Sam Seitz

What is happening to German politics? Until recently, this pillar of Europe has possessed one of the most stable political systems on the Continent. Despite attempts by several right radical parties to gain a voice in national politics, moderate parties like the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and left-leaning Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) have always dominated German democracy. Although their defining characteristics are contested, right radical groups tend to be defined by their opposition to European integration, immigration, and, by extension, multiculturalism.[1] German culpability and subsequent remorse in such horrific historical acts as the Holocaust have resulted in a collective psyche in which many Germans are extremely allergic to the messages promoted by these kinds of groups. Right radical parties have, in fact, consistently failed to even enter the federal Bundestag. At least that was the case until 2017. It was in this year that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into the Bundestag, suddenly becoming the third largest party in Germany’s federal parliament. So, what explains this recent, radical departure from German political stability and centrism?

The puzzle is a vexing one, and it has implications for countries quite distant from Germany. In fact, the rise of the German radical right, with its focus on protecting “real Germans” from dangerous immigrants and an encroaching E.U. bureaucracy, is but one example of the broader surge of populism sweeping through the E.U.[2] Indeed, populist parties seem ascendant throughout large parts of the Western world, but the exact origins of this populist surge are difficult to identify.[3] Do fringe movements emerge from economic disenchantment as a result of financial crises and growing inequality,[4] or is their rise more attributable to cultural angst due to growing levels of immigration?[5] Does weakness in the center create opportunities for extremists, or do radical parties emerge irrespective of the power of large, catch-all parties in the middle of the ideological spectrum?[6] Finally, why do certain populist movements succeed where others fail?

Examining the German case provides valuable insights that can help resolve these questions. And while every country is inevitably unique and somewhat idiosyncratic, there are several general lessons that one can distill from the German experience. In particular, it suggests that two kinds of factors are crucial in explaining populism. The first are enabling factors, which exist in two parts – secular shifts that rapidly alter the perceived societal balance of power and political entrepreneurs willing to exploit demagoguery to mobilize around these issues. Importantly, both components must be present for populist movements to succeed. The second are triggering factors. These may take many forms, but they can fundamentally be understood as exogenous shocks that create fear or outrage. These shocks act as the spark that ignites the volatile fuel provided by the enabling factors. Although some of these factors have existed throughout German history, it was only in the period around 2014 and 2015 that all of them simultaneously emerged as significant and sustained elements of German politics.

Reunification and The Shifting Sands of German Politics

To trace the ebb and flow of these factors in German politics, it is helpful to observe some of the central political, economic, and cultural trends since reunification. Taking a detailed look at different enabling and triggering factors allows one to better understand the reasons that the past few years have been unique and have created particularly fertile ground for the growth of populism. As this section demonstrates, the financial meltdown and migrant crisis were not the only instances in which conditions favorable to populist parties appeared in Germany. They were, however, the only ones that precipitated a successful populist movement.

The first enabling factors to appear in contemporary Germany were the result of the reunification process. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1991 was at once exciting and extremely chaotic for German politics. In particular, the economic burden of subsidizing and modernizing the former East proved to be much more significant than German politicians had promised. Where then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised “blühende Landschaften” (blooming landscapes), many citizens saw a giant money pit. The so-called “solidarity surcharge” was introduced as a tax to fund reconstruction efforts, but most Germans found, and continue to find, its motives suspect. Consequently, the tax has proven to be a point of contention, as the efficacy of German support for the new eastern states is often less than clear.[7]

Between 1989 and 1995, for example, unemployment levels in Berlin rose to 13.6%. And from 1995 to 2005, the Berlin economy shrank, causing unemployment to temporarily rise to a staggering 19%.[8] Further economic troubles emerged from Kohl’s decision to exchange East German Ostmarks with West German D-Marks at a 1:1 ratio, which, by massively overvaluing the eastern currency, triggered a short period of intense inflation and crushing interest rate hikes by the German Bundesbank.[9] Easterners faced mass unemployment and steeply rising prices while Westerners witnessed their incomes decline due to the rising cost of Eastern subsidies, which fed into exactly the kind of shifts in societal hierarchies so effective at enabling populism. As the costs of integration continued to mount, Germany’s once dominant economy was referred to as the new “sick man of Europe” by The Economist.[10]

German reunification also presented cultural problems that exacerbated the economic stressors, and these were not helped by West German resentment at the perceived indolence and ingratitude of their Eastern cousins. In all aspects of life, tensions grew between the Wessis (West Germans) and Ossis (East Germans) or, as they were often derisively termed, Jammerossis (whining Easterners).[11] One point of particular contention was rooted in the lack of agreement between the Wessis’ and Ossis’ visions for the newly united Germany. Westerners sought assimilation, going so far as to alter even relatively anodyne Eastern street names like Ho Chi Minh Allee or Leninallee, while those from the former East wanted integration and a preservation of some of their unique traditions.[12] This created a sense of alienation that is perfectly encapsulated by a comment from a West German factory owner: “These Ossis are good workers. .  . One day soon, they’re even going to be as good as our German workers.”[13]

