Can German Activists Stop the Neo-Nazi Resurgence?

Josephine Huetlin

ERFURT, Germany—A conservative regional politician, who’d been hounded online by the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, was shot dead on his porch last June by a man who’d previously volunteered to hang AfD campaign posters.

The victim’s offense? He’d been filmed defending Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies as a matter of Christian and German values. Of course the AfD denied any responsibility, but for Germans who see in it the threat of resurgent fascism—indeed, Nazism—the murder of Walter Lübcke has remained a potent symbol.

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Earlier this month, convoluted coalition politics brought members of the AfD together with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party to name the governor of the state of Thuringia in former East Germany. The move was seen as an unprecedented and highly unwelcome neo-fascist breakthrough, a big win for a party previously considered completely toxic. People across the country turned out in front of state parliaments and party headquarters to protest, to chant, and in some cases to cry. 

“It makes people angry that, even though people are being murdered, there are politicians who do not appear to understand how dangerous this party is,” said Robert Fietzke, who organized the anti-AfD protest in the city of Magdeburg. 

Twenty-four hours after the Free Democratic Party candidate Thomas Kemmerich was given the governorship by the AfD, CDU, FDP coalition he stepped down. But that was only the beginning of successive crises. Merkel denounced the coalition, and then her chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer,  resigned her position. Meanwhile, the protests have continued. 

On Saturday, 9,000 people took to the streets of Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, holding signs that read, “No pact with fascists.” Flags from the environmental movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, Friday for Future, waved in the crowd. A group of men and women in suits from the satirical German party called simply "Die Partei" stood around smoking—and claimed that they, too, had caused Kemmerich to resign. (Die Partei has about 40,000 members, while the AfD has roughly 35,000.)

In Europe and the United States, far right politicians have relied on collaboration with establishment conservative parties to achieve power. But as the AfD and its neo-Nazi base exploit the disturbing potential of the radical right in this country, a growing number of initiatives are fighting back.  

REUTERS/Christian Mang

The AfD has been most successful in eastern German states. In Thuringia, its leader Björn Höcke is legally designated as a fascist by the courts, in part because he wrote a book so extreme that even AfD lawmakers didn’t know if its author was Hitler or Höcke when they were presented with excerpts. Like much of his party’s leadership, Höcke actually is from western Germany, but his vision is of “gallic villages” in the eastern countryside, from which his followers should “reconquer” the cities.

Since being elected into state parliaments from 2014 onwards, the AfD is making life harder for a lot of people. In addition to sending legal warnings to anyone who criticizes it, the party wants to cut funding for civil society initiatives—including those that offer advice on how to recognize and confront far right ideas and the people promoting them.

In the eastern state of Brandenburg, where the AfD is the second largest party, the first mobile advisory team, a counseling service that travels through the state give advice to people on how to intervene against, for example, neo-Nazis who just bought property on your street, was set up by some politicians in the 1990s after several right-wing murders occurred. Back then, organizing against the extreme right was mainly accompanying firefighters when there were arson attacks on immigrant homes and businesses or left wing youth centers. It was about “being there,” says Laura Schenderlein, who has been a counsellor for almost three decades.

Today, she says, "classic clear-cut neo-Nazis are rare, rather we have ‘the worried citizen,’” that is, people who are not active members of extreme-right groups but attend their rallies and sympathize with them. And as those numbers have grown, Schenderlein says that some of the people she counsels now appear a lot more insecure than in previous years. 

Local politicians do not know how to deal with the newly democratically elected AfD functionaries—some of them former neo-Nazis. Should they be barred from political events or invited? Schenderlein says that in most cases where local politicians invited the AfD, they ended up regretting it. 

Of course, Schenderlein doesn’t get requests for counseling from those politicians who are happy to collaborate. “In the countryside, there are a lot of ‘independent’ candidates,“ she says. And she also cites the example of Thilo Sarrazin, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, whose 2010 book about the supposed failure of German immigration policies had the incendiary title Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself). “Sarrazin showed that politicians from any party may be open to these ideas,“ said Schenderlein.

A 2018 study showed that while the share of people in the state of Thuringia with an extreme right mindset has stayed constant for the past two decades, more people now openly describe themselves as “to the right.” It’s this soft cushion for the hard line that the AfD has exploited with its coalition strategies. Far right views are not necessarily becoming more popular, but people are less ashamed to admit having them and thus open the door to collaboration with the extremists. 

Back at the protest in Erfurt, I spoke to two men, Lutz Kempe and Thomas Brückner, who were eating pastries on the sidelines. They’d come from Arnstadt, a city nearby, where they work with disabled people. Brückner gets out a flyer to show me how his name is spelled; the schedule on it reads “wheelchair basketball” and “computer club.”  

“The AfD doesn’t bring any solutions,” he says. “When they say something, then it’s always just that it’s the fault of the refugees.”

His friend agrees: “They don’t do anything. They are just sitting in the council and waiting.” For what? “That the session be over.”

“I was very surprised about the outcry,“ says Tahir Della, who works for Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, or the Initiative for Black People in Germany (ISD)—which is a co-organizer of the protest. Della says “there is great potential” in the protests against right-wing extremists to organize more generally against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other such ideologies—not only among people who are their targets, but “for many who are asking themselves: what kind of society do we want to live in?” 

Della has worked with another innovative group, the NSU Tribunal, which is a  people’s court was set up to investigate the network of the neo-Nazi terrorist National Socialist [that is, Nazi] Underground, which targeted migrant communities and killed 10 people from 1999 to 2006 while German authorities either failed to notice or looked away. 

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During the government trial, lawyers of the victim’s families tried to call police officers, intelligence agents and their informants to the stand. But the federal prosecutor and judge blocked most of these attempts, claiming they were not within the court’s purview. As a result, activists and initiatives began to work together to conduct their own investigation, using evidence acquired by the families’ lawyers. 

The tribunal worked with the London research group Forensic Architecture to create a simulation of the murder of 21-year-old Halit Yozgat in his family’s internet cafe in the city of Kassel. 

Andreas Temme, an undercover agent who had infiltrated the terror cell was in the internet cafe at the time, but he testified that he hadn’t heard any gunshots nor did he see Yozgat’s body when leaving the cafe. The simulation showed this was impossible. 

The independent tribunal also published its own 68-page indictment, listing names of intelligence agents, police officers and other people it considered complicit. But it added that it could not make any judgments because, among other things, the German intelligence agency refused to release its documents relating to the National Socialist Underground. 

Since the government’s NSU trial, there have been more reports of right wing formations in police, the army, and intelligence services. It was only after Walter Lübcke was murdered last year that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer promised to “pull out all the stops” in the fight against far right extremism. 

Meanwhile, the tribunal has continued to meet. It has sessions with titles like “We are naming the offenders,” where people read out the names of ministers, detectives and bureaucrats—for obstructing investigations during the time of the murders, for obstructing investigations into the NSU network before the trial and for contributing to the societal conditions in which the terrorists grew up and radicalised. 

At a tribunal last fall in Chemnitz 500 people showed up; the room was packed. The town previously had been the scene of racist riots and a march in 2018 when AfD politicians demonstrated together with radical right groups and neo-Nazis.

Della sees the tribunals and the protests against the far-right as important networking opportunities. “We want to continue working together,” says Della, “Because it’s becoming clear that many people are becoming the targets of a very dangerous party.”

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