Björn Höcke wants everything to be perfect today. As usual, he raised both his arms in greeting and is now straightening up his cuffs, first the left, then the right. He then shifts his attentions to his belt. The "Höcke! Höcke! Höcke!” chants on this parking lot in Gera have fallen silent, but the politician is still biding his time. He wants the beginning of his speech to be perfect as well. Only after 10 seconds, a small eternity, does he commence.
Höcke is the state leader of the radical right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the eastern German state of Thuringia and is the best-known member of his party’s far-right wing. And he loves the spotlight. It seems as if this speech, though, is even more important to him than usual. It is October 3, the day Germany celebrates its post-Cold War reunification, and Höcke is standing on the back of a flatbed truck, his stage for the day. He declares to the gathered crowd: "Today, Gera is the beginning of something new. Tomorrow belongs to us." The second sentence has in the past been used frequently among German ethnic nationalists – a group frequently described both in and outside Germany as "völkisch – and was included in an obituary for Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess, who was Adolf Hitler’s deputy for many years.
Around 8,000 people are on hand for Höcke’s speech, including members of the right-wing extremist groups Free Thuringians, Free Saxons and Free Youth along with members of the tiny neo-Nazi party Neue Stärke (New Strength). They are all mingled together with people who appear to be middle class as they placidly eating their bratwursts – and who applaud the most extremist of statements coming from the stage. The event was registered by a right-wing extremist, and before Höcke stepped into the limelight, other speakers explicitly addressed their remarks to "all of Germany," mentioning Austria and South Tyrol, the German-speaking region of northern Italy. Others demanded the end of the "forced cult of guilt," meaning the education and discourse about the Holocaust.
The sun burned through the clouds shortly before Höcke took the stage and the evening sun now bathes the square in orange light as he speaks. "Good thing the weather changed again," says a man in the crowd. "It’s because God is on our side," says his female companion.
Up on stage, Höcke tells the crowd that his speech will focus on "whether" the Germans will survive. "Hunger and chaos" are not far away, he insists, because of the energy crisis. He refers to the German government as the "cabinet of horrors," saying that the "old parties" – a standard right-wing shibboleth referring to the country’s established political parties – want "the souls of our children" and the media is practicing "pure war propaganda." Nothing, he laments, is sacred, not even "our grandiose historical heritage." He says the German nation is exhibiting "pathetic weakness" and is being destroyed by "mass immigration." Then he says: "The American government has ordered the German government to commit economic suicide and (German Chancellor Olaf) Scholz and company are executing this order."
Höcke says he gets a "lump in his throat" when talking about it "because I feel powerless." Again, a dramatic pause: "Powerless because we are still without power, because we don’t yet have the levers of power in our hands." The demonstration here in Gera, he intimates, is only a small sign – but it sounds as if he wants other, more powerful signs in the future.
He also uses the stage to stump for his party, the AfD. "As the strong arm of the extra-parliamentary opposition in Thuringia," the party has become the most powerful political force in the state. "And in 2024, we will be challenging for power!" The cheering is loud, along with drumming, whistling, yelling and clapping.
He tells the crowd that it is important to stay together as the "people’s opposition" and "fight this battle to the end – peacefully, but with a strong will. With an unbending will, my dear friends." Höcke then begins riffing on the word "battle,” using it five times in a single sentence. "Our battle is not an unjust battle, our battle is the most self-evident thing in the world. Our battle is a just battle for a just aim."
In conclusion, he again thrusts both arms in the air, adjusts his belt and leaves the stage.
For Höcke, Gera was a demonstration of his power, a portent of the AfD's next transformation. For years, the party has refrained from staging a national demonstration – ever since the 2018 disaster in Berlin when five times as many people took part in the counterdemonstration, and the "funeral march" in Chemnitz that same year, during which migrants were chased through the streets and perpetrators attacked a Jewish restaurant.