A significant triggering factor also emerged at the tail end of this period of economic malaise: a series of labor reforms passed in 2002 by the SPD-Green government. As part of Agenda 2010, these so-called Hartz Reforms liberalized the labor market and restructured welfare to encourage job-seeking. They also shifted incentives to curb early retirement. But by significantly reducing welfare and seemingly undermining workers’ rights and protections, the SPD alienated a large percentage of its working-class base. Even worse, the party was unable to reap the political rewards of righting the economic ship because the party left power with 11% unemployment, anemic growth, and stubborn fiscal deficits.[14]

Although these reforms contributed to a rebounding of the German economy, they continue to remain unpopular among the German working class. Even today, roughly 50% of all voters desire some level of alteration to the reform package.[15] And since these reforms were implemented, the SPD has been hemorrhaging voters who have sought refuge with other, sometimes more objectionable, political parties.[16] Indeed, the reforms have proven so unpopular that the contemporary SPD is choosing to run against them, thus effectively repudiating its own policy.[17] By simultaneously gutting the center left and creating an issue around which disaffected and angry voters could mobilize, Agenda 2010 was a triggering factor par excellence.

If existing explanations for populism’s ascent were accurate, we should have observed a sharp rise in the popularity and success of German populist parties during this period. Economic shocks, higher taxes, and the cultural resentment they engendered resulted in a German society that was fundamentally destabilized and chaotic. Societal power relations that had existed for decades were, in just a few years, radically transformed. There were also, just as with Middle Eastern migrants today, concerns over culture and values. Easterners were afraid their history and traditions would be eviscerated by Western norms and values. Westerners, for their part, did not embrace the Easterners as completely “German” and constantly fretted about their level of motivation and dedication. Yet, despite these sustained disruptions to German life, the German center continued to hold.

The Absence of a Populist Champion

Given these rapid structural changes and the extended period of economic malaise, one cannot help but wonder why there was no successful German populist party. It was at this time, after all, that populists like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France and Jörg Haider’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria seemed to be ascendant.[18] Part of the answer to this apparent mystery is that there is, in fact, no mystery: Populist rhetoric and xenophobic fears did become increasingly common in the reunified Germany. For example, the Bavarian Christian Social Union accused – and, indeed, still accuses – migrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries of Sozialbetrug (social fraud) because they allegedly sought to exploit welfare benefits without contributing to prosperity.[19]

Another part of the answer is based in the political climate at the time, which stressed solidarity and integration. Shock therapy was framed as a regrettable but necessary tool to modernize the decrepit eastern economies, and many people were willing to suffer short-term deprivation for long-term prosperity. The Bundestag, led by the iron-willed Chancellor Kohl, was also fully invested in German and European integration and worked diligently to crush any opposition.[20] As one Kohl aid stated at the time, “Over there [in the East], they’re only one-fifth of the people. When it comes to elections, honestly, no matter what they do, they don’t count.”[21] But these factors alone were insufficient to forestall the emergence of a strong populist party, especially as economic conditions failed to rapidly improve.

The central reason for the failure of German populism during this period was the absence of the second triggering factor, populist political entrepreneurs. Simply put, there were no political demagogues willing and able to offer an effective populist message. It is not a given that political parties will develop effective populist messages at the same time that underlying social conditions create a demand for populist action. Political success requires both that there exists a demand for certain policies and that a party is effectively positioned to supply the policies desired by voters.

In 2012, for example, there was arguably increasing demand in the United States for a populist party – both the left and right seemed frustrated with the direction of the country and increasingly drawn to radical responses, as exemplified by the Occupy Movement and Tea Party, respectively.[22] However, neither major political party offered a populist candidate for president, ensuring that centrist politics continued to dominate. It was not until 2016, when the Republicans supplied a populist through the nomination of Donald Trump, that populist elements seriously began to grow in power.

Germany in the 1990s was much like the United States in 2012. There were simply no viable parties willing to stake out a populist position, which stymied the ability of voters who otherwise would have selected populist candidates in an election. In terms of my model, one can argue that although the first enabling condition – secular shifts that alter the balance of power – existed, the second enabling condition did not. As already noted, the right wing of the political spectrum was dominated by Chancellor Kohl’s CDU/CSU and was able to strongarm any potential defectors into supporting the party line, at least initially. Moreover, the kind of economic crisis engendered by reunification – rising unemployment, reduced state subsidies, and shrinking welfare benefits – lent itself more to left-wing populism than right-wing nationalism.

