How the far-right AfD crept into Berlin's left-wing strongholds

The eastern outskirts of the German capital have remained bastions of support for the left ever since the collapse of the GDR. But in the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, the far-right AfD made staggering gains.

A child in a pink coat cycles across a patch of grass. Surrounding her, pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks match the pale Autumn sky.

Along one of the wide roads so characteristic of the former East, a single election poster is still left in the carpark of a local supermarket. It's for the neo-Nazi NPD party. It calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

This is Marzahn-Hellersdorf. On the eastern outskirts of Berlin, it is a world away from the achingly hip and trendy districts in the center.

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WorldLink: What’s going down in the East?

The Left party won the direct mandate here in Sunday's election – and that's the way it's been for decades. But this is also where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered the most votes in the German capital. More than one-in-five people here voted for the far-right populists, with the party boosting their share of the vote in the constituency by a huge 15 percent.

"What did we expect?" asks one man in his 40s, finishing his cigarette outside a shop. "I've always thought that different cultures don't fit together. The idea that Europeans have to make compromises for the Muslims – I don't know if I can put it like that, but I will anyway – people don't understand that, and neither do I."

But he also wants to make it clear he didn't vote for the AfD: "I like some of their policies, but there are too many right-wingers in there. That's it. If we're not careful, it could develop into the kind of party we've seen before – in 1933."

Read more: AfD in the Bundestag: Can Germany learn from Scandinavia's far-right problem? 


Siegbert Droese

The head of the AfD in Leipzig was the center of controversy in 2016 when newspapers reported that a car in his motor pool had the license plate: "AH 1818." "AH" are the initials of Adolf Hitler. 1 and 8, the first and eighth letters of the alphabet, are considered a code for Adolf Hitler among neo-Nazi groups.


Sebastian Münzenmaier

As the AfD's lead candidate in Rhineland-Palatinate, the 28-year-old Münzenmaier cruised to a seat in the Bundestag. Münzenmaier made headlines in October when he was convicted of being an accessory to assault in a case of football hooliganism. But because that's considered a minor offense, he is able to exercise his mandate.


Albrecht Glaser

The 75-year-old former CDU man is the AfD's choice for Bundestag vice-president, but members of the other parties say they won't approve his candidacy. Glaser once opined that Muslims shouldn't enjoy freedom of religion because Islam is a political ideology. Critics reject that view as unconstitutional.


Markus Frohnmaier

Frohnmaier is the chair of the party's youth organization, Junge Alternative. The 28-year-old wrote in August 2016 on Facebook that "our generation will suffer the most" from Merkel's decision to "flood this country with the shoddy proletariat from Africa and the Orient."


Martin Reichardt

The former soldier from Lower Saxony once told a journalist that he had no problem with "Germany for the Germans," a phrase that is often used by neo-Nazi groups. He has also collectively described the Green Party and The Left party as "constitutional enemy No. 1."


Wilhelm von Gottberg

The 77-year-old from Brandenburg was vice president of the Federation of Expellees (BdV) until 2012. He wrote in the newspaper "Ostpreussenblatt" in 2001 that he agreed with the statement that the Holocaust was a "myth" and an "effective instrument to criminalize the Germans and their history."


Jens Maier

In January, the Dresden judge railed against the "creation of mixed nationalities" that are "destroying national identity." He has also called for an end to Germany's "culture of guilt" surrounding the country's actions in the Second World War.


Beatrix von Storch

The AfD's vice-chair is an MP in the European parliament and is known for her hardline conservative views. In 2016, she replied affirmatively to a Facebook user who had asked her whether armed force should be used to stop women with children from illegally entering Germany. She later apologized for the comment.


Alexander Gauland

One of the AfD's top candidates, Gauland was widely criticized after suggesting that the German government's commissioner for integration, Aydan Özoguz, should be "disposed of" in Turkey because she had said that there was no specifically German culture beyond the German language.


Alice Weidel

The 38-year-old economist was the AfD's other top candidate. Despite living in Switzerland, Weidel ran for the Baden-Württemberg constituency of Bodensee. She drew criticism for describing Germany's integration commissioner Aydan Özoguz, who has Turkish roots, as a "stain" and a "disgrace." In a contested email attributed to Weidel, she called Angela Merkel's government "pigs" and "puppets."


Frauke Petry

For a long time Frauke Petry was the face of the AfD, and she's one of the more recognizable figures in the Bundestag. But she's no longer a member of the right-wing populist party. Petry quit shortly after the election after falling out with other leaders. Because she won her voting district outright, she still gets a Bundestag mandate, where she sits as an independent.

'Tolerance has to have its limits'

In this part of the city, the Left party lost almost seven percent of its voters to the AfD.