But on Saturday, the national party followed Höcke’s lead and staged a demonstration in Berlin, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 followers marching through the German capital, accompanied by numerous though smaller, counterdemonstrations. The motto of the protest action was "Our Country First," and the AfD spent over 100,000 euros on it, including the chartering of buses to bring supporters to the city. Once again, Höcke got what he wanted.
The party’s national congress in Riesa just over three months ago didn’t just solidify Höcke’s power, it also expanded it. He collected up to 60 percent of the delegates behind him and held speeches that were loudly cheered. Not one of his opponents was elected to the national leadership, with two-thirds of the committee members now aligned with Höcke or with his political views. Even Christina Baum, likely the most radical of his party allies, was chosen for the committee, even though her candidacy hadn’t even been discussed before the vote. The party’s arbitration board now also includes close Höcke allies – who in the future will have a voice in determining whether AfD members will be excluded for extremist actions or statements. Or whether they can remain in the party.
Officially, Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel are the co-leaders of the AfD. The true head of the party, though, is Höcke.
The AfD has reached a new stage in its development. After former party leader Jörg Meuthen renounced his membership in January, and now following the congress in Riesa, there are fewer power struggles, and the leadership committee is less conflicted. And disagreement on policy aims have mostly died down. Currently, much of the discussion within the AfD focuses on whether Höcke should take over leadership of the party in two years or not. One part of the AfD believes a Höcke chairmanship would be a bad idea, fearing that it could damage the party’s public image. But when it comes to policy, Höcke and his far-right party platform called the "Flügel" or "wing" – which was officially disbanded long ago – have gotten their way.
Nevertheless, or perhaps for that very reason, the party is rising in the public opinion polls. The AfD is currently polling at 15 percent nationwide, according to a recent Infratest dimap survey performed on behalf of German broadcaster ARD, a 2-percentage-point jump over last month. In the state of Thuringia, the AfD is the strongest political party of all.
On top of that, the number of people saying they would never vote for the AfD is dropping. One year ago, that number stood at 70 percent, by far the highest value for any party. A recent survey found, though, that the total has dropped to 62 percent. Even though the result comes from the controversial public opinion institute INSA, which is frequently commissioned by the AfD itself, there is still a clear trend.
And, after the party suffered through a recent period of dwindling membership rolls, it has recently seen "a strong upward trend," according to a spokesman. "Since the beginning of September alone, we have recorded over a thousand applications for membership," the spokesman said, adding that additional applications were submitted on paper and not online. The September numbers, the spokesman said, represent a 2.5-fold increase over August.
Fans of the AfD don't appear to be fazed by all the scandals the party has been embroiled in. Whether it is party donation scandals complete with police raids, tight links with and trips to Russia, direct connections to the neo-Nazi scene, anti-democratic behavior in German parliament or anti-Semitic embarrassments, most followers have nonetheless remained loyal to the AfD. The justification constantly coming from the right-wing radicals, that "those at the top" are against the party and are merely stage-managing the scandals, seems to work. In social networks, supporters post under the hashtag #nurnochAfD, meaning #onlytheAfD.
Höcke, meanwhile, is eager to use his current standing for his and the party’s future. But what is it that he has in mind?
On a Wednesday in mid-September, Höcke, standing on the square in front of the state parliament building in Erfurt, suddenly changes the location of a planned meeting and turning it into a walk. "Climb in," he says, pointing to his official car. "We’re heading for the Steiger Forest," a place, he says, where Otto von Bismarck used to take walks. Once we arrive at the parking lot, he takes off his jacket and starts walking, his two bodyguards, appointed by the Thuringia State Criminal Investigation Office, trotting behind him. The driver has to wait.
Höcke is in a good mood and projects confidence. Things are going well for him, after all. In 2015, he and his confidants came up with a "10-year plan" for the AfD, say people close to him. It should be complete in the next three years.
Höcke at a demonstration in Erfurt.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
The plan includes:
Shifting the political discourse in the AfD and in society at large to the extreme right.
Discrediting German domestic intelligence officials – who have been keeping a close eye on the party in recent years – to such a degree that AfD members are no longer concerned and refrain from leaving the party in large numbers.