The Belated Emergence of a Populist Party in a Reunited Germany

The former GDR Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) did eventually attempt to occupy the left-populist opening created by the dislocation and chaos of post-reunification Germany. As communism collapsed in 1989, the SED rebranded to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Led by Gregor Gysi, the party sought to reform itself in the leadup to reunification by embracing democratic reforms, pushing out former hardliners, and abolishing ideological institutions like party schools.[23] The PDS quickly became a home for those, especially in older cohorts, who felt unmoored by the collapse of the GDR and retained warm feelings toward the former communists.[24]

The party’s wider popularity, however, was much diminished, and it struggled to achieve success at the national level even as it maintained a respectable presence in state and local politics. As its national stature languished in the early 1990s, the party became known for its support of Ossis lost in the newly-reunited Germany, forming advisory bodies like The Community Initiative for the Protection of the Social Rights of Former Adherents of the Armed Services and Customs of the GDR and The Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support. This endeared it to those struggling to adapt in the east, but it also made the PDS a distinctly regional party.[25] As Kohl’s aid predicted, appealing to only 1/5th of the electorate simply was not enough.

The party then rebranded again to Die Linke (literally, the Left) in the early 2000s, and it sought to leverage the unpopular Hartz reforms to steal votes from the SPD, which lost around 12% of its party members in the wake of the reforms.[26] Die Linke realized substantial gains in eastern state elections; it continued to be shut out in the western states, however.[27] To overcome its geographic challenges, Die Linke merged with a far-left splinter group of the SPD called the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG). Together, they forged a platform centered around higher minimum wages, increased taxation, shorter work weeks, and improved child support.[28] This alliance and anti-Hartz platform catapulted the party to its greatest success up to that point in the 2005 federal elections and allowed it to gain traction in the west.[29]

However, improving economic conditions and internecine squabbling between the PSD and WASG elements of the party stymied its appeal and effectiveness. The party was also damaged by its baffling opposition to Joachim Gauck’s presidential candidacy in 2010.[30] Gauck, who was supported by every party except Die Linke, was a popular progressive and civil rights activist who was previously the Commissioner for the Stasi Records. Die Linke’s opposition allowed opponents to accuse it of rejecting Gauck because of his repudiation of their predecessor, the communist SED, and work on the Stasi, for which, it was insinuated, Die Linke must still harbor warm feelings.[31] In short, the party was too slow to adapt itself to the opportunity prevented by reunification. And by the time it finally developed a fresh look and clear strategy, the party’s moment of opportunity had passed with the improving economy and ascendance of Angela Merkel’s CDU.

Thus, the failure of populism to come to the fore can largely be explained by a lack of simultaneity in the emergence of the two enabling conditions. The model suggests that only when there are long-term structural shifts in the societal balance of power and the presence of effective political entrepreneurs willing to promulgate a populist platform will populist parties be viable. In the decade after reunification, the first condition was met: Economic malaise and cultural tensions between Easterners and Westerners led to a German society that experienced several severe stressors simultaneously. However, there was no populist party capable of capitalizing on these frustrations until the early 2000s when Die Linke crafted a new image and message. By the time Die Linke had rebranded and could offer a viable populist message, German growth had largely returned, and eastern integration was well under way. In other words, it took too long for parties to recognize the political potential created by the instability of reunification. When Die Linke finally did reorient to capitalize on the demand for populist messaging, that demand had largely abated due to improving economic and social conditions.

A New Shock and a New Party

This has not been the case in recent elections, however, as the populist right today commands significant power in German politics. A combination of economic concerns in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and fears over the massive surge in Middle Eastern migrants fleeing from regional instability ensured that the first enabling condition clearly existed in Germany at the beginning of this decade. Unlike in the 1990s, though, there was a populist German party available to capitalize on this instability and quickly grow in power and influence. All it required was a triggering factor – a shocking event that sparks outrage over the direction of the country – to catapult this party into national prominence.

The onset of this new wave of German populism can be traced to the 2008 financial crisis, which served as a major enabling factor by contributing to economic frustration. Although Germany experienced a brief recession during the 2008 financial crisis, it quickly recovered and largely avoided the European sovereign debt crisis.[32] Certain segments of the German population, however, became increasingly agitated about the perceived costs of bailing out the weaker economies along Europe’s periphery.[33] Conservative and populist papers constantly decried the loans to Greece and other Southern European states as an improper use of taxpayer money and a recipe for moral hazard. Inflation-shy Germans were also incensed over the ECB’s decision to pursue looser monetary policy. This anger was further compounded by the irritant that these decisions, as the prerogative of the independent ECB, were largely outside the control of German voters or politicians.

The domestic pushback was largely instigated by German economists and lawyers. For example, Jens Weidmann, the Bundesbank President, referred to any degree of quantitative easing as little more than the “reckless printing of banknotes.”[34] A group of lawyers led by Wilhelm Hankel and Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider also sought to exploit the economic crisis by repeatedly suing the German government for its bailout packages at the Federal Constitutional Court.[35] While these pet projects failed to capture the attention of a majority of the German electorate, they did create a political space in which certain disaffected right-wing voters could coalesce.

