Golden Age A Billionaire Backer and the Murky Finances of the AfD
All eyes are on the AfD's finances following reports of large donations from Switzerland and Holland. Now, reporting has revealed that the right-wing party has enjoyed big-money support from the very beginning.
The mission to save the German nation got its start on May 1, 2017, at a restaurant on the outskirts of Munich called the Wirtshaus zu Marienburg. That Wednesday, businessman Ernst Knut Stahl, 74, met two people for lunch: a journalist from a Bavarian state broadcaster who had organized the meeting for Stahl and a publisher who had traveled to Munich for the meeting.
Discretion is important to Stahl. There are few photos of him in public circulation, and the same holds true for his boss, the 88-year-old billionaire August von Finck, Jr. Stahl is Finck's asset manager, making him something like the baron's right-hand man.
The publisher, who is known for his anti-Merkel positions, had no idea what to expect from the lunch. Once the three had taken their seats, Stahl kicked off the discussion by holding forth about the political situation in the country. "There's danger ahead," Stahl said, according to a statement made under oath by the publisher and to which DER SPIEGEL has access. (The following account of the May 1, 2017, meeting all comes from that affidavit.) "There is a street in New York with lots of investment bankers, lawyers and so forth," Stahl continued. "Coincidentally, they are all Jews, but that's not relevant here. They want to push Germany into ruin. They control everything. Merkel and also Ralf Stegner from the SPD," a reference to a senior member of the center-left Social Democrats.
The publisher could hardly believe his ears. Was Stahl pulling his leg? But he apparently meant it seriously. Germany, Stahl said, needs a new media outlet, one that writes the truth. As such, he said, plans had been developed for a new newspaper. Even the name had already been chosen: Deutschland Kurier.
Stahl then said a renowned journalist had been enlisted for the plan: Peter Bartels, a former editor-in-chief of Bild, the country's largest tabloid, had committed to writing for the paper. Now, the question was whether the publisher also wanted to be involved in the project.
When contacted by DER SPIEGEL last week, Ernst Knut Stahl declined to comment. The journalist from the Bavarian public broadcaster BR who was also present at the Wirtshaus zu Marienburg confirmed that the meeting had taken place but said plans for a project called the Deutschland Kurier were not discussed.
But just a few months after the Munich lunch, a newspaper of that name began appearing in mailboxes across Germany. And one of the writers was Peter Bartels. Several hundred thousand copies of the paper were distributed in the lead up to the German federal election held in September 2017. It agitated against foreigners ("Migrant Crime Is Exploding") and against the chancellor ("Is Merkel Crazier than Trump?"). Of particular note was its open support of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). In the newspaper's political party report cards, the AfD consistently emerged at the top of the list while all of the other parties failed.
Officially, the Deutschland Kurier is published by a group called the "Association for the Preservation of the Rule of Law and Citizen Freedoms." And for almost three years, the AfD has been receiving campaign assistance from this political action committee (which is not unsimilar to an American SuperPAC) in the form of posters and free newspapers. The campaign has helped the party raise its profile and, according to the group LobbyControl, which investigates links between the business community and politics, it has cost at least 10 million euros. It has also played a role in the fact that the AfD is now represented in all 16 state parliaments in Germany, in addition to the federal parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin.
It remains unclear where the money for the advertising has come from, but since the lunch meeting in Munich and the statement from the publisher, there is now a new trail. And it leads to the billionaire August von Finck and his representative Ernst Knut Stahl.
According to reporting conducted jointly by the Swiss weekly newspaper WOZ and DER SPIEGEL, the AfD has had good ties with people in August von Finck's orbit from the very beginning. More than that, Finck's representative Ernst Knut Stahl apparently offered the party financial support for its fight against the euro even as the AfD was being formed.
