Barely two weeks after a leading member of a party in Germany’s governing coalition compared supporters of the opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to “flies on a pile of shit“, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has now compared them to “rats”. The AfD was the only party represented in the German Bundestag to oppose Covid-measures, including mass vaccination, and it is persistently polling around 20%, and as high as 24%, in the latest public opinion surveys. President Steinmeier’s Social Democratic party (SPD) is polling around 15%.
Alluding to the AfD at a meeting with business and trade-union leaders at the presidential palace, Schloss Bellevue, in Berlin on Monday, President Steinmeier said:
When our democracy is attacked… the democratic centre, the great majority of our society, must take a stand and make clear that we are committed to our democracy, we defend this Germany, and we will not allow this country to be ruined by extremist rat-catchers.
The “attack on democracy” refers to an alleged “secret meeting” in Potsdam last November at which the “deportation” or “expulsion” of migrants was supposedly discussed. The meeting – in fact a kind of symposium with invited speakers at a hotel – was attended by three representatives of the AfD, but also by two members of the Christian Democratic party of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Attendees have denied that any such “deportation” plans were discussed, and in a speech to the German Bundestag on Wednesday, AfD party Chair Alice Weidel described related reports in the German media as “an unprecedent campaign of defamation”.
Steinmeier’s word-choice echoes that of a commentary which was published by Germany’s ARD public television in November 2022 on the occasion of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. The commentary warned that by restoring free speech on the platform, as Musk promised, “racist and conspiratorial rats” would be allowed to “crawl out of their holes”, and it concluded that “Twitter can only remain relevant if precisely these rats… are beaten back into their holes”.
The commentary provoked numerous outraged responses in the German-language Twittersphere, including many which pointed to the use of similar “rat” imagery to describe Jews in Nazi propaganda. (For an example, see my contemporaneous report here.)
The controversy was so great that ARD removed the reference to “rats” and explicitly apologised for having used such “dehumanising” language. Just over a year later, there is no indication that the German President has any plans to apologise for having described roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the German electorate in similar terms.
Translations from the German by the author.