A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
In Berlin's Marzahn-Hellersdorf borough, 250,000 people live stacked atop of each other, crammed into one concrete-slab apartment complex after the next. This is one of the cosmopolitan city's "problem districts," at least if you ask certain members of the political press. Nowhere else in Berlin do fewer students finish high school. And 39 percent of children here under the age of 15 grow up in homes dependent on Hartz IV—a form of welfare looked down upon by a healthy slice of German society.
Die Linke ("The Left," or Left Party) has long been the most popular in the district, Germany's 85th. But in this past weekend's national elections—in which Angela Merkel and her center-right coalition won a fourth term as German chancellor—the Left Party's share of the vote declined nearly 13 points from 2013, down to 26.1 percent. Meanwhile, every fifth voter in Marzahn-Hellersdorf voted for the right-wing populism of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Nowhere else in Berlin did this party, the electoral vehicle for the closest thing Germany has to an Alt Right movement, gain so much support. So we asked people who voted for AfD a simple question: Why?
Obviously the country has changed a lot in the past few years. Germany accepted more than a million refugees, and the frequency of deadly terrorist attacks has rattled people across Europe. Meanwhile, the AfD has transformed itself from a simple Euro-sceptic party to one that skillfully foments fears of foreigners and infiltration from abroad, a dynamic that has become familiar across much of the West.
Among this district's working population, many people are manual laborers. Take Angelina's stepdad, who had just gone out to vote when we spoke to her. Angelina, who was sitting with other kids on the steps at the foot of one of the apartment complexes, told us she's 13 years old. The eighth-grader smokes Marlboro cigarettes, and her eyeliner separated her upper lashes from her orange eye shadow with precision. What did she and her dad plan to do for the rest of the day? "Sit around and do nothing. Like always," she said.
Many people with whom we spoke said they're perfectly happy here. "I have no interest in living in Kreuzberg," said one man in front of a polling location, referring to a hip neighborhood in the city. "It's peaceful and quiet here. I don't [want] anything to do with all those crazies in Berlin."
AfD won an outsized share of the vote in the district despite the fact that Marzahn has a a low migrant population—only 15 percent. Or perhaps it's for exactly that reason: Here, the AfD appears to have greatly profited from nativism. During the last federal election in 2013, the Left won 38.9 percent of the first votes (in the electoral system of Germany, you get two votes: one for a candidate and another for a party), making them by far the strongest force in the area. Last year, the AfD beat the Left Party for the first time in a Berlin state parliament election. Last weekend, they continued to make gains.
Mike, 47, former mason
Mike stands in front of a döner kiosk in Marzahn, smoking a cigarette with one of the shop's employees. The two are having a lively conversation and laughing. Mike voted for the AfD, he explains, because of social issues and especially because of the foreigners. "The foreigners are always the ones at fault," the employee at the döner kiosk chimes in. Mike looks at him and lets out a slightly nervous laugh. "But at least you're working," he says.
VICE: You're voting for the AfD. Are you aware that the party is, for the most part, extremely far-right?
Mike: I worked on construction sites for years and don't get anything in return. I'm voting for the AfD because I'm pissed. I hope they become the third-most powerful party. If that makes you want to call me a Nazi, go ahead. I don't care.
Do you feel you've been treated unjustly?
Yeah. For example: I have a back problem. After multiple operations, I became unable to work. I once went to an social-welfare office because I thought they'd be able to help me fill out the endless amounts of paperwork so I could get support. All the paperwork's pretty complicated. But they sent me away—because I'm German. They only help out the refugees.
Mike is still sitting there four hours later, together with three friends in the back corner of the döner kiosk. The men are around 50 years old, and they smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Mike orders himself a shot. His friend Mario is worried that Mike's statements came across the wrong way. Mario and Mike used to work together in construction. Mario is 53 years old and a construction site manager.
Mario: Mike is a really sweet guy. Don't take what he says the wrong way. We aren't Nazis. It's just a protest vote.
VICE: Who are you voting for?
Mario: I used to vote for the Left, but not anymore. And not the Greens, FDP [the Free Democratic Party], CDU [the Union parties, comprised of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria], and SPD [Social Democratic Party] either. There should be a real bang. I really dream that the SPD gets just 18 percent. Whoever votes for them is probably senile or in a retirement home.
Where does this anti-foreigner attitude come from?
I don't have anything against refugees. I once hid the passports of a Vietnamese family at my house so that their asylum process would take longer. They still live in Germany today. The attitude comes when integration commissioners tell us, for example, that there isn't a German culture outside of the German language. I felt very personally insulted. German culture is straightforwardness, directness, industriousness.
What can we do to ensure that our society doesn't drift farther apart?
I don't have the answer. How do we get out of this situation? Maybe we should really take stock for a change and see what things are actually like in our society. So many retirees are forced to live in bushes and collect bottles for spare change. We have a lot of problems here that simply no one gives a second thought about.
Thilo comes walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend from the polling station at Peter Pan Elementary School in Marzahn. In fall of 2014, 30 kids started first grade here. In previous years, that number was around 80. Four years ago, the school should have already undergone reconstruction and been expanded, but not much happened. Many people, even those already around 50 years old, walk to the polling station on crutches or with wheeled walkers.
VICE: Why did you vote for the AfD?
Thilo: I voted for the AfD and the NPD, [a far-right, ultranationalist party born from the German Empire Party that existed in the immediate aftermath of WWII] because I don't want to give my vote to the big parties. They're just dragging our country down even more. Things were always peaceful here in Marzahn. Sure, our infrastructure and everything is crumbling, but our motto has always been: The Marzahner can create candy out of shit. But recently everything has really taken a turn for the worse.
What do you mean specifically?
Where are all these millions of Euros coming from for refugee shelters, which they set up right under our noses? And they started to build these shelters without waiting to read the results from the questionnaires the locals here filled out. The young people here are becoming more brazen and people are getting verbally abused. They just all have this "I don't give a shit" mentality.
Mario, 50, former police officer
Two young guys in sweatpants walk by. When they see us, one of them shouts out, "I'm voting the NPD!" and does the Hitler salute. They both clearly seem to find it amusing. Mario is on his way back from the polling station with his wife. He says he voted AfD out of instinct.
VICE: What do you mean by "instinct"?
Mario: I'm unsatisfied with most of the parties and want to take a jab at them. Our refugee policies are also a reason. Crime here is on the rise. For example, a friend of a friend said that a friend was in the hospital because he was attacked by refugees.
Did you spend a long time thinking about who you were going to vote for?
I didn't have a choice this year. It was already set in stone [for a long time] that I was going to vote for AfD. We live in a democracy and have to bear up to that. I used to vote the SPD.
Matthias, 29, logistics expert
Matthias stands with some friends in front of the polling station. The young guys are chatting, and a number of them vote for the AfD. Matthias is the only one who explains why. The others consistently agree with him and interrupt him from time to time to add to what he says. But despite this, they refuse to be interviewed themselves.
VICE: Why are you voting for the AfD?
Matthias: This morning I was still on the fence: AfD or The Left. I'm so tired of the establishment parties. Eight years ago I voted for the FDP and I also gave SPD a shot once. But nothing changes. I don't buy it anymore. The AfD is the only party that thinks of the people.
Do you feel marginalized?
It's just a fact that more is done for refugees than for us. A lot of my friends are still looking for work. Refugees just get money for free. They even get preferential treatment when it comes to apartments—everything is paid for them. That equates to security for landlords. And everything is getting expensive.
Ewald Boot, 64, the acting elections administrator of the polling site, walks up to the group of people that's begun to form. He listens to the conversation for a while and then calmly interjects:
Ewald Boot: I have a different opinion than you. You should see the issues differently. If I were to move out of my apartment now, which currently costs €350 ($412), then the landlord will raise the rent to €400 ($471) whether or not a refugee moves in. It's not the refugees who are to blame for apartments getting more expensive.
VICE: What other counter-arguments do you have?
Ewald: I've rarely seen an AfD supporter make a logical argument. Diffused fears are difficult to argue with.
How will things continue after the election?
I'm worried. The NPD was also represented in a number of state parliaments, but had too much in-fighting. I don't think we'll just get rid of the AfD that easily. They have a number of highly professional politicians. I'm afraid that the relationship between the left and the right will begin to resemble that of the United States. I've witnessed how friendships have fallen apart because of that.
You don't seem to be mad at the people here. Shouldn't you, as a leftist, despise AfD supporters?
You should never despise anyone. Many of them are protest voters. I can understand that. A number of things have taken a turn for the worse in recent years. At my polling station, the AfD received just three votes less than The Left during the last election. But regardless of how sad the reality is, I'm proud that the elections work in our country and aren't influenced from the outside. And that everyone can express their opinion openly.