Growing frustration with the conservative, CDU-led government led many on the center right to become disenchanted with the existing political options. Finding the center right parties wanting, many began to demand a new party whose positions on European economic matters more closely comported with theirs. The result was the creation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) by Alexander Gauland, Bernd Lucke, and Konrad Adam.[36]

All three individuals came from the center right CDU and were journalists or economists.[37] Their decision to form the AfD came after their Wahlalternative pressure group – a venture working to oppose the underwriting of foreign debt and skeptical of the Eurozone – failed to garner much popular support.[38] So, in April of 2013, the AfD was officially unveiled. Party speakers were selected, and affiliate groups in all 16 federal states were established.[39] The party was still not properly defined as a radical populist party at this point, as it continued to retain the moderate Euroskeptic positions of the Wahlalternative. In fact, the party was deemed sufficiently palatable for British Conservatives to open back channels with the nascent AfD to inquire about the potential for cooperation in the European Parliament.[40] And while the party manifesto did contain sections on the need to reduce immigration and pursue pro-natal policy for Germans, its priority was clearly the European economic crisis.[41]

At this point, the party could hardly be considered populist. Instead, it represented an almost technocratic response to elite frustration with the Greek sovereign debt crisis. Germany consequently lacked one of the two enabling factors necessary for populism, which explains why even by 2013, populists failed to command much influence in German politics. But the AfD’s political identity quickly began to metamorphosize.

The first change was one of composition, as the AfD invited Frauke Petry – a Saxon engineer with strong anti-Islamic sentiments – into the party leadership.[42] The second was a change in the party’s electoral success. In 2012, the Wahlalternative received just 1% of the vote in regional elections in Lower Saxony. But the AfD went on to receive 4.7% of the vote in national elections the following year, just barely failing to overcome the 5% threshold required to enter the Bundestag. The AfD then won 7.1% of the vote in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. This placed them on an even footing with Die Linke and ahead of both the Free Democrats (FDP) and CSU.[43] So, unlike Die Linke/PDS in the 1990s, the AfD had both an increasingly powerful populist message and sufficient clout to command national attention.

As the AfD was rising in status, another crisis loomed for Germany. The Syrian Civil War, which had begun in 2011, was quickly metastasizing and contributing to overwhelming refugee flows into Europe. In the year of the AfD’s official formation, for example, Germany received 11,851 asylum requests. This number jumped up to 39,332 by the following year.[44] The enormous influx of foreigners created social strains that increasingly bred resentment among segments of the German population. In 2015 alone, for example, around 600 attacks against refugee facilities occurred throughout Germany.[45] Anger at the large number of refugees also began to serve as a major enabling factor and, in many ways, created an opening for more extreme populist entrepreneurs in the AfD, such as the Islamophobic Petry, to steer the party’s agenda toward right-wing populism.  With rising unhappiness because of economic and immigration concerns and a party increasingly willing to offer populist solutions, both enabling factors were in place. All that was needed for a populist explosion was a triggering factor.

What eventually served as the trigger was the infamous wave of sexual assaults that were committed by North African migrants in Cologne and other German cities during the night of Silvester.[46] This shock worked to catalyze support for the AfD in a visceral manner that the Greek sovereign debt crisis never could. Indeed, detailed analysis of German exit polls suggest that while the AfD’s initial core group of supporters were strongly motivated by economic concerns and frustration with the euro, the majority of the party’s support derived from late-breaking voters who held extreme anti-establishment views and possessed strong anti-immigrant sentiments. In other words, 70% of the party’s support came from frustrated anti-establishment voters, not anti-euro activists.[47] And while certain AfD leaders attempted to distance themselves from far-right anti-Islamic groups like PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), 76% of AfD voters expressed strong support for them.[48] It is no surprise, therefore, that the AfD’s electoral prospects continued to rise as the migrant crisis became more politically salient.

The AfD Adapts, Die Linke Languishes

Certain groups within the AfD quickly realized the potential gains that could be secured if the party were to more explicitly embrace the anti-migrant mantle. The challenge to the more centrist-minded party members, including founder Bernd Lucke, grew as increasingly far-right constituents bandwagoned with the party. Indeed, a vicious cycle developed in which the party moved right to capture a wider share of the vote and, as a result, attracted ever more members from far-right groups who then used their influence to force the party further toward extreme positions. As Frank Decker notes, “Large numbers of former members of the Republikaner, the Schill-Party, and the German Freedom Party (“Die Freiheit”) joined the AfD, often rising through its ranks to enter various state executive committees. Internal quarrels befell virtually all state branches, prompting the federal leadership to expand its own powers and jurisdiction, which merely served to further enrage the base.”[49]

These internal quarrels came to a head in 2015 when Bernd Lucke engaged in a desperate bid to regain control of his party. During the party conference in Bremen, he moved to make himself the sole party chair. While he was successful in this limited objective, he failed to prevent the more radical Petry from becoming party leader. By August, Lucke had broken away from the party he founded along with around one-fifth of its members to establish a more moderate Euroskeptic party named the Alliance for Progress and Renewal. Unsurprisingly, Lucke’s new party failed to garner even 1% of the vote in regional elections because its message lacked a clear constituency and because the Eurocrisis had begun to abate.[50] The AfD, which by now had fully embraced anti-Islamic messaging, continued to grow. Instead of remaining fixated on the Eurocrisis, it continued to adapt and shape its message to address the concerns of those who felt that their country was being destroyed at the hands of migrants.

