The Troubling Rise of the Right in Germany
The AfD — the ultra-nationalist “Alternative for Germany,” the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the 1950s — is dedicated to “normalizing” German history by rehabilitating the reputation of the Third Reich.
The AfD’s Alexander Gauland is notorious for his toxic rhetoric defaming Holocaust victims and survivors, as well as the millions of Allied soldiers who fought and died defeating the Nazis.
First, he called the Hitler dictatorship a “speck of bird s**t” on the otherwise gallant deeds of the Nazi Wehrmacht. Now, Gauland has entered the fray over whether May 8, 1945 — V-E Day for Americans — should be made a national day of commemoration in Germany.
“You can’t make May 8 a happy day for Germany,” says Gauland. “For the concentration camp inmates it was a day of liberation. But it was also a day of absolute defeat, a day of the loss of large parts of Germany and the loss of national autonomy.”
Born in 1941, Gauland might be called the AfD’s “grand old man,” rather like 91-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen of France’s extreme right National Rally, formerly called the National Front. This appellation for Gauland would be ironic for a party like the AfD, founded only in 2013.
Who is in the wings waiting to succeed Gauland? Jörg Meuthen and Alice Weidel are prominent voices, but Thuringia’s regional party leader, Björn Höcke, is a leading contender. Höcke is co-head of “The Wing” (Flügel in German). With an estimated 20% of the AfD’s 35,000 members, and strongholds (Hochburgen) in former communist East Germany, the Wing is the extreme right of the populist-nationalist AfD. In Thuringia, the Wing was part of attempts to pressure Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to form a coalition government with the AfD.
Thuringia has a special place in Nazi history. “We had our greatest success in Thuringia. There we are today the party on which all others depend,” wrote Hitler in a letter of February 1930. After the AfD was joined by centrist parties to install Gerhart Baum as governor of Thuringia, Germany’s former interior minister warned, “A whiff of Weimar is in the air.”
The Wing has been accused of inciting anti-immigrant attacks, including in Hanau this past February on a Turkish bar that resulted in nine deaths. Under surveillance by Germany’s domestic security agency, the Wing has now been classified an “extremist” organization threatening Germany’s democratic future that requires heightened scrutiny by Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
As new generations of Germans forget the lessons of the Nazi past, the world may again have to pay the price.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).