The AfD Dilemma Germany Struggles to Find Right Approach to Populists
With the AfD now holding seats in every state parliament and in the federal parliament in Berlin, churches, unions and other organizations across Germany are wrestling with a tough question: Is it better to kick the populists out or to try to integrate them? By DER SPIEGEL Staff
It was Labor Day in Germany and two trade unions wanted to celebrate -- a family-friendly affair, with bratwurst and entertainment for the children. On the morning of May 1, 2018, members of Ver.di and IG Metall labor unions and their families assembled in Minden, a city in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and their demonstration was to highlight "solidarity, justice and diversity."
Anke Unger, the local union leader, had helped to organize the event and nearly 400 people showed up. It was an unseasonably cold day, but otherwise everything seemed to be going just fine. Until Unger heard about the problem.
Sebastian Landwehr, 29, was also at the barbecue, the deputy district spokesman for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. He, too, is a union member. Landwehr says he joined Ver.di 10 years ago and that he's attended the May 1 demonstration every year since.
Unger had never met Landwehr before, but when she heard that an AfD politician was there, she approached him. "We'd like to ask you to leave, please," she recalls telling him.
Landwehr asked her what the problem was, saying he was a union member, too. Unger replied that no AfD members would be tolerated at the demonstration.
Other union members got involved and voices were raised. People who were present at the event said threats were issued. And ultimately, Landwehr left.
After his dismissal, Landwehr made a video with his smartphone in front of the local union office. Speaking into the camera, he said he had just experienced "hate and harassment" and that "this ostracism reminds me very strongly of 1933." Landwehr uploaded the short video to Facebook, where it has thus far received some 40,000 views.
To this day, Unger feels she was right to make Landwehr leave the event. "If we had tolerated him," she says, "he might have shown up this year with an AfD flag." The populist party has little to do with solidarity and diversity, Unger says. On the contrary: "The AfD wants to abolish labor unions." Let the party go back to playing the victim card, she says, adding that it would be worse to do nothing.
The conflict in Minden was in no way an isolated incident. Similar things are taking place in other parts of society -- in schools, universities, churches and associations. They're all struggling to determine how best to deal with supporters of the AfD, a party with racists and rabble-rousers within its ranks. It is also, though, a party that happens to be represented in every state parliament in the country and in the federal parliament in Berlin, the Bundestag.
In Berlin, a Waldorf school chose not to admit the child of an AfD politician. In Stuttgart, a Bundestag parliamentarian from the AfD was prevented from holding a reading at a Christmas market. In Munich, a restaurant owner kicked out an AfD politician shortly after a waiter working for the restaurant had refused to serve the woman. And in Berlin, a restaurant popular with celebrities and politicians refused to take a reservation for AfD head Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, the party's parliamentary leader.
A Struggle to Define Limits
These are all, to be sure, isolated cases. But they highlight the difficulties German society is having when it comes to defining where the boundaries of acceptability are. And what is better: throwing AfD supporters out or trying to integrate them?
It's not the first time that Germany has struggled to establish boundaries against fringe groups. In the 1980s, labor unions belonging to the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) adopted what they called "incompatibility measures" that were directed against extremist far-right political parties and which are still in place today. The measures allow Ver.di to eject any member who also belongs to the National Democratic Party (NPD), an anti-Semitic and xenophobic party whose members glorify Nazis.
Some local union chapters have begun applying this rule to AfD members, as well. So far, though, no such decision has been made at the state or national level. Officials at Ver.di's main office for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia say they are still deliberating. Most of the union's members favor banning AfD supporters, but some wonder whether that would be the right move.
Just over a year has passed since Peter Fischer, president of Eintracht Frankfurt, a team in Germany's top professional football league, lashed out against "Nazis" and "brown mobs." In direct refence to the AfD, he said: "No one can be a member of Eintracht Frankfurt who votes for a party that stands for racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism."
Fischer was speaking at the club's annual membership meeting and Frankfurt fans lauded him for his position and his comments received thunderous applause. Ninety-nine percent of the members in attendance voted to re-elect him to his office.
One of the many who welcomed the words and joined the standing ovation was Gabriele Renger, 65. She has been a member of the club for 20 years and helps by volunteering in the fan division. She refers to the club president by his first name and describes him as the club's soul.
She says she shares Peter's opinion of the AfD, noting that the club brings together people from 70 different countries under its umbrella. "People who want to exclude others just because of their origins or appearances simply don't belong," she says.
But a few people that day remained in their seats, dumbfounded by what they had heard. They include Michael Goebel, a 61-year-old administrative employee at the Federal Criminal Police Office who says he has been an Eintracht fan since he was a boy. He also happens to be a member of the AfD, serving the party as an unpaid member of the Wiesbaden city council.
Goebel says his original intention had been to respond to Fischer's statements at the gathering right away. He says he wanted to say that he, too, opposes anti-Semitism and racism and that he has nothing to do with someone like Björn Höcke, a right-wing extremist who is a senior AfD official in Thuringia. That he also rejects violence and discrimination -- not just from the right, but also from the left. In the end, though, he couldn't find the courage. "The atmosphere was so stirred up that a debate wasn't possible," he says today. Later, Goebel wrote an open letter to Fischer, but he never received a reply.