Now unfettered and able to fully embrace an anti-Muslim, far-right position, the AfD could perfectly tailor its message to woo disenchanted voters upset with the status quo and concerned about the ever-increasing number of refugees. The shift in the party’s rhetoric is particularly clear in the 2017 AfD Party Manifesto, which largely dropped euro-related issues to focus on more traditional populist conservative policies like more vigorous law enforcement, support for traditional gender roles, military conscription, and anti-Islamic policies.[51] This pivot allowed it to rapidly expand into the eastern states, where voters still harbor resentment at their shattered hopes for post-reunification Germany and are deeply concerned about the perceived threat from migrants.[52]

As a result, the party received around 10% of the vote in Saxony and Thuringia while reaching over 12.2% in Brandenburg in the 2014 state elections.[53] These eastern gains only increased during the 2016 state elections, as the AfD captured 24.2% of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt[54] and 20.8% in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.[55] Then in 2017 the party finally broke into the Bundestag, securing 13% of the national vote and, with 88 seats, became the third largest party in the legislature.[56] By this point in the party’s development, AfD supporters’ overriding concern was immigration, particularly from Muslim countries.[57] No longer was the AfD obsessed with Greece and the euro. It was now a full right nationalist party, and an electorally successful one.

But the success of the AfD naturally raises the corollary question of why Die Linke was unable to also benefit from the political turmoil surrounding the migration crisis. After all, Die Linke’s roots are in the east, which is exactly where the AfD saw its largest gains. Moreover, this moment in German history – characterized by instability and voter disenchantment – was politically advantageous for populists. Why was it, therefore, that this formerly expanding populist party lost more voters to the AfD than any other?[58]

The answer is twofold and largely mirrors the problems confronting the party as it emerged from the SED in the 1990s. The first is that it had lost its novelty and outsider status. A quarter century after reunification, Die Linke was stinknormal (uninterestingly standard/normal) and boring. It represented the establishment and could, therefore, not be trusted to fix Germany’s “broken” politics.[59] The second problem is that the party was far too entrenched and ideological to accurately respond to its constituents’ demands. This was a far more pernicious issue for the party because it was this very inflexibility that contributed to the image of Die Linke as boring and mainstream.

Unlike the AfD, whose nascence permitted a fair degree of policy modulation and experimentation, Die Linke was an entrenched party with rooted constituencies and interest groups. Instead of developing novel proposals, therefore, the party doubled down on its far-left agenda. The 2017 party platform centered around minimum wage increases, higher taxes on the wealthy, rent control, and healthcare reform. Importantly, it also opposed any restrictions on migration.[60] But by blindly adhering to old-style socialism, the party lost touch with its lower-class blue-collar workers who increasingly defected to the AfD.[61] This is evident in its shifting vote share, which has been increasing in the west while decreasing in the party’s home region of the east.[62] Former party members are crying out that “you don’t understand us anymore,” but the party has remained adamantly opposed to any restrictions on migration.[63]

Interestingly, this position has begun to change in recent years because Die Linke has been forced to grapple with its declining numbers. Certain party leaders, such as Sahra Wagenknecht, have advocated for a more restrictive asylum policy. And while she has won over some supporters to her position, she also had a pie thrown at her face by a party activist.[64] But it is not just angry protestors; Wagenknecht’s proposal has fractured Die Linke’s senior leadership down the middle. Party leaders Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, for example, have criticized Wagenknecht and her husband by name, accusing them of dividing the party and destroying its commitment to human rights.[65]

Like the early AfD, there is seemingly no consensus within Die Linke regarding how best to address migration concerns. But unlike the AfD, Die Linke also lacks a clear majority capable of forcing its views upon the party. With its internecine fights seemingly irresolvable at the moment, it is difficult to see the party presenting an appealing populist message with the same degree of effectiveness as its far-right rival.

Conclusion and Implications

Populism can succeed only under a unique confluence of conditions: sustained, secular shifts in the societal balance of power, an exogenous shock that breeds fear, and, importantly, a party able to capitalize on these conditions to achieve electoral success. One of these factors nearly always exists in a country, but it is quite rare for all to emerge concomitantly. Recent German history illustrates this point well. Reunification in the 1990s created a huge shock to German politics and society, and it fundamentally transformed German society in both the western and eastern parts of the country. Importantly, though, there was no populist party sufficiently organized and coherent enough to craft a powerful narrative against the status quo.

But by the early 2000s, all three conditions did briefly exist. Stagnant growth and rising debt levels engendered frustration and anger across a large swath of the German electorate. By this point, Die Linke had reorganized and rebranded itself in a way that allowed it to break into western states and convincingly pitch itself as a populist champion. All that was needed was a trigger, which came in the form of Agenda 2010, the massively unpopular welfare reform that enraged low-income Germans while destroying the credibility of the center left. This confluence of conditions collapsed after 2005, however, as the center-right Merkel government was able to oversee a return to sustained growth and economic dynamism and Die Linke allowed itself to be dragged into unproductive ideological fights. As a result, there was simply too little time for populists to truly capitalize on the favorable conditions.

