On 27th October 2019, the East-German state of Thuringia held an election. Thuringia’s 2.1 million people live in one of the most western states of the former East-Germany, almost right in the centre of Germany. The state borders the state of Hessen to the west and the state of Saxony to the east.
Out of those 2.1 million, 1.7 million were eligible to vote in 2019, and of them 64.9% actually cast their ballots. Not all that unexpectedly, Germany’s socialist party, Die Linke, received 31%. This is a rather unusual result as the Linke usually only receives about 10% in Germany., but this time the polls warned that something strange was going to happen Sontagsfrage That something is due to one man, Thuringia’s state premier of Bodo Ramelow, first elected in 2014.
The Election Result
Even more unexpected was the result for the far right party AfD (23.4%) – the Alternative for Germany. In two state elections that took place just before the Thuringia ballot, the AfD AfD, tripling its previous result in Saxony it jumped from 9.7% to 27.5% and so doubled its earlier outcome in Brandenburg (from 12.2% to 23.5%). Over all, then, the AfD has now established itself as 20% to 25% party in the East compared to 10% in the West. Angela Merkel’s CDU (Germany’s main conservative party) received 21.4%. It was beaten by the AfD while the traditional social-democratic party, the SPD, slipped to its worst result ever with barely 8.2%. The recently rising star of Germany, the Green party, which did extremely well in recent federal elections: but in Thuringia it managed to hold on to 5.2%. The real surprise winners of the election were the neoliberal FDP. Though it scraped in with just enough votes 73 votes reach Germany’s 5% barrier, it proves that when people say “every vote counts” – it truly does.
From Nazi-Germany to Socialism to Neoliberal Capitalism
But why in this state were the election results so out of the ordinary? To begin with, Thuringia dates back to the 6th century but emerged as a separate state only in the 1920s and then was run as a Gau under the Nazis. The state of Thuringia was abolished by East-Germany state-socialist government but re-emerged in 1990. In the immediate years after defeat of Nazi-Germany, Thuringia became part of the Soviet Zone, whereas southern Germany formed the American zone; and the rest of the western part of Germany became British and French. Germany’s western areas merged into the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) on 23rd May 1949. In reaction, the Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) was set up on 7th October 1949 in Germany’s eastern parts, those liberated by the Red Army.
The most decisive date for the people of Thuringia voting in the recent election was, however, the 9th of November 1989. That day the Berlin Wall crumbled, not just in Berlin but along Thuringia’s border with Bavaria, Hessen and Lower Saxony as well. What followed was the complete Anschluss – annexation – of East-Germany to West-Germany on 3rd October 1990. So far as Thuringians were concerned, worse was still to come. During the 1990s, a neoliberal takeover took place. It destroyed the former East-Germany’s once thriving economy – compared to many other Eastern European economies. Rachel Knaebel and Pierre Rimbert write in Le Monde The Economic Anschluss, ‘the economy of the East, which was industrial and export-based, now depends on domestic demand and welfare payments from the federal state.” The French commentators go on: “For industry bosses, public transfers to the new Länder paid for goods and services made in the West, generating profits for them. Former mayor of Hamburg Henning Voscherau (SPD) admitted in 1996 that ‘in reality the five years of the “construction of the East” 21 represented the biggest programme of enrichment for West Germany ever undertaken’.
Not only that, but West-Germany’s knowledge-economy simply liquidated the former East’s intellectual class by sending its Western trained managerial, administrative and academic class eastward. Worse still, many of East-Germany’s young people – especially women – fled westward. The New York Times called it ‘the most extreme case of female flight in Europe’. Those people who remain in the East are angry old and isolated men with internet access living a remote life, an existence defined by Facebook and echo chambers. These are the disgruntled voters who fuel the AfD. But that is not enough to explain the seemingly unstoppable rise of the ultra-rightest AfD.
The new Führer
Another factor in this rise of the right may be the role that the AfD’s most outspoken leader, Björn Höcke, plays. He is head of the AfD in Thuringia. He used to publish Neo-Naziunder the provocative Neo-Nazi code name of Landolf Landolf Ladig before entering the AfD. In this guise, Höcke announced that Germany’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was shameful. The small-time high school history teacher wants a 1800 degree turn-around in how we see Nazism. That is like saying that an SS man who shoves a Jewish girl into the ovens gas chamber is the good guy, while the innocent victim is downright evil. The dangerous advocate of such a revisionist perspective on history today heads the AfD in Thuringia. While it has been tempting to call the AfD just another populist party right-wing populist party, Germany’s right-wing different from all other forms of, the big difference is in the implications and echoes of Nazi policy Auschwitz.
