The following analysis by our German translator JLH chronicles the rise of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany) and the political career of Björn Höcke.
Feel the Björn
The title of this summary is obviously a parody of a saying that itself was satirical — “Feel the Bern”, referring to Bernie Sanders and the unexpectedly powerful upsurge of leftism in the Democrat Party that threatened to deprive Hillary of “her” nomination. While the situation here is not the same, there are similarities to the unexpected and — for the established parties — unwelcome rise of a rightist party in Germany. The author of this distressing re-balancing of the political spectrum is the AfD. The focus of unease about right extremism within the AfD is Björn Höcke.
A comment by Lavinia, in a comment on Gates of Vienna on August 3, 2019 is a model of brevity and clarity in summing up the “Höcke” conundrum:
Björn Höcke is currently running for the upcoming state elections of Thuringia in October. He is a somewhat controversial figure amongst AfD members themselves. Some of them consider him Germany’s only hope for the future, others think he should simply shut up, because with his pathos and emotional speeches he’s doing more harm than good. For mainstream media and politicians on the other hand he is Hitler reincarnated. The last part is nonsense, of course, German mainstream has just moved so far to the left that any genuine conservative seems very far to the right and is considered unacceptable, but personally I must say that I don’t like his style very much. Whether he would be competent as a chancellor or in any other capacity as a member of a government — who knows.
Because much time has passed, some may not remember the defining struggle within the AfD in its early days of success. Founded by the economist Bernd Lucke, the AfD’s original aim was the rejection of the euro and the ruinous financial policies that accompanied it. No one had as yet emphasized the disproportionate success of the new party in the “new lands” — the five states constituting the former East Germany.
The absorption of the “neuen Länder” into the Bundesrepublik after the fall of the Wall (Mauer) was traumatic for both “nations” as the so-called “reunification” attempted to shoehorn a poor, proud, oppressed, largely Protestant people into a wealthy, democratic, majority Catholic, economic powerhouse. While the Wessis (Westerners) resented the increased tax burden for clean-up of industrial pollution, upgrading of infrastructure, etc., the Ossis (Easterners) resented the sudden plunge in their incomes, the ex-residents who rushed back with old deeds in hand to “repossess” their properties, the generally supercilious attitude towards their poor cousins. There is one example of the German Michel, showing inside his brain an “innere Mauer” representing the continuing separation of the two minds of Germany. After a while, there was less public recognition of this split within Germany, and outside of Germany it was pretty much forgotten.
In 2010 Die Freiheit was founded as a definitively anti-immigration party. Its first attempt to enter the Bundestag reached only 1%, but René Stadtkewitz and his colleagues persevered, under a barrage of leftist pressure to deny them venues, Antifa attacks and other harassment, until an internal election put Michael Stürzenberger into a position of authority in the party. Stürzenberger’s strong anti-Islamic statements concerned many of the more moderate members of the party, and there was a large flight from membership. After that, it was only a matter of time.
When the remnant of Die Freiheit was dissolved, Michael Stürzenberger noted the presence of its natural successor, the AfD.
Then, in 2015, the “innere Mauer” appeared again. Bernd Lucke’s brainchild was shaken by the Erfurt Resolution, and things were never the same again. An internet site, Der Flügel, which was initiated by two state AfD heads — Björn Höcke (Thuringia) and André Poggenburg (Saxony-Anhalt) — published the manifesto. In the ensuing conflict, Höcke, the resolution’s author, took the lead in public exchanges.
The Erfurt Resolution, which was, in its own way, a revolutionary document, follows:
The project “Alternative for Germany” is in danger. We have had glittering electoral successes in the past year, but we are on the verge of squandering the confidence the voters have placed in us.
The citizens voted for us because they hope that we are different from the established parties — more democratic, more patriotic, more courageous. But now, instead of the alternative we promised, we are becoming more and more comfortable with the political enterprise — the world of technocracy, cowardice and betrayal of the best interests of the country.
In our political actions, we have been concentrating timidly on the areas indicated for us by institutions, other parties and media, rather than setting our own boundaries and expanding them. We too often display that overeager obedience which does not change, but hardens, the situations we set out to oppose.
