Center Affiliate Gökce Yurdakul and her collaborators examine how far right parties in Germany whip up a sense of emergency and danger around the issue of immigration and dictate what it means to be a true German.
By Gökce Yurdakul, Özgür Özvatan, and Bernhard Forchtner
Excerpt from the fieldnotes of Gökce Yurdakul:
On a sunny day in June 2017, I was driving my daughter to school down Kurfürstendamm, one of the major streets of Berlin. As I stopped at a red light, my then ten-year-old daughter asked from the back seat: “What is sexism?” It was too early in the morning to answer such a profound question. “Where did you read it?” I shouted back to her. “Here on the poster,” she pointed out. I turned my head to the left. A gigantic poster showed the backs of three skinny women in bikinis walking on the beach. The headline read, “Burkas? We Prefer Bikinis.” There was a huge word written in red spray-painted graffiti: “Sexism.” It was an election poster sponsored by the AfD. With the women in bikinis, the party (arguably) wanted to show its support for women’s self-determination over their bodies. Obviously, someone was upset about this poster, and got the red spray paint to release their anger. The traffic light turned green. My daughter was still waiting for a reply from me regarding the definition of sexism.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric in Germany has become increasingly pronounced since the early 2000s, even though far-right actors and their narratives have been present since the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany. The political high point of the “Germany against Islam” movement was in 2010 when Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democrat and former senator of finance in Berlin, published the bestseller Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) claiming that Muslim immigrants outbreed “true” Germans. More recently, the same rhetoric has been taken up by the populist far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD). Founded in 2013 in response to the European debt crisis and Germany’s involvement in “bailing out” Greece, the party evolved through various stages, increasingly campaigning on an anti-Islam and ethnonationalist ticket.1 Eventually, the AfD entered the German Bundestag, or Parliament, in 2017. Since then, the party oscillates between 12 and 17 percentage points in polls, which makes established parties increasingly wonder how to deal with the party, its stories, and supporters.
The AfD has thus become a focal point of far-right activism, although it is not the only actor in the German far right. The party uses rhetoric similar to other far-right populist parties, pointing to an alleged “invasion” by Muslims, and “a creeping land grab,” in the words of AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, while the “pure people” are tricked by a “sinister elite” that betrays the supposedly true will of the German people. Anti-elite sentiments in the AfD’s campaigns often position “the people” in opposition to the supposedly corrupt—or at least deluded—elite. If the people do not rally around a solution, in this case the AfD, a catastrophe such as the disintegration of German society is to be expected. Consequently, the major slogan of the AfD in the 2017 elections was “Have Courage, Germany!” This presupposes that taking the party’s position requires courage to break free of the “yoke” imposed by the elites in power. Owing to this amalgam of neoracist, ethnonationalist, and populist postures, the AfD can indeed be defined as a far-right party or, in the words of Cas Mudde, a “populist radical right party.”
Yet the contemporary radical right, as a whole, is not limited to anti-Islam rhetoric. Indeed, as sociologist Dorit Geva argues, gender dominance is deeply ingrained in these actors’ ideology. In her work on the political party of Marine LePen, originally called the French National Front, Geva has illustrated how LePen became a focal point for gendered symbolism, populist repertoires, and radical-right ideologies. In this context, we extend this analysis to the German far right, including (but not limited to) the AfD’s gendered symbolism, by looking at three prevalent stereotypes: (1) women in bikinis, (2) dangerous Muslim men, and (3) blonde German “heroines.” To illustrate the first two symbols, we draw on political communication by the AfD and public statements by far-right political actors. The third gendered symbol is exemplified in the far-right magazine Compact, which devoted a whole issue to the tradition of German women. Taken together, these examples are intended to mobilize German voters towards a “safe” and “pure” Germany.
Women in Bikinis: Sexism or Self-Determination?
Bikinis were not the only image dominating AfD election posters. The visual and conceptual intersection of Muslims, gender, and Germanness appeared as well. For example, one poster showed three women in traditional German folk dresses (called dirndl). All have glasses of wine in their hands, and in the background we see wine grapes. The poster featured the slogan, “Burka? We prefer Burgundy!” Another striking poster frequently decorating the streets of Berlin referred to the allegedly high fertility level among migrants. It showed a pregnant belly of a white woman lying on green grass with the headline, “New Germans? We make them ourselves!”2 Yet another political ad showed a woman wearing a burka, with the headline “The freedom of women is not negotiable,” implying that fully veiled women in Islam are oppressed. Similar to the women in bikinis, another poster showed a topless woman sunbathing on the beach with the slogan, “Topless on the beach, instead of covered in Burka? With us, also during Ramadan.” In all cases, the visual stimuli use gender—implicitly or explicitly—to suggest a contrast of “illiberal” Muslims and Muslim traditions (e.g., Ramadan, veiling) with “liberal” German ethnonational identity and traditions (e.g., “free body culture” or Freikörperkultur, wearing dirndl, German wine).
