Posted on July 2, 2024

The Man Softening the Ground for an Extremist Germany

Erika Solomon, New York Times, June 23, 2024

From the small stage of a pub in a wooded town of eastern Germany, the right-wing ideologue Björn Höcke regaled a crowd of followers late last year with the tale of his imminent trial. He faced charges for saying “Everything for Germany” at a political rally — breaking German laws against uttering Nazi slogans.

Despite that approaching court date, he looked down at the crowd, and gestured to them with an impish grin. “Everything for?” he asked.

“Germany!” they shouted.

After a decade of testing the boundaries of political speech in Germany, Mr. Höcke, a leader of the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, no longer needed to push the limits himself. The crowd did it for him.

That moment crystallizes why, to his critics, Mr. Höcke is not simply a challenge to the political order, but a threat to German democracy itself.

For years, Mr. Höcke has methodically chipped away at the prohibitions Germany has imposed on itself to prevent being taken over by extremists again. It takes a tougher stance on free speech than many Western democracies, a consequence of the bitter lessons of the 1930s, when the Nazis used democratic elections to seize the levers of power.

“Everything for Germany” was the slogan once engraved on the knives of Nazi storm troopers. By reviving such phrases, Mr. Höcke’s opponents say, he has sought to make fascist ideas more acceptable in a society where such expressions are not only taboo, but illegal.

In May, judges found Mr. Höcke guilty of knowingly using a Nazi slogan, fining him the equivalent of $13,000. On Monday, because of his pub speech, Mr. Höcke will go on trial in the same court for using the same slogan, again.

It is one of the string of legal cases he is now facing — none of which appear to have slowed the resurgence of Mr. Höcke or his party. In the elections this month for the European Parliament, the AfD came in second in Germany, outperforming any of the country’s governing parties.

Not long ago, Mr. Höcke stood at the fringe of a fringe party. Over time, he has pulled the party ever closer to him, making it even more extreme — and, experts argue, tilting Germany’s entire political landscape rightward in the process.

To his opponents, he personifies an invidious effort by the far right to destigmatize the country’s Nazi past.

To his supporters, he is a kind of linguistic freedom fighter, trying to reclaim unfairly maligned words, and more broadly, to preserve their conception of an ethnic German culture.

On his final day in court in May, Mr. Höcke, a silver-haired 52-year-old in a slim dark suit, stood before the prosecutors and a packed courtroom and made a passionate plea of innocence.

Though he is a former history teacher, he insisted he had not known he was using a storm trooper slogan. The words came to him unplanned, he said — ignoring the fact that since he was charged, he has twice persuaded crowds to repeat the Nazi phrase for him.

“Do we want to ban the German language because the Nazis spoke German?” he asked the judges. “How far should this go?”

The trials of Mr. Höcke, who declined a request to be interviewed for this article, are part of a new struggle of narratives over recent German history and who exactly can call themselves Germans in an increasingly diverse country anxious about new economic and strategic challenges.

If Mr. Höcke’s goal is to plant the seeds of a new ethnonationalism, with its echoes of fascism, then he may be making subtle gains.


For years, even his own party sought to sideline him. Now, his allies hold two-thirds of party leadership positions.

The ascent of Mr. Höcke’s supporters, political analysts say, reflects the evolution of the AfD from a small, conservative party skeptical of the European Union to a far more radical one.

Its leaders now promote the argument that nationhood is based on bloodlines and that only tough deportation policies can prevent Germany and other Western societies from being overrun by immigrants.

The AfD today considers itself antiglobalist. It is suspicious of urban elites and what it sees as the government’s overreaching efforts to combat the Covid pandemic and climate change. Many of its leaders embrace conspiracy theories that question the legitimacy of Germany’s post-World War II government.

The party’s popularity, experts say, has affected the political discourse of the entire country. In the past year, mainstream politicians across the spectrum have adopted the AfD’s hostility toward immigration and even environmental policies.

AfD leaders say the critics have it backward.

“There was no shift to the right,” said Torben Braga, the AfD spokesman in Thuringia, who worked for Mr. Höcke for years and keeps a photograph of the politician above his desk. “What happened is that certain convictions — political demands that have always been present in society — have found a mouthpiece after being suppressed for decades.”