Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Column

The week Germany woke up to the far-right AfD

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A grey Saturday at the end of November 2024. Thin rain drops into Lehnitz lake. Limousines drive into the parking lot of the luxury Landhotel Adlon. Who is coming?

Two dozen German politicians, businesspeople and wealthy, middle-class, men. Some of them are from the extremist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), two are member of the centre-right CDU, two are known neo-Nazis. There is also a von Bismarck.

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  • The secret meeting took place not far from another lakeside villa — the Wannsee Villa, where leading Nazi functionaries met in 1942 to plan the extermination of the Jews of Europe

All of them want the encounter to be secret. Why? Because they meet to discuss a masterplan to deport millions of people from Germany, if they gain the political power to do so. Whom do they want to deport? Asylum-seekers, those who are only "tolerated" under German law and German citizens who are not "well assimilated". You catch their drift.

Where should they be deported to? The group is not sure. One idea is to create a state in North Africa, where the deportees could be sent to.

The meeting venue is not far from another lakeside villa in the area. The Wannsee Villa, where leading Nazi functionaries met in 1942 to plan the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Yes, this sounds like poor fiction. But it happened. And we know thanks to investigative journalists from Correctiv.

The reporting sent shockwaves through German society. It reacted. Last weekend, nearly a million people took to the streets in cities and towns across Germany to protest against rightwing extremism and the AfD.

The significance of this mobilisation cannot be overstated. Authoritarian parties have gained office in many countries by stealth, pretending to be conservative, democratic parties. When they show their authoritarian face, people start to protest — often too late.

The German protests have a more preventive character. They are destroying the narrative of a mythical silent majority that supports the inexorable rise of the far right. That's important. A sense of inevitability is a powerful political force.

The protests put the spotlight on the extremist nature of the AfD, before it can gain power in any of Germany's 16 states. It currently polls at 20 percent nationally, but around 33 percent in the former East German states of Thuringia and Saxony, both of which are holding elections this autumn.

The demonstrations have finally brought into sharp focus the question of what Germany's 'militant democracy' can do about enemies of the constitutional order. After 1945, the idea was that a democracy could not stand by and watch as its enemies gained power to destroy it.

Problems with an outright ban

The most dramatic step would be to ban the AfD altogether. This is mostly discussed as a question of political expediency (would it help or hinder the far-right? No one can really know). But it is primarily a question of the rule of law.

The legal bar for a complete ban is very high. The AfD has sanitised its official program to make it compatible with the German constitution. Many of its representatives have been relatively disciplined in their public statements. A ban would probably not stand up to legal scrutiny.

Does this mean that the party is not really extremist and that nothing can be done?

No. I do not hesitate to call the party extremist because its entire leadership excels in studied ambivalence. On the one hand, they make carefully calibrated statements to signal legality ("we only deport people who can be deported legally"), while on the other hand they tolerate or encourage the party's most extremist elements.

For example, the AfD has allowed Björn Höcke, the leader of its Thuringia branch, to become a highly influential figure. He is a neo-Nazi type, who has written about the need for mass deportations (focusing on "Africans and Asians") with a "modicum of well-tempered cruelty".

The party has never closed its Thuringia or Saxony branches, although both are officially designated as extremist by Germany's domestic security agency.

The government should take targeted measures, such as cutting off state funding to the party, banning its extremist elements, and depriving people like Höcke of their political rights, meaning they cannot stand as candidates in elections.

Not only would such measures be far more likely to withstand court scrutiny, they would also be politically useful. The AfD would finally be under pressure to abandon its ambiguity. Is it a very conservative democratic party that draws a clear line against extremism? Or does it think it's no big deal if some of its members plan major crimes?

Parties like the AfD claim that the others are trying to exclude them unreasonably. The table should be turned to them. They must prove that they respect democracy and human rights. I doubt they would be able to do so.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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