In September 2019, two Eastern German states –Brandenburg and Saxony– held elections. Germany’s right-wing extremist party, the AfD, tripled its previous result in Saxony (from 9.7% to 27.5%) and doubled its earlier outcome in Brandenburg (from 12.2% to 23.5%). The next state election is scheduled for Thuringia (27th October 2019) – home of AfD-Führer Björn Höcke. According to the latest opinion poll, the AfD is set to receive 25% in Thuringia. This will be well below Hitler’s NSDAP receiving 42.5% at the Thuringia state election on 31st July 1932. With recent results, the AfD has decisively increased its ranks to be a 25% party in the Eastern region of Germany and a 12% party in the Western region.
Some say the AfD is not a right-wing extremist party but an openly neo-Nazi party with antisemitic undertones. Recently, journalists from the public broadcaster ZDF read a sentence aloud to high-ranking AfD politicians. He asked them to say whether the sentence was from Adolf Hitler or Björn Höcke. Federal AfD-MPs Jens Maier, Kay Gottschalk, Martin Reichardt, Karsten Hilse, Martin Renner and Jürgen Pohl could not tell the difference between Hitler and Höcke.
Whether neo-Nazi party or not, much of the AfD’s recent successes were previously unseen in Germany’s post-war elections. At least in part, AfD achieved victories because the AfD has been successful in presenting itself as just another populist party of so-called concerned citizens. Recently, some of these so-called concerned citizens walked hand-in-hand with SS-Sigi (2019). Still, others are convinced that the so-called concerned citizens voted AfD precisely because they are Nazis.
Historically, the AfD had two ideological predecessors operative in post-Nazi Germany. There was the outright neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei of the 1950s. After the SRP was made illegal, neo-Nazism continued with the National Democratic Party or NPD (1964 until today). Unlike the NPD, the AfD has eliminated the “N” (i.e. Nazism) aiding in the perception that they are just another populist party.
The AfD – Not a Neo-Nazi Party?
Indeed, the AfD has been highly successful in masking its many neo-Nazi links. Some cooperation and personal connections include, for example, minor AfD officials in Saxony-Anhalt. This includes local neo-Nazi Martin Ahrendt. Ahrendt’s Facebook page garnered many neo-Nazi likes. Then, there is also one of the AfD’s most important leaders, AfD-Thuringia Führer Björn Höcke. Höcke’s recent past includes writing for neo-Nazi publications under the pseudonym of Landolf Ladig.
Björn Höcke also took a front-row position during a 6,000 to 8,000 neo-Nazi march in the eastern German city of Chemnitz in 2018. The AfD-Nazi rally had all the fascist trimmings one can imagine. It included hate speeches, thuggish violence, Germany for the Germans chants, open antisemitism, Hitler salutes, the hunting of anyone not German-looking and an attack on a Jewish restaurant. Next to local AfD-leader Björn Höcke marched Lutz Bachmann. Bachmann is a small-scale criminal (assault, theft, etc.). He is also the boss of Pegida. Pegida is a right-wing street fighting organisation. Bachmann likes to dress up as Adolf Hitler. For AfD boss Alexander Gauland, Baumann’s Pegida is the AfD’s natural ally.
Marching in front row position at Chemnitz in 2018 was also Brandenburg’s AfD boss and military-trained strongman Andreas Kalbitz. Like Björn Höcke, Kalbitz has a substantial neo-Nazi past extending over more than fifteen years. Ex-(or not so-Ex-) neo-Nazi Kalbitz has been the personal protégée of AfD boss Gauland. In 2007, Kalbitz travelled with known neo-Nazis and several right-wing mercenaries to Greece. Kalbitz’s touring companions included the former NPD boss Udo Voigt (Germany’s second neo-Nazi party). In Greece, Kalbitz accompanied neo-Nazis marching with local fascist Greek neo-Nazis.
