Last Tuesday, the state interior minister of Thuringia paid a visit to his counterpart at the national level, Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. The visit came just a day before the gubernatorial election in Thuringia, where the state's leader is selected by parliament. That vote on Wednesday in Erfurt would rock all of Germany. It would embarrass the party leaderships of both the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Berlin. And it would force Chancellor Angela Merkel to intervene in a way seldom required of Germany's leader.
Maier, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), assumed the chair this year of the Conference of Interior Ministers, which brings together the federal interior minister with his state-level counterparts. It's the German federal states' most important body for dealing with security issues. The body is currently addressing a number of important subjects, led by the fight against right-wing extremism, rampant hate on the internet and immigration issues.
The conference will also spend considerable time this year discussing the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist political party now present in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, and all state legislatures. A decision is to be made on whether a faction within the AfD known as the "Flügel," or "wing," led by Thuringia state chapter head Björn Höcke should be classified as anticonstitutional. The "Flügel" is currently considered a "suspected case" by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
During the meeting, Maier shared his concerns with Seehofer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) about a possible scenario that could emerge in the vote the next day by the Thuringia parliament to elect the state's next government. The development wasn't likely, he said, but it would be possible.
If long-time Governor Bodo Ramelow of the leftist Left Party were to fail in the first two rounds of votes in the parliament, the AfD and CDU could secretly pool their votes in a third ballot to create the necessary majority to push through a gubernatorial candidate for the FDP party. Seehofer said he didn't believe the scenario was possible.
'A Poison We Cannot Allow'
Following the vote, Interior Minister Seehofer would later say that "any attempt to approach the far-right margins is like a poison that we cannot allow to seep into" our party. "This was a very dirty election that calls into question all democratic practices."
In the end, the election proceeded just as Maier had foreseen. The day after his visit to Berlin, Maier was no longer his state's interior minister.
Governor Ramelow, for his part, lost by 44 votes to FDP candidate Thomas Kemmerich, who got 45. In the third round of voting, not a single member of the AfD cast a ballot for the party's own candidate for governor. They all threw their support behind the FDP.
By playing the parties off against each other, the AfD managed to stage a coup of sorts. AfD state and parliamentary leader Höcke combined two important ingredients of parliamentary democracy: simple election arithmetic and the CDU's and FDP's thirst for power. Ultimately, there was only one winner: Höcke, the man behind the "Flügel."
"The Maximal Possible Damage"
By early afternoon, Interior Minister Maier had cleaned out his office, leaving with two moving boxes in his arms. "It's the maximal possible damage," he said on the phone. "You can't play games like that with democracy. This has nothing to do with the will of the voters."
The games had mostly ended by Thursday, just one day after the vote. Following massive pressure from the public and his own party, Thomas Kemmerich declared that he no longer wanted to serve as governor of Thuringia after all. If the FDP can win the support of two-thirds of parliament, then new elections will be held.
For 24 hours, however, democracy in Erfurt devolved into a chaotic game led by Björn Höcke. Even if the specter of what happened has largely passed for now, it has still caused tremendous damage -- to parliamentary democracy in Germany and to the leaders of the CDU and the FDP. After all, it was their behavior that inflicted the damage to the political system and its credibility in the first place.
In its thirst for power, the FDP, the very party that allowed protracted coalition negotiations with Merkel and the Green Party to collapse in 2017 after it got cold feet about serving in a coalition government, sacrificed a consensus in Germany that had previously been considered inviolable: That no party would permit itself to rely on votes from a party that has right-wing extremist elements in order to get elected.
The Political Toll
The situation is even more embarrassing for CDU national chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer who in response to the scandal announced on Monday that she would step down as party boss. On Wednesday, she had failed to persuade Kemmerich to resign.
FDP national chair Christian Lindner ultimately managed to get the renegade Kemmerich off the stage, but Kramp-Karrenbauer had no such luck, at least not at first. Shortly before the FDP man said he would be stepping down, several groups within the CDU in Thuringia sent out a joint press release. In it, they defended Kemmerich's election and wrote that he would have "good chances" of "advancing Thuringia and strengthening cohesion in the state." It could not have been a clearer affront to party headquarters in Berlin and its chair. Kramp-Karrenbauer traveled to the state capital Erfurt on Thursday for a meeting of the CDU faction there. The agenda was to discuss Mohring's future, but also her own. The meeting lasted long into the night. By the end of the meeting, Mohring had offered his resignation as state party leader. Kramp-Karrenbauer's would follow just days later.