Dangerous Muslim Men: A Potential Security Threat to Germany
However, it is not only women who are heavily gendered, but also Muslim men. Leyla Bilge, a prominent member in the AfD—who was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, came to Germany as a child, joined the AfD in 2016, and converted to Christianity in 2017—is particularly vocal. In 2018, she initiated the so-called Women’s March and the AfD’s Women's Congress. The purpose of the march was to encourage solidarity among “traditional” German women. In her media interviews and public speeches,3 she acts as a cultural code-breaker for Germans, “justifying” wider opposition to Islam in terms of women being oppressed by Muslim men. For instance, in a public talk, Bilge said that she knows from her own experience how violent Muslim men can be. She warned the public against “mistaken tolerance,” disparaged the political correctness of those who would attack skeptics of Islam for being racists and Nazis, and criticized the sympathy shown to Muslims, migrants, and refugees in Germany. She predicated Muslim men as potential public threats to women in Germany. Concluding her public speech, she said that the AfD is the only party which truly cares for the future of Germany.
Among the anti-Muslim rhetoric, the predominant threat seems to be that of Muslim men. A media analysis of Syrian male refugeesshowed that Muslim men were represented as a potential threat to Western countries, including Germany.4 Through the unidimensional portrayals of racialized sexual subjectivity that is attached to Muslim men, the West becomes “safe” in contrast to dangerous Muslims. This safe/dangerous dichotomy is deeply gendered, which suggests that straight, unattached Syrian (Muslim) men are potential sexual threats to all, but particularly to white German women and children. Thus, these potential victims are in need of paternalistic care by the AfD.
The centrality of anti-Islam rhetoric to the AfD’s election campaign was, unsurprisingly, also present in the party manifesto. The latter states that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” This is a response to a claim the Federal President of Germany Christian Wulff made in 2010, that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this statement in 2015, and to this day it causes controversy. In fact, the AfD views Islam “as a great threat for our state, our society, and our value order,” which shows how anti-Islam rhetoric is not only targeting Islam as a religion but targets all Muslims who live in Germany. Indeed, the AfD declares that multiculturalism poses a “serious threat to social peace and the survival of the nation as a cultural unit.”
Blonde German “Heroines”: The Invented Tradition
The German far right portrays the quintessential German woman as blonde and powerful. This is particularly visible in the recently published sixth issue of Compact’s history series, entitled “German women—the wisest and bravest ones from 2000 years.” Compact—Magazin für Souveränität (Compact—Magazine for Sovereignty) is edited by the far-right intellectual Jürgen Elsässer, who speaks to a wide far-right audience and prominently features far-right gendered stories and symbols . It is telling that this issue’s cover shows a young blonde woman in knight’s armor holding a sword, reflecting the German far right’s longing for two prevailing cultural imaginaries of German women: martial, brave, and powerful comrades who are also loving and caring mothers and wives (the latter is rather reflected in the essays than on the cover).
One of the featured heroines in this issue is Marie Christiane Eleonore Prochaska, who is portrayed as Germany’s Joan of Arc. In the disguise of a man (and using a false male name), this tall woman fought in Prussian independence wars against Napoleon.
The “loving character” of German women is represented by another heroine: St. Elisabeth of Thuringia. She is an influential reference point for Christian charity, caring German women and populist anti-elite narratives because she opposed the accumulation of wealth in the hands of detached, self-serving royal elites (while the German people suffered from poverty and hunger). Her secret redistribution of goods from the palace to villagers in need of loving care earned her postmortem sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, German women are also depicted as powerful due to their intelligence, as exemplified by Roswitha von Gandersheim, a historical German secular canonist, and Dorothea Erxleben, the first female doctor in Germany. We also encounter artists, such as Romy Schneider, the actress who impersonated famous Sissi, the Empress of Austria. Accordingly, these “heroines” prove that “true” German women are capable of succeeding in any male-dominated environment, and they are not dependent on men’s help in the form of the liberal left’s gender policies or quotas.
