Politics & Society

Farmers, Fatherland, and the Far Right: How the AfD Cultivates an Ethnonationalist Agenda

In November 2023, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that €60 billion in special funds originally designated for Covid-19 relief could not be redirected to the governing coalition’s landmark climate and transformation fund. This left an estimated €17 billion hole in Germany’s tightly regulated balance sheet, forcing the already unpopular coalition to make cuts to the 2024 federal budget. Two of the cost-saving proposals to fill that gap were an end to subsidies for agricultural diesel and elimination of tax exemptions for farm vehicles. The pushback from German farmers was swift, with demonstrations of angry famers popping up around the country. After weeks of protests, including a near blockade by tractors in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the government agreed in early January to keep the tax exemption for farm vehicles and phase out the agricultural diesel subsides over the next three years, rather than eliminate them immediately. Ultimately, beyond securing these concessions, the farmers’ protests were in vain, as the walk back of agricultural diesel subsidies were included in the €477 billion federal budget for 2024 approved on February 2.

Politicians from across the political spectrum had lent their support to the farmers, including members of the government’s ruling center-left coalition who had initially proposed the cuts. However, the farmers’ most vocal champions came from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), who showed support at the protests as well as in interviews and on social media. It is not surprising that the AfD would take the opportunity to capitalize on discontent with the beleaguered governing coalition, whose overall approval rating is just 17%, while the AfD enjoys the second-highest voter support in the polls at 19%. However, it is surprising that AfD took such a public stand in the fight for subsidies, touting its position in a press release on January 14 that called for the “Immediate Action Program of the AfD Parliamentary Group to Save the German Middle Class.” The AfD pledged not only to maintain, but to double, the existing agricultural diesel subsidies, eliminate tolls for farm vehicles, and abolish CO2 emissions taxes. This position contravenes the party’s fundamental policy program, which claims that “in general, the AfD opposes subsidies.” Furthermore, the program chapter about agriculture is entitled “Less Subsidies, More Competition.”

With its historic rejection of subsidies and no major prior involvement in agricultural issues, why would the AfD take up the mantle for farmers? There are plenty of other issues to needle the governing coalition to score points with voters—the economy, migration, or Ukraine support, to name a few. The answer to why AfD became involved with the farmers is connected to the other headline that dominated German media in January: the uncovering of a clandestine meeting of far-right extremists in Potsdam in November 2023. The meeting was organized by Martin Sellner, an Austrian far-right extremist and leader of the Identitarian Movement, which professes the superiority of European ethnic groups. Among the two dozen people in attendance were an AfD member of the Bundestag, an AfD state parliamentarian from Saxony-Anhalt, a local AfD party functionary, a media consultant on the AfD payroll, and most notably Roland Hartwig, who was at the time a close advisor to AfD co-chairperson Alice Weidel.

The focal point of the closed-door meeting was Sellner’s plan for “remigration,” or the forced removal of “unintegrated” individuals in Germany—even if those in question held German citizenship. Those deemed unworthy to stay in Germany could be deported to a “model state” in North Africa, with room for up to two million people. The shocking proposal is an unwelcome echo of the Nazi’s plan in 1940 to deport millions of Jews to Madagascar. Once news of the meeting was made public, protests and outrage erupted across Germany and from many parts of the electorate. Millions of people marched against the Potsdam meeting and what it represented, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Although the AfD tried to distance itself by claiming those in attendance weren’t representing the AfD in an official capacity, the demonstrations quickly turned into a direct rejection of the AfD and its xenophobic, anti-migration platform.

For years, the AfD has campaigned on keeping migrants out and ensuring Germany stays “German.” A previous AfD campaign poster featured smiling white women in dirndls sipping wine with the caption “Burkas? I prefer Burgundy.” Another displayed a brown woman in a burka proclaiming “The rights of women are non-negotiable. Islam does not belong to Germany.” The AfD’s narrow definition of who “belongs” to Germany has been a central foundation of party rhetoric since 2015, and the participation of AfD representatives in the remigration discussion cements this commitment to a German ethnonationalist state where those who “do not” belong may be forcibly removed by those who “do”.

It is against this ideological framework that the AfD seized the opportunity to indirectly assert ethnonationalist aspirations through its support farmers. This backing is not for their cause in the fight to retain subsidies, but for what farmers themselves represent—a living embodiment of the land, worked by the typically male, typically native Germans who have been on the front lines of the protests. This connection of blood and soil dates back to the late 19th century, using agriculture and rural living to blur the lines between love of country and enmity towards those outside its borders. In the 20th century, blood and soil laid the groundwork for core tenets of Nazi ideology, including the concept of Lebensraum (living space), which was used to justify territorial expansion and extermination of “inferior” races to accommodate the “superior” German Volk. Sellner’s plan is simply the inverse of Lebensraum but with the same goals; instead of expanding Germany in the name of ethnic superiority, remigration is shrinking Germany by cleansing it of those deemed not worthy to remain in the country.

To be clear—the farmers did not ask for this association, and it seems that the AfD’s support was initiated independently by the party, rather than in conjunction with the German Farmers’ Association (DBV). In fact, in 2021 the DBV formally distanced itself from the AfD, claiming that the AfD’s desire to exit the European Union is at fundamental odds with successful agricultural policy. The AfD attempted to co-opt the farmers’ protests to covertly further their own xenophobic ideology, pretending to care for those who work the land, when in reality they are just trying to limit those allowed to live on it. However, as AfD buses continued to pull up next to tractors at demonstrations, the juxtaposition cannot be ignored. In privately debating who “belongs” to the fatherland, the public position of the AfD is clearer than it has ever been: farmers in, migrants out. Whether this will be a breaking point for Germany’s second most popular party remains to be seen, but it is certainly an inflection point. Now it is up to the German electorate to decide what they stand for—not just with their voices, but with their votes.


Courtney Flynn Martino

Senior Manager, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation