James Jackson, The Telegraph, August 26, 2023
Fascism is on course to become normal in east Germany due to voters supporting the hard-Right AfD party out of protest, a state premier has warned.
Bodo Ramelow, the minister-president of Thuringia, where the AfD is currently polling at 33 per cent – far ahead of any of its rivals – said: “There are people who want to make history go backwards.”
Speaking in the Elephant hotel, Hitler’s favourite where he was once greeted by jubilant crowds from the balcony, he said: “There are people who say if you want to annoy Berlin and west Germany, we need to do something really scary that will get the whole republic talking – and then everyone will think all of Thuringia are Nazis.”
Mr Ramelow, Germany’s only Left party state premier, is the bitter rival of Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD’s Thuringia branch, who is known for toying with Nazi language and being so politically extreme that a German court ruled he could legally be called a fascist.
He blames Mr Höcke for the AfD’s evolution from a party founded to campaign against the euro, into a party now seen by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency as being under the thrall of extremist factions.
“The AfD was started as a west German conservative ‘professors party,’ and he [Höcke] managed from the Thuringia branch to give it a significant Right-wing extremist element,” said Mr Ramelow. “But the greater danger isn’t him, the great danger is when fascism becomes normal – they think they can try it out with a friendly face.”
Once seen as controversial within the AfD and known for a fanclub called the Höcke Jugend, named after the Hitler Youth, Mr Höcke gradually gained in power and influence while cleverly staying out of national leadership.
Mr Höcke caused his first national upset in 2020, when he manoeuvred with other local Right-leaning parties to briefly vote out Mr Ramelow in Thuringia.
Germany was outraged over the broken taboo of working with the far-Right and the fallout forced Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel’s anointed successor as CDU leader, to resign.
Next year, Thuringia will see probably the most decisive state election in the last 100 years of German politics, as an unwieldy coalition led by Mr Ramelow takes on Mr Höcke.
Tensions are already boiling over in Weimar, a picturesque medieval town deep in the forested state, which encapsulates the best and worst of German history.
Bach, Goethe and Schiller lived here. Nietzsche died here.
It was in Weimar that the Bauhaus school was founded, and then driven out by the same citizens who welcomed Hitler with open arms straight after his release from prison, and were later shown around the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp by horrified GIs.
It is where the constitution of the short-lived interwar Weimar Republic was signed, but also where the seeds for its destruction were laid when the Nazis won their first state election victory.
Battle for the soul
An art festival held in the town earlier this week featuring plays about sex with trees was an unlikely battlefield for the fight for the soul of east Germany playing out today.
To open the festival, artist Guenther Uecke laid stones on top of each other while names from the death book of Buchenwald were read out in the plaza outside the city’s theatre in a solemn reflection on Nazi Germany’s terrible crimes, a cornerstone of postwar German identity.
Festival organisers have called for a vigil on Monday to protect the memorial from a weekly march by far-Right activists.
Mr Ramelow gave a speech about the importance of remembering that the Nazis killed people from across Europe when a man wearing leggings decorated with pictures of cannabis leaves began shouting abuse.
“What do we have to celebrate when we have a war criminal here? You are the problem,” shouted the man, who was later identified as a convicted Holocaust denier.
“The chancellor’s office is the biggest concentration camp in the world,” he screamed as he was led away by police.
Shortly after that, Mr Ramelow’s security sprung into action to block a burly man in his 30s from approaching the stage.
‘CDU are Left-wing extremists!’
AfD supporters made their presence felt, railing against conservative CDU members canvassing near the town’s memorial to Goethe and Schiller.
“The CDU are Left-wing extremists!” shouts a moustachioed man in his early 70s, who refused to give his name.
He said he had fled the communist GDR in 1982 and was outraged by what he saw as a Left-wing takeover of the whole of Germany.
“The AfD is the only democratic party left. I want an AfD government in Thuringia to begin with. That will turn everything upside down,” he said.
Luis Oberbeck, the 19-year-old CDU activist heckled by the AfD supporter, said: “A lot of people aren’t interested in discussion, just in shouting abuse as they go by.”
‘Less stable party loyalty’
Due to the legacy of single-party communist rule in the GDR, “there is less stable or long-developed and reliable party loyalty in the east than the west,” said Heinz Brandenburg, a political scientist.
This, he said, manifests itself in “more volatility, switching between parties”.
The AfD, he said, is “not just a simple pool for protest voters” and its bedrock of support in Germany’s east should not be underestimated.
“Its voters know who the party is. It is quite authoritarian and anti-immigration, and conspiracy-theory-curious,” he said.
According to Mr Ramelow, if the AfD fails to win a large enough share of the vote next year to take power, it may seek to block other parties from being able to govern.
“It wants a 33 per cent blockade, which means abusing and devaluing parliament, turning into an anti-democratic bastion unable to appoint judges,” he said.