Björn Höcke is also the leader of the party’s internal faction known as “The Wing” [Der Flügel] , representing the most extreme tendenciesright-wing ideology inside the AfD. Currently, Björn Höcke’s wing is under observation by Germany’s powerful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (its official title) or secret service – the Verfassungsschutz. The Flügel stands for the AfD’s most dangerous strategies völkisch ideology. Höcke’s speeches are regularly accompanied by Höcke, Höcke, Höcke totalitarian slogans.
Today, Björn Höcke’s AfD is the third strongest party in Germany’s federal federal parliament (12.6%) and the second strongest party in Thuringia. Although it increased its votes by 12.8%, the AfD’s result in Thuringia fell behind the party’s overall result for the 2017 federal election. The party lost 34.000 votes compared to 2017. Nonetheless, the AfD did very well in the city of Gera while it only achieved 12.7% in the university town of Jena and 14.8% in Weimar. Still, in the regional electorates of Paska, the AfD received 62.7%, in Kühldorf 54.2% and in Grimmelshausen 50%.
The AfD also did well in regions with high unemployment and where economic activity is in decline. This creates a sense of crisis and angst about the future, a drop in income for many and thus in livings standards social status. The AfD has successfully tapped into such worries. This is possible in precisely those regions where business is leaving and, with them, the people. The case in point is Obermehler with a significant population decline and a significant AfD vote (41.7%), well above the AfD’s Thuringia average of 23.4%. The AfD has also been very successful in attracting normally non-voters. Indeed, the AfD received between 77,000 and 85,000 of these angry voters, about one-third of all eligible to cast ballots in Thuringia. Looking eve n more closely at details, we see that the AfD is particularly strong in areas with a low rate of female residence, numbers reflective of the aforementioned New York Times analysis. In addition, it is also clear that the AfD did well in those areas where Germany’s real Neo-Nazi (party the NPD) did well previously. It was able to do better than Germany’s older Neo-Nazi (NPD), because the AfD has managed to hide its real racist and authoritarian agenda right-wing extremism. While non-voters show political apathy, former NPD voters are disillusioned with or perhaps even hate democracy.
Outlook: The AfD, Neo-Nazis and Authoritarianism
The key statement on the issue of ‘before NPD and now AfD’ comes from an AfD councillor named Madic Dubravoko Madic. Madic said “we [the AfD] distinguish ourselves through our voters and not so much through our ideas”. In other words, Neo-Nazi ideology is not the feature that separates the NPD (outright Neo-Nazis) from the AfD (crypto-Neo-Nazis). Indeed, in those areas where right-wing ideologies have taken hold, the AfD did disproportionally well.
Wherever xenophobia and resentment against refugees is strong, the AfD did well. Interestingly, this is the case even when refugees and migrants do not live in the immediate vicinity. In other words, tracists do not need to have Muslims next door. In the same way the anti-Semites do not need to have a Jewish family as their neighbours to be Jew-haters Antisemitic. Still, the AfD is often portrayed as a protest party but the Thuringian example does not seem to support this contention. More importantly, 71% do not see themselves as right-wing but as “just about right” when it comes to politics. Authoritarianism and right-wing attitudes are perhaps the most clear signifiers for AfD voters. In other words, people vote AfD not despite the party’s xenophobic ideology but because of such ideologies.
Thomas Klikauer is a senior lecture at Sydney Graduate School of Management. He has published twenty-five articles, comments, reviews, and critiques on the AfD in academic journals such as German Politics and Society, Journal of Labor and Society, Critique, Jewish Political Studies Review, Asian Journal of German and European, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Politologický časopis – Czech Journal of Political Science. His forthcoming book – the AfD – will be published by Sussex Academic Press in early 2020.
Norman Simms is a retired academic who continues to write and to edit a scholarly journal Mentalities/Mentalités. He lives in New Zealand.