RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Recent elections in Germany have elevated the far right in that country in a new way. Immigration is at the heart of this political shift. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the eastern state of Brandenburg. Center-left Social Democrats have been the dominant force there for 30 years. That has now changed.
Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Politician Tina Fischer sits in an outdoor cafe on a brisk autumn morning in the town of Zeuthen. She belongs to the Social Democratic Party - or SPD - which has ruled this state for nearly 30 continuous years. But on September 1, voters here helped the far-right party, Alternative for Deutschland - or AfD - double its share of the vote in Brandenburg, nearly defeating Fischer's party.
Fischer says the Social Democrats should have reacted quicker to concerns about a surge of around a million migrants that Germany took in five years ago. Instead, she told voters...
TINA FISCHER: No. You don't have to be worried. There are not so many foreigners. What are you talking about?
SCHMITZ: In fact, most of the immigrants who moved to Germany from Syria and Iraq have not come to settle down in the bucolic towns of Brandenburg. But Fischer and her party colleagues have learned the hard way that her constituents are still scared these immigrants could arrive any day. And the AfD has successfully campaigned on these fears.
FISCHER: If our children said, I'm frightened, I can't say, you don't have any reason to be frightened. That's wrong. And you could - I think it would have been much better to say, OK. We do something. Doing doesn't mean to put them away somewhere but to put probably a little bit more police for the feeling.
SCHMITZ: As she thinks about what she could have done better, our interview is interrupted.
FISCHER: So there were...
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking German).
SCHMITZ: A man on a scooter, who recognizes Fischer, screams AfD is good before riding off. Fischer shakes her head. She says an emboldened AfD has become popular not only through their anti-immigration message but how they deliver that message - through Facebook, Twitter, in a style Fischer calls the dictatorship of the loud.
FISCHER: And then they are loud. And they are noisy. And they're in the newspaper. And they are on Facebook. And they are in your email account, yeah? And then you lose your course, yeah?
SCHMITZ: She says she's worried AfD's surge in popularity in Brandenburg will turn away international businesses scared to come to what she calls Nazi-land (ph). A few blocks away, AfD voter Peter Scheppert (ph) interrupts his morning walk to challenge this characterization.
PETER SCHEPPERT: (Through interpreter) It's astonishing. I can say that we are not just one class of the population who are very stupid or have no education. We are highly educated. We are professors, et cetera. Our opinions are shared by all classes of society.
SCHMITZ: While politician Tina Fischer insists people here voted for AfD more because they were fed up with the endless bureaucracy of her party's rule, Scheppert says she's out of touch with voters like him. He says he voted for the Social Democrats for decades until this election, when he switched to AfD because he's frustrated with what he calls an unchecked flow of immigrants into Germany. Local construction worker Hendrik Boheme (ph) agrees.
HENDRIK BOHEME: (Through interpreter) Real refugees with families and children, of course they should stay here. But the single men who can rebuild their home countries should go back.
SCHMITZ: Other AfD supporters we spoke to refused to be recorded, telling NPR we were part of a lying fake news establishment that would portray AfD supporters as Nazis. Roman Kuffert, spokesman for the AfD in the Brandenburg city of Potsdam, did talk to us, saying these suspicions are rooted in German media and rival politicians portraying the AfD as extremists.
ROMAN KUFFERT: (Through interpreter) It's wrong to assume we are right-wing radicals. We have Jews in the AfD. We have homosexuals in the AfD. We have migrants. I see people who want to build a reasonable Germany. This certainly has nothing to do with the dark Nazi period.
SCHMITZ: Kuffert says Germany's political and social elite will continue to get his party wrong until they come to the realization that the AfD represents, what he calls, the country's middle - a middle that frustrated citizens are increasingly voting into office.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Brandenburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.