A 'Test Case'
In mid-January, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the German domestic intelligence agency that monitors political extremism and terrorist threats, announced that it would be taking a closer look at the AfD. A report issued by the government agency stated that the "first clear indications" had been detected that the party's "direction is in opposition to the liberal democratic basic order." It further stated that the AfD's youth wing, as well as a group surrounding Höcke, provided "cause for suspicion." On top of this come campaign finance scandals and dubious contacts with the Kremlin.
But as is true of other political parties in Germany, not all AfD members are alike. Is it right to treat them all the same way?
One year later, the Eintracht Frankfurt president revisited the issue in Frankfurt, though only briefly. This time, he took a softer stance, assuring that no one would be excluded from Eintracht, but that each individual must reflect on their own and decide whether they and their values were consistent with those of the club.
After the speech, Gabriele Renger talked about it with friends, and they agreed it was good that things had quieted down a bit. But she hasn't changed her mind on the subject. "You can't look inside people's heads, but I don't want to be in a club together with people who represent the kinds of things the AfD stands for," says Renger.
Teacher by Day, Populist by Night
There's a mailbox located in a hallway on the fourth floor of the City Hall of Potsdam, the capital of the state of Brandenburg. A sticker affixed to it features a caricature of a woman in a mini-skirt. Beneath it are the words "burqa-free zone -- stop the Islamization." The mailbox belongs to the AfD's party group on the city council and, as such, it is where Dennis Hohloch, 30, one of the party's two city council members, receives his official mail.
Hohloch wears a white shirt under a dark wool sweater, his hair mussed only slightly so as not to exceed that which may seem appropriate for a stringently conservative young politician. Papers slide out of his worn, leather bag as he sets it down on the floor beside him. "Oh, the grade book," Hohloch mumbles, before hastily pushing the papers back inside.
It's only a minor anecdote, and yet it is enough to reveal the sharp constrasts that define Hohloch's day-to-day life. He spends evenings debating on the AfD's behalf in front of the city council's finance committee and chairing sessions of the party's Junge Alternative (JA) youth wing. In September, Brandenburg will be electing a new state parliament and Hohloch's party has assigned him 10th place on the candidate list. Hohloch believes he has a shot of winning a seat in state parliament.
In the mornings, Hohloch teaches history and geography at a primary school in Berlin's Spandau district. The school is located in a middle-class area, the streets lined with well-kept single-family dwellings.
As a teacher, Hohloch is bound to political neutrality. Germany's standards for politics in education were established in 1976 and they state that teachers must not get in the way of pupils forming "their own, independent judgment." As such, "the personal point of view of the teacher, his or her scientific-theoretical background and his or her political opinion" are "irrelevant."
But to what extent can a person who is not just a member of a party, but who is also active on its behalf, adhere to such neutrality? Especially as an official with the AfD, which last year called on students in numerous states to report their teachers on internet platforms if they didn't behave in politically neutral ways?
"Party politics don't belong in schools," says Hohloch, in what sounds like a line he has frequently repeated. "I'm aware that I am under close scrutiny," he says. The web platform for reporting teachers, with which his state chapter is involved as well, wasn't completely thought through, he admits. "It is important that students be given the tools to resist indoctrination," he says. "But that task belongs in the hands of the state, not in those of political parties." At the same time, he has the feeling that students with conservative views often have a difficult time at school, especially when it comes to courses in politics or social sciences. That same applies to conservative teachers, he says.
In November 2016, a private Protestant high school in Berlin fired a substitute teacher who was also the treasurer of the AfD chapter in Berlin's Neukölln district. Furthermore, there were videos circulating on the internet of the man at demonstrations of "Bärgida," the Berlin offshoot of Dresden's Islamophobic PEGIDA movement. The school administration said his participation in those demonstrations had been the grounds for his dismissal.
Dennis Hohloch is also a source of conflict. Especially when he was doing his student teaching, there were "some unpleasant scenes," he says, with colleagues mostly, but also with students and parents. On one occasion, he says, someone smeared his car with a nasty-smelling foam. And some teachers didn't say a single word to him right up until the end. Once he finished his training, he wasn't offered a position even though one had been open at the school. "I suspect it had something to do with my political activity," Hohloch says, but adds that he can't prove it.
The atmosphere at his current school is totally different. "Colleagues respect me," he says, adding that most of the criticism comes from parents. "I have to explain myself occasionally," Hohloch says. When approached for comment by DER SPIEGEL, the school's principle said she didn't want to talk about Hohloch -- in part because she's not allowed to. She has been prohibited from doing so by the press office of the Berlin Senate Department for Education, the city-state's schools authority. In an email, she requested that neither her name nor that of the school be associated "with Mr. Hohloch's political activities."
Every case of ostracism has an inherent problem: No matter how complex and nuanced the preceding debate may have been, it necessarily pushes the AfD into the role of victim. Club kicks member out. School refuses to enroll child. AfD politician excluded.