But there was plenty of time and opportunity in the aftermath of the financial crisis because it was quickly followed by a migrant crisis. This double shock created massive frustration across a broad range of the German electorate and incentivized political entrepreneurism. While the AfD did not immediately develop a successful strategy, the length of the crises allowed it the time to test and adapt its messages to be responsive to voters’ concerns. By 2013, resentment among German voters was quite high and the AfD had a winning message. The enabling factors were present, and all that was required was a triggering factor to catapult populism into mainstream politics. When large numbers of migrants were credibly accused of committing a wave of crimes against German women and girls, therefore, the trigger had been pulled and AfD ascendance was all but assured.

While the AfD’s rise appears to have stalled out in recent months, the party remains a significant player in German politics.[66] Understanding the basis of its success and reasons for its growth are thus crucial to understanding German right-radical populism and, indeed, politics more generally. The story of the AfD also offers insights into the origins of populist movements throughout the West. Every country is unique and different, of course, and so the German experience will never map perfectly onto other countries’ experiences with populism. Nonetheless, Germany’s somewhat unique history of political centrism and civic opposition to right-wing parties makes it a relevant and concerning example case for the rest of the world. If populists can achieve substantial gains there, they can conceivably succeed anywhere.

The experience of Die Linke also suggests the importance of looking within populist parties. While clearly embodying a powerful far-left form of populist politics, Die Linke has faced internal constraints on its growth. These fetters have several causes, but the most important is the party’s somewhat ossified structure. Unlike the AfD, which quickly altered its message and policy priorities to best represent the demands of aggrieved voters, Die Linke has often struggled to adapt to the changing conditions of the electorate. Throughout much of the 1990s, for example, it was unable to craft a message capable of resonating outside the eastern parts of the country. And while its alliance with the WASG in the early 2000s did allow it to diversify geographically, there were repeated clashes between the party’s more orthodox wing and the WASG group. Die Linke continues to face these kinds of challenges today, which is exemplified by its seeming inability to respond to voters’ concerns over migrants.

Populism is likely to remain a powerful force in Western politics for the foreseeable future, but its ascendance is not preordained. Without the correct conditions and polarizing shocks, it will be hard to mobilize support for any large-scale populist movement. Even when these conditions exist, however, populism might fail to take root due to the lack of an effective populist party around which the disaffected can mobilize. As Die Linke proves, it is not enough to be a vocal, anti-establishment party. Populists must be adaptive and responsive to their supporters’ particular concerns and grievances. If they cannot, or if the more established political parties succeed in addressing the enabling factors or at least assuaging the concerns of the aggrieved, the great populist wave of recent years will break against the bulwarks of established politics before receding out into the obscure fringes of our democracies.

 

 

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Notes:

[1] Arthur Versluis, “What’s Right? A Review Essay,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 2, no. 2 (2009), 155-156.

[2] These rhetorical moves mirror the typical populist tactics of creating a dangerous “other” – elites, minorities, immigrants, etc. – against which to define the “real people” described in Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism (Philadelphia, PA: Penn Press, 2016).

[3] Paul Lewis, et. al., “Revealed: one in four Europeans vote populist,” The Guardian, November 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2018/nov/20/revealed-one-in-four-europeans-vote-populist.

[4] See, for examples, Dani Rodrik, “Populism and the Economics of Globalization,” NBER Working Paper No. 23559 (2017); Lubos Pastor, Pietro Veronesi, “Inequality Aversion, Populism, and the Backlash Against Globalization,” NBER Working Paper No. 24900 (2019); Charlotte Cavaille and Jeremy Ferwerda, “How Distributional Conflict over In-Kind Benefits Generates Support for Anti-Immigrant Parties,” Working Paper (2017); Anja Neundorf and Charlotte Cavaille, “The price of sharing: Support for universal and equal access to health care in diversifying neighborhoods,” ISER Working Paper (2016).

[5] See, for examples, Alberto Alesina, Reza Baqir, William Easterly, “Public Goods and Ethnic Divisions,” NBER Working Paper No. 6009 (1997); Conrad Ziller, “Ethnic Diversity, Economic and Cultural Contexts, and Social Trust: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Evidence from European Regions, 2002–2010,” Social Forces 93, no. 3 (2015): 1211-1240; Craig J. Calhoun, “Social Solidarity as a Problem for Cosmopolitan Democracy,” in Identities, Affiliations, and Allegiances, ed. Seyla Benhabib, Ian Shapiro, and Danilo Petranovic (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Ghia Nodia, “The End of the Postnational Illusion,” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 2 (2017): 5-19; James Laurence and Lee Bentley, “Does Ethnic Diversity Have a Negative Effect on Attitudes towards the Community? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Causal Claims within the Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion Debate,” European Sociological Review, 32, no. 1, (2016): 54–67; Jeremy Ferwerda, D.J. Flynn, and Yusaku Horiuchi, “Explaining opposition to refugee resettlement: The role of NIMBYism and perceived threats,” Science Advances 3, no. 9 (2017): 1-6; Oguzhan Dincer, “ETHNIC DIVERSITY AND TRUST,” Contemporary Economic Policy 29, no. 2 (2011): 284-293; Peter Dinesen and Kim Sønderskov, “Trust in a Time of Increasing Diversity: On the Relationship between Ethnic Heterogeneity and Social Trust in Denmark from 1979 until Today,” Scandinavian Political Studies 35, no. 4 (2012): 273-294; Rudolph J. Rummel, “Is Collective Violence Correlated with Social Pluralism?” Journal of Peace Research 34, no. 2 (1997): 163-175.

