The Right’s Resurgence in Eastern Germany

How anti-immigrant sentiment, economic woes and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are fueling the rise of a party widely seen as neo-Nazi

The Right’s Resurgence in Eastern Germany
Bjorn Hoecke, AfD leader in the German state of Thuringia, speaks during a May rally in Weimar. (Martin Schutt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

At the market square around the national theater in Weimar, Eiscafe Venezia was packed with locals and tourists slurping raspberry, chocolate, caramel and various other flavors of ice cream served in tall glasses to satiate the palate. They had come to enjoy the summer and soak in high art and culture in a city that was home to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an 18th-century literary legend. Leisurely walks around Goethe Park, a visit to Friedrich Nietzsche’s archive and a trip to the Bauhaus school of architecture lend Weimar a pompous air. Many here are proud of its cultural achievements.

Its less palatable side is tucked in the woods uphill. In a beech forest on Ettersberg Hill, Nazis established Buchenwald — a concentration camp for Jews, Slavs and homosexuals, among others. They were forced to work in armament factories and executed while the people of the city went about their daily lives.

The memory of the Holocaust and its lessons are now retreating amid the rise of German nationalism. Decades after those crimes, the far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is reviving German nationalism for political means.

In front of the theater, an art installation was on display. Pyramids of stones were wrapped in strips of cotton, as though they were bandages over open wounds. It was a memorial for the victims of Buchenwald and meant as a warning against an “unmistakable revitalization of neo-Nazi racist attitudes,” the artist explained in a brochure available at a kiosk nearby. (In November, another group built a pavilion with a similar warning. Long wooden planks nailed together read: “Weimar has a neo-Nazi problem”).

The ice cream eaters glanced at the stone memorial, perhaps even tried to make sense of it. But as they were taken back in time to confront the country’s dark past, on the other side of the L-shaped cafe they witnessed a public demonstration by supporters of the AfD, which is often described as anti-immigrant, racist, neo-Nazi and supportive of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

The AfD has demanded that Germany deport Syrian refugees, saying the war is over and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has asked for refugees to return. Just as the AfD’s politicians went to Syria on Assad’s invitation, last year some of them visited Russia and were accused of undertaking a pro-Putin propaganda trip. The party has often been labeled neo-Nazi, owing to its ideology and views and links with the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) — also often described as a neo-Nazi organization. Germany’s domestic security agency classifies the NPD and the AfD as threats to the constitutional order and has been allowed to surveil their members.

About 40 to 50 people were preparing to march behind a banner that said “Weimar Mit Sonneberg” (“Weimar with Sonneberg”), referring to a recent district council election AfD victory in Sonneberg. Like Sonneberg, Weimar, too, lies in the federal state of Thuringia, one of three that is swaying to the far right. According to a poll, a third of the voters in Thuringia backed the AfD, a worrying rise, especially as another poll listed the AfD’s national popularity 4 percentage points higher than that of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

There are many reasons for the growing popularity of the far right. According to recent polling, two-thirds of AfD voters are drawn to the party because they are unhappy with the others, not because of ideological reasons. The party also appeals to those in eastern Germany who are opposed to immigrants — at times angry over state expenses on refugees but mostly, experts believe, because there is no interaction between the residents and the new arrivals. The people in the former East Germany have felt particularly cheated by erstwhile Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, partly because they think they were not consulted. That lack of agency is a festering wound among people here who lived under authoritarian Soviet rule until the wall fell and the country was reunited.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Germany’s support for Kyiv have led to fears of recession among people here and an uptick in the popularity of a party that is critical of that policy. In January, a poll revealed that more than 80% of AfD supporters were opposed to the provision of German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Electoral arithmetic is important for any government. It constrains politicians and defines their national agenda and foreign policy. Thuringia, along with the other two far-right-leaning eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, will vote next year in what could prove to be a bellwether election for the whole country.

A protester wore a white T-shirt with an image of the German chancellor dressed in a prisoner’s outfit imprinted at the back. Another held a placard that said “Mann+Frau=Kinder” (“man+woman=children”), seemingly in opposition to sexual diversity. Many were against measures taken during the pandemic. Not all present were hardcore AfD members or voters but instead were leaning toward the party because they felt the traditional parties were far too “woke” for them. There was something of an anarchist air about them, too, a feeling of dispossession and anger at being an outsider.

While protesters raised a whole litany of issues, the protest had one overarching aim: to change the government and replace it with the AfD in the next elections. Their latest cause was opposition to Germany’s military support for Ukraine in the name of peace.

“We are against weapons delivery (to Ukraine) and want an end to the federal and local government,” said the man wearing the T-shirt that depicted the chancellor in prison.

There has been a noticeable rise in the AfD’s popularity over the past two years, overlapping with the onset and continuation of the Russian war. Some 21% of German voters would choose the AfD if elections were held now, as compared with a little more than 10% two years ago, according to a Deutschlandtrend poll conducted for Germany’s public broadcaster, ARD.

But the opposition to arming Ukraine is as much about a deep-rooted anti-Americanism among people in the east as it is about rising energy prices.

The leader of the AfD’s Thuringia wing, Bjorn Hoecke, “held a speech here and he said we have to free ourselves from the American claws,” said Christian Reichmuth, a metal worker, and added that the Americans forced the German government to arm Ukraine.

