Posted on March 20, 2024

Germans Thought They Were Immune to Nationalism After Confronting Their Nazi Past. They Were Wrong

Kirsten Grieshaber, Associated Press, March 18, 2024

When Sabine Thonke joined a recent demonstration in Berlin against Germany’s far-right party, it was the first time in years she felt hopeful that the growing power of the extremists in her country could be stopped.

Thonke, 59, had been following the rise of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, with unease. But when she heard about a plan to deport millions of people, she felt called to action.

“I never thought such inhuman ideas would be gaining popularity in Germany again. I thought we had learned the lessons from our past,” Thonke said.

Many Germans believed their country had developed an immunity to nationalism and assertions of racial superiority after confronting the horrors of its Nazi past through education and laws to outlaw persecution.

They were wrong.

If an election were held today, the AfD would be the second largest party, according to polls.

But national polls camouflage an important division: the AfD has disproportionate support in the formerly communist and less prosperous eastern states of Germany.

After the fall of communism in 1989 and the unification of East and West Germany a year later, many people in the five eastern states lost not only their jobs but their collective past, leaving them disoriented and helpless in the capitalist system.

The AfD’s rise has been propelled by anger over inflation and, above all, rising immigration. The EU received 1.1 million asylum requests in 2023, the highest number since 2015. Germany got by far the largest number of claims — more than 300,000 — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. The country has also taken in more than a million Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russia’s invasion.


After 1945, West Germans grew up with the guiding principle that there should “never again” be a dictatorship on German soil. West German leaders made visits to Israel and apologized to the countries occupied by the Nazis, while schoolchildren were taken to see concentration camps or Holocaust memorials.


Polls show the AfD as the top party in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia, with roughly 35% support in each. Both states have elections this fall, along with the eastern state of Brandenburg, where the AfD is also expected to make strong gains.

The AfD’s appeal is particularly strong among men — about two-thirds of its voters are male — and, increasingly, younger voters. In the last state elections in Hesse and Bavaria in October, AfD made significant gains among voters 24 and younger.

The party is far more internet-savvy than its rivals, making use of social media to get its message out to young people. At the same time, AfD officials often avoid talking to mainstream media reporters and sometimes don’t accredit journalists they perceive as too critical to their party conventions.

The party has benefited from voters’ deep frustration with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. His government came to power over two years ago with a progressive, modernizing agenda, but now is viewed by many as dysfunctional and incapable.

The AfD’s Thuringia branch is particularly radical and was put under official surveillance by the domestic intelligence service four years ago as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.

AfD’s Thuringia leader, Bjoern Hoecke, has at various times espoused revisionist views of Germany’s Nazi past. In 2018, he called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and called for Germany to make a “180-degree turn” in the way it remembers its past.

“The AfD is a nationalist party, and nationalists want to be proud of their history, and anyone who wants to be very proud of German history must of course minimize, play down, or even deny the shame of the Nazi crimes in order to be able to tell the story of national greatness,” said Jens-Christian Wagner, a historian and the head of the Buchenwald Memorial {snip}


Since January, a wave of protests against the far right has swept across Germany, triggered by a report that right-wing extremists met to discuss the deportation of millions of immigrants, including some with German citizenship.

AfD members were present at the meeting, along with Martin Sellner, a persuasive young Austrian with neo-Nazi links and convictions for violent extremism.


More than 2.4 million people have so far joined the anti-AfD protests which began in mid-January {snip}