There have been many turbulent moments in Germany's federal and state parliaments, but there has been a new quality to the debacle in Thuringia. It was an outright violation of the basic understanding that right-wing extremists and ethnic nationalists must be opposed regardless of one's political persuasions, whether one adheres to the ultraconservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria or to the far-left Left Party. Those who cheered on the FDP candidate locally and elsewhere, praising his courage, deliberately abandoned this consensus -- and it's unlikely they will ever go back.
That's what makes last week's events in Erfurt so dangerous. It will only serve to affirm the cliches and prejudices that enemies of the political system in Germany have. Moreover, it will exacerbate the doubts of every German voter who, for years now, has quietly felt alienated by politics here.
A political elite that tries to bend the will of the electorate as grotesquely as what just happened in Thuringia will not only not get reelected -- they will be run out of office. In the end, the only winners are people who hark back to the 1930s, a time when many considered democracy to be too far removed from the people, a dilapidated system that needed to be overthrown.
It's difficult to say who inside the AfD came up with the idea of the coup. Some, mostly within the "Flügel," are describing it as "a brilliant chess move made by Höcke." Others, mostly party leaders at the national level, say the tactic was helped along by assistance from major party players in Berlin.
Sources in Thuringia say there was "continuous coordination" between Höcke and honorary party chair Alexander Gauland, as well as national party co-chairs Tino Chrupalla and Jörg Meuthen. But Meuthen claims this isn't true and that he wasn't aware of what was going to happen in the third round of voting.
From Radical to Prudent
What is clear, however, is that Höcke has been working together with his closest confidants in the "Flügel" to install the next governor since election day last October. In recent months, Höcke has stated publicly several times that he would happily abandon his own gubernatorial candidacy if his party could enter into a coalition with the CDU and the FDP in order to push another candidate through as governor.
In November, for example, he wrote a friendly letter to the heads of the Thuringian state chapters of the FDP and CDU in which he suggested not only the idea of a traditional government coalition together, which he incidentally considered to be unrealistic, but also "new forms of cooperation."
The strategy worked on Wednesday. Internally, the party has been celebrating what happened last week as a "historic victory," as some sources described it. For the first time ever, a state government got elected with the help of votes from an AfD state chapter, even if he would only hold that office for a short period of time.
At the same time, members of the party are thrilled to have driven the CDU and FDP into a debate about how to deal with the AfD, and about having thrown a spanner in the works. "Nobody in this party has ever acted as constructively destructive as Höcke has," says the extremist politician's friend, the far-right publisher Götz Kubitschek. He's relishing the consequences the election will have at the national level. "To put someone in a chair in a such way in Thuringia that it cuts off the legs of another chair in Berlin? The tactical arsenal of the AfD has been enriched by a fine variation."
Within the party, Höcke's move has also bolstered his reputation. Suddenly, a man who is usually accused of acting too radically is being considered to be prudent and practical -- and modest, given that had to put his own aspirations to power aside to create this success for the party.
It's a change in behavior that has also been conspicuous to Höcke's critics in his party, including those who issued an open letter a few months ago in which they attacked the Thuringia party leader for cultivating a "cult of personality." Critics are now observing how the politician has even managed to withdraw himself a bit in recent months and steer clear of any major scandals.
Instead, Höcke is now helping others get embroiled in their own scandals -- primarily the people he views as his archenemies. These include the CDU in distant Berlin, but especially Angela Merkel and her successor as party chair, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom the scandal would ultimately consume.
On Wednesday at noon, CDU head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was sitting in a German government plane in Berlin. According to others who were also traveling on the plane, she received the news on her mobile phone of Kemmerich's election shortly before takeoff. She immediately sensed the scandal that such a development could trigger in her party. The timing wasn't good, but first she had to fly to Strasbourg where she was scheduled to meet with French members of parliament.
The problems for the CDU, but above all for the party's chair, in negotiations to form a government in Thuringia didn't just start on Wednesday. The process is a good distillation of just about everything that has gone fundamentally wrong with the party. It reveals a lack of authority in Kramp-Karrenbauer, who failed to draw a clear line for Mike Mohring, the state CDU boss in Thuringia. It instead shows how the mistrust between the party's national leaders and the state chapters, particularly in the east, has grown palpable. Given that the fate of Germany's beleaguered "grand coalition" government -- which is made up of the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the CSU as well as the SPD -- could hinge on further developments in Erfurt, Kramp-Karrenbauer needed to do everything in her power on Wednesday to ensure that new elections are held in Thuringia.
