorist attacks in Germany, one in the very capital of the country, left 12 dead — after all this, 87 percent of German voters still cast their ballot for parties other than the anti-immigration, far-right AfD.
No matter what the AfD tried to argue during the closing weeks of the race, the past year and a half tells a story of national unity rather than of national agony.
Given the relatively staid nature of German politics, it may be hard for outsiders to grasp just how contentious the past two years have been. In January 2016, just after the Cologne attacks, the atmosphere in Germany was close to ignition. Trust in the government sharply dropped, and so did Mrs. Merkel’s poll numbers. Some polls put the AfD as high as 15 percent.
But then the governing coalition of center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats changed its policy. The Bundestag passed a series of laws restricting immigration, and it gave enhanced powers to police and intelligence services. Mrs. Merkel, a Christian Democrat, pushed an agreement with Turkey to hold back refugees in exchange for financial support.
Not all these policies are smart. Some will hinder the integration of refugees and other immigrants who are in Germany to stay. But many are reasonable and necessary, and none undermine the coalition government’s basic commitment to help refugees. And they shored up public support for Mrs. Merkel, for the government and for the country’s refugee policy.
If you look at democracy as a marketplace of ideas and positions, Germany’s political economy has actually worked extremely well over the past year. The AfD surged because of a market gap for stricter immigration laws — and when the established parties adopted policies to fill this gap, the extremists were robbed of their fuel. Today, according to one poll, only 50 percent of Germans consider refugees an “important problem.” In this week’s election, people cared deeply about education, about elderly care, about North Korea. Refugee policy was one important topic, but not the dominant one.
Sixty percent said they voted for the AfD because they were dissatisfied with the established parties. But even that response is a good sign; it shows that we do not necessarily have five million racists living among us. This was a belated act of protest, not a shift in the country’s ideological landscape.
Many Germans have nagged their way through this campaign — too dull, they said, too boring, not confrontational enough. I found that annoying: What sort of election did they want? The kind that features a candidate who calls his opponent “crooked”?
On Sunday, Germans had the option of two capable and experienced major candidates, and many more in a variety of smaller parties, representing pretty much every political viewpoint. For the most part, these are people who really care about the country, and have a deep knowledge of the most important issues. Two thirds of all eligible voters actually went to vote. Most of them voted for liberal democracy. The headlines on Monday were ominous. But we should not forget what a lucky bunch we are.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.