[6] Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvent: Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[7] “Taxpayers demand end to ‘Soli’ tax to boost eastern German economy,” Deutsche Welle, November 9, 2017. https://www.dw.com/en/taxpayers-demand-end-to-soli-tax-to-boost-eastern-german-economy/a-41315805.

[8] Philip Ther, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa (Berlin, Germany: Suhrkamp, 2016), 177; 184.

[9] Karl Kaltenthaler, Germany and the Politics of Europe’s Money (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 91.

[10] “The sick man of the euro,” The Economist, June 3, 1999. https://www.economist.com/special/1999/06/03/the-sick-man-of-the-euro.

[11] Ther, 176.

[12] Marc Fisher, “Ossis, Wessis Walls,” The Washington Post, August 2, 1992. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/08/02/ossis-wessis-walls/916d740c-ad64-4566-9fe3-54490afea3c4/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e56536df4b44; Toralf Staud, “Ossis sind Türken: 13 Jahre Einheit: In Gesamt-Westdeutschland sind die Ostdeutschen Einwanderer,” Zeit Online, October 2, 2003, http://www.zeit.de/2003/41/Einwanderer.

[13] Fischer, 1992.

[14] Christian Odendahl, “Germany After the Hartz Reforms,” Foreign Affairs, September 11, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/germany/2017-09-11/germany-after-hartz-reforms.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Zia Weise, “Germany’s New Green Divide,” Politico EU, November 23, 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-green-party-haidhausen-munich-elections-social-democrats-spd-is-the-new-red/; Justin Hugler, “Green Party membership soars in Germany as young take a stand against populism,” The Telegraph, April 1, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/04/01/green-party-membership-soars-germany-young-take-stand-against/.

[17] “Germany’s SPD shifts back to leftist roots, straining ties with Merkel,” The Local, February 11, 2019. https://www.thelocal.de/20190211/german-spd-shift-to-left-strains-ties-with-merkel-party.

[18] Arnauld Miguet, “The French Elections of 2002: After the Earthquake, the Deluge,” West European Politics 25, no. 4 (2002): 207–220; Heather Freeman, “AUSTRIA: THE 1999 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS AND THE EUROPEAN UNION MEMBERS’ SANCTIONS,” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 25, no. 1 (2002), 117.

[19] Manuel Bewarder and Matthias Kamann, “’Wer betrügt, der fliegt’ – die CSU im Faktencheck,” Die Welt, December 31, 2013. https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article123419505/Wer-betruegt-der-fliegt-die-CSU-im-Faktencheck.html.

[20] Klaus Hofmann, Helmut Kohl: Kanzler des Vertrauens: Eine Politische Biographie (Bonn, North-Rhine Westphalia: Aktuell, 1984), 24.

[21] Fisher, 1992.

[22] John Judis, The Populist Explosion (New York, N.Y.: Columbia Global Reports, 2016), 53-62.

[23] David Patton, Out of the East: From PDS to Left Party in Unified Germany (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2011), 30.

[24] Ibid., 36.

[25] Ibid., 72.

[26] Oskar Niedermayer, “Parteimitgliedschaften im Jahre 2006,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 38, no. 2 (2007), 370; Martin Luntz, “SPD-Chef Müntefering verliert rund 45,000 Genossen,“ Die Welt, February 2, 2005.

[27] Patton, 123-124.

[28] “Für eine neue soziale Idee-linke Alternative für den Wahltag,“ Pressedienst die Linke.PDS, September 2, 2005.

[29] Patton, 130.

[30] “Linke ist gegen Gauck,” NTV, June 28, 2010. https://www.n-tv.de/politik/Linke-ist-gegen-Gauck-article942387.html.

[31] “Gabriel: Lafontaine-Kritik an Gauck peinlich,” Focus Online, June 16, 2010. https://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/bundespraesident-gabriel-lafontaine-kritik-an-gauck-peinlich_aid_520195.html.

[32] “Gross Domestic Product for Germany,” FRED St. Louis Fed, accessed April 11, 2019. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CPMNACSCAB1GQDE.

[33] Alan Posener, “The bailout crisis: Germany’s view of how Greece fell from grace,” The Guardian, March 21, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2015/mar/22/germany-obsession-greece-bailout-crisis.

[34] Michael Steen, “Weidmann Isolated as ECB Plan Approved,” Financial Times, September 6, 2012.