Some of Kalbitz’s buddies belong to the hard core of German neo-Nazism. Some have close links to the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation NSU. Travelling to Greece with Kalbitz was also NPd-apparatchik Jens P. (the court kept his surname a secret). Previously, Jens P. had attended a rally with NSU members and neo-Nazi leader Ralf Wohlleben. The march took place in the western German town of Worms where NSU members carried Germany’s imperial Reichs-flag while chanting neo-Nazi slogans. Wohlleben’s NSU network killed ten people out of racial hatred between 2000 and 2007. Hard-core neo-Nazi Wohlleben is considered to be the ideological and logistics boss of the murderous NSU. In other words, we do not require six degrees of separation to find a link between the AfD and hard core neo-Nazis – just one – Jens P. The link is Kalbitz (AfD) Jens P. (Neo-Nazi) Wohlleben (NSU) or: AfD Neo-Nazis NSU.
There are also allegations that Kalbitz was waving Hitler’s swastika flag from a balcony at their Greek hotel when travelling with his neo-Nazi cohort. Until proven, AfD strongman Kalbitz denies any neo-Nazi link. What is proven, and what Kalbitz has admitted, is the fact that he has attended militaristic neo-Nazi camps. Such camps include a replica Führer-bunker, drums, torches, marches, military training, fighting, etc. AfD man Kalbitz attended an HDJ camp in 1993. Kalbitz’s camp was organised by the neo-Nazi organisation Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend – now declared illegal. The HDJ follows the Führer principle. The HDJ is about strict Germanic nationalism and racist and antisemitic training. In videos shown on German TV, AfD-boss Kalbitz wore a camouflage shirt with Bavarian-style leather pants – just like his idol once did. The Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend understood itself to be in the tradition of Hitler’s HJ – the Hitler Youth. Once, eight million children were made to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler in his HJ. What the HJ was really about is shown in an HBO documentary named: Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth.
Andreas Kalbitz also features in reports of Germany’s secret service – Verfassungsschutz – which documents neo-Nazi activities. Kalbitz, according to a neo-Nazi dissident now living in North America, was prominent in neo-Nazi camps. The neo-Nazi dissident said Andreas Kalbitz was a neo-Nazi agitator, using the German term Scharfmacher – someone who can whip people into a violent frenzy. Kalbitz proudly presented what he had for young boys. In the boot of his car was the obligatory imperial flag of Germany, antisemitic literature and material that denied the Holocaust. Today, Kalbitz is the leader of the AfD in Brandenburg, receiving 23.5% of the vote. Being in parliament allows Kalbitz to carry out what Goebbels once said: This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.
In short, today’s AfD is no longer what it was only a few years ago – simply a populist party. Of the original eighteen founding members –all men!– present at the meeting that set up the AfD early in 2013, only four (men!) are still with the AfD. Only one – Gauland – occupies a leading position. Once a right-wing conservative, today Gauland has joined Björn Höcke’s right-wing extremists. Among many other things, Björn Höcke seeks a reinterpretation of Germany’s Nazi past, demanding a 1800 turn-around. What this means is a reversal of victims and perpetrators. If Björn Höcke succeeds, it is no longer the frightened Jewish girl, pushed into a gas chamber by an SS man, who is the victim. Instead, the SS man is good and the girl is evil.
Unlike Gauland and Höcke, AfD deputy leader Beatrix von Storch’s ancestors were real Nazis. Von Storch is the granddaughter of the SA-Standartenführer Nicholas of Oldenburg and Johann Ludwig von Krosigk, who was Hitler’s Minister of Finance. Among the many AfD men with neo-Nazi links, there is the AfD’s most well-known antisemite Wolfgang Gedeon. Gedeon believes that the faked antisemitic nonsense of Protocols of the Elders of Zion represents the truth. Gedeon also thinks that Judaism is the inner enemy of the Christian world. All of this – and much more – leads to the question: Why do Germans in the east vote for such Nazis?
