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The Rise and Fall of the Pirate Party

The story of Germany’s most eclectic political movement is one of digital liberation, nude protests, radical transparency, and murder.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The elections held last week in Berlin were a grim milestone in Europe’s steady rightward march of recent years. The Alternative for Deutschland party (AfD)—which has been described as Germany’s “most successful nationalist phenomenon since the Second World War”—made its debut in the Berlin state parliament with a jarring 14 percent of the vote. It was the latest evidence that ethno-nationalist forces are upending politics both in Europe and America, amidst a general disillusionment with governing institutions and traditional political parties that has pushed voters to outlets previously beyond the pale to voice their frustration.

But the elections were also a reminder of a time, just a few years ago, when the far right was not so frighteningly ascendant, and an inchoate dissatisfaction with the status quo in Berlin resulted in surprisingly strong results for a different band of outsiders: the Pirate Party, which suffered a collapse last week that was macabre and bizarre in equal parts. As the party lost all 15 of its seats in the state parliament, Gerwald Claus-Brunner, one of the Pirate Party’s most prominent members, killed a younger male colleague and wheeled the 29-year-old’s body through the streets, before taking his own life. Police who discovered both bodies on Monday in Claus-Brunner’s apartment described the sight as “savage.”

It was also foreshadowed: “You will have a minute of silence for me at the next plenary meeting,” Claus-Brunner had warned fellow MPs back in June. It was an ominous turn of events for a party that shot to prominence in the early 2010s by calling for a digital revolution (specifically, it was founded as part of an international anti-copyright movement). But since winning nearly 9 percent of the vote in Berlin’s elections in 2011, the party has seen a steady downhill trajectory. “Honestly the Pirate Party is dead by now. They should close down,“ Wolfgang Gründinger, a sociologist, told me.

Its original leaders agree. Martin Delius, who used to lead the Pirate Party in parliament, announced his resignation in December by posting a picture of his cut-up membership card. “I don’t feel like justifying the behaviour of the Pirate Party anymore,” he wrote. “It’s no longer bearable.” Several MPs in Berlin had already jumped ship before that. Speaking in an interview in July of 2015, Christopher Lauer, who left his job as chairman of the Berlin Pirate Party in 2014, said, “I would prefer if the Pirates do not make it back into the House of Representatives.”

The remaining pirates seemed to have all but given up as well. In the run-up to the most recent elections, one of the party’s stunts was to hold a vigil for an injured fox that had been shot in the Prinzenbad, a public swimming pool in Berlin’s Kreuzberg area. They tweeted, “Animal protection not execution #pirates.” Only eight people showed up.

But the Pirate Party wasn’t always a joke. Following its strong showing in the 2011 state elections, in which it ran on a platform of greater government transparency and internet privacy, its members marched into the House of Representatives clad in hoodies, shorts, and overalls, establishing the party’s reputation as the most intriguing renegade political force making inroads into the German mainstream. The Pirate Party then proceeded to establish significant parliamentary footholds in three other German states. It was the “Rise of the Nerds,” as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung predicted in 2009. While data-protection snafus and stuffy election campaigns made Germany’s established politicians look old, the pirates uploaded virtual graffiti onto Counterstrike to petition against a proposed ban on so-called killer video games. 

Not everyone was impressed with the Pirates, though. When Lauer tried to sell the benefits of online file-sharing to German hip-hop artist Jan Delay, the latter responded skeptically, “The entire Pirate Party thing seems to me like someone just walking up and saying, ‘Yo, we’re a party and there’s going to be free chocolate for everyone.’ And then a couple of non-voters say, ‘Awesome, free chocolate, now that’s politics.’ But guys, do you have any solutions? Do you even know what you’re talking about?”

