I STOOD OUTSIDE Zhang’s Chinese restaurant in the January cold, unsure if this was such a good idea. It was a bit after 6:00 p.m., already dark, and tonight was a special night in Oranienburg, a town of some 40,000 people 20 miles north of Berlin, just across the border into the state of Brandenburg.
The local chapter of the anti-immigration, right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or “AfD”) would be holding their monthly Stammtisch gathering here, an informal get-together billed as a chance for local residents to ask questions. My self-preservation instincts had suddenly switched on outside the restaurant as I thought about the AfD’s reputation for combativeness with journalists and outsiders, their revival of fascist tropes like the “Volk” (Hitler’s rallying cry for all Aryan peoples), and, not least, the concerned looks my German friends had given me. Would I become a target with my foreign accent and my attempts to ask probing questions? I didn’t so much fear any physical intimidation as much as an awkward rebuff with dozens of frosty gazes turned to the American interloper.
I reassured myself that, at worst, it would be uncomfortable, and I made my way up the stairs to the second-story restaurant to order dinner and await the other guests.
The new year of 2017 had come with Trump’s inauguration and AfD party leaders exuding confidence with Germany’s election approaching in September. In this moment of political crisis for the United States and Europe, I had hopes of catching a glimpse of a different side of contemporary Berlin that might shed light on this populist upsurge — a side rarely seen by the throngs of students and tourists reveling in the city’s topsy-turvy, multicultural mélange, hipster bars, or drunkenly eating kebabs in the fashionable Kreuzberg neighborhood. I’d have to look a bit further out to where hipster Berlin receded.
My friends cautioned me that Oranienburg was a Nazi stronghold (“Nazi” is used quite liberally by left-wing Germans for almost anyone on the right side of the political spectrum). The thought of a nativist stronghold so close to Berlin initially struck me as far-fetched, yet the predominantly white suburbs have experienced what sociologists have termed the “halo” effect: proximity to diverse, multicultural centers produces a right-wing reaction in the more homogeneous surrounding suburbs of such locales. Such communities see and fear cultural change at a distance but are unable to actually engage with immigrants, which has been shown to decrease xenophobic sentiments.
This affect fits places like Oranienburg perfectly. It’s far enough from Berlin to escape the bustle but close enough to go in for a Saturday day trip and see the changes and hear anecdotes about immigrant crime. Known mostly for its proximity to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and an opulent 17th-century Prussian palace, Oranienburg suffered a similar economic downturn to other East German towns after reunification as industries and companies shut down, unable to compete with western ones, and residents moved away.
That a drab Chinese restaurant might be the setting for a small piece of this dramatic postwar German history seemed incredible. As was explained to me later, Zhang’s was the only restaurant in town that would host the party’s gatherings. In the meantime, I had found my way to a back room of the restaurant where the meeting was to be held, with extra tables and a podium packed into the front. As I sat nervously finishing my sweet-and-sour chicken dish, the other guests began to arrive. A few men busily walked around the room putting up the AfD’s signature blue campaign posters with various populist slogans on them such as “Strengthen the Police,” “Secure the Borders,” and “All Power Comes from the People.”
I began to wonder at the AfD’s unashamed use of tropes that all Germans would instinctively associate with Nazism. For many Germans still today, celebrating even Mother’s Day is taboo for its association with Hitler’s valorization and promotion of motherhood as a means of increasing the birthrate. But these AfD sympathizers were throwing around terms like “Das Volk,” and speaking of empowering the police to sniff out “undesirables,” either ignorant of their past use or, worse, fully cognizant of their connotations.
A newcomer next to me, a man in his 40s, shared the simple lesson that the AfD had learned from Trump: “break taboos.” “We need to say those things no one else is willing to say,” he continued. A smile came over his face as he told me, just as the meeting was getting under way, “We’re going to stick our fingers into the wound, and twist.”
A rotund man in a suit, about 45 to 50 years old, stood up at the front of the room to welcome everyone and immediately launched into a screed against the family policies of all the other German parties that are destroying the “traditional family” of “man and woman.” The far left-wing party (Die Linke) doesn’t deserve much attention, he claimed, because they still bear the imprint of communist ideology and their platform doesn’t even mention “family” in any traditional sense. The truly dangerous party to him was the Greens. They are the most active in trying to get “women in power” and their obsession with a total expunging of gender roles goes “far beyond equality.” Equality is not pressuring women to enter the workforce, but rather letting them choose whether they wish to be mothers or work, he explained.
At this point, the speaker introduced a key term of derision used by the AfD when it comes to social policies, gender, and feminism, that of “gender-mainstreaming.” Not immediately familiar with the term, I eventually gathered that it referred to the attempt to engineer gender equality through coercion, top-down government action, and educational policy. The local AfD chapter leader was particularly concerned with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s novel use of feminine nouns in place of male-only words (one should now say Studenten und Studentinnen as opposed to just the male form Studenten for all students). Gender politics comes to the fatherland.