The AfD could credibly and knowledgeably communicate to citizens its democratic concern with those problems that are never directly addressed. The original signatories to the Erfurt Resolution believe the AfD’s exemplary success is threatened by unnecessary limitation of its political range. By doing that, we lose what represents our raison d’être.
The party has
- alienated and offended members whose profile is indispensable;
- stayed aloof from citizen protest movements and even hastened to distance itself from them, even though thousands of AfD members have been participating as demonstrators or sympathetic supporters;
- consciously eschewed the support of electoral winners from Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony in the election campaign in Hamburg, and with it, an appeal to voters which would have made the electoral success of an alternative tangible and would have facilitated the activation of non-voters.
The original signatories of this resolution see a fatal signal here. That is, the provocative alteration of the AfD to a technocratically-directed party threatens the compromise arrived at — with enormous self-discipline on the part of those participating — during the run-up to the Bremen conference.
Despite all efforts to narrow its focus, countless members of the AfD still see it
- as a fundamental, patriotic and democratic alternative to the established parties,
- as a movement of our people in opposition to the social experiments of recent decades (gender mainstreaming, multiculturalism, educational relativism, etc.),
- as a resistance movement against further undermining of Germany’s sovereignty and identity,
- as a party with the courage for truth and truly free speech.
Disappointment over the AfD’s failure to acknowledge a fundamental political turn (Wende) in Germany is palpable in all of our associations (and above all in the East).
The original signatories
- see the real raison d’être of our party in the complete commitment of the AfD to a fundamental political change in Germany,
- know that this commitment will lead to a genuine confrontation with the old parties, the media and the implementers of the debilitating social experiments,
- do not fear these confrontations, and
- require of our officeholders on boards and in legislatures that they meet these confrontations with courage and truth.
The original signatories call upon each AfD member who supports this resolution to sign it. The goal is the gathering of all forces within the AfD who are intent on a genuine alternative to the existing parties.
Erfurt, March 2015
There are 23 original signers, overwhelmingly from the East. The first three are the most recognizable: Björn Höcke, André Poggenburg and Alexander Gauland — influential elder of the AfD.
There was an almost immediate reply from a Wessi MEP, the deputy head of AfD, and old comrade of Bernd Lucke. Hans-Olaf Henkel: “If we want to stay successful, then it [can be] only as a true party of the people and not a sectarian extreme right party that is reduced to an ethnic mindset and accepts xenophobia in the guise of opposition to widespread political correctness.” Henkel emphasized the damage caused among Western voters by “pot shots from the East.” He suggested the Erfurt signers change parties to the Republikaner or NDP who had always satisfied the need for “rightist populist rabble-rousers.” He cited his credentials as a long-time critic of Islam and his campaigning for the AfD in the East. At any rate, he thought the resolution might have a salutary effect, by provoking a useful discussion and showing that only a minority party could support something like the Erfurt Resolution.
Höcke replied: “The Erfurt Resolution does not intend to split, but to unite. Its intent is to help in overcoming party infighting. That is exactly why it does not separate the party into liberal and conservative, but into established and alternative. It calls for the AfD to stay true to its firmly established task of renewal.” Then he added fuel to the fire by remarking that “The ‘Know-It-All Wessi’ type seems not to have died out yet.”
Lucke called for calm, as did co-speaker Konrad Adam, who said, “It is not just pot shots from the East, but heated answers from the West, and it is not clear yet which one is doing more damage.”
The face-off was never resolved. In 2015, Lucke left the AfD, followed by some moderates. Unlike Die Freiheit, this was not the end, but, as Churchill once phrased it, the end of the beginning. One of the original supporters of Lucke at the founding was Frauke Petry. With an on-leave university professor of economics and finance named Jörg Meuthen, she became co-leader of the AfD, as it faced an epoch-making election. She and her allies favored a less confrontational approach than that coming from Höcke and his supporters. Her two immediate goals were to expel Höcke from the party, and to become the sole leader of the AfD. Höcke, supported by party elder Gauland and others, avoided expulsion, but promised not to run for a national seat in the Bundestag in the upcoming election. Despite being called by some the “most popular politician in Germany,” Petry was again chosen as one of two leaders of the party. Her co-leader Meuthen gave a rousing speech rejecting the failed policy of the Merkel government and the old parties: “This is our country and it is our obligation to take it back.” The two lead candidates chosen for the election were Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel.
