Austin Mendoza is a fourth year psychobiology major with a minor in German. He initially chose to study German in order to learn his grandmother’s native tongue, and declared the minor in order to continue studying German language, culture, and history more comprehensively. Austin has always been intensely interested in people and cultures from around the world, even resorting to reading the atlas as a child. More recently, he has developed an interest in investigating discrimination against societal minority groups, and the results of the 2017 federal election in Germany caught his eye. In that election, the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party became the first far-right group to win seats in the Bundestag since the Nazi Party. For his independent research project in Fall 2017, Austin conducted research on the meteoric rise of the AfD, the underlying reasons for their surge in popularity, and the lingering consequences of this event. This research culminated in writing a three-part paper, “Schaffen wir das? How the AfD used the European migrant crisis to gain power.”
Austin argues that the AfD used the then-mounting Syrian refugee crisis to create a message of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism against the sudden influx of mostly-Syrian refugees after Angela Merkel’s temporary opening of the border to such refugees in August 2015. In a country arguably still coming to terms with the Holocaust, such hateful messages predictably sparked public backlash, yet gained traction with portions of the German populace. After running analyses on the state-by-state election results, Austin found that there was a statistically significant difference between the AfD vote percentages in the former East and former West Germany. Austin posits that the refugee crisis exposed a lingering East-West divide in Germany, in which the East is still feeling the effects of being divided from the West after World War II. Austin argues that citizens of the eastern states are more likely to feel economic anxiety over an influx of foreign workers due to higher unemployment rates than the West, and that the recent history of Eastern communism led to a society still more psychologically hesitant of outsiders than the more open former West. It is important to note, however, that the vast majority of citizens throughout Germany voted against the AfD. Indeed, German citizens have generally welcomed the refugees, and the AfD has faced intense public and political backlash following their historic election result.