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Why are German young people so easily seduced by AfD's ideas?

A damaged AfD poster in Berlin, in the run up to the European election vote on 6-9 June
A damaged AfD poster in Berlin, in the run up to the European election vote on 6-9 June Copyright Donogh McCabe
Copyright Donogh McCabe
By Liv Stroud
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Recent voter surveys say between 14% and 22% of under-30s would vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany party in the upcoming European elections. But who are these potential voters?

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At an Alternative for Germany (AfD) European election campaign in Berlin, two of the far-right party's candidates, Dr Alexander Sell and Mary Khan-Holoch, discussed national pride and how the AfD hopes to make Germans proud of being German again. 

The crowd was largely made up of pensioners. However, there were also quite a few young people in the mix. 

Khan-Holoch herself is 30 years old, and she did not hesitate in her answer to the question of what makes the AfD so attractive to first-time and young voters.

"Germans feel afraid of becoming strangers in their own country," Khan-Holoch told Euronews. 

"Especially our young people are confronted with this daily, whether it's in public swimming pools or big cities. We have many hotspot schools where German is no longer spoken on the playgrounds," she added.

In fact, Khan-Holoch believes former Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy of opening the borders in 2015 to allow refugees from Syria to enter amid a backdrop of war is what entices the young voters. There is also the sense of national pride, something AfD knows how to arouse.

"I tell young people, be proud to be German," she said. 

'Failed' multicultural society's woes

Much of the speeches made by Khan-Holoch and Sell debate the historical shame of being German, relating back to the dark Nazi chapter in World War II. The new generations increasingly wish to distance themselves from that. 

While they both underline that they are for immigration — meaning, individual cases and not mass immigration — they claim that Germany's "inclusiveness" has led to pro-Islamic Caliphate marches going ahead, like the one that took place in Hamburg at the end of April. 

"The concept of a multi-cultural society has failed" is one of the party's main lines.

In turn, Khan-Holoch and Sell say they want better integration and to improve the school environment for young people. They also point fingers at initiatives like the often-cut-short German language courses for foreigners.

According to the German government, around 275,000 people took a German language course as part of the integration course in 2023. In the same year, around 81,000 dropped out of courses, mostly due to inactivity, adding up to around a third who had to give up for various reasons, such as already reaching the required B1 level.

People gather to protest against the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD party, and right-wing extremism in front of the parliament building in Berlin, 21 January 2024
People gather to protest against the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD party, and right-wing extremism in front of the parliament building in Berlin, 21 January 2024AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Many have criticised the AfD for not being inclusive enough — or rather, exclusive to the point of being "suspected extremist", as branded by the German judiciary since 2021. 

AfD has couched some of these behind broader themes, such as that Germany's birth rate is declining. Some AfD politicians, including their EU lead candidate Maximilian Krah, who has been at the centre of several recent scandals, claim foreigners who emigrate to Germany won't look after the ageing German population, advocating instead for more traditional family units and more ethnic German births. 

This is far from a mere policy debate. AfD made headlines in January when it became known that its members held secret meetings with German and Austrian far-right figures, including the neo-Nazi leader of the Identitarian movement Martin Sellner, to discuss a "remigration" plan — a scheme that would see hundreds of thousands, naturalised German citizens included, deported abroad.

While AfD distanced themselves from the story, the news sparked massive protests against the party across Germany, calling for its ban. In the end, the scandal contributed to AfD's expulsion from the European Parliament's far-right Identity and Democracy group earlier this month.

'Distorted leftist view' vs 'liveable future'

It's not just immigration. The party's insistence on family values often translates to fervent backing of traditional gender roles and opposition to what they call "sexualism", which their critics say is discriminatory towards the LGBTQ+ community and impedes basic human rights.

Khan-Holoch disagrees.

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"Don't let a distorted leftist view take away your gender identity," she said.

"No one has a problem if someone says they were born in the wrong body and undergo a sex change, then your name and identity will also be changed in your passport," Khan-Holoch adds.

"What I hear from young people repeatedly when I am at schools is this whole LGBTQ+ community, that you are no longer allowed to criticise things without being immediately labelled as a right-wing extremist." 

"Or if you say a man in women's clothes is still a man, you immediately have to hear, 'Oh, you're just a Nazi,' which has become so commonplace in our society."

AfD poster in Thuringia reading "No place for asylum homes" in German
AfD poster in Thuringia reading "No place for asylum homes" in GermanLiv Stroud

Some of these ideas seem to be resonating with a surprising number of people. At the AfD event, we asked 26-year-old Jan Streeck why he finds AfD appealing.

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"We want a liveable future for Europe and Germany. And I believe that this is the main reason why young people are getting involved with the AfD and why we are gaining more and more young voters, as we can see in the polls, Streeck told Euronews. 

"We have 22% in the current polls among first-time voters, and we are clearly the strongest party there, which makes us very proud," he said.

Streeck is a deputy state chairman of the Young Alternative (JA) Berlin, AfD's youth wing.

"We say that in a democracy, it must be possible to form an opposition, to create a party, and to democratically advocate for change in this country. And that is what we are doing," he adds.

How do you face your problems in real life?

But how can we put this further into perspective?

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"More than half of young people feel severely mentally stressed. A quarter of young people feel very lonely," Prof Dr Joachim Bauer, a psychotherapist and brain researcher, told Euronews, adding that he observed this every day in his practice, especially with young people who are depressed and lonely due to their intense use of social media and video games.

Dr Bauer pointed out that the AfD tries to give the impression that if societies reduce immigration or flaunt their national pride again, all problems would be solved.

"But that is not the case. Our world is too complex. What young people need to cope with life and move forward is mainly a personal environment of a few people with whom they can exchange ideas, where they can discuss their concerns and talk about how to approach life together," Dr Bauer said.

"We have inflation, we have rising prices. Many people have financial worries, worry that they can’t pay for their housing. Many people have worries about education. Our schools are not well enough equipped. So, we have very, very many problems. The radical right-wing parties do not offer a solution when you look closely," he explained.

Dr Bauer suggested a series of measures, including improved teaching and support networks in schools, highlighted by a social year — but not a compulsory army year — could help provide communities for young people who feel alone and "increase the psychological stability." It could also help integrate foreigners, according to him.

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Yet, an increasingly online world promoting extreme language and replete with hate speech and violence still has to be addressed, as it remains one of the main reasons for the rise in support from younger people for populist parties such as the AfD.

"We need to step away from that and go back into the analogue world. That keeps us mentally healthy. And then we're also not as susceptible to radical parties," he concluded.

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