Höcke, meanwhile, did not languish alone and quiet in Thuringia. On January 17, 2016, he addressed an AfD youth group in Dresden, the most comprehensively fire-bombed city in Germany. Before the war, it had been known as “Florence on the Elbe.” Since then, it has been painfully re-built, but not really restored. To shouts and laughter, Höcke reminded his audience that he had been born and raised in the Rhineland, so he was a “trained Wessi” and knew their ways of thinking. Then he launched into the heart of the speech, which would ripple outward not only in the AfD, but more broadly in society, setting off some approving voices, but also many outraged comments. He said without sugar-coating what some had been thinking for some time:
“We Germans — and I don’t mean you patriots who are gathered here today — we Germans, our people, are the only people who have installed a monument of shame [the Holocaust memorial] in the heart of our capital. (applause)
And instead of making our young generations acquainted with the philanthropists, the earth-shaking philosophers, the musicians, the brilliant explorers and inventors — of which we have so many — instead of introducing our students to this history, German history is made to seem mean and small and ridiculous. That cannot, must not go on! (cheers, long standing ovation. cries of “Höcke, Höcke!”)
“It cannot, it must not and it will not! There is no moral imperative to self-immolation. No such thing. (applause) Just the opposite. There is a moral obligation to pass on this land, this culture, its remaining prosperity and its remaining civil order to the coming generation. That is our moral duty!” (applause, cries of “We are the people!”)
This speech, even more than the Erfurt Resolution, caused the move to expel him from the party, and also made him into a convenient club for any of the myriad enemies of AfD to use against the party, claiming that the AfD rejected Nazi responsibility for the Holocaust. It also underlined the different outlooks of Wessis who had experienced the years after WWII occupied by American, French and British military, and Ossis, who had spent those years learning to deal with a callous and unresponsive East German dictatorship. They were, you might say, better equipped to recognize the familiar signs in the Merkel “grand alliance.” This is a logical explanation for the very strong Ossi support both for PEGIDA and then for AfD.
After the election, which saw the AfD enter the Bundestag as the third largest party, Frauke Petry announced that she would not be sitting with the AfD, and started her own “Blue Party.” Höcke, still party leader in the Thuringian legislature, continued to find supporters and alliances in the AfD outside of Thuringia. When it became apparent to other state party leaders that there were Höcke supporters in their own ranks, and even some state leaders of like mind, the alarm was raised. The evidence of Höcke’s building his own following across state lines was finally enough to cool Jörg Meuthen and even cause Höcke’s long-time supporter, Alexander Gauland — the ultimate mediator among factions — to admit that he was not surprised, because he had heard a lot of talk about Höcke lately.
Who knows what the next act will bring? Petry is gone, Gauland, Meuthen, Weidel and von Storch — the narrators in a recent party ad commenting on the constitutional state — are the face of the party. Is Höcke anxious to take his place among the national leaders? Is he impatient with the progress of reform and innovation? Will he succeed in creating a national base of support? Or will he maneuver himself out of the party? Stay tuned.
P.S.: I suspect I am not alone in seeing a similarity to the clash of “MAGA” versus “slave-owning, bigoted America was never great.” Trump claimed a greater destiny for America than simply paying off our debt to the world because we have always been greedy and evil. Witness the destruction of our history, because we “don’t deserve it.” The same could be argued for Germans, whose history includes some of the greatest thinkers, artists and inventors of all time. At what point can they allow themselves to feel like an equal among nations again?
I suspect that even Richard von Weizsäcker might be prepared to say “Enough is enough.”
|1.||Caricature representation of Germany, akin to Uncle Sam for the U.S. or John Bull for England. Sometimes seriously represented, sometimes humorously; identified by wearing a floppy sleeping cap.|
|3.||Member of the European Parliament|
|4.||Extreme rightist parties.|
|5.||Wir sind das Volk, marching motto of PEGIDA; earlier, of the defiant citizens of Leipzig in the GDR.|
|6.||Author of the famous “40 Years After” speech in 1985.