"Dear friends," said Gottfried Curio, "we need to adopt a more serious tone in these days following the terrible events in Hanau." Curio, a member of German federal parliament with the right-wing radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was standing on a stage in the southern state of Bavaria. The hall was full and the beer mugs on the tables were already half empty. Most of those in Curio's audience were older men, though there were a couple of women and a young couple with a baby. A boy wearing a suit and tie also wandered through the hall.
It was the AfD’s political Ash Wednesday, a day in Germany when political parties host boisterous gatherings filled with jokes and comedy. This year, though, the traditional meetups came only a week after the right-wing extremist terror attack in Hanau. Curio was not the first person to take the stage that day. Deputy Party Chair Stephan Brandner had already spoken, as had Corinna Miazga, a member of the party in the federal parliament, the two of them entertaining the audience together with sexist and homophobic remarks along with a few insults aimed at politicians from other parties. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was likewise the target for abuse, with the crowd cheering and shouting at the line: "He needs to be pushed out -- better today than tomorrow!"
Curio was the event's surprise guest, he star speaker of the day. The audience quieted down as it awaited his "more serious tone" that he would strike in comments about the attack in Hanau, where Tobias Rathjen murdered 10 people.
"He was a dangerous psychopath who tried to rationalize his killing spree, his delusional fantasies, with disgusting right-wing extremist, racist slogans, but this was a real lunatic," said Curio. Now, he went on, the AfD's political opponents were using the crime to attack the party. The victims, Curio intoned, should not be taken advantage of. "This rampage of lies which took place after the attack -- that is the greatest threat to Germany and its democracy!"
"Great Speech, I Have No Complaints"
The comments were received with a wave of applause, whistling and shouts of "bravo." Deputy party head Brander said: "Great speech, I have no complaints." And so the AfD's opinion was settled: The murder victims and their families weren't the true casualties. The real victim of the racist slaughter in Hanau was the AfD.
Hanau could have been an opportunity for the more moderate elements within the AfD to come forward and seek to shift the party’s profile away from the radical right. But that would have required an unconditional admission that racism is a threat to society. Are there rational people in the party capable of helping it find a new tone? Whether anyone can challenge the ethnic nationalists who seem to have control of the AfD.
For a moment last week, it seemed like there were such voices in the party. A week ago Sunday, four days after the killings in Hanau, AfD national party leaders Tino Chrupalla and Jörg Meuthen published an open letter to members. In it, they clearly stated: "The crime in Hanau is a racist crime." They also wrote that "like the murder of (regional politician) Walter Lübcke and the killings in Halle, it was a disgrace for Germany." The letter also stated that the party needed to ask itself "why our political opponents have been able to link the party with such a crime in the first place." As difficult as it might be, Chrupalla and Meuthen wrote, the question had to be addressed.
But the party co-chairs didn’t provide an answer to the question themselves. Even in this statement, they continued to speak of "xenophobia" and "foreign cultures," even though many of those killed were Germans themselves and the others had been in the country for years. They ended the statement with the usual litany about attacks against the AfD. They also published the letter on the afternoon of the state election in Hamburg, a time when early exit polls indicated the AfD might have difficulty landing seats in the city-state’s legislature.
But were they serious about a new tone – or was it merely a tactic?
Did the AfD Help Cause Murders?
Sources close to the AfD leadership say the party is largely driven by fears that it will be placed under official observation by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is responsible for monitoring extremism in the country. Other parties in Germany have been calling for that step to be taken, and it has created considerable pressure for the AfD. Furthermore, after the Hanau murders and the AfD's recent shenanigans in the Thuringian state parliament, center-right parties in Germany have taken steps to further distance themselves from the right-wing radical party. The AfD's political opponents and broad swaths of the populace believe that the racism propagated by the right-wing radical party was one of the causes of the killing spree.
Some say that Chrupalla is seeking to ease that pressure, but doesn't really stand behind his words. Others say he meant the letter seriously. After all, you can’t work with other parties if they won't talk to you -- and at the moment, there isn’t even a remote possibility that the conservative Christian Democrats or the business-friendly Free Democratic Party would agree to join the AfD in a coalition government. Other sources say that Chrupalla was simply trying to get the conversation started within the party -- a courageous step, they insist, given that he is still new to his post.
Meuthen, who is generally considered to be more moderate than Chrupalla, distanced himself from the letter in a conference call with the party's executive committee last week. He had even tried to tone it down beforehand. Above all, he didn’t want the missive to refer to the murders in Hanau as a "racist crime," as DER SPIEGEL learned from several people who were involved in the drafting of the letter.