The degree of panic dominating the CDU right now could already be felt in a conference call of the party's national committee after Wednesday's vote. Sources say that even normally level-headed Christian Democrats were pouncing on each other. Some lambasted the Thuringia state chapter for dragging the whole party into the affair, while others took aim at the party leadership in Berlin, saying they had left state-level politicians in the lurch.
Kramp-Karrenbauer then tried to set the tone herself, saying no ministers could be appointed, there could be no cooperation and that new elections would be the best solution. The CDU head tweeted later that night from Strasbourg that the consensus at the meeting had been "unanimous," but she would get a denial just a little later from Erfurt, where the party chapter there said the idea of unanimity was out of the question. The statement said that state chapter head Mohring had made clear in the conference call that he did not think new elections were the right way to go and that he wanted to prevent his party's paralysis in Thuringia.
The disastrous day in Thuringia also laid bare a trend that has been accelerating in the CDU under Kramp-Karrenbauer's leadership: The old order, according to which the federal party made the announcements and everyone in the states followed, no longer applies. Instead, it's a free-for-all. "There won't be new elections -- instead we will have a conservative minority government without any role for the AfD," Mark Hauptmann, a Christian Democratic member of the Bundestag from Thuringia, clarified on Wednesday.
Christian Hirte, a CDU member who serves as the federal commissioner for the eastern states, even congratulated FDP politician Kemmerich on Twitter, writing: "Your election as a centrist candidate shows once again that Thuringians have voted out their red-red-green" government. Red-red-green is a reference to the three left and center-left parties that governed in the state until Wednesday: the Left Party, the SPD and the Greens. Meanwhile, the ultraconservative Christian Democrat Alexander Mitsch gushed that Thuringia could become a "model for all of Germany." That kind of sentiment must be unbearable for Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The party chair certainly isn't responsible for everything that is going wrong in the CDU, but in the case of the Thuringia vote, she at the very least faces accusations that she completely underestimated the situation. When the national chapter of the CDU passed a resolution in 2018 banning any cooperation with the Left Party, which is in part a successor party to the East German Communist Party, and the far-right AfD, it was considered by many to be a firewall that would keep the party safe from any far-left or far-right elements. But in the case of Thuringia, it also meant that a man like Ramelow, whose policies feel more like those of a center-left Social Democrat than a left-winger, was lumped into the same category as a right-wing extremist like Björn Höcke. Ultraconservatives in the CDU may think this is right, but the liberal forces within the party don't.
"Our mantra of equidistance is the root of the evil," says Karin Prien, a state education minister in Schleswig-Holstein. "We won't survive like this." Prien says she is anti-communist to the core, but "equating a respectable governor like Bodo Ramelow with Höcke is a political and historical mistake," Prien says. "We should have faced this reality much sooner."
She believes that isolating the far-right and the far-left has pushed East German Christian Democrats to the margins. That's also true. When Mohring wanted to form a coalition with the Left Party in Thuringia, the CDU national headquarters in Berlin immediately objected. The party even opposed a coalition government with the Left Party that would have had very strictly defined policy parameters. At the same time, there was also a firewall between the CDU and the AfD.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer didn't initiate any debates about this issue -- and instead showed little interest in finding a solution together with the state chapter during the tough negotiations to form a government in Thuringia. The state branch of the party also didn't want any interference from Berlin. Mohring warned the CDU national headquarters early on, saying, "I don't need the national party to tell me what I need to do in the state."
A Covert Vote
Mohring himself has been stumbling from misstep to misstep since the CDU's heavy losses in the state election in October. At times, he flirted with the idea of opening the party up to cooperation with the Left Party, and at other times with the AfD. Then he sought to form a minority government with support from the FDP, the SPD and the Green Party, but he also failed in that effort. On one day, he would rule out any talks with the Left Party and the next they would be at the negotiating table. There is also considerable discontent in his own party group in the state parliament, where he won re-election as the faction leader by only 66 percent.
On the Monday before the vote for governor, the AfD nominated a man without any party affiliatiation as its candidate -- Christoph Kindervater, the mayor of Sundhausen, a community of 350 people located 40 minutes northwest of Erfurt. He works for an electronics manufacturer. In May 2019, he ran as a marginal candidate in regional elections. Contact between the AfD and Kindervater was established through a member of the Thuringia state legislature. Not much more is known about the man other than the fact that he had one goal: that of preventing a government coalition between the Left Party, the Social Democrats and the Green Party.