Voting AfD – Voting Neo-Nazi
Recent polls have suggested that 30% in Saxony and up to 80% in Brandenburg voted AfD because they wanted to send a signal of protest. More importantly, AfD imports from western Germany like Kalbitz (Bavaria), Gauland (Hessen) and Björn Höcke (Westphalia) have managed to convince Germans in the east to represent eastern German interests. The AfD gives Germans in the east – often mistreated as second class citizens – the feeling of being heard. This comes after decades of economic deprivation during the post-GDR years – from 1989 up to today. As rampant neoliberalism was introduced, many state institutions declined or vanished altogether. Shops closed, youth centres became empty, banks left, transportation declined, medical doctors moved, etc. Left behind were large economically arid areas in the former East Germany. These geographical regions are even deprived of people. Many young people followed a Go West, Young Man! calling. Those who were left behind are seen as losers filled with bitterness and resentment – the proverbial village idiot.
Some of them are post-GDR children –Nachwendekinder– believing themselves to have been left behind in perceived and real misery. Many show disillusionment with politics. This was revealed in Saxony and Brandenburg in the form of voting for the AfD. In both states, the established parties –Merkel’s conservative CDU and the social-democratic SPD– were in power during the last 29 years. Many voted for change, with the AfD being the hoped-for agent of change.
Disillusioned people, apathetic non-voters and a substantial group of other non-voters created an important pool of voters for the AfD. In fact, the AfD did extremely well among previous non-voters. In Brandenburg 34% and in Saxony 34% of these previously non-voting people voted AfD. Neglected by a democratic and civil society, many came to believe in conspiracy fantasies mixed with right-wing ideologies. They began to believe in a Germanic culture that needs to be defended against a –largely imagined– flood of refugees and migrants. These floods, hordes and waves exist only in right-wing propaganda and AfD echo chambers. The politics of fear works very well. It works even better when mixed with racism.
Like all populist and Neo-Nazi parties, the AfD seeks to overlay a vertical class struggle with an horizontal race struggle whereby Germans are encouraged to believe that they need to defend themselves against non-Germans. Increasingly, such imagined attacks on a mythical Aryan culture are presented as emerging from within. As the enemy, the Muslim has been added to the Jew. This also works with trumped-up external enemies. The AfD demands tough borders, police, the army and walls. Like the real Nazis who shot Jewish children, today’s AfD wants to shoot refugee children. How such an invented fear of an external attack works has been described by none other than Hermann Göring. He once said
the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy.
All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
This works even better in AfD echo chambers where critical voices have been silenced. Another reason for the rising neo-Nazi vote is that the generation that constituted the old left in the former East Germany is slowly dying out. This opens up space for AfD ideology. AfD ideologies work best the more the ideologies of the east die out. It seems to be: the more eastward you go, the more neo-Nazis you find. This applies to Germany as a whole just as much as within eastern Germany. Viewing Germany in a 2-by-2 matrix.
Germany’s East (right-hand side) has turned out to be a stronghold of AfD ultra-nationalism. This is the true home of what CDU’s Friedrich Merz described when he said, AfD are Nazis. This area is marked in the true Nazi colour: brown. In the western region of Germany, the AfD has the least support in the northwest (light blue). The colour blue is the self-assigned colour of the AfD concealing its brown (read: neo-Nazi) ideology. In the Southwest, the AfD is stronger and somewhat more conservative (dark blue). In the Southwestern region of Germany, the AfD is nowhere close to what it represents in the Northeast and the Southeast. Within Eastern Germany’s brown areas (e.g. AfD fortresses), particular AfD strongholds are found in Cottbus, the border-town of Frankfurt (Oder) as well as in the electorates of Görlitz III and Bautzen. Some of these are old industrial and coal mining areas threatened by changes in Germany’s energy and economic politics. Thirty years ago, about 100,000 people worked in coal mining, today it is less then 10,000 with no jobs replacing those lost. In these declining areas, people say for decades now, [Merkel’s] CDU has not cared about us.
A typical town in the Southeast of Germany is Hirschfeld situated close to the city of Zwickau. In Hirschfeld a whopping 50.6% voted AfD – an outright majority. Previously, Germany’s real neo-Nazi party (NPD) did extremely well in Hirschfeld. Now, the AfD has replaced the traditional neo-Nazis of the NPD. Some say many young well-educated people between the age of 20 and 30 left the town of Hirschfeld. Those who remained are the stupid nobodies, as one local said. They are voting AfD. Not surprisingly, xenophobia and racism are ripe in Hirschfeld. Many believe that refugees are a problem even though Hirschfeld does not have any refugees. The nearest refugee centre is seven and a half miles away (12km).