Meuthen confirmed as much when approached for comment, saying he found the expression to be "unfortunate, because it’s incomplete." He also said he didn’t want to be accused of changing his mind. It is his view, Meuthen said, that "this remains the act of a madman, as I initially tweeted." That doesn't mean, he added, that the act was not also racially motivated. "The question is what guided the action? And here, I maintain my assumption that it was the mental illness." He also admitted that he warned Chrupalla prior to publication, saying, "This letter will cause considerable displeasure." He said he nevertheless stands behind the letter.
The letter did indeed stir up a lot of anger within the AfD against the party leaders, including from Björn Höcke in Thuringia. The figurehead of the "Flügel," the extremist, ethnic-nationalist wing of the party, reportedly called the AfD co-chairs to complain about it personally.
Björn Höcke and his extremist Flügel wing of the party received a confidence boost after creating a massive scandal in the recent state election in Thuringia.Foto: Martin Schutt/ dpa
Resistance could also be felt at the grassroots level, in the state chapters and at the national level. The AfD federal office alone received several hundred emails. A spokesman said that the tone of about half the messages was "what you’re saying is absolutely correct." The others were more critical. "Why are you caving in?"
But what does it say about a party when an only slightly self-critical question leads to that kind of reaction and when Chrupalla is considered courageous for having posed it?
It would seem that the majority in the AfD is in no mood for a more contemplative approach or a slightly less aggressive rhetorical style. There also hasn’t been any talk of people leaving the party, even those who have sought internally to distance themselves from the extremist Flügel wing, or at least from Höcke and his zealotry.
And this despite the fact that the confidence of the radical Höcke wing received a boost from the gubernatorial election in Thuringia . Höcke recently gave a speech at one of the regular demonstrations of the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement in Dresden. Although he wasn’t supposed to appear at the event as an official AfD representative with party symbols, he did refer to the party several times in his speech and spoke of his colleagues' presence at the rally. He was not, however, reprimanded. More moderate elements of the party are reassuring themselves with the belief that such appearances will ultimately prove damaging to Höcke himself.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 10/2020 (February 29th, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
But will it? After the AfD's relatively weak showing in recent city-state elections in Hamburg, the New Right magazine Sezession posited that the party hadn't been radical enough in the campaign and had chosen a more moderate platform. It wasn't that the AfD in Hamburg had picked the "wrong horse," the magazine wrote. It had picked "a dead one." It added that the Hanau letter from Chrupalla and Meuthen had been a "complete waste of effort" and a "capitulation to the enemy." Höcke and other AfD politicians shared links to the article on social media platforms.
Less extreme elements of the party continue to play down the power of the Flügel wing within the party, saying that the ethnic-nationalists can be "contained," that resistance is forming and there is a plan. But what plan?
You have to search long and hard to get an answer to that question, in part because the group of people available to ask keeps getting smaller. In recent months, many senior AfD party members have defected to Höcke’s wing. Those who have been with the Flügel for longer refer to them disparagingly as "opportunists."
And when you do finally find people who are prepared to talk about these "plans," they are only willing to do so without being cited by name. "If I go into battle with my bayonet at the ready, it’s not going to work," said one member of the party’s executive committee. "I have no weapon in my hand to strike." He said he’s also certain that launching procedures to expel Höcke or Andreas Kalbitz -- another influential member of the Flügel with a long history of extremism that, together with his image, helped earn him the nickname "Little Himmler" -- from the party also wouldn’t stand a chance of succeeding.
Instead, he said that he and others had been pleased by the small successes they have had against the Flügel. Kalbitz, for example, was prevented from being appointed to a small leadership position in Berlin when responsibilities for members of the national board were recently divvied up. He said they also stopped expulsion proceedings for a member of the party that the Flügel had wanted to get rid of. These examples, he said, show that the ethnic-nationalists don’t have a majority on the party’s national committee.
"Don’t expect anything big, though, because there won’t be anything big," the committee member said. Ironically, he’s placing his hopes in the Office of the Protection of the Constitution, an institution he generally dismisses as biased. "If Höcke and Kalbitz and others are placed under official observation, then that is certainly something that we can use."
For now, though, it seems as though no one is willing to stand up and fight openly against the party’s far-right extremist elements. The few who have done so were punished at the party’s recent conference in the city of Braunschweig. But even those who get voted out aren’t daring to take action – instead they recall how efforts by former party heads Bernd Lucke and Frauke Petry to stop the radicals failed and how they instead sunk into obscurity. It’s a risk no one seems willing to take.
They would prefer for things to continue as they are, without a more serious tenor, even after Hanau.