Pushing influential adversaries out of the AfD or pulling them into the Höcke camp.
Attracting new members who support Höcke’s course to establish a majority.
Supporting organizations and media outlets that back Höcke’s ideology, in part through cross subsidization.
And to expose and embarrass other political parties.
Almost all of those things have already been accomplished. That last point is best illustrated by the 2020 election of Thomas Kemmerich, a member of the business-friendly Free Democrats, to the position of Thuringia governor with votes from the AfD – although he resigned not long after in the face of massive protests.
The last point of the plan envisions Höcke being part of the government of Thuringia or head of the AfD, ideally on his own. And here, too, the congress in Riesa was a step in the right direction. The Höcke camp has already begun spreading the word that Chrupalla isn’t planning on seeking re-election to the party leadership in 2024, insisting that Chrupalla himself said so in an internal meeting. And Weidel, they add, seemed reluctant this time around. Both demurred when approached for comment.
Back in the forest, Höcke speaks about the party’s future, but he then requests through his office manager afterward that he not be quoted directly. It was, the office manager insists, merely on background – despite the fact that it is standard journalistic practice in Germany for quotes from such background interviews to be approved for use later.
Höcke, 50, apparently grew up with far-right political ideas. His grandparents on his father’s side were driven out of East Prussia following World War II, which played a large role, as Höcke once said. His father, a special education teacher, was on a subscription list for the anti-Semitic and revisionist newspaper Die Bauernschaft, as the influential German weekly Die Zeit has reported. Furthermore, the name Wolfgang Höcke was attached to a call for solidarity with Martin Hohmann, when he was thrown out of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) for suspected anti-Semitism in 2004. His name was also on a 2005 memorial book written for a nationalist by Neue Rechte, a far-right political movement.
His son Björn Höcke joined the Junge Union, the youth wing of the CDU when he was 14, but he didn’t stay for long. Prior to his AfD career, he worked as a sports and history teacher in Hesse. In 2003, he started publishing political statements in the form of letters to the editor in which he would, for example, relativize the Holocaust. And he participated in a neo-Nazi rally in 2010.
Höcke has lived with his wife, two sons and two daughters in the small municipality of Bornhagen, Thuringia, since 2008. According to reporting by Die Zeit, he received help during his move from Thorsten Heise, a member of the neo-Nazi NPD and a man who has a criminal history, including aggravated assault. It is said that the two repeatedly enjoyed a beer together outside in the yard. Heise, who is now deputy head of the NPD, lives nearby.
In the forest not far from the Thuringia parliament, the path forks and Höcke wants to take the one on the left. "Right would be better," says one of the state-appointed bodyguards from behind. Höcke turns around and grins: "Right is always better." The policeman smiles and says: "That’s why I said it."
Höcke doesn’t hide how far to the right, or how right-wing extremist, he is, even if he doesn’t like to be labeled as such. He has, to be sure, modified his rhetoric somewhat, no longer calling the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "shameful monument" and has not repeated his comment that it is problematic "that Hitler is portrayed as a personification of absolute evil." Nevertheless, Höcke ticks all the boxes in the commonly accepted definition of right-wing extremism.
For him, Germany is essentially a dictatorship. He says it is necessary to get the country "back on its feet," which means a complete reversal from where it is currently heading. He speaks of "culturally foreign people" and of remigration, which involves the deportation of all those who he doesn’t believe belong to the German people. He excoriates politicians from other parties and speaks of the "theater performance of government and fake opposition in the paralyzed party state." He criticizes court rulings that are not consistent with his worldview and claims that the rule of law and democracy have already been hollowed out from within. He says over and over again that German domestic intelligence officials only serve to protect the government and not the free, democratic order. And he claims that only he and his party speak for the German people.
Early this year, Höcke recommended a book that addressed "the failure of the republic and the day after." The author expresses his hope for a "sudden and catastrophic crisis" so that "nothing other than a shift to the right becomes acceptable to voters." Höcke praised the book for being "as unsparing as it is brilliant." For him, the "day after" begins with the "battle for the new order."
A previous work by the author from 2012 was called "Instruction Manual for Putschists." He also appeared in 2016 in the anonymously written "Handbook for the Preservation of You and Your Volk,” along with Martin Sellner, the figurehead of the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement, with whom the author still appears together.
Höcke celebrates his connections with other organizations and figures on the right-wing extremist spectrum. He promotes the party’s so-called "front end," such as the organization "One Percent" ("Germany’s largest network of patriots") and its projects, he advertises fashion from the right wing and gives interviews to Compact, a magazine considered by German officials to be "assuredly extremist," an appellation they have attached to Höcke as well.
Höcke also works closely together with Götz Kubitschek, who referred to him back in 2015 as an "old friend." A thinker and publisher affiliated with the "new right," Kubitschek recently distanced himself somewhat from the AfD out of fear that the party might fail. But now, he is convinced that the party will be heard. "The time has come, the window is opening," he wrote in his blog in early September. The coming months, he wrote, should focus on "further shifts in our favor."
In his blog, Kubitschek also indicated what steps the AfD must take next, including: "fight for each vote, for the entire capacity for resistance, for the acceptance of alternative politics." He writes that the process will be accompanied by bad press and negative portrayals, in addition to "orgies of arrogance" from those who don’t take to the streets. "It is into this rift that the AfD must drive a wedge." Politicians and common citizens "must become even more alien to each other."
It is precisely that playbook that Höcke is intent on following. Six days after the appearance of Kubitschek’s blog entry, Höcke uploaded a new profile picture to his Facebook page, in which he has his arms crossed and is looking sternly into the camera. Next to it is the sentence: "If the government doesn’t care what the voters want, then voters really shouldn’t care what the government wants."
It’s Friday evening a little over two weeks ago and AfD party leader Tino Chrupalla is standing on a trailer in a covered outdoor event space in Cottbus, surrounded by prefab concrete residential towers. The space is far from full, perhaps 300 people have shown up, dressed in warm jackets to keep out the cold. A few are waving flags, German and Russian.
"We must finally take to the streets for our interests and assert our interests as well," Chrupalla says. "Sovereignty," he adds, "isn’t given to you; sovereignty is something you must take." He doesn’t say precisely what that's supposed to mean, but it doesn’t sound particularly peaceful. His audience applauds, chants and whistles. One of them is wearing a sweatshirt from the identitarian "Defend Cottbus" campaign. "It's Time for Resistance," it proclaims.
Chrupalla speaks much like a Reichsburger – a group that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the present-day Germany – when he says that Germany isn’t a "sovereign country" as long as U.S. troops are stationed in the country. He sounds like a right-wing extremist when he says that other parties are all part of the "same swamp" and only the AfD can be the solution. And he sounds like a conspiracy theorist when he says that an "economic war" is being waged and it was started by Economics Minister Robert Habeck.
AfD lawmakers in the Bundestag in January.Foto: Stefan Boness / Ipon
Taking on an grumbling tone, Chrupalla urges his listeners to "finally exert pressure on political leaders" through trade organizations, chambers of commerce and industry and chambers of handicrafts "so that something finally changes in this country." And he emphasizes that the AfD is fighting on behalf of his audience "in the parliaments and on the street," which is their function as a "parliamentary and street party." It is precisely that, he says, which differentiates the AfD from its adversaries. "We take to the streets on Mondays against Habeck, against (Foreign Minister Annalena) Baerbock, against (Finance Minister Christian) Lindner, against Scholz, against this government and against the faux opposition of the conservatives," he says.
It's hard to ignore the similarities between what he says and the speeches delivered by Höcke.
Tino Chrupalla, 47, is a house painter by trade and he shares most of his political views with Höcke. He was, to be sure, never an official part of the extremist wing surrounding Höcke, which is why he has long been considered as more of a centrist, but he also has never distanced himself from such extremist sentiments. On the contrary, he says that he has "no problem" with the extremists in the party and sees "no contextual differences" with his own positions. He also once attended an annual meeting of the far-right "Flügel."
The fact that Chrupalla even became a co-leader of the party in 2019 is thanks to the far-right wing, who made him the successor to Alexander Gauland. In Riesa, Chrupalla’s re-election again came on the strength of votes from the Höcke camp, with the two of them having reached agreement on the issue prior to the party congress.
The situation is hardly different with Alice Weidel, the 43-year-old former business consultant who is AfD co-leader together with Chrupalla. She, too, was elected to her current role with the help of Höcke’s people, having reached a kind of non-aggression pact with him in 2018. That year, she met frequently with Höcke and Kubitschek and went after Jörg Meuthen when he started to launch attacks on the extremist wing for tactical reasons. She even hired a Kubitschek family member as an adviser and her tone grew sharper.
In early September, when Weidel and Chrupalla introduced their new campaign slogan "Our Country First!," that tone was clearly audible. The people of Germany, she said, were being "screwed" by the government," were being "ripped off in cold blood" and were "completely defenseless," Weidel called out, her face contorting. "What do you think is going on here in Germany?" she demanded, anticipating that people would be hitting the streets throughout the entire winter, and claiming they have "every right to do so." She referred to the government as "this amateur theater troupe up there" and as a "comedy club." Such comments tend to be well received among party extremists.
More recently, though, the two of them have grown wary of Höcke’s influence. They aren’t interested in giving up their power quite yet and are trying to keep him in check, for example by blocking the creation of a commission on party reform that he was set to lead. Weidel was angry because a member of the right wing had sought to run against her in Riesa and Höcke didn’t hold him back. Ultimately, the challenge never materialized, but Weidel realized that Höcke’s loyalties are with those who have been in his camp for the long haul.
In standing up to Höcke, the two party leaders have – similar to Jörg Meuthen before them – positioned themselves as Höcke adversaries. And that, as seen by the careers of Meuthen and his predecessors in party leadership, Frauke Petry and Bernd Lucke, isn’t particularly good for longevity.
Whereas Höcke knows what he wants and takes steps to achieve it, Weidel and Chrupalla frequently do little more than react. And in contrast to Höcke, they have no significant power bases of their own. Chrupalla, to be sure, has some support via his state AfD chapter in Saxony, and Weidel remains quite popular, but neither of them has a network to speak of in the party at large. They also have little leverage against Höcke when it comes to their political agenda, only focusing on issues that are already the focus of much discussion: energy prices, inflation, coronavirus policies, migration and the euro.
Plus, the party survives by creating an atmosphere of fear, and has now become trapped in a spiral of escalation. When a crisis doesn’t turn out to be as bad as the party claimed it would and Germany again manages to survive, another, larger crisis must be identified so that voters still have a reason to listen to the AfD. Harald Weyel, a member of the extremist wing and, thanks to Höcke, a member of the leadership committee, said just a few weeks ago that the gas crisis would "hopefully" be severe because: "If it’s not dramatic enough, then things will just continue on as before." A fellow party member responded that the AfD isn’t needed "if it’s not dramatic." These disgraceful sentences only came to light because the microphone was still on.
It is just another demonstration, though, that alarmism is part of the AfD’s DNA. "We are no longer in the 11th hour on World War III, we are just one minute to midnight on World War III," Chrupalla said in Cottbus.
It is precisely those kinds of statements that Frank-Christian Hansel can’t stand. Hansel has essentially been an AfD member from the very beginning and has held a seat in the Berlin city-state parliament since 2016. He is among the comparatively moderate members of the party and wants the German political landscape to include "a future-oriented party to the right of the CDU," as he puts it. In pursuit of this goal, Hansel has butted heads with many within the AfD – and he has lost over and over again.