Still, there is anger and the feeling of helplessness when facing a largely invented Überfremdung. Überfremdung (AfD) is somewhat similar to Verjudung (Hitler). Hitler’s Verjudung refers to an invented fear of a takeover by Jews. The AfD’s Überfremdung means a takeover by non-German foreigners – Muslims. In the mind of many AfD voters, rampant antisemitism is mixed with xenophobia. Xenophobia is linked to a perceived rise in crime. Still, local Hirschfeld people say, we do not have crime and vandalism. Nonetheless, they voted AfD because the AfD pretends to protect them from crime that, according to official German crime statistics, does not exist – just as a Hirschfeld local said.
In Hirschfeld, a right-wing extremist culture remains dominant. It is still possible to find Nazi swastikas displayed at private parties. There is also the denial of the Holocaust. Some in Hirschfeld believe that it is not possible to have another Holocaust directed against refugees given what happened last time. Avoiding another Holocaust implies that this is what some Hirschfeld people actually would like to do – if they only could. Finally, there is a widely shared but most likely apocryphal Hirschfeld anecdote. It supposedly took place in the 1940s in Nazi Germany. According to local myth, Adolf Hitler travelled by car through the little town of Hirschfeld. The Führer’s car stopped and he got out to shake the hands of people in the remote and rather isolated Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld lies in one of the many remote areas with below-average household income. Many of such regions also show high unemployment. These are also areas with declining infrastructure and deteriorating public transport. As a local said, the bus does not come here anymore. The neoliberal withdrawal of the state is exploited by the AfD promising a GDR 2.0 – a recovery of some romantic (but never real) elements of the good old days. The right-wing mythology is that these were the days with no foreigners, where everything worked well. These were also the days when “we” received support – not those newly arrived refugees – another hallucination.
Such well-engineered resentments are skilfully proliferated by the AfD promising a state that takes care of you. This is something Germans in the East expect to a much higher degree compared with their German counterparts in the West who were more exposed to capitalism’s individualistic “you are on your own” ideology. Playing the East German card means engineering a poisonous mixture of nationalism and provincialism.
At the same time, the AfD promotes fear of globalisation, both real and imaginary, falsely telling Germans in the East that cosmopolitan elites are responsible for their misery. The AfD is here to protect you from the decline of privileges now threatened by neoliberalism. The blame then shifts from neoliberalism towards refugees. Neoliberalism also threatens the image of the male breadwinner. Hence, the AfD’s policy of returning to the traditional family with a man at the helm, supported by an obedient wife, surrounded by plenty of Aryan children. Hence, the AfD favours a neo-fascist family policy of patriarchy within a Volksgemeinschaft. Just as AfD leader Poggenburg said, according to Germany’s most trusted news source – the Tagesschau – earlier in 2019: I wish the “members of our Volksgemeinschaft a healthy, peaceful and patriotic 2019!” – den Mitbürgern unserer Volksgemeinschaft ein gesundes, friedliches und patriotisches 2019!
All this is pumped up by means of the AfD electioneering emotions. In short, the AfD has tapped into wide-spread resentment in the states of Eastern Germany, Saxony and Brandenburg, underwriting its electoral success in both states in September 2019. In October 2019, this is set to be repeated in the Eastern German state of Thuringia where AfD Führer Björn Höcke is holding court. In the end, the AfD has also captured the vote of real neo-Nazis. But neo-Nazis alone cannot catapult the AfD into parliaments. The AfD has also been successful in presenting itself as just another populist party using all the trimmings of right-wing extremist populism to further its neo-Nazi agenda.
Thomas Klikauer is the author of a book entitled The AfD to be published by Sussex Academia Press in early 2020.
Kathleen Webb Tunney is an expert on American radical right extremism.