On Sunday, September 4, Germans in the small northeast German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern dealt German Chancellor Angela Merkel a stunning setback: Her Christian Democratic Union party finished third in a statewide election with just 19 percent of the vote. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which didn’t exist at the time of the last state election in 2011, captured close to 21 percent after a campaign that emphasized hostility to Merkel’s policy of opening Germany’s gates wide to more than a million immigrants and refugees over the past year and a half. Politicians of all stripes—not least within her own party—now see a possibility of ending Merkel’s 11-year reign as chancellor and 16 years as party leader. The chancellor has not yet announced whether she will seek a fourth term in national elections to be held next year.
AfD’s rise has been meteoric. It has also been revealing of the profound disruption of the German party system precipitated by Merkel’s determination to stick by her decision to welcome millions of immigrants to Germany. The new party was founded in 2013 by politician Alexander Gauland, economist Bernd Lucke, and journalist Konrad Adam. Initially, it was essentially a Euroskeptic party whose principal support came from conservative economists fearful that the euro crisis would increase pressure on Germany from her European partners to scrap treaties stipulating that the European Union would never become a “transfer union” in which prosperous states like Germany would be called upon to prop up weak economies elsewhere. Several AfD-affiliated economists even brought a case to the German Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of the chancellor’s dealings with the Eurozone.
But this party of economists was a fairly staid affair—conservative in culture as well as economic outlook. It was a party of the far right but not a strident populist protest party like Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France or Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party in the U.K. AfD leader Bernd Lucke even opposed an alliance with UKIP in the European Parliament: Farage’s disciples were not his kind of people.
Between 2013 and 2015, however, the AfD’s outspoken hostility to Chancellor Merkel and the European Union began to attract a rowdier, more popular membership, which formed a separate faction led by Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch. Hostility to immigration had begun to increase throughout Germany, especially in the former communist east. The explicitly anti-Islamic Pegida movement mounted weekly demonstrations in Dresden and other cities. But after Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann was discredited by pictures of himself disguised as Hitler posted on Facebook, support for Pegida waned, and many who had been attracted by the movement gravitated toward the AfD.
The influx of new members shifted the balance of power within party councils, and in March 2016 Lucke was ousted as leader and replaced by Petry, who had called on German police to shoot immigrants seeking to “enter the country illegally.” Immigration became the party’s central issue, supplanting Eurozone economics, and most of the economists who had initially dominated party councils resigned.
It is no secret, then, that the rise of the AfD was fueled by the chancellor’s open-door policy on refugees. So why did Merkel choose the course she did? On August 31, 2015, as tens of thousands of refugees were making their way across Europe and bodies of the less fortunate were being plucked daily from the Mediterranean, Merkel gave a press conference in which she pronounced the now famous words, “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!). Several months later she repeated the phrase: “We’ve done so much already, we can do this!” And there were several more variants: “We can do this because Germany is a strong country.” For Germans, Wir schaffen das! became the chancellor’s trademark. Some admired her for it; others, including the increasingly vocal xenophobic faction of the AfD, not so much.
Mrs. Merkel had previously been known as a supremely cautious leader, who generally avoided taking any decision until it was absolutely necessary and only after extensive consultations. But in this case she seemed to be reacting impulsively and emotionally to increasingly dire accounts of the plight of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. She seems to have consulted little with other German leaders, and it is clear that there was immediate opposition from powerful figures within her own party, most notably Horst Seehofer, the chair of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The logistical problems associated with the absorption of more than a million refugees in such a short period of time were obvious to many observers.
Merkel uncharacteristically brushed aside all bureaucratic caution, however. Compassion may have been one motivation, charity another, and a desire to atone for the German past a third. The chancellor may also have wanted to refurbish Germany’s image, which had been severely damaged by the country’s role in the Greek debt crisis. In the protracted negotiations with Greece, Germany’s face had been that of perpetually scowling finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, an ally of Merkel’s but also a rival, who in the wake of the chancellor’s Wir schaffen das! warned that the open-door policy risked burying the country under an “avalanche” of refugees. Schäuble also worried loudly and publicly about the cost of feeding, housing, educating, and retraining such large numbers of people. On the other hand, he acknowledged that Germany needs more young workers to sustain its aging populating and also, less plausibly, suggested that Europe needed an infusion of foreign blood to protect itself against the dangers of inbreeding.
Another puzzle is the failure to consult with Germany’s neighbors. Over the past 11 years the chancellor has not shown herself to be especially flexible in her dealings with other EU member states, but she has generally gone out of her way to explain her positions in private before publicly announcing her decisions. On immigration she has followed her own instincts, however. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls took the occasion of a visit to Munich to criticize Merkel’s immigration policy on German soil. He voiced sentiments that were widely shared across the continent: that Merkel’s generosity was misguided, that it could only entice more people to uproot themselves and seek their fortunes in a Europe that could not accommodate them all, and that it would encourage xenophobic reactions. In one of the rare signs that she was at all deterred by criticism of her policies, Merkel struck a bargain with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to limit the flow of refugees through Turkey, but other European leaders criticized her for making this deal without prior consultation and thereby opening Europe to potential Turkish blackmail—a fear that has taken more concrete form since the recent coup in Turkey.
This past Sunday’s election shows that Merkel has paid a serious price for extending the welcome mat to refugees. How history judges her momentous decision will depend on how the situation evolves. The refugee crisis has exposed deep divisions in Europe, with hostility to immigration especially intense in former Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary and Poland. Much of Merkel’s time over the past several years has been devoted to holding Europe together through convergent storms. In the economic crisis she has been successful in imposing German terms on Europe, in ways that have often seemed selfish and callous. In the refugee crisis, her instincts have been the opposite: altruistic and compassionate. Yet in the end her more generous, less self-interested impulses may prove to be the undoing of both her remarkable tenure as chancellor and of the European Union she has worked so hard to remake in Germany’s image.