Time and again, the party complains of being marginalized. The same sequence of indignation always follows, and in the end, the AfD gets just what its opponents wanted to avoid in the first place: attention.
In December 2018, about 20 people gathered in an office in Berlin's central Mitte district at the invitation of the Federation of Catholic Youth (BDKJ), the umbrella association of the church's youth groups in Germany. The topic of the meeting: "Stand up -- a symposium on dealing with the AfD."
It wasn't the first time the BDKJ had approached the issue. At its annual general meeting back in 2016, BDKJ had passed a resolution under the header: "We object because of our faith!" In summary, one of the statements noted that the organization would not interact with the AfD. It's a position all representatives of Catholic youth organizations can fall back on.
But uncertainty soon began to grow. On several occasions, AfD politicians weren't invited to participate in discussions, and waves of indignation followed, sometimes even threats. One BDKJ employee even had to be placed under police protection for several weeks. This raised the question of how firm the organization should remain in its stance.
BDKJ chair Lisi Maier says that the stance toward the AfD hasn't actually changed since the resolution. "If you do decide to invite the AfD in the end, those debates need to be well moderated so that populists can't use the stage to their advantage. That requires a lot of preparation."
'Show Some Spine'
Other parts of the church are also struggling to find the correct way of dealing with the right-wing populists. Catholic and Protestant charities have been particularly active in recent years in helping refugees, with the dioceses providing millions of euros in assistance. Leading AfD representatives have attacked the churches for it, calling their actions "naive humanitarianism."
In early 2016, Reinhard Marx, the cardinal of Munich, criticized the party for its "radical language of hatred." To this day, the dioceses do what they can to disrupt right-wing populist demonstrations held near their churches, including ringing the church bells or turning out the lights. The organizers of the German Protestant Kirchentag convention in Dortmund in June have excluded AfD members from participating in discussion sessions. We need to "show some spine and take a stand" against the party's radicalization, Kirchentag President Hans Leyendecker recently said.
Few other politicians embody the conflicts between the churches and the right-wing populists better than Volker Münz, 54. He's been an AfD deputy in German paliament since 2017, but he has also spent many years volunteering for his Protestant home congregation in Uhingen, a small town located east of Stuttgart. The parish has about 5,000 members, and there are three parish offices: north, south and town center. In 2013, Münz was elected to the parish council and later as a member of the district synod, a committee responsible for the church's self-administration.
His involvement with the AfD began around the same time. Münz used to be a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union until he bolted the party in the 1990s. In April 2013, he attended the AfD's founding party congress, back when conservative economist Bernd Lucke still headed the party and the AfD stood mostly for its critical stance against the common European currency. Münz felt he had once again found a political home, given the party's old-fashioned views on society and family.
Back home in the congregation in Uhingen, Münz never made a secret of his AfD membership. And initially, no one made a fuss about it. The conflicts didn't arise until after the 2017 general election. Münz describes how Martinus Kuhlo, the local priest, approached him at the time and told him that fellow members of the church had complained. Münz says he was told that he was dividing the community and was aksed to resign from his position in the church. Kuhlo, though, says that he only asked Münz whether he wanted to continue with his church duties now that he had been elected to the Bundestag in Berlin.
Today, calls are still coming in for his resignation from the parish council. As the AfD spokesman on religious policy, they say, he represents retrograde views. Münz, for example, opposes the blessing of same-sex couples and he is fighting against the loosening of Germany's abortion laws and what he alleges to be a "gender ideology."
But Münz isn't alone in Uhingen with his staunch conservative positions. In the 2017 election, more than 17 percent of voters in the town cast their ballots for the AfD. Within the church, however, Münz is largely isolated, and church officials in the town have also positioned themselves against Münz. "We are critical of the AfD and we are very clear about expressing that," says one parish pastor. And yet she still wrestles with the issue. "How can we manage to remain respectful in our interactions while at the same time ensuring that we remain clear on the issue?" she asks.
Be it throwing people out or integrating them, drawing clear borders or seeking a dialogue, the experience in Uhingen shows that it can be quite difficult to choose among the several different alternatives for dealing with the Alternative for Germany. It also shows that small, cautious steps may accomplish even more than a hard break.
Prelate Gabriele Wulz, 59, a kind of regional bishop responsible for the church district, thinks for a moment before saying that Münz doesn't play a major role in church life in the town. Wulz says Münz stands for an "AfD-compatible Christianity," one that cherry picks from the Bible to fit his worldview. Still, she argues, it is important to maintain an open dialogue the AfD politician in order to ensure a "culture of listening" -- if for no other reason that out of respect for the office.
Pastor Kuhlo emphasizes that even though Münz is on the council, that doesn't mean others on it share his opinions. The next election for the parish council is scheduled to take place in December. Some people in the Uhingen parish are secretly hoping the AfD politician won't run again.
By Matthias Bartsch, Felix Bohr, Lukas Eberle, Miriam Olbrisch and Christopher Piltz