The tables were packed at the Waldhaus, a restaurant on the wooded outskirts of an east German town, as the regulars — workers shaking calloused hands, retirees clutching purses in their lap — settled in for a pub gathering of the far-right Alternative for Germany.
But the die-hards worry Germany’s political leadership less than people like Ina Radzheit. An insurance agent in a flowered blouse, she squeezed in among platters of schnitzel and frothy beers for her first visit to the AfD, the German initials by which the party is known.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “Where do I start?” She feels unsafe with migration rising. She is uncomfortable with Germany providing weapons to Ukraine. She is exasperated by government squabbling over climate plans she fears will cost citizens like her their modest but comfortable way of life.
“I can’t say now if I would ever vote for the AfD,” she said. “But I am listening.”
As anxieties over Germany’s future rise, so too, it seems, does the AfD.
The AfD has reached a polling high in Germany’s formerly Communist eastern states, where it is now the leading party, drawing around a third of voters. It is edging up in the wealthier west. Nationally, it is polling neck and neck with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.
If the trend lasts, the AfD could present its most serious threat to Germany’s political establishment since 2017, when it became the first far-right party to enter Parliament since World War II.
The turnabout is surprising for a party whose political obituaries filled the German media a year ago, after it had sunk in national elections. And it reflects the unease of a country at a crossroads.
After decades of postwar prosperity, Germany is struggling to transform its 20th-century industrial exporting model into a digitized economy that can withstand climate change and competition from powers like China.
“We are living in a world of global upheaval,” said Rene Springer, the national AfD lawmaker speaking at the Waldhaus in Gera. “Our responsibility to our children is to one day leave them better off than we are. That’s no longer to be expected.”
When it was elected in 2021, Mr. Scholz’s three-party coalition vowed to lead Germany through a painful but necessary transformation. Instead, the country was plunged into deeper uncertainty by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At first, the coalition seemed to beat the odds: Allies praised its pledge to overwrite postwar pacifism with military revitalization. It found alternatives to cheap Russian gas — nearly 50 percent of its supply — with unexpected speed.
But then the country dipped into recession. Migration numbers reached all-time highs, mostly driven by Ukrainian refugees. And the coalition began fighting among itself over how to return to the course it set for Germany before the war.
The AfD, a party that mostly drew support by criticizing migration, found new appeal as defender of Germany’s economically precarious class.
“With migration, the AfD offered a cultural narrative and identity to those anxious about their future,” said Johannes Hillje, a German political scientist who studies the AfD. “Now, the cultural threat is coming not just from the outside, but within — that is, the transformation policy of the government.”
The AfD has resurged despite domestic intelligence classifying it a “suspected” right-wing extremist organization, allowing it to be put under surveillance. Its branch in Thuringia, where the Waldhaus gathering was held, is classified as “confirmed” extremist.
A month earlier, its national youth wing was also classified confirmed extremist, though that label was recently lifted as a case regarding its status is settled in the courts.
In April, the domestic intelligence agency head, Thomas Haldenwang said in the agency’s yearly report that of 28,500 AfD members, around 10,000 are believed to be extremists.
Yet a full third of Germans now view it as a “normal democratic party,” Mr. Hillje said. “The paradox is that, at the same time, it has become more and more clear that this is really a radical party, if not an extremist party.”
In previous years, the party seemed ready to sideline extreme figures. No longer. This April, co-leader Alice Weidel spoke alongside Björn Höcke, party leader in Thuringia and seen as one of the AfD’s most radical politicians.
Mr. Höcke was recently charged by state prosecutors for using the phrase “everything for Germany” at a rally — a Nazi Storm Trooper slogan.
None of that dampened the enthusiasm at the Waldhaus in Gera, a town of about 93,000 in eastern Thuringia, where the AfD is the most popular party.
Anke Wettengel, a schoolteacher, called such labels the equivalent of focusing on hooligan fans of a soccer team — not a reflection of normal supporters, like her.
Nor did she see a problem with Mr. Höcke’s language.
“That was a very normal sentence,” she said. “We should be allowed to be proud of our country today without immediately being accused of being extremists.”
From the stage, Mr. Springer railed against not only immigrant labor reforms, calling them a “traitorous system against native citizens,” but also criticized new climate measures.
The audience thumped their tables in approval.
Stefan Brandner, Gera’s AfD representative, shared statistics that he said overwhelmingly linked foreigners to murders and food handouts, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
Many guests said it is such “real facts” that drew them to AfD events. (The federal government wrote in a document providing statistics to the AfD that the data was not substantial enough for such conclusions.)
Political analysts say Germany’s main parties share the blame for the AfD’s rise. Mr. Scholz’s coalition failed to convincingly communicate its transformation plans — and instead appeared locked in internal battles over how to carry them out.
Their mainstream conservative opponents, including the Christian Democrats of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, are edging closer to AfD positions, hoping to regain voters themselves.
They are adopting the AfD’s antagonism to gender-neutral language, as well as tougher stances on migration. Some Christian Democratic leaders are even calling to remove asylum rights in Germany’s constitution.
AfD supporters have noticed their views becoming normalized even as rivals try to marginalize the party — and that makes it more difficult for mainstream parties to regain their trust.
“They are getting hardened,” said Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. “No group of core voters is as unreachable as those of the AfD.”
Last week, the German Institute for Human Rights, a state-funded organization, released a study arguing that the language and tactics used by the AfD “to achieve its racist and right-wing extremist goals” could meet conditions for banning the party as a “danger to the free democratic order.”
Yet such proposals create another dilemma for democratic society: The tools Germany has for fighting the party it sees as a threat are the same that reinforce sentiments among AfD supporters that their country is not actually democratic.
“How can it be that an organization funded by the state can stand up and try to stigmatize a significant part of its voters?” Mr. Springer asked in an interview.
It is a question to which those in the crowd, like Ms. Wettengel, have found unsettling answers.
“Mainstream politics are against the people,” she said. “Not for the people.”
The real test of AfD support won’t come until next year, when several east German states hold elections and it has a chance at taking the largest share of the vote.
In the meantime, every week, AfD politicians fan out across the country, hosting information booths, pub nights and citizen dialogues, as if it already were campaign season.
Outside the train station of Hennigsdorf, a Berlin suburb, the state AfD lawmaker Andreas Galau handed out pamphlets to visitors with an unwavering smile. Some passers-by shouted insults. Others were curious.
“Many come here just to get their frustrations off their chest,” he said with a chuckle. “They come and tell us what is on their minds — we’re a bit of a therapy group.”
More and more people, he said, no longer feel ashamed to show interest in the AfD. It is this sense that the political establishment is not listening to ordinary people that may be helping fill out the AfD’s ranks.
In Gera, Mr. Springer’s address to the crowd seemed an exercise in catharsis and validation.
“They think we are stupid,” he said. “They’ll think again when the next elections come.”