Hoecke, whose party has been classified as right-wing extremist by intelligence services, described a Jewish memorial as a monument of shame and lost a court case against a man who called him a Nazi.

But his followers don’t see themselves as Nazi supporters. Instead, they feel like outsiders to an elitist system and advocates of peace. Their recipe for peace is victory for Russia by stopping all military support for Ukraine and ensuring its surrender.

Robert, a 36-year-old industrial cleaner, had a long ponytail and wore a black T-shirt. As the procession marched to the beats of drums, under the watch of nearly two dozen police officers and several police vehicles, he stayed behind to talk.

“The war would be over if there were no more weapons being sent to Ukraine and Ukraine simply surrendered,” he said to New Lines, parroting the Kremlin’s viewpoint. “Then there could be peace negotiations.”

“Herr Zelenskyy — he is the great actor,” Robert said disparagingly of the Ukrainian leader. “The war is going on because of him. Herr Zelenskyy also keeps a cut from the billions that are sent to Ukraine and builds houses in Spain.”

When asked where he got that information, he said from various “Telegram channels” — group communication networks that have no checks or due diligence by reporters and editors but represent a “free press,” according to Robert.

“We’re supporting a country that doesn’t concern us, because this country doesn’t belong to NATO and it doesn’t belong to the EU either,” he added.

When asked what the solution was, Robert pointed to diplomacy. But would Putin stick to a future deal, given that he had abrogated previous agreements? Robert gave no clear answer.

“We shouldn’t send billions to Ukraine” at a time when the cost of living is high in Germany and “people are suffering,” he said.

People of the former East Germany still complain about being left behind in terms of economic growth while West Germany flourished. They still lag behind the western part of the country and have enjoyed little international investment, though overall unemployment is down and wages have risen. Furthermore, an older demographic here feels that, instead of supporting refugees, they should get higher pensions. Many of the protesters we met were blue-collar workers who lived on the fringes and felt wronged by the elite — often liberals — who advocated for human rights and global camaraderie.

“We are on the streets against high energy prices,” Nico said. “This is a very serious thing.” Nico was ready to choose the AfD in the next elections. It is the only party that understands his worries, he told New Lines as we walked past the baroque residence of Goethe, an Enlightenment luminary.

Not all in the city agree with Robert and Nico. A day before, a group of locals met at the same market square for the 81st consecutive Sunday to express solidarity with Ukrainians.

Steffen Jacob was placing pamphlets and brochures on a table under a banner that said “Initiative fur Frieden und Solidaritat mit der Ukraine” (“Initiative for peace and solidarity with Ukraine”). As a gray-haired organizer spoke into the mic and addressed an audience of 25 to 30 people seated on chairs, Jacob spoke to me.

“There is so much Russian propaganda that targets people who are afraid, who feel they might lose services if we help Ukraine,” he said. “But that’s not true; it’s just a feeling.”

Jacob said anyone was allowed to peacefully express their political views but he felt the AfD and its supporters were revisionists.

“For instance, they say illegal things. They say 6 million Jews were not killed” in an attempt to downplay the Holocaust “and that they should be allowed to say this even if it’s controversial. But it’s actually illegal to say these things.”

“I am actually frightened. You know how Nazis gained power. We are beginning to see some similarities now,” he said, looking pensive.

He then pointed to the city’s main theater, where, he said, the infamously weak Weimar constitution for post-WWI Germany was drafted. The Nazis picked out one article and exploited it, he said, allowing Hitler to impose emergency rule in 1933 and lead the nation to ruin via the Holocaust and WWII over the next dozen years. Far-right politicians are looking for similar loopholes to seize power, he said.

Many others in the city told me they feared that the AfD is using public protests to normalize its racist, anti-immigrant and pro-Kremlin discourse. They believe that while their protests are peaceful, their intentions are extreme.

AfD supporters “don’t realize how good they have it now, with state support, and how bad it was when it was under the (German Democratic Republic), when they were not allowed to speak,” said Jacobs, trying to remind people of the difficulties faced under Soviet control.

“There are only 800 Ukrainians in Weimar,” he added, as if to say that, despite being a small city, Weimar is large enough to accommodate them and, considering its history under the Soviets, should be welcoming.

Iryna Medviedieva, an English language teacher from Ukraine, arrived in Weimar a year ago with her two children. She fled Dnipro on the front line to protect her family from bombs Russia rained indiscriminately on her city.

When I asked her what she thought of opposition in Germany to arming Ukraine — to not helping a country that was not a part of NATO and instead having Ukraine just relinquish territory — she offered an analogy.

“To all those people, I say, think about a robber robbing your home, a killer killing your relatives and when you call the police, the police say: ‘Sorry, we can’t help you, you are on your own.’ Russia is the robber, the killer,” she said, her face red and eyes filled with tears. “It is our territory, our home, and we need other countries to help us keep it.”

But those who are afraid Germany’s aid to Ukraine might infuriate Russia and drag it into a war are being courted by the AfD.

The AfD was formed in 2013 as a euroskeptic party. As the war in Syria peaked and refugees made their way to Europe, it became the loudest anti-immigrant party. Strong anti-refugee sentiments helped it and catapulted it into the position of the third-largest party in the Bundestag (the federal legislature) in the 2017 elections. But it started to lose support and, by 2021, had dropped to fifth place.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which led Germany to cut off Russian gas supplies, causing a spike in energy prices, has given the AfD a new lease on life.

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