BERLIN — Germany’s surging far-right party has wasted no time seizing on the political impact of the country’s latest terrorist assault, moving quickly to politicize the grief and outrage after a radicalized Tunisian asylum seeker hijacked a truck and drove it into a Berlin Christmas market.
Two days after the Dec. 19 attack that left 12 dead and more than 50 injured, members of the Alternative for Germany party marched on the Chancellery to honor the victims — and to protest Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision last year to permit roughly 1 million refugees to enter the country.
With Bach playing on loudspeakers, the demonstrators waved German flags and held up placards reading, “Merkel must go.”
At the center of the protests was Alexander Gauland, 75, a founder of the AfD and now its national deputy chairman.
“She made a decision that was disastrous for Germany,” said Mr. Gauland. “This is just one consequence of that. She is complicit.”
The Christmas market attack could serve as fuel for the rise of the populist far-right party, in a country that has traditionally repressed political movements harking back to Germany’s troubled past.
The AfD is the German iteration of the European populist revolt that has shaken the continent’s political establishment in recent years, including gains of anti-immigrant parties in Western and Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the near victory of a far-right party candidate for Austria’s presidency this year.
Mr. Gauland was born during World War II in Chemnitz, a city that would become Karl-Marx-Stadt under East German communist rule. He fled to West Germany in 1959, earned a doctorate in law and political science and rose quickly in Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. Later, he had a successful career as a local newspaper publisher and historian.
The fiscal and social conservative’s faith in the CDU was shaken in 2010, however, when Germany agreed to eurozone bailouts for Greece’s failing economy.
Angered by the government’s neglect of international agreements and what he viewed as a betrayal of Germany’s interests, Mr. Gauland, along with politician and economist Bernd Lucke, cut ties with the Christian Democrats after 40 years of membership and in 2013 founded what would become the AfD.
“It had been determined that there wouldn’t be any bailouts and that every country would adhere to paying their own debts,” Mr. Gauland recalled during a conversation in his office in Potsdam, where he heads the party’s caucus in the Brandenburg state legislature. “That was essentially the point when I told myself that this isn’t the party for me.”
Mr. Gauland and Mr. Lucke’s brainchild began as a party opposed to the increasing concentration of power in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. But the group also has eagerly embraced policy stances that until recently were considered taboo here, including condemning immigration and labeling Islam as un-German.
“We are essentially the only party that concerns ourselves with issues that the other parties simply ignore,” Mr. Gauland said.
The pushback has been sharp and hostile. The German mainstream media and the leading political forces have branded the party as xenophobic.
The AfD is “an organization which employs unrestrained demagoguery to abuse everything that is capable of being abused,” Wolfgang Schaeuble, Ms. Merkel’s powerful finance minister, said in 2014.
Potent electoral formula
But “we are neither xenophobic nor hostile toward foreigners,” Mr. Gauland insisted. “Rather, we simply provide those who don’t want these changes with a way to express themselves.”
The perspective has proved politically potent as the country struggles to absorb nearly 1 million refugees who flooded Germany after Ms. Merkel refused to close the country’s borders in the wake of crises in Syria, Afghanistan and other global hot spots. The AfD now holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 powerful state legislatures. Nationally, the party is polling at 15.5 percent, according to an INSA survey — up 2.5 percentage points in the wake of the Christmas market truck attack and just 5 points behind the center-left Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s ruling coalition junior partner.
If the party maintains its popularity ratings going into elections next year, the AfD would easily enter Germany’s federal parliament as a powerful force opposing the government’s agenda.
“Taking part in a coalition is completely out of the question,” Mr. Gauland said. “We want to work as an oppositional force to change the agenda of other parties.”
Mr. Gauland might be achieving his goals already.
Ms. Merkel and her Christian Democrats conspicuously shifted course at her party’s convention this month, calling for increased deportations of violent and suspicious immigrants and for a ban on public displays of the burqa, a veil worn by conservative Muslim women.
“That’s our success,” said Mr. Gauland. “I’m confident that what played out at the CDU’s party convention wasn’t a coincidence. The CDU is afraid that it’s losing voters and we’ll continue to fuel this fear.”
Parties across Europe and in the United States are fanning flames of discontent using similar tactics with increasing success.
France’s National Front and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom are gearing up for their countries’ elections next year using rhetoric largely condemning immigration and Islam.
Meanwhile, the Brexit referendum and the presidential election of Donald Trump in the U.S. have solidified the gains of conservative nationalist movements tapping into anger over the status quo.
While Mr. Gauland is skeptical of drawing too many similarities with Mr. Trump or with other right-wing parties on the continent, he welcomed the growing rejection of traditional elite politicking in favor of a more direct, even brazen political style, a rejection of political correctness and the fear of addressing real problems honestly.
“In Germany in recent years — especially regarding the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit referendum — we’ve seen that a political decision is condemned just because it seems politically incorrect,” he said, adding that democracy is about giving voice to everyone’s views. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”
As Germany’s political season heats up, Mr. Gauland plans to continue emphasizing policy discrepancies and insecurities within Germany’s conservative voter base, especially in the wake of another terrorist attack.
“If you don’t want more refugees in this country, if you want these people to be deported, then you cannot vote CDU,” Mr. Gauland said. “They’re not reliable. You have to vote AfD.”