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“Diesmal schweigen wir nicht!” (“We won’t be silent this time”)

Germany’s right-wing factions push forward

In another spectacular repeat of European history, a group of right-wing politicians met with an Austrian neo-Nazi last November in a small German town called Potsdam, known for being the seat of residence of Prussian kings and the German Emperor until 1918 The meeting ignited a national discussion on immigration policies, extremism, and the (re?)rise of far-right movements in the country. It was not just notorious figures such as the Austrian neo-Nazi Martin Sellner and representatives from Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party which it counted among its attendants; a number of middle class professionals  – doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs – were also present.

Sellner, known for his staunch and provocative anti-immigrant stance, took centre stage during the meeting. His speech focused on the concept of “re-migration”, a deceptively clinical term euphemizing the forceful mass deportation of migrants to their “countries of origin”, their possession of German citizenship disregarded. In particular, Sellner advocates for the expulsion of three distinct migrant categories: asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights, and what he calls “non-assimilated” German citizens, who, he claims,  “form aggressive, rapidly growing parallel societies”. These ideas resonated with representatives of the  AfD, a right-wing populist German parliamentary party that has gained significant traction in the last year.

Fuelled by a notable rise in support, particularly in Eastern regions of the country, the AfD established itself as a prominent political entity in 2023. Come September of the following year, the state legislatures of the German federal states, Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg will undergo fresh elections; presently, the AfD dominates the polls across all three states, commanding a significant lead with 34 – 35% support in Thuringia and Saxony. This surge of support comes against the backdrop of the ruling Ampelkoalition, a coalition consisting of the Social Democrats (red), the Liberals (yellow), and the Greens (green), falling to new record lows in public support, particularly for Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP), Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action Robert Habeck (Greens), and for the Chancellor himself, Olaf Scholz.

Yet, the AfD is also under pressure domestically from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. The agency has labelled the AfD branches in Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Saxony as right-wing extremist groups. Additionally, the North Rhine-Westphalian AfD youth wing, Junge Alternative, was recently classified as a suspected extremist group; this decision was partly informed by the movement’s close ties to the Identitarian movement, its espousal of “ethno-nationalist” ideologies, and its “contempt for people with an immigrant background”. In response, the AfD maintains that its organisation is a legitimate political entity operating within legal boundaries; its official platform emphasises its dedication to the German nation and advocates for the equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their background. However, the revelations from the Potsdam meeting have reignited discussions surrounding the influence of far-right ideologies in German politics. Within this climate, calls to ban the AfD have gained momentum, with a petition amassing over 800,000 signatures and initiatives in the Bundestag to outlaw the party.

The German public pushes back

Since the sinister topics of conversation at Potsdam came to light in January of this year, there have been over 870 demonstrations across Germany against the far right; and the protests show no signs of slowing down, with further events planned in cities such as Munich, Münster, Mühldorf am Inn, and numerous smaller towns. The largest demonstration so far took place on February 3rd in Berlin. According to the police, around 150,000 participants attended the rallies near the Reichstag, while organisers estimated that there were up to 300,000 participants. In Munich, hundreds of thousands of participants were counted by the police until the demonstration had to be aborted due to overcrowding. Based on police figures, nearly three million people nationwide have participated in demonstrations against the far right.

As a result, the AfD “appears highly unsettled by these demonstrations. The extreme right is in a state of panic. Attempts are being made to question these demonstrations as forgeries and as staged events”, says Matthias Quent, professor of sociology at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. While the protests are unlikely to reach or make an impression on “ideologically hardened segment of the AfD voter base”, Quent believes “there is also a reachable portion of the AfD voter base that can be unsettled by the protests and does not take the protective claims made by party leaders at face value.” While these protests may lead to further radicalization of some right-wing members in a time of increasing political polarisation, “people at work or in private circles [who] attend such demonstrations” in towns and cities across the country can help combat the polarisation of social media as undecided voters are convinced that broad swathes of the public are against the rise of the far right. On 14th of February, the AfD was polling at 18%, which is a loss of 4% points compared to the previous month. Having regularly achieved results of 20% or more towards the end of last year, this trend sees support for the AfD continuing to decline. Polling research leader, Robert Grimm, judged that in light of demonstrations for a “well-fortified democracy”, “moderate protest voters” find it difficult to continue sympathising with the AfD and their cause.

Germany’s Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, has branded these protests as “an encouragement and a mandate” to act politically: “We want to break up right-wing extremist networks, cut their funding and take away their weapons”, Faeser said at the unveiling of her ministry’s new 13-point plan to fight right-wing extremism. This plan sees the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution taking on expanded powers for uncovering the financial sources of right-wing extremist networks. Through these proposed changes to the law, even a potential threat of far-right extremism would suffice to warrant actions such as freezing bank accounts. Faeseris also advocating for a change to the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, in order to better protect the Federal Constitutional Court from the influence of those with anti-democratic tendencies,  particularly with relation to potential court judges. j The action plan also calls for progress on the stalled firearms law reform which aspired to tighten gun regulations and emphasises changes to the already approved disciplinary law reform, which aim to make it easier to remove “Verfassungsfeinde” or “enemies of the constitution” from public service. Additionally, local police and regulatory authorities, such as the trade and restaurant health and safety control, should be empowered to prohibit right-wing extremist events from taking place based on information from the intelligence services.Amidst the backdrop of rising far-right extremism across Europe, Germany finds itself at a critical juncture. The recent convergence of Austrian neo-Nazis, German right-wing politicians, and Alexander von Bismarck in Potsdam serves as a glaring indicator of the ideological challenges still facing the nation. However, in the face of this resurgence, Germany is not alone. From Austria to Spain to Sweden, the tendrils of far-right ideologies are entwining themselves with the fabric of European society,  directed most aggressively toward the most powerless in society, namely ethnic minority groups and asylum seekers. In light of this growing threat, the importance of anti-extremist action cannot be understated. All across the continent, citizens are rallying in opposition to such groups, against hate, discrimination, and intolerance. Over 870 recorded demonstrations against the rise of the far right in Germany underscore a tendency towards defending democratic values and safeguarding societal inclusivity. The struggle against far-right extremism is not confined to national borders; it is a shared challenge that demands a united response from all who cherish freedom, equality, and human dignity.

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