Lauer used to take pride in the party’s lack of expertise, joking to fellow deputies in 2011, “We cause offense with the gaps in our education.” Party leader Andreas Baum couldn’t remember Berlin’s debt total in an appearance on public television—he thought it was “many millions,” when the answer was 63 billion euros. Sometimes they were on the wrong side of the law. One of the party’s first members, Jörg Tass, was jailed in 2010 for his casual research into the online child pornography scene.  

But generous commentators remarked that ignorance, amateurism, and a refusal to conform were the party’s main virtues. “One sees their gaps and mistakes, and therefore everything that is better about the other parties is taken for granted or even scorned by voters,“ one journalist wrote as recently as 2014. In a year full of iconoclastic politicians known for holding their slicker counterparts in contempt, and in an electoral atmosphere in which a rough authenticity is prized, it is not hard to see the precedent that the Pirate Party helped set.

Where did it all go wrong? One of the hallmarks of the Pirate Party was its dismissal of the whole concept of political orientation as “power playing.” This was, according to the activist Stephan Urbach, a fatal mistake. “Our biggest problem was that we let everyone in who wanted to join,” he told me. “And most of them were apolitical. They weren’t interested in politics.” Urbach quit the party in 2013. “I couldn’t take it anymore. Every political opinion was tolerated. I’d go to a Party convention and there would be, like, Holocaust deniers there.”

The wide range of political views and the lack of a strong hierarchical structure meant that the party did not have a distinct identity. This triggered incidents like Bomber-gate, in which party members stopped speaking to each other because one female deputy had taken part in a far-left protest that involved standing topless in front of the opera house in Dresden with the words “Thanks Bomber Harris“ painted across her chest. (Sir Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris was a member of the Royal Air Force who led the British bombing campaigns against German cities in World War II.) 

“They were obsessed with themselves, and didn’t realize how they came across to the outside world,“ Stephan Klecha, a sociologist, recalled. The general sense of anarchy was exacerbated by the fact that, in the name of promoting transparency, party members filmed and posted every bickering or navel-gazing discourse. “Nobody watched those clips apart from a handful of journalists who though it was hilarious and wrote it up,” Klecha told me.

The Pirates wanted to be radically different from other parties. They had scores of ideas, most of which never really got off the ground. One of these projects was LiquidFeedback, a software package intended to give supporters an equal say in all party decisions. Back in 2011, an op-ed in The New York Times referred to it as an initiative that could “completely upend German politics,” and suggested that a similar program could be used to engage disaffected voters in the U.S. This, of course, is not quite how things turned out.

Still, the Pirate Party’s inability to get its act together was inseparable from its creative brilliance. There was a reason voters in Berlin were willing to give a chance to a party made up of criminals and university students halfway through their degrees. And if the German iteration of the Pirate Party is all but finished, its legacy can be felt elsewhere. Iceland’s Pirate Party looks set to form the country’s next government, following the release of the Panama Papers earlier this year, which revealed that then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson had invested millions of dollars in offshore accounts. 

The Pirate Party’s popularity lies in more than the tantalizing promise of free downloads (and drugs). In a digitalized liberal society, there is a demand for politicians who understand how state intervention in the internet has impinged on civil liberties. “Those who know the system must translate to political language what is technologically possible, how it impacts us, and how we can resist it,” Frank Schirrmacher wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2009.

Meanwhile, referring to the growing popularity of the far-right AfD, Berlin’s Mayor Michael Müller commented, “I’d prefer a handful of pirates in the House of Representatives to a party of right-wing populists, whose policy is to play people off against each other.” This is an echo of what the very disturbed Claus-Brunner said when he was asked to explain his “moment of silence” comment in June: “When you have to deal with the AfD for the first time, you will light a candle for me.”

Despite performing well at the polls in its heyday, the Pirate Party was never a party in the strictest sense. It was part performance art, part cult, part prank. The AfD, on the other hand, is very much a party, with ideological convictions and a thirst for power. If the AfD is a reminder of what mass movements can become when democracy is deemed corrupt and ineffective, then the Pirate Party was a wild, rolling experiment based on the premise that democracy could be something different—something better.