The Old Man and the AfD
Several party events were apparently financed indirectly with Finck's money. As internal documents show, his company Degussa was also involved in a lucrative gold trade that helped prop up the AfD's rather shaky finances early on. The publication of the Deutschland Kurier would thus represent the third element in this apparent program to help the AfD.
The old man and the AfD: As early as 2013, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a foundation linked tightly with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, speculated in a report that the billionaire businessman was supporting the AfD. Finck did not comment on the conjectures at that time, content as ever to avoid the public spotlight. His representative Stahl left a detailed list of questions sent by DER SPIEGEL unanswered last week.
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The new trail to Finck comes at a difficult time for the right-wing party, which is led by Jörg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland. Angela Merkel, the AfD's favorite target and the party's "life insurance," as Gauland has formulated it, is on her way out. And her refugee policy - a political "gift" to the AfD (again, Gauland) - is increasingly losing its impact.
Now the AfD is in danger of losing its last important pillar: Its credibility as an anti-establishment party.
Since the founding of the AfD, its members have presented themselves as independent fighters against an allegedly corrupt political system. In its 2016 platform, the party called for a "restrictive revision of donation rules to avoid corruption" and even a ban on "accepting corporate donations." The AfD also tirelessly attacks the alleged dependence of the "old parties" on big money. "You can't just buy politics," Gauland announced in 2016. "You lose your credibility." In 2017, the party's floor leader in the Bundestag, Alice Weidel, said the AfD was "the only party in Germany" that "engages in politics free from clientele and lobby groups."
But now, this party that claims to be so squeaky-clean finds itself neck deep in a debate about its corruptibility. The beginning of that debate came two weeks ago, with revelations from the reporting network made up of the two public broadcasters NDR and WDR along with the influential German daily S üddeutsche Zeitung. The media outlets reported on a large donor in Switzerland who had sent significant amounts of money to the local AfD chapter in Alice Weidel's electoral district on Lake Constance in southwestern Germany. Additional reports soon followed about support for Weidel from a dubious foundation in the Netherlands. Prosecutors in Konstanz have since launched an investigation into Weidel and three other AfD members to determine if party finance laws were broken. More recently, there have been new revelations that a confidante of Weidel's was in close touch with David Bendels, head of the pro-AfD group Association for the Preservation of the Rule of Law and Citizen Freedoms.
'No Suitcases Full of Money'
The reporting by WOZ and DER SPIEGEL now make it clear that Weidel's apparent network is not an exception in the party. There are plenty of indicators that the party has been dependent on the beneficence of wealthy donors from the very beginning.
The AfD is aware of how dangerous the revelations are for the party, and nerves are raw. That was on full display in the most recent general debate in the German parliament, with floor leader Alice Weidel stepping up to the microphone to hold a fiery speech. But it wasn't an invective against government policy. Instead, she held a monologue about the donation affairs that other parties have fallen victim to over the years. The AfD, Weidel insisted, had "not tried to cover anything up," adding that careful records had been kept about all AfD bank accounts. "No suitcases full of money were carried back and forth about whose whereabouts nobody can, or wants to, remember," she said, a reference to the party donation scandal that shook the CDU at the end of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's tenure and about which he remained silent until the end of his life. At the conclusion of her speech, Weidel said: "We don't need any moral expostulations from you!"
August von Finck's political offensive began long before the founding of the AfD. The aging billionaire has been financing conservative and libertarian parties, initiatives and associations for at least two decades. In the 1990s, Finck financed the first anti-euro party, known as the Bund Freier Bürger, or association of free citizens, to the tune of 4.3 million euros. Later, he was responsible for the lion's share of a 6-million-euro donation to a political group lobbying for a reduction of the role of the state. Current senior AfD politician Beatrix von Storch was a member of that group.
In 2009, one of Finck's companies sent more than a million euros in several tranches to the Free Democrats (FDP), the business-friendly party that occasionally leans libertarian. At the time, the FDP was urging that the tax rate on hotel stays be cut, a position that Finck, who had a stake in the Mövenpick hotel chain, was in favor of.