In late September, he is sitting in Café Einstein on Berlin’s signature Unter den Linden boulevard and trying to explain why he is still a member of the AfD despite the party, in the opinion of his camp, having gone down the wrong path. Why has he stayed when so many others have left? How can he continue to hold a political office for a party that is so clearly influenced by Höcke – a man who, thanks to people like Hansel, doesn’t look quite as radical? His response: hope. In our one-hour discussion, the word comes up a lot.
Indeed, his entire camp clings to hope: They are hopeful that the broad center of the party, which is not directly linked with the extremist wing or other wings of the party, will rebel against the power of Höcke and his ilk – even though they have long since come to accept it. They are hopeful that the Höcke show will slowly fade in popularity – even though there have been no indications of that happening in recent years. They are hopeful that in two years, a leader more moderate than Höcke will be elected. How though?
And who? The small power vacuum left behind by Meuthen was not filled by anyone from his camp, which is shrinking anyway. In Hansel’s camp, there is nobody with a real nose for power and only one of them even sought election in Riesa – and received just 36 percent support. Also, the right wing is simply better organized and thinks more strategically. Thus, it has been dominant for quite some time.
Most recently, the hopes of Hansel and his like-minded allies were dashed when Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, failed in his bid to be elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. Maassen campaigned as a member of the CDU, but in recent years, he has demonstrated clear sympathy for conspiracy theories and anti-democratic tendencies. Hansel and his allies had been hoping to create a new parliamentary group with him and other, like-minded CDU lawmakers – to the right of the CDU, but not extremist. None of those involved, however, are interested in discussing just how far along this idea was.
An additional problem: During the pandemic, some functionaries and members of the AfD "slid even deeper into conspiratorial ideologies," says Hansel. Their view of the world became even more radical and they grew even closer to the radical wing, or at least to its ideas. Yet the AfD is "a party of strong individuals," as Hansel puts it – troublemakers, basically. After all, he says, identifying with the AfD is a sure way to lose friends, "and those who take that step want their voices to be heard and their positions to be acted on."
From where, then, does Hansel derive his hope? Why hasn’t he left the party? "I believe in the essence of the AfD and am pained by its current manifestation," he says. "It was difficult to establish a party to the right of the CDU, that isn’t something that is easy to repeat," he says, sounding more like a tactician than a true believer. "There is no alternative to the Alternative."
So Hansel has stayed, and spends most of his time speaking to people who want to leave the AfD because it has grown too extreme for them. He says that on occasion, he is even successful. And, he adds, "there has been a recent influx of reasonable people. Really." It sounds a lot like he is trying to convince himself.
When asked whether the AfD is a right-wing extremist party, 68 percent of Germans say yes, only 24 percent say no and 8 percent are undecided. That is the result of a representative survey of 5,002 people carried out on DER SPIEGEL’s behalf by Civey. Respondents in eastern Germany, where – with the exception of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – the most radical state party leaders are to be found, are significantly less likely to view the AfD as an extremist party than respondents in western Germany.
Furthermore, 57 percent are opposed to the idea of established parties like the CDU or the FDP working together with the AfD – neither in a coalition nor for the purpose of pushing through specific projects. An additional 7 percent are undecided.
But Höcke isn’t interested in such people. He is only able to reach those who are already on the far right of the political spectrum – or at least those who naively ignore the right-wing extremism and are pulled in by group dynamics.
Which is why events like the one in Gera, with other right-wing extremist groups, are important to him. When the crowd starts moving, he walks right at the front, his office manager filming all the while. The group has grown to around 10,000 people, all parading behind Höcke through the city. They are drumming, chanting and whistling.
When they happen across a small counterprotest made up of young, leftist activists and students, the insults begin flying. A few individuals approach the young counter-demonstrators. When they walk past a photographer wearing an FFP-2 mask, one throws a lit cigarette at him and another follows with a beer bottle. When they see someone who looks as though he could be an immigrant, they start chanting: "Deport him! Deport him!”
The "peaceful demonstration" quickly becomes decidedly uncomfortable for those who don’t belong to the group. And that is likely just what Höcke had been hoping for.