These selected “heroines” leave the impression that their paths are accessible to any woman, yet they are highly exclusive in essence: the women’s greatness stems from their German ethnicity, a two-thousand-year-old community. The foregrounding of the past makes the boundaries hardly permeable for others, including Muslim women who are allegedly incompatible with German femininity. Muslim women are newly racialized as Germany’s other in the AfD narrative; they neither share the visible characteristics nor the cultural traits associated with German femininity (strength, intelligence, and love). Rather, Muslim women are seen as weak—with the headscarf as a symbol of oppression—and more fertile, but less caring. According to the far-right narrative, Muslim mothers have many children for whom they are not capable of caring. Against the alleged threat of a “Muslim invasion” caused by self-serving cosmopolitan, corrupt elites, the far right urges German women to root in their homeland, i.e., to bear children and perform loving motherhood, think wisely, and if necessary, fight gracefully for German ethnonational survival and rebirth—just like their female ancestors did.
The Fragmented Response to the AfD
How did established parties embrace anti-Muslim rhetoric after the AfD entered the political stage? The path taken by the majority of the center parties was—and still is—to promote only an elitist segment of Muslim immigrants that is openly critical of Islam in Germany. For instance, this direction prioritizes a group called Initiative Säkularer Islam (Initiative Secular Islam) established by Cem Özdemir, a prominent Green Party politician, Seyran Ates, a self-appointed female imam, Necla Kelek, an Islam-critiquing sociologist, and others who appear in the media as proponents of a “different” Islam. Differentiating themselves from the wider Muslim population, they intend to show that “a different Muslim”—one who is supposed to be liberal, democratic, and enlightened—is possible. One wonders if such an attempt to antagonize Muslims in Germany into two groups, the “good” liberal/secular and “bad” illiberal/nonsecular, is not actually perpetuating discrimination against nonelite Muslims in Germany. This idea of championing elites is an odd, if not contradictory, reversal of populist sentiment.
This means ordinary Muslims in Germany now have two strikes against them: not being German and not being elite. In such an exclusionary political climate, the message that Islam belongs to Germany faces an uphill battle. For now, at least, “German heroines” and warnings against Muslim men represent the return and normalization of politics for the “true” Germans.
—Gökce Yurdakul, Özgür Özvatan, and Bernhard Forchtner
Gökce Yurdakul is a professor of sociology at the Department of Diversity and Social Conflict, Institute of Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin. She was a Weatherhead Scholar in the Spring semester of 2019. She has published The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of Belonging in National Narratives (with Anna Korteweg, Stanford University Press, 2014).
Özgür Özvatan is a PhD Candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He is a research cluster coordinator at the Berlin Institute for Migration and Integration Research and a doctoral fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. His dissertation topic is on the normalization of the far right in Germany and the politics of nonbelonging in the transnational space between Turkey and Germany.
Bernhard Forchtner is an associate professor at the School of Media, Communication and Sociology at the University of Leicester. His research focuses on the far right in Europe and, in particular, their environmental communication. He is the editor of The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (Routledge, 2019).
1. Campaign poster of the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) for local elections at Schleswig-Holstein in 2018. Translation: "Islam doesn't belong to Germany. Freedom of women is not negotiable!" Credit: Wikimedia, photographed at Halstenbek, May 3, 2018, (CC BY-SA 4.0)
2. Campaign poster of the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) for the federal elections 2017. Translation: "New Germans? We make them by ourselves." Credit: Wikimedia, photographed in Munich, September 22, 2017, (CC BY-SA 4.0)
- Özvatan, Özgür and Bernhard Forchtner 2019. Towards a ‘happy ending’? The far right in Germany. In: Waring A (ed) The New Authoritarianism. A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon. Volume II. Stuttgart: ibidem. 199-226.
- This biological association with Germanness reminds us of the famous election slogan of CDU hardliner Jürgen Rüttgers “Children instead of Indians” in 2000, which was subsequently exploited by the far-right Die Republikaner party.
- Ullein, Sylvie. 2019. "Femonationalismus im Rechtspopulismus und Feminismus: Eine Analyse ausgewählter Texte von Leyla Bilge und Alice Schwarzer", Unpublished BA-Thesis at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
- Yurdakul, Gökce, Anna Korteweg and Ulrike Hamann. 2018. "Symbolische und materielle Grenzziehungen. Geschlecht und ›Rasse‹ im Diskurs über Gewalt und Fluchtbewegungen in Kanada und Deutschland“ Iman Attia und Mariam Popal (eds.) BeDeutungen dekolonisieren: Spuren von (antimuslimischem) Rassismus. Unrast Verlag.