[35] Michaela Schießl, “The Four Horsemen of the Acropolis: An Old Battlefront Returns in War on Euro,” Der Spiegel, June 30, 2010. https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-four-horsemen-of-the-acropolis-an-old-battlefront-returns-in-war-on-euro-a-703613.html.

[36] Valentina Pop, “New anti-euro party forms in Germany,” EUobserver, March 12, 2013. https://euobserver.com/political/119366.

[37] Kai Arzheimer, “The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany?” West European Politics 38, no. 3 (2015), 540.

[38] Arzheimer, 541.

[39] Joachim Jahn, “Aufstand gegen Merkels ‘alternativlose Politik,'” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 14, 2013. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/wirtschaftspolitik/gruendungsparteitag-der-afd-aufstand-gegen-merkels-alternativlose-politik-12148549.html.

[40] “Tories build secret alliance with Eurosceptics behind Merkel’s back,” The Daily Telegraph, 12 April 2013. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/9990805/Tories-build-secret-alliance-with-Eurosceptics-behind-Merkels-back.html.

[41] Marcel Lewandowsky, “Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) A New Actor in the German Party System,” Friederich Ebert Stiftung, March 2014, 1. http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id/ipa/10644.pdf.

[42] Arzheimer, 541.

[43] Ibid., 541-542.

[44] “Asylgeschäftsstatistik,” Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, December 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20160303004936/https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Downloads/Infothek/Statistik/Asyl/201412-statistik-anlage-asyl-geschaeftsbericht.html?nn=1364454.

[45] “Migrant crisis: Czechs accused of human rights abuses,” BBC, October 22, 2015. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34604118.

[46] “Report: Over 1,200 women assaulted in Germany on New Year’s Eve,” Deutsche Welle, July 10, 2016. https://www.dw.com/en/report-over-1200-women-assaulted-in-germany-on-new-years-eve/a-19391708.

[47] Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, “The ‘Alternative für Deutschland in the Electorate’: Between Single-Issue and Right-Wing Populist Party,” German Politics 26, no. 1 (2017), 128-129; 135-138.

[48] Frank Decker, “THE “ALTERNATIVE FOR GERMANY” Factors Behind its Emergence and Profile of a New Right-wing Populist Party,” German Politics and Society 34, no. 2 (2016), 6.

[49] Ibid., 9.

[50] Ibid.

[51] “Manifesto for Germany,” Alternative für Deutschland, April 12, 2017. https://www.afd.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/111/2017/04/2017-04-12_afd-grundsatzprogramm-englisch_web.pdf.

[52] Schmitt-Beck, 141-142.

[53] “Anti-euro party makes big leap in Thuringia, Brandenburg state elections,” Deutsche Welle, September 14, 2014. https://www.dw.com/en/anti-euro-party-makes-big-leap-in-thuringia-brandenburg-state-elections/a-17921282.

[54] Christina Elmer and Christina Hebel, “Die sechs Datenanalysen zur Wahl,” Der Spiegel, March 14, 2016. https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/landtagswahlen-2016-die-sechs-datenanalysen-zur-wahl-a-1082240.html.

[55] Alison Smale, “Far-Right Overtakes Angela Merkel’s Bloc in Her Home State,” The New York Times, September 3, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/05/world/europe/angela-merkel-germany-mecklenburg-vorpommern-elections-refugees.html.

[56] Kate Connolly, “German election: Merkel wins fourth term but far-right AfD surges to third,” The Guardian, September 24, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/24/angela-merkel-fourth-term-far-right-afd-third-german-election.

[57] Michael A. Hansen & Jonathan Olsen, “Flesh of the Same Flesh: A Study of Voters for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the 2017 Federal Election,” German Politics 28, no. 1 (2019), 4.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Jonathan Olsen, “The Left Party in the 2017 German Federal Election,” German Politics 27, no. 1 (2018), 134.

[60] Ibid., 3.

[61] Juho Kim, “The radical market-oriented policies of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and support from non-beneficiary groups – discrepancies between the party’s policies and its supporters,” Asian Journal of German and European Studies 3, no. 6 (2018), 6.

[62] Jörg Luyken, “Why the Left Party are tearing pieces out of each other, despite a good election,” The Local, October 17, 2017. https://www.thelocal.de/20171017/why-the-left-party-are-tearing-pieces-out-of-each-other-despite-a-good-election.

[63] Ibid.

[64] David Adler, “Meet Europe’s Left Nationalists,” The Nation, January 10, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/meet-europes-left-nationalists/.

[65] Noah Gordon, “Open borders for all? The debate dividing Germany’s Die Linke,” The Local, June 11, 2018. https://www.thelocal.de/20180611/open-borders-for-all-the-debate-dividing-germanys-left-party.

[66] “Far-right AfD losing ground among voters in Germany, poll says,” Daily Sabah, January 22, 2019. https://www.dailysabah.com/europe/2019/01/22/far-right-afd-losing-ground-among-voters-in-germany-poll-says.

 

 

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