Finck's family owns blocks of shares valued in the billions of euros in addition to castles, rural estates and half of the Munich city center, as is frequently reported. In 1999, he moved to Switzerland, where taxes are lower and bank secrecy more valued. Since then, he has lived in Weinfelden Castle, on the Swiss side of Lake Constance, but he never lost his interest in German politics. After all, a chunk of his far-reaching business empire is still in the country, as is the castle belonging to his wife Francine on Lake Starnberg, just south of Munich.
Finck's role is similar to that of an angel investor in the start-up scene. He patiently props up those who share his political views with millions in donations and doesn't get discouraged if the initiatives don't always pan out. And it took a long time before one of his investments in the political marketplace, the AfD, actually bore fruit.
Ideologically, Finck fits well with the party. Many years ago, a banker who knows Finck well told DER SPIEGEL that "only Ghengis Khan can be found to the right of Gustl," using Finck's nickname. Finck's father August, Sr., was a Hitler admirer and provided financial backing to the Nazis.
August, Jr., though, has focused his attentions on parties in the postwar German democracy, with his people developing creative financing models. His financing of the anti-state group that Beatrix von Storch belonged to followed a pattern that was apparently later used to support the AfD. Instead of wiring the millions directly to the recipient, it was sent to a marketing agency which then used the money for an expensive advertising campaign.
The Billionaire's Puppet
The arrangement was advantageous for both sides. Finck was not easily identifiable as a behind-the-scenes supporter and the organization was able to avoid a reputation for being the billionaire's puppet.
His support of the AfD may have looked similar. When the first rumors of Finck's financial support for the nascent right-wing party began circulating in 2013, AfD founder Bernd Lucke, who is no longer with the party, could truthfully claim: "We have not received any donations from Mr. Finck." And it seems that the wealthy businessman never has provided direct support to the AfD.
But it does look as though the party did receive clandestine start-up assistance. DER SPIEGEL and WOZ are in possession of a variety of witness statements and documents indicating such covert financial support. At the heart of that support is the Munich-based communications agency Wordstatt, owned by Dagmar Metzger, an AfD spokeswoman and a member of the party's board in the early days. She helped manage the AfD's donations as it was getting started -- and may have acted as a straw-woman for covert patrons.
Early 2012 was a difficult time for those who were critical of the common European currency. The FDP, which was part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition at the time, voted to support her efforts to save the euro, thus warding off a collapse of her government and it looked as though Berlin's pro-euro course could no longer be stopped. Business leaders and the wealthy like Finck were concerned about their fortunes, but they couldn't find a party to promote their anti-euro message in German parliament.
So they needed to create one.
Initially, the euro opponents, who were linked together through a number of smaller initiatives, set their sights on Bavaria's Free Voters, a voting bloc in the state. At the time, the anti-euro alliance was still small and far away from being a member of the Bavarian government coalition as it is today. And it lacked recognizable names -- and money.
With the help of Dagmar Metzger's PR machine, Hubert Aiwanger of the Free Voters and Bernd Lücke, who headed up the "Election Alternative 2013," forged an alliance ahead of state elections in Lower Saxony. The face of the campaign was Stephan Werhahn, the grandson of Konrad Adenauer. Several media appearances managed to call attention to the movement.
Even in this early phase in 2012, Aiwanger says today, Metzger made clear to him that she could secure the requisite financing, a message Aiwanger says he also received from Bernd Lucke. "Lucke said that there were supporters who were prepared to support his Election Alternative 2013 and perhaps also the Free Voters," says Aiwanger. But only on the condition that the Free Voters tailor their message to the desires of the donor, Aiwanger says Lucke told him. "Lucke wanted us to take an even clearer anti-euro position, which I rejected," Aiwanger says.
- Part 1: A Billionaire Backer and the Murky Finances of the AfD
- Part 2: 'A Powerful Sponsor'