"People do feel somehow forgotten," an old man says as his wife tries to hurry him into the car. On top of concerns about pensions and rising rents, Germany's decision to take in a million refugees has left many feeling the locals aren't getting enough support.

"I think its a shame that the AfD didn't win," says Ronny, a young man in a black jacket and trainers. "As it says on their posters – tolerance has to have its limits. When it comes to the asylum seekers, I've got nothing against them. But seriously, so many, and only in Marzahn and poor areas like this?"

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Read more: Fear and understanding after AfD win in Görlitz 

DW Marzahn Hellersdorf - Umfrage Wahl

Ronny: 'Other parties have good ideas for the future. But we have to do something about the present'

He slopes off across the car park. Apart from the Vietnamese man quietly selling bootleg cigarettes round the side of the shop, there don't seem to be many migrants around. But almost 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers were housed in this district, according to figures from last year.

That's around 6.5 percent of the asylum seekers living in Berlin. And it's true that Marzahn-Hellersdorf is poor. A local government report from 2015 shows 23 percent of people receive welfare benefits – above Berlin's average 19 percent.

Social struggles

For years, the Left party's focus on social issues has ensured its success in poorer areas of the former East. But the AfD has capitalized on struggling voters in places like Marzahn-Hellersdorf – a source of frustration for local Left party politicians.

DW Marzahn Hellersdorf - Umfrage Wahl

Bjoern Tielebein: 'The Left has to remain an everyday party'

"Lots of people here live in difficult social situations, and they think the AfD has something to offer them," says Bjoern Tielebein, who organized the Left party's local election campaign. "We've tried to make it clear that that's not the case."

"The AfD doesn't stand for social equality, in fact it's the opposite," he says outside his office in the local town hall. "My party has tried to put a clear social program at the forefront of the political discussion, but unfortunately it has been overshadowed in a discussion only about migration and asylum. For us, it's always got to be about social justice, and people aren't going to be better off just because there are fewer refugees here."

But down the road at the AfD's office, that's not the way the party's local candidate Jeanette Auricht sees it. She came second to the Left party's Petra Pau, who has been voted into the Bundestag in the last five elections.

AfD - Jeanette Aurich

Jeanette Auricht: 'People have understood that 30 years of leftwing politics has not helped them move forwards'

"Of couse we have to help refugees – people actually fleeing war – the AfD has always said that. But we can't bring in a million economic migrants, that doesn't work," Auricht says. "For years, there hasn't been any money for new schools, for infrastructure; libraries have closed, swimming pools can't be refurbished. The money was never there, but suddenly now it is. That's very difficult to explain to people on the street and I also wonder myself where all that money is coming from."

An alternative to the establishment? 

But Auricht argues it's not just the migration issue that draws people to the AfD – and its voters aren't only poorer people, either. "It's only been 30 years since we became part of a free democratic country, in which we can vote freely. So party loyalty might not be as strong. And I think a lot of people have memories of the GDR when there was also an imposing partner – Moscow – and people connect that with the EU. A lot of things are decided in Brussels and not in Berlin, and for many people, that's very unsettling."

Read more: 'Forgotten' Duisburg voters turn to AfD

The AfD has also made gains where the Left has been a victim of its own success, Bjoern Tielebein admits. Some voters no longer see their party as an alternative to establishment politics. "We can't just be a party for election day, and some people seem to think that that's what we're increasingly becoming," he says. "So we've got a serious challenge to get back to that."

Future worries, past fears 

DW Marzahn Hellersdorf - Umfrage Wahl

Mirko: 'Politicians weren't listening to people'

On the square outside the town hall, market traders are packing away for the evening. In denim dungarees and a mullet hairstyle, the market's organizer, Mirko, looks straight out of the GDR.

"All the established parties are to blame, because no one responded to the citizens needs," he says, in a thick East Berlin accent.  "The problems didn't start today, or yesterday, but years ago – that's nothing to do with the AfD. I'm still working now, but when I retire, will I be able to afford my rent? No one can answer me that – or they don't want to."

Many people here say they feel left behind by politics. But a lot are also wondering what the AfD is going to do beyond putting a voice to that sentiment. One pensioner, who grew up in Marzahn-Hellersdorf and experienced life under the Nazis as well as the GDR, said he was horrified by the rise of the far-right. "Most of the people who voted for the AfD are against things without being for anything," he says. "There's a lot of emotion there, but not much reason."

Back at the local supermarket, people wander out clutching enough for a single dinner: a frozen Schnitzel; a chocolate pudding. Whichever way they voted, people here hope the district's election results will force politics to pay attention.

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01:46 mins.
DW News | 26.09.2017

Exploring the heartland of AfD support