Following news that Kindervater would run, FDP parliamentary group leader Kemmerich announced he would also mount a bid in the event of a third round of voting if the AfD candidate was still in the running.
Members of his faction say that by this point, Mohring had no strategy. Many in the party group feared that Mohring himself might mount a bid for governor, so they instead threw their support behind Kemmerich, the FDP candidate. With the embarrassment clearly in sight, Mohring decided not to run.
Last Monday night, two days before the vote, the CDU parliamentary group and the CDU state chapter head met in Erfurt. To everyone's surprise, Mohring announced his support for Kemmerich, saying it was the party's wish. No official decision was made, but all expressed their consent.
That Monday, they also discussed the possiblity of a mock candidate in case the AfD didn't vote for Kindervater during the third round of voting. The option was taken seriously, but they didn't discuss it in any depth -- members of the CDU party group were just pleased to have found a joint strategy.
Then the day of the vote arrived. To ensure that no one detected the AfD's plans, members of the party spoke to each other in hushed tones between voting rounds on Wednesday. They even locked their mobile phones in steel boxes so they couldn't be wiretapped. Their press spokesman chased anyone away who might be able to eavesdrop at the meeting room of the party group.
A Wave of Outrage
On Wednesday evening, the drama had taken its course, and the wave of outrage broke in the form of telephone calls, text messages and social media outpourings. After the CDU national headquarters expressed its horror, the CDU parliamentary group in Thuringen met again at 6 p.m. There was still agreement within the group, at least in terms of where the front lines ran: between Erfurt and Berlin.
In Erfurt, the feeling is that the parliamentary faction's only obligation is to its constituents and that party leaders in Berlin have no right to dictate how state representatives should vote in secret ballots. The conclusion: The Christian Democrats in Thuringia have so far made clear that they intend to stand by their decision.
It will only become clear once Angela Merkel is no longer chancellor whether the CDU’s move to the left during her time in office was a genuine and lasting modernization or merely a temporary aberration. Merkel's opponents are betting on the latter.
If they're right, then the chaos in Thuringia could be the beginning of the kind of shift to the right that some in Merkel’s party are longing for. At its core, the message of the CDU's state chapter in Thuringia is very simple: We'll work with anyone, just not the left. They would rather wheel and deal with the far-right than have to share power with the left. This attitude has existed in Germany before: in the final days of the Weimar Republic.
This may be pure historical coincidence, but it's worthy of mention: In the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Party began its rise to become Germany's dominant party in Thuringia. In January 1930, right-wing conservative parties, including the German People's Party (DVP), formed a coalition with the Nazis. Wilhelm Frick was then chosen to be interior and people's minister. The alliance lasted for 14 months.
In the autumn of 1930, the state of Braunschweig followed suit. A "Conservative Unity List," which included the DVP and the German National People's Party (DNVP), brought the Nazis into the government.
The Gravest Miscalculation in German History
Thus, the Nazis could gain acceptance within mainstream conservative circles. In the early 1930s, on a federal level, the conservatives intended to use the Nazis to stay in power. But by mid-1932, the fatal consequences of their plan became clear.
By that time, Adolf Hitler had begun demanding the dissolution of the Reichstag. To placate him, and to secure the chancellorship of Franz von Papen, a centrist, conservative forces struck a deal with Hitler. Bans on the Nazi Party's two paramilitary wings, the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS), were lifted. In exchange, Hitler promised not to vote against Papen's emergency decrees. "The creation of an integrated right-wing power bloc” had begun the historian Christopher Clark writes in his book, "Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia."
The SA and SS immediately took to the streets and pubs. On July 17, 1932, an SA march escalated into what is now known as the Altonaer Blutsonntag, or Altona Bloody Sunday. The deadly confrontation between Nazis, Communists and the police left 18 people dead.
But that didn't stop conservatives from persuading the hesitant Reich President Hindenburg half a year later to tap Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor. "We have brought him over to our side," Papen rejoiced in late January 1933. It was the gravest miscalculation in German history.
Analogies like this prove nothing. But one lesson from the Weimar Republic is that far-right extremists come to power because mainstream conservatives want to use them to remain in power.
