BERLIN — A leading member of Alternative for Germany, the nationalist party whose recent election successes have shaken the country’s political system, faced fierce criticism Monday after calling for a racially charged term favored during the Third Reich to be rehabilitated.

Party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry said in an interview published Sunday that words such as “voelkisch” shouldn’t be taboo any longer. The term refers to people who belong to a particular race and was frequently used by the Nazis. Their party paper was called Voelkischer Beobachter.

“We should finally regain a relaxed, not uncritical but normal way of dealing with our nation and terms such as ‘Volk’ and words that are derived from it,” she told weekly Welt am Sonntag. Asked whether she would include the word “voelkisch,” Petry responded that she doesn’t use the term herself but dislikes the fact that it is only used negatively.

“Let’s work on giving the term a positive connotation,” she said.

Her remarks prompted a swift backlash from politicians, commentators and historians who warned that Petry’s party – known by its acronym AfD – was trying to legitimize ideas that were once at the core of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi ideology.

“Her statement that one should work on giving the term ‘voelkisch’ a positive meaning is disgusting,” daily Neue Westfaelische wrote in an editorial. The paper accused Petry of trying to blur the lines between conservative and extreme-right opinions.

Volker Beck, a Green Party lawmaker who heads the German-Israeli parliamentary group, called Petry’s comments “dangerous arson.”

“The voelkisch ideology of the 20th century resulted in National Socialist race hatred and the mass murder of Auschwitz,” Beck said.

AfD has become a potent electoral force in Germany since it was founded three years ago, sweeping into four state Parliaments on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment this year, most recently in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. The party is polling double-digit figures in advance of a vote in the city-state of Berlin on Sunday.

AfD has tried to portray itself as the only true defender of the German “Volk.” The Nazis encapsulated the term in their slogan, “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer” – “One People, One Nation, One Leader.”