The deepest reason I didn’t fear the Nazis then was that they had no conceivable path to real power. You couldn’t even display the German flag in pride back then, much less vote for an avowed Nazi. The checks against fascism were so strong, so institutional, so ingrained, that the far-right of the 1990s never even scratched the mainstream body politic.
Those days are over. The day after the U.S. election last November 8, I was back in Schwerin, sleeping on a friend’s couch, having stayed up all night streaming CNN in utter disbelief at the unfolding coronation of our own nativist, pudgier and gaudier but weaponizing the same rhetorical violence as Europe’s resurgent far right. That morning I interviewed Leif-Erik Holm, a former radio DJ who now leads the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Mecklenburg. He was giddy, not just at Trump’s victory, but at his own: he was renovating his new office in Schwerin Castle, a prestige address he had recently won when his party whipped Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in her home state. Hungover, still in shock, I could muster little more than weak attempts to extract assurances from him. I am a Jew and foreigner, I told him, who has always felt at home in Mecklenburg. How can you promise that the north won’t turn people like me out? Or more to the point, the foreigners and asylum-seekers who have nowhere else to go?
“You have nothing to worry about,” he said. “We love all people.”
That was the wrong question, of course. The AfD can’t be judged by Holm’s milquetoast pleasantries, or by its platform—mostly mild protectionism, with a bolus of economic nationalism and immigration restrictions—but instead it should be measured by its dog whistles and especially by the company it keeps. The first post-reunification generation of right-wing parties like the NPD were long since throttled from political life in Germany, but the AfD has been there to catch their followers and their wild discontents.
The harbor in Wismar, Germany, where the shipbuilding industry’s decline has contributed to tension between locals and foreign-born residents.
The next day brought me to Wismar, a low-slung brick city on the water that was once an important link in the Hanseatic League. Wismar suffered as much as any city in reunification. The collapse of its trade with Russia and the closure of its once-dominant shipyard, made it part of a Rust Belt on the Baltic. I had an afternoon coffee off the main square with Frank Junge, the region’s left-wing representative in Berlin. His Social Democratic Party (SPD) is still fighting for relevance—they are polling nationally at 22 percent, 14 points behind Merkel’s CDU, in advance of Sunday’s vote–but he was optimistic about the war for the future of his district. The rise of the AfD (polling just over 10 percent nationwide) wasn’t due to a dark turn in the heart of northeastern Germans, he said, but rather the result of a straightforward political vacuum. Angela Merkel, compassionate conservative, native of Mecklenburg, de facto leader of what remains of rational statecraft in the world, had overshot her base on immigration. Of course, Junge agreed with her openness to refugees—he can expound endlessly on the importance of a young, diverse and eager new workforce for an aging rural state like Mecklenburg. But the realpolitik failure is undeniable: Merkel had once been the vanguard of conservativism in Germany, and her leftward tilt on immigration had created a huge opening for a party, any party, that would challenge the wisdom of a compassionate border policy.