It's now up to the leadership of the CDU and the FDP to categorize this flirtation with the far-right as a one-off occurrence. A slip that may never repeat itself.
For the CDU, the degree to which party leaders can successfully do this will determine whether their coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) will survive. The fight against fascism has always been fundamental to the SPD's identity. That's also why, since noontime on Wednesday, Feb. 5, the Social Democrats have been showing a more united front than at any point during the last several years. "We're not talking about basic pensions here," says one leading SPD politician, "but about the fact that the CDU is making pacts with fascists in Thuringia."
During a conference call with other SPD leaders, German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the idea of convening a coalition committee. Scholz and the SPD co-leaders Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans later spoke with Merkel on the phone. The Social Democrats made clear that their first goal was to get the CDU's leadership to take a clear stand against their party colleagues in Thuringia. Their second goal was to have Kemmerich resign, which he announced he would do last Thursday. New elections must then also be discussed. But for that to happen, the CDU in Thuringia would have to agree to those talks.
Merkel chimed in during a trip to South Africa, breaking her own rule of not commenting on domestic policy from abroad in order to increase pressure. "The election of this governor was an exceptional process," Merkel said. "It broke with a fundamental conviction, both for the CDU and for me, namely that no majorities should be won with the help of the AfD." Such an outcome was "unforgivable,” a "a bad day for democracy” and must be reversed.
A coalition meeting on Saturday got to the heart of the issue for the SPD, Klingbeil said. The SPD wanted to discuss how the CDU and its state chapters would behave toward the AfD in the future. Klingbeil continued: "It must be clear whether the Union is true to its word. If not, this will, of course, affect our cooperation with the CDU and CSU."
Green Party head Robert Habeck also put pressure on the government: "The Christian Democrats need to change their thinking and recognize that right-wing extremists and fascists are not the same as the Left Party." In doing so, the conservatives were trivializing "Höcke's AfD," Habeck said. "It was ultimately this clinging to an ideology that isn’t based in reality that contributed to the disastrous situation in Thuringia." This must not happen again, he said.
No Shortage of Praise
For the FDP, it will be difficult to declare what happened in Erfurt as one-off, accidental and surprising. This is partially because the FDP's leader in Berlin, Christian Lindner, was in fact informed early on about his colleagues' plans in Thuringia to send their own candidate into the race.
Shortly before the FDP's Thuringia chapter met last Tuesday, the news broke that Thomas Kemmerich had confirmed that he was indeed considering running. He didn't need to explain what the consequences would be if an FDP man was elected with votes from the AfD, Lindner said, according to people who were at the meeting. "If that happens, the damage to the FDP would be enormous," Lindner said.
Then it was Gerald Ullrich's time to speak, the deputy state chairman of the FDP in Thuringia. He defended Kemmerich. It was a sign against both the left and the right, Ullrich said, openly resenting any interference by the FDP's leadership in Berlin. "This is a decision for the Thuringian state chapter alone," Ullrich said, according to the people at the meeting.
It was a clear declaration of war on the party leadership in Berlin. "But we didn't take it seriously because no one thought it would come to that," said a leading FDP politician in Berlin. Lindner himself said at the meeting that Kemmerich had assured him personally that he would not cooperate or collude with the AfD. Kemmerich was a responsible person, he said: He knows what's at stake for the FDP. Lindner must have realized how wrong he was about Kemmerich when the newly elected governor said he accepted the results of the vote.
Astonishingly, praise for Kemmerich didn't only come from Thuringia. "This is a great success for Thomas Kemmerich," said Wolfgang Kubicki, vice chairman of the FDP. "A democratic, centrist candidate has won. Obviously, the prospect of five more years of Ramelow did not appeal to the majority of the members of the Thuringian state parliament". Other leading FDP politicians joined in. The party's deputy federal chairwoman, Nicola Beer, also defended Kemmerich.
"We Have To Send a Clear Signal"
Plenty of critics spoke up as well, most of whom came from Lindner's own chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. The leader of that state's chapter, Joachim Stamp, expressed his anger during a telephone conference with the party's steering committee early last Wednesday and demanded Kemmerich's immediate resignation. Stamp and the secretary-general of the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter, Johannes Vogel, a long-time confidant of Lindner's, tried to lay on the pressure. "What happened in Thuringia goes way beyond what is acceptable," Vogel would later tell DER SPIEGEL. "This isn't about tactics either. We have to send a clear signal,” that something like this cannot happen within this party.
