For eight years Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has framed itself as a new political home for voters tired of the old, corrupted mainstream parties.
Now Frauke Petry, a former leader, claims the party has been captured by the very shadowy, moneyed elites that she says the AfD was set up to challenge.
Her former party colleagues have dismissed her claims as the work of a disgruntled, failed politician. And Ms Petry’s own political record – on her watch the party shifted focus from liberal anti-bailout economics to anti-immigrant xenophobia – may blunt the credibility of her claims beyond the AfD.
But three months before Germany’s federal election, the claims have explosive potential for the AfD, already deeply divided and struggling for political relevance in the pandemic.
“The AfD politicians no longer decide how they present themselves to voters, rather those who have corrupted them with money,” said Ms Petry, claiming she had “concrete knowledge” of illegal donations to active party leaders. “What was a taboo for me was clearly nothing of the sort for others.”
One target of her allegations is Bundestag co-leader Alice Weidel.
Earlier this week Ms Weidel lost a court case challenging a fine from Germany’s Bundestag over illegal donations made to her constituency office before the 2017 election.
The German parliament imposed a fine of nearly €400,000 on the AfD – the largest opposition party – over these undeclared, anonymous donations from Switzerland. The party challenged the fine, saying the donations were a loan that had since been repaid in 2018, and has vowed to appeal this week’s court ruling.
Co-leaders of Alternative for Germany Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty
A spokesman for Ms Weidel dismissed Ms Petry’s remarks as trying to “distract from her own failings and attack Ms Weidel with untenable claims ... to sell her little book”.
Petry insists that shadowy donations made via Switzerland are a key part of how the AfD established itself so quickly, in particular by mastering social media.
Another party leader she accuses of taking such donations, Jörg Meuthen, has dismissed her claims as “untrue”. Asked by German television if he had contact with a Swiss property mogul named as a donor by Ms Petry, Mr Meuthen said he “never says anything about personal contacts”. The party has already paid a fine of €270,000 for illegal donations, Mr Meuthen accepted.
In Requiem for the AfD, Ms Petry challenges her image in Berlin political circles as the sorcerer’s apprentice who unleashed postwar Germany’s most virulent extremist party.
Instead she said her AfD moved to fill a gap in the right wing of the German political spectrum neglected by chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. As for her legacy, she claims she was too naive and inexperienced a politician to notice how other leaders worked behind her back to radicalise the party and attract dubious supporters.
“It was a typical AfD phenomenon ... to overlook the growing number of patriotic tracksuit-bottom-wearers without job options and Hitler-picture-posting functionaries,” she writes. A circle-the-wagons mentality soon developed, she said, where any criticism of AfD policies was immediately attacked as proof of a wider conspiracy against the party.
Ms Petry, a 46-year-old trained chemist from Dresden, was an early AfD member who helped build the party in the eastern state of Saxony, which is still a core voter base.
But after its 2017 election success, she announced at a press conference that she was leaving a party she felt had become too radical. Her critics suggest she was a key figure in the radicalisation during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis that brought more than one million people to Germany.
Among her many provocative remarks was a January 2016 claim that border police should, if necessary, use firearms to assert “control” along Germany’s border to Austria.
Today Ms Petry regrets only one of her many remarks: the demand that Germans rehabilitate the term “völkisch”, a racial term meaning from or of the people, tainted by Nazi-era propaganda.