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GERMAN BRIEF: POLITICS

In eastern Germany

far-right party is on the march

German Brief: AfD eastern Germany

July 2023: To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, the recent local election wins for Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, AfD (Alternative for Germany party) were a small step in politics but a giant leap for a party that had never captured an elected office before. Only a few weeks after the electorate of Schwerin (Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania) rejected an AfD candidate in favour of the Social-Democrat incumbent mayor, voters in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt elected two AfD mayors.


In Sonneberg (Thuringia) Robert Sesselmann was elected district mayor (Landrat) despite the fact that his opponent from the centre-right Christian Democrats was backed by all other political parties. Two weeks later, Hannes Loth, a member of the state parliament, was chosen mayor of the small town of Raguhn-Jeßnitz, Saxony-Anhalt. He became Germany’s first elected AfD town mayor (Bürgermeister).


The AfD successes sent shock waves through Germany but should not have come as a complete surprise. For months now, the right-wing party has been riding high in opinion polls. Nationally, twenty per cent of voters said they would support the party in the next federal elections, due in the autumn of 2025. Support for the AfD in eastern Germany is particularly strong. The party is currently favoured to win next year’s state elections (Landtagswahlen) in Saxony and Thuringia. There will also be state elections in Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin.


The sheer possibility of a party with some extreme right-wing views and policies gaining power, even only at local or state level, has caused anxiety among Germany’s Jewish community. The Jewish publicist Michel Friedman recently told the German magazine Stern that while the AfD was dreaming of power, some members of his community were planning their escape. “In an emergency, they would rather leave Germany too soon than too late.”


Friedman said in the interview that he did not foresee that millions of Germans would elect members of a party of hate to federal and state parliaments. “The fact that the AfD was democratically elected does not make it a democratic party. Since it was elected to the Bundestag (federal parliament) for the second time, it is clear that the AfD is not a temporary phenomenon; it is now part of the political structure.”


Stephan Kramer, Thuringia's Jewish head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutzchef), also recently declared that he would leave Germany with his family on the same day the AfD became part of the government.


Kramer acknowledged that in the past in Thuringia right-wing extremist structures were rather trivialised and talked down. “It was only a few years ago that people really started to put their finger on it."


Business leaders in Thuringia added that the state’s economy is dependent on skilled personnel from abroad. For a region to be an attractive destination, "there needs to be a culture of welcome and active support for new arrivals.” A xenophobic party is sand in the wheels of a prosperous economy.


Germany’s leading Jewish newspaper, the Jüdische Allgemeine, quoted a correspondent saying that in Thuringia no one goes out onto the streets openly recognisable as a Jew. Such precautionary measures were, of course, part of everyday life in eastern Germany.


Black Berlin author Tupoka Ogette listed what's in her ‘just-in-case’ suitcase: Travel and vaccination passports, some cash, medicine, a photo album and a list of foreign and domestic contacts. Thousands of people responded to her, saying they had already taken similar precautions. “This time, it it is leaving too early rather than too late. This time, do not trust that the majority of Germans will not allow a criminal regime.”


In his traditional summer interview, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the AfD as a party in which very many right-wing extremist positions are represented and a party with which there must not and cannot be any cooperation. But the Chancellor seemed less concerned about the AfD’s high poll numbers. "Right-wing populist parties, bad-mood parties have always existed in many European countries and also in Germany."


In Saxony, where in September 2024 voters will elect a new state parliament, prime minister Michel Kretschmer warned of the growing polarisation in Germany. "We are on the way to polarisation, as we seeing in America. The energy transition, heating laws, refugee policy and Russian sanctions are threatening to tear society apart.”


The suitcases mentioned by Tupoka Ogette and others are not metaphors, but reality. While a takeover by right-wing extremists may fortunately still seem far away, these suitcases show that German society is threatened with an inconceivable “bloodletting of diversity and potential, a mass exodus of the sensible, the clever and the creative, the impetus-givers and the forward-movers.”


A small foretaste of this can already be seen in some parts of eastern Germany, where people with ambitions have already left. If you want to know what the AfD looks like in concrete terms, you'll find it there.



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