Kemmerich was also on the conference call. Despite the massive protests, he said would see if a pragmatic cooperation were possible with the CDU, SPD and the Greens.
Later, a visibly nervous Lindner made his first TV appearance. His statement was more scripted than usual. He said things that could be interpreted as distancing himself from Kemmerich. Things like, "Personally, I would not be able to be the leader of a party that does not clearly rule out all kinds of cooperation with the AfD." And: "As long as I am allowed to lead the Free Democrats, I will not tolerate any change in this fundamental belief."
But he also said things that could be taken as defending Kemmerich. "Thomas Kemmerich has led the Free Democrats back into parliament as the party of the center." He does not support the AfD’s goals and values, Lindner said. "We have no control over other parties that choose to support our candidates in a secret ballot." It was a classic Lindner statement, one that avoided offending anyone. Lindner has said internally that he wasn't interested in issuing a "fatwa" against party colleagues in Thuringia. Otherwise, he said, he was afraid Kemmerich might turn stubborn.
Since Christian Lindner took over the chairmanship of the FDP in 2013, he has done everything in his power to avoid inner-party trench warfare. Even when the party was on the verge of fracturing during the euro crisis, Lindner managed to rein in the party's conservative wing. But he paid a price. He let the FDP's left-liberal wing fall by the wayside. The empathy promised in the party's mission statement has no longer been a priority. Meanwhile, he has taken up positions -- especially in matters of refugee and climate policy -- that were obviously aimed at winning back AfD voters.
The shortcomings of this strategy have been made all too apparent in Erfurt, where the trenches have been torn wide open. Suddenly, part of the FDP's voter base began to speak up in favor of Kemmerich's bold move, likely because he dared to depart from political correctness. "A small tip to everyone: Don't read mainstream media for the next 14 days," recommended one FDP member in an internal Facebook group, echoing similar calls by AfD adherents. In an online survey of FDP members, a majority of respondents completed the sentence, "I find the election of Thomas Kemmerich as governor with votes from the AfD..." with the word "...good."
Antifascist or Not?
At the same time, those from the party's left-liberal wing are outraged and speaking out. "Even if everything that happened today merely had to do with infinite stupidity, there has likely not been anyone in a very long time who has caused such lasting damage to the party," an FDP member wrote on Facebook.
The first appeals for resignations have already begun to arrive at the FDP's headquarters in Berlin. "Dear Christian," wrote one FDP member from the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. "Any attempts to rectify this decision in the future will not seem credible to me. "I can no longer justify the FDP’s behavior to my friends and acquaintances. I've run out of arguments."
"Our members are ashamed of themselves," says Konstantin Kuhle the secretary-general of the FDP in the state of Lower Saxony, who is also a member of the Bundestag. "The FDP’s reputation as a centrist party is at stake.”
Kuhle received a police escort last week after vandals spraypainted the word "traitor" across the window of one of the FDP's offices in nearby Göttingen in which a picture of Kuhle hung. Elsewhere in Germany, demonstrators have occupied FDP offices.
Several thousand people protested outside the party's headquarters in Berlin last week. "Hindenburg would have voted for the FDP," one placard read. Another asked, "Who betrayed us? The Free Democrats." In his "worst dreams," he never would have thought it possible "that serious doubts about a basic antifascist consensus in our party would arise," Kuhle said.
The party is afraid that its only state election this year, in the city-state of Hamburg, will be a fiasco. "We must now do our best to mitigate the damage to the extent possible in the coming election," says Benjamin Strasser, an FDP member of parliament in the Bundestag. A defeat would also be laid at Lindner's feet. After all, he could be accused of not having responded decisively enough to Kemmerich's election.
Criticism of the party chairman has been intense. "Lindner has not at all grasped what this event means for the FDP," says the long-time party member and former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum. "It's an earthquake." The head of the CDU in Baden-Württemberg, Thomas Strobl, for his part, says: "A misguided and insubstantial FDP realized what was really at stake exactly 25 hours too late."
Thomas Kemmerich will go down in history as the third member of the FDP to have been elected governor in Germany. But he will likely also be remembered for serving the shortest term, even though he won’t be leaving office that quickly.
Even if a governor resigns or loses a vote of confidence, that politician must continue as a caretaker governor until a successor has been appointed. He would also have to continue with the job even if the state parliament voted by a two-thirds majority to dissolve itself. That’s the law under the state constitution in Thuringia, which leaves him with no leeway. Kemmerich can only be released from the job once a new governor has been installed.