The restaurant filled with uproarious laughter when he mentioned a viral video in which an AfD politician in the Brandenburg state assembly, Steffen Königer, had recently mocked “politically correct gender greetings” (“Gendergerechte Begrüßung”) by opening his speech in the state assembly with 60 different gendered greetings. His “speech” began, “Dear Mr. President, dear ladies and gentlemen, dear gays, dear lesbians, dear androgynous, dear bigender, dear woman-to-man and dear man-to-woman, dear gender-variable, dear genderqueer, dear intersexual,” and so on. It was apparent that everyone in the room had seen this video and that Königer had become something of a local hero for his stunt.
I had been ready to hear anything, but the extreme derision directed at progressive feminist and sexual politics still surprised me. I had expected the AfD to be virulently anti-Muslim and anti-immigration, and I knew, of course, that they were nervous about the falling birthrates of ethnic Germans, but my stereotypes about Western Europe being more socially progressive than the United States had led me to assume that even AfD members were still far ahead of an American rural Republican when it came to questions like gender parity and gay rights. But while the social welfare state has provided certain key structural assurances to women such as maternity leave and cheaper daycare, this often masks the persistent misogyny and traditionalism permeating large swaths of Western Europe. AfD, like several other European populist parties, is now belatedly giving voice to a deeply masculine traditionalism that characterizes the European right.
Then politics got local. Two men put themselves forward to be the AfD mayoral candidates for Oranienburg in the fall election. The first introduced himself as a “native Oranienburger” who ran a store in the city. The gist of his pitch to the assembled guests was that Oranienburg had been made to suffer by policies imposed by greedy politicians from above: business costs have risen dramatically, redistricting has taken away his vote, and lax immigration policies have led to the city’s shops and stores being flooded with employees “whose names I can’t pronounce.” On this last point, the candidate was clearly responding to the recent influx of Syrian refugees, many of whom have been settled in Berlin. The swell of refugees has roiled German politics, taking what previously were calm, policy-driven debates about integrating old Turkish migrants and opening up nativist rhetoric not heard in mainstream German politics since the war.
The second candidate was much younger and had a young boy, his son, with him. He explained that he is an engineer and a single father from Berlin who is in the process of moving to Oranienburg. His main message to the crowd was that he doesn’t want Oranienburg to turn into the multicultural, left-wing bastion that Berlin has become. He is desperate to not let his son grow up in Berlin because of all the “chaos” (“Missverhältnisse”) there. Schools in Berlin have been pushing a leftist, pro-multicultural ideology, and he’s hopeful that in Oranienburg his children can receive an education “free of ideology.”
A quick glance at the AfD Oranienburg Facebook page shows the party’s obsession with what they see as a near societal breakdown. One post links to a newspaper report on a demonstration at the site of a storeowner being evicted, claiming it was evidence that Berlin is “almost at civil war–like conditions.” The page is covered with reports about the mobster underworld, immigrant criminality, supposed “no-go” areas where the police have lost control, and references to a New Year’s Eve mass-groping incident in Cologne.
I began to realize that driving this loathing of Berlin is a deep nostalgia for a city that no longer exists. The AfD is not purely an East German phenomenon — these were West Berliners who grew up during the Cold War who harbor a populist hatred of busy, multicultural Berlin and the politicians and federal bureaucracy that inhabit it. In this sense, they have a model: the Austrian-turned-Bavarian Adolf Hitler likewise never felt at home in Germany’s capital and made frequent remarks about the lack of patriotism he felt from its natives.
West Germany’s capital had been in the dull country town of Bonn. But on June 20, 1991, to cheering parliament members, the reunified Bundestag voted to officially return the German federal government to the city of Berlin. Although many federal departments would remain located elsewhere, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s Berlin’s city center again became the political heart of Germany, bustling with bureaucrats, politicians, and the media who follow them. The move conspicuously affected the rhythm of everyday life.
After the meeting was over, an older gentleman offered to drive me back to the train station, and I quickly accepted. Unsurprisingly, this man had also lived in West Berlin when he was younger, where he worked as a policeman. He began telling me about his memories of the wall coming down and his first trip into East Berlin. He seemed nostalgic and whimsical remembering these younger days. I presume similar memories intertwining Berlin’s momentous past, and the small part they played in it, animated the other elderly AfD members to whom I had just spoken. Their youth and the old Berlin seemed so far from the Berlin they know now.
My driver says as much as we approach the metro station that will take me back into the heart of Berlin: “But it’s all a lot worse now.” What did he mean? “Berlin used to be small for us, and we knew each other. Now it’s full of Turks and Arabs. It’s international, but not in a good way.”
In so many ways, Germany’s postwar politics have been considered an exception to the rule in Western countries. The trauma of Germany’s past nationalistic nightmare seemed to insulate it from the rise, rooted partly in cultural alienation, of extreme xenophobic and reactionary parties common in other nations after the 1960s. In my own experience, Germans almost went too far the other way, trying to erase any sense of national identity or symbolism. Whatever far-right sentiments existed in Germany today, I thought, must also be coming from economic troubles in the East.
But my evening at Zhang’s and the sense of resentment I found there for a multicultural, progressive Berlin by old West Berliners — not East Germans — made me realize that as the memory of genuine German fascism fades, the country’s politics are returning to nativist parties. There is a whiff of blood and soil in downmarket Chinese restaurants.