In the wake of Kemmerich’s announcement that he would step down last week, the first signs of optimism could be heard from within the Left Party. "After the initial shock, we’re now feeling combative,” says Katja Kipping, the party’s national chair. The party still hasn’t resigned itself to the fact that Ramelow got voted out of office. The former governor has already announced he will run again.
Some in the party can even imagine a scenario in which they could profit from new elections at the expense of the CDU and FDP. Over the coming days, the heads of the Left Party, the SPD and the Greens are planning meetings in which they hope to determine the path forward. One scenario that is getting play in Left Party circles would see the three parties entering into a new election with a shared list of candidates in order to exclude the possibility that one of the parties fails to clear the 5 percent hurdle for getting enough votes to land seats in parliament. But no decisions have been made yet.
'Everything Is in Ruins, Especially Trust'
However, Anja Siegesmund, the state’s former environment minister who had to vacate her office on Wednesday, isn’t sounding all that confident yet. Of course, the state needs a new election, she says, but "everything is in ruins, especially trust.” The former minister is also worried about Thuringia’s reputation. "We already have Höcke -- and now this chaos here.”
Last Wednesday was indeed a watershed moment and a dark one -- not just for Thuringia, but for all of Germany’s mainstream political parties. They will now have to redefine their relationships with the political margins, but also the relationship they have with each other -- that of the state chapters to the national ones and that between the eastern and western states. And they have to refine their relationship to history, because what happened in Thuringia could be a preview of what comes next -- perhaps in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, which will have an election next year. As they stand at the moment, Germany’s mainstream political parties are no longer able to build majorities to form coalition governments. They’ll now have to decide if they are going to give up the taboo of cooperating with extremists within the Left Party, pooling their power with joint candidate lists or whether working together with the AfD is inevitable.
Within the AfD, Björn Höcke is enjoying a major boost to his reputation. Even his last opponents, like Georg Pazderski, who recently failed to get reelected as the AfD state chapter president in Berlin, sent his "congratulations to Thuringia for this unmistakable sign,” a "good sign for Germany.”
Höcke has expanded his power and can count on gaining more votes in new elections. And both his friends and his enemies within the party agree that his influence within the AfD is likely to grow.
But more influence for Höcke also means more influence on the part of the "Flügel," the very ethnic-nationalist internal party platform that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has classified for a year now as a "suspect case” -- one that could be ruled as anti-constitutional before the year is over.
A recent ruling by a Cologne administrative court may provide clues as to where that decision is heading. During the autumn, Höcke filed for a preliminary injunction against Thomas Haldenwang, the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL in the run-up to the state election in Thuringia, Haldenwang said, "The Flügel is growing increasingly extremist.” Höcke failed to get an injunction. In its decision, the court stated unequivocally that excerpts from speeches from representatives of the "Flügel" justified Haldenwang’s assessment.
In the investigation files, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, as well as the office's state chapters, has been compiling numerous statements proving just how extremist Höcke and his supporters are in their thinking.
For example, state AfD leader Höcke described the extreme right-wing term "re-population” as "apt” for "the obviously systematic destruction of established populations.” It’s a reference to a widespread myth within the far-right that the German government is deliberately replacing its ethnic German population with immigrants and refugees. The domestic intelligence apparatus also criticized what it described as "clearly xenophobic” statements -- when Höcke claims that "multicultural societies” are "multicriminal societies,” for example. The domestic intelligence agency also asserts that those who call mosques symbols of a "land grab” deny that Islam in its entirety is compatible with the constitutional state.
Nor does Höcke shy away from making anti-Semitic statements -- and they go well beyond his much-quoted line about the Berlin Holocaust monument being a "memorial of shame.” Höcke has described investor George Soros as "perverted, population-destroying demon.” The investor and philanthropist, a Hungarian Jew, is considered the ultimate evil within ethnic-nationalist and anti-Semitic circles.
Höcke’s disposition is very clear. And Germany almost had a government that came into power on the basis of his votes.
By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Felix Bohr, Anna Clauß, Ullrich Fichtner, Kevin Hagen, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christoph Hickmann, Martin Knobbe, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Timo Lehmann, Peter Maxwill, Veit Medick, Ann-Katrin Müller, Christopher Piltz, Jonas Schaible, Christoph Schult, Christian Teevs, Severin Weiland, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, Steffen Winter